The Lost City: Alojamiento Adam

I’m writing this post at the end of our first day on the Lost City trek, for which we’re spending the first night at a village called Alojamiento Adam.  The village itself is part-local, part-tourist: the people who live in the region used to be coca farmers, before the possibilities associated with tourism to la Ciudad Perdida became available.  Now, they seemingly put up with a deluge of tourists along with the rain every night, and I’ve just had a delicious vegetarian meal which had freaking halloumi in it.  Halloumi in the middle of the jungle, does it get better than this?

There was a fairly cruisy start to the day, and after we were picked up from Daniela’s family’s house at 8am, we were whisked to town, where we signed in and waited.  Departure was very definitely on ‘Colombian time’, which is even more interpretive than ‘Costa Rican time’.  Thus we were well into the morning when we finally piled into jeeps to start making our way to El Mamey (Machete), the starting point for our trip.  It was quite the adventurous ride, with the last 40 minutes spend on riven and winding roads encompassing the hills.  Apparently there have been efforts to upgrade the roads–though at least this is better than when people had to hike the long and hilly first section–but people keep pocketing the money, so the government refuses to give any more.

After a few minor scares, with big bumps causing the ten passengers in the back to slide back and forth on the benches, we made it to town, where we had lunch.  The vegetables were weirdly delicious–I think I actually need to stalk the chef on the way down.

Fed, watered, and transported, it was at last time to start trekking.  It’s not a difficult trail to find: for one, while the tourist groups are small, there are lots of them; for second, local and indigenous groups use the track as their road, so there were mules and motorbikes going up and down it.  Not that it is what would fit the average joe’s meaning of a ‘road’.

We spent the next few hours walking to the village, which involved quite a lot of uphill, and SO MUCH humidity.  As was my experience last time I hiked in the area, it was disgustingly and unreasonably sweaty.  As in, at one point I flicked away a fly, and water ran off all my fingers.  You could see the freaking reflection of my shoes and the ground in my legs.  HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE.

After some stellar views of what felt like the top of the world, and a brief description of the history of the area (basically: people came in to get away from the war, started developing militia to protect themselves, grew coca to fund the militia, became involved in the war), we found ourselves in the sweet little village in which i’m currently located.  It was then time for a quick dip (and washing my clothes!) in the stream, where I managed to find a perfect little pool all to myself.  Thence dinner, and shortly, bed: tomorrow we’re to get up at 5am, to start a long and steep day.  It’s a bit of a scary prospect right now.  Lucky I had halloumi to help :).

The Lost City: Paraiso

We are all so freaking wet right now.  For the last couple of hours of the day’s hike, it was absolutely pissing it down–somewhat familiar from the last time I hiked in the region!

Last night after I’d finished writing, the guides came over to tell us a bit about the area.  To that point, we’d been walking through farmland, and the next day (today) we’d be heading into the indigenous lands, where there are four tribes.  We learned about their use of the coca leaf, which is only for the men.  That’s because women are considered stronger, so they don’t need it; the men take it to help to get through their day.

Anyway, the guys chew coca leaves in their cheek, along with ground-up seashell which they carry in a special instrument.  The seashell mixes with the masticated coca leaves to create a chemical compound that releases the coca leaf’s “special effects”.  The grinding instrument represents the two genders, with the gourd representing women, and the stick which grinds and inserts the seashell representing men.  The guys use the stick to pop the seashell into their mouths, and afterwards smooth the stick and residue around the gourd, causing it to grow over time.  The indigenous men, as you see them walking around, are constantly chewing and/or building their gourd; the women, meanwhile, are sewing mochillas.  Mochillas are little bags which the men use to store their coca leaves (which also have a role in greetings and negotiations between men), and the tribe’s shaman (mamu) can not only tell the sewer’s future, but also whether they were having good or bad thoughts as they made the bag.  The same is done with the mens’ gourd.  The tribes have no written language.

We saw quite a few indigenous people today, all barefoot, wearing brilliant white, with men wearing mochillas and the women with necklaces.  Children are indistinguishable until they’re given such markers as a sign of their adulthood.

Today started with a wakeup call at 5:00, for breakfast at 5:30.  We were on the road just after six, with the first couple of hours fairly moderate.  It was then time for a few hours’ break at around 10am, wherein we went swimming and had lunch.  To be honest, the breaks are often quite claustrophobic, as all the groups walking stop at the same places to rest: so you go from being in the jungle to being in a space chock-full of something like a hundred people.  It’s dreadful.  But in this case, our guides took us to a swimming hole which just had us: everybody else went to a waterfall.  All the same, stopping for so long really killed our rhythm.

We started walking once more, moving from one tribe’s area to the next, seeing a little village built by the government to help the indigenous people recover their traditional ways. and learned some more about the locals.

The huts represent the different things important to the tribes’ social and spiritual life, with a circle representing the sun and moon, two antennae representing the two highest mountains in Colombia, and the water and plants are nearby.  Men and women live separately, and the children live with the women (until boys are 7 years old).  Women are allowed to visit the men’s huts, but not the reverse.  Also, there’s no sex in the huts.  When couples want to get it on, they go into the mountains or rivers–they believe if they conceive a child inside, the child will be close-minded.  I was reminded of my time in the Amazon, when I was told that stationary people aren’t allowed to plant things in the forest: the plants will be too stationary to grow.  I wonder how my yuka plant is going…!

We had a gruelling one-hour hike up quite a steep hill.  That’s all I’m going to say about that, because i’m not sure I’ve recovered emotionally.

After one more break, we had a last stretch to make it to our huts for the evening–and shortly after we set out, it began to rain.  And then pour.  And then it was like a little personal waterfall per person–the paths were swamped with water, with buckets dropping down on us from overhead.  We had to cross a number of creeks with strong currents, some permanent, some seemingly adhoc.  We also had to ford a river, which was exciting.  I saw a guy sitting by the increasingly overflowing river, and asked him which path I was supposed to be taking: and he gestured next to him, and told me to wait.  I did so, and he started wading into the river.  Fastening my pack as high up as I could, I joined him as he grabbed my hand, and I in turn grabbed the hand of the person behind me.  Then it was time to start wading through the mid-thigh deep water, while the rain continued to smash it down above.  The guy helping us cross told me that any moment, the water would start to rise even futher: and some fellow hikers, crossing ten minutes later, told us it had already reached their waists.  Absolutely mental.

Only 10-20 minutes later, we made it to camp: but, new disaster!  It was massively over capacity, and what’s more, we weren’t allowed to enter without our guide.  Who was still on the other side of the river, waiting for a couple who were lagging slightly behind.  Perhaps an hour later, the staff took pity on us, and told us there were six beds available (for our twelve people).  They even let us inside!  So then followed the negotiations over who was sharing with whom (bearing in mind there were some hammocks available as well).  Because of my back, I can’t sleep in a hammock, so that was out.  One of the Italian guys, who I’ve promised to label as the creepiest Italian I’ve ever met (not strictly true), offered to share with me.  He then made the same offer to the Dutchie and the Korean girl, before saying he would be a gentleman and sleep in a hammock.  It was the most Italian sequence of sentences I think I’ve encountered!

As it stands, I’m sharing with the Dutchie, and we’ve all just had dinner.  Also, we’re getting up in 4:30 in the morning, and I’m strangely happy about it: it means we might be able to beat some of the crowds up to the Lost City itself.  Fingers crossed!

The Lost City: Green Hell

At a bright and early 4.30am, we woke up to finally head to the Lost City, which was a mere few kilometres away.  Of course, I say ‘woke up’, but in actuality the beds were so uncomfortable that my back had been in too much pain to sleep during the night, so let’s call it hyperbole.  Definitely not the most comfortable accommodation, but beggars can’t be choosers!

On that note, I’d read online that it wasn’t possible to do the Ciudad Perdida trail without a guide.  I think that the trail itself is easy enough, with not many opportunities to get lost; however, you’re not allowed to camp in the park, and without a guide, I don’t know how you’d have access to food or accommodation.  So perhaps put the idea out of your mind…

The foot of the 1200 steps up to the city started just a kilometre from where we were staying, so we reached them in short order, a bit after 6am.  And it turns out that the ancient peoples of the area took their staircases pretty seriously.  It consisted of not only many, many steps, but made of often slippery mountain stone.  They were steep, and of varied sizes–coming down later in the day saw us walking sideways to try and fit our feet and minimise falls.

Reaching the top, the first terraces of the city began to unveil themselves.  The remains were in circular shapes, as they formed the formations of ancient houses–which, like those we’d seen the day before, consisted largely of mud and palm fronds.

The city was ‘lost’ for a good 400 years, from the arrival of the Spanish, until 1976.  With the Spanish and the diseases they brought to the country, some 80% of the population were wiped out.  Initially relations were friendly, but as the Spanish conquest became more aggressive in their search for land and tradable goods, things became more antagonistic.

The city was rediscovered by looters, who found the foot of the stairs when they shot a bird and were looking for its carcass.  That’s kind of amazing, if you think about it–I mean, granted, you had loot in mind, but then the foot of this gigantic staircases appears behind some trees, and goes up, and up, and up.  Then you reach the top to discover not just a town like the other 199 discovered to date in the area, but a full city, with facades, houses, agriculture, and what our guide referred to as a ‘discotech’!

The father and son began digging into the centre of each of the houses, looking for riches–and riches they found.  They then carted them back to Santa Marta to sell, but drunk on their finds and on, you know, alcohol, they were a bit loose-lipped about the find.  This led to further groups of grave-robbers and looters trying to find the location, and fierce competition led to murders and assaults between groups.  Later, a deal was struck between the Museo del Oro in Bogotá (which I’ve written about previously) and the robbers, such that each would split the finds 50-50.

You might be wondering why the grave-robbers began digging into the centre of each of the houses to find treasure.  As it turns out, the people had a two-stage burial process when somebody died: the first stage was to bury them in the foetal position with a liana tied around them and surrounded by their important treasures.  After a while, the mamu would tug the liana to see if it came out cleanly, and then they would know that the body had been reduced to bones.  Once this happened, the bones and treasures would be gathered into a bowl, and buried in the centre of the person’s house.  Ergo, the strategy.

The Lost City, la Ciudad Perdida, was originally known as the ‘green hell’, due to the difficulty and danger in reaching it.  Later, it became the slightly more tourist-friendly ‘lost city’.  It also has an official name with archaeologists, which is the name of the nearby river + ‘200’, as the two hundredth settlement discovered in the valleys.  It’s thought that the original name may have been Tayuna, for ‘earth mother’, and to be honest, that name just feels right for the place.

We started climbing the terraces, finding more and more spectacular views.  The city itself is wondrous enough, but the location itself is breath-taking.  There are views of a beautiful waterfall tumbling down the mountains, verdant valleys all around, and luscious greenery as far as the eye could see.

In leaving, we headed around the side of the hill, rather than taking the ‘VIP’ entrance as previously.  Here we saw the remains of male and female huts, plus some local plants, including one which our guide Miguel used to turn his hands purple.  (He was demonstrating the use of the plant, it just had a fortuitous side effect :).)

Descending the treacherous stairs once more, we headed back to where we’d stayed the night for some lunch; then it was back on the road, to camp Wiwa, where we’d had lunch the previous day.  This involved going back down the hill which had just about killed all of us the previous day, and the going down was by itself easier; a huge bonus was the fact that a few of us were able to send our packs down to the camp by mule, for a measely three euro.  It was a bit of a no-brainer!

We’re now at Wiwa, where a few of the others have just been swimming at a nearby waterfall.  At this point I’m more excited about a shower and some food–not to mention bed!  For the next two days, we’ll be heading back to the start, which should be comparatively easy-going in comparison to today and yesterday.

On that note, our distances haven’t been huge, though they’ve been very hilly (and steppy!).  On the first day we walked 12.2 kilometres; yesterday it was 19.1; and today it’s been 20.6.  We definitely deserve our dinner :).

The Lost City: Descent

Last night was a bit rough.  There were two snorers right next to me, meaning no sleep for several of us; there was loud music playing until 21:30 (which wouldn’t be bad if we didn’t all have to get up at 5am); and Anouk and one of the other Dutchies became ill.

I’m not not tired, that’s for sure.

Getting ready to leave, Anouk switched to 4 days rather than 5 for the trip, given how ill she was.  Upon reflection, that seemed like the better choice anyway: the only difference between the two is that with the five day trip, you have almost all of day 4 resting at one of the huts, before finishing the final couple of hours on day 5.  Given I was planning on getting a motorbike down the last stretch, because as if you freaking wouldn’t, it seemed silly to stay an extra night just for an hour’s journey.  Plus, I’m pretty tired, my back is sore from bad mattresses, and I could really use a proper wash.  Living the glamorous life, that’s for sure!  On the way down today, we commented on how clean and healthy the people on day two looked; meanwhile, a German guy behind me pointed out that everybody on the descent looked like they were dead exhausted and completely over it.  Which wasn’t entirely inaccurate.

I spent most of the trip walking at my own pace, which was super: our group was extremely spread out (to the point that the staff at huts started recognising as as Miguel’s group, and feeding us even prior to his arrival), and I ended up in the middle, where I often got the chance to walk completely by myself, just listening to the jungle.  Though yesterday I did end up being adopted by a Bavarian/American group and their guide, which was lovely.  He wasn’t even my guide and he was helping me across rivers?  Total winner.

A lot of the group is out-of-sorts by now.  It consisted of the older Colombian couple, three Italians, two Austrians, two Dutchies, a Korean, and myself and Anouk–plus of course our guide Miguel and translator Hugo, who demanded a shout-out.  Anouk and one of the other Dutchies is ill; the second (third?!) Dutchie has an apparently severe allergy to mosquito bites, and her knees are done.  So are those of the three Italians.  The Austrians have been virtually running the trail, like completely insane people, while myself and the Korean are all out of energy.  The translator’s boots have fallen apart, for the second week in a row; and the only one completely unscathed appears to be our guide to hell, Miguel.  On the last walking stretch, we demanded that he tell us stories of tourists that have died on this trek, and he knows of at least two–one person, 49 or 59 years old, who had a heart attack on the first day; another who was swept away by the river I mentioned two days ago, and split their head open on a rock.  So we’ve survived a deadly tour.  (And the bodies are taken down on mules–creepy, right?  I can only imagine the faces of people still on the ascent when they saw literal non-survivors being carted down.)

Our walk today was straight-forward, if difficult because of exhaustion.  There was also a lot more uphill than I remember descending on the way there.  I completely understand a northerner girl I saw a few days ago, who stopped in the middle of the hill, declaring “no! I’m over it! I’m just not doing this anymore!”.  Though I don’t think that’s likely to have worked out for her.  It was pretty arduous.  Meanwhile, Anouk was too ill–after she turned up around 20 minutes late to a rest stop, we called a mule for her, which took her the whole way to the motorbikes.

SPEAKING of the motorbikes, omg, if you ever do this trip, TAKE THE MOTORBIKE DOWN.  It cost 25000COP, so around 7 EUR, and was pretty much my favourite part.  We were screaming down these riven muddy roads, fording rivers, admiring the view, and all SO FAST.  What on earth could beat being on the back of a bike in the Sierra Nevada jungle?  I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire ride!  (Which admittedly my driver noticed, and he took the opportunity to start hitting on me in Spanish.). For real, 110% amazing.

We’re now at El Mamey, where our trek started, waiting to have lunch before taking the 4WD back to Santa Marta.  I can’t wait for shampoo, and a bed, and to be wearing dry clothes.

Other than recommending you take the bike down, there’s not much I can suggest.  I took quite a heavy pack, at around 10kg, while most people had 5-6.  That 10kg included the pack itself (which is ergonomically okay for my back), a small toiletries and first aid kid (which I think 5-6 of us ended up using: a stand-out winner was the nappy rash cream I bought, which was incredible for mosquito bites, as well as Vaseline), my Kindle and foldable bluetooth keyboard as luxuries (hence being able to type up blog posts while in the middle of the jungle), a solar-powered phone charger, a now-broken camera, a microfibre towel, my sarong (which goes everywhere with me while travelling), 3 tops, a pair of shorts, hiking pants, flip-flops, token pyjamas, a poncho, and plenty of socks and underwear.  Plus my passport and wallet, of course, and a garbage bag (provided) which I put my valuables into.  One thing I wish I’d brought from the start was toilet paper–I didn’t have any until the morning of day 3 when I could buy some, which was a little devastating.

It’s worth noting that all that–barring my valuables–is damp.  Hanging things out overnight resulted in them getting wetter than when we started: even my microfibre towel and sports tops couldn’t dry out.  Putting on wet clothes all the time, especially before bed, was rank.

The tour company we went with is called Guias y Baqueanos, and it cost around 850,000COP, all bar extra water, mules and bikes included.  Overall, a tough but great trip, and I’m glad I came back to Colombia to do it.

Our la Ciudad Perdida trip in numbers:

  • 11 baqueanos
  • 6 nationalities
  • 2 guides
  • 4 days
  • 63.6km walked (plus ~5km on motorbike)
  • 2 mules
  • 2 motorbikes
  • 12 oreos
  • 86902 steps
  • 0 blisters for me (Vaseline is a life-saver!)
  • 61 mosquito bites on my right calf alone (Colombian mosquitoes do not give a flying about repellent)
  • too many hills
  • 3 camps
  • 1 lost city
  • unanimous smiling faces

Quiet leavings

We’re currently on a minibus from Santa Marta to Cartagena, which while having WiFi and air conditioning, has seen us nearly witness or be involved in a humungous number of head-on collisions.  Defensive driving isn’t really a thing in Colombia, and that doesn’t make for the most relaxing of rides.

Moments ago, we stopped at some kind of truck-stop, where vendors came up to the door bearing food as an official checked the passenger manifest.  One of the guys offered me what looked like savoury donuts, and I said no.  He then smiled adorably, and in halting English, said “thank you–thank you for coming”.  A far sight from my most disgusting interaction today, wherein a man riding a bicycle starts calling “gringa! Gringa!” at me.  For one, I’m not a gringa.  For two, when he caught my attention, he starts rolling his tongue around in what one can only imagine was a parody of oral sex.  It was utterly repulsive, which does somewhat raise the question of what the hell he was trying to achieve.

Santa Marta has been a bit of a strange place for me, and not just because of incoherent interactions.  It feels a bit like a microcosm of my life for the four years since I was there last–the people I’ve met there, and moreover the people I’ve met from there, have led to such a number of calamitous incidents in my life, as well as some positive elements as captured by Daniela and her lovely family.  Catching the bus back from town to Rododero earlier, I had ths sudden deep feeling that it’s a place I’ll never see again, and it’s a bittersweet impression at best. It feels like things are changing, and I suppose they are–but it’s still somehow weird to feel thatall the things that have happened because I went to the town in the first place are suddenly, abjectly, over.  Finito.  Terminado.  Completo.  And on to the next adventure…

We haven’t been up to much the last couple of days.  After getting back from la Ciudad Perdida on Saturday, we showered then headed out for pizza with Daniela’s family.  Sunday was spent resting, for the morning, and posting an obscene number of blog posts (that part may have come across…).  In the afternoon I headed out into the storm to go for a walk through Rodadero, along the beach, and to eventually find myself drinking an excellent coffee at Juan Valdez.  That coffee was so good, I started getting emotional.  Too much Colombia!

After a couple of hours enjoying my wet clothes (!), my book, and the raucous noises of birds overhead, I headed back to the house, where we were awaiting Daniela’s dad.  You see, the Dutchie was still feeling poorly, and needed to go the doctor.  In the end, they didn’t get back until something like 1:30 in the morning.  Meanwhile, Daniela’s mum and I watched some overly violent films, and she put up with my pidjin Spanish.

Today was all about Santa Marta, as we headed into town to look for some books.  I’ve wound up with another of Roald Dahl’s books in Spanish–I’m acquiring quite the collection.  Our adventures took us to a delightful vegetarian restaurant, and to the public market just south-east of the main centre of town.  Here it was a bit more flavoursome, with more dirt, more smells, more people.  Slabs of meat hung or sat on tables, a dog may or may not have been dead on the floor, the overwhelming stench of fish and sweat pervaded, and we wandered through sections from shoes to books.  It felt pretty real.  And, of course, people continued to help us all the time, offering directions, making sure we knew where we were, and asking if we wanted to buy water/bus tickets/a new soul (okay, so these last may have been sales pitches).

That more-or-less brings us to now, and this bus, and my 3.5 hours’ sleep, and being hungry, and consistent elbowings from Anouk. But only two hours to go.