Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Breakdown: Tayrona vs. Cocuy

Colombia may only be 1/9th the size of the U.S., but man, does this country have a diverse terrain – from the mountainous Andes of Bogota to the ancient walled city of coastal Cartagena to the beautiful Caribbean coast lined with beaches and lush forests to the fake, plastic boobs of Medellin to the many national parks in the Andean highlands. This country allows you to pack-in 4+ different types of vacations in one, not to mention, it requires you to pack for 4+ different types of climates!

And to further exemplify my point, I have broken down my experience during 3 days in Tayrona National Park (Caribbean Coast) vs. 3 days in Cocuy National Park (Andean highlands)


Tayrona: Sunny, blue skies

Cocuy: (In a 24 hr period) Crisp air, blue skies, cloudy rain storms & pure, white snow (1st snow the area had seen in 20 years!)


Tayrona: A National Park with coastal & forest paths, taking you from beach to beach - some crowded with tourists & others, like the nudist beach, sparsely covered with bare butts (including my own)

Cocuy: A National Park with multiple mountainous paths, taking you by lakes, through high peaks and passes and along the most spectacular scenery.


Tayrona: Sea Level

Cocuy: 4000 – 5100 meters above sea level


Tayrona: Public local bus / private transport

Cocuy: Colombia night bus hell crammed next to a large woman with her 8yr old on her lap, who ended up in my lap on every bump & turn. Meanwhile, the same Colombian songs were BLARING – even at 3am - about jilted lovers and unrequited love


Tayrona: I stayed in an amazing Cabana nestled on a hill (distanced from the 13 other cabanas) with a view of the beach, my own private hammock area & clear sounds of the waves crashing ashore each night

Cocuy: Night #1 – a tent with collapsing sides, a broken zipper & a threshold to withstand the cold of Los Angeles. Night #2 – After narrowly escaping hypothermia on snowy night #1, we ended up staying in a paper thin-walled cabin where we could see our breath in the air.


Tayrona: Bikini & Sarong

Cocuy: Sample evening wear: 3 pairs of socks (including wool), 3 pairs of running pants, 1 running tank top, 1 biking top, 1 hooded thermal, 1 long-sleeve running top, 1 fleece-lined ski jacket, 1 north face jacket, 1 pair of gloves, 1 ski mask, 1 neck warmer


Tayrona: Fresh Juice. Fresh Food.

Cocuy: Packaged camping food, hot Aguapanela & enough snacks to last us a week, including condensed milk in a tube – absolutely brilliant


Tayrona: Morning beach yoga & occasional dips in the water to cool off

Cocuy: 4-6 hr hikes in the altitude, challenging our heart, lungs & mind as every breath felt like it needed 2 to get our necessary oxygen & every step felt like it required the energy of 3


Tayrona: Read 2 books, journal writing, went to bed at 8:30, woke up at 5:30 for the sunrise

Cocuy: Card games & 10yr old summer camp games, i.e. never have I ever, I spy, 20 questions


Tayrona: Talked to no one for 72hrs (except 20 yr old Colombians, Brenda & Jorge, who invited me to their table for lunch & resulted in an English / Spanish conversation class!)

Cocuy: Non-stop chatter and laughter with 4 amazing women (Tanita, “Cherry”, Diana & Lacey.)

A quick skim through the different variables clearly shows the vastly different experiences i had in each place. To be honest, if you made me choose my favorite, I would not be able to pick one over the other. They were both equally amazing, entertaining and filled with beautiful landscapes. And they were both fabulous ways to start bringing my vacation to an end in Colombia.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

5-Day Ciudad Perdida Hike

Often when you want to go on an overnight hike in a national park in another country, you need to go with a guide, which often entails hiking with a large group. There are a few factors that can make or break your experience:

1) People - You hope your group does not have a whinger, a loud-mouth, a snorer......

2) Guides - You hope your guide is informative, entertaining, able to accommodate varied paces, organized, a decent cook, attuned to the group's needs....

3) Nature - You can only hope you don't get pissed on the whole hike. Who likes to go to bed wet, wake up wet and repeat the cycle?....

4) Health - You don't want to be miserable, suffering from a twisted ankle, raw blisters, itchy bug bites, cold/flu, or even worse, food poisoning...

On a scale of 1-5, I scored a 5 in all the categories above except #4 in my 5-day hike to La Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City). I was at a bit of a disadvantage entering the hike with only having eaten 2 eggs, 2 pieces of cornbread, yogurt and oatmeal with a spoonful of peanut butter in the last 72 hours. And right when I thought I was getting my strength back on Day 1 and I tried to eat normal meals again, Bam, whatever bacteria poisoning I had in Cartagena came back and I spent the evening of Day 2 suffering all over again. At least it was a full moon and there was a bubbling river for ambiance. For the next 72 hours of hiking in the hills, I ate plain rice for lunch and dinner, fake juice and nuts. But despite these minor health setbacks, I slowly but surely, hiked up the mountain in search of La Ciudad Perdida.

As far as the other factors, (#3) we nailed the weather. It never rained on us, was sunny, but not too hot, and when it was too hot, we would jump in the natural swimming pools along the walk. (#2) Our guides were a husband/wife duo - Elber and Magali, who were clearly in love, and enjoyed their jobs. They were joined by their well-behaved 8 year old son, who had boundless energy, and Magali's 2 brothers. This family radiated so much positive energy that it was refreshing and contagious. And they were clearly concerned about my well-being, intent on making sure that I was healthy and able to survive the hike. (#1) Finally, the group was an international mix of 13 people, representing Canada, Australia, Ireland, England, Colombia and Italy. The best part about these trips is the natural progression of complete strangers getting to know each other - starting off with the typical backpacker conversations of where one has traveled and where the next adventure is and then slowly transitioning into more personal conversations, learning about their culture, perspective on life, their significant others, children, divorces, aspirations, etc. It's impossible to walk away from trips like these without learning another way to look at life or to see other paths taken.

And with all that said, yes, we found La Ciudad Perdida. After climbing 1000+ steps, the forest opens and there are flat, green, circular terraced platforms made by stone walls where the ancient ruins used to stand. Was it thoroughly preserved and restored like Machu Picchu? No. Were the ruins grandiose, tall structures like Tikal in Guatemala? No.

However, as I was sitting in the middle of a green circle, staring out at the blue sky and the forest and mountains around me, it was clear to me that it was more than the ruins that made this Trek worthwhile. Really, it was all about the experience from the combined 4 factors above that made the clearing in the middle of the forest to La Ciudad Perdida an unforgettable trip.

NEXT STOP: 3 days in Tayrona National Park / Beach (sea level) and 3 Day hike in Cocuy National Park (4000+ meters)