Colombia: Ciudad Perdida

5 days away from everything except sun, dirt, and Coca-Cola.  Because it’s Coca-Cola.

Never having been the lay on the beach type of guy, I knew I’d need to do something a bit active for the March Break.  Since I started to get a little lonely during the down time of the Turkey run (not much hostel life out in the east), I figured a jungle adventure with a small tour group was just what was needed.

Absolutely right.

I’m going to break the trip down into the 5 days it actually took, though there are a variety of options.  Also, look for a “Ciudad Perdida vs Machu Picchu” post after this, as it’s a comparison that apparently gets made a lot, though the two experiences couldn’t be more different.

Anyway, here we go!

Day 1
After departing at 9:30 am “Colombian Time” (see 10:40), the thirteen people in our group were taken to the small town of El Mamey.  Small as in one street, maybe 15 buildings, give or take, along with a few outliers.  The company we went through, Magic Tours, hires all their guides from the local area, so they have a pretty good insight into the local customs.  Only Spanish speaking, mind you, but between three Argentinians, a Colombian, an Italian, four Canadians, two Americans and a German, we had some solid translators going.

When you sign up for the tour, you’ll have an option of doing a 4, 5 or 6 day tour.  Basically, there’s no difference between the tours other than down time.  You’re going to walk the same distance overall, but the four day would walk more per day than the six day.  Wanting a bit of down time, I went for the 5 day.   The divide on either side of me was interesting, as the 4 day group consisted mostly of younger people who didn’t have the time to do a longer trek, while the 6 day group was older folks who wanted to take their time and weren’t sure they could commit to seven hours of intense hiking a day.  Nothing wrong with either one, but just odd to see the lines drawn so clearly.

A few of the things I was warned about by Travis ended up being non factors.  First off, the trek is notorious for mosquitoes, but they were nowhere to be found on day 1.  Second, the line “everything gets and stays wet:” was used several times, which was more or less true, but we were “lucky” enough to hit a bit of a dry spell, so when I accidentally stepped in the river, my shoes were fine by the next day.  It also meant I could take out my non-waterproof camera a bit more often.

The general pattern of the hike is walk, swimming hole, walk, break with view, walk, swimming hole, walk, camp.  We were lucky enough to find ourselves in a beautiful natural “piscina” within an hour before continuing our walk up some chalk white trails.  You get an amazing view of the hills surrounding Tayrona park at the top.  From the hole to the first camp, it’s about three hours, and the uphill is pretty killer for anybody who isn’t ready for it.  Still, the view totally made it worth it.

Along the way, you see a few crudely made signs depicting animals on the trek.  The first three are for the deadliest; a spider whose bite can kill you; a scorpion whose sting can cause you muscle pain and temporary paralysis; a small, venomous snake that was a part of the asp family.  So, scary stuff, although then having pictures of anteaters, toucans and armadillos on the next few signs had me doing a reread to see if I’d be licked to death by an anteater or dive-bombed by a toucan.  Happy to say, none of those things happened.

The camp, known as “Alfredo”, was absolutely beautiful, with little red and blue shacks, a picturesque rope bridges, multicoloured flowers and another swimming hole, this one with a pronounced waterfall (with a heck of an undertow – not the best for standing under).

After a great dinner, our guide, Pedro, gave us a bit of a history of the region.  At one point, the farmers there were making a lot of money growing marijuana.  The government wasn’t a fan, so they blitzed the place with chemicals, effectively killing the marijuana and a lot of the other local flora, making it impossible for once common plants like avocado to grow.  The farmers then turned to coca leaf production (not immediately cocaine production – that came later), which led to, among other things, more government chem-bombing (didn’t work, cocaine is resilient), farmers organizing themselves into a militia to protect themselves against guerrillas, territory wars between various fronts and, through it all, a rediscovery of Ciudad Perdida and the beginning of a small tourist trade that became the main source of employment for the locals when the government finally got the coca plants eradicated (by hand, no less.)  Interesting stuff.

We learned that the group would split the next day, with the 4 day group walking all the way to the Ciudad Perdida “base camp” known as Paraiso (“Paradise”), while we’d be stopping about 2/3rds of the way.

Ordinarily, I’d be all up for the four day challenge, especially after getting my second “You don’t look like you’re 35” compliment.  Because being 35 means you’re basically dead.  I even thought of switching to the four day to give myself that challenge.

Then I remembered why I signed up for the 5 day.

Down time.

Take some down time, Kirk.  Take some down time.

Day 2
So sleeping in a hammock isn’t the best thing for a guy with a bad knee (reinjured about three weeks before the trek), as it was basically stretched in extension for most of the night until I figured out how to sleep in one of those things.  Not the greatest sleep, and the close quarters meant we were waking up with the 4 day crew, (about two hours before we had to) but worse sleeps have happened.

Plus, there would be down time coming up.

Waking up at the Alfredo camp is darn beautiful.  The morning gives the flowers around the camp an extra glow, and plenty of wild birds fly in and out of the camp, including one stunning red and black bird which I saw three times that morning, failing each time to get a good photo.  More chances to come.  Even the sunlight peeking through the silhouettes of my non-quite-dry socks was something breathtaking.  Not because the socks smelled.

Having been told that everything stays wet on the trek, and not seeing the need to carry around a pair of wet socks, I went against my better Boy Scout instincts and left the old guys hanging on the line, figuring somebody else might get better use of them than me.  Maybe as rags, if nothing else.

We also said goodbye (temporarily) to Pedro, as he left with the 4-day crew and Jenny, his daughter, was charged with the responsibility of getting us to base camp.

The hike started off hilly, going past some controlled burns, through some big old banana tree forests, and around some amazing vistas.  After a few hours hiking, we were passing by a traditional Kogi village, made up of straw huts with double sticks pointing out of the top like horns, symbolizing the two major mountains of the region.

Photographing indigenous peoples is always a tricky bit of business.  For some, the whole idea of being captured on a picture is considered spiritually offensive.  The whole “Come back with my soul” gambit from The Simpsons.  Others are righteously pissed at having their photos sold for a profit with no money coming back to their community.  The Kogi seemed to be of the latter camp, not wanting their pictures exploited for profit, or without some kind of compensation.  Before passing the village, we were told that anybody who was outside of the huts during our passing was fair game, and the villagers who did not want to be photographed would simply go inside.  As we went by, the village was desolate, save for a few kids playing outside who were more than happy to have their picture taken from afar.  I waited for the posing to die down before getting some really nice candid shots, which I will soon be selling for $19.95 a pop.

Or not selling at all, because that would be bad.

After passing the main village, we came across a smaller set of huts where the kids definitely weren’t shy about tourists, confronting us on the path and asking us for sweets.  A couple of the girls pawed at my travel towel and swimsuit, which had been hung on my backpack to dry in the early morning sun, asking what they were.  I had bought some panella, a guava paste that had been formed into a large, hard brick.  Biting off a couple of pieces and giving them to the kids gained me permission to enter their house and take a few pictures.  One girl was the ringleader of the crew and, to her, I gave a small TDSB whistle that Daina had found at home.  I used my best Spanish to explain that it had to be shared with her little sister, who seemed pretty sad that I only had the one whistle.  Hopefully “sharing is caring” translates to Kogi.

Pretty shortly after visiting the villages, we were at camp.

Wait, what?

So the 4 day crew had apparently hiked right to the base of Ciudad Perdida (they’d be arriving there later in the day, and checking out the ruins the next morning), and our stop was the half-way point between Alfredo and Paraiso (Paradise).  It was at this point that I started to question my choice of tour, not because of the people or the beauty of the land, but because I don’t know if I wanted five hours of relax time before dinner and sleep.

So, made my own adventure.

After lunch, we went to check out another beautiful “piscina”, with tonnes of rapids around it and some cool, crisp water.  I took the prerequisite “get all the sweat off” dive in, and then turned to exploring.  Running, jumping and climbing on the various rocks, I made my way up and down the river, exploring the various rock formations and dipping my feet in where it looked safe to do so.  The rapids weren’t treacherous by any means, but without anybody at camp knowing my exact location, I didn’t want to get too into the dives this time around.  Still, a great break away from the rest of the gang and a chance to be active at my own pace.

After getting my fill of jumping around in both directions, I made my way back to camp for some socializing, dinner and sleep.  As much as I was worried about having all that extra time, I filled it in a way that was both relaxing and adventurous and, given the choice to do it again, I would have still picked the five day, as travelling up that river on my own was quite the experience.

That night, we had graduated from hammocks to bunk beds and had a considerable amount of space around us, even with another group in for the night.  That extra space would evaporate on Day 3.

Day 3
Today was the day the bugs came out.

They weren’t nearly as bad as I had been led to believe and Jenny mentioned that they are usually worse, but I was glad that my Off Deep Woods wasn’t going to waste.

Today was a shorter day of hiking, similar to Day 2, with the intention of getting us to Paraiso for lunch and giving us more downtime in the Buritaca River.  The bird watching was intense today, as I was frantically trying to snap shots of a few different birds, almost getting a shot or two of my “white whale”, the red-and-black bird.  Google makes a poor Audubon guide, so “Red and Black Bird” will be the name for the rest of the trip.  We passed through a huge clearing atop a hill, past a few local farms in the background, and to another swimming spot, which ended up being the last river we’d have to cross before arriving at Paraiso.

Paraiso is definitely the biggest of the camps outside of Alfredo, and seems the most purpose-built to be a “base camp”.  Definitely designed to jam as many people in to the camp as possible at one time, with hammocks that can be lowered into the dining hall, bunk beds that leave maybe a foot or two between you and your neighbour (the mosquito nets make a nice people barrier as well), and more bathroom facilities than the other camps.  We lunched with the 4-day crew, who all raved about the ruins, making me even more excited to check them out the next day.

Since the timing was similar to the previous day, it looked like my activity pattern would be as well.  So, I made my way down to the river again to do some rock hoping and made it pretty far before getting whistled back by one of the group members.  At first, I thought I was getting busted for getting too close to the ruins or something, but it turns out Pedro (who was once again our guide) just wanted to sit everybody down to talk about the history of the Tayrona people.  Unfortunately, it was the typical “Spanish come to South America, want gold, take gold” type story, though the Tayrona people were actually smart and traded a lot of second-tier gold (mixed with copper) for tools and weapons.  Once the Spanish figured this out, they responded with germ warfare, shipping their sickest, most contagious slaves into the jungle to say “hi”, effectively beginning the downfall of the Tayrona civilization.

Colonialism = Awesome.  But not really.

ZEN!!!

Once we were done listening to how Europe screwed up the Americas, I went back on my river adventures.  Eventually, I made it to a picture perfect, Zen type waterfall.  It looked like nature had made a Japanese Tori and planted it in the river, letting the water rush over it for all to see.  I fully laid back on the nearest rock, closed my eyes and did my best to absorb the world around me.

When I opened my eyes?  Red and Black Bird, right across the river.  I slowly, carefully grabbed my camera and managed to get a half-decent shot of the little guy.

Even with dinner and sleep on the way, I considered this the end to another beautiful day in the jungle.

Day 4
5 am was the communal start time for the BIG group at the camp, with anywhere from 40 to 50 tourists up and ready to see the ruins.  This is actually a big amount for Ciudad Perdida, though when you think about some of the other major tourist stops of the ancient world, 50 people someplace for a day isn’t that bad.  After scarfing some breakfast, we were off on some steep, windy paths where Brian, the 76-year-old in our group, was a CHAMP, scrambling his way up surfaces that would give anybody pause.

Ciudad Perdida is known to the locals as Teyuna and is believed to have existed since 800 AD, predating Machu Picchu by about 650 years.  It was the spiritual and financial centre of the Tayrona people and could have housed up to 8000 people in its heyday.  1200 stone steps take you from the first of its many terraces, the economic terrace, where trade and business was conducted, to the main religious platform, which is the terrace you see if you punch “Ciudad Perdida” into Googlemaps or Google images.

Part of my apprehension of having so many people up with us in the morning was that the site was small and it would get too crowded, too quickly.  Well, the place is bigger than it looks on Google (never trust the Interwebs!) and all it takes is a bit of patience and you can experience the site (almost) alone at times.  The main religious terrace, featuring the throne of the local mamo (head shaman) of the time, is a ridiculously impressive structure, forming the top half of a valley of platforms.  Just past the main platform, the Colombian military has set up a base, patrolling the area ever since a tourist kidnapping back in 2003 (the only one that ever happened in the area).  After hiking around the religious terrace and soaking in the views, you can pass through the “Dead Zone”, where a family feud erupted into slaughter, and where flowers are now in bloom, and the quarry from where most of the rocks were taken.  We were also lucky enough to see the present-day mamo, who happened to be in camp that day to officiate a wedding between a couple from Cartagena.  Not sure if I’d want to be married by a guy who seemed a bit tweaked up on coca leaves (which are traditional and spiritual here the same way they are in Peru), but the backdrop would be nice.

After the hike, it was back to camp for lunch, then a walk back to the camp we stayed at on day 2.  The camp cat tried to steal my potato chips, so that was something new.  Then the cycle of swim, eat, sleep continued.

Day 5
4:30 am wake up!  The theme for today was walk-walk-WALK, as we had to get from our camp to El Mamey by midday.  We walked through a beautiful sunrise and I ended up taking a bit more of a 4-day speed, pulling ahead of the group and giving myself more time to rest at the end of various legs.  Ended up making friends with a horse at one stop, as the little guy got out of his stable, walked close and just started staring at me.  Also stopped into the local school, which reminded me of the room I taught in in Kenya, though I think this room was for all grades, housing as many as 40 students, if my Spanish was correct.  Fun fact: Teachers in rural Colombia get paid $300 a month.

We had a quick refreshment stop at Alfredo, then we left the 6-day crew behind for the final leg to El Mamey.  Just as we were coming back into town, we witnessed a group of kids riding a dirt bike in a way that would have had Canadian parents freaking out yelling “STOP”, if it had been allowed to happen at all.  Oh, developing world!  In El Mamey, I had a steak lunch waiting for me, of which I savoured every bite.  A drive back to Santa Marta later and I was in the shower, washing off five days of dirt and sweat.

This was definitely one of the more amazing hikes I’ve ever been on.  As I’ve noted a few times, the challenge level depends on your general fitness level and how you want to approach the hike, so it will be as easy or as hard as you make it.  The think I liked most about this hike, though, is that the locals seem to be in control.  There’s no easy road or train to the site, the hike is the only way in or out, and the Kogi seem to be working with the government to make sure that their homeland doesn’t get overrun.  When you think of some of the other old ruins in the world that seem to have been built so people can be bused to them (Machu Picchu and Ephesus being the two that come to mind right away), actually needing to work to get someplace amazing is a refreshing change of pace.

It’s not quite “off the beaten track” at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome.

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