Just a month before, a group of hikers had been told to run while their guide was shot because he hadn’t paid ‘them’ off. We didn’t really know who ‘they’ were or whether the story was true, but somehow it added to the excitement of what we were about to do – a five-day trek to the fabled Lost City (La Ciudad Perdide) in northern Colombia.
As far as countries to travel in go, Colombia still seemed to have that edginess and mystery that is hard to find these days thanks to the internet and Lonely Planet, and for me that was its appeal. Tourists had been taken hostage and killed and there were still ‘untouched’ tribes living off the land. The FARC (a revolutionary peasant army that funds itself by holding people for ransom and trading illegal drugs) had lost much of its power since President Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002. Prior to that it was rumoured that they controlled 30 to 40% of Colombian territory and we were heading into it. “Please don’t go. It’s too dangerous” my mother pleaded. But the temptation to get to places before the crowds was too great. To add to the excitement, we heard it was possible to visit a cocaine factory during the trek.
Whereas Machu Picchu sees up to 10,000 tourists a day, La Ciudad Perdide hasn’t yet received 10,000 visitors to date. It remains delectably untouched perhaps due to fear of the FARC, but probably also due to its inaccessibility. There are no roads: access is only by a five-day, 44 kilometre, strenuous trek along a muddy jungle path, up and down steep and slippery hills with 13 thigh-high-deep river crossings, topped off by a 2000-step climb.
Accommodation is hammocks under a tin roof, strung between posts like bats resting in a cave until night falls. Daily showers and baths a swim in the river, whose gentle winding path traces much of the way. Not that there is much point washing other than the pure joy of the cool mountain water nourishing weary bodies – rain, sweat and mud means that by day five there is not a single piece of clean or dry clothing to change into. Food is scrumptious, hearty and plentiful and due almost entirely to the fearless donkeys who labour alongside through the boggy mud carrying supplies.
When La Ciudad Perdide was ‘discovered’ in 1972, gold and treasures were found and trouble ensued, including a murder, as the site was looted. Today, the site is patrolled by camouflaged, semi-automatic wielding paramilitary. It was never quite clear what their purpose was – to protect us, to protect the site or to protect something else – but to lay eyes on them when we finally reached the top of the 2000 stairs made our over-worked hearts beat even faster. Thankfully they were friendly and we posed for silly photos using their borrowed weapons as props, dangerously pointed at each other and pretending to be held hostage.
La Ciudad Perdide was exactly what we had hoped for – a set of glorious, Indiana Jones-style ruins nestled gracefully on mist covered jungle mountains. In the distance, a tall waterfall added to the postcard scenery. Surrounded by palm trees as high as five storey buildings and huge Jurassic looking plants, the ruins resemble a series of neat helicopter-pad-sized golf putting greens, encircled by moss covered stones and staggered like a giant’s staircase to heaven.
Only a small percentage of the site has been excavated. The majority of it still lies hidden beneath the tropical overgrowth. It pre-dates Machu Picchu by about 650 years and is thought to have been an ancient city inhabited by up to 8000 people of the Tayrona tribe. On the trek we passed their living descendants, scattered like dying autumn leaves in jungle clearings beyond the path. They are ruled by a local tribal chief who lives amongst the ruins in his adobe hut high in the clouds, much as his ancestors must have done at one with nature and the spirits. He appeared to have a wisdom and knowledge that we didn’t possess and his glassy, stoned-looking eyes looked at us with melancholy resignation. His world is rapidly changing and it’s out of his control. I felt guilty. It is people like me that are causing this by seeking out excitement and adventure and then telling the world.
However it’s hard to keep quiet when you have experiences like this and in just a few years other things had changed too. On this same journey only two years prior, my travelling companion’s brother had visited a full-blown cocaine factory. But with tourism on the up and up, ‘they’ had moved on to more remote territory. Ours was more like talking to a woman handing out samples at a display stand in a supermarket. Despite disappointing in scale, the demonstration was fascinating and we walked away finding it hard to believe that a combination of leaves, hydrochloric acid and petrol would be worth as much per gram as gold.
With the highlights ticked off, we retraced our steps from whence came: across the 13 rivers, slipping and sliding down the muddy paths until cell phone reception returned. We had returned safe and sound after an adventure of a lifetime. ‘They’ were no longer near, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether the tribal chief wished that ‘they’ were still around. Protecting him from us.
When to go: Between March to October is the best time to visit
Getting there: Flights from Sydney to Santa Marta, Colombia from A$2,700 including taxes with Aerolinas Argentinas and Avianca. Lost City Tour cost from US$350 for 5 days. More for English speaking guides. Book tours locally in Santa Marta.
Note: This trek is strenuous and requires a reasonable degree of fitness. Violence against tourists has occurred in the region in the past. Check with DFAT for local safety warnings prior to departure.