Paradise ... and you don't have to share it

Forget cocaine, if it's cosmic you're after, hit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. By Jane O'Callaghan
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The Independent Travel
IF YOU EVER find yourself in Santa Marta, there's only one address in town. Calle IOC has been Gringo Central for over 20 years and it's still going strong today. And the boss hotel on the block is the Hotel Miramar - more than just a place to park your pack, it's where everyone trying their luck on Colombia's Caribbean coast eventually gravitates to get things sorted, fix up onward travel, catch the latest news and meet friends.

Newly arrived travellers clutching their copy of Charles Nicholl's factional expose of the cocaine trade, The Fruit Palace, are often disappointed to find that the eponymous hotel where the author spent long powder-fuelled nights is now an innocuous corner shop, the Tienda Commercial. But a few doors down, the delights of the Miramar beckon.

Walking into the reception, it all looked strangely familiar. In fact, it bore a stunning similarity to the Turkish jail in Midnight Express, with its galleried cells built around a central courtyard and wasted-looking inmates. The Miramar is a vision of either heaven or hell, depending on your inclinations.

But it's a well-run and friendly operation; for pounds 3 a night you can get a bed, store your luggage and eat cheap wholesome meals - from the ubiquitous banana pancakes to the Colombian staples of chicken and salsa, fish and rice and lentil stew. The freshly whizzed fruit juices are divine, but you need to be careful they are made with agua purificada anywhere in Santa Marta, as the mains water is too rich a brew for most European stomachs.

Santa Marta is a hot, traffic-filled port with a long tradition of smuggling. There are plenty of more profitable items leaving the docks along with the documented bananas and coal. But the cocaine business has moved on since Nicholl's account and it's now a tightly controlled billion-dollar business, with very little wastage spilling on to the streets and a subsequent lack of shady senors going psst to tourists. Like most cities in the world, if you're looking for something you will find it, but if you want to stick to rum and Coca-Cola, the parallel world is invisible.

Once a month, the Miramar turns into a ghost hotel. Full Moon parties only got going last winter and have been enthusiastically embraced by Colombians, for whom any excuse to party all night is welcome. As in all the best raves, the venue (a deserted beach "somewhere down the coast") is a secret until the last minute.

But the full moon of March saw us toiling up the precipitous slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world which rises to 19,000 just 25 miles inland. Our goal was to reach Ciudad Perdida, the lost city of the Tairona Indians and the biggest archaeological find in the Americas this century.

The six-day trek is anything but a "soft adventure". The first ridge took us four hours to scramble up; the ancient paths are too steep for mules so you have to carry your gear. Hearts pounding and sweat pouring, we could see why the conquistadors had called the Sierra Nevada "El lnfierno" - a green hell populated by Indian demons.

But a glance beyond the gruelling slope revealed something more akin to paradise. Ridge upon ridge of jungle-covered mountains filled the horizon, soaring unseen beyond the misty cloud-forest to the glaciers of the high peaks. Above us, howler monkeys roared like the waves of the sea; a flash of electric blue was a bird-sized morpho butterfly, a flash of emerald, a macaw. Overnight camps are beside fast-flowing rivers; no swim has ever been more blissful.

Jaguars and pumas prowl the forests and are not averse to supplementing their staple diet of tapirs, peccaries, armadillos and burros with unwary humans. Vampire-bats and tarantulas are other hazards but the most feared encounter is with the deadly fer-de-lance viper. Our guide, Wilson, assured us that that other local menace, El Farc, Colombia's premier-league guerrilla group, didn't venture on to this trail.

But he added that the alternative route to Ciudad Perdida had been closed for a year because of a few close encounters. Hikers aren't kidnapped or murdered, just stripped of their belongings. I contemplated life without my well-worn boots and hoped El Farc weren't feeling restless.

On the second day, we entered the lands of the last functional Indian civilisation in South America. The coca-chewing Kogi Indians are direct descendants of the Taironas who retreated high into the mountains to avoid contact with the murderous Spaniards. Like their ancestors, they are a deeply spiritual people who believe in an all- pervasive nature goddess, worshipped through meditation, magic and correct behaviour. Nothing should be taken from the earth without giving something back; they believe the Younger Brother (their term for white men) is destroying not just the Sierra but the entire planet through greed, and that global catastrophe is not far off.

You don't just stroll into their ancestral city. The final ascent involves 1,275 steep moss- covered steps; I was exhausted after the first 50 and gave up counting. Wilson and William the cook had sprinted effortlessly ahead. An hour later, all weariness was forgotten as we emerged among the terraces and ceremonial paths of the city. The views over the Sierra were matched by an atmosphere which can only be described as cosmic; at night, tropical constellations wheeled overhead.

After such an experience, returning to the coast for some R&R could have been an anticlimax. But another surprise awaited us when we took the Miramar's daily bus to the Tairona National Park, an hour's drive away.

Here we discovered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, let alone the Caribbean. The coastal rainforest sweeps down to miles of deserted sands studded with outcrops of grey volcanic rock. The extravagant scenery is as exotic as anything the Seychelles has to offer, but comes without either the Blairs as neighbours or the extortionate price-tag.

We rented a hammock for pounds 2 a night at the campsite in Arrecifes and settled down to enjoy the good life - swimming, exploring the park on foot and horseback and eating freshly caught grouper and red snapper. The average bill for dinner worked out at pounds 3 a head, including beers.

Discovering the ultimate cheap and idyllic beach holiday is the Holy Grail for travellers and many reckoned they'd found it here in Colombia. The country's violent reputation means it may never fulfil its promise of being the "new Goa", but at least you won't have to share beach space with the package holidaymakers for many years to come.

colombia fact file

Getting there

Avianca (0990 767747) offers twice-weekly flights from Heathrow to Santa Marta via Bogota costing from around pounds 5OO return.

Trekking

Treks to the Lost City cost pounds 156 including guide, hammocks and all meals, and can be organised through Bogota-based adventure travel company Ecoguias (e-mail Ecoguias@impsat.net.co; fax 00 571 2848991). They can also pre-book hotels and organise tours of other parts of Colombia.

Safety

Despite Colombia's reputation as murder capital of the world, tourists are unlikely to experience problems as most of the violence is related to the guerrilla war. In the Santa Marta area, opportunistic petty theft is the only problem you are likely to encounter. The best general advice is to dress down, in order to avoid the potential threat of kidnapping.

However, large parts of the country are controlled by armed guerrillas and overland travel in departments such as Antioquia is not recommended. Standard advice on long-distance bus trips is for one member of the party to stay awake. Bogot has some unsafe areas and venturing out after dark can be risky. Taking local advice is the best precaution anywhere in the country.

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