So this is the final of the top 12 highlights of South America which we were trying to complete, Ciudad Perdida (Spanish for “Lost City”) I wanted to put a bit of the history mainly so we don’t forget, so here goes…
The Lost City is the archaeological site of an ancient city lying in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Teyuna Archaeological Park. It is believed to have been founded about 800 AD, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu then discovered by treasure hunters in the early 1970s when they climbed the 1,263 stone steps from the riverbank to find an isolated site consisting of more than 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas that cascade down the mountain. Thought to have once been a commercial centre for trade, only 10% of the Lost City has been excavated by archaeologists, giving it an eerie, haunted atmosphere.
The Koguis, one of the few remaining tribes have lived in the area for countless generations and believe they are the descendants of the Tairona people who once occupied the Lost City. Though they knew about Ciudad Perdida, they kept quiet for fear of attracting the very crowds that now visit the site, which could lead to the disruption of local indigenous populations and the destruction or looting of the site. We were lucky enough to meet some from the Koguis tribe including the chief, the Chaman.
After the kidnappings in 2003, the Colombian military now maintains a strong visible presence throughout the area, making it incredibly safe and the soldiers are always up for a photograph.
Leslie had organised our tour through a local company in Taganga and Santa Marta called Magic Tours who also seemed to be highly recommended in the Lonely Planet, so we hoped for a good trip. We had decided to do the four days three nights hike, mainly because we didn’t want to miss too much of Cartagena, our next destination, and also we didn’t want to be hanging around the campsites just waiting, which is what the longer itineraries implied.
We picked up our guides for the trip on the way, Jose Garcia was the Magic Tours guide and only spoke Spanish, he was a great guide but I was really hoping we would have an English speaking guide too, because otherwise the next few days would have been tough, especially at the site. Lucky for us we had an Exotour guide Miguel who spoke English. Both were from the Sierra Nevada area which was really good as they would know the national park a lot better than most. Miguel did say he used to work on a cocoa plantation along the Buritaca river with his brother before becoming a guide. We later found out that we were the only group from all of the other companies with an English speaking guide, thank you Miguel.
After a bit of faffing at the office we were all paid up, it was time to hit the road and start the 2 hour journey to the start of the trek in Machete Pelao. After a pretty large lunch of chicken and rice we got all kitted up, well just our day packs with a few spare clothes and set off on the dirt road to our first stop at a natural pool which was in the Buritaca river. I was a little jubious about going in as we had only just set off, but I thought we are not coming back, so I jumped in. Thankfully I did, the next hour was a constant up hill hike, if the weather had not been a little overcast, it would have been unbearable. To break up the tourture of the hill we had a mango stop where Miguel climbed a tree and started to launch mangos down in all directions for us to catch. It may have gone all over my face and made my hands very sticky but it was a very delicous fruit break. Miguel also opened a cacau pod for us to suck on the lychee type fruit which took my mind off the task ahead for all of a few seconds. Finally, at the top of this section the views were stunnin, the whole Sierra Nevada, which was a great place to stop and have watermelon whilst also wiping the gallons of sweat which had been pouring off me. I experienced a new level of sweat on this hike, since when do peoples forearms sweat? and eyelids? Mine did!
The downhill section came and it was straight into our first camp, Alojamiento de Adán. It was a strange little place and there were several huts with corrugated steel roofs, one looked to be the owners house, another had a pool table, the rest were attached by a rickety swing bridge over the river which had bunkbed hammocks with mosquito nets. A great place to spend our first night after a tough 7.6km uphill hike.
A well deserved swim was needed so down to the “pool” we went, in order to get in we had to to jump about 3m off the rock. It was so refreshing to wash off the days disgusting sweat and wash our clothes. To get out there was a dodgy looking wooden ladder which I very ungracefully clambered up. Stu was in and out diving off the rocks then Miguel jumped off a much higher rock, I could tell straight away Stu wanted to join in, funnily enough he looked at me like, please?! Off he went as always.
Our first day was ended with a delicious fish dinner and we were tucked up in bed for 8pm ready for the 5am start and the 16km hike to follow.
Scrambled eggs for breakfast and another steep hill to climb. After finally getting passed a pack of dogs and several well loaded mules, we were in our way. We took our first break under the shady forrest trees, Miguel had carried us some mangos up so obviously we obliged and got very sticky again. Whilst we were sat catching our breathe, well I definitely was, Stu spotted a red squirrel jumping high up in the trees, whilst I was straining my neck to see it, two greeny black toucans flew past. We were pretty excited as we hadn’t seen this type before and we both love toucans., toucan watch for a while. Needless to say I didn’t see another. Sadly, this is where Neil left the hike as his ankle was hurting from previous surgery so he went back to the first campsite until we returned.
10.15am arrived and this was an obvious time for a swim and lunch, vegetable soup which was delicious, I could have eaten so much more. This afternoons hike consisted of 1 hour uphill, 1 hour downhill, and 1 hour river crossing to our next campsite. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the uphill as they are pretty relentless but has to be done. On the way we saw a poisonous, very thin brown snake, which Stu had to get close to in order for a picture, Miguel did warn if it did bite, you would be dead in 24 hours, not surprisingly I quickly scooted on.
We passed a few of the indigenous tribes, mainly the Koguis I mentioned earlier, they all looked very similar, all very short with long black hair, dressed in white hessian bags and it was very difficult to tell if they were male or female. They didn’t like their photos taking very much as Stu found out when a boy picked up a log to throw at him whilst he was working in the field. I thought he was posing, Miguel said otherwise. So some sneaky shots were needed but we did manage to pay off some children with sweets for a few snaps, these kids drive a hard bargain. Dripping in sweat we arrived at the top part of this section and we found shade under a little shops hut and soon devoured the watermelon and oranges which were on offer.
One hour downhill next which I was looking forward to, how wrong was I, it wasn’t hardly downhill at all, more uphill with a short downhill burst, I think someone was kidding us today, which I obviously kept raising with Miguel. On one of the few downhill parts we heard a scream just a few steps in front of us and it was Miguel, he was screaming because a very large brown snake had come out of the bushes, startled him and then rapidly slithered off, Stu was gutted to have missed it.
The big river crossing came, we had heard stories of how people had to go through waist deep with their bags above their heads, Stu’s idea of fun. So as we turned down to the rivers bank and the stepping stones were very visible and the water no deeper than my knee, I was secretly pleased, Stu not so much. Boots off we waded through and Stu went for a swim whilst we waited for the rest of the group to catch up. The water all the way had been pristine crystal clear so made swimming a lot more appealing.
40 more minutes of this undulating path brought us into our campsite Alojamiento El Paraiso Teyuna, it was only 2.30pm and the trekking day was over. Bikini and water trucks on we headed down to the lagoon for a well deserved swim, the climb down wasn’t so easy especially when I was sliding down in flip flops. Refreshed I sat on the rocks to dry off whilst Stu went playing, clambering over the boulders with Miguel and Craig. We managed to claim a hammock for an afternoon relax which we really tried not to fall asleep and that was successful for all of 5 seconds.
Throughout the past few days Cat had been mentioning about finding lots of ticks, both Stu and I had been checking our legs and arms for them but nothing so far, untill this afternoon when throughout the day he found about 15 on him. After this every itch we thought could be a tick.
After a massive tea, Jose and Miguel gave us a break down of what to expect the following day, they also told us about some of the Tairona cultural beliefs which are still practiced today in other tribes. The Chaman is the leader of the tribe who makes all of the final decisions and is the tribe doctor. When a boy turns 18 years old a ceremony is held by the Chaman in the religious sector when they receive a pipe called a Popuro, this is a nut which gets filled with crushed seashells which produces the white powder of calcium. What they do with this pipe is capture there thoughts, there is no written communication so they do this by creating a thick layer around the top of the Popuro, then when it’s thick enough the Chaman can apparently read this. The layer is made from the person licking a stick which is part of the Popuro so saliva is on it then putting it inside the Popuro taking some of the calcium out, at this point they are also chewing coca leaves so they put the white powder inside the coca leaves with the stick then rub the stick on the top of the nut. Eventually over time a thick layer forms.
Miguel also told us about marriage within the tribes, firstly you cannot marry someone from another tribe this is seen as not keeping the culture pure. The Chaman will say when a boy is ready to marry, this is usually to a much older woman so she can show him the ways of the tribe. Before marriage he must build a house for his future wife to live in and one for himself as men and woman live separately. When they want to make babies they cannot do this at night as this is seen as bad and cursed because it is believed if a baby is conceived at night they will have some sort of deformity. They must do this in the daylight and outside in the river or forest where Mother Earth can see.
It was all very interesting especially when Miguel finished with that during sex, they cannot move and if they do move the other half has to report them to the Chaman and then they are punished! With this in mind we retired to our bunkbeds ready for tomorrow’s hike to The Lost City site itself.
5am wake up call again but at least this time it was for what we had come for. A short walk to the river revealed the start of the steps but on the other side. A few scrambling steps later I had made it across with dry feet, Stu as always just skipped across no problem. The 1200 steps had been cleared really well which made the hike up not so bad, the main problem was the size of the steps, the Tairona’s must have had the tiniest of feet. Sweating away we arrive at the start of the site, the commercial sector. Jose and Miguel gave us a tour and speech about this section, how the circle rings were the houses and how they used a big rock as a map by carving lines in the rock face to indicate the playa, the rivers, the mountains, the treks and other villages.
We then took the ceremonial steps up to the the religious sector, this is the most important place of the city and where all ceremonies in the community took place. The most important people like the Chaman lived here as height in metres signifies power. The religious sector also revealed what we had come to see; the layered ringed terraces which all the photographs of the Lost City show. It was so much bigger than I ever thought and a lot more magnificent than the books sell it.
Jose had brought a Columbian flag up with him so the group, minus Tim had our photo taken on the top terrace with the beautiful rolling mountains in the background. Right at the top of the religious sector was the basecamp for the Columbian army, 40 of them guarded this site and surrounding area, they were really friendly, happy to talk and have their photographs taken, as I found out. They apparently do 3 -7 months stints and are then air lifted out to their next posting. There could be worst places to be isolated in the world.
Our next stop was the industrial sector, this is where the Tairona’s used to cut the stones in order to build the Lost City. The Kogui tribe still lived here and our luck was in because the Chaman was also around. He was “working” by sitting there chewing his leaves and rubbing his Popuro. He explained about his tribe and how they had just chosen the next Chaman, his younger son, the Elders were actually sat in a group further round the houses and had not eaten, slept or drank in 5 days, just chewed coca, this must have put them in some sort of state. No photos were allowed of the gathering, yet we only found this out after we had taken one, oops. The Chaman had 4 wives and 20 plus children but sadly 2 of his wives had now died. They wear and sell bracelets as a protection mechanism so we bought two, each coloured bead represented a specific thing. Stu got two green and two black beads representing the forrest and night. I got two green, one red, one black, forrest, flowers and night. We have survived this far so a little more help wouldn’t go a miss.
Our final site was the gold and ceramic sector, this was the least restored sector, here they used to make mud moulds mostly from toucans and frogs, pour gold inside and let it set and break away the mud, most of the ceramics and gold artefacts are now in Santa Marta and Bogota museum so hopefully we will get to see some in the capital. On our way back we stopped at the “pool of youth” they named this because apparently when you get into the water your skin tightens and you come out looking younger. In reality the water was absolutely freezing so your skin does get tight, I just about managed to get in but it was a struggle, all for a photo.
Only a small percentage of the actual City itself has been recovered and restored, you could see steps leading off into the overgrown forrest it would be amazing to see actually how big this site really is. However the glimpse we saw helped to get a feeling of how these people lived their lives in a world so different from ours.
We soon got back to camp for a little rest and lunch before we started the trek back to the second campsite Alojamiento Tezhúmake. The path seemed to be undulating as ever back up the steep hills which as always were not forgiving but it was really nice as the two of us were walking together. I spotted what I am naming a bird plant, it had a bright red and pink body with an orange beak, definitely bird like. We chatted away which made arriving into camp come around pretty quickly, after three solid hours of sweating, a swim was need so into the river we got. I managed to get in much easier this time as the water was nowhere near as cold as the youthful pool.
Night time soon came round and we ate a brilliant beef tea by candle light, shattered, we thought about retiring to bed, Jose and Miguel had other ideas. However before the guides antics we had a little indigenous girl come and sit with us, she picked up Craig’s iPhone and started playing with it, taking photos and playing music she was so good at using the phone, I was shocked as I didn’t expect her to have a clue. I was more shocked at the “her” was actually a “he” called Franisco, oooops they all look so alike!
Jose gathered a few of us around the table and said it was karaoke time, he proceeded to pick up his microphone aka his torch and started to speak in a dj voice, it was hilarious. He picked his instrument of choice a blue bucket and Miguel grabbed a cheese grater and fork and the band began. Jose was lead singer, singing several songs in Spanish whilst drumming away and his backing singer occasionally joined in. They then started to play “la la bamba” which we sort of knew, so could sing along. We managed to pick up a few other words from other songs such as, “oooo ya mama” and “something about Sarah Jones.” It was a brilliant way to end a fantastic day. Sung and clapped out we finally crawled into our bunkbeds at 8pm.
The last day of a our Lost City trek was retracing our steps back to the start, all 16km worth. I was dreading one hill in particular, it was so steep and I could remember it from the first day but coming down then and it was torture. Panting away we only stopped twice but I knew if I stopped any more I literally would have gone backward, my thighs were burning and every pore dripping in sweat, it was an uncomfortably hot day which didn’t exactly help but made for great photos. We passed several indigenous camps on the way, some more happy to speak and have their photos taken than others but as always Stu managed to sneak a few. Back to our original first camp we had a watermelon and a chocolate cake bar with a cold passion fruit juice, definitely needed, we also picked up Neil who had been relaxing for the last few days.
Final three hours to go, we trudged along the sandy dirt track, baking in the heat but enjoying the experience. We made it to the flat top of final hill which made a perfect place for a group shot, even if we were as sweaty as hell. We got to the final hut before the town and we had seen on the way up some “Product of Columbia” hessian bags which I really liked. Stu treated me to another souvenir, aren’t I spoilt! Stu had one last swim in the river before we continued on for the last 30 minutes. Arriving back into the town, music was playing which just added to our great feeling of 47km round trip accomplished.
After a great lunch it was time for the 6 hour journey to our next destination of Cartagena, which as always in true South American style wasn’t problem free. The seven of us piled into a van which already had four people in and needed to fit two others from our hiking group and Jose aswell. 15 in an 11 seater proved to be fun in the baking heat of the Sierra Nevada as we winded through the very bumpy dirt tracks for about 40 minutes until we hit the main road. A few people lighter we headed back into Santa Marta to drop of the last few remaining randoms before our onward journey to Cartagena which we had booked through Magic Tours. Finally after waiting for another vehicle we were on our way in the very compact minivan with zero suspension and it made a very loud grinding noise every time we turned a corner, standard South American.
We passed through a few towns on the Caribbean coast until we reached the main highway, which Tim hated as he thought the driving was completely incompetent and told him so. Over the speed bumps we went and thrown around in the back we got the best speed bump was a piece of thick rope just laying out, Stu looked and me and pulled that face that says only in South America. Finally, we got to see the bright lights of Cartagena and the city wall started to approach. We did plan to do a city tour the following day but as the driver had no idea where he was going we drove around the city for a good while, down the narrow streets, and after asking for a million directions we finally pulled up outside a massive party hostel, just what we needed.
Clean clothesless we went to bed ready to start our time in the coastal city of Cartagena.