Otherwise known as the trek to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City)
18.04.2009 30 °C
We couldn't have been more ready to get out of the city and into the Colombian jungle as we were boarding our plane Saturday April 4th. Bright and early we dragged overstuffed packs down to the awaiting cab, pausing a moment to congratulate ourselves on finally being able to successfully call a cab to the apartment. A small success, but really just the first in a week filled with small triumphs, a couple substantial ones, and a lot of ups and downs. Literally.
We flew into Barranquilla (yes folks, home of Shakira but no sightings to report) and made our way along the coast out to Santa Marta. Our trek to La Ciudad Perdida with Turcol didn't leave until the following morning so we booked a hostel and dropped off our stuff before heading out to explore, drink out of a coconut, soak up the sun and snap some pictures. The next day we met up with our other 11 trekkers at the Turcol office and piled into the back of a Land Cruiser- 13 people do fit back there, however by the end of the week we all wished we could put a little more space in between our own personal 'funk' we had worked up over a week of hiking and no showers, and that of the person next to us. On the way out we all introduced ourselves (3 Bogotanas, 4 Paisas- from Medellin, 1 Samario- native Santa Martan, 1 Italian, 1 Norwegian, 1 Israeli, and 2 Gringos) and found ourselves very lucky to be among a diverse, adventurous, fun and social group; something we wouldn't take for granted during the entire week.
--Just the quick history of our destination before we get too far into this: It's called the 'Lost City' because it wasn't discovered for nearly 500 years after it was abandoned by the natives who inhabited it. When the Spaniards arrived to those parts of Colombia in the late 15th/early 16th century the trade routes for the natives in that area were cut off and they were forced to relocate, abandoning their home of nearly 1500 years. When it was re-discovered by local farmers in the mid 1970's it was in ruins and since then has been rebuilt according to what was known by archeologists about the ways and life of the natives in the area broadly referred to as Tayronas. About 15 years ago, organized treks of tourists, foreigners and backpackers like us started going out there with guides, taking on the 3 day out and 3 day back hike over the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. These days you will find covered sleeping areas and open fire pits or platforms and humble facilities at each of the night's camps, a luxury I doubt was enjoyed by early archeologists and hikers in the area.--
We arrived in Machete Pelado, the small town about 2 hours outside of Santa Marta where the trail to the Ciudad Perdida starts and we were off! Day 1 started warm but relatively flat and headed out along a river for about an hour and a half. Just when we thought we had found our rhythm, we reached an intimidating vertical switchback trail that continues for the next hour before leveling off. Another hour or so of smaller inclines and declines takes you to the sharp downgrade taking you into our camp, Adan, for the first night. During this part of the trip (also the last day) you pass by military camps (the Colombian army now patrols the entire trail from trailhead to the Lost City and within the Lost City as well), farm houses and even a school. That night we hung up our hammocks to relax thanks to one of the luxuries we were afforded-- someone to carry and cook our food (no easy feat considering the cooks always had to stay one step ahead of us and were usually the last to pack up, not to mention the loads they were carrying). We were able to take advantage of the swimming hole and waterfall before having to slather on the bug spray and rest up for the rest of the week.
Day 2 started bright and early. It took a little while for our bodies to get used to sleeping in a hammock but by the last day we were old pros. I'm pretty sure my back had a few harsh words for me under these sleeping conditions but they are actually quite comfortable once you can convince your feet that they are indeed supposed to be at the same level as your head. We headed out early to try to stay out of the heat with not too much luck. After experiencing quite the leg-burner the day before, we knew what to expect. We had seen a route map and we would be ascending and descending about 500 meters everyday and each day would be about 4 hours of intense hiking. Luckily the camp we reached on day 2, Gabriel, was even better than Adan. With a bigger swimming hole and more rocks to jump off of, it was a lot of fun. We got there with plenty of time to relax, kick off the shoes and just BE in the middle of the jungle.
That night, we had the chance to get to know our guide, Manuel a bit better. Manuel was an archeologist who used to work at the Ciudad Perdida before becoming a tour guide almost 15 years ago. Due to an accident while working at the Ciudad Perdida, he walks with a severe limp and was always happy to bring up the rear but was never too far behind us. Manuel explained to us that night why the military guarded the trail and some of his experiences working in the area. He told us about a trek he led 6 years ago when his group was attacked by guerrillas from the smaller of 2 groups in Colombia. (Read the full story of his account in the next entry A Disturbing Tale)[i]. Here is Manuel describing some of the pottery recovered from the Ciudad Perdida on our tour of the ruins.
If there hadn't been enough instances at this point to call ourselves crazy, hearing this story from the sources would have triggered such a reaction. However, the tagline for this excursion was coined early on (maybe at the first of more than 20 river crossings or could have been a few minutes later standing on top of a mountain). I have to give Marty credit for the exclamation, but "This is nuckin' futs!" pretty much describes our week in the jungle.
Day 3 was when we finally made it up to the Ciudad Perdida, after climbing over 1270 steps of varying shapes sizes and ages-- imagine spending about and hour and a half on the Stairmaster at the gym on level 8, about like that. It was well worth the climb. The place is gorgeous, lush, kind of eerie in the people-used-to-bury-their-dead-under-my-feet kind of way, but filled with amazing stories and history about the Indigenous Koguis (one of the tribes generally referred to as Tayronas) who made their lives there for nearly 1500 years. Manuel gave us the tour, describing the different circular platforms used for building huts, customs- men and women slept and ate in separate huts, showed us the ceremonial platforms- the big ones behind Marty and I in the picture, and walked us through the reconstructed ancient city.
By day 4 the trek was officially half over but because overcrowding due to high season had made sitting/sleeping/eating space limited (something about 75 people crammed into a shelter for 45) we weren't upset by the departure. Marty and I were lucky enough to get a tent set up in the middle of one of the circles huts used to be built in instead of cramming into the sardine can of a sleeping platform. We were totally going native!
Day 5 and 6 we retraced our steps back the way we had come. Took the necessary swimming hole breaks, the last one cut short due to some vendetta of a fresh water crab against my foot.
As we walked back into Machete Pelado at the end of our last day we allowed ourselves a little reflection. We consider ourselves very lucky to be among those who have toughed it out to make it to the Ciudad Perdida and learn just a little more about the people who made our world what it is today. We gave ourselves a few pats on the back for not complaining (too much) about the literally countless mosquito bites and sore feet/legs/shoulder and said a little prayer of thanks for being with a guide and a group who were able to find the balance between doing their own thing and making the experience great for everyone else. I definitely have new respect for mountaineers and backpackers who goes days, weeks or months on the trail without seeing other people or civilization. I think I found my limits for things like that to be just about a week, maybe 2 if the conditions were right. Nevertheless, it was a much needed retreat and one that turned out to be refreshing and rewarding.