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Published: July 13th 2008
The famous Ciudad Perdida in the middle of the jungle near Santa Marta.
Finding our way to the Lost City
There are many great treks in South America, but certainly nothing quite like the Ciudad Perdida
trek, a 6 day round trip which takes you to the heart of the Colombian jungle and back, where seeing lost cities, fording rivers, walking in tropical downpours and learning how to make cocaine are just some of the activities covered.
Though located only 40 km from Santa Marta, there is a strong sense of isolation and remoteness in the jungles around Ciudad Perdida (Lost City in English). This area is home to a number of indigenous groups, most visibly the Koguis
, who claim to be descendants of the Tayroni, the civilisation to whom the Ciudad Perdida belonged. The "lost city" was rediscovered as recently as 1972, when grave robbers came upon the site and started looting from the tombs. Luckily, word spread to the authorities before the thieves did too much damage, and, after years of restoration, the Ciudad Perdida opened to the public in the early 1980s.
A guide we met during our trek told us about the first foreigner to visit the ruins. In 1982, a French tourist, who had heard stories
Bartering with the Koguis
Two pineapples? That will cost you 20000 pesos, a packet of cigarettes, and a bar of chocolate.
about this newly discovered Lost City, managed, incredibly, to make his way there hiking alone. Back then there was no proper path through the jungle, no accommodation like nowadays, but just as many mosquitoes and dangerous river crossings. By the time he arrived at the site he was out of food, but luckily there were archaeologists and locals clearing the site, who gave him food and shelter, and helped him find his way back out. It's a much different proposition nowadays, with one or more tour groups departing daily for a guided six day trek. We booked our tour in Taganga with Magic Tours
, and set off with our guide Juan-Carlos and Nina, Peter and Ola, three students from Norway.
The hike started from the village of Mamey, which we reached by a combination of bus and 4WD. After a quick lunch in the village, the trek began. There was a good amount of uphill hiking on the first day, so it wasn't long before we were all sweating buckets. We did about 5 hours hiking that first day, with two much needed stops at natural swimming pools along the way.
There is a large military presence in
Starting the trek in Mamey
Ruth poses at the cafe as the Turcol Chiva (local type of bus) rolls in to Mamey, a small village from where the 6 day trek starts.
the area covered by the trek, most notably near the first night's campsite. Most of the military people seemed friendly enough and were happy to pose for pictures. They even let one of our group pose with a bazooka launcher!! On a more serious note, the military are stationed here thanks to the presence of guerrillas in the jungles. In 2003, 8 members of a trekking group were kidnapped by ELN, the biggest guerrilla group after FARC, and held for 3 months. With all the military around nowadays, it felt very safe on the trek, though the British Foreign Office still "advise against all but essential travel" to Ciudad Perdida.
Our first night's accommodation was at a farm run by a friendly family, not far from the military camps. I had never slept in a hammock before, but it was surprisingly comfortable, and we did have the added comfort of mosquito nets to keep the mosquitoes at bay. The family had a boa constrictor skin hanging on the washing line beside all their clothes - a quick warning for us that there was plenty of interesting wildlife around here!
Recipe for Cocaine paste
At first we thought
How to make cocaine!
The "chef" adds petroleum to the mix!
6 days would be too long for a 40 km round trip trek, but we didn't factor in the afternoon tropical downpours, nor the extra time needed for suchactivities as fording rivers, swimming in waterfalls and...visiting cocaine factories!!
So early next morning we found ourselves being lead off track to one of these cocaine factories. The "owner" came along to the farm and negotiated a price of 20.000 pesos per person (about 11 USD). He was a nervous, jumpy type, who spent a lot of time looking through binoculars and muttering something about "la policia". Hmm....
Any doubts I had about the morality of handing money over to a drug producer were temporarily put aside, overcome by my curiosity about the cocaine making process. His "factory" was located close to the farm, though it was fairly well hidden and reached only by a difficult path. We sat around on benches in a tarpaulin covered hut, which I got the sense was used more for showing the process to tourists than for any proper production. I assume his real factory is hidden somewhere deeper in the jungle.
What followed was in concept just like a tour of a
Difficult river crossing
After all the heavy rains we had to swim across the Rio Grande, and hold on to the rope. Let go off the rope and you'd probably end up somewhere in Tayrona National Park!
wine factory or a brewery, though in slightly less salubrious surroundings. He showed us the raw ingredients, took us through the whole production process from coca leaves to cocaine paste, and even offered a "tasting", as it were, at the end! I kept wondering what would happen were we raided by the police or military during a tour.
Producing the cocaine paste is quite a delicate process, requiring a fair knowledge of chemistry. I won't give away the recipe here, mainly as I can't remember it all, but the controversial coca leaves, which the US government are so keen on eradicating, are only a small part of it. He used petroleum from Venezuela, a substance called cal, as well as sulphuric acid and potassium permanganate. We weren't allowed to take pictures of him as, in his words, "he didn't want to spent 20 years in prison in USA". Given the huge military presence in this area and the fact that our cocaine producer had to bring in large amounts of the raw materials past the military, not to mention transport the finished cocaine paste out, it's inconceivable that the military are not in on this. So much for the
This little monkey was there to greet us at the start of the trek. Sadly, he was chained up.
US government's Plan Colombia
After the tour, we continued our trekking to Camp 2, a hut near the river in the heart of the Kogui settlements. The Koguis are descendants of the Tayroni, and they live very traditional lives in the jungle, making their homes in basic huts in small village communities. The men, women and children all dress in a distinctive white cotton garment, and wear their hair long. They walk around barefoot and even the kids as young as 7 or 8 carry, and are experts with, machetes. They seemed quite stand offish and a little hostile to outsiders. We had to hike through their village as part of the trail, but couldn't pass until our guide had paid them off, and given the shaman (roughly equivalent to a priest) several packs of cigarettes as a present. Surprisingly, even the kids were unfriendly and distant. Perhaps the Kogui have had bad experiences with tour groups before, or perhaps they're just fed up of the intrusion on their village, but attempts to smile or talk with them were simply met with scowls.
Day 3-4: Finding ourselves at the Lost City
The adventures didn't stop on Day
Swimming on day 1
It's hot and very humid in the jungle so the swimming breaks were much needed.
3 as we had to ford a river 8 times before reaching the ruins. At the first crossing we all dutifully took off our shoes and socks, walked across slowly and put them back on at the other side; however, by the last crossing I think everyone was just wading through, boots and all. After the final crossing we had arrived at the foot of the Ciudad Perdida, though there were still 1880 steps (or thereabouts) separating us from the ruins. The afternoon rains had started by this point so we had little time to enjoy the moment of arriving - it was just a case of getting to the top of the steps and to shelter as quickly as possible.
Our accommodation was in a purpose built hut near the main section of the ruins, which we shared with a group of 10 trekkers from another agency. It was only lunchtime but we did no further exploration that day as the heavy rains didn't stop until late in the evening. Instead, we showered, ate lunch, learned some basic Norwegian, compared mosquito bites and discovered some new card games. The highlight of the day was the dangerous scorpion which
someone found in their mattress - for those having trouble sleeping, this didn't exactly help.
Bright and early next morning we set off to see the Lost City. While the ruins pale in comparison to Machu Picchu, there is still much to admire and learn about at Ciudad Perdida. The setting in particular is stunning: high above a river, in the thick of the jungle, with wispy clouds adding to the atmosphere. Like the Incas, the Tayroni left no written records, but archaeologists have pieced together their history from what they left behind. Some of the interesting facts we learned:
1. The Lost City dates from between 700 & 900 AD, and was inhabited until the time of the Spanish conquest of South America
2. There are over 170 circular dwellings in the city, each consisting of stone terraces, topped by houses. Houses were segregated by sex, with the men and male children living apart from the women and their female children.
3. Gold is the only metal found which has been found in Ciudad Perdida, so archaeologists remain puzzled as to how the Taironi cut and shaped the stones for their houses.
That's about all I
Day 1 of the trek sees us start the first climb.
learned from the guide, as I started feeling a little sick during the tour (there is a fairly high incidence of stomach upsets on the hike), probably after all the river water and unhygienic food we had eaten.
Reversing our steps
On Day 5 & 6 we retraced our steps along the same paths, but there was still plenty of room for adventures. The 8 river crossings were much more treacherous on the return as the river had risen very high after all the rain. The guides had to slowly escort us across and they certainly earned their money that day. The last crossing was so bad that a rope had to be set up across the river. The guides carried our packs across while we held on to the rope and swam - the current was very strong and the water was up to waist high. We heard stories about two Israelis who had crossed this earlier and had lost their backpacks downstream, but luckily their guides managed to rescue them.
That afternoon, Juan Carlos made his only bad decision of the trek. He decided to push on back to the farm where we'd spent the
Ruth & Joaquin
Joaquin is just one of the many members of the military stationed around Ciudad Perdida. They have to spend 5 months here as part of their duties.
first night. However, soon after we departed, the skies opened and a huge tropical downpour began, immediately soaking us. It lasted all 3 hours of our trek back to camp. We had to run at one stage to make sure we got across a river before it was too high. The paths became like a river, practically everything in our bags got soaked and one unfortunate girl had her camera ruined. Rain does bring the rain forest alive, with the colours really standing out, but it was just too wet to take any pictures. We tried carrying the man sized leaves for shelter but it didn't help too much. But we were the lucky ones. The Turcol group left it too late to cross the river, and had to take shelter in a Kogi house for an hour before backtracking to Camp 2. Two other girls had to spend the night with a very unwelcoming Kogi family, with little shelter and no place to relax or even prepare food.
The final day was, in contrast, mostly plain sailing though my stomach pains had returned with a vengeance. I´ll say no more about that here! All in all, the trek
Did someone forget a gun?
You can find plenty of things just lying around on the Ciudad Perdida trek.
was a superb experience which we thoroughly enjoyed. For anyone who fancies an proper adventure, I would highly recommend you do this trek.
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