I had first come across the park overhearing other travellers the night I first arrived in Surat Thani early January. Its meant to be beautiful. Further, after three days in (beach tourist packed) Krabi I figured outdoor makes for a nice cure. As it turned out, the artificial reservoir comprising of many islands looked akin to Guatape near Medellin, Colombia, which I visited only in Nov’17. Just not the same nice viewpoint and certainly no Pablo Escobar property.
Memories of Guatape, Colombia
Day one coming here was mostly lost on travel. While I took the first transfer out of Krabi, this one didn’t leave before 11:30am (300THB) and was then also taking longer. By 4pm I checked into the hostel (khao sok secret), where I met team Fulda – two fellow German travellers called Alex and Julian. Given my late arrival, I only managed brief 2h walking tour on day together with my new German friends. However, we didn’t get to see much more than bamboo jungle, loads of monkeys and a brief river swim. There was no time for waterfalls either, but i had a nice refreshing swim.
We ended up spending the rest of the evening together and shared plenty of travel anecdotes (they had already been in Vietnam on moped and Cambodia) and probably touched on all other current issues over pizza & Chang+Leo beers.
Park boasts rainforest, waterfalls, limestone cliffs and island stubbed lake
Located in Southern Thailand’s Surat Thani province covering 739sqkm
Highest level of rainfall in thailand at 3,500mm/year
Day trip to the lake: Given that solo jungle experiences are actively undermined here as elsewhere in Thailand (less money), I opted to book a day trip to the lake (1,500THB excl. THB300 daily park fee) for convenience. I takes 1,5h drive to get to Ratchprapa dam from where you go by long boat across the Cheow Lan lake for about 50min (c25km). Pretty scenic stuff from here.
25km boat ride across the lake + 7km jungle/cave hike
By 11:30 we stopped at the floating houses, enjoyed a swim in the (warm) sweet water lake and finally had lunch (the usual & fried fish directly from underneath your bottom so to say). From there its a few mins further by boat before the 3h (7km) jungle walk to the cave begins. Pretty slippery stuff. I went on my five finger vibrams, which was great in the cave but not in the jungle mud. Best rent some of the rubber shoes (THB50) at the lunch place.
What to take?
Rubber boots (trainers, vibrams)
Camera (ideally water proof case)
Mosquito repellent (i was ok without)
Dry bag as water is chest high in some places in the cave
Light rain jacket (if getting wet on the 2x50min boat rides bothers you)
The cave is some 800m to walk and host to loads of spiders with shiny eyes once you point your torch on them. There are also plenty of bats – never i have seen them as close up. Cool. The stone formations are pretty average and getting through the cave not a huge physical challenyge though by no means a walk in the park. By 6.30pm i was back at the hostel. Nice day.
The end of the was a bit akin to the night before – this time not team Fulda, but team Kiel (Anna & Valentine) shared their stories and were patient enough to listen to mine. Good place this hostel here. Recommended.
When travelling around the world it is all too easy to forget all the nice places back home. Having spent some time this summer in Saxon Switzerland, we took a family stroll to digest all the festive & heavy food such as my mum’s tasty potato salad and homemade sausages.
The hike up the Pfaffenstein offers fantastic views of the surrounding rock formations such as Königstein castle and Lilienstein as well as the Elbe valley more general. Especially the Barbarine (the rock that looks like a needle) is as iconic as can be for my beautiful home region.
Tayrona Park is one of the must do’s in Northern Colombia if you ask me. From Taganga you can take daily boat transfers to Tayrona park. Its about an 35km boat ride (1:15h), but be prepared for choppy waters. Not for everyones stomach ;o).
I actually preferred the bus option on the way into the park that takes you first to Santa Marta (calle 11/cra. 11, 20-30mins, pretty frequent, 2.5k COP) and then Tayrona park entrance (another 30-40mins, 7k COP). This works out at about half the cost of tourbus operators. The bus driver is meant to let you know where to get off, but best keep an eye out yourself. Once at the park entrance, its a 2h walk first on muddy jungle roads at least this time of the year (Nov/early Dec). My recommendation … just take the shoes off. Doesn’t hurt, looks way less embarrassing than hopping around to keep your new trainers clean and is actually healthy.
Once you managed to get through the jungle, you will get to enjoy a nice walk on the beach until you get to the swim spot (la piscina) near Cabo St Juan. On the way you’ll find camping grounds, indigenous selling coco nuts and beach restaurants with refreshments and excellent fish (I am saying this as not a big fish eater … lovely stuff).
As I mentioned above, the boat is the best way home from here. Loads are waiting with 4.30pm usually the last departures. Don’t miss it as camp sites are often fully booked in peak season. Better though, in hindsight, get your hands on one of the hammocks in the lodge at Cabo San Juan beach (though pricey, see here for details).
The first time I heard of the lost city trek was from Rory – part of the Everest summit team in May. He had lived in South America for some time when he was still a professional poker player. In Colombia itself most hikers won’t miss that trek. While that made me somewhat suspicious, the trip delivered with great (and advanced) hiking, good group spirit and a rewarding lost city experience.
I booked the trek in my Santa Marta hostel (Masaya – recommended). A little research suggested that while there are 6 companies or so offering the tour, they have all the same itinerary and charge exactly the same (COP850,000). Doing it unguided isn’t really an option given required transport to the trailhead (needs off-road jeep and knowledge as to where), no good camping/tent options and difficulties getting food as each hiking team brings their own food & chef. I did it with expotour.
A little background
The city was built between the eighth and the fourteenth centuries by the Tayrona Indians. Nowadays only circular stone terraces covered by jungle remain, but the views and the location of the site are extraordinary. A local name for Ciudad Perdida/Lost City is Teyuna.
Tayrona Indians: When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, tension mounted over many years until confrontations between the Spanish and the Tayrona forced the natives to move their settlements higher into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This move saved them from both the system of rule the Spanish brought to the region and from an unseen killer, disease. Today the descendants of the Tayrona go by the names of the Wiwa, the Arhuacos, the Cancuamo and the Kogi.
We left the tour office in Santa Marta around 10am crammed into two jeeps. I travelled with two dutch girls (one jusgt completed the NY marathon, one a Spanish ace), a swede (Johan), joe (uk) and a couple from Alabama (news of dangerous animals such as snakes, but also great beaches were new to me). The journey was meant to take 2,5h would It not have been for an accident induced hold-up. Our driver basically took out a motorbike in a bend injuring both riders. Silly driving really. Then it got really busy as a large truck delivering a digger also arrived to remove some landslide that coverred the road on several occasions after heavy rain the night before. Once the police had arrived we got loaded on a new vehicle and continued. The last hour of driving through the jungle and by now in indigenous territory to the pueblo El Mamey was pretty rocky and with often a steep way down on our left (my window). But we made it without further delay or motion sickness. Time for lunch & more introductions.
Day 1: How wet is wet?
The short hike on the first day would take us some 3,5-4h and included ascending 500m. As luck had it, the so far hot day was not to last. As soon as we had crossed the first river the skies opened and we basically walked all the way in rain. It made some mud-fight and soggy shoes. But somehow it felt great and liberating. After key sections we got refreshments (watermelon – how fitting if I think about it now ;o) or had the opportunity to buy them (water, beer, snacks).
I ended up finishing the day with Markus & Eva from Germany (somewhere near Ulm). They are on their annual leave and we had much to talk about including useful tips on my Yukon plans (as Markus had been there). Key takeaways: a) take loads of whiskey & b) prepare yourself for war with the mosquitos. It felt like a victory when we reached camp after dark for a great dinner (fish on the menu).
Once we sorted equipment, it was time for entertainment. To my surprise, the monopoly deal game i brought along was an instant hit and we played until lights were switched off. Bedtime in the largest outdoor dorm I have come across – luxury alomost considering where we were.
What to take with you?
Enough cash (beers go for 5-7,000 a piece)
Insect repellent (take a good one!)
Snacks (not heavy and good between meals)
Two easy drying tops
Aqua pack (1.5-2l, ideally take some supplement tablets as you sweat a lot)
Hiking poles (really helps on the muddy trek)
Hiking boots & two pair of socks
Light jumper for evenings (in general you might appreciate long clothing for mosquitos)
Hat/baseball cap & buff (for the sweat)
Water for first day (purified water afterwards is ok)
Cards (monopoly deal was a hit!)
Wireless speaker (UE2 BOOM no less)
Battery pack (not essential as you can charge phone in the camps)
Dry bags for all your stuff
One book (max., I finally managed to finish ‘Born to Run’)
Hygiene stuff (ideally biodegfradeable soap)
Basic meds (guides are ill prepared for issues and you are remote, ibuprofen / paracetamol at least)
Day 2: Learning about Tayrona Indian culture
The second day started with a 5am wake-up, 5.30am breakfast until we got going around 6.15am. Boots remained as wet as last night – which goes for any clothing. The humidity is so high that you are better off keeping it in a bucket of water overnight! Today we had some 200-300m altitude gain ahead of us until the final camp before reaching the lost city.
We passed indigenous villages (where kids traded sweets for pictures), learned about the indigenous culture. These Tayrona Indians live here completely self sustained. Impressive. Coka is an important part of their culture though only consumed by men in the form of leaves – not in the processed (white) version. In fact, locals chew the coka leavers together with powder/calcium from crushed seashells. The residue (spit?!) over time forms a ever growing, white ring on the poporo. The men use it as a powerful mix that keeps away hunger and lets them walk on for a long time. Appearantly the shaman is also reading from it every 10y or so … what it says I don’t know ;o)
Weather wise we stayed dry all day, enjoyed a swim over lunch time and and generally felt much better about things with some stunning scenary and flora on the way. While the way was still mainly up, the group was pretty fast and maanged all distances well below guided time.
A Poporo – the white bit wasn’t there when the Poporo was new
Day 3: Entering the lost city
We started early again. 4.30am we were up. Main reason was a pretty noisy columbian school class, which we wanted to front-run basically before they got to ciudad perdida. The hike up was pretty short (c1h), but very steep. Once up, we got a low down of the history. How it was used as sacred place (still, indigenous meet every September here), how tomb raiders went after the gold burried with past dead residents and how a farer family rediscivered the city.
The city itself turned out a lot larger than I had thought and we had it almost to ourselves early on. Great panoramic views made the journey here really worthwhile. The next two hours or so we spent venturing around the place. Me & Johan were in a particularly good mood and really took in the views. What a cool place! Memorable experience for sure.
The way down seemed even steeper and it was super humid. By the time we got back to camp we all appreciated a pre-lunch swim in the cold river. Add bit of UE2 Boom music and a few aguila beers and you have a little party going right there.
The way to our overnight camp was in tendency down, but not straightline. Amazing jungle views all over and the weather remained kind. At the end waited another river to refresh in and relax as well as the final round of Monopoly deal (I won the company at least 3-4 buyers … should consider charging commission!).
On a more negative note, our chef had slipped in the lost city and dislocated his arm. The swelling was huge and his pain likeewise. Poor fella though good to note that he was better the day after.
Day 4: Home
The last day is a crisp 6h walk with a few stops with fruits and drinks. Again no rain, great vistas and the indigenous villages we saw on the way in. Everyone happy to have made it and after a well deserved lunch also ready to get back to civilisation (and mobile reception). Don’t miss that trek if you visit colombia. It’s really worth it.
I used to live to work, now i work to live. (Bernhard, Lille, France)
Today I had no hiking or other activities involving hills on my agenda, but a trip to Tatacoa dessert. From Neiva its an hours jeep ride to the closest village (Villaveija) and then another 20mins onwards (the former is COP7,000 while the latter COP8,000). On the trip i met a German & Dutch guy travelling together (both a little awquard) and a french girl (Justine) with her dad (Bernhard) from Lille. these two are great (although i have to admit i had mistaken them for a couple at first with a rather large age gap … never make hasty assumptions ;o).
Justine spends a year in colombia on a work & travel visa. She lived a month in Guatape near medellin, spent time with venezuelan refugees in medellin (and donated all her selfmade bracelets for them to sell & ultimately survive) and, partly together with dad bernhard, two month in the amazon region working with an organsartion looking after endangered monkeys. she abolutely adores the country and her dad thinks a year is nowhere near enough for her.
Bernhard, a trucker by trade, has its own story. job loss and separation have hit him in the past few years. but not to no avail … he changed his life too. he said “I used to live to work, now i work to live. for my employer i am just a number. completely replaceable.”. I couldn’t agree more. with bernhard I had generally some great conversations about his reflections on colombia. how easy we have it in europe, how old people still have to make a living here (but on the flipsiude don’t sit at home alone all the time like often in europe), how people sell single cigarettes or sweets just to get by and a lot more.
Great people both of them. Real pleasure to meet and travel with a tiny bit.
the three of us went straight into tatacoa and to the hostel le bleues had booked (‘noches de saturno’). great news – it had a pool. i mean, how many deserts offer that. no question, i was swimming right after i had put up my tent (not carrying the thing for nothing all through colombia!). with me in the pool was maria – the only other german in the camp. that means something, since germans are the largest group of travellers judging by my guts so far. she is from Mainz (east germans remain elusive so far) and interns at a travel company in bogota for six month. she came to tatacoa to get some warmer weather given relaltively cold temperatures in 2,600m high Bogota.
Tatacoa dessert: its not really a dessert by scientific definition, but rather a semi-arid zone of 330sqkm or in other words a dry troipcal forest.
she mentioned a short dessert circular walk nearby, which I hilked once the post lunch heat had settled down a bit. breathtaking sand and rock formations, supersized cactusses and all sorts of pastel, sand colours you can imagine. great walk round and best rounded off with a sunset and a cold lager in your hand, which i enjoyed with a polish & a colombian traveller. by then it got dark quickly (abouyt 5.50pm), but in tatacoa that doesn’t mean the end (or the sign to get changed for a hot salsa night out) …
Given its low light pollution, the dessert is used as an obersavortory and offers great views of the stars. We joined one of the (Spanish) presentations at the observatory (COP10,000 pP). I wished I had understood more of this seemingly entertaining presentation on the planets of our universe, zodiac signs, the relativity theory, how everything is created etc. Anyway, I got my first ever view of saturn, saw my own zodiac sign (saggitarious) and figured out that the blinking, bright star I have so often seen is vega. Bernhard invited me to a snack and a beer after, which i welcomed since I had run out of cash and card payments are a no go in this part of colombia (I literally just use it to get cash from the bank).
Off to my night in the tent. While it had cooled off a bit, i still didnt need much of a cover. Nite, nite Tatacoa …