Sunday, 18 March 2007

Cartagena and Cuidad Perdida. Report 40.

(by Stein, written in Cartagena March 18th)
For corresponding photos see Picture Gallery No 40.

Returning to Cartagena

Our flight back to Cartagena was not as straight-forward as when we went home in late November. We then flew directly from Cartagena to Madrid with Air Madrid, a budget airline of about three years’ standing. The plane was delayed by ten hours, was only half-full when it finally left, the in-flight food was awful and there were many broken and dysfunctioning items aboard. And we heard of lots more problems when we finally got to Madrid and were too late for our connection to London. I suppose we should have suspected that the airline was heading for trouble…
Our return flight was due on February 20th, but it was only by chance, when checking if a friend could use the same direct service to visit us, that we in January discovered that Air Madrid had gone bankrupt and been forced to seize all activities! This became a big scandal, about 200.000 were stranded in South America and had to be helped home by the Spanish authorities. But our insurance was not willing to cover our loss, so instead we became passengers on Colombia’s own Avianca from Madrid to Cartagena via the capital, Bogota. This meant a much longer journey, and we only arrived after midnight. It was not possible to get into the yard where White Admiral was stored on land at this time of the night, so instead we got the taxi-driver to find us a cheap hotel in El Centro. It felt like the mattresses in Hotel Monte Carlo were stuffed with concrete, but we still managed to get a little sleep!
So we got up with the birds and walked to Club Nautico in Manga, met our old friend Dockmaster John and had breakfast at the nearby Carulla supermarket.
At the yard “Ferroalquimar” Nilson Arizal and his men had washed the boat regularly and made a beautiful, white cockpit bimini of GRP instead of the original dirty, sagging and leaking canvas cover.
We were also thankful that we had made the arrangement to clean the boat as the yard is very dusty and dirty at this time of the year, when there is no rain and the trade-winds blow briskly. Also they were doing major work on ships next to us, including cutting up two old hulks less than 50 m away…
There were major worries regarding a mobile crane and how the yard should launch us with a big ship next to us, but Pedro de la Hoz Adarragio and the rest of the management sorted it out and to our relief had us safely launched before noon on Friday 23rd. Nilson & Co finished their washing and waxing, helped to push us off the quay in the rising wind and we motored an hour or so around to Club Nautico were John had a berth waiting for us. This meant that White Admiral was in safe hands and we could go away as hoped for a trip to Cuidad Perdida; “The Forgotten City”.

The Forgotten City

Cuidad Perdida is a pre-Colombian settlement situated on the northern slopes of the
Sierra Nevada Mountains in the Tayrona National Park. This amazingly well preserved city was never known to the Spanish explorers and was only discovered by grave-robbers in 1975. It is hidden in the dense rain-forest at about 1300 m elevation and can only be reached by foot. Until five years ago it was also possible to fly here with helicopter, but the Kogi-indians who live in the Tayrona area and the para-militaries that have invested interest in the local cocaine-production objected strongly. (Helicopters are used for locating them and the cocaine laboratories.) Also the archaeologists had objected to these flights due to the repeated stealing of artefacts.
The trip – more like an expedition – took us six and a half days. It started at 05.30 24th February with a four hours’ bus trip to Santa Marta, which in 1525 became the first European settlement in South America. There we joined our guide and the eight other participants: A fit, elderly lady (69) from Canada, a middle-aged couple from Denmark, two young ladies from Spain (actually Basque) and France, and three young men from New York, California and Australia.
In Santa Marta we all got into a large, vintage jeep and drove for two hours, the last hour on uneven, windy dirt roads into the mountains. In the tiny village of El Mamey three mules were loaded with food and hammocks, we got our backpacks on and followed our quick-legged, Spanish-speaking guide, Isidro and his son Victor.
The path is only about 18 km each way, but the path is uneven, narrow and winding and steep up and down through ever thickening rain-forest. Riverbeds are crossed or followed several times. The walk takes three days up and two days down. The last day up the mules have to be left behind, and instead a Kogi-indian comes as an extra carrier.
Sleeping was first on a small farm, then in primitive shelters built for the purpose. At night the hammocks are slung between rafters and covered with mosquito netting and with sleeping-bags were surprisingly comfortable. Victor made us meals three times a day, simple and rich in calories – but nobody put on any weight during this expedition! For drinks we had local water or juice made from powder, and – of course – Colombian coffee and cocoa. Everything was prepared over an open fire.

The last part of the trip is on a narrow, stone stairway from the river bed and almost straight up a mountain-side. Even being quite close to it is difficult to see where the steps begin. After 1200 steps, sweat pouring and thighs and calves aching, one is rewarded by reaching the first terrace and can sit down for a rest. Another 1400 steps brings you to the top of the city and near our home for the next two nights.
The view and the impressions were quite overwhelming. Deep valleys and undulating, palm-covered mountain ridges surround the area. Within a diameter of about two km we could visit about 150 terraces so far uncovered. Birds and insects provide most of the sounds, the river hums away softly in the distance. Here are no engines, no radios and no mobile phones that work, no other communication to the outside world than the same, strenuous path down. The nearest Kogi village is about two hours away, so it is not a good idea to become seriously ill up here!
And to this enchanted world about 10 tourists come on some days, while to its famous big cousin Machu Picchu in Peru about 500 people travel daily…
For 24 hours we had Cuidad Perdida to ourselves and could learn more about the way of life centuries ago.
Their circular houses were supposedly like the ones the Kogis live in today with vertical walls either of clay or wooden sticks and a roof of straw and leaves. It is estimated that about 3000 persons lived here from about 800 a.d.- 1600 a.d. Excavations bear witness of a well organized people of skilled engineers, farmers and artists. They must have been very hard workers and they enjoyed a high level of civilization. But wars with the Spanish and the introduced, new infectious diseases like measles and flu killed them swiftly. The legend of El Dorado has its roots in the Santa Marta area and was a major reason why the Spanish penetrated the forest so ruthlessly in their insatiable lust for gold.

The Cocaine Story

”The gold” in this area today is cocaine. Adult, male Kogi-indians we met all chewed cocaine-leaves, and around their houses we saw the bushes side by side with vegetables and bananas. Chewing leaves and using leaves in hot water as tea is a weak and apparently harmless stimulant compared to the refined products of cocaine paste and cocaine powder. We were told that “all” the farmers in the lower areas augmented their income from cattle and tobacco-farming with production of cocaine paste. The paste is delivered to two, large and “secret” jungle-laboratories in the area. Here they do the final stages of refinement to produce the white cocaine powder. This is transported to the demanding markets in USA and Europe in almost every imaginable and unimaginable way...
The Government has military outposts in the area and officially there is supposed to be a large, continuous, USA-supported campaign to stop the production, but various means of corruption controls this effectively.
Given a small fee one of the young farmers gave us a guided tour to a hidden laboratory erected for demonstration. It was interesting to see how relatively easy it was to produce the cocaine paste. (It can be mixed with tobacco and smoked.) If the young man is caught he risks extradition to USA and 40 years imprisonment, but nobody from the 40-50 farms in the area have been caught so far. The simple life-style of the farm where we stayed illustrated that others get most of the profit. And he claimed that had the pay for coffee been a bit higher, then he would much rather grow coffee…

Back on our boat for the next few days we pampered our slightly sore muscles and joints, and removed a total of seven blood-sucking ticks. I was also a bit bothered by a reaction to ant-bites and a mild gastroenteritis. But after a couple of days we were back to normal and only left with some amazing memories of The Forgotten City.
And also with a new and slightly depressing insight into the origins of cocaine…

The Rosario Islands and The San Blas Islands, Panama.

After the Cuidad Perdida experience we received a visit from our friend Anne in Oslo, and a few days later also from Diana’s brother Jim in Canada. This gave us good reasons for two sails back and forth to Islas del Rosario; 20 n.miles SW of Cartagena. We stayed there for two nights each time, saw some dolphins and a lot of birds, caught dorado and barracuda fish, met a displaced, but contented Norwegian, and a lot of other islanders, and altogether had two interesting trips which will be reported soon. But the pictures from those trips will have to wait until we are back from visiting the San Blas Islands - no Internet Cafes there, we are told. (We can only transmit text via the satellite telephone.) The plan is to sail for Porvenir in San Blas, Panama, tomorrow, Monday 19th March. The trip should take less than two days, and we hope to stay in this archipelago for one month while we slowly make our way back here. (Flight back to Norway is April 30th.) Through ignorance of the San Blas Islands we sailed past them in “Red Admiral” on our way to Panama and the Pacific in 1979. This time we are better informed, and are very much looking forward to meeting the friendly and artistic Kuna Indians and their beautiful islands.
So please, do keep checking our web-site for reports and pictures. And if you find the time, do also write a greeting in our Guestbook, we appreciate it very much.
Regarding the section called Voyage where we mean to have charts and positions posted, we apologise for lack of up-to date information. But do not give us up, you lovers of geographical information, we will get around to it!

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