Now at peace, Colombia has becomes the new El Dorado of Latin America. It's an Eden twice as big as France, with nature that is still completely removed from the rest of the world. Will a return to the wild become a new travel trend? We went in search of this neo-paradise.
Providencia: the last of the desert islands
Prized since the dawn of time by conquistadors and pirates, rich in a thousand treasures and proud of its insularity, this former British colony stands very close to its roots. At the foot of the airport, an iguana lolling under the sun serves as a very green welcome committee. Formalities are accomplished in the local patois: an English Creole with African sounds interspersed at will, the promise of a renewed sweetness of life. The island is small, with barely one road and ten beaches. The white sand and turquoise sea are paradise, and there is a welcoming warmth everywhere. The charm of fuchsia and faded pink houses competes with the tropics' riot of natural colours.
In this extraordinary garden, horses, goats and cows wander freely (as well as one or two vintage Chevrolet!). You can enjoy a seaside table in one of the huts, your toes in the water: the best ceviche, coconut milk bread, lobster a la plancha, rice with seafood, and a super strong coffee. 'The Colombian state wanted to build a 400-room beachfront hotel here', says Josefina Huffington, a 60+-year-old activist, who has helped protect her island. You can be sure that Providencia, which has just 350 tourist rooms per 5,000 inhabitants, will make sure it stays peaceful.
In the cove of Bahia Suroeste, if you are lucky you can spot a horse cantering through the clear waters in the magical early morning. Better than the manta ray show, here's a giant seahorse preparing for Saturday's race, another remnant of the English occupation. Head to Richard's shack for the event: a small part of Providencia, the 'Raizals' (as they call the inhabitants descending from the slaves), are there with their feet in the sand. Betting, smoking, dancing, napping. Cumbia, reggaeton and dancehall beats fill the balmy air.
A flight of 'men-of-war', these birds with a silhouette worthy of Game of Thrones, flies in the sky. Their view point is worth the hour's climb to Peak, the highest point on the island, guided by Ortis Henry,a Rasta botanist. With him we see into the plant world: the leaves of the mata ratón bush which cures fever, those of the anamu which cure cancer, kongolala for the bronchi. Up to the top, you'll walk and learn a medicinal lexicon. Finally, we'll reach a magnificent view of the pristine jungle of dwellings and the coral reef. Admirably well-preserved, nature here is reconciled with the human world. Providencia is well-deserving of its name.
El Cantil: return to nature
With 53% of its territory covered by the jungle, Colombia is vast and endless. You just have to see this forest, extending long and fierce, as its surges into the majestic waters of the Pacific. Lose yourself in the mist of this wonderful chaos. The road begins in Medellin, in the most elegant setting. Before waving goodbye to civilization to fly towards this promise of elsewhere, there is a surprisingly lovely tropical garden bordering the airstrip designed by the Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx.
Colombia knows how to live.... Now we head for Nuquí, the western village at the crossroads, which is the gateway to the Ensenada de Utria National Natural Park . After an hour of crossing dense green ground, the ocean boldly appears from behind a cloud. From Panama to the great port of Buenaventura, Colombia's coastline is as sublime as it is powerful, extending over hundreds of miles, only accessible by the sea, a handful of villages cut off from the world. It is the new El Dorado. Beyond its beauty, the preserved Chocó region, one of the wettest on the planet, rich in endemic species, fertile waters and gold reserves, has been the place of epics and exploration for centuries.
What are we looking for here? The rarity of a primitive world. El CantilLodge serves as a cozy outpost for sensitive explorers. Arrive after a 45-minute speedboat ride. We are treated to a sweet welcome, with fresh lemonade and a mango and banana salad sourced from the forest. There is no electricity; we've left the Wi-Fi behind at Medellin Airport. Nature is queen here and you'll be able to get as close as possible to it. Each pound of luggage was weighed at our departure and everyone's ecological footprint is limited thanks to the waste brought back at the end of the stay.
Day one: settle in The next day, awakening in The Jungle Book, have lunch at Greystoke's and spend an afternoon in beautiful scenery. Monkeys, reptiles, tropical birds, frogs: there are calls, hisses and hoots in this mixture of palms and vines. The exoticism will reach its peak when we return from a walk where you will have to swim across a river delta, caught in the waters of the rising tide. Since it opened some twenty years ago, El Cantil has refined its guests' stays without distorting the experience. Each of the eight palafitos (traditional red-roofed cabins) is a model of happy sobriety, with a hammock and single bed, unheated shower, fan, spring water jug if you get thirsty at night, and the indispensable toldillo, mosquito net.
As night falls, there's no place more luxurious than this oil-lit teak shelter. Get in tune with the rhythm of nature as you gather around a table to taste the delicious day's catch.
' People here think that nature gives back to man the respect he has for it and that if you damage it, that also comes back to you.'
The great history of Choco takes place between June and October, when the warm and protected waters of the Gulf of Tribuga turn into a nursery for humpback whales. There are about 200 of them crossing offshore each year to give birth and teach their babies to feed before reaching Chile, taking advantage of their stopover to enjoy a profusion of jumps. Meet on the terrace of the lodge, the best spot to watch out for these gentle giants emerging from the depths.
Once you've found a group with your guide, follow them by boat at sunset to the southern tip of the gulf: playing like dolphins around the boat, a tail, a fin, and, if you're lucky, be able to see them breach. The next day, swim on the beach in Termales, a village backed by the jungle that can only be reached on foot at the shore or by boat. It's not just the whales that love the generous waters of the Choco. Thanks to an almost perfect swell, all villagers, assisted by a mentor, have acquired a taste for surfing. The bench of the surf school has the words 'Amor y Paz' written in big letters. Launched in its peace negotiation process with the Farc, Colombia, this new El Dorado, has turned its back on half a century of violence, and opened its doors wide to its beautiful nature.
A chic retreat set between the jungle and the Caribbean, just an hour from the city of Santa Marta, has made this quest for harmony its mantra. There is minimal connection to the modern world. Upon arrival, guests are invited to let go of their usual routines. The elements here are felt so strongly and authentically that silence takes over the living spaces, where a simple atmosphere dominates, seemingly designed, precisely, to extend time and force you to listen to the calls of nature. Barlovento's story started on a whim. About 40 years ago, Colombian artist Gloria Mejia was on the road when she saw this wild coast in the distance.
Here, the beach crosses the Rio Piedras River, which marks the northern boundary of Tayrona National Park. She was blown away by the 360-degree beauty of the landscape when, turning her back to the sea, her gaze fell on the ridges of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain in the world. Gloria Mejia never left. With the help of Colombian architect Simón Vélez, renowned for his wood and bamboo compositions, our paradise scout imagined the impossible. Such a design could only succeed in a place like this: set on huge stones, overlooking the landscape and open to the offshore wind, the cabana made by the architect, at a young age, is spectacular. It's a tropical cottage where each room extends over the sea like a balcony above the sky and the surf.
Four years ago, Natalie Di Sabatino, Gloria's granddaughter, converted Barlovento into a guesthouse, discreetly extending it with a second building beneath a wide canopy of palms. 'Making yet another luxury hotel didn't interest me, especially here in Sierra Nevada, which is a very powerful site. People in the area think that nature restores the respect that man has for her, and if you damage it, that also comes back to you', explained the heiress, who keeps the spirit of the place alive. So when Caimans settled a decade ago in the nearby river, it was decided to let them live. 'They are there to provide the balance nature needs, and since you don't bathe in the river anymore, other species have taken advantage of it to develop'.
It is a philosophy directly inspired by the wisdom of the Kogis, the last heirs of the great civilizations of the South American continent. A people of singular beauty that can be found in the park, little men with their long black hair and white tunics recall the eternal snows of the Sierra Nevada, their kingdom. The Kogis call themselves 'the people of the Earth'. We learn that, according to their tradition, this Earth has a soul and even thoughts, that she is our mother and that hurting her is hurting yourself.