Colombia: Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City)

A toe In Santa Marta...

Welcome to Santa Marta! Well, that sign was missing, but SM was welcome indeed after a long hot day on a bus. Our mechanized beast rolled into town in the late afternoon; I plopped out into a sultry heat without an exact clue to where I was headed. Bus o-ver! Gawd it's hot, though! I took note that almost everyone I immediately saw was Afro-Colombian, too, in contrast to the Hispano/Indigeno-Colombian look of the highlands. Huh - just as advertised.

Interesting. Whatever. TAXI! Twenty minutes later I was in the old town district, checking into a hostel I had again rapidly rummaged from the guidebook. Such actions at the very least proved that it wasn't for nothing that guidebook hostels jacked up their prices. This was sometimes done even considerably so - how much time was it worth spent looking for lodging in an unfamiliar city? Looking for a hostel on the first night in town had long ago stopped being anything that even closely resembled fun.

This didn't necessarily afford the best choices, though. For example Brisa Loca, my chosen bet, might have seemed like a sure thing. It had a central location in the colonial district, not to mention a swimming pool in the central courtyard... but I immediately noticed 'twas a party hostel, too. Not that I didn't like to party, mind you me, but I generally didn't want it on my doorstep when I keeled over to sleep. Especially in my bedroom. Whipped from the busride, then followed by a short stroll about the neighborhood, indeed it wasn't long before I found myself going to just that place. I got into bed at the seemingly reasonable hour of 10 or 11pm. Ah, sleep!

Not so. First at 3a.m., then again at perhaps 5a.m., I was awakened by a couple of my roommates. "Wha-th-hey" I mumbled to myself on each occasion of the flicking on of the interrogation-strength light in the room. Spotting my opening eyes, I was queried both times: "You okay with this?"

Really, what can one hope to achieve mentally with a brain at 3% capacity? I nodded yes each time before realizing I was okay with anything specifically recognizable. Both times, too, my splendid roomies pulled out a pot lid from the kitchen... and proceeded to cut lines of coke. Sheesh! There was a farking bathroom next door - couldn't they do it there? Arghh! Unsurprisingly, when morning arrived and I felt nowhere near rested enough, I set out to find another place.

Walking around, I figured while hunting for some new digs I'd also check into a tour to the Lost City (or Ciudad Perdida, or CP). This was the main reason to come to Santa Marta in the first place. Surprisingly, I had a difficult time locating any tour offices, but finally I stumbled on the original agency offering the tour. This was the agency that gave tours there back in the day, when no one but NO ONE went there without fear of being kidnapped or shot. This included a few wandering tourists from a tour several years prior, who enjoyed months of captivity. No thanks to that!

The owner of the agency set right to work selling me the tour as I hemmed and hawed. Hmmm. Next, the price lowered somewhat over a dozen minutes. Mmm. Walking out to contemplate the matter, I concluded that each tour company was probably about the same - so I'd heard - and this WOULD nicely take care of my housing problem. Sign me up! It wasn't long before I was eating a hurried breakfast, rushing back to my hostel to pay and pack, then finding myself scrunched into a jeep with five others similarly heading out.

...leads to two feet in The Lost City (Ciudad Perdida)

It would take about three hours to get to the trailhead, the first two along the main Caribbean highway headed east. This was an uneventful, smooth trip - outside of passing a crew of men field-dressing a cow on the side of the road. I guessed THAT to be very recent roadkill. Soon the tallest coastal mountain range in the world - La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta - loomed. The isolated, triangular massif, which rises to 19000ft in only 30 miles, is beaten only by the mighty Himalayas in such accelerated gain in elevation.

Next came the military checkpoint to leave the highway, where our names were registered in a book should something happen to us. Now we began a rough climb to test our beaten Land Cruiser. No worries - head bumps heal. We made it to the end of the road, setting to an immediate lunch for our efforts. Enough dillydallying, though: we were ready to get walking anywhere - and as soon as possible.

Altogether our group would be formed of six tourists, two mules (to start, anyway), a guide and a cook. The sweating now began in earnest - we were leaving in the middle of the day, under an unrelenting sun. Youch. Already we had reduced the length of the excursion by this time, however. Although the hike was often advertised as six days, most people did it in five on account of the abbreviated first day - unless the tourists wanted to stay an extra day to be eaten completely alive by seventeen trillion mites and mosquitoes. Hmmm, we thought... the time spent in the Lost City would be the same either way... this bug-slapping is getting old... we quickly agreed that five days would be fine. (Some tourists even rushed through the adventure in four or even three days, but that struck us as unappealing.)

Day One, for all its brevity, still entailed a goodly climb and descent that took over four hours. It would have been three but for a refreshing dip in a river pool in the beginning. No complaints. That'd be followed by a prolonged dip, in a bigger and better pool and replete with a waterfall, at our campsite. The heat begged relief practically from the get-go; the pools willingly offered it in good measure. Indeed, dipping in pools at all opportunities would become a familiar motif throughout the hiking.

First night's camp was an odd affair, however. While seemingly well off the beaten path and away from society, it sported an amazing natural pool, for example. Wow. Furthermore, we found ourselves alongside an indigenous family's house. Pretty cool. And... and... we were still within the reach of electricity via a generator. Hmmm.

Not good: a TV blared away into the night, more than a bit annoying given the tranquility of nature we were seeking. A pool table, located in an openly roofed area, would prove a grand mystery for the moment, too. How the hell did they get that thing out there over the trails? [I would learn the answer several days later: it took eight people and poles for each half sheet of rock in the table's surface.] Perhaps it was best to just sleep on such things. We did.

On Day Two we'd leave most of the comforts of "wired" society behind. We began to see a few birds, then a few flowers. Mostly what caught our eyes, though, were the numerous peaks and jungle poking out amid the steep hills. Here and there the hills were denuded down to small ledges left when pasturing cattle, but those happily decreased as the day's hike wore on. Day Two was rumored to be easier than Day One's slog, but we'd unanimously agree that it merely mimicked it for the most part. The extended ascent and descent on very steep inclines felt thus familiar, only this time followed by a final loping 40 minutes to camp.

Not that I didn't find any mishap: it was only after the day's descent to another pool dip that I realized that one of my sandals (formerly hanging from my backpack) was missing. Disaster - so much for my planned method of river crossings without shoe removal... unless I found the sucker! So, as the others moved on, I backtracked my steps to the top of the previous extra long ascent I had just made, only to follow that by its equal descent. "Free exercise" made for a successful mantra.

At least in the backtrack I momentarily freed myself of my mochila (backpack). Indeed, it was when I had removed my pack for a water break at the top that I left the sandal behind - I figured (correctly) that was where the sandal was. Luckily the case, I felt rewarded for ignoring all of the pleas from the guide, cook, and others to just leave it behind for lost - or found, should THAT miraculously happen. I would have none of it: it would have sucked having to remove my boots nine times each for Days Three and Four like the others. None of that mere mortal stuff for me, thank you!

Meanwhile we had made it to our new camp. We were on a bigger river now, yet the swimming proved equal to what we had been finding all along. Like the first camp, we were pleasantly surprised to have toilets and even showers (such as it was from a hose, and at an ambient cold temperature.) We all equally hoped the septic system was equal to whatever its tasking proved to be, something I was assured was the case when I had asked.

In my case I'd prefer to bathe in the river anyway, a trio of dip, lather, and dive accomplishing the trick. Just like in ancient days! If they had soap, or even cared. Whatever - the water was potable, clear, and fresh. This would be something I tested repeatedly over the days only with success.

Once again I found myself in the familiar position of playing translator, this time for our group's Aussie, Kiwi, two Brits, and Austrian. Supposedly the guide could speak English, but that really wasn't the case, we soon found. That didn't matter too much anyway - we were joined throughout by a small group of three (a Belgian, another Aussie, and a Spaniard) and their guide. The latter was a native of the area who did most of the guiding and had loads of information; Javier, an English-speaking Spaniard, soon took to translating as well.

With ready pools to beat the heat, plus stunning scenery, the only drawback to this entire affair would be the familiar biting midges, sandflies and mosquitoes. At times they got beyond annoying - I watched my legs go to hell in great seas of bitemarks. Long sleeves were de rigeur at camp, very fortunately not a miserable reality, however: night temperatures turning out to be wholly reasonable.

For me, however, hammock sleeping meant 5-6 pees nightly, too. I had long preferred hammocks only for siestas, if not for the peeing than for the difficulty in maintaining a comfortable position or body heat for long periods of time. None of this was new news for me, only an internal, petty complaint of mine - fortunately easily managed. The only trick was finding the correct hammock again, returning from yet another relieving sojourn to a bush under pitch black night. No one seemed to properly enjoy my bumping about for some reason.

Each day we'd see a handful of local indigenous people, too. Kids and women went around dressed in something akin to potato sacks, while men usually were attired in not necessarily much more. Some DID sport the traditional white outfit with its white, marginally fez-like head covering/hat, but that seemed more the exception.

After the Day One we saw a number of examples of traditional housing, crude huts beyond the wood-planked hut-houses seen at the start of the hike. These were rounded buildings of mud with thatch roofs, each with two rods projecting from their center representing the peaks Bolivar and Santa Marta. These two were largest of the Santa Marta mountains, an unconnected chain on the Caribbean separated from the Andes. We also passed a vacant encampment only used monthly for ceremonial meetings. This struck me as a large amount of construction for such spare use, but I supposed it made reasonable sense for such a far-flung people (from each other, anyway.)

Another advantage of leaving the Camp Two was the quick drop in the vast quantities of mule piss and shit we had being treading in and around. From Camp Two forward, mules could only tread the trail if they belonged to the indigenous people living beyond, not for any tourist-related activities. That made for a drastically reduced output to deal with on the soles of our boots and sandals. Amen...

...and hooray! I had gotten more than a little annoyed with the smelly, ample-sized dumpings, particularly found every time the trail ticked upward. This lightening-of-load in such spots was something I was familiar with for horses, too. I considered it a fortunate thing that we hadn't had any rain at all, just mist instead over our days - I didn't like the thought of what might end up in the river. Never mind how slippery the surface of mud and poop would become, too.

After Camp Two, the killer views we had been receiving of this dramatic range only got better, as the jungle covering increased and the steep cattle pastures went away significantly. Far more flowers made their appearance, and more strange fruit presented itself. Fauna-wise, a yellow cloud of butterflies and some strange sounds from frogs - but little else - would have to suffice. Throughout the days, in fact, the most common animals would be domestic livestock for the indigenous folk. We'd have to content ourselves with fist-sized tarantulas and leaf cutter ants during the day, fireflies and frogs with owl-like sounds each night.

Day Three turned out to be the easiest by far, mistakenly mentioned as the toughest. Had we become battle-hardened, or did no one that wrote about this trip have a clue? I'd venture the latter, taking a quick survey of our own ragged lot. On this day we'd achieve nine river crossings, and I personally would enjoy a sudden fall on a mud patch to bruise my wrist significantly. That stung for days.

We trudged up then down next for some hours, next following the river for forty minutes and making the majority of the afore-mentioned crossings. A fluorescent green beetle provided something of interest lying directly in the trail, and I even scared a snake to keep things interesting - or test my heart beat when it leapt in front of me and dropped below in a slithery flash. Finally, sitting on a rock island in the middle of the river, we found ourselves directly across from some steps that led up a steep hillside. We had arrived at the Lost City.

Now came 200 steps of stone set in the muddy wall of the City to reach its first platform, but these seemed like much less due to their small size. We probably next went up about as many steps again in accessing an area to the right of it. This only gave way to more open platforms - areas ringed by uniform rock ledges.

Now we were at the former poor and worker areas of the site, lacking in views accordingly for their lesser status. Fortunately we had now completely merged with the other group of the three, with their (Turcol company) guide now doing most of the talking. A local to the area, he explained the why of the many stairways from here, there and thither. He related how the royals and the shaman had their quarters higher up. No surprise.

Work areas and drainage were well planned throughout, a necessity in this land that could receive such deluges of great intensity. When not dumping vast quantities, it was still otherwise a consistently misty area, much more arborous these days. This entailed that the lushness was also plenty mossy and slippery, worth remembering on staircases that continued down down down for hundreds of steps, edged by steep cliffsides at times.

Life in the Lost City back in the day had men and women living relatively separate lives, we learned. Young ones always tagged along with their gender parent, ever supervised toward work as a goal. With such an emphasis on a work ethic, the deformed were sacrificed not long after birth in a ceremonial event. Similarly, and perhaps consisent with getting a job done right, the shaman was the first sexual partner of every girl while the boys practiced with old women until they were ready to take on a woman of their own. Not exactly a Catholic place.

The Tayrona people were a nomadic lot, moving twice for every moon cycle. This explained the ruins that extended far beyond the scores found in the Lost City. At its height, there were about 3000 people in the area, but the Lost City was abandoned over a period somewhere during the years 1600-1700. From that point forward its location was long kept silent by locals who knew of it. War and disease with the Spaniards had already pushed them further into the hinterlands to keep their independence.

It wasn't until graverobbers stumbled onto the place in the 1970s and objects started making their way out that the government stepped in. Archaeologists now belatedly took over. The graves located throughout, with treasures in their centers even as trees reclaimed the land above them, had been far too easy pickings. Graverobbers had enjoyed a literal field day for too many years, violently probing the earth for sounds of ceramic and gold. They often left a wrecked site as a result. Nowadays a military base atop the Lost City kept tourism safe and the graverobbers at bay. So went the theory for the time being.

It took a bit of work to fully imagine what the city must have looked like in its heyday. There used to be a trade route from here to the sea, allowing for the exchange of goods... and then Spain showed up on the doorstep. That disrupted things significantly, changing diets and reducing life spans.

Still, the locals of today continued using the powdered shell dust gathered from the coastal beaches, a slight narcotic. In the Lost City area accessible to us - our visit was sanctioned by the locals under restrictive conditions which they could revoke at any time - we also got to check out a very few reproductions of the traditional circular houses.

These structures existed for tourism, but also for the locals who used them in their traditional way. Each sat centered on a platform of dirt ringed by large stones, including inside an interesting latticework in the ceiling that spiraled up to the heavens without. A connection to the other world, they culminated in the two posts outside representing the two closest peaks to the sky.

Our afternoon survey complete on Day Three, we continued up the staircases on the left side of the settlement to camp at the top in a tri-level cabana. We were fortunate to be actually spending the night in the Lost City - this would be the last year of overnighting as such. In the future, tourists would overnight at a camp a short ways down the river. This would be an attempt to keep the Lost City that much more pristine.

As it was, the grounds were spotless. Our activities off to a side of the complex didn't seem to add much problem to the situation, either. True enough, though, any shower and toilet water stayed in the area. Certainly the cooking had some impact, too. These would become unmanageable things when the number of tourists grew explosively - all figured alike that they would.

Tour-wise we had been very content. Our friendly guides were ever approachable, and we had been eating well (if too much) in that fashion that unfortunately comes with having all your food covered in one price. Call it the buffet curse, probably a good reason to never hop aboard a cruise ship with nothing else to do. At least WE were hiking our brains out.

I guess I COULD complain a little: I personally could have done without the white bread, or the awful sludge termed coffee that we indulged in for obvious reasons of the morning. The non-produce ingredients were rather lacking throughout, too. On the bright side, however, our cook consistently made up for this with his cooking skill using fresh ingredients and spices.

Perhaps I beat on the cooking only to hide my failure. If only for vanity's sake, I had hoped to lose a bit of weight around the middle with so much hiking. Eating too much, with three very full and regular meals, had a way of getting in the way of that. At least the chocolate ran out by Day Three.

The next morning, Day Four, we spent several hours walking about the main areas of the Lost City. The mists abated significantly and in a timely matter for this. However mystical they had been as a plus before, this clearing led to some very grand views and a general agreement that it was good to be king... or shaman. Those folks had previously been among the few that really could take it all in from their lofty perches.

Indeed, back in the day they could take in a view of the entire Lost City at a glance. That was the design of the thing, and entirely possible with the scale and declination of the hillside. Currently only 40% was restored, with trees growing healthily in the rest. A complete, contemporary view was left to our imagination.

As another consequence of such sunlight, Day Four allowed me to see quite a few birds of all stripes and colors. There was a brilliant red and black bird with a white beak, and various yellow-chested chirpers. Even parrots and toucans were sighted once each by me. It had taken awhile for the fauna to catch up with the flora, but now it did so.

Of the non-restored area, much of the rest was either trashed by the graverobbers who hastily had entered tombs, or were completely overgrown and unexplored. It was easy to imagine that there was a lot more out there completely undiscovered, given the dense coverage and canopy. It was possible that they'd never be touched, either, as tourism was a touchy subject in places such as this. The Colombian Government was often tested between greed and respecting the indigenous tribes. In line with that, a tribute was paid by the agencies to local tribes for tourism... but that was something that could change at any time.

After a relaxed walkabout of the grounds, we slowly made our way toward the grand central royal staircase. We made our way below again. We passed the place where the shaman took petitions from a throne, then went by other, poorer work areas again. Back at the river, we soon took to retracing our steps including the nine river crossings back to Camp Two.

Returning to hammocks again for Night Four, I reflected on the beatific calm enjoyed in the single night in the Lost City. THAT was primarily due to the heavenly mattress used there - however beaten up it had been. Sigh - I was in no hurry to put myself in the sling again for the night. So, knowing we'd be hiking out the following day, I delayed in spending a last glorious time at the river for hours. Swimming and reading was eventually followed by bathing... until I realized I had given a Colombian woman an eyeful. So it goes in cultural exchanges.

Our last day was a hike that combined the first two days. By now this didn't seem such a chore. There were always rivers and pools to dip in; the steep climbs were foregone conclusions. Knowing what lay ahead always made it easier in my book. We returned thus through Camp One, all taking an extended dip at its magical mystical waterfall. We'd miss this - was it too late to get Day Six back?

Again we passed on the cocaine manufacturing tour, offered us on the first night. A bit of a joke, that, paying $25 to see the entire process of making coke over an hour's time. Obviously the military was taking a blind eye to this - we had had to cross that military checkpoint to enter the Range in the first place. They obviously knew about this sham, receiving their cut. So went life in reality.

Instead we concentrated on our sweating, making it back to our dropoff point. A meal awaited us - timely, that! We next picked up two cute (and only slowly approachable) German girls for our efforts there; they'd join us for the jeep ride out. Then that was that - Lost City, we hardly knew ya!

Later I'd judge the LC as equal to Macchu Picchu. Still, by my reckoning, the LC was something better, too, with only a tiny fraction of the tourists coming. It helped that it was considerably more work to get there; I hoped it would stay that way for all involved. (A movie that speaks to the Kogi's concerns about climate change and more, From the Heart of the World, is well worth a look. Footage on location is especially rare in it.)

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