“In the beginning there was nothing but the sea. The sea was the mother. All was dark, no sun, no moon, no people, no plants or animals. The mother was only spirit, thoughts and memories. Then mother sea gave birth to the great mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. From these sacred peaks all things came into being, and the world began.”
A Kogui man, native to the Sierra Nevadas.
The above is an excerpt from an interview with a Kogui Mamo or spiritual chief. The Kogui are one of four tribes that descended from the original Tayrona people and are said to be the closest relatives to the old tribe remaining. The Kogui see themselves as the protective guardians of “el Corazon del Mundo”, the Heart of the World as they refer to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and believe that the well-being of the rest of the world depends on the health of the area. The other three tribes are the enterprising and very successful Arhuaco and the small Wiwi tribe and the rarely heard of Kankuamo.
Yup, not a bad place to take in the view from Oscar’s Place in near Minca Colombia.
The Tayrona were among the most successful native people in Latin America at escaping the Spanish conquistadores, simply by moving higher into the impenetrable, vertiginous jungles of the Sierra. By doing so they sidestepped the first hundred years of bloody slaughter. Their resistance lasted until the end of the 17th century, but inevitably all of their immeasurable treasures had been moved to Spanish chests. Interestingly, the Tayrona region was the first Spanish colonised place in South America, yet the Tayrona people were able to hold out the longest.
Another amazing sunrise in the Sierra Nevadas.
The three tribes to this day still protect the Sierra zealously, many areas are sacred ritual sites and outsiders must gain permission before entry. This, alongside the recent narco-trafficking, rightwing paramilitary and left wing guerrilla history of the area has kept almost the entire mountain range wild and undiscovered. Only now, with the incredible turn around in the security situation can adventurers and thrill seekers once again start exploring this unique place.
The Sierra Nevadas fills the three provinces of Magdalena, Cesar and Guajira comprising one of the most beautiful and definitely the most diverse areas in all of Colombia, perhaps even in the world. It is the highest coastal mountain range on the planet with 5775m snow caps 45km from surf beaten tropical beaches. It actually has more endemic bird species than anywhere else in the world due to the incredible diversity of eco systems from coastal, tropical rain forest, desert, savannah, mountain dry forest, cloud forest to Andean alpine and finally glacial. Ontop of all this, it has a seemingly endless supply of violent and powerful water that cascades down between it’s many ridgelines fuelling hundreds of waterfalls and river systems. Some would say this is the perfect playground for hikers and mountain biker.
For these many reasons Elemento Outdoor Adventure was opened to share this amazing region with adventurous travelers! They have been opening up old Indian & Narco supply route trails, and cutting new ones to reach stunning ridgelines, bird sanctuaries, eco farms, nature reserves, orangeries, chocolate factories and many many coffee farms. Small groups of excited young travellers can now sometimes be observed in the Sierra behind a guide with GPS in one hand, machete in the other as they are often the first outsiders at this embryonic moment in the development of tourism in Colombia to see these amazing newly re-discovered places. The hope is that the sights and sounds of mountain bikers whooping and reeling down these newly discovered trails is to become more and more common.
Me mountain biking Colombia’s Sierra Nevadas. Oh ya, there’s a mule too.
Clients of Elemento can expect to hike 900m up through vertical jungle and precipitous coffee farms; in the avocado season on trails made of guacamole, at any other time on just the usual squashed mango to ridgelines such as Los Pinos where they will find an old paramilitary base. You can see why the bandits of lore chose such a spot as you would be able to see everything coming at you from a great height on all sides. Here they will stay for the night gathered round a bonfire watching the glittering lights of the cities of Santa Marta and Rodadero far below come alive as the rays of the sun slip into the ocean. The next morning from the same place you can see the sun rising over the pink snowpeaks of the Sierra Nevadas. After a hearty breakfast choose your mountain bike descent down jungle clad canyon-sides, splashing through rivers, visiting Victorian coffee fincas, jumping off serene waterfalls and enjoying the changing climate, jungle smells and surroundings before you finally reach the sweltering heat of sea level at the end of the day.
Palm trees and snow-capped mountains, it’s all within the boundaries of the Sierra Nevadas region.
Continual development of excellent relations with landowners and communities on the mountain means that Elemento now also runs multi-day expeditions going much deeper and higher into the Sierra. El Dorado is a globally important bird reserve, with more endemics here than any other, it is world famous in bird watching circles. What they have created here buzzing to the sound of dozens of humming birds, is a series of elegant wooden cabins clinging to the mountain side at 2000m above the coast with floor to ceiling windows looking to the far edge of the Cienaga swamp 120km away. Many moons ago, the Tayrona crafted beautiful trails through the thick verdant cloud forest which the reserve has cleared and now lead to an observation platform looking deep into the multiple layers of ridgelines and impenetrable jungle to the snow peaks – el Corazon del Mundo – sweeping round to the entire panorama of the Caribbean far below. The forest is alive with howler monkeys, quetzals, toucans, and numerous rare species of colourful birds. They have recently discovered new species of owl, monkey and most interestingly a red maned tree rat this August 2012 on the patio which has not been seen in 100 years and was thought to be extinct!
The fleet of great new bikes at Elemento!
From this height there are a multitude of options to consider including pre-dawn hikes higher and further to see sunrises from 2800m, visiting Swiss style cheese farms for breakfast, Tayrona lakes & platforms can be found beyond here, chocolate farms and nature reserves in the next valley and anything else we have discovered by the time you get here. It should be mentioned that the main passion of the owners is mountain biking and for that reason most adventures can be done at high velocity on high end Commencal mountain bikes from Andorra. Similarly we have near future plans to develop trails with berms and northshore boardwalks so much of our route finding is done with mountain biking in mind. For this reason our ultimate aim is to carefully develop the Sierra Nevadas as a unique mountain biking mecca. But not everyone likes cycling, and many areas are just too steep for bikes so we have just as many adventures on foot, supported by mule or 4×4.
An indigenous hut deep in the Sierra Nevadas.
One of Elemento’s favourite places on the mountain happens to be one of the lowest at only 600m: Oscar’s Place, is really something to behold. The feeling as you walk onto his flower and fruit tree enshrouded ridgeline after the steep scramble through the jungle can only be described as heart stirring. The “swimming pool” was initially installed as a water supply, but now serves decoratively to reflect the sinking sun, and practically as a hydroelectric power battery. Each night at 6:30pm just after dusk, the plug is pulled and so begins 5 hours of free electricity all the while re-filling his pool with fresh water for people to jump into the next morning before breakfast!
The view from the shower at Oscar’s Place in Minca Colombia.
The house has been designed with air-flow, space and spectacular vistas in mind, therefore expect to find open air sunshine heated showers with views to jungle and ocean, likewise the accommodation is palm roofed, with no walls and as you open your eyes in the morning you look across the valley to sunbeams bouncing off the green mountain beyond. You will not find a fridge, a fan, aircon or television in sight. Just fresh air, fresh food and incredibly good vibes! The most amazing thing about all this is that Oscar and his mules transported everything required to construct this magical place down a very steep winding jungle path 3km from Minca. Only someone as clever and energetic as the man Oscar himself could ever have the patience or will to create such a place.
Elemento is working with several charity organisations and can link expeditions along with volunteer work teaching, medicine or in conservation. They are directly financially supporting the Mision Gaia Foundation and are currently running a competition with their help in the local schools to find, employ and train two new mountain guides. Elemento, therefore have a very positive connection with local communities employing young local guides, mechanics, drivers, sourcing local food and accommodation, not to mention bringing much needed business into the mountains. Furthermore they are in early design stages and are currently fund raising in the wider community to build a skate/BMX park in Minca for the local kids, again hoping to inspire the youth into a life of sport and adventure.
If you are interested in coming on an Elemento Outdoor Adventure please visit their website, or ‘Like’ them on Faceboook . Likewise if you have experience and passion for mountain biking, adventure and sustainable tourism, please get in touch as they are always looking for new guides and partners.
This article was written by Tom Wilkinson, a good friend of mine, who is running an amazing travel company out of Taganga, Minca, and the Sierra Nevadas on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. If you’re on the coast and want to have an amazing experience, check out Elemento Outdoor.