From July 20 to 25 I hiked the trail to the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Archeologists refer to this site as Buritaca 200. This is Colombia’s equivalent of Machu Picchu, okay maybe not as big and certainly not as famous, but mainly it remains off the beaten track (literally) because it is more remote (it is a fairly demanding five to six-day roundtrip hike to get there and back) and for many years the region had serious security problems. The situation has improved considerably and now I felt confident that if I were to go on this trip I would be coming back (and not spending the next couple of years of my life in FARC captivity while my family negotiates a ransom). The boys were with their father for the month of July, so this was my opportunity to travel.
The chiva bus picked me up at the gas station at Mamatoco, the crossroads of the routes to different areas of the region. As I waited a couple with knapsacks got out of a taxi. I watched them with interest. They were wearing sandals, so I figured that they were heading for Tayrona Park, not Ciudad Perdida, but when the chiva arrived I discovered that they were part of our expedition after all. The nine of us were packed into the two back rows of seats, along with flats of beer and pop, and crates of food. The driver and two guides sat up front. After an hour on the highway heading toward La Guajira, we turned off onto a deeply rutted dirt track. That would explain the muddied shovel I had noticed lashed to the back of the vehicle. Despite the wild pitching of the ride, we did not overturn, and the vehicle only got stuck in the mud once. We arrived in the hamlet of Machete Pelao. As we waited in the sweltering heat, we observed the groups of hikers who had just returned from the trip. They looked exhausted and defeated.
We eyed them nervously as we munched our ham and cheese sandwiches. As we waited for our hike to begin, we made our introductions. The couple who got on the chiva with me at Mamatoco was Maria and Camilo, a pair of teachers, about 26, from international schools in Bogotá. There was Julie, about 35, who was taking a year off from her job in Edmonton, Canada and who had been traveling in Thailand, trekking in Nepal and the Inca Trail in Peru. May, 36, was a second grade teacher and yoga instructor from San Francisco. George, late forties, and his son Felix, 19, were Australian. Felix had been traveling and was teaching English in Bogota. George had met up with him for this trip. Sarah, about 50, was a British woman now living in Belgium. She writes for a magazine and was also an experienced trekker, with trips like Nepal, Katmandu, and Kilimanjaro under her belt. Jimmy, 19, was also from San Francisco. He was a bit of a mess. The previous day he had been walking on the beach and flirting with a woman. He was so caught up in the moment that he failed to notice that he was getting seriously sunburned. Jimmy's burns looked painful and he had large blisters on his feet. He did not look like he was in any condition to be hiking. Our guides were Marrón (José Francisco Aguilar Oliveiro) and William.
Jimmy was adamant that he was going to make the trip, so it was agreed that he would go on one of the mules that carry the supplies. I had been told that it is worth the extra fee to have the mule take my pack, so I had brought a daypack, and put all the non-essentials in the big pack to be carried by the mule. The hike began on a uphill slope. The heat was draining. We did not stop at the swimming hole, mainly because of a language shortcoming as some members of our group did not understand the guide's answer when he told them that they could bathe (bañar en ducha) at the camp, but that there would not be another swimming opportunity that day. It was about a four-hour hike, predominantly uphill, to get to the camp. At one of our rest stops outside a local farmer's shack, an enormous sow came out to greet us and have its belly rubbed. George and the sow hit it off immediately and I sensed a certain connection between them. It was just starting to rain. I was thinking that the heavy red clay would make for difficult walking in a downpour.
The camp was well organized. There was a freestanding open structure, with a roof under which all the hammocks were hung. Another open structure with tables and benches serves as the eating area. And there was a large cooking area. The layout varied, but this would prove to be true of all the camps. We were assigned our hammocks in the section closest to the bathrooms. Sanitary conditions were a bit precarious, but that was to be expected. The kitchen was already bustling as we arrived. The guides are responsible for the cooking and each tour company has its own menu. Dinner that night was fried whole fish, rice, fried plantain disks (patacones), and salad, all washed done with river water treated with chlorine tablets and flavored with instant drink mix, which George promptly dubbed "Harry Potter juice."
After dinner our guide Marrón got out his maps and documents and explained the history of armed violence in Colombia, the rise of the FARC, the drug trade, and how this situation affected the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in particular. He started with the 1948 assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, and the bloody violence that ensued between the Liberals and the Conservatives, giving rise to the FARC and causing massive displacement from the Colombian countryside; how the communities were forced to create self-defense groups to protect themselves from the guerrillas because state troops did not have the manpower to control the situation; how these self-defense groups began to operate with the complicity of the military, segueing into what became known as the paramilitaries; how drug trafficking began to spread as a crop that was much more profitable for peasant farmers, and how clashes between the growers and those on the business end of the trade led to further waves of violence; and how the Uribe government cracked down on the narcotic crops and negotiated the demobilization of the paramilitary groups. Marrón did an excellent job of providing a comprehensive overview of the history. He spoke no English. Camilo, María and I would translate at intervals for those not fluent in Spanish.
After story time, I went straight to bed. A hammock can be surprisingly comfortable when you are completely exhausted. Mercifully it did not swing much. The occupant of the hammock next to mine snored loudly for the first couple of hours and then found a more comfortable position.
It rained during the night, but the sky had cleared by morning. Most of the groups that were staying in the shelter headed off on a side trip to see the "coca laboratory." I declined. Apparently it has been set up as an educational exhibit on how cocaine is processed. I have done enough illustrated translations on the subject that I did not feel the need to go see. I took advantage of the fact that the camp had cleared out to move my wet clothes to a dry spot in the sun.
At any given camp there were usually around 40 people, four groups. About 90% of the people making this trek were foreigners. This is not really surprising. I would doubt that more than 10% of the people trekking up Mt. Kilimanjaro are Tanzanian (aside from the guides).
When the groups came back we has a breakfast of papaya, pineapple, banana and yogurt. It was good, but not exactly what I would consider a sustaining meal. We set off around 10:00. We were the last group to leave the camp. The hot sun beating down made the going heavy, but it had dried out the paths somewhat. We had two breaks for fruit en route, watermelon and pineapple. At the second break we had a dip in the river. This time no one declined to go in.
On our way we passed a Kogi village used for ceremonial occasions which are held every two or three months. The Kogi don't live in this village; they live on their farms scattered throughout the region.
We arrived at the second night's shelter. This one had a structure that was closed on the sides and open on one side, containing bunk beds. Another structure held hammocks. Several groups were coming down and there were about 50 people in the camp, plus assorted native people and campesinos who wandered through. The hiking groups prepare large amounts of food. Because our group had more women than most groups, we always had leftovers. I noticed that a lot of these other people were receiving plates of hot food so that nothing would go to waste. Lunch was a vegetable stew with white potatoes, yellow potatoes, yucca, carrots, pasta, and some sort of tuber that I could not identify. After lunch the heavens opened up and it poured. It was not boding well for tomorrow. I had a top bunk and the roof was slightly leaky. I solved that by laying a plastic bag on top of my sleeping bag and putting my super absorbent towel on top. Not everyone had brought their own sleeping bag and there was a certain amount of grumbling about the condition and scent of the blankets provided, and there were not enough blankets to go around. I was grateful to have had my sleeping bag with me.
Dinner was stir-fried chicken and vegetables, rice, and salad, plus Harry Potter juice, of course. After dinner Marrón gave us some information about the Kogi people. The Kogi families are dispersed throughout the hills. Sometimes you know that you are near a Kogi farm because you will see banana trees or pigs. Each local region has a leader, the mamo, who attends the cabildo, where political and social matters are decided. The mamo is not the same as the chamán, who is responsible for spiritual matters. The latest census, seven years ago, puts the Kogi population in the Sierra Nevada at 5,700. Now it is estimated to be around 10,000. Fertility is very important to the Kogis and a Kogi woman will normally have 10 to 15 children in her lifetime. About half of the young people choose to emigrate to the cities. Kogi girls are considered to be of marriageable age once they have reached puberty, but they will not marry right away. A young Kogi man who is interested in marrying a Kogi woman must first prove that he cares for her and is able to provide for her by working for the girl's father for two years. Once he has proven himself, then the couple is allowed to marry. The young couple will immediately establish their own household. The Kogi is an agricultural culture and the cultivation of the coca leaf holds special traditional and spiritual importance. The men chew coca all day long, mixing it with a bit of alkaline that is needed to release the active ingredient. The alkaline is derived from seashells, collected at the shore and crushed into a fine powder that every man carries in the poporo that he receives when he comes of age. Periodic trips down from the mountain to the sea, to make offerings, trade agriculture products for salt and fish, and to collect shells, is a traditional part of the culture. The women will work on the farm, and will also spend part of the day harvesting coca leaves, which are placed in a tightly woven mochila pouch worn slung across the body. When the pouch is full of coca leaves, a stone is heated on the fire and placed in the pouch where the heat and weight of the stone will dry and crush the coca leaves.
It rained heavily during night, but by morning it was clear again. Breakfast was scrambled eggs with mushrooms, a grilled cheese sandwich, and toast and jam. Marching rations. Jimmy had come this far on the mule, but after this point the track narrows and hugs the mountainside along the river. It is impassable for the mules. It was clear that Jimmy would have to remain at this camp. We felt badly about leaving him, but at least it was not like an Everest expedition, where he would freeze to death and none of the other groups would be able to spare food for him. As we started out it was pleasantly cool and we also had to ford the Buritaca River immediately. This is the deepest crossing on the hike. I was determined not to get my shoes wet. So when it came to fording the river I would diligently take them off and store them in my pack, putting on my water shoes. Some people just ploughed right through the river in their hiking boots. I would have been very uncomfortable hiking for five days in wet boots. Above the crossing there was a cable car traverse set up, for when the river is too deep to ford. At that place the water was chest height on me. Every day we had to cross the river a number of times when the vegetation on one side became too dense to continue, or else we ran up against a waterfall or a sheer rock face.
Despite the relative morning freshness and the chance to cool off in the river, it soon got hotter. As this point we were in automatic marching mode. The group spread out and we hiked at our own pace, knowing that we could rest to catch out breath or drink water when we liked, and that there would be at least one break for fruit at some point. Some people hiked faster than others, but no one lagged behind. We made good time to the next camp. Despite the fact that it had rained every day, this afternoon looked clear. Marrón said that he had been to see the chamán to arrange this. Ahaa. We had a light lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches and Harry Potter juice, and then were ready to make our assault on the summit.
On this leg of the hike you have to ford the river five times but the river is shallow and relatively easy to cross. After the final crossing we started the steep climb up, up, up. There were 1285 steps to the top, but the river washed away about 50 steps on the lower part after a landslide had blocked the river upstream and had to be cleared. Ciudad Perdida is estimated to have been built between 600 and 800 AD, making it older than Machu Picchu. This can be seen in the fact that the construction is much more primitive, using rough hewn stones that contrast with the finely tooled and chiseled work of Incan stonemasonry. Nonetheless the stone that make up the foundation for the structures of the Lost City are deliberately and solidly placed. There has been speculation that the stones were not quarried, but rather were molded from a sort of rock amalgam.
Whereas Machu Picchu looks like it was highly organized, Ciudad Perdida appears more organic, and gives a sense of the mystical with its graceful, curving lines. All of the buildings were round, contrasted with the straight angles and quadrangular layout of the other more famous site. Covering 2.2 square kilometers, Ciudad Perdida is an extensive site. It remoteness also adds to the sense of mystique. Our group of nine was the only one on the site at the time. It is believed to have been a permanent settlement. It was abandoned around 1600 AD as the Tayrona culture was devastated by the diseases that the Spanish brought to the new world. Those who fled into the bush and survived are the Kogi, believed to be the direct descendents of the disappeared Tayrona culture whose once magnificent city fell into ruin.
Above the site the National Police have a post to ensure security. They are discretely tucked away in the mountain above, and at first were not visible in their camouflage togs.
We hiked back down to the camp and had a bathe in the river. This was the only afternoon on the trip that it did not rain heavily. A few drops dampened our clothes but not our spirits as May led us through a series of yoga exercises which felt wonderful after three days of constant exertion. While dinner was being prepared (rice, lentils, a stew made of dried beef, salad; again I was very impressed with the freshness and the variety of the food we ate), Julie taught us a really fun card game called "Shithead" that can be played with incomplete packs of cards, of which there were several lying around. It distracted us from our rumbling stomachs, which in Julie's case was translated into a particular longing for ice cream.
After a night on the hard beds we had a relaxed breakfast of cheese and tuna empanadas. I sat down with George, Julie, Sarah, and May to share tips and recommendations for things to do, see, eat, and buy in Colombia.
The day was slightly overcast was we began the return trip. Hiking the path, crossing the river, and climbing up and down the mountainside, sometime in the shelter of the jungle canopy, sometimes out in the open sun, we reached the resting point where we had a snack of bananas. An excellent choice, both to replace the potassium that we lost while sweating buckets, and for those who were suffering from "delicate tummy." Two little Kogi girls were there by the path. They were looking at María and pointing at her St. Joseph medallion. María pointed at the medallion and then pointed at the Kogi girl's bead necklace. The girl nodded and they traded. The other girl then traded her bead necklace for the silver heart that María was wearing as a pendant on one of her hoop earrings. All three of them were thrilled with their trades.
The clouds were getting thicker, and then the heavens opened up and it started to pour. I pulled out my Disney World Mickey Mouse rain cape and draped that over myself to keep my bag dry. I didn't mind getting wet, but I knew that I didn't want to sleep in wet clothes that night, and keep my camera dry was a priority. The path quickly grew slipperier and became hard going as clumps of mud stuck to our shoes. By the time we reached the final river crossing we were soaked to the skin, with or without raincapes. I looked at the swollen river and eyed the cable traverse longingly, but only one person can get across at a time and our guides wanted to move us across as quickly as possible, so since we were already soaked, into the river we went, hiking boots and all... after having been so diligent about keeping my boots dry to that point! The current was now ridiculously strong. As the shortest person in the group, the water was chest high on me. Crossing, slowly and deliberately with the help of the guide William, we each made it across.
From there it was not far to the camp. Once there a showered, hung up my wet clothes to dry as best they could (not very likely considering that it was still raining) and was pleased to see that my clothes inside my bag were still dry, or at least only slightly damp. Lunch was rice, beans, chorizo sausage, and salad. Over dinner Camilo was coaching Felix in some choice phrases to improve his Spanish like, "La Ciudad Perdida es una putería!" Roughly translated: The Lost City is fucking awesome!
Looking at the other groups that we had seen each day, I knew that I would not have wanted to belong to any other group. I absolutely had the BEST group. We were a mixed bunch, but considering our age range and differing backgrounds, our pace and stamina was pretty even. The other groups were predominantly male ca. age 25. Glad I wasn't assigned to one of those packs of alpha wolves. Bet they are glad they didn't get stuck with me too.
We were up at 06:00 and ready to make an early start. Today we would have to cover the same two sections that we had hiked on the first two days of our journey. Even with two pairs of dry socks, my boots sloshed as I put them on, but cold and wet soon warmed up to warm and wet, which was at least a bit more comfortable. The sun was burning through the clouds quickly. It was going to be a hot day. I slathered on a good layer of sunscreen and filled my water bottle, adding a chlorine tablet and a packet of Harry Potter juice mix to cover the chlorine taste. I always had water being treated in liter bottle, and then would transfer it to my smaller stainless steel bottle for drinking. Having over a liter of water would prove to be necessary today.
The first part of the walk was on flat terrain through the woods. It was lovely and peaceful. If the whole hike had been like that, it would have been a walk in the park or "like pissing in your hand " as George would say. The path soon got steeper and muddier. That was more like it! The group began to spread out. My boots were actually drying as I went along. When I got to the river crossing I decided to go a bit further upstream and cross on the rocks in order to keep my feet dry. I was bit further behind the group at that point but I wasn't worried because I can make up time while walking. I caught up to Sarah, who was a bit flustered because she had taken a wrong turn and had followed another path along the river before coming to a dead-end and realizing her mistake.
Today we passed a lot of Kogi on the trail; many more than we had seen on any other day. I arrived at the Kogi's ceremonial village. What had been empty on the way up was now teeming with life. The Kogi leaders (mamos) and their families were there for a cabildo. These are only held every two or three months so it was a coup to see them. All of the Kogi keep a distance from the foreigners. The men are fairly unapproachable but the women and children would return greeting and wave. I asked permission and was allowed to take some pictures. Many of the women were busy harvesting coca leaves from the bushes.
Continuing on the trail, it was getting progressively hotter and drier. I caught up with our guide Marrón who had been following behind us, which surprised me because I hadn't seen him pass me on the trail. He, in turn, was worried that he hadn't seen Sarah or me. I explained how I had left the trail to go upriver and that Sarah had made an unintentional detour but that she was back on the trail and following not far behind. Marrón was visibly relieved! I continued and Marrón waited for Sarah.
I arrived at what had been camp number two, hot and tired. I had finished all of the water I was carrying. I filled up my water bottle and began the treatment process again. I had also partly gone over on my ankle and it was a bit sore. George had a bottle of some magic Asian remedy which he applied. It burned like heck at first but did provide some relief. His son Felix was the last to arrive at the camp. Felix had taken a fall and had cut his wrist badly, looking like a failed suicide attempt. He was not bleeding and the cuts were not deep but there were a lot of them and they looked painful. We had our snack of oranges, pineapple, Gol bars (our favorite), and readied ourselves for the final segment of the hike.
The sun was now beating down mercilessly. The section began with a sustained climb. On our way in, we had done this section in the morning; now it was brutal. María was suffering because of her knees. Her blood sugar was also running low. She asked if I had anything sweet and I gave her the Oreo cookies that I had saved from dinner last night. She was relieved to have them. We rested for the same place where we had stopped on the way up and George renewed his relationship with the sow. The feelings between them appear to be mutual, although I don't know how she would get on at his place in Melbourne.
Finally we got to the last river crossing and went for a well-deserved swim. I swear that our combined body temperatures nearly made the water boil. I left my walking stick leaning up against the rocks by the side of the trail. This was where I had picked it up on the way up. From there it was only about half an hour more to the hamlet of Machete Pelao. That cold beer in Machete Pelao was one of the best I have ever tasted.
In Machete Pelao there is an Army post. At the top, above Ciudad Perdida itself, there is also an Army post. I asked our guide if the Army was only present at the start and end of the hike. He said that they have posts all the up the route, but that these are located further back from the trail, where they see us but we don't see them. That gave me something to think about as I considered the number of the times I had dropped my pants to pee in the bushes along the way. So long as I don't see any full moon shots of me on the Internet, we'll just chalk that one up as a treat for the boys who were there for our protection.
More than once during this trip I thought about my friend Julian who spent a year and a half in FARC captivity. I thought about the other people who had been kidnapped and held hostage by the FARC, and the endless forced marches to which they were subjected as they moved from camp to camp in order to stay ahead of the authorities. We were doing this voluntarily, as an adventure, and knowing that we would be back to clean sheets and bathrooms within a few days. Their situation, the uncertainty about when it would end, would be an entirely different experience. No wonder Julian says that he cannot stand being in a hot climate anymore.
It was an extraordinary trip. It is beautiful, authentic, but hugely physically demanding. I don't know if I would do it again. More than a vacation, this trip was an accomplishment. The people undertaking this expedition were by large seasoned travelers, who had already been on treks in places like Nepal and Kilimanjaro. Ciudad Perdida is a world-class trekking destination.
Thinking about going? Take into account the following:
Accessibility: 1/10. The trek is enormously physically demanding, and the sanitary conditions are pretty precarious.
Enjoyment: 8/10. It was not always enjoyable. At least one hour everyday was tough uphill climbing, with a full pack on your back, in extreme heat, while beating off the ravenous tropical insects. The insects continued to be ravenous while resting in the shade or camps. Then there was the disgust factor vis-à-vis the state of the bathrooms and camp showers. Plus everyone, without exception, suffered from some tummy twinges. But after adding up all the unpleasantness, it only came to about seven hours out of 120, or about 6% of the time.
Authenticity: 10/10. The Lost City or Buritaca 200, stands as it did from the time it was abandoned after its inhabitants were decimated in the early 1600s by the diseases carried by the Spanish. The site itself has been restored but not rebuilt. The glimpse at Kogi culture was also fascinating. Very few places in the world offer such an authentic look into the past, including the lives of the Kogi, who tolerate the presence of the trekkers on their trails, as they go about their lives as they have for hundreds of years. As one of the four tribes that descended from the Tayrona and that inhabit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Kogi are responsible for caring for the earth. They fulfill this role with great respect and humility for the beauty and bounty of nature. I felt privileged to have been allowed this glimpse of their universe.
A number of travel agencies in Santa Marta, such as Expotur and Turcol, offer these trips. Expect to pay around Col 450,000 pesos (about US $250) for a five-day trip, which includes transport from Santa Marta to the park and back, food, lodging, guides, and park fees.