Kuna Yala People: Children of The Moon

Children of The Moon

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2-years-old Pilar, Kuna Yala

Some nights are darker than black, when the Dragon of Death swallows the Moon. And extinguishes the murky silver light from the surface of the sleeping sea.

The world stands still. Time suspended.

These are the nights when the pale children emerge in the dark to defend the Moon.

Their skin- the sad glow of the Moon, their hair- the sad glow of the Moon.

Their eyes- the sad glow of the Moon.

These are the Moon Children.

Albinos are people (and animals) who have a genetically inherited disorder -their skin lacks melanin and they appear white, with yellow hair and light-blue eyes. They are more susceptible to skin cancer and sunlight bothers their eyes, so they need to protect themselves from the sun at all times.

There are a few places in the world with very high instances of albinism, where albinos hold a special place in society. Most of the time, they are victims of superstition, persecuted and segregated, seen as “diseased” or “ghosts”, “punished by god”. In East Africa’s popular culture, particularly in Tanzania, albinos are seen as bad omen, persecuted and even dismembered and killed for body parts, used by witchdoctors to make potions for rituals. Potions and amulets containing albino limbs and hair, especially from albino babies and children, are considered magical and believed to bring prosperity to those who consume or own them.

Kuna Yala (Panama) where the Kuna Indians live in small isolated island communities, has the world’s highest rate of albinism. Here 1 in approximately every 160 Kunas is albino.

2-years-old Pilar with her family

Pilar with her family

But the pale Kuna islanders called “sipus” are not being persecuted and segregated. On the contrary, they are regarded as superior, more beautiful people, as “reyes” (kings), and are very much estimated by all.

 

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According to local beliefs, they have the duty of defending the Moon from the moon-eating dragon, and during lunar eclipse are the only ones allowed to go outside of their homes and shoot down the dragon with special bows and arrows. Only they can kill the dragon.

Albino cat, in Kuna Yala

Albino cat, in Kuna Yala

 

Find previous stories about Kuna Yala: Paradise at The End of The Sea and Slums of Paradise.

 

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 

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Kuna Yala: Slums of Paradise

Slums of Paradise

by Mira Nencheva

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The first time we go to the island of Porvenir to check-in in Panama and Kuna Yala a few days after arriving in the San Blas islands, we find ourselves in yet another different world. Surrounded by pristine sea, isolated in one of the wildest corners of our planet, standing on top of slowly sinking foundations of sand and coral are the large urban settlements of Kuna Yala.

Based on the density of inhabitants per square kilometer, these are some of Earth’s most heavily populated urban areas, where according to modern standards housing, sanitation and the most basic services are substandard, the supply of clean water is a huge problem, and the reliability of electricity is questionable. On a micro scale, some of the big Kuna settlements reflect the global population expansion and pollution of the planet.

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If we thought that the small isolated fine-sand islands with tiny huts among tall coconut palms floating in a sea of crystal teal waters were “paradise on Earth”, the big overpopulated Kuna Yala islands surrounded by smelly garbage reminded us of slums.

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In the San Blas islands most of the Kuna population lives in big organized communities on the larger islands. The difference between the smaller idyllic islands where 2-3 traditional Kuna families live in peace and serenity among coconut palms and coral reefs, and the bigger island-communities, crowded and polluted, is like the difference between a small village in the countryside and a big congested megalopolis within the same country.

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Clusters of houses of bamboo sticks and wooden planks with leaning walls and corrugated patched-up tin roofs, surrounded by plastic buckets and jerry cans filled with stagnant water, makeshift toilets on sticks over the sea, the ruins of a concrete dock. No trees and everything is grey. But mostly- garbage. Stuck between the rocks near the shores, between empty bleached shells of dead corals and conchs- pieces of plastic and foam. Piles of garbage. Things floating in the sea.

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Here the Kunas have gas generators and the expensive electricity is used mainly to watch television and charge cell phones. Television has brought the new generations of indigenous kids a different perspective on life and different “needs”. Now little Kuna girls watch Latino soap-operas, learning the ways of seduction and deception. As we pass by an open door of a home, we witness a group of school girls watching very intensely on a triple-X TV channel an instruction video for pole-dancing in a striptease club. Groups of teenage boys wearing jeans with sleek hairs gather in corners doing nothing; like in the music videos, they are “cool”. Alcohol and drug use have become a big issue.

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But even though globalization and westernization has affected in various degrees life in the big settlements in Kuna Yala, and even though there is lack of proper sanitation, safe water supply, reliable electricity, garbage disposal, hygienic housing and common areas, or other basic human necessities; even though the islanders are mostly poor and unemployed (which are all characteristics of a slum), these communities are organized with well-established traditional social and political order with a strict hierarchy of tribal chiefs and leaders. On each island there is a “saila”, who is the equivalent of a village mayor and the highest authority on the island. But from our personal observation and from what we have heard from others, unfortunately most of the sailas, like most politicians or rulers, have become increasingly corrupt. Indigenous or no indigenous, money is the main interest of these people today and the ways they are trying to get them is not always respectable.

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Every evening the population of each community gathers at “el congreso” at the main square in the center of the island or in the biggest hut of the village where everyone is welcome to express opinions, ideas, or complains. In an event of a crime, like theft or domestic violence, the congreso decides the fate of the criminal, which is usually a monetary fine or a punishment in the form of community work. During the congreso obligatory community work done by all women and men on each islands is organized.

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In oa couple of settlements where we spend a week- the twin islands of Narganá (or Yandup) and Corazón de Jesús (or Akuanasutupu) which are connected by a wooden bridge and are two of the most westernized of all Kuna islands, we meet and talk to a few locals, who tell us more about the specifics and the organization on their islands.

“Every Tuesday all women have to get out to swipe and clean the village at 8:00 a.m. If a woman doesn’t come to clean, she has to pay a fine of $1.” Explains Odalis Brown, who prefers to sleep late and pay the fine instead of cleaning the streets at 8 in the morning. “Every Thursday and Saturday all men have to do community work from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m.- to bring sand and fill the holes in the ground, or to cut wood on the mainland, or to farm.”

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With global warming and the level of oceans rising, some islands have already been eaten by the sea and disappeared. Bringing sand and piling dead corals and rubble at the bases of islands is one of the usual community jobs for men. Contributing food and cooking it together for a community event is the women’s job. And always there is a fine of a few dollars if someone doesn’t do their job. There is fine of $5 even for children who disobeyed and didn’t go to bed at 8:00 p.m. when a man working for the saila blows a sort of a curfew whistle.

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We are impressed by the organization in the communities, but disappointed with the way globalization, westernization, and television has influenced these indigenous people, them too…

But then it is all a matter of perspective. The bamboo houses we- the “civilized first-world citizens”- classify as “substandard” are in fact traditional huts (in most cases) made of renewable materials with the same methods the Kunas used for many centuries before the “civilized” Europeans showed up. The “fresh water problem” is a problem from our point of view- the people who are used to turning on the faucet at home and let the water flow hard for ten minutes while we are brushing our teeth. Paddling to the nearest river with a canoe, bringing river-water in bottles and jerry cans, and boiling it to make it safe for drinking is something the Kunas are used to doing generation after generation and for them it is not “a problem” as much as it is a part of daily life. Being “poor and unemployed” is how we, the wealthy visitors see these people who have always lived without cars, washing machines and big shopping malls, and who spend their time fishing and hunting for food, farming small plots and collecting fruits and coconuts.

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Still, the arrival of modern tools and materials, of electricity and television, has altered the Kunas ways. Can we blame them for using plastic buckets and bottles to make their life easier with all the freshwater hustle? Can we blame them for wanting the same things we want- packaged foods, ready-made clothing, tools and things that make life “easier” and more “comfortable”? With all this comes pollution, and for the islanders and the fragile environment they live in on such a limited territory this new consumerist tendencies spell disaster. The garbage and pollution issue in San Blas needs to be addressed urgently.

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And similarly urgent is the issue of culture loss in the big Kuna settlements due to globalization and the introduction of television. To a big extend, the Kunas have preserved their ways and beliefs, language and rituals. Yet, they are now part of a bigger world and have welcomed civilization and change. Will the young Kunas be willing to preserve the ways of their ancestors, after watching so much glamour and luxury not too far away? Will they see their own lives as tradition or struggle? How will they perceive their own world- as a paradise or a slum?

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About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 

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From Colombia to Kuna Yala

Last time we took you from Santa Marta to Cartagena. Fasten your lifejackets and get ready to sail to our next destination: The San Blas Islands (or Kuna Yala) in Panama!

A beach in Kuna Yala

A beach in Kuna Yala

It was one of our strangest passages so far. One of our “longest” passages too. After over a year island-hopping in the Eastern Caribbean, where the average distance between islands is 20-30 NM, and you can almost see your next destination before you lift anchor, 200 NM is “a long passage”…. It should take us 2 days to get to the San Blas Islands in Panama.

We start on sail at 7 in the morning from the sleepy anchorage in Cartagena and very slowly head for Boca Chica, the southern exit channel from Cartagena. The current inside the bay is strong against us, and the wind (2-3 knots from northeast) is not helping us much. After 4 hours we are only 3 NM closer to destination, barely out of the channel, it’s almost noon, but Ivo is proud that we didn’t have to use the engines at all.

We first head for Isla del Rosario, a small uninhabited island archipelago in Colombia only 17 NM southwest of Cartagena, where we plan to spend a day or two, but when we get there at around 4 p.m. after a very pleasant slow sail with the wind 12-16 kts on a beam reach, we cannot find a good place to drop anchor. The island is low, covered in tangled bushes and trees, with a small sandy beach on the south side. It looks like rocks and coral heads everywhere all around it though, and as there is no cruising guide information about this place, no detail depths and coral head areas, we decide not to risk getting closer to shore and wreck the boat, so we just keep going- 180 NM more to San Blas.

Small private island near Isla del Rosario

Small private island near Isla del Rosario

The wind picks up at night- 18 to 24 kts from northeast and the swell is 2 to 3 meters. The sky is covered with clouds and in the distance orange heat lightings illuminate the southern horizon. Then the wind drops to 10 kts and shifts from southeast, the swell still 2-3m from northeast and the ride gets bumpy. I feel seasick, which doesn’t happen normally. But the next day it gets worse. We are 100 NM from destination and 100 NM from the closest land, north of Golfo de Uraba in Colombia. The swell is still big and utterly uncomfortable, the wind dies and not only our speed drops to 0, but a 1 -1.5 kt current starts pushing us back to where we came from. Normal people turn on the engines in this sort of a situation and keep going to destination. That’s NORMAL people… Ivo, who is not part of that group, drops all sails and starts hand-steering trying to keep the boat into the current so our drift back would be as slow as possible. Thus we drift for almost 6 hours, from noon to 6 p.m., very slowly going backwards. Before the wind picks up, and not much but just enough for the boat to start moving forward again, we have lost 2 NM going backwards, and half the day.

The second night we are rewarded with a very pleasant 12-18 kt wind from northeast and just about 1 m swell and Fata Morgana is back in business doing 6 kts. By sunrise we have only 30 NM left to San Blas, two tunas in the freezer and everyone is feeling great.

It’s noon, the sky grey-and-blue with scattered clouds, the wind still about 20 kts and the sea 1-2 m when we spot the first of about 340 islands covered with coconut palms, home of the Indigenous Kuna people. We clear the reefs where the waves crash with violent roar and beyond them begins paradise- serene, blue, enchanted world of sea-stars and little dark people in small dugout Cayucos.

A Kuna sailing a dugout cayuco

A Kuna sailing a dugout cayuco

We arrive in San Blas without ever turning on the engines, we tack between the reefs in a shallow channel and around 2 p.m. we finally drop anchor (on sail) next to Banedup, an island part of the Cayos Holandes island chain, in a place popular among cruisers as The Swimming Pool, for its waters are as shallow and clear and as deliciously blue as the waters of the most luxurious swimming pool on earth.

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

San Blas is the official name given by the Spanish of this vast archipelago stretching near the eastern largely uninhabited and partly unexplored shores of Panama. But for centuries, the local Kuna people have used a different name for their islands which are today an autonomous territory within Panama- Kuna Yala. And so, we decided to respect and use the indigenous name.

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Kuna Yala is mind-blowing, really. Nothing could have prepared us for the beauty of the place. Fenced behind a long barrier reef which breaks and calms the waves of the Caribbean Sea creating a vast lake of flat crystal blue water- an absolute pleasure for cruising, lie hundreds of small flat islands of fine white sand and tall coconut palms. Some of the islands are uninhabited, others are home to not more than one or two Kuna families living in huts with roofs of palm leaves near the beach, without electricity and running water, very much the way their ancestors used to live for centuries before the first European ever set foot in this part of the world. Others yet are heavily populated by dense communities of hundreds of Kuna people, who have lost to some extend their traditional ways, enjoying much of the advancements of modern civilization. And beyond the many islands rise the jungle-covered mountains of Panama’s mainland cut through by rivers providing much of the potable freshwater to the islanders.

A small inhabited island in Kuna Yala. Panama mainland in the background

A small inhabited island in Kuna Yala. Panama mainland in the background

We spent a month in Kuna Yala completely removed form modern civilization (no internet…), sailing between islands, enjoying the absolute tranquility of the most remote anchorages near uninhabited islands, the exceptional snorkeling in pristine waters and stunning coral gardens, a number of wild kayak expeditions to neighboring islands and rivers of clear waters full of crocodiles and stingrays; we met and befriended a few of the Kuna families in some of the smaller islands and we visited some of the bigger Kuna communities, learning about their history and culture.

Kuna women in traditional costumes, Kuna Yala

Kuna women in traditional costumes, Kuna Yala

It was not all 100% pink and positive, though. We became also very much disenchanted, especially Ivo, with the way the locals, especially on the bigger islands, have become greedy for money and are treating us visitors- tourists and cruisers- as “gringos”, trying to squeeze another dollar out of our pockets, like everywhere.

Ivo in his state of perfection: perfect temperature, perfect water, perfect beach, perfect island, perfect palm tree shade... All in one- Kuna Yala

Ivo in his state of perfection: perfect temperature, perfect water, perfect beach, perfect island, perfect palm tree shade… All in one- Kuna Yala

Yet, of all the Caribbean destinations we sailed to, Kuna Yala is by far the most beautiful, authentic, and interesting one. No wonder some cruisers spend here many years, others return again and again. No wonder, I have so many, many stories to tell from the land of the Kuna Yala, and I can’t wait to share them with you!

Mira in San Blas

Mira in San Blas

 

To be continued….

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Sailing to Cartagena de Indias

Pegasos Monument, Cartagena, Colombia

Pegasos Monument, Cartagena, Colombia

The time came to sail again – 100 nautical miles from Santa Marta to Cartagena, along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, past the dreaded Barranquilla Cape and the Magdalena River delta. We waited again for the best possible weather conditions – light 15-20 knot winds and 1-2 meter waves for 2-3 consecutive days. In this part of the Caribbean Sea low pressure meets high pressure and messes up the entire situation. Wind gets crazy strong, sometimes unpredictable and squally, waves pick up height, it’s nasty. Many say that this spot can actually be the worst sailing experience on your way around the world, so we grab the first opportunity we get in a month to sail in calmer conditions.

The lighthouse, Santa Marta's landmark

The lighthouse, Santa Marta’s landmark

We start early in the morning on May 20th lifting anchor on sails, as we usually do. This time it is easy, because there is no one else in the anchorage in Santa Marta but us, and we have lots of space for maneuvering. First, we hoist the main sail, then Ivo slowly starts pulling up the anchor with the electrical windlass, Maya is ready on the jib, and I am steering. As Ivo is lifting the anchor, the boat is heading forward and I am steering slightly in the direction we want to turn. Anchor out, the boat is at a small angle to the wind, Maya pulls the jib fast. We drift for a few seconds backwards until the angle to wind is bigger, then Fata Morgana picks up speed forward and we are off! But there is no wind in the bay that morning. When lifting anchor on sail, no wind means nothing can go wrong, but it also means, that we have to drift and tack back and forth for 4 hours just to get out of the bay and into open sea, less than 2 NM…

Fata Morgana sailing wing-on-wing

Fata Morgana sailing wing-on-wing

Finally we clear the small island with the lighthouse and the wind picks up from east at around 10 a.m. Fata Morgana is moving with 4-5 knots towards destination. We head straight across the gulf of the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta for the Barranquilla cape. This should be the worst area we sail through in the entire Caribbean and a friend told us to make sure we pass it in daylight, as there might be large debris dragged down from the river into the sea- big tree trunks, dead cows, entire rooftops. We approach it around 3 p.m. The waters near the delta of the Magdalena River, Colombia’s main river, gradually become the color ochre. The wind picks up reaching 30 knots, and the sea meeting the river waters becomes agitated, with confused quick 3-meter waves and weird currents. We reef the sails and we surf down murky brownish waters foaming at the top. We watch out for debris, but instead we almost run over a small blue fishing boat with a bunch of people in yellow rain suits busy doing something out here in the biggest mess of a sea. I wonder what are they looking for exactly here? But the sea and wind are actually not as bad as we expected thanks to the fact that we waited for calm weather, and we are quickly behind the cape, the worst over. From now on we keep near the shore in shallow waters, the wind behind us, the sails wing-on-wing, Fata Morgana moving slowly.

Fishermen near Barranquilla's Magdalena River delta

Fishermen near Barranquilla’s Magdalena River delta

Then we pass directly over a spot where on the charts a wreck is indicated and we hook something on the fishing line. We hope it’s a fish, but it could be the wreck, as Ivo is unable to bring it in and we end up losing the lure and the entire fishing line… This puts us in a bad mood. Not only we didn’t catch a fish, we just lost about a hundred dollars’ worth of fishing gear…

Another fishing boat on our way to Cartagena

Another fishing boat on our way to Cartagena

It is close to midnight as we approach the lights of a big city. The wind drops and we decide to spend the night at anchor at the entrance of Boca Chica channel, next to the walls of an old fort.

Castillo at Boca Chica entrance

Castillo at Boca Chica entrance

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The next morning, May 21st, we slowly sail in the bay of Cartagena. Large ships circulate in channels indicated with red and green buoys, small fishing boats cross our path, and cayucos with homemade sails glide like ghosts in the shadows of the cold stone walls of a big old fort. In the distance ahead of us, standing tall, still and sparkling white on the edge of the morning seashore, the skyscrapers of a giant young city are greeting us. What an awesome view is Cartagena, what a dramatic moment is sailing in the bay for the first time! Emerging from the barren monotony of the sea- huge buildings- straight vertical and parallel lines reflected in the mirror of the still waters; glass, concrete and iron, looming over the world like the mute and mysterious Easter giants of the Rapa Nui, forever watching the western horizons.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

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It was slow getting to the anchorage on sail in the bay where the wind almost died and we had to tack many times inside the wide shipping channel. At the end, just before we dropped anchor between so many other boats, we saw the pointy roofs and cupolas of churches sticking above the red clay tiled rooftops of old colorful buildings- our first glimpse of the old colonial city of Cartagena de Indias, hidden behind the tall modern skyscrapers of Cartagena’s downtown.

Sailing into the Bay of Cartagena

Sailing into the Bay of Cartagena

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We spend the next couple of days roaming through the plazas and narrow busy streets of the old walled city in the shadows of museums, cathedrals and fortresses, among waterfalls of purple flowers cascading down from balconies of historical buildings housing galleries, boutique hotels and restaurants.

Cartagena Old City

Cartagena Old City

Cartagena de Indias was founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1533 and thanks to its strategic location, the large bay with its many islets and inlets, became one of South America’s most important port where gold and other precious plunders found in this New World were loaded up on Spanish galleons and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. Soon pirates attracted by this movement of treasure begun attacking and robbing the city and the ships. In 1586 the infamous Sir Francis Drake from England ransacked and destroyed part of Cartagena. The Spanish crown then invested in the city’s defense and built the largest fortification walls in the Americas- a masterpiece of Spanish military engineering.

The walls of Cartagena

The walls of Cartagena

With independence, Cartagena fell into disrepair. Many rich families left the area and the poor settled in. Many of the centuries-old colonial buildings were abandoned and in ruins until a long-term restoration project begun in the 1950s to transform the city once again into the breathtaking global destination which Cartagena is today- a “city for lovers” and the setting for Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

Cartagena old city

Cartagena old city

From the anchorage we walk 10 minutes, past the 17th century Castillo de San Felipe, heavy up on its hill like a dinosaur standing watch over the city, and over a bridge that brings us to the walled city covering an area of only about 1 square mile in the northeast corner of town, filled with plazas, churches, museums and monuments.

Castillo de San Felipe

Castillo de San Felipe

Straight ahead, through narrow streets, across the Centenario Park, past the Pegasos Monument we reach the Clock Tower at La Paz Square surrounded by congested yellow taxis. We walk through the gates and we now stand at Los Coches Square full of tourists and locals selling hats and other things, offering to be our guides or to give us a ride in a carriage.

The Clock Tower

The Clock Tower

Next is the old city’s largest plaza- Plaza de la Aduana surrounded by shops. We turn west and after a few more steps we arrive under the heavy cathedral at Plaza de San Pedro Claver near the Museum of Modern Art with fun little metal sculptures in front depicting scenes of everyday life in Colombia.

Maya at Plaza de la Aduana

Maya at Plaza de la Aduana

Metal sculpture Plaza de San Pedro Claver

Metal sculpture Plaza de San Pedro Claver

We turn right and walk two blocks to Plaza de Bolivar where under the shade of old trees we buy a refreshing slice of pineapple from a street vendor woman dressed in traditional creole dress. The heat is intense and we find shelter inside the Palace of the Inquisition– a museum filled with instruments of torture used by the Holy Inquisition against witches and infidels. Another museum nearby offers displays of pre-Colombian gold objects- The Museum of Gold, and further down the road we reach Plaza de Santo Domingo and the Santo Domingo Church. Here we find Botero’s Fat Woman monument.

Botero's Fat Woman Monument, Cartagena

Botero’s Fat Woman Monument, Cartagena

We buy a couple of lifesaving cold beers for Ivo and me and a lifesaving ice cream for Maya and keep walking until the street ends into the large stone city wall. We climb the steps and walk on top of the wall- the Caribbean Sea on our left, a sea of old Cartagena’s tiled roofs on our right- until we get to Las Bovedas– 23 dungeon transformed into tourist shops.

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We are absolutely amazed. Cartagena de Indias is our favorite of four Caribbean Queens, as I nicknamed the four major colonial capitals in the Caribbean: Havana, Santo Domingo, San Juan and Cartagena. There are places we couldn’t visit in Cartagena, like the Popa Monastery up on a mount overlooking the entire city, as we were pressed for time and had to lift anchor in just a couple of days and leave Colombia, because our exit papers from Santa Marta had Panama listed as our next destination and not Cartagena, which could become a major problem if we decided to stay longer. But even this short visit was enough to stock up provisions for our long stay in the remote paradise of the San Blas islands of Panama, to fill our propane tanks, and to fall in love with the old walled city, promising- we will return some day.

Colors of Cartagena de Indias

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Maya in Cartagena

Maya in Cartagena

Cafe Havana

Cafe Havana

Holy Inquisition graffiti

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Frozen yogurt

Frozen yogurt

Orange juice seller

Orange juice seller

Maya in the tree

Maya in the tree

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Plaza de la Aduana

Plaza de la Aduana

Early morning anchorage in Cartagena

Early morning anchorage in Cartagena

Ivo and Maya with the pineapple woman, Cartagena

Ivo and Maya with the pineapple woman, Cartagena

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Turtles Gone Wild

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One cloudy day we got up early and took the bus to Rodadero, a few kilometers from Santa Marta. There we met our Colombian friends Cata and Sebastian at the Deep Coral dive shop, and together we drove to Casa Grande Surf Beach in Tayrona. There were a lot of people already there and more were coming in, as the day was special. A special event was going to take place, and tanks to Cata and Sebastian who invited us, we became a part of it.

С Ката и Себастиян

With Cata and Sebastian

Every year hundreds of juvenile loggerhead sea turtles are released in the sea thanks to a local program for sea turtle conservation- Programa de Conservación de Tortugas Marinas –a program of the aquarium Acuario Mundo Marino together with the UTADEO university, sponsored by PETROBRAS- one of the biggest petroleum companies in the region.

Casa Grande Surf Beach

Casa Grande Surf Beach

The beach was occupied by children of all ages awaiting the arrival of the turtles. We were all very excited. I met and interviewed Esteban Andrade from the sea turtle conservation program and he answered my many questions.

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The sea turtle release program started in 1999 with research and in 2004 the first 154 turtles were introduced in the sea. Since then, every year the scientists, university students and volunteers excavate between 100 and 300 turtle eggs (1-3 nests each containing about 100 eggs) at the beaches in Tayrona, Colombia. The eggs hatch in the aquarium in Rodadero and the babies spend their first 6-8 months in the care of the marine biologists. After they are bigger and stronger, they are released in the sea- a total of 1,517 so far. Thus their chances of survival in the first critical weeks of life are much higher. The survival rate of new hatchlings in the aquarium is about 97% as opposed to about 55% in the wild.

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The program’s mission is not only to help the loggerheads’ reproduction rate, but also to educate and raise awareness of the importance of sea turtle conservation among the local community and most of all- among the children. Each year, the day the turtles are released at sea is a huge organized event focusing on the kids.

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Even though killing loggerhead sea turtles for meat, eggs and other products is forbidden by an international law, there is no defined local legislation regulating the hunting and consumption of sea turtles in Colombia. The locals here as in many other parts of the world still kill and eat sea turtles and their eggs without legal consequences.

Рибари в Ст Луша и част от техният улов- обезглавена морска костенурка  снимка- октомври 2014

St Lucia, October 2014

Рибари в Ст Луша и част от техният улов- обезглавена морска костенурка  снимка- октомври 2014

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Рибари в Ст Луша и част от техният улов- обезглавена морска костенурка  снимка- октомври 2014

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We didn’t have to wait for long. Soon the little reptiles arrived by truck and volunteers helped to unload them.

Иво помага за пренасянето на морските костенурки

Ivo helping with the unloading of the turtles

The containers were placed under a shed and filled with fresh seawater.

Иво с кофи

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The kids piled around to take their first look at the baby-turtles. And even though they were all from the same species and had hatched at the same time, some had yellowish shells, other red-brown, others- dark brown and some were significantly bigger than others. It turned out that sea turtles, like children, are different from one another. Some are blond, others are dark-haired, and the ones who eat more get bigger. Who knew!

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Мира и Мая

Mira and Maya

The loggerheads are the second largest hard-shelled sea turtles reaching 1 m and 140 kg with some individuals reaching 3 m and 450 kg. with an average lifespan of 47-67 years. They are found throughout the world in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas. With massive powerful jaws they eat not only sea grass and jellyfish, but also fish, lobsters and conch.

"Супа" от костенурки

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Костенурка "Карета" на 8 месеца

8-month-old loggerhead sea turtle

Unfortunately, these sea turtles have low reproductively which combined with many other factors has caused the steady decline of their numbers. The females reach sexual maturity only at 30-35 years of age and ley about 3-400 eggs every 2-3 years. But the main reasons for their declining numbers are loss of habitat due to residential and commercial building, their hunting for meat and eggs, pollution of the oceans. People keep taking over their nesting beaches, eating them and using turtle products such as grease and shells for cosmetic and traditional medicines. Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles suffocate and die each year caught in the nets of commercial fishing boats. A big part of their eggs gets destroyed by wild and domestic animals and men before they have a chance to hatch, and the baby hatchlings often become pray to crabs and fish in the first moments of their lives.

Иво държи новоизлюпено костенурче. Опитахме се да го спасим от едно коати- животно подобно на ракун (миеща се мечка) в мексико, август 2013

Ivo is holding a newly hatched turtle we found wounded by a coati on thе beach in Mexico and tried to save in August 2013

The moment everyone has been waiting for came- the release in the sea of 300 8-month-old turtles. First the sponsors and organizers said a few words, then the kids formed a queue at the release area and the parents like paparazzi with photo and video cameras besieged the section on the beach designated for the turtles. There was even a music band playing live music right on the beach!

Оркестър на плажа

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The release of the turtles happened in stages. Groups of kids would line up facing the sea, then they would be given instructions and a turtle each and wait for the signal to place them on the sand and let them go.

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It was like a horse race but slower. The turtles would hurry down the beach before disappearing in the waves, every time accompanied by jolly music.

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Maya also had a chance to release a turtle. For your information her turtle was the fastest and bravest and after a few-second demonstration of impressive sand-swimming skills she won the race. The others didn’t have a chance, not that we are bragging about it…

Мая с морска костенурка

Maya with a sea turtle

Групата на Мая

Maya’s group

We felt happy and satisfied. Not only because Maya’s turtle won the race. Imagine: this day Maya’s school was once again the sea and beach. A biology class. A lesson in marine life conservation. And not one but 300 little teachers who are now swimming in the seas, traveling the world.

Костенурка "Карета" на 8 месеца

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Minca’s Waterfalls

Водопад Маринка

Marinka Waterfall

At the heart of the world, on the edge of the Caribbean Sea, rises Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, an isolated mountain in the shape of a pyramid with high snow-covered peaks reaching 18,700 ft. This is the tallest coastal mountain in the world. Source of 36 rivers and home of 30,000 indigenous people from the Arhuaco, Wiwa, Kogi, and Kankuamo tribes, as well as habitat for countless rare, endemic and endangered species of plants animals and birds, Sierra Nevada, covering a territory of 17,000 sq km, is Colombia’s finest national park, designated a Biosphere reserve by UNESCO and the world’s most irreplaceable park for threatened species.

Индианко селище в подножието на планината Сиера Невада

A Kogi village in the Sierra Nevada

Here, deep in the impenetrable jungles, rest the ruins of La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), founded 650 years before Machu Pichu by the Tayrona people. Today the archeological site is a national heritage comprising hundreds of stone steps and terraces carved on the mountain side (it resembles Machu Pichu but in a far smaller scale). Visitors can go there only with an organized excursion and only if they are in a good physical shape, as the hike is 4 to 6 days and is rated moderately difficult. Such a trip starting form Santa Marta costs $300 per person and includes a guide, food and water, and sleeping accommodations along the way. But unfortunately it was too expensive for us, even though we really wanted to go and tried to find ways of getting there without an organized excursion, on our own. But this is not an option. The only legal and safe way to visit the Lost City is by joining an organized trip, as the trail passes through indigenous territory and the organizers of the hike have exclusive rights to be there. There are even signs on the entrance of the villages: “Access to non-Indians forbidden”.

Индианци от племето Арауако на посещение в Санта Марта

Arhuaco Indians visiting Santa Marta

Instead, we visited Minca, another popular tourist destination in the Sierra Nevada, a trip we organized ourselves and it cost us $20 for the three of us (transportation and entrance fee).

Minca is a small mountain village at 650 m altitude and to get there you need a 4×4. You can take the public transport there for $3 per person- jeeps starting at the market in Santa Market but they only leave when they collect at least 7-8 passengers. We had to wait for 1 hour for the vehicle to get full before we started for the mountains.

"Автобусът" до Минка

The “bus” to Minca

Soon after departure, the jeep left the highway and the landscape around us changed. The dry lifeless hills of Santa Marta- yellow thirsty grass and low cacti- ended. Bamboo forests, banana and coffee plantations and thick tropical forests rose around us. The green became thick and intense and after an hour on the bumpy mountain road we arrived in Minca. We were greeted by a few local people and dogs sitting at the terrace of a small restaurant. A few houses, a couple of hostels and restaurants, a deserted football field and the inevitable church.

Църквата в Минка

Church in Minca

Минка

Minca

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Деца в Минка

Kids in Minca

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Руини край Минка

Ruins near Minca

We started for the first waterfall, la Cascada Marinca. We walked past fincas and coffee plantations, through a shady forest filled with sounds of tropical birds and insects. Hidden in the trees, thousands of cicadas were adjusting their string instruments getting ready for a concert.

Сикади

Cicadas

The area around Minca is world renowned bird-watching destination and we spotted many colorful birds we never seen before, including a toucan!

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Тукан

Toucan

Семка?

Seed?

After an hour and a half we got to the first waterfall hidden in the jungle, Cascada Marinca, with two terraces forming two pools of fresh water one on top of the other. There was a shed overlooking the falls where we had to pay entrance fee – $1 per adult, free for kids.

Водопад Маринка

Marinka Waterfall

Водопад Маринка

Marinka Waterfall

Иво и Мая

Ivo and Maya

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We spent some time at Marinka Falls, chilling, resting, eating our sandwiches for lunch, and then returned back to the village from where we took another trail to another river guided by a random dog who self-appointed himself to be our Minca guide. He took us to El Pozo Aul, a series of cascades, falls and pools on Minca River with delicious transparent cold waters.

Иво си суши косата... И той е човек...

Ivo drying his hair…

On the way there , about two hours of hiking through beautiful hilly countryside, we were once again offered spectacular panoramic vistas.

Черно и бяло

B&W

Бамбук

Bamboo

шапчици

Little “hats” (we didn’t know this tree is poisonous and the flowers are used to produce a horrible drug named Devil’s Breath…

As we approached the river we heard the muffled booming sounds of the waterfalls. There was a group of tourists with rented bikes at the first pool, so we decided to keep going and find a more secluded spot upriver. Our guide, Mister Perro, took us climbing on the muddy shores, jumping over rocks, waiting for us patiently, as we were a lot slower than him.

With our guide El Perro

 

Група велосипедисти

A group of tourists with bicycles.

Our efforts were rewarded at the end. We got to a small waterfall with a nice deep pool surrounded by flat big rock walls- perfect for jumps. Ivo and Maya never skip an opportunity to work on their jumping and flying skills, demonstrating supreme grace and elegance in mid-air before splashing in the water below.

Иво- "летящият чук"

Ivo- “Flying Hummer”

Мая в полет

Maya in flight

Tired but satisfied we walked the two hours walk back to the village center, where our awesome guide El Dog left us unceremoniously, the same way he had joined us, not looking back. And we kind of missed him… Good bye, Mister Perro! Good bye Minca! In our memories we will always keep the freshness of your waterfalls.

Мая и Мира

Maya and Mira

Ivo

Ivo

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Diving in Colombia

Водолази

Scuba divers

Underwater the world is different. Dark, cold, dense, slow and mysteriously silent. You hear only your own breathing. You hear your thoughts. You hear muffled sounds sometimes- faraway thunders and gentle bells- but it is hard to determine where they come from. Yet, most of the time the underwater world is mute and silence is undisturbed even in the busy coral cities during the peak hour of the traffics of hundreds and thousands of darting fishes. It is strange.

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The first time with goggles and a snorkel underwater is unforgettable. Often, those who enter the sea for a first time return panting to shore- wet and cold and completely enchanted. And cannot stop dreaming of the deep, of being weightless again- like flying- inside this alien world of strange colors and shapes.

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It happened to Maya. She came back enchanted one day two years ago when she peeked under the water surface in the shallows of a small uninhabited island in Key West, Florida. There, at two meters depth, lied the skeleton of an old ship, its dark rusty bones overgrown with corals and barnacles, inhabited by small fishes, shrimps and crabs. Since then, Maya became a water creature and would snorkel and free-dive all the time, every time going deeper, holding her breath longer.

Мая

Underwater Maya

But her dream to breathe underwater – where the lobsters, the stingrays, the eels hide- without having to come out for air, only came true recently, after we met Cata Aponte Bohoquez and Sebastian Hernandez Gaviria. A cruiser we met in October 2013 in Rio Dulce, Guatemala- Dale McDaniel- told us his brother-in-law live in Santa Marta, Colombia with his girlfriend. “If you pass through there call them, they are great people and could show you around.”, Dale said and he was right.

Cata and Sebastian, a young couple who just got married a week before we met them, welcomed us in Santa Marta, drove us around town to all the travel agencies and the airport and helped us find and buy cheap airplane ticket to Bogota, took us to their favorite restaurants in town and to the place where they work.

It turned out they are both professional scuba-divers and scuba dive instructors, the owners of a scuba dive shop Deep Coral near the aquarium in Rodadero- one of a few dive shops in Santa Marta area. With 15 years of diving experience all around the world: Indonesia, South Africa, Europe, The Bahamas, many of the Caribbean islands and USA, and with an ever-growing passion for the underwater world, Cata, along with her partner Sebastian, is the best scuba diving instructor on the entire Caribbean cost of Colombia.

It also turned out that both Cata and Sebastian love the idea of sailing and dream of someday cruising and living aboard a sailboat. And just a few hours after we met, the idea that was brewing inside our heads after realizing that we would love to scuba-dive and they would love to sail, became a plan.

After returning from the three-day visit to Bogota and three-day camping trip to Tayrona, we organized our next Colombian adventure: an epic sailing-diving-beer-drinking trip with our new Colombian friends Cata and Sebastian.

Ката и Себастиян на борда на Фата Моргана

Cata and Sebastian aboard Fata Morgana

We went shopping, loaded the scuba-diving equipment, 15 scuba bottles, many bags of food and countless cases of Colombian cerveza Agila aboard Fata Morgana, and set sail for a lonely little bay on the southwest shores of Tayrona, only 4 nautical miles north of Santa Marta.

Гости и провизии

Guests and provisions ready to go

15 бутилки с въздух в камбуза....

15 air bottles in the galley

We dropped anchor not far from the rocky shores where the last hills of Sierra Nevada plunge in the Caribbean Sea.

Фата Моргана на котва в Тайрона

Fata Morgana at anchor in Tayrona

The land here is wrinkled with soft hills, thirsty and desolate, covered with yellow grass, withered cacti, and scorched spiky trees, lifeless, sun-eaten victims of the constant hot dry winds. The hills wake up from their coma only once every 1-2 years, Cata told us, when from the east the rain approaches. Then the grass gets drunk on green juices, the cacti are full like balloons and covered in flowers, and the branches of the dark dead trees become alive adorned with tiny green leaves. It is really beautiful, a brief spectacle, Sebastian said, the land celebrates and nature triumphs. And then everything dies again after the rains…

Брулени хълмове

Burnt hills

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A few days of dreams-come-true followed. Our friends learned some basic things about sailing and navigating and experienced life aboard a boat, and we learned to scuba dive, to breathe underwater.

Мая и Ката

Maya and Cata

Мира

Mira

Иво

Ivo

Иво и Мая водолази

Ivo and Maya

Ivo and Maya together with Cata and Sebasian did 2-3 dives per day, every time learning some new skills: to breathe without holding their breath, to equalize regularly, to regulate their buoyancy, to remove and put back on their equipment underwater, to simulate emergencies and share air underwater, orientation with a compass, helping the other diver, communicating underwater etc. Back on the boat, they had to read and study for hours the theory for their PADI Open Water Diver exam. It turned out scuba diving is not so simple and can be dangerous if you don’t follow the rules.

Мая и Ката правят подводни упражнения

Maya and Cata practicing new underwater skills

Мая

Maya

Мая

Maya

I did less dives and didn’t go as deep, nor learned all the skills besides the essential safety ones, as unlike Ivo and Maya, I did not have the ambition to obtain the Open Water Diver certificate at the end of this crash course, but only wanted to do a few fun dives.

Мира

Mira

Мая

Maya

Иво

Ivo

When we were not diving, we were preparing food, eating it and drinking lots of beer.

Ката и Себас правят гуакамоли

Cata and Sbastian: The Making of The Guacamole

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Иво , Себас и Ката

Cheers!

The last day we decided to sail to the next little bay where a small fishermen’s village popular with tourists and backpackers has a strange reputation. Taganga.

Рибарска лодка в Таганга

Fishing boat in Taganaga

Индианци от племето Коги на плажа в Таганга

Kogi indigenous people in Taganaga

At the foot of the burnt hills, on the edge of a shallow sandy bay we were greeted by a row of a few houses, shops and restaurants, two or three hostels facing the sea, lined up along the main street. The street runs parallel to a long beach populated by colorful fishing boats. Tourists and sun-stricken dogs roam the town in the heat of the day.

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Таганга

Street in Taganaga

In the late afternoon, the fishermen emerge from the sea and like fathers extremely proud with their kids (unless they are disappointed with them for some unrealized expectation) they arrange and exhibit their catch for all to see. Small noisy groups of men holding beers form under the palm trees, discussing the sea, the fish, the football and all other existential universal cosmic problems of the world.

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Рибари и риба

Fish and fishermen

It was burning hot in Taganga. All the thick good shades under trees and roofs were occupied by sleeping heavy-breathing dogs and sleeping heavy-breathing homeless people. Our only chance for survival was near the ventilator of a cozy little restaurant serving ice-cold beer and sea-food delicacies. Food in Colombia is notoriously good, yes it is. We still keep the memory of the stuffed avocado and roaster royal shrimp…

Авокадо пълнено с морски дарове

Avocado stuffed with sea-fruits

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Себастиян

Sebastian

Ката, Себастиян и Иво с бири в Таганга

Cheers from Taganga!

At night Taganga transforms. We were warned not to roam the streets after sunset if we were to avoid trouble. The small quaint fishermen village where time almost stops in the heat of the day, becomes the playground of drug addicts, gamblers, and prostitutes, we were told. All sorts of criminal activities were taking place in Taganaga each night. (The only uncertain proof of that fact we could find during the noon hours was an enslaved paranoid rooster on the beach waiting for his next fight.) As we were drifting to sleep in our beds that night we listened tensely for any distant symptoms of criminality.

За бой с петли (нелегално)

Rooster ready for the next illegal cock fight victory

Around three o’clock I awoke with a start. I heard voices. Intruders had boarded the boat! Maya saw dark feet passing outside her window. Ivo darted out to investigate and defend. Three drunk English-speaking tourists, a woman and two men, had decided to swim from the beach to the only anchored yacht in the bay (Fata Morgana), because they could see the lights of the boat (like moths attracted by the lamp?), explained the girl shortly after Ivo popped up to check what’s going on. This was of course a very bizarre explanation and an unacceptable reason to board someone’s boat at night, unless you are properly drunk and/or high. Angry Ivo sent them back swimming to the beach. Freaks.

Таганага след залез слънце

Taganga after sunset

These three days full of so many shared emotions and new experiences were the best most fun days of our visit to Colombia. For Cata and Sebas the time spent aboard Fata Morgana was an inspiration and a dream-come-true. For us learning to scuba dive was also a dream-come-true as well as a unique opportunity for Ivo and Maya to take the course, pass the exams and obtain an international scuba diving certificate (which normally costs hundreds of dollars). This will assure not only many more underwater adventures to come but also gives Ivo and especially Maya another valuable skill for the future which they can develop to a professional level. For this we are forever grateful to Cata and Sebastian.

IMG_5334

ll of us

 

*If you ever visit Santa Marta be sure to call Cata and Sebastian at Deep Coral and organize a fun dive in Tayrona or get PADI certified with the best diving instructors in the area. Add another unforgettable experience to your Colombian adventures with Deep Coral!

 

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Camping in Tayrona

Tayrona

Тайрона, Ел Кабо

Tayrona, El Cabo

As we approached the shore sailing to Colombia I felt the familiar burnt smell of dry old land.  I inhaled deeply, tasting with much pleasure and for the first time in my life the bitter dust of the New World. What cities, what people, what nature is expecting us? I couldn’t wait to get to know the country carrying Columbus’s name, the narrow busy streets of Santa Marta, the museums and cathedrals of Bogota, the hot native village of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada, the architecture of Cartagena, the wild beaches and the monkeys in Tayrona. One month is not enough to see all Colombia has to offer to the dusty traveler, even a year will probably not do. We didn’t have a minute to spare.

Парк Тайрона

Park Tayrona

We came back from Bogota to Santa Marta late in the evening and the very next day we got up around 6 a.m., packed three backpacks with a tent, sleeping bags, food for three people for three days and lots of water, and we took of for Tayrona. We still had three more paid days in the expensive marina and decided to take advantage of the fact that the boat is safe. We went camping in one of the most beautiful and bio-diverse areas in South America.

Парк Тайрона, плаж Аресифе

Park Tayrona, Arrecife Beach

From the marina we walked to el mercado (about 10-15 min) and there we hoped on a bus to Park Tayrona (6 000 pesos= $2.50 per person), and after about 30 minutes we were there. Entrance fee for adults is 35 000 pesos or about $15, which is a lot for Colombia and 20 000 pesos or about $8 for students and kids. This entrance fee is valid for any period of time, so if you stay longer it’s more worth it. There were a few more backpackers who came at the same time we did and they took a small bus (3 000 pesos= $1.20) from the entrance of the park to the end of the road, deeper in Tayrona- the last place accessible by car. Maya and I also started for the bus, but Ivo stopped us.

– No bus! We are walking!

– It’s just a dollar and it will save us at least an hour of walking in the heat, don’t be ridiculous, everyone will think we are crazy!- I tried to argue but in vain; Ivo values each dollar and if he can save it- he does!

Пеша из гората с тежки раници

Maya and Ivo walking with heavy backpacks

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We started walking and the tourists loaded in the little bus watched us probably thinking we are crazy, as they passed us down the road. The humidity was intense and soon we were drenched in sweat. We walked with our heads down under the weight of the packs surrounded by thick jungle. Maya was carrying all the clothes and two bottles of water, I was hauling heavy canned food and two more water bottles, and Ivo was loaded up with the tent and the sleeping bags, plus two more bottles.

Синя пеперуда Морф- мъртва край пътя

Blue morph butterfly we found dead on the side of the road

Suddenly we heard the familiar roar we first heard about two years ago up the Polochik River in Guatemala- the Howler Monkeys. Their deep menacing bellows make me shiver every time. It is as if a sick angry monster is vomiting, Maya said. These are the loudest dwellers of the jungle and their infernal cries which can be heard from miles away are meant to warn intruders off their territory. We kept going with eyes wide open, listening, while the roars got louder and soon the family of howlers were directly above us! There is not more magical than returning the stare of a wild animal,, even if it is an unfriendly angry stare of the black howler monkey.

Черни ревящи маймуни

Black Howler Monkeys, Colombia

A bit further down the road we heard other more gentle, more discrete voices and we saw in the trees all around us the tiny cute titi-monkeys, like kittens with hair like Einstein. Unlike the howler monkeys found throughout Central and South America, these cotton-top tamarin or titi monkeys can be seen only in the northeast part of Colombia (or pretty much only in Tayrona) and nowhere else in the world. They are in the list of critically endangered species. We have never imagined or hoped to see and hear them in the wild, even to photograph them from a few feet!

Маймуна-тити

Titi-monkey, Colombia

The little Einsteins seemed worried and were jumping nervously left and right in the trees, stopping briefly, giving as an angry look and making shrill sounds like when you are trying to clear the food stuck in your teeth. They were jumping around us but did not go away, always keeping an eye on us. I would stay with them. Forever. How can one leave behind these adorable elusive little guys if they are not the ones to leave first?

Тити

Titi monkey

We kept going.

-Who is crazy now? We or the bus people who didn’t see a single monkey, I bet!- said Ivo.

Тити

Titi

And he was right. If we hadn’t started on foot, heat or no heat, we wouldn’t see the black howlers nor the titis, nor  a big red spider, nor a blue morph butterfly dead by the side of the road, probably killed by the bus… Only when walking the road awards you rewards.

Маймуна-тити

Titi-monkey, Colombia

More than one hour had passed when we got to the end of the road, the place where the foot-path begins. The rest of the backpackers were long gone, and once again they didn’t have to walk, as from here on people usually rent horses for less than $20 per person. We could also rent horses, they even offered us a discount, bt Ivo just pointed to his feet and didn’t have to say anything…

Кон под наем

Horse for rent

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Two more hours passed. we were walking in something like a canyon formed by the horse traffic in the soft sandy ground, across grey boulders, fallen trees and the winding paths of the leafcutter ants.

Каньон

Sandy canyon

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Мравки листорезачи

Leafcutter ants

Мравки-листорезачи

Leafcutter ants

Noon passed. The heat was unforgiving even in the shade of the jungle. We were dripping with sweat- big droplets were flowing down forming streams on faces and arms. Soon our clothes were completely damp. Good thing we hod lots of water to keep us hydrated.

Мая

Maya

зеленина

green

We met another kind of monkeys who were busy taking down dead palm leafs, dropping them on the ground next to us, and picking the bugs found at the base.They too were screaming at us. Ivo and Maya tried to communicate with them and very successfully if you ask me; I hope we didn’t offend them…

Маймуна

Monkeys

Besides these unexpected meetings with monkeys we also stumbled upon a small indigenous settlement, a place where the rental horses don’t go, of course. Our curiosity led us to a small hidden footpath away from the main road.

Индианско село

indigenous settlement, Tayrona

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Suddenly- two hens digging in the ground for bugs, not paying attention to us. Farther- a fireplace and clothes set to dry on some big bowlders. A few round and one square mud and wood houses with cylindrical thatched roofs. An indigenous guy sleeping in a hammock in the shade! From one of the houses came out a young girl in a white robe and two little kids who were watching us with curiosity and suspicion. Just standing there looking at us, saying nothing, ready to get back in the hut.

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Индианци от племето Когуи

Indigenous people in Tayrona

We were not supposed to be there and we didn’t want to disturb the secrets of this enchanted place. Quickly we returned to the main trail. By then we were so stunned by so many unexpected sudden encounters with wild animals and people that we wouldn’t be surprised if a jaguar, a dinosaur or an extraterrestrial jumped out of the forest in front of us.

Мария- от племето Когуи. Вървеше в гората успоредно на пътеката и излезе, когато я извиках с думите: Чоколате? С нея имаше още едно дете, което не посмя да излезе от гората. Мария обеща да раздели шоколада със сестричката си.

Maria was walking in the forest parallel to our trail and came out when I called her with the words: Chocolate? There was another shy kid with her who didn’t come out of the forest. Maria promised to share the chocolate we gave her with her sister.

Finally we got to a clearing with a few tents and hammocks, This is the first of a few camping sites in Tayrona. We rested for while in the restaurants sharing an expensive coke, and we walked around the Arrecife Beach deserted, as swimming here is forbidden because of the hundreds drowned in the strong currents and big waves of this part of the coast.

Първи къмпинг

First camping site

Душове

Showers

Мая в ресторантчето

Maya in the camping restaurant

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We continued on to another beach, La Piscina (the Swimming pool) – a lagoon surrounded by reefs breaking the waves, perfect and safe for swimming. Here we took one-two hour break cooling down in the pleasant waters of the Caribbean Sea. There is nothing more refreshing after a long hike in the heat and dust than the sea. Here we also started meeting the others Tayrona visitors.

плаж Ла Писина

La Piscina Beach

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хубава гледка...

Nice view

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Брадорасло

Seaweed

Around 3 p.m. we put back on our sweaty clothes, socks and heavy shoes and refreshed but exhausted from too much walking with big backpacks we continued on. After half an hour through a coconut palm forest we got to our final destination- El Cabo.

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Кокосова гора. Тук видяхме най-много кокосои орехи не едно място

Miles of beautiful coconut forrest

Мира и Мая

Mira and Maya

Tayrona is a national park with 12 thousand hectares of pristine territory in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, with 3 thousand hectares of the most bio-diverse wild coastal zone in the Americas. With many deserted sandy beaches, beautiful Caribbean waters, tropical jungles and rainforests home of thousands of animal and bird species, this is one of the wildest most stunning corners of South America.

Мая и Иво

Maya and Ivo

And El Cabo is the crown’s jewel.

Ел Кабо

El Cabo

Къмпинг Ел Кабо

Camping in El Cabo, Tayrona

– We build here!- said Ivo and the two with Maya started setting up the tent, while I had the the task to document the events with my camera.

Мая и Иво опъват палатката

Maya and Ivo setting up the tent

Мая и Иво горди

Maya and Ivo proud tent-builders

Мая се чекне в палатката

Maya in the tent

Мая оправя спалните чували

Maya unpacking

Only three more backpacker-couples had brought their own tents. Everyone else, some 30-40 visitors from around the world, mostly Germans and Australians, instead rented a tent or a hammock. The “coolest” spot to rent a hammock was the small open shack on the rocks surrounded by the sea- Tayrona’s most popular landmark.

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Ел Кабо, Тайрона

El Cabo, Tayrona. This is “the coolest” spot to rent a hammock

To rent a tent is about $15 per person per night, a hammock is about $10 and we, even though we brought our own tent, had to pay around $6 per person (Maya- free) for the privilege to set the tent up in El Cabo.

Нашата палатка нощем

Our tent at night

And even though we didn’t like the fact that we had to pay yet again, it was worth it. In Tayrona we lived the most beautiful, the most happy, the most perfect days in our lives.

Иво и Мая край огъня

Ivo and Maya by the fire

Мая хапва равиоли от консерва

Maya eating ravioli from a can

Мая с маршмелоу

Maya with marshmallow

Къмпингът се събужда

The camping is waking up

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Мая и Мира готови за поход високо в планината до Ел Пуеблито (половин ден)

Maya and Mira ready for another hike up in the mountains to El Pueblito

Иво помага на Мая през канарите

Ivo helping Maya

Мая

Maya

Мира и Мая

Mira and Maya

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Иво обича да бере диви портокали

Ivo likes wild oranges

Черно колибри

a black hummingbird

Мира и Мая обичат да прегръщат големи дървета

Mira and Maya like hugging trees

Пуеблито е малко изоставено индианско селце (не живеят индианци), където туристите от Тайрона могат да се разходят и да видят къщите на индианците. До тук се стига за 2-3 часа стръмно изкачване- труден терен с канари през цялото време; вертикално катерене.

Pueblito is a small uninhabited site of an old indigenous settlement in Tayrona. The hike there is steep, hard and takes about 3 hours.

Пуеблито

El Pueblito, Tayrona

Номадите в Тайрона

The Nomadiks in El Pueblito

обратно на плажа

back at the beach

Иво си почива след дълъг изморителен поход до Пуеблито

Ivo resting on the beach after the hike to El Pueblito

Мая прави пясъчен октопод

Maya making a sand octopus

Иво реже кокоси

Ivo opening a coconut

Мая пие кокоси

Maya

Червена катерица в палмите

A red squirrel

 

Мравки-листорезачки

Leafcutter ants

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Залез. Втора вечер

Sunset. Second night in Tayrona

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Още една рядка птица

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Тайрона, Ел Кабо

El Cabo, Tayrona

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Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira

Zipaquira

Our last destination while visiting Bogota was Zipaquira, 50 km north of the capital, one of the most ancient human settlements in the Americas where the Muisca people used to live before the Spanish conquest, and the place where we found “The Number One Wonder of Colombia”.

From the hostel near La Candelaria we took a TransMilenio bus to Portal Norte (1,800 pesos= $0.70) and from there we hoped on a smaller bus to “Zipa” (5,000 pesos= $2.50). After an hour drive we found ourselves in a small picturesque town in the Eucalypt forests of the Andes. Narrow streets, some closed for car traffic; old houses with freshly painted doors and tiled roofs overgrown with moss.

Уличките на Зипакира

Street in Zipaquira

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We headed for the central plaza- a big plaza occupied by pigeons (like all the plazas in the world) with a few tall palm trees sticking out of the ground, their roots pushing the pavement up creating gentle hills of yellow cobblestones. The plaza was surrounded by two-story buildings with wooden balconies laden with flowers and old clay-tile roofs. The Municipal Palace with its Classic French architecture and Gothic elements, as well as the imposing Cathedral of San Antonio de Padua built between 1805 and 1916 in Classic Colonial style, were standing out.

Кметството на Зипакира

Municipal Palace in Zipaquira

Катедрала Зипакира

Cathedral in Zipaquira

We didn’t expect to find such a colorful neat little historical town with 300-year old houses declared National Monuments, set among the green hills of the Colombian countryside. We were immediately charmed by Zipaquira, even before we got to our destination- the Salt Cathedral, which is the chief reason why hundreds of visitors flock here each day.

Зипакира

Zipaquira

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La Caterdal de Sal

The Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira declared “The First Wonder of Colombia” is one of the most unusual, most astonishing cathedrals in the world. It is built 200 meters underground inside the tunnels of an old salt mine, deep in the belly of a big salty mountain. Everything in this cathedral is made of salt.

Солената Катедрала

The Salt Cathedral

The salt (or halite) deposits of Zipaquira were formed 250 million years ago, and were pushed up high above sea level with the formation of the Andes mountain chain. The Muisca people of Colombia were the first ones to take advantage of the rich salt deposits, long before the Spanish arrived in these lands. They were mining the salt and trading it for other goods with various other tribes in the region of the Andes.

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сол

Salt

Later, the European settlers began exploiting the halite deposits, digging tunnels in the mountains. In one of the mine shafts they built a small sanctuary for prayer and worship before each long day of heavy labor and danger under the ground.

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In 1950, inside the mine tunnels, some carved by the Muisca people, begun the building of the big underground cathedral, which opened doors on August 15, 1954 and was dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners. But its location in an active at the time mine created some safety issues. The cathedral was closed and later rebuilt deeper, under the old one. The Salt Cathedral in its present state was completed in 1995.

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After we bought our tickets, about $12, we waited at the gates leading down, in line with about twenty more visitors, for the next guided tour. We left behind the light of day and entered the under-earth starting in a cave-like corridor reinforced by large eucalyptus logs, with walls and ceiling covered in a thick layer of salt, like snow.

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We walked down for a very long time stopping often, 14 times to be exact. On both sides of the main tunnel there were 14 chapels each containing a large cross carved out of the halite floor and walls, representing the Stations of the Cross of the last journey of Jesus, La Via Dolorosa.

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After about half an hour we got to the cathedral itself at the center of a labyrinth of corridors, caves, shafts and balconies. It is monumental, 75 meters long with 18 meters high ceiling, four huge halite columns and capacity for 8,400 people. Here, amidst blue and yellow lights illuminating the rough salty walls, and the sound of Ave Maria, we found the largest underground cross in the world!

Мира и Мая на фона на най-големия подземен кръст в света (направен от сол)

Mira and Maya with the biggest underground cross in the world, made of salt

Before the end of this journey we joined a small group of enthusiasts who wanted to find out how the salt was being mined in the old times. We were given helmets with lights, we told a prayer to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners, and we had to walk through some narrow low completely dark corridors holding on to a rope until we got to the place where a bunch of old rusty extremely heavy pickaxes were waiting for us. Ivo and Maya got to work straightaway and managed to dig out some halite from the walls of the mine. The miners in the old times were paid very little per kilogram of salt. And what we managed to dig out was not worth even a penny… We kept the little pieces of rock which we tasted to make sure they were salty (yes they were!) as souvenirs.

Мая и Иво- миньори

Ivo and Maya- miners

Иво копае каменна сол

Ivo mining halite

Край на работното време

End of the workday

Back in the light of the day. It was cold and drizzling outside. We found a cozy little restaurant with a big fireplace and ordered sopa de costilla (soup with ribs) and a big portion of sausages with baked potatoes and salad- the local delicacy. A portion of grilled meat with sides, soup and juice costs between 3 and 5 dollars in Colombia and the three of us usually share two portions, as they are huge. I get full just with the soup.

Край камината

By the fireplace

We sat next to the fireplace smiling contently and while enjoying the hot spicy soup and the fresh sausages, Maya started telling us with excitement how she loved the Salt Cathedral, but she wouldn’t go in the mines all by herself (it would be way too scary) and how she can’t wait to build herself an underground Salt Cathedral in Minecraft.

Мая със статуята на миньора

Maya with the Statue of the Miner (“This is not how you drop anchor”)

Статуя на миньора  в Зипакира

Statue of the Miner in Zipaquira

I too liked the Salt Cathedral, more than I expected. I didn’t imagine such a huge underground labyrinth spanning for a few kilometers six stories under the surface of the earth, with so many dark shafts, corridors, rooms and crypts; so many details, crosses, statues and frescoes all carved out of salt! It’s a large scale work of art and an authentic historical monument to the people of the Salt Mountains, a journey we will never forget.

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Monserrate, El Dorado and the Museum of Gold in Bogota

Monserrate

The second day of our visit in Bogota started with a very steep hiking up Mount Monserrate, 3152 m, one of Bogota’s symbols.

Monserrate, Bogota

Monserrate, Bogota

In the early years of the 17th century the mountain becomes a favorite place for pilgrimage for devout Catholics and in 1650 begins the building of a temple, which still receives hundreds of pilgrims and visitors each day.

Мая срещна лама по пътя към Монсерате

Maya met a llama on the way to Monserrate

Besides the 3-kiometer pedestrian path, there is a cable car to the top, for those who cannot make the journey by foot, as walking up Monserrate is a very physically-challenging tradition. There are sportsmen running up, pilgrims crawling on their knees and visitors like us walking slowly and resting every now and then. It’s a popular thing to do for locals and tourists any day of the week. To visit Bogota and not climb Monserrate is like visiting Paris and not going up the Eifel Tower.

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After two hours of sweating and heart-pounding climb we finally got to the top of Monserrate. We promised ourselves we would never do it again. The altitude change is 500 meters and even though there is a paved path with steps (and we love hiking up mountains) this was one of the most tiring and difficult “walks” ever. But it was rewarding too. From the top the capital in our feet looked like an endless lake of tiled roofs spilled among the slopes of the surrounding mountains.

Изглед към Богота от връх Монсерате

View of Bogota from Monserrate

Besides the church, there is a nice restaurant among gardens with mountain flowers and old trees, with a terrace and stunning view of the city, where we had traditional hot chocolate.

Мая пие горещ шоколад на връх Монсерате

Maya is having hot chocolate on top of Monserrate

The walk down was as painful for our muscles and joints, but faster and without as many rest-stops, so we were back in Bogota, back in the city traffic and crowds by noon. And even though our legs hurt, after a short lunch break in a small restaurant where we enjoyed a traditional Ajiaco soup, we found some more energy and visited another stunning site.

Мая хапва супа Ахиако (гъста пилешка супа с 4 вида картофи и специфични подправки)

Maya is having Ajiaco soup (thick chicken soup with four types of potatoes, cilantro and other herbs and spices)

 

El Dorado

Once upon a time, deep in the mountains of an unknown faraway land, in a temple built in the middle of a big city, there lived the son of a powerful ruler. He possessed the sight of the bat and the wisdom of the eagle. In his veins the strength of the jaguar was flowing.

The day of his transformation approached. Secluded in the dark belly of a sacred cave for many days, days that appeared like an endless night without the light of the sun, without salt in his food and without a woman at his side, the prince was getting ready for the transformation.

In the day of the ceremony, the shamans of the big city gathered near the sacred lake without bottom- the portal to the Lower World ruled by the goddess of the waters. They made fires of wood and tree sap whose blood-red smoke consumed the sky and sun. They placed on a big raft made of trees and decorated with feathers of all colors and jewels, the most intricate objects made of gold. They painted the naked body of the cave-prince with gold dust, from head to toes.

They placed the golden prince on the raft and in his feet they put the objects made of gold and emeralds- offerings for the underwater lake-goddess of the Lower World. The four most distinguished shamans were also on the raft standing in its four corners, wearing heavy crowns, earrings, bracelets and necklaces of pure gold. When the raft reached the center of the lake, silence fell. The golden prince began throwing one by one the rich offerings in the lake- the portal to the underworld, and the shamans did the same.

When the raft came back to shore the prince entered the waters of the lake and washed the gold off his body. He was greeted by all with songs, music and dancing. He was the new ruler of the people. He was El Dorado.

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The tale of the golden prince and the lake full of precious gold offerings gave birth to the legend of El Dorado- a city of gold full of unimaginable riches hidden deep in the jungles of the unexplored  New World, a city so many conquistadors searched for in vain in the 16th and 17th centuries. And even though the City of Gold was never found and remained just a legend, the sacred lake where the Muisca people from the high Andine plateau near today’s Bogota performed the ritual of the initiation of their new ruler does exist. The high mountain lake Guatavita at 3100 meters is round and resembles a crater with 1.5 km in diameter and about 25-30 meters deep. Today it is a major tourist attraction not far from the capital of Colombia.

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After a few failed attempts in the past to drain the lake and find the gold on its bottom, the lake has been declared National Patrimony and today it is forbidden to swim, dive or excavate it.

Museum of Gold

But instead of climbing another mountain, tired from our hike to Monserrate, we decided to look for gold in another place, where we knew we would find hips of it – the Museum of Gold.

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The museum has displays on 3 floors and its collection of 55 thousand gold and other pre-Colombian objects is the biggest in the world. It is the most famous museum in Colombia and one of the most impressive museums in all of Latin America. The entrance fee is 3000 pesos (less than $1.5) for adults and free for children.

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We were absolutely amazed by the scale of the museum, by its rich gold collection separated by time periods and regions of the findings, by the intricate work of the gold objects, some so miniature they were placed under magnifying glass, by the style, complexity and beauty of the ancient art.

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We watched a film about ancient metals and how they influenced different cultures around the world, we learned about the life and culture of the pre-Hispanic peoples of Colombia from miniature models depicting scenes of their daily lives: agriculture, burial rituals, crafts, building of houses etc. Maya loved these small scale models as they resemble little toys and dolls.

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Миниатюрни модели на мумии, които бивали погребвани изправени

Miniature models of mummies buried standing up underground

But what impressed us the most were the figurines of mixed animals and people: the jaguar-frog, the eagle-man, the bird-woman, the vampire-man, the snake-shaman, as well as the golden treys used in rituals involving hallucinogenic plant-powders made from coca leaves and from Yopo collected from the Anadenanthera tree, which the shamans inhaled using a small spoon or a hollow bird bone from treys depicting animals and conjured up images of the transformations that were experienced.
“When the shaman was under the effects of plants that gave him power, he connected the various worlds. He journeyed through the middle, upper and lower worlds, linking all their beings.”

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Bird-woman

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Jaguar-frog

Тавичка и тръбичка за наркотици

A tray for inhaling coca

On the third floor we entered the Offering room. Darkness fell upon us and we heard the sounds of water and faraway songs of shamans. When the faint flickering light came back we saw hundreds of golden objects floating in a glass round lake in the middle of the room and all around us. The singing got louder. We found ourselves in a whirlpool of gold, a glittering distant unreality…

Церемониалната зала

The Offering room

We spent the entire afternoon in the Museum of Gold, captivated by the beauty of the craft of the ancient civilizations inhabiting these lands before Columbus. We learned Fascinating details about their culture and history, their life and rituals.

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The Hostel

Extremely exhausted we returned to our little hostel, where a private room was vacant for us. Instead of sleeping in the dorm with 6 beds we got a room to ourselves with one double bed and one bunk-bed, with a TV set and hot-water shower! Plus, the nice little lady at the reception agreed to rent it to us for $30 per night.

But this room too didn’t have any windows. Why, we asked with curiosity. “Ah, The story of this building is long. It was built in the 17th century and was the house of a general. Then it became a convent, then a school, and finally, before the present owner bought it and made it to a hostel and before the digital era, it was a photo studio with dark rooms, where they used to develop films. That’s why- no windows.”

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We took a hot shower and fell under the blankets. We slept like dead not knowing if it was dark or light outside, in our room without windows, in the small hostel in the center of the city. We still had one more day in Bogota ahead of us, another day filled with discoveries and adventures before we would go back to our boat in the heat of Santa Marta.

Обратно в хостела

* Read Visit to Bogota Part One and find out about La Candelaria, Botero Museum and the Bogota Cathedral.

 

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