Published: August 15th 2012July 31st 2012
There were two reasons that I slowly made my way north over the course of the year from the striking scenery of Patagonia to the sultry heat of Colombia: Firstly, each and every backpacker whom I have met in my two journeys through South America has spoken so effusively to me about the friendliness of Colombian people; secondly, to trek to ‘The Lost City’, known as Ciudad Perdida, located in the tropical jungle close to the coastline where the Colombian sands are lapped by the waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Ciudad Perdida was only rediscovered in 1973 by a local from nearby Santa Marta (which is, incidentally, where the liberator Simon Bolivar took his last breath – I actually visited the room in which he spent his final days and ultimately died, with the room containing the original bed, clock and even the chair where he sat whilst issuing his final testament). The city of Ciudad Perdida was constructed by the Tayrona people and inhabited roughly 1,400 years ago, prior to foreign disease wiping them out entirely. The local indigenous tribes (some of whom I met, still living off the land in their traditional lifestyle, residing in abodes of timber
and palm fronds) of this region of Colombia knew that there was a city located somewhere in the jungle strewn mountains, but didn’t know where. Once it was discovered, a few opportunistic locals trekked through the jungle to strip the city of its gold and silver, one of whom was the father of our local guide! Before too long, a small war broke out between those competing for the theft of the ancient riches and the government then became aware of the city’s existence and stepped in to preserve the site.
It takes between four to six days to trek to and from the city in the heaviest humidity I think I have ever experienced, sometimes under the blazing heat of the summer sun. For someone who perspires when doing something as mundane as eating a meal in winter, this was one sweaty experience! The saving grace, however, is the frequent opportunity to cool off in the rivers and waterfalls along the trail, swimming beneath a canopy of dense, lush and verdant jungle, with leaves as big as cars hanging off of the trees. Even if you didn’t want to swim (I can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t do so),
there are numerous river crossings to be made, sometimes waist deep, sometimes deeper, or, as we experienced after a stormy night of rain of somewhat Biblical proportions, through currents that sweep people off their feet, only to save themselves on a bulging boulder that somehow hadn’t been unceremoniously tumbled downstream like many of its comrades the night before. This particular crossing, whilst fun, did indeed kill a trekker last year when the current whisked them away to a watery grave.
The trek itself is typified not only by the heat and humidity, but the magnificent scenery that seemingly only gets better with every passing step you take along the trail. When you eventually ascend the hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of narrow, moss covered stone steps that lead up to the city, you are rewarded not only with having an ancient city virtually all to yourself (a vastly different experience from, say, Machu Picchu), but also with sweeping views of the valleys, mountains, waterfalls, jungle canopy and, to quote a guy I travelled with, nature’s beating heart. Those of you who have seen films of the Indiana Jones ilk would have one-tenth of an idea of what
this setting was like. No film studio could ever concoct or envisage such a set. You do indeed feel like you have stumbled across a city lost to time and history. It was almost utterly surreal when, after three days of trekking, I crossed a river (not before being knocked off my feet by the current, but luckily only for the loss of my water bottle), scaled a few rocks and tree roots to see carved steps disappearing up into seeming darkness of the steep incline of the jungle valley. These steps were hewn, by hand, from stone and then laid, one by one, in place. There are over 1,600 of these stone steps beyond those first few that my eyes spied on the wet jungle floor just up from the river’s edge. With the muscles in your legs burning and pleading with you to stop the ascent, you push on and finally round a stone wall to see a small plaza, from which lead off a number of other paths and steps. One of these options captures your attention as it is a broad set of steps, two to three metres across and obviously leading to a significant place
within the city. Indeed, it is after climbing up this concourse of dappled green light that you find yourself on an immense platform that has an unrivalled view of the surrounding vistas.
After completing my trek, I made my way to Cartagena to meet up with some companions whom I had befriended during my peregrinations this year, namely my most constant travel buddy, Felix, whose birthday was due to fall on the weekend and, therefore, needed to celebrated heartily and in an appropriately reckless manner. Even if Felix and my other friends were not going to be there, I would still have returned to Cartagena, for a more postcard perfect Spanish colonial city in South America surely does not exist. Once you step inside the walls that created the main fortifications for the defence of the city from plundering pirates such as Sir Frances Drake, the modern world falls away to be replaced by cobbled streets, horse drawn carriages, two storey buildings with Spanish balconies jutting out from the wooden shutters of each window and people perambulating at a leisurely pace or, by dusk, sitting by the cannons along the wall, enjoying an alcoholic beverage as the sun takes
its leave by melting into the Caribbean Sea for the night. Upon reflection, I feel that cities such as Dubrovnik, Venice and St Petersburg are the only other places that I have visited in my life that could even begin to attempt to compete with the romantic splendour of Cartagena.
Next stop: Cuba!
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