23rd Sep 2012 11:38am | By Jennifer Carr
I’m on two wheels, whizzing through a cloud forest that’s fragrant with cow dung.
My nostrils are streaming and I’m almost blinded by the glare of the sun reflecting off the dazzling Caribbean Sea that lies beyond.
My descent of Colombia’s own ‘Death Road’ (which, like its namesake in Bolivia, is so-called for its rough surfaces, precarious vertical cliff drops and hazardous hairpin turns) would make European health and safety personnel shudder, especially given the reckless abandon with which I’m flying down these mud-splattered tracks.
But then I’m not in Europe – far from it. I’m in the Unesco-protected park of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – the world’s largest coastal mountain range, which sits some 5700m above sea level on the northeastern coastline of Colombia.
It’s an unblemished playground that’s still far from the standard ‘gringo trail’, and for those with a penchant for bike-based action, it’s a dream come true.
Inhabited by more than 30,000 tribal Indian communities, including the spiritual Kogi and Tairona people, this 383,000-hectare region (about the size of Rhode Island) is referred to by locals as the cradle of the Earth – a unique geographic recipe of perfect snow-capped peaks, dense cloud forest, alpine meadows, high tundra and, of course, the azure Caribbean Sea.
It’s also a place of historic torment: invading Spanish conquistadores penetrated the region in the 1500s and claimed the Tairona people’s immeasurable geographical treasures as their own, and also established a successful coffee agriculture that remains Colombia’s finest variety.
Now reclaimed by its rightful owners, the Unesco zone is zealously protected by the indigenous Tairona, who play an active role in determining who comes into the park, how it’s used and what kinds of sustainable experiences can be had.
Some of the highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada haven’t been scaled for more than 30 years, so if you fancy reconstructing your own Into The Void adventure, you’d have to ask the permission of a Tairona elder to get there (you’d also need balls of steel).
Biking here is no less complicated – many trails spill into sacred Indian ritual sites (and the odd ex-narco route), and need approval granted before entering, meaning most historic attempts to navigate the mountains by bike have been both dangerous and against the area’s moral code.
But there is one way to do Colombia’s high altitudes guilt-free. Elemento Outdoors, a small, conscientious adventure company, headed up by UK-born thrill-seeker Tom Wilkinson, is working with locals to open up the area – but only with their say-so.
“Even six years ago, this wasn’t something that would have been possible because of the threat of right-wing paramilitary or left-wing guerrillas,” Tom says.
For five years, however, the area has enjoyed official safe status and locals in the laid-back basecamp town of Minca are visibly revelling in their peaceful new way of life.
“It’s been great for tourism and morale, as well as those who want to come and explore here,” Tom enthuses, clearly an avid fan of mountain life in Latin America.
“The first time I came to Minca and began exploring the Sierras, I was staggered by how rich and unspoilt the country’s geography is.
I’d argue that it’s one of the richest geographic and spiritual destinations in South America,” he says with a whisper, as if to highlight his desire for the nation’s best-kept secret to remain exactly that.
“And because the ‘elder brothers’ (the Tairona people) have such an influence on the volume of visitors coming into the mountains, your experience will almost certainly be even richer.”
I for one am happy to be free from hordes of fellow gringos – something that’s increasingly rare on the aptly nicknamed Gringo Trail in South America.
To this point, Tom’s tours stretch to no more than six people at a time, and garner a good deal of praise for their considered blend of natural wildlife (the region is home to more endemic species of bird than anywhere else in the world), high altitude waterfall swims, finca visits and plenty of challenging paths that appeal to even the most seasoned pro.
For me, the tour that really stands out involves sleeping in an ex-Pinos ridge some 1450m up in the cloud forest.
We head up from Minca late afternoon in a 4WD and finish the last leg of the journey with a thigh-tingling 30-minute hike to the ridge, catching a glimpse of the last lingering streaks of sunset on our arrival.
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