Ciudad Perdida: A True Story – Colombia, South America

I'm back now in the calm of Hotel 3 Banderas in Cartagena de Indias. (A bit calmer than I want, actually, as the electricity has gone down, and I want to book some flights). Santa Marta and around was a blast for a variety of different reasons, but the highlight has to be the trip to Ciudad Perdida, The Lost City. It was rediscovered in 1975; I had many opportunities to curse the man who found it. For my memory and anyone else’s delectation, here is the day-by-day account.

(Here’s me and the lads mentioned on Day 5)

The Night Before
Staying cheap for $5.00 a night in the famous Hotel Miramar, I found myself lying on my bed staring at the ceiling fan the night before departure. It was a scene directly from Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen is contemplating his trip into the jungle to catch up with Kurtz. At the time I didn’t realise how many parallels there would be, although I wasn’t kidnapped and didn’t witness any ritual slaughter.

Day 1 – We’re not in Kansas now, Toto
Up early for breakfast to get the all important passport photocopy, which was never used. We left on time at 0800 hours (i.e. 0945 Colombian time). I’m reasonably sure the driver spent the time gluing the axle together – with Pritt. Twelve of us were squeezed into a land cruiser with tassels hanging from the ceiling. An unnecessary affectation when time could have been spent, perhaps, improving the engine’s capacity for forward motion. The guides were on the roof with the luggage and food.

We had to climb a mountain in our jalopy; several times we had to get out and walk for a bit as the thing was in danger of tipping over into the neighbouring ravine. Still, I thought, climbing is good as it reduces the amount of foot slogging at the other end. This supposition was incorrect on many levels. The drive also gave us our first glimpse of the local paramilitaries – nice chaps with guns.

Ten minutes into the hike, we came to our first river crossing. Most tried to cross by the occasional boulder, but I got my feet wet straight away, figuring it would be inevitable at some point. This was a mistake; three hours later I was about one step away from trench foot setting in. This was only one of my woes, however. The first climb proved that a 43-year old who has been smoking for over 20 years is ill-advised to attempt this trek. At least it didn’t rain. The paramilitaries appeared from time to time with an encouraging wave of their Uzis.

Our happy band included three guides, a Spaniard, two Swedes, one Norweigan/American, an American, a Canadian and several French who didn't mix much. Tea was chicken. I didn't complain even though I am a non-meat eater. After all, my life was in the hands of these guides.

Day Two – coke adds life, where there isn’t any
We went to the coke factory; more of a mosquito-infested pigsty with a rudimentary chemistry set attached. At one point, one of the pigs came to sniff me, but the smell repulsed him and he was forced away. The farmer is only allowed to make cocaine to the penultimate stage when he must sell the paste to the paramilitaries for conversion to the final powder. He makes a lot more money showing us around his place and for all I know, is possibly making lemon sherbet by now. The need to keep the place safe from the authorities means the paramilitaries regard our safety as essential to their trade, so their presence ensured we were unlikely to be kidnapped. The journey was morally rather dubious from the start, but we are here. The morning’s song could have been one of many; Koka Kola by The Clash, fits the bill best.

The guides assured us the next trek was only six kilometers; it might as well have been 60. Uphill was bad enough, but when this old man (me) needed to rest, the attendant mosquitoes and other unidentified insects thought I was offering my gringo flesh as a 100 course meal. The only respite was a brief stop for fresh pineapple after two and half hours – the best pineapple I have ever had.

The only song I could honestly say reflected my mood was "Where Will It End" by Joy Division. That should tell you all you need to know.

Day Three – I can see my house from here
We were 600 meters up the mountain at this stage. The absence of a sleeping bag in my pack revealed itself to be a rather foolhardy omission. The fact that I froze all night in my hammock was a wound freshly salted when I discovered that blankets had been available. I asked the guide if there would be any at the next camp. He replied in the affirmative should I wish to carry one up there. More weight was hence added to my pack. The blanket had the appearance and smell of something that had previously belonged to a rather unhygienic mule.

At this point my boots were dry and I was determined to keep them that way, knowing we were to make seven river crossings today. The sandals I had bought were thus put to use; within an hour they had destroyed my feet. It took about three hours to reach the start of the climb. We broke for lunch in the middle of a river with a rather marvellous waterfall nearby. I got in for about five seconds; you could say it was cold.

The climb: 700 meters and 2,000 moss-covered steps. Steps were made for very small feet; for the Tayrona Indians in the ninth century. This presented far more danger than any kidnapping threat. The density of mosquitoes actually increased – unbelievable. "What a Way to End It All" by Scouse 80s band (possibly Big in Japan, turned out to be Deaf School).

Beto was waiting for me about three quarters of the way up with a fire hose to keep the mosquitoes at bay. I entered the Lost City with the Aussies. There are many theories as to why the natives built their homes here; all that remains are the outlines of the living areas and the numerous steps. The views are breathtaking. We celebrated getting to the top with a bottle of rum; a full moon added to our joy.

Day 4 – Stop being competitive
Here’s what I wrote in my diary on the morning of the fourth day.

The bites on my legs are astonishing
The cuts between my toes are painful
The pain in my thighs are increasing
The veins in my head are pulsing
The bites on my arms are annoying
The sweat from my body is voluminous
The terror of the next trek is all pervasive
This might have been a good place to love a thousand years ago
It’s not now

This day I set off early so I wouldn't slow the guides down, but my goodwill merely stimulated levels of testosterone in some of the alpha males who saw my early departure as a slight to their manhood. When I left camp, hurried packing ensued; by the time I got lost and found my way agian, two people had already overtaken me!

The day was fairly straightforward torture from then on. I did get into a marching rhythm, though. Today’s song was "Feel the Pain" by The Damned.

Day 5 – Feet, don't fail me now
Private Hell (The Jam) became the new song. There were a number of pitfalls in terms of opportunities to get lost, if you were trekking alone, as I was for about an hour. The only vague clue I had that I was going in the right direction was one wet footprint on the other side of a river. I wasn’t turning back even if it meant I ended at a Kogi Indian Camp, had to marry and settle down. Kogi women must marry at age 15; they are expected to have 10 children in the next 10 years. If they lose a few children, a witch gives them a drink to prevent any further pregnancies. Should they have twins, they have to kill one; there is only room on their back for one child each year. When we passed the Kogi villages, we saw the men sitting down while the women worked. Kogi women live on average to 45; the men longer.

As we neared camp an enterprising family appeared with coke and beer at a dollar a shot – helpful. More beer was available at the camp, as was something referred to as "Colombian wine". Three paramilitary gentlemen were availing themselves of this; it seemed rude not to join in. They were keen to point out that they were there to protect us, but I wouldn’t have liked to have been too close when the bullets started flying in the state they were in by the end of the afternoon. Their protection skills seemed to include having a good look at our mobile phones and cameras, rather too closely at one point. Once they were getting properly drunk, the guide wheedled us away saying our dinner was getting cold. I felt very fresh after today’s trek, which shows the advantage of exercise.

Day 6 – And the winner is…
We got up at 0600 today so that Beto would make a guides’ conference or something. As before, I set off early and got lost within 15 minutes. Eventually I neared the end of the track and returned to civilisation. There was one more river to cross; I was happy to do the boulder-to-boulder thing, but Alberto advised not risk getting my feet wet with so little time left. I took off my shoes and socks, crossed the river, slipped but did not wet my pack, other than the shoes and socks in my hand. I had fooled the jungle by having a spare pair of dry socks in my pack. Of course there was an extra river which had been added to the jungle since we set off. This looked easy. With Brendan as an extra helper, I set off only to fall again and entirely soak my shoes and socks. The jungle had won in the uneven contest with the gringo viejo.

The ride back was as hair-raising as the ride in; we all had to push at one point. Later we had to wait while the mud road was repaired by a gang lifting rocks out of a creek. This took an hour, but there was a man on hand selling ice cream

I wouldn’t do this again, but it was worth it – just for my legs that ended up looking like something that would put you off food.

 

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Older comments on Ciudad Perdida: A True Story – Colombia, South America

Sahar
14 September 2009

Great Article! Absolutely Ha-larious….LOL! Definitely makes me think twice about making this trip this winter…..but what would traveling be without stories like this? Gotta do it!

marichi638
11 October 2009

DEAR JOHN, I WAS BORN IN SANTA MARTA. THANK YOU FOR A REALISTIC PORTRAYAL OF A DIFFICULT TREK. WE LOST A HOUSE IN LA TAGUA TO GUERRILLAS. I HAVE NOT GONE BACK THERE IN MANY YEARS & I THINK I’LL SKIPP THE CIUDAD PERDIDA TRIP. MAYBE SOMEONE W DO THE HELICOPTER FROM LA TAGUA’S SOCCER FIELD AGAIN. HOW MUCH DID YOU PAY FOR THE TREK?