A Travellerspoint blog

A Disturbing Tale

Kidnapped at the Ciudad Perdida, as told by our guide Manuel Carabali.

sunny 30 °C

In 2003 Manuel headed out to the Ciudad Perdida with a group of eager trekkers, all foreign. His group of 7 would later grow to 8 as he was unknowingly watched by the hidden guerrilla forces of the ELN (the smaller of the 2 guerrilla groups in Colombia, the 2nd being the FARC. This group was always smaller and less cruel and is now considered more or less defunct). After 3 routine days of hiking with nothing out of the ordinary, the group arrived in Ciudad Perdida and settled in for the night.

Early in the morning Manuel was woken up by a light tapping on his knee. An calm and seemingly undisturbed voice told him he needed to come outside and when Manuel said he would wake up the rest of the group so they could all hear whatever important announcement this person had, Manuel was told it wasn't necessary. Thinking the man's reluctance to awake the rest of the hikers a little strange Manuel went with the man outside. The visitor started to ask Manuel questions with obvious answers, stirring Manuel's discomfort with his presence even more. At that point some of the tourists had woken up and had made their way down from their sleeping platform to see what was going on. As Manuel was peppered with questions, he noticed a few more visitors entering the camp who started going through the trekkers backpacks and demanding that the hikers put on their shoes. Manuel was certain at this point, from both the questions and quickness with which the guerrillas worked, they had been watched during their ascent to the Ciudad Perdida. As Manuel tells us, of his 8 group members 5 were taken as hostages (the others left behind because they were uncooperative or didn't have good shoes to be marched off). Manuel and his guide buddy were tied up and told that if they untied themselves they would be killed when the guerrillas returned later in the afternoon.

The guerrillas then left with their 5 foreign hostages and Manuel and his buddy left alone. They eventually freed themselves and having noticed that the indigenous who usually visited in the morning had not come, went off to their camp to see what had happened. He found all of the indigenous tied up inside one hut, one man strapped to explosives which thankfully never exploded. After untying the indigenous, learning that they had been tied up first so they could not run to warn Manuel and his group Manual set out to look for the other guide and group who had also been at the Ciudad Perdida in a different camp. Later he would learn the guides had run up into the hills at the first signs of trouble and 3 of the other group members had been kidnapped as well. After sending the indigenous off to their nearby friends and relatives, he evacuated the Ciudad Perdida with the shaken and terrified remaining hikers. They headed back down the mountain as fast as they could, some without shoes which had been stolen by the guerrillas to prevent a quick escape. Two days later they all reached Santa Marta, Manuel hadn't slept or eaten and reported everything to the police. After hours of questioning and interrogation the police and military had enough information to start their search.

The combined efforts between the military and paramilitary (historically uncooperative but the military didn't want to risk a run-in with paramilitary groups during their search so decided to solicit their help) to encircle and rescue the hostages was unsuccessful. It wasn't until 5 months later that the hostages had all been released in what as being called a politically motivated kidnapping. Manual learned later that while some were released relatively early for their cooperation with the guerrillas (willingness to teach English to the soldiers for example) others were held for longer becuase of their refusal to speak in Spanish or English.

In the meantime Manuel encountered a fair share of criticism. Everything from accusations of being in cohorts with the guerrillas to aid in the kidnapping to giving incorrect information about the events that occurred and even questioned by the president as to whether there should even be foreigners at the lost city (apparently the president didn't understand what the Ciudad Perdida was or he would never have called that into question). While being interviewed on national television, he was told his facts were wrong- the network had received bad information- and Manuel threatened to stop the interview unless they were willing to report unbiasedly and accurately.

Marty and I had done our research before going on the trek and were well aware of the kidnapping. While hearing it first hand makes you realize your vulnerability in a place like the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, it was not a deterrent. Since the kidnappings, military has been placed all along the path to the Ciudad Perdida and there has not been an incident since. We were in the hands of incredibly knowledgeable and experienced guides and had done our research ahead of time to soothe any fears we had. And when in doubt, its only nature to get a little spooked here and there along a 6 day hike in the middle of a jungle filled with everything from pythons to plantains to panthers, we dutifully recited our motto for our time here in Colombia, "Be smart but not paranoid". Its gotten us this far...

Posted by tuffchix 17:33 Archived in Colombia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Nuckin' Futs!

Otherwise known as the trek to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City)

sunny 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.

Posted by tuffchix 15:59 Archived in Colombia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Green Adventures....

...in both the literal and eco-friendly sense.

rain 22 °C

It seems that our string of visitors to Bogota has finally come to an end. Your visits were essential to surviving February and March. No joke. Steph and Aaron, Beth and Shelby, you guys should know how thankflul I (we) are you were able to come. I think if I had to teach one more modal verb or explain the difference between zero and first conditional one more time without you and a beer on the other end, I would have clawed out my eyes. So, in short, thanks!

Our adventures with visitors kept taking us further and further from Bogota (I'm not complaining). Our latest excursion was the capstone to a wonderful week of relaxing and green beer. Shelby dedicated her whole spring break to an extended St. Patty's day in Bogota. After hitting up a few requisite tourist sites, we grocery shopped for all the makings for corned beef and cabbage, potatoes, biscuits and of course, green beer. Wednesday was dedicated to getting just the right amount of green food coloring in our homemade verdant concoction and then comparing it to the one served to us at the one and only Irish Pub in Bogota. After waiting in line, seeing some Colombian guys play Brazilian beats at the Irish pub, and listening to slurred but elated "Happy St. Patrick's Day" shout-outs from those lucky enough to be inside the pub, we made it in! You know the drill from here.

The next morning came far too soon. We were scheduled to work a immersion program with the Y and were up before anyone with that much green beer in their system should have been. What is worse, we were headed to Osolandia (bear land, can you just imagine 3 adults getting into a cab being like, "Take me to Osolandia please." It would be like saying take me to McDonald's playland. Yeah, that cool!). Thankfully, we survived only to head home and collapse in sorry, hungover and mostly tired heaps.

We made much better use of the rest of Shelby's visit. We had visited the nearby adventure sport town of Suesca earlier that week only to get the itch to do something adventurous. With a 3-day weekend coming up we decided to hit up Colombia's up and coming extreme sports town called San Gil. Bright and early Saturday we headed up with enough time to walk through Parque Gallineral on the riverfront. We had been briefed on all San Gil had to offer the adventurous types and had decided on rafting and rappelling down a waterfall (called Torrentismo here). Thanks to the rain we were able to add in Spelunking (through and underground cave completely filled with water at some points). The insanity of it all is chronicled much better on the picture site, but here are a couple of videos of our rafting excursion.

[Just a little taste of San Gil. These were taken on the Rio Fonce, one of the 3 rivers running through and near to the town of San Gil (about 7 hours north of Bogota).]

Rafting I was totally game for. It took a patient boyfriend with very comforting words and a fearless friend to get me to jump off a cliff only to rappel down the face of a 300ft waterfall, all the while being pelted with gallons and gallons of chilly mountain runoff. Turns out, its pretty awesome!

Heading back from San Gil proved to be another adventure. We were hoping for some rest on the bus after our sleepless night before due to a 3am start of a Quincenera outside our hostal (marking the transition from my college days of thinking quiet hour laws were bogus to today where they now make the top 10 list of laws I will always uphold). Unfortunately the Colombians love for their dear Cumbia and Vallenato music with a little Reggaeton mixed in makes sleep not an option.

We did make it home, tired, but all in one piece to an apartment with a constantly running toilet that can't even be masked by the sweet little song the washing machine sings when its done eating and stretching out your wardrobe. The running toilet however, holds no flame to the persistent drunk singers that seem to camp outside our place from about 11pm to 3am any given night. Colombian music isn't better when you sing it louder or drunker.

Thankfully we will get a reprieve from the delight of living in a huge city apartment complex when we take off on Saturday to hike to the Lost City (3 days out, 1 day at the ruins, 2 days back) in the Colombian Jungle up near Santa Marta. After that, I am very much looking forward to a week with Marty's family in Cartagena and Santa Marta for some lovely vitamin D (aka Caribbean sunburn).

Back in mid-April for 1 more month of work and then off to travel before home in late June!

Posted by tuffchix 14:06 Archived in Colombia Tagged ecotourism Comments (1)

Spice of Life!

Attitude and Guasca go a looooong way!

semi-overcast 14 °C

Life in Bogota has been on the up and up. I would attribute that to a little personal attitude adjustment on my part, but the fact the we have had (and are looking forward to) fantastic visitors, coupled with being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel definitely adds its own spark.

While January crawled by after such excitement in on the Caribbean and in the Coffee Region, February picked right up with Steph and Aaron and then Beth! Marty's latest update to the picture site details Beth's visit better than I could, but suffice to say IT WAS WONDERFUL!! We were able to make it back to Villa de Leyva (the gorgeous colonial town we visited back in early November), attempt to see Guatavita, the lake that gave birth to the legend of El Dorado where local Muisca native chiefs supposedly threw gold and jewels as offerings to the Gods, but arrived minutes after the trail head closed. Instead, we checked out the town of Guatavita as well as Bogota's many offerings including Montserrate, artisans, the Candelaria, numerous street vendors, botanical gardens and delicious restaurants! Looking forward to heading out as tourists again tomorrow when Shelby, a friend from college, gets in.

As for the more day-to-day side of life, it has been a real challenge for me to calm down and just kinda "go with it". As much as I have enjoyed all the opportunities I have had while being here, there were definitely times of frustration, say, for example when the water heater, stove, gas, water, toilet, internet, power or fridge were/are broken. Or, perhaps a good example is when the mattress turned into a giant crater. While a few months ago that would have (and sometimes did) send me into an fit of adolescent rage, stomping over-dramatically around the apartment declaring, "someone needs to take care of this right now or else..." I have managed to find my Om and basically just suck it up. Similarly, my less than ideal night shift as a university professor eats at me a little less and I have started to enjoy some of the work, despite my serious lack of qualifications (I'm pretty sure you should know what phrasal and modal verbs are, and I'm still not sure I do after an entire chapter of them!). Luckily, what I lack in knowledge of basic sentence structure, I make up for in humor (aka mispronouncing Spanish words while trying to explain an English one) and a genuine American accent (never thought that would come in handy). I have even picked up a few new Spanish words thanks to my eager students--Mom, you would not approve of these ones. Actually, Dad, you might not either. Marty's work situation has also calmed down and they have relieved him of his insanely early morning classes. He now leads 2 English clubs for the YMCA two evenings a week and may be taking on a couple classes during the week at the university he was working at earlier this year.

Its crazy to think that we have just over 3 months left in our adventure here. Thanks to visitors when we needed/need them most, we have been able to stay sane (for the most part) and make the best of our time here. We learned to make Ajiaco, the traditional soup from these parts (secret ingredient: Guasca leaves) and I took an impromptu "cooking class" from the restaurant owner of our favorite 'mom and pop place'. We have really made a point to relax, read and not get too caught up in things we have no control over and it looks like its working for us.

As we start to allow ourselves to get just a teeny bit excited about reuniting with life back stateside, we quickly remind ourselves that in addition to the wonderful family, friends, beer, BBQ, oceans, camping, driving, seafood, (well, you get the point) that await us, that constant sidekick, Unemployment, is also there to greet us with open arms. Fearing this dear companion, we have started our job searches if for no other reason than to get to know what is out there so we can kick it into full gear once we are back in CA.

Tomorrow Shelby arrives and just a couple weeks after she takes off we are off to Santa Marta where we will be hiking to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) on a 6 day guided trek through the northern Andes/Colombian Jungle. You can check out the trip on this site. After that, we will be meeting up with Marty's family on the coast for an extended spring break. By the time we get back we'll have a little over a month of work with the YMCA before taking off to discover other parts of South America. Definitely looking forward to it all and will try to keep y'all posted on life as it comes. We love hearing from you and all your emails, skype calls, chat messages, etc. really keep us going here. Thank you and keep 'em coming!

And, as always, you can SEE us at http://beyondbogota.shutterfly.com

Posted by tuffchix 22:11 Archived in Colombia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Dìa de San Valentine...

...Colombian Style

rain 10 °C

A few weeks ago, Steph and Aaron decided they were going to make the trek down to Bogota for a little Colombian vay-cay. Marty and I collected them at the airport last Tuesday and pumped them full of water the moment we got home to stave off that nasty altitude sickness. Wednesday morning bright and early we headed off for some delicious Colombian coffee at this cafe Marty had discovered called La Montaña Roja (The Red Mountain) and after multiple coffees each, some delicious Colombian pastries-- the first in a long line of traditional Colombian foods the Smiths would try-- Marty headed off to his last day (thankfully!) at Universidad Libre and Steph, Aaron and I strolled the smoggy mid-town area checking out the adorable puppies at all the pet shops, and snapping oh-so-touristy photos of all the flower arrangements in the flower district called Flores.

We met back up with Marty for a traditional Colombian lunch of the staple: rice, meat, another starch of some kind, veggie of your choice and fresh juice, all of which was delicious and a grand total of $2.00 per person!!! We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Botanical Gardens, sampling the local brews (all slight variatios of Budweiser with much more Colombian names), trying all the local fruit from the local fruit market, "Surtifruver de la Sabana", and then heading out to our favorite funky restaurant called Tienda de Cafe in the Usaquen neighborhood near the university where I teach.

Thursday and Friday were both early days as we headed out to camp and woke up early to herd nearly 80, 4th and 5th graders (and occasionally their teachers) through a couple days of English immersion activities out at Bochica. Steph and Aaron fit right in with Marty and I alongside our Colombian counterparts and despite the mayhem that is Colombian children at camp (or any children really) we had a great time. Not to mention getting to spend time in the cloud forest, who wouldn't love that??!

Finally on Saturday we slept in. Finally. After a traditional Colombian breakfast of eggs, ham, arepas and coffee we headed north out of Bogota through the towns of Chia and into Zipaquira back to the Salt Cathedral. This time we were smart enough to ditch our tour (something about a guide speaking in Spanish through a Play-Skool-like microphone and speaker was just not that exciting).

Saturday night happened to be Valentine´s Day and Marty and I had been dying to try this highly recommended, kinda funky, steakhouse in Chia for a while so we made it our stop on the way back. Funky is an understatement. This place is like, well, if an antique warehouse and Disneyland made a baby and then the devil breathed a little of his fiery gusto on it, you would get Andres Carne de Res. It famous for its meats and we went all out with the sample platters to taste them all. Mojitos were definitely in order (c'mon, they came in carved and painted wooden bowls) and we managed to stuff ourselves full before the boys so gentlemenly picked up the tab.

Sunday was a day to hit up some of the sites within Bogota. Our original plan to hike up Montserrate was pushed aside due to laziness and we voted to take the tram up and walk back down (which Im not sure is all that much easier- thousands of uneven cobblestone steps are not really my idea of a nice walk). A few sore tushes later, we headed into the Candelaria to the Plaza Bolivar, where my phone was promptly stolen- which went unnoticed until hours later. Later that night back in Suba we rounded the corner for the best empanadas in all of Bogota from our local empanadas guy, Samuel!

Monday was Steph and Aaron´s last full day so we made the most of it, filling our backpacks with souveneirs, sipping beers from the Bogota Beer Company, making a stop at the Juan Valdez Cafe for coffee, attempting to go to the closed Gold Museum, hitting up music store row for Marty and Aaron to drool over 200,000 peso guitars (about $1000 USD) before heading off to work. That night we practically liked our plates clean at Crepes and Waffles before finishing off with their delicious ice cream and heading home to wind down and take in the last week.

We are so lucky that Steph and Aaron could come down and are super excited Beth is coming next week! Check out the pictures of the latest tourism coming soon on Shutterfly.

Posted by tuffchix 14:34 Archived in Colombia Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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