La Guajira is the most northern province of Colombia, and indeed South America. Situated about an hour’s drive from the continent’s most northern point lies Cabo de la Vela; a wild and barren settlement, largely cut off from Colombia and thus trapped in a time warp, with many indigenous communities still living as their forefathers did, without most modern amenities. Its name, “Cape of Sails”, derives from the pale colours and curves of the headland that emerges from the flat desert, appearing to drift into the sea. Perhaps the Spanish thought they saw this when they discovered it in 1499, however they may have been delirious from heat exhaustion. Temperatures never drop below 37 degrees and rainfall is as scarce as vegetation. Occasional fish skeletons wash up on the baking beach amongst beautiful, dramatic rock formations, symbolic of the harsh environment surrounding it. On the shores of the azul Caribbean Sea and this expanse of desert, communities of the Wayuu people have existed for centuries, largely untouched by colonialisation. The modern state has left them largely ignored, with derelict electricity pylons and pot-holed roads the only signs of their intermittent presence. This is the Wild West of Colombia; lawless in terms of lack of central government, but with its own set of traditional laws and way of life.
In recent years, locals have opened their doors to provide hammocks for intrepid travellers, although don’t expect silver service and breakfast in bed. This is travelling as it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, for the more intrepid explorers. Having said that, once you get over the lack of 5-star comfort, the food is excellent and the experience is fascinating. The seafood is always fresh and delicious; eating al-fresco facing out to sea, without the crowd of tourists usually providing an unwanted audience to such an experience, can be a really special experience.
Cabo de la Vela forms part of a large bay, with exceptional and very uncommon conditions for the thrill-seekers. Powerful, hot winds crossing the desert and across this placid body of water make it the place of dreams for kite-surfers. The only non-Wayuu permanent residents are two young entrepreneurs from Santa Marta, who have seen the potential for combining their passion for kitesurfing with ecotourism. They have taught the locals the thrills of the sport, with some of the local youth competing professionally.
After watching a number of Latin American Peter Pans soaring through the air and across the waves, I was tempted to give it a go myself. How hard could it be? I endured an hour of being battered by the elements from all quarters before resigning myself to defeat, with my hopes and dreams of international acclaim in the sport comfortably shattered. However, after the second hour out on the water, you start to get the hang of it and it’s a thrilling experience for those willing to have a go.
To sum up the whole experience in one word: intrepid. Water, sun cream and mosquito repellent will be needed in industrial quantities. In fact, if you are going to take the 3 hour off-road journey from Riohacha (during which you stop off to watch flamingos at various scenic spots), you’d better be prepared for a slightly bumpy journey! Eco-tours, which Zeta can arrange, take you as far as Punta Gallinas, the northern and windswept tip of the continent. This trip was extremely worthwhile and authentic as a real adventure and authentic travel experience, and, in our opinion, a great way of starting off your Colombian travels.
Firstly, apologies for the profuse alliteration in the title.
Secondly, here is a bit of info on my time in Cartagena. The city is, rightly so, referred to as the jewel in the crown of Colombia's Caribbean Coast. This lovely colonial city has been admirably preserved by the city council, with only traditional building materials permitted in the old city itself, lending a charming, relaxed feel to it. The centre is dotted with lovely squares and historic cathedrals, with the city exuding a laid-back Caribbean feel. Fresh fruit stalls on street corners and snack vendors touting their wares add to the ambience. Outside of the centre itself, the main attractions are the beaches, complete with bleached white sand and turquoise water. There are also a number of historic fortresses scattered along the coast (which the British almost-successfully took from the Spanish).
For those looking for a real taste of Caribbean relaxation, the islands of Baru are outstanding, without the throngs of visitors that visit the city's nearest beach, Playa Blanca (don't let the photos of azul water and empty, white-sand beaches fool you. You will most certainly be sunbathing shoulder to shoulder with your Colombian neighbours on either side, surrounded by hordes of day-trippers and overweight latino kids). A short boat trip from the old docks will drop you at a couple of beaches and drive to some of the islands, complete with excellent views of the city and coastline along the way.
I would very strongly recommend this option, unless you are looking for the exhilaration of a near-death experience. Our route to Playa Blanca consisted of an excruciatingly hot and slow local bus that passed through the town market, complete with (not so) fresh fish stalls baking in the sun and what, from the smell, must have been the city's sewage system. To top that off, as we were herded off the bus by the conductor and passed into the care of a gang of helmet-wielding moto-taxi drivers, we realised that we were only halfway there. The second part of the journey could have been part of a Grand Theft Auto mission, as we were sent hurtling down dirt roads and motorways clinging on to the back of what could only have been 15-year olds as they bombed towards the beach. As the five of us arrived, clearly shaken by the whole experience, with mine actually speeding up when we reached the loose gravel road at the end, they had both the cheek to charge us what was probably double (always agree the price beforehand...) and then justified this rapid price inflation due to the fact that they 'got us here really quickly'. Needless to say that stiff drinks were bought upon arrival and dramatic tales of our respective survival experiences were regaled as the collective heart-rate went back to normal. This was all well and good until you then realise that there are a lot of people all along the beach (the population density of a New York apartment building with only one floor). Screaming children, generally loud and slightly drunk Colombians and the oppressive humidity will entail a day spent almost entirely languishing in the sea, avoiding the beach itself apart from when necessity calls. It is a shame, as the beach would have been idyllic without the tourists, but let us just say that the boat back was a much more enjoyable experience than the day out. Go to Baru, if, like myself, you don't really want to see vast swathes of people milling around along the beach. Turquoise water, pristine beaches, some verdant jungle, no people, etc., should persuade you.
A few days here was perfect, with a nice balance between beach and culture. Because of the long-standing safety of the area, the city has actually been a popular tourist destination for a while, meaning that those looking for comfort and luxury will find a number of exceptional restaurants and lovely boutique hotels scattered around the old town. Museums and lovely architecture make the old town a nice place to just have a wander, with no specific destination. Just don’t touch the moto-taxis with a ten-foot barge pool.
Hidden away in the Sierra Nevada exists one of Colombia’s National treasures, La Ciudad Perdida. It may be less well known than its Peruvian equivelant, Machu Picchu, but it can certainly rival it from a historical and anthropological perspective. It is believed to have been founded in 800 AD, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu, however it was only discovered in 1972 when a group of looters chanced upon its prolific stone steps, a path that would lead to their initial wealth and eventual demise due to greed and in-fighting.
La Ciudad Perdida translates as ‘The Lost City’, and upon arrival it is easy to see why. It lies amongst hectares of jungle, barely accessible through rugged mountain and forest, locked away from the populated Caribbean Coast. Unlike the throngs of tourists that flock to many of Latin America’s archaeological wonders, there is virtually no one to be seen here. You cannot get there by train, car or motorbike; the only way is on foot. If hiking is not your cup of tea than this tour is not for you… The trek consists of a tricky 4/5-day journey, hiking up to 8 hours daily through rivers, mud paths and punishing heat. In the first hour of day 1, we had already seen 3 signs casually warning us of poisonous snakes, scorpions and spiders and an armadillo casually crossing the path ahead of us. Sleeping arrangements consist of hammocks and al fresco bunk beds and washing is done in pristine rivers. It is very much a case of ‘back to basics’; however the food is plentiful and delicious and sleeping is surprisingly not an issue after a tiring day.
Having been complaining for hours about a small blister on my left foot, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment on the third day when I reached the 1200th stone step that led to the entrance of the main site. This satisfaction promptly disappeared when the next trekker contently hobbled up on crutches, having broken her leg 2 days before starting the tour, slightly putting my milder injury and complaints to shame. I also came across an 80 year old Dutchman who was doing the trip for ‘a bit of a laugh’… My sense of achievement, although still there, definitely paled in comparison. The site comprised of 15 circular terraces that ascend up the side of a mountain. These terraces were once a hierarchical series of temples, sacrificial areas and homes for holy men, however today they occasionally double up as helicopter landing pads for the Colombian military (the surrounding area was operated in by FARC guerrillas until 2000 and is now, luckily, entirely safe to visit).
It is estimated that there are over 200 undiscovered sites in the area, kept secret by the ancient Wiwa tribe who blame their ‘reckless younger brother’ for the loot and plunder of La Ciudad Perdida and the rest of Colombia. The robbers’ greed eventually got the best of them – one killed the other in a drunken bar fight in Santa Marta shortly after discovering the site. Despite its history of violence, La Ciudad Perdida today is a national jewel of Colombia, well regulated and kept safe by the government, and respected by tourists and guides alike. For all those who love nature and like to push themselves, this is a unique experience not to missed. Go as soon as possible, in my opinion, before the hordes of tourists ruin the tranquility and sequestered nature of the site.
When organising a holiday yourself, the idea of sifting through the information travel agents or hotels pass on always seems daunting, with there existing only so many superlatives to promote a package or destination’s credentials without having actually visited the place in question itself. The terms “eco-friendly” and “community-based” nowadays seem so loosely and haphazardly self-applied to hotels, resorts or lodges that it has become more of a byword of legitimisation. Owners are able to subjectively apply these terms to essentially tick boxes to pass through the metaphorical customs queue of the modern holiday destination market. Some eco-resorts clearly do prioritise and encourage minimal impact on the environment and strive to support the local community as much as they possibly can; on the other hand, others seem to suggest that by providing their local employees with a poorly paid job and encouraging guests to re-use their towels, they are single-handedly saving the planet.
However, regardless of one’s inclination or disinclination to travel in an ethically and environmentally friendly manner, the most fulfilling and successful holidays tend to be those where great consideration has been taken to successfully integrate accommodation within its natural surroundings, both aesthetically and figuratively. Kilima Camp, for example, accommodates 12 permanent safari tents in the very heart of the Maasai-Mara. The camp is self-sufficient on water, uses solar power to protect the Mara plains from pollutants and has minimised deforestation due to the isolated nature of its tents. Clearly the lodge has eco-credentials in abundance. However, the real attraction to lodges such as Kilima Camp goes beyond merely just the environmental benefits.
The lodge, coexisting harmoniously with its natural surroundings, only exists due to the consent and support of the local Maasai, who lease the land to the lodge’s owners. This is a necessary consideration that can be easily overlooked when browsing potential accommodation options. By having the genuine support and enthusiasm for a tourism project by the local community, this type of lodge offers certain intangible and priceless experiences that make for a unique and unforgettable trip. There is certainly no value that can be placed on having the opportunity to walk through the Maasai plains with a Maasai warrior as your guide, imparting invaluable knowledge of the local flora and fauna, which has been passed down through countless generations of Maasai. Nor can an authentic visit to the local Maasai village, the home of the lodge's guides and staff, who, because of directly benefiting from the lodge and genuinely living in a traditional manner, provide a fascinating and in-exploitative insight into their way of life.
Furthermore, exciting experiences such as lion tracking allow guests to actively participate in the conservation of Africa’s iconic big cat, providing a real sense of personal involvement in the area’s preservation.
Although pragmatism and financial necessity clearly make it slightly idealistic to expect every guest to pay more for what, at first, appears to be a similar standard of accommodation, these key differences are essential to consider when planning the trip of a lifetime. Our in-depth knowledge of the destination is crucial to any trip, giving you an accurate picture of both the accommodation and destination so that we can work with you to plan a truly unique experience, meaning you won’t miss the memorable experience that lodges such as these are just waiting to offer.
Here are a few of our most memorable safari destinations to check out: