The wild coast – I wondered if more Caribbean flair awaited further east in Santa Marta, one of the oldest surviving cities in South America. Founded in 1525 by Spaniard Rodrigo de Bastidas, it’s set against the Sierra Nevada mountains, the highest coastal range in the world, which shelters lost cities and primitive tribes. The early European settlers faced stiff resistance from the native Tayrona community, but the Tayrona were all but decimated by the end of the 16th century. Today, Santa Marta is the place to go for sun, sea and sand. The promenade at El Rodadero – the Benidorm of Colombia – was packed with people dancing to vallenato music and queuing for rum-on-the-run cocktails at modified bicycle bars. Most seemed oblivious that a true slice of Caribbean heaven was just a few miles away.
Well, I was off to find it, taking a road that weaved high into the mountains towards Tayrona National Park – a jungle-cloaked wilderness with some of the Caribbean’s best beaches and trekking. As we drove, 1 saw a man by the roadside wearing a distinctive white hat – a style said to resemble the snowy mountaintops. “He’s from the Kogi tribe. They still live up there,” explained my guide, Andres. The elusive Kogi community maintain a traditional existence, venturing beyond their high-altitude enclaves only to trade cassava and plantain. According to Andres, Kogi men are permitted to sleep in a hammock but women, wrho give birth standing up, must sleep on the ground to be closer to Mother Earth.
Our two-hour hike took us through the humid forest. “The coast here is like many of the Caribbean islands. The scenery is similar and the people have the same laid-back mentality. There’s no chasing money and rushing around like those in Bogota,” said Andres as we dodged an army of fire-red ants carrying leaves across the mossy trail. Through the trees and cacti came the sound of pounding surf. La Gomera Beach came into view behind giant boulders, which we scrambled over with care. Vultures filled the sky, landing on the odd piece of driftwrood.
I found a shady spot under a palm tree on nearby Arrecifes Beach. The sand was soft and warm, the sea a sparkling blue. My own patch of paradise. There was just one thing missing: a breaching humpback, just offshore.
Health & safety – Colombia is safer that its reputation suggests though it’s advisable to exercise caution in big cities. Anti-malarial treatment is recommended for travel to parts of the Pacific coast, including the Choco region. Be up to date on standard vaccinations.
The trip – The author travelled with Chameleon Worldwide, which offers tailormade trips across Colombia. A 12-day Coast to Coast itinerary, featuring Bogota, Cartagena, Tayrona National Park and the Pacific coast, costs from £2,750pp, including all flights and accommodation. Chameleon Worldwide is the only UK tour operator to offer El Cantil Ecolodge.
Food & drink – Seafood is common in coastal regions, especially tuna and red snapper. Other popular ingredients include plantain, corn and red beans. Stews and grilled meats are popular in high-altitude Bogota. Vegetarians and fish-haters should advise El Cantil of their dietary requirements before arrival. Drinks wise, expect exotic fresh fruit juices and excellent coffee.
Accommodation – Cosy Hotel Casa Deco makes a good, central base and the staff are helpful. The slick Hotel Florencia Plaza is in the city centre with free Wi-Fi and air conditioning. The charming boutique La Casa del Farol (Santa Marta) has large rooms each themed around different cities; the Paris room is rather chic.