We are alive, tired, and resting after the trek to Ciudad Perdida. Here’s a synopsis of the 6 day hike into the jungle: uphill, downhill, mud, more mud, lots of mud, slipping in the mud, falling in the mud, getting stuck in the mud, sweating, sweating profusely, getting bit by mosquitoes, getting bit by ticks, getting bit by bedbugs, wading through the river, wading through the river again, slipping on rocks while wading through the river for the 8th time, climbing up and down a thousand tiny steep steps, sleeping in hammocks, sleeping on ratty old mattresses. That’s pretty much the trip in a nutshell. For the nitty gritty day-by-day details, continue on, intrepid reader:
After breakfast crepes and tintos, we bundled into the jeep that would take us over the river and through the woods to the little town wherein we would commence our journey. In the jeep we met the other 3 members of our group: an English couple and a lone Englishman, all of whom were already world-travelers, bent on conquering the globe for the next year or two . Other travelers we met along the way also fit this mold: traveling for 5 months to 2 years, traveling all over South America or over the entire known universe. I myself can’t even fathom being away for that long. 2 months or 3 months seems quite substantial enough to me. I think this difference, which can be delineated between the European and American travel norms, is that in the US we pay so much to go to college that the only recourse we have is to immediately embed ourselves in the neverending indentured servitude of a career, whereas in other modern countries, they pay less for the university and it is expected for them to go backpacking and experience the world before settling down to pints in the local pub. Whatever the case, one meets loads of Israelis, English, Aussie, and Kiwi everywhere in South America, all traveling for insanely long amounts of time and with no apparent lack of cash for the journey.
Anyway, to continue with the topic at hand: the jeep ride down the unpaved mountainous road to the small town where we would disembark was a mini-adventure in and of itself, bumping, swinging, and jostling as the driver sung to himself or told vulgar jokes to the guide. We nearly got stuck in the mud at one point, but managed to swerve out of it as chunks of mud spattered across our faces. My girlfriend was visibly pondering what she had gotten herself into.
We finally arrived and we stopped to eat some bologne sandwiches on the ubiquitous white bread which Colombians seem to relish. The journey by foot then began.
Now let me stop to clarify something: when I say that this trek was muddy, I am not speaking of little puddles of mud that you can step daintily around and avoid. When I speak of mud, I speak of the kind of mud that you can only ultimately accept as a part of yourself, the kind of mud you must become one with, the kind of mud you must slog ankle-deep through, the kind of mud that slurps into your sandals and cakes itself to your legs and clothes, the kind of mud you cannot escape.
The first day of the trek was muddy. The lone Englishman had purchased Wellington boots (or “wellis”) specifically for the trip, and he took a certain relish in tramping directly through the muddy bits while the rest of us slipped and slid about. My girlfriend and I only had our Chacos and our Keen sandals, respectively, and these were definitely not the proper footwear for excessive mud. I nearly lost one Keen within the first 20 minutes, when I got my foot completely sucked in by mud and couldn’t remove it. I had to pull my foot out of the sandal and then extricate the sandal by hand by pulling with all my force. I then had to walk barefoot until we reached a river where I could wash them out.
It rained quite a bit that first day as well, rendering what would only have been a strenuous hike into a humid, hot, wet, muddy nightmare. My girlfriend now was appalled at what she had gotten herself into, and I was starting to have some doubts myself. She fell head over heels in the mud. I slipped and did some kind of funky split and pulled a muscle in my leg severely and I thought for a moment that I was through. It was exhausting.
5 hours later, we finally arrived at the little house where we would spend the night. We met a group of fellow travelers there who were passing the night on the way back in from the city. We ate a substantial dinner of eggs, rice, potato, onions, tomatoes, and tinto. We slept in hammocks with mosquito nets, and it took me a while to get comfortable in it, and even longer to fall sleep, because a little child at the house kept waking up and wailing all night long.
One of the extracurricular options for the morning was to venture to a nearby cocaine factory, if the group all decided they wished to go and would pay a little extra for it. We decided we would go. It wasn’t a real cocaine factory; it was more a cocaine factory exhibit, set up specifically for the gringos coming through. They took us through the process, from leaf to paste, and showed us what solutions were used at every step. It was highly educational. Among other things, gasoline and sulphuric acid are used in extracting the cocaine from the leaves. Doesn’t really compel you to put it up your nose. It’s a quite simple process, however, and extremely cheap. Considering that it is cut up to 20 times before it even reaches the market in places like LA or New York, it makes you realize that someone out there is making a hell of a lot of money. We were allowed to try the paste at the end, and it made my mouth really numb.
Then off we went for our second day out. This was supposed to be an easier and shorter day. It wasn’t. However, the good news was that it didn’t rain during the hike, so not quite as much slip n’ slide.
Along the way, we passed through an indigenous village. Called Kogui, they wear robes of white and have long hair and carry little sacks (mochilas) slung over their shoulders. The mochilas are woven from a cactus-like plant called Maguey, which is related (but not the same) to the agave plant in Mexico that they use for tequila. The men also carry poporos, which are little gourds carrying a lime solution that they use in conjunction with chewing coca leaves. They are not necessarily unfriendly, but they are obviously not thrilled by the sight of hundreds of gringos tramping through their village and forest. They will usually say hello to you when you pass by them if you initiate the goodwill, but otherwise remain aloof. I can’t say that I blame them. Our guide wouldn’t even give them a name when I kept asking him what they were called. He just said, “los indigenos” every time I would ask. This probably reflects a general attitude towards the native peoples.
I had asked our “guide”, who is a just a 19 year old local boy, about cacao earlier, and along the path today we passed a cacao tree, and he cut down the fruit for us to try. I was pretty excited, because as anyone who knows me is aware, I eat dark chocolate on a constant basis. The cacao fruit is a large yellow-orange fruit the size of a football, and when you open it up, it has white custardy sectional pieces inside that look rather like garlic cloves. The fruit tastes like a cross between guanábana and banana. They prepare the cacao for chocolate by drying out its seeds just like coffee. On the way back through the village on the 5th day, we saw the seeds being prepared out on a tarp. I have to say, I am quite happy to say that I have eaten of the fruit of cacao.
After a massive neverending downhill section, we arrived at our camp site, which just happens to be shared with the Colombian army. In Colombia, service in the army is a mostly compulsory 2 years for men, and the young lads out in the jungle were quite obviously bored. They pass their days playing cards, jumping off rocks into the nearby river, and ogling the trekking gringo women. It was indeed a bit strange, to be sitting there eating your soup while the soldiers sat there with their semi-automatic weapons and stared at you. They were for the most part quite friendly, however, and one came up to me and started a very awkward conversation with me, the awkwardness further compounded by the fact that I could barely understand his rapid clipped Spanish and had to keep saying, “¿Como?”
Before we went to our hammocks, the guide told us that we should keep our cameras and money in the hammock with us. During the night, some animal—I think a pig—was rooting about our stuff, and I thought at first it was a thief, and I pulled my backpack up into my hammock for a while, until I realized it was just an animal.
My girlfriend’s feet were cut up and she was having a very hard time. She isn’t the hiking type to begin with, and while for me hiking through the mountainous jungle is an adventure, for her it is a nightmare. Had I known just how difficult this hike was to have been, I would never have made her do it. This day was a long and difficult day, with over 7 river crossings. By river crossings, I don’t mean stepping across rocks. I mean wading through the river. We finally arrived at the foot of the stairs to climb into the city in the early afternoon. Fortunately, it had not yet rained, so the stairs weren’t slippery. Every other traveler we had seen on the way had told us the stairs were hell. But in fact, the stairs are the easiest part of the trek. They are at least solid and straightforward, if tiny and steep. Apparently the Taironas that built them were the size of midget elves.
After the 1,200 something little mini-stairs up, we were in la Ciudad Perdida, and we had it all to our little group of 5 for that night. As it was my birthday the following day, I broke out the bottle of aguardiente I had hauled along for this express purpose, and we drank a little bit after dinner (mostly just me). At one point in the evening (before I started drinking), I walked over to the bathroom in the dusk and began to urinate. Halfway through, alerted by the sound, I suddenly realized that I had been pissing all over a closed toilet lid! The group had a good chuckle over that one.
Our evening entertainment, aside from relaxed conversation, was in watching the multitudinous bugs come out of the encroaching darkness to fly into the flame of the candle on the table. This was surprisingly good entertainment—better than television.
Our accomodations in the city were ratty old mattresses. We fell asleep to the rain, and awoke to the sound of a waterfall, as well as the moquitoes clamoring outside of the mosquito net to get in.
My birthday. Birthdays seem to mean less and less to me the older I get. I also don’t seem to be having any crises about getting to the cusp of leaving my twenties either. What better way to spend one’s birthday? I was out in a historical site in the middle of the Colombian jungle!
The Ciudad Perdida is quite large, although most of it is hidden from sight by the jungle. It consists mostly of stairs and the terraced remains of where family huts once stood. The city is said to have housed between 2000 to 4000 people at one point, before being vacated by the diseases and other tribulations brought on by the Spanish conquest. The Taironas left behind many gold pieces, which were looted in the 70s upon its discovery by a family of looters. Some of the pieces were preserved and can be seen in the Museo del Oro in Bogotá and Santa Marta, and are quite exquisite. They are very small and intricate, some depicting frogs or cats or snakes.
All of us boys took a dip in a little swimming hole in the city which is said to bestow youth. It definitely took some years off my life—but only on the other end. That water was cold. On the way to it, I slipped on the stairs and cut myself up a bit. I was beginning to feel a bit embittered by all of the falling. As someone who prides themself on possessing an exquisite sense of balance and rarely falling, two big falls were more than enough. My girlfriend logged in something like 3 falls a day.
That afternoon, another group arrived at the city with another tour agency, ruining our peaceful personal enjoyment. This group was huge—28 people—and my girlfriend and I had almost ended up in it, because we had been considering delaying our trip by a day. The guide had lied to us and a number of other people, saying that there were only 8 people in the group. In the group were an older English couple and an older German man. The couple looked exhausted, and later that night the old man twisted his ankle, and then later fainted. I hope he made it back alright. The German man (on a trek with his daughter—good sport) had fallen on the rocks in the river and had a big gash in his forehead. Luckily, he happened to have a large bandage for it. That’s one thing to realize about this trek—it’s dangerous, and the guides don’t appear to be equipped with any medical supplies. Our guides (teenage brothers) didn’t even have headlamps, and kept borrowing them from the English couple in our group.
At the cabaña of what seemed to be the site’s caretaker was a little puppy named Shakira whom my girlfriend grew enamoured with instantaneously. I think for my girlfriend, the pinnacle of the trip was not the ruins of an ancient city, it was in holding this little 6 week old puppy.
During the night, I kept feeling something biting me, and thought that it was mosquitoes that had gotten into the net. In the morning, I realized that I had been eaten by bedbugs in the ratty old mattress I was sleeping on. So my advice to you if you are going on this trek is: cover up those mattresses before you lay down on them with anything you can.
In the morning, after eating our tuna empanadas splattered with generous doses of ají, we managed to get our guides to actually depart early (something that was difficult to do), because on this day we had to complete in one day what had been days 2 and 3. We had to go back down the trecherous midgit stairs, wade through the river 7-10 more times (the guides said 7; I counted 10), and then after lunch at the army camp, trek back up the giant neverending mountain that we had descended before. It was a long day.
On the way to the army camp, my guide remembered that I was interested in the Kogui mochilas, and he obtained two from some huts (the guide said something about one of them being a shaman) we passed for me to buy. I was pleased to have obtained a handmade item from the middle of the jungle.
When we got to the army camp, we ate lunch and took a dip in the nearby river and watched the soldiers diving and belly flopping off giant rocks nearby. For the afternoon, we rented a mule for my girlfriend to take, as her feet were cut up and bleeding. The rest of us began the long upward journey, sweating like pigs in the over 100 degree heat and humidity. We finally made it to our desination after an 8 hour long hiking day (which was quick). We were fortunate, again, not to be rained on.
My girlfriend obtained 3 ticks from her mule and had to rip them out with tweezers, presenting yet another facet of the trek for her to be delighted with.
The last leg back down to the village. Tired, sun-beaten, feet swollen and cut, little pebbles in my Keens shredding up my ankles. The hellacious tunnels of mud and more mud. But we made it, and then it was just a matter of enduring the 3 hour long Jeep ride back to Santa Marta, with the driver blaring ranchero music. I made the mistake of telling him that I liked the music, whereupon he turned it up and we listened to the same damn 3 songs over and over again. When we finally arrived back at the coast, we stumbled into our hostal and took showers. Then lo and behold, out went the electricity. We spent a very hot and airless night, but I slept like a baby anyway.
So that was the trek. What would normally have been simply a very strenuous hike was made extremely difficult by the extreme heat and humidity, and the excess muddiness and slipperiness. This is not an easy hike, and the trail is nothing more than a river of mud in various states of wetness (except during the months of Jan-March, when it gets extremely dry). So my advice to any future trekkers is: bring some “wellis”, or at least a good change of footwear for the muddy sections, and bring a sweater, because it gets cold at night, and bring something to sleep in that can keep you from the bedbugs. And bring soap, because there’s actually showers at every campsite.
Our guides were little more than teenage boys cooking for us and walking along with us through the jungle. So take your time before you embark and find a guide who you like beforehand, and make sure you are going with a small group. We definitely got lucky with our group, and we in fact realized last night that we rather miss them now that the hike is over. The English couple was particularly nice, and neither my girlfriend nor myself could have made it without their generous donations of foot tape.
As for repellent, well, I used my all-natural Burt’s Bees and I seemed to fare no better but no worse than my companions who were slathering DEET over their bodies. The fact is that you are going to get bit. Just like the mud, it’s something you’ve got to accept and become one with.
As for my girlfriend (read her much more humorous account at her blog), she is not very happy to have done it, but I think perhaps it was a good experience for her to have been pushed well beyond her normal boundaries and capabilities. Her feet hurt, she’s got bites all over, but I think maybe she came away with something more positive than just having held a cute little puppy named Shakira. I know I did. This trek was more like a rite of passage.