The following night in the bar I talked to a few chaps who had been. The words tough and jungle and indians were mentioned along with kidnapping incident, guns and gringos. “ Wow, that caught my attention.
For the last few days, the words Cuidad Perdida had been going around in my head. Somewhere in my brain a light was blinking. Hadnâ€™t it been mentioned somewhere in that long publication on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website? It certainly had cropped up as a bit of a buzzword around the odd gringo in Santa Marta.
I found a late night internet cafÃ© and I checked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website again:
â€œWe also advise against all travel to southern parts of Meta department and to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (including the â€˜Lost Cityâ€™). There is a high risk to your personal safety in these areas.â€
The Lost City (Cuidad Perdida) is nestled deep in the mountainous jungles of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. It takes approximately 2.5 days to trek in.
I went to the hotel in downtown Santa Marta where you can book the trip. You could even talk with some of the original band of Tomb Raiders who discovered the Lost City, purely by chance, in 1975. These guys now run guided treks into the region; rather than scratch a living with occasional small jackpots searching for ancient grave goods.
The first day of the trek started with our driver getting arrested for some minor traffic offence. The Cops enjoyed teaching him a lesson by making him unload the entire roof luggage, then they tell him that everything is fine and he can put it all back up.
It took an hour of battling our way through the Tuesday morning traffic, followed by another hourâ€™s drive along the main route between Santa Marta and Barrenquilla. We stopped for arrepas and â€œshotsâ€ of rough black coffee for lunch. When we finally reach the turn-off on the asphalt road, the two jeeps begin the slow and precarious climb up into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
We had to walk behind the vehicle on two occasions as the drivers negotiated the tight squeezes where the road had partly fallen away into deep forested canyons below. Three cheery young farm boys with their trademark long machetes in their tasselled scabbards skipped past in Wellington boots, their jeans caked in mud.
When we finally arrived at the start point we walked for 20 minutes and stopped for lunch beside a crystalline river as we slowly allowed ourselves to become accustomed to the multiple jungle odours of dank earth, decomposing vegetation, flowers, shrubs and vines.
The climb took approximately 8 hours each day on a 70% gradient of mud-filled switchbacks, heavily eroded by rain, donkeys and occasional trekkers. By about 6pm I started to think that we were close to our accommodation for the night as it was late in the day and there seemed to be several small houses at the bottom of the trail ahead, just before the river.
I walked into the midst of the houses; no trekkers, just two small boys sharpening some machetes on a wet stone. I looked about for more signs of life; a topless guy with a moustache was wreathed in tobacco smoke in the still air, silently watching the muddy, damp human traffic slowly passing by in oneâ€™s and twoâ€™s. I correctly assumed that there was further to go and tilted my head to the smoker in a silent hello and pressed on into the quickly growing dusk.
We spent the first night at a mud built farm, with chickens and a few pigs and cattle nudging around the hammocks throughout the night. I didnâ€™t sleep very well as everyone had descended on the supply of smelly blankets like vultures. Therefore wound up blanketless and shivering throughout the night. The next morning we were told by the guide in his beautifully rapid Spanish that those with a lot of gear should leave any non essentials at the farmhouse to pick up on return. The climb was to be very strenuous. We were just carrying one half-full 30 litre rucksack between two of us so it was ok.
We set off after a light breakfast and struggled up the almost impossibly steep, muddy red gash in the undergrowth that lead upward past the last of the occasionally farmed fields, into the gloomy primary forest.
The heat of the day was already taking its toll, I thought, as I heard someone retch their breakfast into the undergrowth far behind.
Despite the fact that there were eighteen of us on this trek, we spent much of each day alone as we strung out along the trail in twos and threes, as the heat and humidity separated the seasoned trekkers from those who felt they may have exceeded their brief on this trip. The latter muttering to ourselves, as we kicked along the trail alone. In an attempt to keep the pain of exertion to the back of our minds.
In total, on day, two I think we crossed four mountain-sized, dense jungle ridges; the hard way, against the grain. But your mind can play tricks on you in close to 90% humidity, 35 degrees Celsius, without more than a 5 minute break every couple of hours because the moment you stopped you were covered in mosquitoes to an extent bordering on the comical.
The second camp was a bit more comfortable. When we finally arrived I walked straight into the crystal clear fast flowing river in an effort to clean the sweat from my wet gear. I was much warmer this night due to my procurement of a smelly blanket, which Iâ€™d pilfered from camp 1. We drank cheap rum and a few beers.
Our third day began with a waist deep river crossing. The river was quite fast so five of the guys banded together to form a human chain to get the baggage to the other side. I battled to stay up in the current when several of the larger packs were passed to me as my trousers â€œflag-poledâ€ and threatened to sheer my feet from the slippy purchase on the circular stones in the river bed.
The day itself consisted mainly of river crossings, eight in all. With a few precipitous parts of the trail in which we had to climb high up into and along the valley wall, dirt and vines falling on us from those higher up. Finally, when we had circumnavigated past the obstacles and descended to the river again, there, opposite our final river crossing, I noticed some mossy steps leading mysteriously upward into the gloomy rainforest. We were close.
There were approximately 1200 almost vertical steps cut and shaped around 600 years previously by the Tayrona, ancestors of the present day Kogi Indians. After climbing these steep, slippery steps for fifty minutes we stumble into the Lost City amidst heavy rain. Thunder and lightening crashing and flashing all around us. The thunder reverberating all the way down through the valley below, which was hidden from view by the clouds we were standing in. the first structures consisted of a few circular walls about 2m high were heavily encrusted with a long, light green moss.
As I walked around the first of these circular stone structures I admit feeling slightly underwhelmed. How does this constitute a city? On hearing the calls from one of our party who sounded lost. I silently rounded the building and made a concerted effort to scare the shit out of him. â€œVery fucking funny!â€ he exclaimed as he picked himself out of the mud. â€œWhere is everybody?â€ â€œDonâ€™t know; – but I assume they have gone up thereâ€, I said, as I pointed up the wide elaborate stone stairway that I hadnâ€™t noticed before due to the trees.
I clocked the first soldier five minutes later at the top of this ancient stairway; wearing a poncho in the rain and looking pissed off. We were on our own by this stage, so we walked by with little more than a nod to the gunman, unsure if he was an actual soldier, FARC or ELN.
A little further into the spectacular ruins and a second soldier appeared, and I had to assume from his insignia that they were not FARC. He silently pointed in the right direction, but for a while I found it hard to shake the feeling that we had been nabbed. (Cue mothers scolding voice in back of mind).
We were aware of the rumour that there were government troops in the area to protect EL Presidente, who was apparently due to arrive the next day. For the next 20 mins we climbed silently through the overgrown ruins past more and more soldiers. Well at least we wouldnâ€™t be lonely.
Before a final river crossing high up along the valley wall we caught up with two of the Aussies on the trip, being helped across by the troops. One looked over her shoulder at us with a somewhat dubious expression on her face as they disappeared around the next corner.
We met up with the rest of the group at the camp which consisted of a two-storey hut, which could sleep around twenty five people top to tail. There was a campfire-kitchen and makeshift shower/toilet area constructed from Hessian sacks, stitched together to afford the user a degree of privacy.
We dried off and settled in on our slightly odorous mattresses, a welcome change from hammocks. Later, downstairs, we drank coffee and interacted with the soldiers that were hanging around waiting for El Presidenteâ€™s arrival the next morning. It turned out these particular guys spend months at a time in the jungle, moving from map reference to map reference, collecting air-drops of supplies and ammunition. So they were naturally quite pleased to see us.
It didnâ€™t take much persuasion for them to set up their weapons in a gung-ho display and hand the nearest female a 5.56mm Galil assault rifle. What followed was a fair bit of posing from both the gringos and the soldiers. One of the girls even posed in her bikini top, much to the liking of the troops.
Next day the group scattered into the ruins to explore. My partner had apparently strained both her ankles which subsequently swelled to rather large proportions. This was not helped by the multitude of insect bites. A few hours later her eyes had joined in – not a good look.
By 9am there was a lot of chopper activity so I grabbed my camera and descended toward the main ruins to welcome El Presidente…………..of Royal Caribbean Cruises, and the Minister for Tourism. So much for rumours. But at least they arrived in the presidential chopper (Air Force 3?).
A lot of the local Kogi Indians showed up, along with their Chief/Shaman. All the men chewing big quids of coca. It was quite a photo op. I spent much of the rest of the day exploring the most overgrown ruins on my own while my partner rested up for the imminent descent the following morning.
We trekked back as far as the first camp from day one in less than nine hours and tucked into the beer. Ever tried getting in a hammock when youâ€™re pissed?
I woke at around three in the morning to tend to a call of nature. Not wanting to disturb anyone in the tightly arranged hammocks, I decided to step outside of the main area, unaware that a light rain had fallen over the previous few hours. I promptly went on my arse after a cartoon-esque rapid foot movement and slid rapidly to what I assumed in my sleepy state was to be my doom.
Next morning we were invited to visit a cocaine factory. “Cool, where is it?”, “Youâ€™re standing in it”. “Really?â€ There followed a demonstration of the production of one of Colombiaâ€™s most famous handicrafts. Though the term â€œcottage industryâ€ would have been a bit more accurate.
When we eventually climbed down from the mud splattered jeep in downtown Santa Marta, we collectively looked like a scene from Bridge over the river Kwai. In muddy and torn clothes, but with strangely satisfied smiles and a cheeky glint in our eyes. For we had endured much, and seen alot; met farmers, soldiers and statesmen.
The fact that the good old Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that there was â€œa high risk to your personal safety in these areasâ€. Added the thrill of being a naughty schoolboy. F**k â€™em. What do they know? I didnâ€™t once feel under threat in my time in the region and word has it that none of the kidnapped folks back in 2003 had much of a bad thing to say about their â€œcaptorsâ€. Yes they were inconvenienced by being asked to spend a little longer. But they did get free food and board as well as free Spanish lessons and a bunch of interesting friends. â€“ Itâ€™s never really Black and White is it?
Author – Naithin Rogers