Sunday, 22 June 2014

Ciudad Perdida / The Lost City - found it!

One of the big things that people come here in Santa Marta to do is The Lost City trek. It´s done as a 4-6 day round trip, and in theory all the tour companies do the same trip for the same price, but not all tours are created equal. Wiwa Tours is the only one that employs indigenous guides, so we hope that by doing the trip with them, we´ll get a better insight into what this place means, and also the money that we pay for the tour is going to the "right" people, in theory at least.

The tour costs 600,000 pesos ($315) each depending on the exchange rate... but if you pay by card there´s an additional charge of anywhere between 4-6%. There´s a whole lot of faff that goes along with trying to withdraw that much cash to avoid the charges, and we give up - the hostel arrange that we´ll be picked up early at 8am so that we can go to the Wiwa offices, pay, and then get on with the trek.

In the morning, we´re ready and waiting, then told that we´re being picked up later as those paying by cash will be picked up first... this doesn´t make much sense, but whatever. Finally the pickup arrives at 9:30, and by now everyone is confused about whats happening - it´s too late to go to their offices to pay, the tour starts now! After some debate, where for a while it looks like we won´t be going at all, they agree that we can do the tour, and pay after. Phew!

We bundle into the pickup truck, where the other trekkers are excitedly waiting, unaware that we´ve spent the last 90 minutes pissing about trying to figure out how we can pay, will we pay, will we trek, omg... met by 6 grinning faces, we´re too frazzled to take in anyones names. CP asks again later but immediately forgets most of them, and I leave it too late to politely ask (it´s a bit awkward to spend 2 full days with someone and then say "sorry, what was your name again?"). It will be day 3 that we get everyones identity sorted, but hello Fabian & Adina (young German couple, with Adina spending a gap year working in Colombia, and Fabian on holiday to visit her), Miriam (Spanish girl living in Cartagena), and Jacintha (Aussie living in... Singapore?).

Aside from that, we are joined by Sergio, a Colombian from Medellin who is joining the tour as a translator, officially for Jacithna but roundly used and abused but the entire group, and doubles up as guide #2, our cook Mario who will usually walk on ahead of us to have refreshments ready as soon as we arrive at each camp, and finally our Wiwa guide Selso, or as he will variously be called by the group over the course of 4 days; Say-so, So-say, So-sol, Sensai, my personal favourite of Samsung (nice one CP!), and any number of other soundalike equivalents. He did however, and in credit to him, respond to all variants of his name.

It´s 2 hours by 4x4 to get to the start of the trek, with some off-roading when our driver veers off the main road through a farm for 200meters to avoid paying the $4 toll and then back on to the main road again. The last hour properly off road and up hill, and we´re all being launched around the wagon (with cp having to switch me with me in the front so she can avoid being sick), so pretty relieved when we reach the start of the trek... and immediately stop for lunch.

So what is Ciudad Perdida? Have some wikipedia blurb:

Summary: Ciudad Perdida (Spanish for "Lost City") is the archaeological site of an ancient city in Colombia's Sierra NevadaIt is believed to have been founded about 800 AD, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu. This location is also known as Buritaca and the Native Americans call it Teyuna. Ciudad Perdida consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. The entrance can only be accessed by a climb up some 1,200 stone steps through dense jungle.

In it's pomp, it is thought to have been the Tayronas biggest urban centre. During the Spanish conquest, the Tayronas were all but wiped out, and their settlements disappeared under lush tropical vegetation. Ciudad Perdida was accidentally "found" 4 centuries later in the 1970s by guaqueros, (looters of pre-Columbian tombs), who set about digging up and looting a huge amount of gold and pottery, both of which the Tayronas were highly skilled in crafting. We're later told that the son of one of these looters now sometimes works as a guide for one of the other companies, which seems a little... morally questionable?

And so the trek begins, with a very brief jaunt to the map to see where we´ll be going (the red walking trail):

The itinerary looks like this:

Day 1 - trek to Adan where we will spend the night, 7.6km.
Day 2 - trek to Mumake, lunch, then continue to Paraiso, 14.7km.
Day 3 - 1km to the base of the climb, then 1,200 steps up to the entrance, tour of the area, back to Paraiso for lunch, before returning to Mumake that afternoon, 9.4km.
Day 4 - trek to Adan for juice and a snack, then continue back to the start at El Mamey / Machete Paelo for lunch before travel by pickup truck back to Santa Marta, 14.9km.

We´re quickly aware that we´re lucky to have a small group, as at our first scheduled stop of the day, near the top of a massive hill at a small shack that will provide us with huge chunks of water melon, the next group catches us up, all 15 of them...

Powering on, there's a stop at a natural pool, just deep enough to jump into and refresh, then more rolling hills.

View from the top...shortly after we stopped to collect mangos from the ground and had a feast...we love these free mangos..well, CP does in particular! 

Quick drink break on route via the never ending winding hill...

When we arrive at Adan camp, our group is far enough ahead of the other 15 that we get first dibs on the sleeping area (awesome hammocks!) 

Due to our rapid pace and early arrival, we're at the natural pools first. Just as well, as a couple of these guys are more than a little hyperactive, and Sergio likens them to mime artists because they are constantly moving and jumping around. CP does her fair share of hyperactivity, jumping off a big rock into the pool and exploring each crevice of the pool, but I'm used to that sort of hyperactivity from CP...!

Another (bigger) jump into to the pool, and a dip into a waterfall:

This is the last camp with electricity, and so we're huddled round a small TV watching Argentina play Bosnia - until one the cooks has to use a blender and that's enough to temporarily kill the power.

The cooks do a great job though, serving up a heartly meal of fish, rice, beans, some fresh juice, and chocolate bars for dessert. These chocolate bars are to become highly sought after during our trek...

Over dinner Selso explains about the "pretty white flowers" - these might look nice but they are poisonous, and unsavoury types will mix the poison in to their unsuspecting victims food or drink, which renders them unconscious with no memory, at which point they are then robbed - or worse. The fun doesn't end there - too strong a dose can cause permanent brain damage.

Tomorrow is a biiiig day apparently, and after a prolonged question and answer session with Selso, he suggests that it's time for bed (8pm?) as we'll be getting up at 5am, breakfast at 5:30, ready to set off at 6am. 

The next day is long - we end up in some unspoken competitions with Alex, Ross, and Roberto, the only 3 of the other 15 person group that are doing the trek in 4 days, which keeps things interesting as we clock up the kms. There's a stop for juice and fruit which feels like it must be lunchtime as we've been up for hours, but it's not even 9am. Selso does a demonstration of how the Wiwa tribe makes their woven bags, although without Sergios translation we'd be slightly lost!

CP looking sexy as a blonde...

The lunch stop allows for another dip for the team to to cool off and both CP and I jump off a 13m rock into the river...epic. On day 4 when we pass back through our sleepy little watering hole and see our rock that we jumped off and section we swam in...and are faced with a muddy torrent of water about 3m higher than it was the day we swam in it, into which there is no way in hell we'd be jumping let alone swimming without dying, but that's for, it was stunning to swim in.

Straight after lunch there's a pretty epic uphill section - Sergio explains that it's about an hours solid hike to the top - where we will stop for fruit. He then mentions some "crazy German guy" that did it in around 30 minutes... although neither of us said anything, it seems we both thought the same thing - challenge on!

After about 20 minutes of hard slog up hill, passing other groups stopping and resting, including the boys, with a little smirk from CP, We reach a couple of cabanas and this looks like it must be the fruit stop - we've left everyone else way behind except for Sergio, and he's swearing behind us but refusing to be left behind. But this isn't the top or our fruit stop, there's only another "5 minutes" to go according to Sergio, so we can wait here for the others... "F-that, we're getting to the top!", and we push on, Sergio still swearing at us in Spanish. 34 minutes of climbing with no stops and we're there - oranges, fresh pineapple, and a little shop selling chocolate caramel wafers for COP 1,000 (about 30p). Awesome reward, although part of me wants to go back and try the climb again and really go for it this time!  We're quietly very smug and proud of ourselves...challenge accepted and met...thank you very much! 

From this point it's a comparatively easy stroll to Paraiso, but includes 2 river crossings and more than a few sections of path where I think "if this was wet it would be officially sketchy!" - it's drizzling as we arrive at our camp, and I ask Sergio what that last bit is like when it rains. "Not very nice" is his brief reply, but we've arrived, and while we faff about taking photos, our cook and guide get to work creating another masterpiece. Before he finished his master piece, we were served up with piping not popcorn and chocolate...oh yeah, this is heaven, popcorn in the middle of the least CP thought it we heaven!

Day 3 - this is it, and we're up early to max out our time up at the Lost City site. Just 1km to the bottom of the steps, all 1,200 of them, uneven, made from stone quarried from Tayrona, and as original as can be, the only restoration work has been to repair any steps that had become dangerously unsafe.

Our group climbs together, and although Fabian disputes the official count, we make it to the top without too much fuss. It's barely 7am as we stride into the first terrace, and as there's only the 3 guys that have climbed ahead of us, it's virtually deserted and with the mist still clearing the initial view is pretty special.

As we walk around and up & over the various terraces, we get lots of explanations from Selso, via Sergio, of what the different areas mean, and the traditions that were involved with the tribes that last lived here 500 years ago. Although some is definitely lost in translation, it's clear that this is an incredible place both visually and spiritually, and a definite "must do" if you're in Colombia.

We got acquainted with the ever present military and they posed with George...

CP found a weights bench, right In the middle of the jungle, what a surprise...

Our little crew with an epic view of the world behind us...

With relatively few people making the trip, you're guaranteed an opportunity to sit and reflect while looking out over the stunning landscape.

We were lucky enough to get to sit in the Mamo's (shaman) seat, once reserved only for the most important man of the tribe, now it is reserved for us...

This is cps favourite shot...

The climb down begins with many warnings, it's slippery, the steps are uneven, go slowly, etc. CP takes all this on board and then sets a record 6 minutes for the descent, with the rest of us arriving about 20 minutes later. 

We arrive back to have lunch back at Paraiso just as it starts to rain. How's that dodgy section looking Sergio?! Selso tells us we are aiming to leave in 45 minutes. 10 minutes later, it's raining a lot more, and he wants us moving ASAP - he doesn't say it, but it's clear from his expression that he is concerned. We'll be wading across the river (twice) and flash floods happen in this area, so if we don't get across before it looks too dangerous, we'll just be sat next to the river waiting for the water to go down.

The river is flowing much faster than yesterday but we're all across it safely. CP (still buzzing from her epic descent of the steps) is a little too excitable in the pouring rain and I have to tell her to calm it down a bit... not everyone is enjoying getting drenched! The first half of the afternoon trek is frankly grim, we're walking up and down the paths but they may as well be rivers, and our shoes are squidging with ever step. There's brief respite at the chocolate stop before the big hill (downhill this time!) and we take the opportunity to stock up!

The rain eases as we approach Mumake, yesterday's lunch stop doubles up as tonight's camp, although the dangers of the river are clear as we see the spot that we jumped from and the water is roaring through, dragging rocks and half a tree down river as it flows - no swim today!

When we jumped the day before, the rock on he right hand side of the screen was 12m above the water and the pool beneath was calm.... 

That's ok though, because we're greeted on the way in by a friendly cat and a little piglet who loves us very much!

We're all soaked through and very quickly the camp turns into a giant washing line with wet clothes hanging off everything. I'd like to say we had a hot shower, but as that wasn't an option we made do with washing the worst of the mud off and sniffing each item of clothing in turn to determine which was cleanest or at least least dirty. Or was that just me??

Not for the first time we've arrived into camp ahead of schedule, and with tiredness setting in it becomes a battle to stay awake for dinner - another feast created by our hardworking cook. There's anticipation about the final days trek, there's a lot of distance to cover before we arrive back at lunchtime, and our group of six will split with Fabian, Adina, and Jacintha opting for the 5-day tour. The only difference is that they will split our final day over two days.

It's not a good nights sleep for anyone, as all 6 bunk beds are joined together, which means that when one person rolls over the entire thing shakes like an earthquake... and there was a lot of rolling over! I got a visit from the friendly cat early in the morning, until CP stole him:

(CP are such a douchebag for putting this pic in...)

Day 4 turned into a training session - waking up early, and discovering that the clothes we had hung out to dry last night had somehow got even wetter (hello humidity), we set off around 6am, but after 1km easy walking, we have a "WHERE'S GEORGE?!" moment. After being caught in yesterday's rainstorms, George had been put in a safe place to dry off... Selso radios back to camp, and they've found him - but no one else will be coming back this way today. We can't leave a man behind, so we send the rest of the group on ahead, and I run back, reclaim George, then run back with him safely attached. What an effort (CP here), George is safe and RD has had a nice little warm up run through the countryside...!

CP meanwhile has passed the time waiting by getting acquainted with the local wildlife:

By now, we're well behind the rest of the group, with a long way to go to get back in time for lunch - including "about an hours climb" according to our guides. We set about the chase, and dominate the morning trek to the juice stop at Adan Camp, catching and passing the rest of the group on the climb. Each time we pass someone, there's time to half explain about George, before powering on.

We reach the juice stop only a couple of minutes after the 3 boys, who had left camp long before us - collectively our group of 6 has missed every planned morning start time of the trek, and I'm certain that Selso has learnt to say 6am, knowing that we won't actually leave until half an hour later. What should have been a 3-hour hike has taken us only 2 hours, including doubling back to rescue George... pretty pleased with our efforts! We had a wonderfully sweet lulo juice, fresh pineapple and more chocolate whilst we rest our getting rather weary feet. We both have lots of blisters so the shoes stay on, but that's probably a good thing given we've been wearing the same socks for four days now...

Miriam and Selso are next to arrive - Selso has done most of this trek in rolled down willies or crocs, and sometimes takes alternatives routes which would be too dangerous for us, so it's not uncommon for him to seemingly appear out of a bush, check that we are ok, and then disappear again! The rest of our group arrives 45 minutes after us (...pretty sure they stopped for a sit down somewhere!), and this is where they will stay for the night - it's 9:30am, so who knows what they'll have done to entertain themselves for the rest of the day.

CP, Miriam, and I set off for the last part of our journey, still powering on but not quite as much as the first part of our day! Uphill means that I pull ahead, downhill means CP edges in front, then we stop at the bridge to wait for Miriam and Selso, and there we can see the old way of getting across - the shell of a metal cage that has rusted away. People used to have to get in this 2-3 at a time, then be pulled across above the river on a pulley system. The bridge was built a few years ago after a tourist had not used the cage (whether his choice or the guides decision) and had been swept down the river and drowned...

Only one person at a time on the bridges....

CP opts to run down the final hill that took us well over an hour to hike up on the first day and swim at pool at bottom whilst she waited for us to catch up, but not for RD whose blistered toes have reached a point where removing the shoes would mean not putting them on again... urgh!  

Finally we're in our pickup truck heading back to the main road (after cp almost managed to twist her ankle, falling over On nothing...I mean seriously, with all the trekking we've done and she falls over in the dry flat road!?h, when we stop outside a cafe so our driver can have a chat - and we spot Ted (Ometepe, La Fortuna) who is just about to start his trek! Time for a quick catch up on who's been where, and then we're on our way back to Drop Bear for a much needed shower...

This is easily one of the best things we have done on this trip so far and as a group we wondered if this will ever become as visited as Machu Pichu - currently less than 30 people per day will visit the Lost City, so there's a real feeling that you're doing something special rather than walking in a procession of people to tick something off the list. Trekking through beautiful countryside, the trip is as much about the journey there (and back!) as it is about the ruins, with the added bonus of learning about the true local indigenous culture along the way, and discovering something so special with such a sad past.

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