Hiking to the Lost City

I wasn’t originally planning on going to Colombia but when I sat down with a travel agent in England to book a flight from Europe to Ecuador to start my South American leg the lady said, “You have to go to Colombia. You’re going to Colombia!” and so I walked out with a ticket to Bogota instead of Quito. She also informed me that I HAD to do the Lost City trek, so with that in mind when I landed in Colombia I organised a four day trek to Cuidad Perdida.

Not as popular or maybe as spectacular as Machu Picchu but the four days hiking through the Sierra Nevada jungle to find the ancient ruins of the Tairona people was nothing short of amazing.

It took 2.5 days to get to the ruins. We passed countless indigenous Indians on the way usually herding their mules lugging supplies to their villages. We sweated like pigs in the humidity of the jungle and were so relieved to have the chances to jump in to a river every day just to wipe all the sweat and grime away for five minutes. We crossed the river a few times, took shelter as it poured rain and hiked through ankle deep mud. We had fruit breaks every two hours where we ate whatever fruit was growing on the trees around us. It was incredibly delicious fruit, some of the best pineapple, watermelon, banana, orange and papaya I’ve ever had. We were fed like ravenous dogs, piles of typical Colombian food, lentils, rice, fried plantains (large green bananas), roast chicken, beef stew, arepas (grilled maize flat bread) and salad.

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Despite being in the jungle it was more like glamping than anything that rough. We had proper bunk beds with blankets and mosquito nets and toilets and showers/a hose with cold water. We were in bed by 8pm and up at 5.30am every day and we slept like babies.

After a cold river crossing to wake us up, we clambered the 1200 stone steps up to the ruins of the Lost City on day three. We learned about its history from our guide as we made our way over the numerous platforms of stone foundations. It was founded around 800CE and is thought to have been a large political and economic centre for the local people and possibly housed up to 8000 of them. It was abandoned sometime around the Spanish conquest but was never found until 1972 when treasure robbers discovered it and looted it’s gold. It was then that archeologists moved in and excavated the over 150 stone terraces.

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Perhaps a little out of place, we found a military helicopter sitting on top of the ruins and soon learned that this place is certainly not so ‘lost’ anymore. The Colombian military have a base just above the ruins and get a monthly food supply dropped by the helicopter. This area of the Sierra Nevada used to be home to a lot of coca plantations and was also overrun with the guerrillas during the civil war, hence the military presence. It felt a little weird to be observing some ancient ruins as buff soldiers marched passed with machine guns and cartons of eggs and sacks of potatoes heading up to their base. Our translator made it obvious that he doesn’t believe the army respect the area very much and see it purely as a symbol of power and strength rather than historic or spiritual importance.

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The night after our visit to the ruins we had a speech by an Indian chief of the nearby village where the camp site was. He stood up and started his rant on how we ‘westerners’ are ‘little brothers’ and indigenous people are ‘big brothers’ and we have no respect for the earth that we live on and it is our fault that the earth is now ruined. It was not the speech about their culture and traditions that we were expecting. We also realised he was slurring his words and when he took off into the night our guide said he had definitely been drinking, unfortunately a common habit for indigenous leaders now. Some people in the group were offended by his words but I figured he was actually right in some ways, even if he was drunk. Between us young backpackers trekking into their territory to visit their sacred place and the military using it as a base, I can understand that they might be a bit resentful.

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With that behind us we hiked all the way back to the start in 1.5 days. Even though we were following the same path we’d used on the way in we couldn’t even tell most of the time. It seemed like a totally new area and we often asked each other, ‘Do you remember that? Are we going the right way?’.

With a few killer steep hills, one affectionately called the leg breaker, we made it back to the restaurant where it all began. We looked at ourselves and then looked at a new group just about to head out and thought, ‘Is that how we looked four days ago?!’. Judging by how dirty, smelly and sore we were you would have thought that we’d been lost in the jungle for weeks!

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As we all clambered into the back of a 4WD to head back to Santa Marta we said goodbye to our pet dog Blue. He was one of many stray dogs up in the jungle but he had started following us from day one and even though we’d been told he usually does that so he can get fed leftovers, he followed us the entire trek. When we hiked through mud so did he, when we crossed wire bridges so did he, when we crossed rivers, we’re not sure how but so did he and when we clambered up the steps to the ruins so did he. He was in our group photo and he slept at our beds every night. As we took off in the car heading for the highway he chased us for a good 20 minutes until we lost him in a cloud of dust and he returned to the jungle. We were all heartbroken after that, we wished one of us could have taken him home.

Four days isn’t a long time but it felt like it. We walked nearly 50km and became good friends. Even though I had appreciated the warm shower and the long sleep back at the hostel and I was feeling a bit stiff in the legs, I woke up on the morning after it had ended and thought to myself, I wish I was still in the Sierra Nevada and gearing up for a seven hour hike today.

 

*post adapted from my trip here in September 2015 and from my previous blog elishasbigtrip.wordpress.com