Santa Marta, Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) and Taganga

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April 23rd 2011
Published: April 25th 2011
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I left Cartagena in the morning to go to Santa Marta. After the ride to the bus station, I decided to take the more luxurious bus for 25000COP as I was told the chicken type was 22000COP, so I figured for so little difference, it was worth getting the extra speed and comfort. As always, the air conditioning was on full blast and the temperature on the bus was definitely not high enough. Even with my fleece on, I was freezing and there was even a guy (another tourist) who was wearing his wholly hat. When we stopped for 10 minutes half way, I asked the driver if he could turn it down but he said he wasn't allowed and suggested I sat at the front as it would be warmer. That's what I did - until they changed the driving crew that is. The new co-pilot came on shouting at me that I wasn't allowed to sit there. I argued that the driver had told me to do so but he was just not having it (and to be honest, if he'd asked me nicely in the first place, I probably would have just moved quietly). I eventually went to the second row and he went back off the bus. As soon as he had his back turned, I got up and turned the temperature up. Unfortunately, he saw me and ran back on to give me another earful... I wasn't going to win that one, so I just accepted I was going to be cold for another couple of hours...
When I arrived in Santa Marta, I hopped on the local minibus and told the driver where I was going. His route was going only about 2 blocks away from my hostel, so it was pretty easy to get there. I had spotted the place online and it had also been recommended by a couple who'd stayed there a week earlier. It was ran by a young French couple and at 16000COP a bed and right in the centre of town, I was a happy bunny. I dropped my bag and was given a map of the city and directions to one of the tour companies offering the Lost City tour, a five or six days trek in the jungle, taking you all the way to the Lost City, an 11th-14th century settlement. The non negotiable price tag (the price is the same with all companies and it's a case of take it or leave it) of 500000COP (£170) was a bit steep but I knew well in advance and had kind of decided that it was covered because I didn't do the San Blas cruise from Panama. So I booked on for the next day's departure. The woman explained that it was either 5 or 6 days and I could decide on day 4 how fast I wanted to get back, but that most people were happy to do it in 5 days. After arranging that, it was time to organise myself: do a spot of shopping, pack my stuff for the trek, write my last few e-mails for the foreseeable future, chat with fellow hostel visitors and have an early night.
The next morning, it was a 9am start, with first of all a minibus ride to the start of the hike. I met all the people I would be spending the next few days with: 3 Brits (Laura, Andy and Jez), an American (Cara), 2 Norwegians (Henrietta and Danielle), a Kiwi (Sam), and a Colombian (Mauritzio). We had all gone through different travel agencies but would be hiking together, along with our 2 guides and our translator. We had lunch before setting off for the first day of the hike. We were lucky that it wasn't a particularly hot day, so the walk wasn't really too difficult despite a tough 1h30 climb near the start. Towards the end of the 4 hours it took us to reach camp one, it started raining and the last part of our day was in the wet and the mud, all having a good laugh along the way and trying not to fall over. Our first night was quiet, spent mainly watching a large group who were heading home and on their last night having a big party and doing a lot of drinking and terrible singing. I was surprised to discover there were showers at camp: I was just expecting to be getting dirty and to wash in the river for the duration, but that was not to be. It was actually quite a well organised operation with a big cooking area where all our guides prepared our food, plenty of hammocks with blankets and mosquito nets for us to sleep in and decent bathroom facilities.
Day 2 and I was the first one up (surprise!) and watched our chefs from afar as they made our breakfast. It was served at around 7am and we set off shortly after that for what was to be the easiest day of all. The trail was pretty flat and we stopped along the way for a swim in the cold river. We were still at camp 2 by lunchtime and not quite sure what to do with ourselves for the afternoon. Some of us had a snooze, some others went back to the river. There wasn't much excitement to report and we were all looking forward to day 3 and the prospect of reaching either the last camp or maybe even the Lost City if we went fast enough.
We were all quite motivated in the morning and rearing to go. The hike was nice, involving a few river crossings and a nice mix of up and downhill. We had reached the final camp in time for lunch and were all excited to get to the ruins that afternoon. After a bite to eat, it was another hour up the river and then a climb to reach the top of the 1200 steps.
The ruins were not exactly what you would imagine when one talks about ruins. It was more like a set of terraces, but it was still impressive, especially with the jungle and low clouds as background. We also liked the fact there were only about 15 of us (we had joined with another small group by then) on the whole site. We walked around the site for a couple of hours, while listening to our guides tell us the stories of the local tribes and the city. We even got given some coca leaves to chew on, but I don't think they did anything to anyone! As it was threatening to rain again (it seemed to rain every afternoon), we started heading back towards camp with a stop via the fountain of youth. A few courageous ones went for a quick dip, but the water was freezing and I'm afraid my toes are the only thing that will remain youthful...
Back at the final camp, we reflected on our trip so far. It was the end of day 3 and we still had 2 days to go, but we had reached our destination and felt some sense of achievement, although we all agreed that the trail was not as hard as any of us expected. It had been a bit of a walk in the park so far, but we knew the following day was the one which would be the hardest. We spent our evening playing silly games and trying to keep ourselves entertained (and we were pretty rubbish at it, but had a giggle nonetheless).
The 4th day was the longest and saw us walking back towards the start and up to a small camp closer to the exit than where we had spent our very first night. It was roughly a 6 or 7 hours walk, some of it in the sun (but it never really got too hot throughout the trip), some of it in the pouring rain and most of it in the mud. Somehow I ended up on my own for quite a lot of the day, but with my MP3 player to hand, it was quite nice to spend some time in my own company. About 5 minutes before reaching the final camp, I managed to slip in the mud and land in mule poo, but we had a good laugh about
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military checkpoint!
For our last night at camp, we all enjoyed an evening of celebration, with the guides supplying us with far too many bottles of rum and Aguardiente (a local aniseed spirit) from the local bar (there were bars at every camp). There were a few speeches from the guides and some of the customers, some dancing and much drinking for some of us (myself included).
On the morning of day 5, I was not feeling at my best, but thankfully, we only had a few hours to go before getting back to our transport and into civilisation. Everyone was looking forward to getting back and putting on some clean clothes. I was feeling a mixture of emotions, at the same time happy to get back to the normal world and sad to be leaving the jungle and the people I'd spent the last few days with, although we weren't quite finished yet, as we'd all agreed to go out that evening in Taganga, a village near Santa Marta (a small fishing village turned backpackers party town).
As a result, most of us were staying there and I paid a flying visit to my hostel to grab my stuff and
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one of many river crossings
move to another hostel, where Cara, Laura, Jez, Andy and I shared a room. We met with the rest of the group in a local bar where we had some food and drinks, before heading for a club. I was neither drinking much (at my age, I just can't do it for two nights in a row anymore!), nor dancing (just can't bring myself to getting into the music they listen to...) but had a good night nonetheless. The party for me ended on the beach, where we headed after the club closed (1am). By that point I was probably the only one who was still sober (and the booze shop was running out of alcohol!) and decided it was time to head for bed. In the end I don't think the others stayed out much later than I did, as a power cut affecting the whole village brought everyone's evening to a close.

The morning after, it was time to say goodbye to Cara and Andy, as the other 2 and myself headed back to Santa Marta. Jez was flying to Bogota that night and Laura the following day. Cara was heading towards Panama and Andy and his brother (who hadn't done the trek with us) were heading in the same direction as myself, so we agreed we would try and meet up again a couple of days later. I spent the rest of the day at the hostel in Santa Marta, chilling with Laura. The next morning, I was supposed to leave and make my way towards Venezuela to the area of La Guajira, but I just wasn't ready to go yet (I hadn't even done my washing yet) so ended up staying put another night but not really doing very much at all.
On my final morning, I eventually managed to go for a decent walk around Santa Marta and have a look at the city and the beach. After that, it was time to head towards Riohacha, where I was hoping to meet up with Andy and Alex.

Additional photos below
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coca leaves
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Our little group

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