Dark as night caves filled with giant flying spiders, jungle paths so thick you can’t see the light of day and treasure so rich Indiana Jones would have peed his pants. None of this can be found on the Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City, trek, but what you will find is waterfalls plunging into cooling swimming holes, mosquitos, ticks, mule trains, indigenous villages, rustic jungle camps with good filling food and a magical jungle city so secluded as to not be overrun (yet…a new road was being built at the time which will cut the tours on offer to 3 days).
Santa Marta, the jumping off point, has a party hostel or two (La Brisa Loca for instance) we chose to avoid these and the close by party scene of Taganga (a small local fishing village with a big tourist cocaine problem). Instead we headed to the Australian owned Drop Bear Hostel, located a 15 minute walk from downtown Santa Marta.
A swimming pool surrounded on one side by the curved villa captures both enough sun, shade and cooling breeze to make it a perfect oasis to escape the ridiculous heat of north western Colombia. A western style kitchen serves up good slightly western grub, a huge entertainment area provides plenty of space for those partial to a ping pong challenge, complemented by a large TV and huge selection of Netfilx viewing perfect for those hungover afternoons. Spacious rooms with some of the most comfortable beds in the country made this a logical choice for your stay, oh and did we mention the place is set in an old drug cartel villa (check it out!) with secret cash stash spots that have still supposedly never been found?
Deciding to spend a couple of nights here whilst organizing the Lost City trek, we spent the nights shooting the breeze with other travelers over BBC beers at the bar once frequented by Pablo Escobar and his mates. In order to do the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek you have to use a tour company and we opted for Expotur. Offering an English translator (which others couldn’t guarantee) and spaces available the following day, we forked out the 700,000 Pesos each for the 4-5 day trek.
NOTE: prices are standardized by the government (we tried to barter) and the price is the same for the 4, 5 or 6 day tour, though you will walk to the Lost City as though you’re on a four day trek, taking your time back. Most companies will store your luggage with more security that a hostel will offer. Whilst most tour companies will push you to return with everybody doing to 4 day trek, you can stick to your guns for the 5 day as Sarah and a handful of others did. This lets you enjoy a peaceful afternoon at one of the swimming holes with an extra days meals and accommodations for free. You’ll be hard pressed however to find any tour company willing to let you do the trek in 6 days, we didn’t hear of anybody doing this.
With only a small backpack each and most of the room already occupied by cameras, we packed light, ignoring the tour company’s advice to take a clean tshirt for every day (pfft, whatever). We’re picked up at 8:30 on the dot and driven to the office where we met a couple of our group and waited for the rest to arrive. A couple of loud mouthed American sisters complained about the delay in departing the office, a sign of things to come (from them, not the tour). Well we are on Colombian time now!
Finally we get going only to stop 10 minutes later to wait for our guide, prompting more vocals from the Yanks. The guide eventually climbs onboard, before we were again stopping shortly up the road to get fuel, poured into a funnel from plastic containers. More complaints from team American? FUCK YEAH!
A race down the tarmac, ignoring the danger danger high accident zone signs, we turned off for a slow and bumpy two hour ride up a dirt track to the village of Mamey. Lunch served, we start the hike. Cloudy, uphill, humid and not a pleasant way to begin. The hike up to the city is a very intense, strenuous journey which becomes harder the later you start in the day due to the midday heat.
Many of our group would turn up to the meeting points up to an hour later than the leading group, honestly it’s not the easiest hike if you’re unfit though the guide will usually stay with the slowest of the group. Having a variation of age groups and abilities we easily kept away from the American sisters that persist in banging on about where they’ve been and how fit they are (slower than the Canadian couple in their mid 60’s infact).
Accommodation is basic in either mosquito net covered bunk beds or hammocks, depending on how busy they are, and the showers are mostly cold (again the sisters moaned). There’s various opportunities to swim in cooling waters, mostly at the end of the of the day in camp, the food is great with portions more than filling enough, even for a fat greedy bastard like Matt whom often hoovered up the remnants not secured by the others bellies.
On the trek expect to see various wildlife including toucans (including a rare black one spotted by Sarah and Javier our interpreter right beside the path, with both too slow to get their cameras out for a photo), beautiful butterflies, iridescent lizards and of course those damn mosquitoes. Packing DEET is a must as well as checking bed nets are tucked in and a set of warm clothes won’t go astray. At one stop we also spent some time patting a friendly wild pig of some sorts who loved a good scratch behind the ear.
Between the hiking boots and mule prints, you occasionally catch a glimpse of a bare footprint, reminding you that these paths were made by, and are still used by, the indigenous Arhuaco, Koguis and Wiwas peoples of the region. Old traditions are still a way of life for these people, including the men carrying gourds filled with ground seashells which they mix with coca leaves to break down the enzymes and release the effects of the leaves, which reduces hunger, helps with the altitude and enables them to walk longer distances without tiring.
The small boys and girls running around the villages are only distinguishable form each other as the boys carry mochillas (bags) which they will one day fill with coca leaves, and the girls are adorned with beaded necklaces. The other footprints you may see to remind you of this areas past are those of the Army boys in training, hauling their 50kg packs in and out after their four month stint at the Lost City itself. We happened to hike past those who’d finished and were trekking out, most of them grimacing under the weight, but some still able to smile and wave. The guys who’d just started their four months were in better spirits, with one guy happily posing for a photos and giving us a thumbs up.
After an early morning trek up the 1,200 moss covered old stone stairs leading from the river, you catch you first glimpse of the Lost City. Built by the Tayrona people around 800AD, 650 years before Maccu Picchu, the site then known as Teyuna was eventually abandoned once the Spanish arrived,, with their diseases and lust for gold. Remote terraces which once contained housing and other huts spread throughout the jungle, linked by stone walkways, and the remoteness of the site ensures the number of tourists is way less than you’d find at other famous world sites. This remoteness is also what gave the city it’s name, as once abandoned it remained uncovered, other than the occasional local, for the next 350 years.
Rumours of gold and treasure began to circulate Santa Marta’s bars after bird hunters stumbled across the site in 1972. It wasn’t long before the site was being mercilessly plundered, with the government only stepping in to stop it three years later, by which stage many of the priceless artifacts of the region were gone.
After a morning wander the site and learning about the history from our guide, we headed back down the steep, slippery stairs to grab our gear from camp and begin the return trek. It was sad to think that the original inhabitants of the city were forced to flee due to …., whilst the inhabitants of the region today have been forced to relocate due to the cocaine cartels, and are now facing being relocated again due to the tourists flocking to the area.
On the final night as a group we introduced an American family to the classic age old travellers card game of ‘Shithead’. For those of you not familiar with this easiest of card games, you’ll be able to find someone, definitely an Australian, to introduce you to this fine waster of time. The Father taking us on soon became familiar with the rules, eventually hustling his son into the fold only for him to become the losing ‘Shithead’ four times on the trot.
With Matt opting to hike back to Santa Marta on day 4, Sarah, along with a Dutch couple from our group and four Argentinians from another, opted to stay an extra night at Adan’s Camp. The afternoon was spent enjoying the natural swimming hole and waterfall jump, spotting a little frog tucked up like a chocolate from on a leaf, and playing cards.
The camps pet parrot had Sarah in stitches when it stole the joker card and tried to fly off with it in it’s mouth, falling into the river in the process. The night was spent listening to one of the local guides provide some more information on local traditions, including the fact that should a woman have twins, they kill one of the babies as the mother is not able to carry two, not something Sarah wanted to hear as a twin!
You can check out more photos from the trek on Flickr.