Travelblog LA#10: Santa Marta, Tayrona & Minca – Colombia

NOTE: This blog will feature a Practical Information section at the end giving tips for other travellers heading to the same places.


25th May – 1st June, 2023


Those who read my last blog will not be surprised when I say I took it easy when I returned from Ciudad Perdida. I was exhausted, had blisters on my feet, and not only did I need some rest but also had some maintenance to catch up on, such as laundry and hand-washing my sweaty backpack.

Santa Marta was where I based myself for the week that followed. This place holds the title of being the first-ever Spanish settlement in Colombia but it became overshadowed by Cartagena and nowadays almost everyone that visits this area passes through this city, but it doesn’t get much mention as most people (including myself) use it primarily as a launching pad for more notable attractions.

My low expectations for Santa Marta actually made me quite fond of it by the end. When I first arrived, I stayed on the outskirts at a hostel close to the bus station that also happened to be close to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino – a hacienda famous for being the place where Simon Bolivar spent his final days – so I wandered there the morning after arriving back from Ciudad Perdida. It is home to museums, some botanical gardens, and a memorial, and you can also see the room where Bolivar passed away.

This got me curious about what else Santa Marta had to offer, so I decided to move to somewhere closer to the historic centre, eventually settling upon Gagaka Rua – a hostel close to the old town with a rooftop pool – and it was the perfect place for me to chill out and lay low for a while.

It was something I needed, as I had been travelling very fast over the last few weeks. My trip to Cuyabeno was not in my original itinerary – but something I chose to do after hearing glowing recommendations from other people – so I entered Colombia behind schedule and had to play catch up. And then, even after I had caught up, I heard on the grapevine that the rainy season was due to begin along the northern coast, so I was racing to get to Ciudad Perdida whilst the weather was still good.

I found the centre of Santa Marta to be quite charming. Its architecture doesn’t hold up against Cartagena, but tourism not being so central to its economy made it feel more like a real town. It also has a great museum – El Museo De Oro – which is free to enter and has a collection of artefacts and lots of information about the area’s history.

As well as relaxing and catching up with my blog – between having dips in the pool – Santa Marta is where I based myself whilst making some trips to nearby places. The first being Tayrona National Park.

Not only was this home to some beautiful beaches, but it was also surprisingly good for wildlife. On my first day there I reunited with Lydia and Alex (two of the other people I hiked to Ciudad Perdida with), and within just a few minutes of walking through the jungle, spotted capuchin monkeys.

This is a species that I have worked with during my time in Merazonia, but not encountered in the wild until this point. I ended up seeing several other groups over the next two days, and some were displaying weird behaviour that made me suspect that humans have been feeding them.

I am going to get on my soapbox for a quick moment and say this: please don’t feed wild animals. Especially creatures like monkeys. It is really bad for them to associate humans with food because they eventually start to rely upon it and forget how to provide for themselves, and sometimes they will start to get violent when they don’t get what they expect. I know some of you think it is cute to be able to get closer to them but trust me on this; it is so much more magical when you come across wild animals that are still truly wild and behaving normally.

As well as capuchins, I also saw some red howler monkeys.


Many species of birds, including this woodpecker.

Several capibaras and even a cotton-top tamarin monkey. Neither of which I managed to get any decent photos of because they were flighty creatures.

Otherwise, Tayrona was where I spent time swimming and relaxing at the beach. I also got to test out the new snorkel I bought in Medellin.

Lydia and Alex only came for a day trip, so I said goodbye to them the first afternoon, but I had brought my tent with me and ended up spending the night.

The other place I visited whilst at Santa Marta was Minca, a nearby village in the mountains. I was a little on the fence about coming here as it is one of those places that Gringo expats have colonised and filled with fancy hostels, yoga retreats, cafes, etc, and those sorts of places can irritate me at times. Don’t get me wrong, I am a bit of a hippy myself and also spiritual. It’s just when these first-world ‘free-spirited’ residents are so absorbed within their privileged bubble that they are completely out of touch with reality – or are weird in a way that feels showy rather than authentic – that they annoy me. Whilst I did overhear some conversations that made me snort to myself, and at one point found myself witness to an upcoming guru leading an ‘erotic hypnotherapy’ meditation session intended to parasexually trigger orgasms on its attendants (yes really), it wasn’t too bad.

On the morning I arrived, the weather seemed good whilst the forecast the following day was a bit bleak, so I caught a moto taxi straight up to a place called Los Pinos; a known viewpoint where one can see much of the Sierra Nevada on a clear day, but, alas, when we were halfway up the mountain, it began to rain. By the time I arrived, the view looked like this.

I waited an hour or two, hoping it would clear up, but I seemed to be out of luck that day. No matter; I was aware I had been more than lucky so far. The north and south of Colombia are in two different climatic regions. When I was in the south, people told me it was at the tail end of the rainy season, but the weather was great, and – as I mentioned before – in the north the rainy season was long overdue. Travelling in the low season in both areas made things much easier and cheaper for me, but I had been blessed with great weather so am grateful for my good fortune. The rain had finally caught up with me.

I hiked back to my hostel in Minca whilst the clouds wafted across the mountain, visiting a pair of waterfalls on my way and passing by many coffee plantations. It did start to clear up a little that afternoon, and I didn’t get too wet.

Much of the next two days were spent chilling at my hostel, where I caught up with my blogs (including this one) at a little desk overlooking the mountains. Look, here is a photo of me now.

And this is the view.

Yes, that’s right. This is one of the very few occasions where I am writing a blog contemporaneously (instead of playing catch-up days or weeks later). Hi.

Minca is known for its birdlife, and as I was writing this, reading books, and catching up on TV series, I kept having to read for my camera as creatures appeared in the trees around me (between the rainstorms).

After my two nights spent in Minca, I caught a night bus down to a place called San Gil. This wasn’t in my original itinerary, but all that fast travelling I mentioned means I now have some spare time.


For more photos from Santa Marta, Tayrona and Minca, click on these hyperlinks.


Practical Information and Recommendations

This is mostly going to be some recommendations for places to stay, as there were some lovely hostels in this area that I want to give a shout-out to.

First of all, Hostal Casa San Pedro in Santa Marta. It is a brand-new place within walking distance of the main bus terminal and Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino. The facilities are great, and being out of town meant it was quiet (I had the dorm to myself for the three nights I stayed). The people who run it are friendly and helpful, and they were excited to see me because I was their first-ever foreign guest. They looked after my backpack and valuables for me during Ciudad Perdida.

Within the centre of Santa Marta, I was initially going to stay at República – a popular hostel that I had heard good things about online – but when I arrived, they made me wait in the common area for a while before checking in, and during that time decided it wasn’t for me. It was full of people partying by the pool in the daytime to awful music, the staff seemed disinterested, and there was something weird about the energy there. I ended up cancelling my booking and instead checked in to Gagaka Rua Hostel, which also had a pool, but was also quieter and had more personable staff.

In Minca I stayed at Dunarinka, which is owned by a lovely lady, had a balcony, hammocks, a great view, communal kitchen, and was just a ten-minute walk from town. There are other places which have amenities like swimming pools, but they were all quite pricey. Lots of the accommodation options in Minca are owned by first-world expats who have raised prices artificially, but Dunarinka – run by locals – remains good value for the budget traveller.

Finally, my advice for Tayrona National Park is for anyone who wants to camp. When I arrived at the entrance, a tout posing as park staff greeted me (I have found this a very common phenomenon in bus stations in this part of Colombia, too: always buy your tickets from the official booths). He tried to tell me that I needed to book my camping there and then went through a list of campsites with me (along with their prices). I refused, and not only were my suspicions confirmed when I arrived at the park – where I saw from the actual prices he was charging commission – but his ‘map’ did not even include all of the options.

San Juan has the best beach, and there is camping available there, but bear in mind that it is a bit more expensive, does not have as many amenities (such as wifi), and the only option for eating is a single restaurant which – judging from its prices – is very aware it possesses a monopoly. It is also very busy during the daytime. My advice is to camp closer to Arrecifes, as the beaches are quieter, there is a range of campsites and restaurants – all with more amenities – and you won’t have to walk so far carrying all your camping gear. You can then walk to beaches such as San Juan whilst treating Arrecifes as your base. Out of the campsites there, I found EcoCamping Lui to be the best value. Tequendama was the nicest looking but expensive, whilst Jacobo Bermudez and Andres Bermudez (both run by the same family) were a bit run down, and I got a weird vibe from them. There is another option further away from the beach called Don Pedro that I didn’t see so can’t give an opinion.

Travelblog LA#9: Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) – Colombia

NOTE: Out of convenience for the different readers of this blog, I am including a section at the end with Practical Information intended for other travellers thinking of doing Ciudad Perdida. The main body of this blog will focus mainly on the experience.


21st – 24th May, 2023


Day 1

A bus picked me up in Santa Marta early in the morning and took me to the office for Magic Tour, where I met some of my companions for the coming days. We were a mixed bunch; Germans, French, Israelis, Americans, Dutch, a Brazillian and a couple of other Brits (along with various Spanish speakers assigned to a different group as they did not need a translator). All of us excited to be heading to – what is said to be – one of the highlights of Colombia. Ciudad Perdida.

The bus towards the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range was a rocky two hours, after which the driver dropped us off at a village called El Mamey, where we met our guides.

As we were eating lunch, we looked at the map painted on the wall and discussed what we had to come. We had all heard stories about this trek, but as the guide explained the distances to us we were surprised by how easy it seemed. The longest day was a mere eighteen kilometres, and this first afternoon we just needed to hike eight to reach basecamp. Sure, a lot of it is uphill (especially for the first two days), but Magic Tour providing all the accommodation and food meant we only had to carry small backpacks. No problem, we thought.

And it was within the first hour that we discovered what our nemesis during this trek would be.

Before I continue, I want to say something. I have done a lot of hikes and travelled to some of the places considered among the hottest and most humid places in the world. Egypt. Indonesia. Malaysia. Burma. Laos in the ‘super hot’ season. I could go on, but I am sure you get the idea.

I am telling you this not to brag, but so you know that when I say what I am about to say next, you know it comes from a place of somewhat authority.

I have never – in all my travels – sweated like I have during this hike.

It is hard to put into words. We were all just dripping. Constantly. All day. Every day. I couldn’t wear sunglasses because I couldn’t see through the sweat dripping down them. My eyes stung from all the salt. Within the first hour, I had to pack my electronics into my dry bags, but not because it was raining – alas, I often PRAYED for it to rain in the coming days – but because I was sweating so much that it was leaking into my bag. Throughout the rest of this hike, I averaged about six litres of water each day but seldom needed to pee.

You probably now think I hated this hike, but I didn’t. And if you are someone considering it, I hope this doesn’t put you off, as it is – and will probably remain – one of the toughest things I have ever done, but the scenery was beautiful, and it all turned out to have been worth it by the end. I had a group of companions with me all going through the same torture. We bonded as we marched under the hot sun, oozing, leaving a trail in our wake.

We also found ourselves with an unexpected companion; a dog that followed us from the start of the trail. We named him Marble, and he stayed with us for most of the first two days.

Once we reached the top of that first afternoon’s ascent, we stopped for a while, and our guides gave us our first history lesson; this day told mostly from the perspective of the campesinos (migrants that moved here during the 1950s to escape from a lot of the troubles that were happening in Colombia’s cities at the time). Initially, they believed this area to be uninhabited, but as they began to build their farms some occasionally noticed mysterious people dressed in white appearing from the mountains. And, as they cleared away the trees, many discovered artefacts made from gold and precious stones. They initially made some money from selling these artefacts, but other than that, they discovered farming in this area to be mostly unprofitable. Despite the richness of the soil, it was so remote they could never transport any of the food they grew to nearby cities before it began to spoil, so most of them slipped into poverty.

They did experience two relatively prosperous periods. The first being in the 1960s when they started to grow marijuana – which grew quickly, stored well, and was very transportable – but this economic boom ended in 1975 when new legislation made it illegal. The second prosperous period was in the 1980s when they started to grow cocoa, but then Colombia’s Guerrilla groups and army began to fight over this area in the 1990s and turned this area into a very dark place to live. It was only in 2004 that they began to prosper again, largely thanks to the influx of tourism after the fighting ended.

After this history lesson, we descended towards Cabana Adan, where we stayed the first night. There was a nearby swimming pool in the river which we all eagerly jumped in. I did so with my t-shirt still on – as it was still drenched from sweat anyway – and then hung it up to dry. That night, we ate fried fish with rice and vegetables, and I went to bed shortly after that.


Day 2

Waking up at 5 am, we all crawled out of our bunk beds, ate breakfast, and hurriedly packed our things, ready to leave within an hour.

We saw our first Tairona people that morning – something that would become common as we headed deeper into their territory – and an hour or so later, we passed our first indigenous village, Mutanzi.

We stopped for a while and our guides told us more about the Tairona. They are comprised of four different subgroups, and this particular one belongs to the Kogi people. Most of the time, only three or so families live here – acting caretakers – as the Kogis are nomadic and move between different places throughout the year. This is the place where they gather for meetings and ceremonies.

After lunch at Campamiento Mumake, Marble chose to stay behind there but we were joined by two new companions that I named Sandy and Marbolo. I believe Marbolo to be Marble’s brother because he looked remarkably similar and appeared to be the same mix of breeds as him, but whereas Marble had half his tail missing, Marbolo had a gimpy front leg (but still had no problems outpacing us).

Later that night – after we arrived at Campamiento Lorenzo, had our customary swim in the river, and ate – we had a more detailed lecture about the Tairona people and the history of Cuidad Perdida.

As I relate some of this to you, please bear in mind how it has been passed down. The guide who told it to me was told it verbally by one of the spiritual leaders of the Tairona several years ago and has been repeating it to others over the years, and when I heard it, I hurriedly wrote as much down into my phone as I could. With that – and the fact that it has been translated between at least three different languages – in mind, please take what I am about to relate to you with a grain of salt. I did try my best to record it as accurately as I heard it. Also, I just want to say that I suspect – from some of the details – that this version is not traditional and has been revised since colonial times. Out of respect to the Tairona people, I will retell it as it was told to me.

The Tairona people are polytheistic, but their main god is the sun, Sentada, and they call themselves the ‘children of the sun’. Once, Sentada had a son with the face of a monkey and the body of a human who was initially hidden for fourteen years but eventually revealed himself to the Tairona people. He told them, “My name is Senanqua. I have come to man, and I am going to explain how my father made the planet. My father gave life to the world and created the mountains, seas, oceans, and creatures. And once everything was made, humans were created, and their purpose is to take care of the planet.”

The people of Tairona asked the boy how to take care of the planet, and he told them to offer black stones to mother earth, carnelian for the blood of mother earth, jade for everything green, quartz for sources of water, blue stones for the ocean, and gold for the sun.

The community went away for four years to gather the stones and during that time made an armour of gold for Senanqua. When he put it on, it made him shine like the sun, and he elevated to the sky, becoming a shining light, guiding the Tairona people from Asia to South America.

When they arrived here, they started building their houses out of stone. They made them round to represent the sun and the moon and with nine poles to represent the planets. The cone shape of the roofs represents the different parts of the world they dwell within; the bottom symbolising the coast, the upper parts the highlands, and the two points at the top for the peaks of the two highest mountains in the Sierra Nevada. These two points also work as antennas for the spiritual power of their homes.

In Tairona culture, when someone dies, their body is initially placed in a large pot in the middle of the house so that they can connect with the gods and the nine planets. After some time, they are taken out of the pot and buried in the ground beneath the house with their possessions. And then, their son will add another layer of stones and build a new home on top of it.

The lesson then switched from mythology to the history of Cuidad Perdida itself, but I first want to say that it seems to me that this transition involved some blending of folklore with archaeology. The guide mentioned that the people of Tairona believe that they arrived in this area (from Asia) in 100CE, and began to build Cuidad Perdida five hundred years later. To them, it is called ‘Teyuna’, and it is believed to have taken them four hundred years to complete it. The population of Teyuna is estimated to have been around three thousand, but only the upper classes lived there, while everyone else inhabited a network of villages around it. They lived and thrived here until 1495 when Pedro Heredia arrived.

The people of Tairona seemed to have fared a bit better than many other indigenous peoples in the early colonial times. This hilly, forested terrain was difficult for the Spanish cavalry, and the Tairona used their knowledge of poisons to tip their arrows. Heredia found himself forced to retreat and requested the help of Rodrigo de Bastidas, a conquistador who came to believe the people of Tairona possessed a hidden city of gold. Initially, he tried to establish trade relations with them, but when he brought some of their treasures back to Spain was angry to discover they were mixed with bronze and silver. This led to more conflicts, but the people of Tairona were never really conquered. It was rather – as with many indigenous people – diseases such as smallpox that brought an end to their civilisation. They abandoned Cuidad Perdida during the 1600s, and the surviving Tairona dispersed and migrated higher into the mountains. Over time they evolved into four different groups – the Kogi, Wiwa, Kankuamo, and Arhuacos – all with similar dialects and traditions, living out their lives relatively unknown to the rest of Colombia’s new inhabitants.

In the 20th century a man by the name of Florentino Sepulveda became curious after meeting a group of Kogis wearing elaborate jewellery. He found a way to communicate with them and was told – by their spiritual leader – that they came from a place on one of the mountains.

Florentino spent twenty years searching, but there were a lot of mountains in this area, many of them covered in thick vegetation. One day, he and his family got caught in a storm with trees falling all around them, so they took shelter by the river and in the morning realised that they were lost. He climbed a tree to try to get their bearings and heard a waterfall, so told his son Julio Caesar to investigate. He crossed the river, and it was he who first came across a set of ancient steps leading up the mountain. He had found Cuidad Perdida.

The Sepulveda family had control of his area for some years and found many riches, leading others to become curious and eventually follow them there. When Florentino discovered other people within the ruins, it resulted in a gunfight with casualties on both sides, including Florentino’s son Julio Caesar whom they buried within one of the terraces. It would be the first of many skirmishes, and eventually, people came to call this place the ‘Green Hell’ as different groups of looters came, all willing to risk their lives for a chance to find some of Ciudad Perdida’s treasures.

This ended in 1976 when the authorities became aware of the situation, and the army and the archaeologists moved in. Interestingly, some of the people who used to raid Ciudad Perdida were later hired to help restore it, and now it is open to tourism and that brought new wealth and opportunities to the area. They have done so by working closely with the Tairona people, who want to preserve the area, and that is why visitors are limited to just one hundred and fifty people per day. Each September, the site is closed for a month so that the spiritual leaders can hold ceremonies and purify its energy.


Day 3

Day three was a glorious day. Not just because this was the day that we would see Ciudad Perdida, but it was glorious for me in particular because we were halfway through the trek, meaning that I could put on my one (and only) spare set of clothes.

I got to feel (somewhat) clean and dry for the first twenty minutes or so – until they, too, succumbed to The Sweat.

It took around an hour of following the river before we reached The Steps (trust me, they deserve the capitalisation and not just because of how many of them there are). A lot of the paths we had walked over the last three days had steps, but these Steps were different, and I could tell – when I first saw them – that they were very old.

It was a steep climb, but I didn’t mind as much because I was excited and could feel a change in the air. They kept on going and going, corner after corner. Eventually, I saw sunlight and peeked around one last corner to see the first terraces.

We gathered in this first area for a while and were told a little more about this place.

You’ll notice that there are lots of circular shapes on the ground; these are believed to be the bases of homes similar to the ones that the Tairona people still live in today.

Our guide showed us a pair of stones with markings believed to be maps. The first indicates the local mountains, trade routes, and lagoons near the peaks (where Tairona people traditionally leave offerings to their gods).

The second is of the thirty-six rivers of the Sierra Nevada. This one is the wrong way up because the raiders turned it upside down when looting.

This first area is believed to have been mostly residential and served as a marketplace, but eventually we wandered up some more steps and past more trees.

And it is here that we reached the main terraces (the place where most of the famous photos of Ciudad Perdida are from).

We made our way up gradually, taking photos not only of the terraces but also of the stunning scenery around us.

Although I had previously seen pictures of this place, I had not realised quite how big it is.

These photos that I am posting – and all the others online – don’t do it justice because none of them can quite make you appreciate the scale of this place or the feeling you have whilst walking through it and seeing all the mountains around you. It almost feels like you are walking into the sky.

On our way up, there is a large open area that is said to have been where they held ceremonies, shortly followed by a smaller terrace looking over it with a throne.

And then, several terraces later, you reach the top (where we had snacks waiting for us). This is probably the place where one can take a photo that does this place the most justice (but still doesn’t quite capture how vast it is).

We spent quite a lot of time there and then went for a dip in a waterfall believed to be where the priests would go to purify themselves before ceremonies. Then we made our way back down again.

Both Sandy and Marbolo disappeared as we left Cuidad Perdida, but we almost immediately found ourselves with a new mascot. We named him Papi.

That afternoon, we hiked back to Campamiento Mumake (where we ate lunch on the second day, but this time we stayed the night). After eating, we all gathered around the fire, where we met Basilio, an indigenous man who told us a bit about his life and the customs of his people. He was holding his Damborro, an item that the men receive at the age of around sixteen, after a ceremony where they have to fast from eating and drinking for four days and nights, and – similar to some Native Americans in the north – they receive a new name; his being Wilmako.

The Domborro is something that I had seen several of the other Tairona men holding over the past few days. The stick protruding from the top is detachable, and within the opening is a compression where they make a paste out of crushed-up sea shells, chewed coco leaf, and spit, which they use to write along the sides of their Domborro (the part that looks like a scroll). They do this not only to express themselves but also believe the Domborro to be a vessel for which they connect to the spirit world. As they write onto it, over and over again, they are constantly adding new layers, and apparently that no other man will be able to read the Domborro of another (which I am guessing means they all develop their abstract form of writing personal to them).

Basilio also told us about one of the other customs among his people concerning relationships. When he was eighteen, he was assigned a woman twice his age as his ‘wife’ so that she could teach him about sex, relationships, and how to be a good husband. The same thing often happens to the women in their culture, and this is usually a temporary placement (after which they are assigned a new pairing with someone closer to their age). When it came to questions at the end, one of the things I asked was what happens if the people in this initial pairing end up liking each other enough to want to stay together; is that allowed, or forbidden? He said that it wasn’t forbidden – or even unheard of – but considered unusual, and that, in his case, he ended up staying with his first wife for longer than usual (half a year instead of a month) but eventually her family intervened and said that he needed to leave her as he was too young.


Day 4

Out of all the days, this was the longest we covered in terms of distance, and I didn’t take many photos. Partially this was because we were coming back the same way that we came (although the parts that were uphill seemed much longer than I ever remembered going downhill), and also because this was the sweatiest day of them all, and I ended up putting my phone in a drybag out of concern it could end up being damaged.

Papi – the dog who joined us just after we left Ciudad Perdida – was the companion that we ended up finishing the last leg of the trek with us, and the first half of it went quite fast. As we got closer and closer to the end, time started to drag. By this point, we had all seen Ciudad Perdida, were exhausted, and just wanted to return to first-world comforts. As we descended the last hill, I found myself looking at each corner longingly, wondering if this would be the one where we would reach the café where we started this whole thing four days before. Where this journey would end.

We talked about all the things that we were looking forward to. Air conditioning, wifi and pizza. Clean clothes. The times before The Sweat. It felt so long ago.

Some of you might think you have an idea of how much we sweated, but you don’t. Unless you have hiked Ciudad Perdida – during a heatwave, no less – you will never understand. You had to have been there.

Once we finally reached the end, most of us had a well-deserved beer and swapped details whilst having our lunch. I don’t think any of us regretted going on this trek, but we were all relieved it was over. We got into the van, the doors closed, and the feeling of the AC blowing into my face was heaven.

But then, a few moments later, someone asked what everyone else was thinking.

“What is that smell?”

It was us. We were the smell.


For more photos from Ciudad Perdida, click here.


Practical Information

The first piece of advice that I would give if you are about to do Ciudad Perdida is to prepare to be wet. It will happen no matter what you do. My hike was at the tail end of a heatwave along Colombia’s northern coast, so for us, the wetness was coming from ourselves but – from my understanding – most people will experience more rain than we did. With that in mind, bring lots of dry bags to keep your electronics and other valuables safe.

Usually, when it comes to photos, I use my phone for most things and have a digital camera (with zoom) for wildlife. I regretted bringing this, as the lens started to play up due to the dampness, and this is not the kind of trek you encounter much wildlife anyway – as much of the land is pastoral, and the jungle is mostly secondary. My advice; just bring your smartphone with you as they are less sensitive to dampness.

I brought two power banks with me, but if I could go back, I would have only brought one. All of the accommodations had charging stations anyway.

When it comes to clothes, I would suggest the following: a hat, three shirts and three pairs of shorts (two sets for hiking and one set as something clean to wear in the evenings), and a change of underwear for each day. I did bring a pair of trousers (as I was worried about insects), but the path is well established so you are never really walking inside the jungle. A raincoat is pointless; you will be too hot to wear it. Just accept you are going to get wet and bring dry bags to protect your valuables. Magic Tour told me to bring a sweater, but I never used it as even the nights are hot (I found it hard to sleep most of them and didn’t use the blankets they gave me).

Sun cream and mosquito repellent are essential.

Bring plastic bags to separate your dirty and clean clothes.

A towel. I usually drip-dried during my swims, but the accommodations have showers with (implausibly) cold water.

I brought a torch but didn’t end up using it. The accommodations had lights anyway, and I just used my phone if I needed a flashlight.

Swimwear. Every camp has a waterfall or pool you can swim in.

Finally, bring a pack of wet wipes with you. Trust me on this. It is easier than carrying a roll of toilet paper anyway – as you don’t have to worry about them getting wet – and they are also useful to wipe away sweat before reapplying suncream (which you will need to do several times a day).

I had heard there were river crossings during this trek, but all the ones we passed either had bridges or stepping stones. I am not sure if that means wading through rivers is a thing of the past or we just hiked during a drier period, but bringing sandals is useful anyway to wear whilst swimming and in the evenings.

Finally, I would recommend that you bring either a book or a Kindle, as there is a surprising amount of free time in the evenings.

When it comes to water, I was using a hydration pack with two litres, and it was always enough to get to each place where I could refill it. Some people were carrying less and there were plenty of little huts along the way to buy water and other drinks from, but that can get expensive and is also quite wasteful in terms of plastic. Each place that we stayed at or ate lunch had a water filtration system that you can use. Some of the guides tried to encourage us to buy the bottled water (claiming it was better) but I drank the filtered water for the whole journey and experienced no problems.


Travelblog LA#8: Cartagena – Colombia

16th – 19th May, 2023


I arrived in Cartagena around lunchtime, following a long night bus that bled into much of the next day. For that reason – and also the sweltering heat – I decided to take it easy that first afternoon and set myself just one target: Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, which was just a twenty-minute walk from the hostel I was staying.

This is the largest colonial Spanish fortification in South America, and its construction began in the sixteenth century, following the infamous sacking of the city by Sir Francis Drake. Ever since the Spanish founded this city in 1533 – upon the grounds of a former indigenous city called Calamari – it had always been a target for pirates and corsairs, and for the Spanish, this was not just important as a centre of colonial power but also the place where they sent many of their precious metals back to the motherland.

Despite being a UNESCO site, this place is not very well preserved as it lay abandoned for decades before restorations began in the late twentieth century. It remains a shell of its former self, and most of its tunnels now lay bare. Many of them are winding and lead into dead ends, deliberately made this way to confuse any invaders that managed to get inside.

It also offers some fantastic views of the city, making it a place where one can appreciate the mixture of old and new that is present-day Cartagena.

I would be remiss if I did not mention in this blog that Cartagena played a huge part in the slave trade during colonial times. The gate into the city by the Plaza de la Aduana was where many Africans – those who survived the journey across the Atlantic – would find themselves being led when they arrived in the Americas. Some would be auctioned whilst others would be sent straight to work at the mines, where the average life expectancy is believed to be as little as two to three years. This is something that everyone should make themselves aware of when they visit Cartagena; many of its features were built on slavery and the suffering of thousands, including this fortress. I don’t think it should stop you from going – one reason being that many of the descendants of these enslaved people make up much of Cartagena’s population now, and tourism dominates the local economy – but it is something you should try to remember.

The following day, I finally crossed through the main gate and into the walls of the old city. This is a place where one can just wander for hours and hours, not only marvelling at the architecture but the embellishments by its present-day residents, who have added a lot of street art which manages to blend in seamlessly.

The Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría is very different to most of the churches I have seen in Latin America so far, many of which can be a little gaudy at times with all of the gold. Much of the interior of this place is instead clad in marble, and I found out – during my guided tour the following day – that this was because precious metals were a target for pirates.

Like much of the city, the outer walls are made from coral stone, one of the most accessible materials here (and surprisingly durable).

I then visited a few museums, most of which were free and – most blessedly – air-conditioned. The Museo del Oro Zenú was probably my favourite – featuring not only many artefacts but also lots of information about the customs of indigenous peoples – whilst the El Museo Histórico de Cartagena de Indias was based in the former headquarters of the Inquisition.

My overall favourite was probably the Museo De San Pedro Claver, home to a museum of religious art, many artefacts, and the remains of Saint Pedro Claver (or Saint Peter Claver in English).

Within this museum (and during my tour the following day), I was informed that one of the reasons that he is the patron saint of slaves was that during his years in Cartagena, he secretly freed thousands of Africans by taking them in when they were ill and then covertly liberating many of the ones he managed to restore to health (whilst claiming they died). Since then, however, I have done some reading online and discovered that this story is disputed by many historians. Many claim that he was a slave owner himself, whilst others say it is possible he only did this to save people from a worse life under other owners. Neither side of this debate deny that he attended to thousands of slaves by giving them food and medicine when they arrived after crossing the Atlantic, but it does seem that there was almost certainly an ulterior (or at least secondary) motive, as he is estimated to have converted hundreds of thousands of them to Christianity. It is also said that he often travelled around the plantations visiting those he had baptised to ensure that – as Christians – they were being treated ‘humanely’ (I am not completely happy with that term being used when they are still slaves) and when he did so, he lodged with the slaves rather than stay with their owners. I am not sure I want (or have the authority) to weigh in with an opinion on this, and I will certainly not make excuses for potential slave owners here. It seems very complicated, and many of the claims being made are unverifiable.

Visiting the museum also allows one entry into the church, including its upper balconies. There is also a lovely courtyard.

I think the thing I enjoyed the most about this place is that – unlike places such as the fortress and the Inquisition Headquarters – parts of it seem original, so you can better imagine how it used to be.

My final day in Cartagena was spent doing a walking tour. I have already referenced this a couple of times so you will already know that I revisited many of the features I had seen the previous day. It was nice to view it all in a different context, and the fact that I had already taken lots of photos the previous day meant that I could focus more on the information. My tour guide was of mixed African and indigenous heritage, and it was interesting to get his perspective. He didn’t just focus on historic Cartagena but also told us much about its present, and I was particularly interested in his thoughts on this statue.

Pedro de Heredia, the founder of Cartagena (I guess unsurprisingly) also happens to have been a mass murderer and slaver, and this has caused many of Cartagena’s residents to campaign for it to be taken down. The authorities have dithered for years over this, so there have been incidents where frustrated residents have tried to take matters into their own hands only for the police to intervene. I found this story very interesting as a resident of Cardiff, whose neighbouring city – Bristol – had the controversial statue of Edward Colston thrown in the harbour in 2020 after years of the council refusing to listen to the wishes of residents. I think those who read this blog regularly will know which side I am on with this issue, but I found this parallel interesting because the way that some people seemed so shocked and clutched their pearls over it makes me suspect that they probably don’t know that the actions taken in Bristol were not globally unprecedented. I think we will see many more of these commemorative statues taken down in the years to come as the people of today create their own histories.

After the walking tour, I went to have lunch with some of the others who attended it, and as we were eating we swapped stories – as backpackers often do – and were surprised to discover that two of them, a Dutch couple called Martine and Mara, were not only heading in the same direction as me but also booked on the same tour as me to Ciudad Perdida, leaving in two days.

For more photos from Cartagena, click here.