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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Discovering La Ciudad Perdida - The Lost City - in the Colombian jungle

Santa Marta is a commercial port city bustling with traffic - both cars and pedestrians. Unlike Cartagena's walled city, Santa Marta lacks the sophistication and elegance that give Cartagena its characteristic charm. The city, at least in the area I was in, was heavily policed, with officers occasionally stopping the locals to conduct a body search. The streets were dirty and at times exuded a smell unpleasant to the nose. The people seemed to prefer to keep their distance, whether it was from everyone or just the tourists I don't know.

However, Santa Marta's temperatures are considerably cooler than Cartagena's; and the city's beach faces west, giving an open view of magnificent sunsets that light up the Caribbean Sea like an underwater fire and bring life to the whispers of clouds overhead.

There was little to do in Santa Marta, so I spent most of the day walking around, including a visit to Exito, a super center similar to Wal-Mart. Lunch was served with a curry like soup, rice, salad, yuca, and grilled chicken - all for merely 7K pesos. Dinner was courtesy of a street food vendor. Louie, the fellow from the UK, introduced me to the food cart that was offering plates of food for 4K pesos. I had rice, yuca, and mystery meatloaf. Though it wasn't bad, I could only eat half of the meatloaf, giving the remainder to a stray dog sitting patiently nearby. 

The next morning, with my daypack stuffed with everything I would need in the Colombian jungle, I waited for someone from Expotur to pick me up. It took about an hour for us to gather everyone and make our payments, but eventually ten of us were packed in the 4WD headed to the town of Mamey.

We drove an hour, had a quick potty break, and spiraled up an hour off road into the Colombian jungle.

When we reached the small town of Mamey, we fueled up on bread, ham, and cheese. Little did we know, we would need all the carbohydrates we could get for what was waiting for us.

Formed over 600 years before the birth of Machu Picchu, La Ciudad Perdida ("The Lost City") is located in the dense jungles of Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.  Better known as Teyuna by the indigenous people, the Lost City, given its large size relative to other towns that have been discovered, was likely once the center of regional political, social, and economic power.  According to the Global Heritage Fund, Ciudad Perdida was one of more than 250 stone masonry towns that formed in the northern part of the Sierra Nevada between 200 AD to c.1650 AD.  The ruined city covers an area greater than 80 acres (a football field is slightly larger than one acre), with some 200 plus structures that include terraces, plazas, canals, and much more. It's currently on the tentative list to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Abandoned during the Spanish conquest, the city was engulfed by the lush vegetation of the Colombian jungle. It was "discovered" in 1975 by looters in search of pre-Colombian artifacts, but has since been under preservation efforts by the Global Heritage Fund and the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History. 

With lunch completed, we gathered up in a circle in the middle of the street to stretch. And so began the four most uncomfortable, strenuous days of my life, days that I would repeat even with 20/20 hindsight. 

We started off with a short walk to the edge of Mamey, where the jungle took over. There, two men in military uniforms and machine guns strapped over their shoulders checked the papers our guide handed them. Afterwards, we continued for an easy hour's walk. But, in the high humidity of the steamy Colombian jungle, even just standing there caused the body to sweat. Slowly, before the hard part started, my shirt was turning a shade darker as sweat spread into larger circles. We then trekked straight up for an hour on a rocky path that was unpleasantly trailed by chunks of excrement left for us by the passing donkeys used to transport food and other materials in and out of the jungle. At the top of the hour, we finally stopped for a break, and a view of the tree tops that covered mountains of jungle around us. Respite was short lived, because soon we marched forward for another hour of ups and downs accompanied by an overpowering heat that never seemed to go away. When we finally reached ~520 meters above where we started and after hopping from rock to rock in order to cross the Buritaca river multiple times, our first camp was within sight. 

Crossing the Buritaca for the final time that day (this time over a swaying bridge), we arrived at camp. A wall-less kitchen stood to the right, a couple bathrooms behind it, and a wall-less hut to the left. It was in the latter where a dozen or so hammocks had been strung up. We found our beds for the night.

By that time everyone was drenched in sweat, and unfortunately, whatever becomes wet in the jungle often stays that way. Though there was nothing we could do about our sweat soaked clothes, we easily resolved the issue of our sweat soaked bodies. We all quickly changed into our swim suits and followed our guide along the river. Climbing over rocks and hanging onto trees for stability, we ended up on top of a boulder overlooking a natural swimming pool that was constantly filled by the crashing water of a 15 foot waterfall. Jumping into the Buritaca river, we were all awaken by the sharp cold water that greeted us.

Refreshed from the cold swim, we headed back to camp to change into dry clothes. Having read of other trekkers' experiences and recommendations, I had packed one pair of trekking clothes, swim shorts, and sleeping clothes. The last of which had to be kept as dry as possible no matter what. Once they got wet, my life for the rest of the trek would had felt like a 24/7 humid hell.

For what it was worth, I hung up my trekking clothes while we waited for dinner - broiled chicken, rice, and salad. After dinner, it didn't take long for most of us to drift to sleep in our hammocks with the night time jungle noises reverberating around us. 

It wasn't until the third day when our guide told us a story of a young girl, the younger sister of one of our guides. She had been home last year from school and visiting her father, who owns the first camp we were lodging in. One day, while sitting in the office, a snake crept in from the jungle and bit her leg. Though the family quickly rushed her to the hospital in Santa Marta, the poison had spread to the point where she couldn't be saved. As such, the guide continuously reminded us to check our bags and clothing before putting them on. It was a grim warning to us all that we must remember where we were.

The next morning we woke up at 6AM, ready for a full 6-7 hours of trekking up and down more mountains (after a hearty breakfast of course). For three hours we sweated through the thick dense jungle. Walking in the heat and humidity was akin to locking yourself in a steam room while pedaling away on a stair master.

We passed by former fields of coca plants, as well as empty Kogi huts that belong to the dead. Occasionally, we would encounter one of the indigenous people. Standing solemnly in their (formerly) white smocks, they would let us pass rarely ever speaking.

We were always in constant sweat, with our shirts, underwear, shorts, and backpacks clinging closely to our skin. Sweat dripped from every edge me, and it was like there was a constant layer of water flowing over me. Quite a number of tiny bugs made their way to my arms, only to drown in the non-evaporating layer of sweat that covered me. As such, it was easy to forget that we were in the middle of the Colombian jungle, as far away and remote from civilization as possible nowadays. The sweeping views of thick foliage surrounding us on all sides were breathtaking and intimidating. 

Every time we made it out of a valley the guide would treat us to freshly sliced pineapples, oranges, or bananas. Best of all was when we reached camp two, where we got another opportunity to jump into the cold running water of the Buritaca river. Though the water level was low, the current was disproportionately strong. As we had to do multiple times that day and the following day, crossing the river had to be done with care. Some trekkers had in the past drown when they failed to listen to the guides telling them to hold on to the rope stretching across the river. We almost had an unfortunate accident when the young daughter of a trekker lost her footing and got dragged with the current. It was only with the quick movement of our guide, running into the river and grabbing her before she was pulled further and deeper.

With everyone safely back on land, we stuffed ourselves silly with pasta and iced tea. Then, it was time to leave again as we weren't staying at camp two. For another 3-4 hours we hiked along the river, climbed up steep rocky slopes, and scaled up and down vertical walls with nothing but our hands.

Once at camp three, we repeated what had become a ritual - change, jump in the cold river, change, and refuel. Dinner - carne, plantains, and rice - was again served under candlelight as there was no electricity. After dinner, while drinking coca tea, the guide gave us a brief history on the agricultural aspect of the jungle. Marijuana plants used to be a big crop for the indigenous people until the government sprayed it with pesticides. As a compromise, the government stopped the pesticide and the indigenous people planted fruits instead. Far less profitable than marijuana, the fruit plants eventually became coca plants. Most of those are gone now, with the exception of those sanctioned by the government for indigenous use only. 

With the aid of the coca tea, which acts as a sedative, we all soon headed to our mosquito net covered beds. Underneath the nets, there was a constant battle for the worse smell ever between the stench of damp blankets and the leftover body sweat of previous trekkers. 

On the third morning we woke up at 5:30AM as it was going to be another long day. I changed into my day clothes that were cold and still wet with sweat despite being hung out to dry since the previous afternoon, and then headed to breakfast. Afterwards, it was an hour's hike to the 1,200 steps that would lead us up to La Ciudad Perdida. We hiked for half an hour alongside the river. The path was rocky and wet from the river. At times the path was wide enough to provide the luxury of a foot of spacing from the edge. At other times, there was barely room for both feet to be on the ground at once. When we did our first river crossing of the day it was with the aid of a rope that spanned across the Buritaca. At slightly above knee level (normally it's at waist or above), the water was flowing at a steady but rushing pace. Post river crossing, we hiked for another few minutes and arrived at the first of 1,200 steps. Each step was covered in slippery moss, and as if to add an additional defense mechanism to the city, each step was narrow and appeared to had been made for feet much smaller or with much more elegance than ours. The hike up the stairs was arduous, but not as tough as the mountains we had previously labored up. Plus, the Lost City was waiting for us at the zenith.

At the top, our first encounter was with a large circular platform shaped by layers of rocks. The center was covered in grass. As we encroached deeper into the ruined city for the next two hours, we found terraces after terraces of stone circles that once held huts and acted as ceremonial places.

It is an incredible feat that the city was constructed as well as it had been in the dense mountainside jungle swarming with mosquitoes and battered by endless rainstorms. In fact, one of the many names given to the Lost City translates into "green hell" because of the dangers of the jungle. Our guide took us through the city, which is estimated to be 12,000 square meters large, with 9,000 of which still laid claimed by the jungle.

We came upon two large stones, each of which had a map of the city and the region delicately carved upon its face. It was like looking at a treasure map, and it was up to us Goonies to find the rest of the hidden city.

At the top most terrace, we bumped ways with several of the Colombian military men charged with guarding La Ciudad Perdida. Many smiled at us as they walked past us with machine guns in hand. We were the only other people there, giving us a wide view of the ruined city and letting our imagination run wild imagining the bustling city that once stood where we stood. The remoteness of where we were, with nothing but the sounds of the jungle around us, made it felt like we truly did discover the Lost City.

Up until three years ago, trekkers were allowed to camp at La Ciudad Perdida. However, archaeologists had that banned due to the detrimental impact it was having on the ruins. While that's a completely valid point, it would be no surprise that the terraces we walked upon will soon be roped off like the Stonehenge. There are currently plans to make Internet available at the ruined city - now imagine everything I just described, but with tourists on their smartphones or talking loudly via Skype. One thing is for sure though, until there's an easier way to get to the city, the three day trek to the site will be sufficient to keep all but the dedicated from coming. 

After another hour or so we said goodbye to La Ciudad Perdida, backtracking our way down the narrow 1,200 stone steps, across the raging Buritaca, and along the narrow path to camp. There, we refueled with sausages, lentils, and rice. We needed it as we would be hiking another 3-4 hours (the hike to and from the Lost City earlier in the morning was itself 3-4 hours). By the time we reached the second camp (the one we had initially bypassed) my knees were stiff and screaming in pain after having jumped up and down large rocks for the last three days.

Another dinner by candlelight was served. This time, the meat was tough and hard to cut up. However, the fried plantains and rice were as good as ever. We were partially entertained by the suicidal moths that kept leaping into the flickering candle flames, as well as those that drowned themselves in our drinks. The latter was quite unfortunate for those who didn't realize it had happened to their cups.

The trek was originally for five days; however, I decided to take the challenge of completing it in four. Otherwise, it would had meant spending much of the fourth day lounging around camp in my sweaty clothes. By that time, I stank like someone who was wearing old, never laundered gym clothes that had been stuffed inside a locker with stale air. Our group had been extremely lucky as well since it hasn't rained a drop during the daytime, allowing at least our shoes to stay dry. Normally, the afternoons would had been covered in showers that would have left us with not only even wetter clothing but muddy and slippery paths. 

On the fourth morning, I woke up at 6AM, put on my stinky clothes, had breakfast, and said my goodbyes. Another trekker who was heading out on a bus later in the day was also finishing up in four days. Back at the first camp, we picked up another trekker from Belgium. Together, we made it back to the town of Mamey by 1PM. Not too bad.

After lunch, we hopped in the same 4WD we arrived in and made our way back to Santa Marta. Not surprisingly, I headed straight for the shower. Afterwards, I had to figure out what to do about the mosquito bites on my legs that now looked like the constellation of stars we had seen over the Caribbean Sea on the Stahlratte...

P.S. More pictures after I return to the States, since I mostly kept my phone protected inside my daypack during the trek.

Next up, another visit to Cartagena before jumping into the Amazon. 


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