Keys, virginities, marbles and even children are all things that understandably get lost once in a while but just how does one ever manage to lose an entire city? Yet legend, archaeology and the tour industry offer many examples of citadels and even entire civilisations which vanished from the face of the earth to be rediscovered centuries or even millennia later with great excitement and more often than not a good old bit of looting.
Hidden high in the jungle covered Sierra Nevada mountain range “La Ciudad Perdida” is (in lazy comparison terms) Colombia’s answer to Machu Picchu. Whilst perhaps not as spectacular or as well preserved (or rather as “meticulously reconstructed”) as Peru’s world famous Inca sites it was purportedly, in its prime, 4 times its size (only a small fraction has so far been fully excavated) and crucially retains the massive advantage of receiving far less visitors. There is also no easy way to get there and it can only be reached by way of a 4 – 5 day return hike through a potentially hazardous jungle.
I arrived in Santa Marta with no clue of what I was going to do there other than bask in the Caribbean splendour and drink a few beers. However I promptly discovered that Santa Marta is a bit of a shit-hole and useful only as an access point for the many national parks and pretty satellite towns around it. When I checked into my dorm I met Abe, a towering, good natured Dutchman who essentially talked me into doing the Lost City trip with him so together we paid our fees ($200) signed our liability waiver form (in a language neither of us understood) and packed our bags. The night before the tour we were visited in our hostel by a representative from the tour agency who we had booked through (access to the city and mountains is strictly by tour guide only) who told us what to pack (day clothes, night clothes and mozzy repellent) and drew us a crude map which I prayed we would never have to actually rely on to get home safely. He assured us that our guide was extremely competent but that “he don’t talk the English as good as me”. He also implored us to be “ready at 8 the clock. No be late”.
Fast forward 12 hours and after an early night and a hearty filling breakfast (which we feared may be our last for a while) myself and Abe sat packed and ready at the appointed hour. 8:01 came and then 08:30 went and suddenly it was nearly 09:00. What was going on? Had they forgotten us and set off without us? Or had we just been scammed never to see any £200 again? Eventually a taxi pulled up outside our hostel and we jumped in. No explanation as to the delay was offered, I was guess we were just on “Colombian time”. We were off, out of the city, through the suburbs and onto the road that ran through the valleys. The next leg of our journey was by motorbike pillion up a bumpy dirt track that ascended into the mountains and deeper into the jungle. Whilst we weren’t provided with helmets I did have a huge, barely wrapped fish sharing the backseat with me which I presume my driver had caught or bought for his family’s supper that evening.
Base camp was a clutch of wooden structures that over hung a sharp drop. We were introduced to the rest of our tour party who had been waiting for us some time and had consequently already eaten their lunch and by the looks of it some of ours so I and Abe were reduced to cobbling together plates of leftovers.
After exchanging names (something Abe was to take the whole 4 days to quite master much to Connor/Gunther’s annoyance) we were joined by our guide Lo. The tour agent had been quite right in advising that Lo did “no talk English as good as me” as Lo spoke no English at all. Fortunately enough of our party were bi and even tri-lingual (I felt truly ashamed) so between us we were just about able to communicate.
The first afternoon’s hiking was tough. We climbed up and down hills, crossed streams and waded through mud. The jungle was humid and my cotton vest was quickly stuck to me with sweat. After only an hour I was questioning just how I was going to handle a whole 4 days of this! As the day cooled and light began to dim we reached camp and I immediately dove into the flimsy wooden toilet cubicle to unload an oncoming attack of diarrehea. As I had only been in the jungle a number of hours I accredited this to an ill-advised iced juice purchased in Santa Marta the previous day rather than the onset of a jungle disease that might cut my trip short.
The first nights camp was a number of wooden cabanas, one for toilet and showering, one for cooking and eating and another hung with hammocks for sleeping. Meals were cooked by Dan, our groups cook in huge wooden pots and served along wooden mess tables. The food was great and very welcome after a long day’s sweating and hiking. Best of all there was even a little tienda from where to buy cold cans of Aguilla beer which came in perfect for opening with my new jungle buddies; I was very impressed. As night fell I saturated myself in 3 different types of mosquito repellent, I was taking no chances out here.
After a good meal, a few beers and too many riddles, it was time for bed. Whilst it was no later than 9.00 it was pitch black in the jungle except for our torch lights and we were all beat from the days hike. The night was perfectly still and I slept serenely.
We were awoken by Lo just before dawn (about 5am) and I was the first up. I headed to the toilet shed that overlooked the valley and opposing mountains. As the light was emerging from behind them I witnessed the morning due turning to steam and rising up from the jungle towards the sky, it was stunning, so much so I rushed back to the sleeping shack to hurry up my companions so they could see it. I didn’t have a camera with me but even if I had there is no way I could have ever done such a sight justice, it remains one the most awesome things I have seen in my life.
After breakfast, coffee and a fresh dousing in DEET we were off for day 2. Once again we struggled up mountainsides and down them again, crossed rivers and struggled through mud with the punishing humidity ensuring that at no point in the entire venture was anybody ever allowed to be anything like dry. In the jungle we saw coffee and coca (the raw ingredients for a well-known Colombian export product) growing in mountainsides. We passed the Indigenous Kougi people, their cheeks ever swollen with the coca leaves they were chewing as we respectfully filed past their settlements. Lo educated as to their history, the large round building with the thatched roof was the shaman’s house where the community would receive divination and healing. The Indigenous had managed to live their traditional way of life with little in the way of change since before the Spanish conquest and had initially refused access to tourists seeking passage through their lands en route to the Ciudad Perdida but that had changed in the 1980’s owing to some community building work and quite possibly a nice little financial incentive judging by the number of times I saw Lo handing them 20,000 peso notes. I struggled to tell the Kougi men and women apart, they dressed identically in white smocks, kept identical bowl fringe haircuts and even their features were the same through centuries of only a small gene pool I guess. They seemed to not even acknowledge the tour parties save for the guides causing Abe to enquire whether we had offended them. “No” Lo assured us “it’s just their way”. The indigenous children were however a little more curious especially when Albertine, our groups eccentric Italian street performer showed his magic string trick to a young indigenous girl. Watching her face illuminate with delight and then seeing her hand busy as she tried to work out the trick for herself proved that no matter the cultural differences human beings are the same the world over and a simple act can transcend so many perceived boundaries.
Over the next few days Lois showed us the many other splendid things the jungle had to offer, plants for healing and out of body experiences and ancient burial sites which had once been filled with gold before they had been plundered in the 20th century. Of course I can never be entirely sure just what the guide said as sometimes our collective attempts at translation came short so Abe (who spoke the least Spanish of any of us) filled the gap by way of pure guess work; “what the guide might have said” as he put it.
As day 2 drew to a close we arrived at camp. This time there were even little wooden framed beds adorned with mosquito nets and after more platefuls of food and cold Aguilla beers (again, cold beer in the depths of the jungle, of all the triumphs of humanity this is surely the greatest!) we took to rest and prepared ourselves to reach the city the following morning.
Each day we awoke before dawn and watched the mist rising from the jungle covered mountains, waking up wild was certainly to my liking. As we breakfasted we heard that we would arrive at the city before noon and then head back down before the sun reached its apex. Lo had come down with Chikungunya (a nasty mosquito borne illness that was doing rounds across the Caribbean) and would be unable to make it so Dan our strapping porter and cook would accompany us. After a short hike we zig-zagged across the river again and arrived at the first of the 1400 steps which lead up the mountain side, through the jungle trail and to the city.
Dan explained to us how the steps had first been discovered by “grave robbers” around 1972 who then went on to discover the city although it was some time before they alerted the authorities to their findings. I mused to myself as to what made these guys “grave robbers” whereas Howard Barter is considered a legitimate archaeologist even though he incurred the wrath of Pharaoh’s curse by stealing his ancient treasures away to the British museum in London.
The steps were steep and wet but our eagerness at being so close propelled us on and within no time we arrived to see the first of the stone structures. The city had once been home to the pre-Spanish Tyrona people and appears to have been abandoned at the time of the conquest.
La Ciudad Perdida
Now, I already said that the lost city isn’t as well “preserved” as Machu Picchu. What is left of it are the stone structures which once served as foundations of buildings, the whole thing is closer to say the Roman Forum rather than the Colosseum and you may need either a guide or a qualified draftsman to even appreciate that you were looking at what once was a structure. Dan conducted the tour “this was a house, this was the jail” and I quipped in my lame Spanish “Dan, donde esta la discoteca?”. Like in many ancient cities, the higher the elevation the more the important the building and its inhabitants (compare this to modern Colombia where the mountainsides are precariously littered by barrios!) and as we scaled up the terraces we passed the court, the kings house and then the high priests dwelling. Maybe the ruins of the city themselves were not that impressive but the view from the top was, looking down across the old site and beyond it at the green mountainsides was just breath-taking and we all knew that the arduous slog to get here had been well worth it.
One thing I have somehow omitted to mention thus far is that the entirety of the trial and much of the Tayrona national park was historically something of a running battleground between Colombia’s various para-military groups and its army and consequently the Ciudad is now home to a garrison of soldiers and with machine gun nests scattered about the high grounds. Whilst taking in the view a helicopter approached and we were ushered into a little lookout hut with two of the soldiers. The helicopter landed and a film crew got out. The soldiers wore blank, stern expressions but cracked a smile when Albertine once again pulled out his magic string trick. The helicopter rota-ed away and it was our time to head back down to camp for lunch.
The return journey wound back the way we came and without the excitement of reaching the city at the end of it was tough but completely manageable and on day 4 arrived back at base camp ahead of time for lunch. It was just after 1pm and it was the first occasion in 4 days that any of us had actually checked the time, out in the jungle there is no such thing, you wake with the light, sleep with the darkness and eat when you’re hungry, it’s really that simple.
I got back to my hostel later that afternoon. Having been offline for 4 whole days I expected to log in to find countless emails, updates and friend requests but alas it was not so. So after regaling the other guests in my hostel with my jungle tales I took an early night at around 8pm, I had been up since 5am after all and was still on jungle time.