Pachamama strikes back … trekking to Ciudad Perdida

There are a few things on this trip that have been chosen to push me outside my comfort zone – something I don’t do too often (they call it a comfort zone for a reason right 😃?).  The Lost City trek was the first of those – to challenge me physically.

To the local indigenous people, the lost city (or Ciudad Perdida in Spanish) in the Sierra Nevada De Santa Marta mountains is the heart of the world and in pre-Columbian times, the area was home to various indigenous communities of which the Tayrona were the most developed.

As with many of the pre-Spanish cultures in South and Central America, the Tayronas were an advanced civilisation with a complex social structure and advanced engineering skills who built vast stone terraces on the rugged slopes of the mountains on which they built their thatched wooden houses.

Ciudad Perdida, built between the 11th and 14th centuries, is thought to be the largest of these ‘cities’ (widely considered the capital with a population of up to 4,000 people) and the Tayrona were the first advanced civilisations that the Spaniards encountered in South America in 1499.  They were astonished by their gold work and out of that the story of El Dorado was born.

Over the course of the following 75 years, the Tayrona’s fiercely fought the Spanish, ending in the almost total decimation of the Tayrona people.  Those that survived the battles and diseases the Spaniards bought, fled high in the mountains and their civilisation was lost.

Ciudad Perdida was ‘discovered’ again in 1975 by grave robbers before the government sent in troops and archaeologist to protect and study the site – but  not before the grave robbers dubbed the site ‘Infierno Verde’ or ‘Green Hell’ due to the number of deaths occurring.

Set between 950m to 1300m above sea level the only way to get to the city is a two-day hike in to the mountains and although the wooden houses of the Tayrona are long gone, the remaining terraces and the remoteness of the site is still a big draw for visitors.

Although the site has been open to tourists for many years now, it was actually the kidnapping of tourists in 2003 that bought international notoriety to the area.  A group of tourists were kidnapped by the ENL, one of the guerrilla groups active in the area at the time, some of were kept captive for three months in the jungle before being released – you can read more about this here if you are interested … https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jan/26/my-kidnapper-colombia-hostage-mark-henderson

Of course, that was all in the past and the area is now safe, though still monitored by the military and is now part of the main stream tourist route through Colombia.

Unfortunately, instead of being reassured about the trek after the welcome meeting with our new guide the night before our departure, I was more apprehensive – whoever decided that 7pm the night before a 5.30am departure is the time to talk about what you should take and packing clearly had not tried to buy duct tape at 8pm on Sunday night in Santa Marta 😬 – apparently to fix holes in mosquito nets 👍🏻.

Again, the packing anxiety sets in – trying to pack a small bag for a 5-day trek which of course was too heavy to start with (including 2.5 litres of water).  Also, the welcome meeting was the first time we had heard it might get down to 12c at night – what???? All we had been told up until that point was about the heat and humidity! I could not take anything more so decided to take the risk and hope that a couple of merino tops would do the job.  (Just a quick note to say it never got anywhere near that cold – that was something we could only dream of lol.)

So, it was filled with dread and trepidation that I set off at 5.30am the following morning in to the mountains with our guide Juan Diego and our Wiwa guide (from one of the local indigenous tribes) Leandro.  Unfortunately, Leandro did not speak English and from my limited Spanish I knew the translations we got were often not complete!  Thankfully there were enough Spanish speakers amongst us that we got the full story in the end.

We travelled from the paved streets of Santa Marta to the dirt tracks of the foothills of the mountains and the town of Machete Pelao (apparently named after the many machete fights that use to take place there 😬.)  Here were we given a true hiking breakfast of Potato and chicken bone soup 😬, then eggs, arepa (a local ‘bread’ make of maize flour) and a big pile of cheese! This was probably the first of many miscommunications as many of us did not realise we were getting a full breakfast and ate 2-3  bread rolls provided at the hotel before we left at 5.30!

The trek is described as challenging with many very steep ascents or descents – also ‘scrambling’ over rocks and alongside raging rivers etc. was required in some places, all this done in the scoring jungle heat and humidity.  I have actually never sweated so much in my entire life!

Below I have just included my notes and thoughts as I made them during the hike ….

Day 1: today we walked approximately 16kms with many steep ascents and descents – I thought I was going to pass out at one stage from heat exhaustion 😬.  I was dripping wet with sweat by about 3 minutes in and it did not get better. It only cooled down slightly by a little rain in the last 30-40 minutes of the days walk.

The exhaustion of this first day was not helped by the frustration with our guide as he kept telling us misleading times for parts of the hike!  I know it did not matter but I needed to mentally prepare myself for what was to come!

Despite all that, I enjoyed the night at the Wiwa camp – being back in nature, with us all bunking down in one big shelter with mozzie nets.  We were all so tired, we had eaten dinner and were in bed by 7.30😔.

This and all the camps we stayed in were fairly well equipped with real toilets, showers and a little shop selling cold drinks and snacks.

Day 2 and the jungle tried even harder to kill me 😬.  On one particularly steep ascent I turned my ankle and landed on my knee getting a number of deep dirt filled gouges 😔 after a quick clean the guides patched me up with a ‘jungle bandage’, consisting of a sanitary pad covered by a bandage👍🏻. The upside of this incident is that one of the guides carried my bag for part of the way – what a difference it made and I actually enjoyed part of the walk even though there was lots of steep ascents.

The last 2 hours I was back carrying my bag and it was hard – the swear pours of you all day and it seems just not possible to drink enough water to replace it. By the end of the day’s hike I was feeling faint and desperate to lie down.  Fortunately, our lunch stop was where we were to spend the rest of our day chilling – after our 6am start (hiking that is) and approximately 11 km of hiking up and down steep hill sides.

When I got a moment to take my eyes off the track in front of me and look at around me, it was amazing – it truly is beautiful. We had also walked through some Wiwa and Kogui communities and saw many of them on the tracks with their mules and dogs – some even walking in bare feet or gumboots full of water from the river crossings. Very few photos unfortunately (except for those taken from a distance) as they are a very private and shy people (except for Leandro our Wiwa guide who apparently is an oddity amongst his people for being so outgoing)!

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The best thing about the camp for the night was the pet peccary – kind of like a pig has been crossed with a porcupine as his fur was almost like quills – he was so cute and loved having his belly rubbed😃.  I also loved sleeping to the sound of the roaring river just below us.  I wish we could have stayed here longer (and not just to avoid any more hiking!).

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Meet Pepe the Peccary

Day 3 and we had another 4.30am start and that pride that came before my fall on day 2 had diminished to the point that another girl and I asked to have a mule carry our bags – when I had hiked the day before without it, it made the world of difference and I decided I would rather try an enjoy the hiking just a little rather than struggle on.

The good news is that day 3 did not try to kill me but did a good job of kicking my butt 😬 – for 19kms in total. After the 4.30am wake up call, we started our final hike in to the lost city. 1 km of rough ups and downs, a river crossing up to mid-thigh in some places and then 1200 steps made by the ancient Tayrona who by all accounts were tiny little people and their stairs were definitely made for little feet – though in some places they had broken away so we were scrambling rather than walking upstairs – of course as expected the pain so far was worth it.

Although all the buildings have disappeared as they were made of straw and wood but the platforms on which they were built remains and it was easy to image the vast city high in the mountains – 1200 metres above sea level

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It really was a beautiful place – one of the spiritual leaders (a Mamo) of the local tribe still lives there but he was not home when we visited 😔.

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Upon arrival in the city we had to perform a cleansing ritual where we had to put all our negative thoughts in to a coca leaf and leave in the middle of a circle before walking around the circle to lock in the negative thoughts.  If I understood correctly, the site is closed each September for the local Mamo’s to cleanse the site – both physically and spiritually, including the negative thoughts we had left behind.

We spent 2-3 hours wandering around the vast site with Leandro explaining more about the culture, the city and the original inhabitants of which he and the other indigenous tribes living in the area today and considered descendants.

(Stay tuned for the next blog for an explanation about what he has in his hand and what he is doing with it!)

Back to the camp for lunch before we set off on a gruelling 4-5 hours back to the camp from night two.

Day 4 started off incredibly chilled as we did not have to get up before daylight 👍🏻 and the only walk for the morning was 20 minutes to a beautiful waterfall before going through my now familiar first aid ritual to make sure the gouges in my knee do not get infected.  (As an after note, I did get some antibiotics when I got back to town just to ensure infection did not set in and as I write this it is all healing well 👍🏻.

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As much as I really have not enjoyed the hiking I have loved being in the camps and in the jungle. It was a full moon on night 4 and it was stunning.  As I lay on a bench watching a flock of parakeets and a hawk fly by, I wished the whole trip was more relaxed so I could get more moments like that to just enjoy being there.

Given our morning was so chilled, our afternoon walk was not fun – a very long, steep ascent was the theme of the day 😬 but least it was only 2.30-3 hours in total for the day and an ice cream shop on the way made a world of difference.  Even though it was only a short walking day we still managed almost 10km through the day.

The main excitement for the day was when Molly almost stepped on a large snake across the path – she stepped over it not realising it was there. I was walking behind her and saw it as it reared up and I called out to warn her – she was terrified and ran of screaming before bursting in to tears. I am pretty certain the snake was as scared as she was and it quickly slithered off in to the undergrowth, of course that did not help calm her nerves at the time.

As we caught up to the others, they did not believe Molly’s story of her brush with death- even our guide found it hard to believe – thankful Leandro our Wiwa guide had been walking with us and also saw it so could back up our story 😬.  apparently it was a pretty rare sighting and we are yet to be reassured it was not a poisonous snake!

Our last camp was a beautiful spot with a lovely view – we had the small camp to ourselves and enjoyed our final night in our bunk beds under our mosquito nets although we did not get much sleep due to snoring, insects, beetles diving bombing you in the toilets, beds breaking (not mine thankfully), mules walking past and other general jungle noises … in our sleep deprived state we found most of these things pretty hilarious.

Day 5 and despite very little sleep we had our final 5am start. It was finally a day when I enjoyed the hike – despite a few very steep parts, it was interspersed with nice flat parts – it was almost all in the shade which made it much easier without such intense heat.  We walked a total of about 12.5km today when we arrived at Gotsezhi.  A Wiwa community where G Adventures (the company I had travelled with through Colombia) support a community project.

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As we had walked so fast we arrived by 11 and got the opportunity to chill out in the hammocks before a lunch cooked for us by women from the community.  We then meet with the local Mamo (actually the apprentice as the Mamo was away) and taught about more about the culture and traditions – I have decided to write a separate blog about the Wiwa who we travelled with as this post is already way to long (I hope it is not as physically exhausting to read as it was to do the hike!)

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By this point we were all desperate to get back to civilisation and its trimmings – proper showers, clean clothes (by this point most of us had been wearing the same clothes for many days and words can not describe how smelly and dirty they were), internet etc.   We jumped back in the 4x4s that had dropped us in Machete Pelao what seemed like a life time ago and headed back to Santa Marta over dirt tracks that could not really be called roads – 4x4s only and I am sure after heavy rains not even that!

Apologies that this is somewhat disjointed but as I said, it is more a collection of thoughts I made during the hike.  To summarise – I hated it and I loved it.  It was physically exhausted and mentally challenging and truly pushed me to my limits.  But I survived and am sure I am stronger for the experience.

(Mention must go to the great group of people I walked with – 5 days in tough conditions and we could always have a laugh at the end of each day 👍🏻.  Don’t think I would have got through it without them.)

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