In the jungles of northern Colombia there’s a magical city known as Ciudad Perdida – ‘Lost City’ in spanish. Believed to be built around 800AD (650 years before Machu Picchu in Peru) the site is said to be the central city of the Tairona people, connecting the many small villages around it. Originally home to between 2,000 and 8,000 people the city is said to be four times as large as Machu Picchu and far more spread out. Abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquests and the city was only rediscovered in 1972.
There are now regular jungle hikes to the site taking between 4 and 6 days. It’s considered a moderately difficult hike and since I was in the area I decided to do it.
I was picked up from my hostel at 9am with just my little pack. I’m not used to carrying so little and I almost felt like I didn’t have enough with me. But then I usually don’t go on guided treks, preferring to walk alone with all my own equipment.
After a ten minute minivan ride from Taganga – the beach town where I’m staying – I was dropped off to the tour company’s office in Santa Marta where I was to meet the others in the group. I’d figured I wouldn’t be alone on this fairly popular trek but I didn’t expect to be one of 19 plus guides. With so many others hikers it was difficult to find the serenity of nature I enjoy when hiking alone. But I did my best.
By 11am, we were off in a pair of 4x4s heading towards El Mamey, the village that serves as the hike’s trailhead. An hour later, we left the sealed highway and headed along a rough dirt road suitable only for 4x4s, motorcycles and horses. A further hour later and we arrived at El Mamey where we were provided with lunch.
After lunch and once we were all ready we headed out along a dirt road, crossing a pair of rivers as we went.
It wasn’t long before we began to climb in the muggy heat. While the steep climb was not at altitude like my previous few hikes, where lack of oxygen slowed me down, the somewhat oppressive heat stripped me of my energy, having a similar effect. As we worked our way slowly up the tree covered hill, the clay of the trail seemed to capture the heat and send it at us from all directions. Sweat ran from everywhere and I was soon soaked completely, a state I was to be in for the entire four days of the hike.
We had reached the top of the hill and were walking along a ridge line when the afternoon rains finally arrived to cool us down.
We took shelter at a small cabaña until the shower passed but it was not to be the end of the rain for the day. As we continued, low clouds began to move in around the hills, bringing a much appreciated cool breeze.
We continued along the cloudy ridge until it dove down a long steep clay and mud trail before crossing the river to another village. Finally, we climbed a smaller hill to the cabaña where we’d be staying the night.
Under a wall-less tin roofed building there were line upon line of hammocks covered with mosquito netting.
One section of the wall-less hut was a massive kitchen where the guides prepared our dinner of chicken, potatoes and rice. As we ate the rain returned, this time very heavily and accompanied by long peels of thunder and brilliant flashes of lightning. After dinner and a couple of beers – no South American hike would be complete without beer at the camps – I headed to bed in preparation for the next day.
It rained heavily for a large portion of the night, well past the time I’d gone to sleep. Sleeping in a hammock was a first and quite comfortable using a blanket as a pillow. I used a second blanket briefly early in the morning when it grew a little cooler and I was thankful for the protection of the mosquito nets.
At 5am we were up and given breakfast. It was an early start to avoid the oppressive humidity later in the day. It was still hot, a wet heat that made it difficult to regulate my own temperature. But this was only a problem when I was climbing, which was much of the morning following the dirt trail through the endless trees of the jungle. During the climb we paused from time to time in various villages to get our breaths back and to take photos.
The trail dove down hill again for a long period and at the bottom we were forced to remove our boots to cross a river. Wading across, the water came up to our thighs in all its cold and gloriousness.
With only 30 minutes to our evening’s cabaña, most of us stripped down to our shorts (or to bikinis for the girls) and went for a swim. It was difficult for us to leave the river, but we eventually tore ourselves away, dressed and walked the 30 minutes along one bank to the cabaña.
After lunch it was shower and relax time as we waited for the afternoon rains. We are only 1km away from the steps leading up to the Lost City. So close we could hear the buzzing of mosquitos.
Many of us were woken by the breakfast crew at 3.30am, not because we had to get up but because they were being noisy. I managed to get back to sleep and at 5.30 was up and having breakfast. Then we were off along the bank for the 1km to another river crossing where we again had to remove our boots. Even first thing in the morning the cold of the river was refreshing. On the other side we found the 1,200 or so steps that lead up to Ciudad Perdida.
The ancient tribes must have had small feet as the steps are tiny. Still, it didn’t take us long to get to the top where we emerged into the city’s market area covered in sweat. After reapplying insect repellant, I zipped on my leggings and rolled down my sleeves as defence against the mobs of ravenous insects.
We spent three hours walking around Ciudad Perdida…
From the market, we headed up the hill by steps…
…that led to the rich quarter of the city where the best views could be had.
There aren’t any buildings left from the day of the city builders, as unlike the Incas, the Tairona built houses from bamboo, wood and mud. A few natives do live here but their buildings are recent.
In places around the city are gun toting soldiers, protecting visitors to the city for the last decade. The last kidnapping in the area was ten years ago in 2003. Next we headed down a long flight of steps to the poorer quarters.
After some history lessons we climbed back down the main steps, very slowly and eventually made it to the river where the boots were off again as we crossed. 30 minutes later and we were back at our last nights accommodation for lunch.
Next was a long ten kilometre hike back along the trail to our final night’s cabaña at the bottom of a very long downhill. In the heat of the afternoon, and still drenched with sweat, we were thankful to arrive at the camp. It didn’t take us long to get out of our wet clothes and into the cool river. On the far bank a waterfall feeds into a grotto behind a huge rock. There’s an elaborate technique for getting across, the last of which is to power swim through the strongest current. A couple of us made a chain to catch some of the less strong swimmers as they were being swept past.
That evening we relaxed under the beady eyes of many Cane Toads enjoying the rain.
The final day was simply returning along the trail we’d walked on our first day – up a steep long climb, back along the ridge line and down a very long climb. 15 minutes before we arrived back at El Mamey, we stopped at the river for a final swim – they couldn’t have stopped us if they tried! Then after 30 minutes in the water, we were back on the trail for the final short walk to the village, where we stopped for lunch before being transported to Santa Marta and the end of the adventure.
Overall, the 4 day jungle trek was a great adventure, and while the constant sweating and dripping wet clothes left me covered in a heat rash, it was worth it to get to the Lost City and my final adventure in South America.
The Lone Trail Wanderer.
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