To green hell and back- La Ciudad Perdida, Colombia

At La Ciudad Perdida

“Green hell” is the term for La Ciudad Perdida, the ancient ruins of the Tayrona people, from 400AD, hidden in the jungle, where the only way in is a 6-day round-trip trek. The hike includes a staircase of 1,326 slippery moss-covered stone steps, wading thigh-high through the Buritaca river Indiana Jones, trudging up and down the lush green jungle mountains, stepping aside on the trail for the 4 indigenous tribes of the area, cooling off in hidden natural swimming holes, sleeping in hammocks and being eaten alive by mosquitos. It is also quite possibly the most fun I’ve ever had out in the wilderness.

Highlights

  • Seeing the 4 indigenous tribes walking the same trails, dressed all in white, with heavy bags hung from their foreheads.
  • Learning the traditions of the Tayrona people – for example, the men all have a gourd “diary.” They write their thoughts in a coca-seashell powder on the surface of the gourd as a type of meditation – thoughts which can never be read again even by the owner.
  • Wading thigh-high through the river multiple times, backpack and all.
  • Sleeping in hammocks – sounds really uncomfortable but after a couple nights it is extremely satisfying.
  • The Lost City itself with all its stone terraces and staircases – the sheer number of steps  is absolutely breathtaking.
Slippery stone steps

Slippery stone steps

 Travel Diary

Day 1  – Introduction to hammock-sleeping, river-crossing and the jungle

I packed only the following: pijamas, quick-dry pants, 3 shirts, a sweater, 6 pairs of socks, 6 pairs of underwear, swimsuit, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, 98% DEET, a small towel, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, flashlight, a little cash and an unfortunately-heavy dSLR camera.

We took a 3-hour drive to Machete, the starting city for the trek, packed like sardines in a small 4-wheel drive van with our group – representing Colombia, Norway, Germany and the US.  After a hearty lunch of coldcuts on squishy wonderbread and coca cola, we set out for the jungle. We walked about 5 hours straight uphill, taking a couple breaks where they supplied us with oranges. We have our first of several river crossings – shoes off and wading through the river which feels impressively like Indiana Jones. It gets dark quickly and we finish the hike with flashlights,  arriving to Camp 1 tired and covered in sweat, dirt, sunscreen and DEET.

After an awesome meal of chicken and rice, we settled exhausted into the hammocks with mosquito nets, which were hung up in rows so closely that you end up accidentally bumping into / snuggling with the person on both sides.

A delicious "Sancocho" soup for lunch with our sleeping accommodations in the background.

A delicious “Sancocho” soup for lunch with our sleeping accommodations in the background.

Day 2 – Two swimming holes and meet the ancient tribes

We woke up to fresh fruit, scrambled eggs and coffee (delicious!) and headed to the swimming hole which I can only describe as paradise on earth. Jumping off the rocks into the turquoise waters was a bit of a shock, but the waterfall at the bottom offered hydro-massage for tired backs and legs.

We set off for Camp 2, walking past the indigenous village of the Koguis, who live in straw huts called Chozas. The Koguis are one of four indigenous villages of the Tayrona area – all four tribes live in harmony with eachother and they are the protectors of the mountain – dedicating themselves to the protection of the water, the fertility of the land, and the mountain. They all wear white, which symbolizes purity.

An indigenous Kogi settlement we hiked by.

An indigenous Kogi settlement we hiked by.

Camp 2 is near an even bigger swimming hole, where we get to jump off even higher rocks – 15 feet this time! – and suntan on the warm rocks. The Colombians taught us a dice-rolling betting game called “Perinola” where I lost the remaining couple pesos I had.

Swimming hole - jumping mandatory!

Swimming hole – jumping mandatory!

Day 3 – Hiking to green hell with a bum arm

We woke up at the crack of dawn, for what would turn into 11 hours of hikingWe got up so early that we actually ate breakfast by candlelight. The candles were stuck to the bottom of tuna cans – tuna cans which still had remnants of tuna inside. This is not a luxury tour.

Breakfast by candlelight before a full day of trekking

Breakfast by candlelight before a full day of trekking

In the morning an innocent-looking stone in the creek turns out to be slippery as ice and I find myself falling over to the side, where the ground slopes sharply down. Landing on my elbow, wrist and bloodying my shoulder was about the scariest thing ever.  The only way out of La Ciudad Perdida is a helicopter – or having someone carry you. Our tour guide is nowhere in sight, so onwards we went!

After lunch we set out for La Ciudad Perdida. The climb seemed endless. Uneven, slippery stone steps  with no guard rails of course. This wasn’t particularly fun with my confidence shaken and my right arm completely useless from the fall.

After a lot of sweating we finally reach the city.  It was much bigger than I expected from the pictures – most photos show the classic multi-tier stone walls that formed the central part of the city, but smaller ruins were scattered all over the mountain. Hiking back down the slippery stone steps was even harder – our tour guide even held my hand because I looked so shaky. Ohhhh, the shame! But I was grateful after I arrived back at camp without any  further injuries that day.

La Ciudad Perdida

La Ciudad Perdida

Day 4-6 Hiking Back

The trip back was actually harder than I expected. We hiked all the way from camp 3 to camp 1 on day 4. Day 5 was a much-needed rest day, where I literally went to the swimming hole and laid in a hammock all day. The rest of our tour group went on, since they had signed up for the 5-day tour, and we had signed up for the 6 day. Somehow, however, we all got into the same group so that we didn’t actually go any slower or less distance per day – we just spent an extra day in the jungle doing nothing.

25% Injury Rate

La Ciudad Perdida is not for the faint-hearted Out of our group of 12 people – all 20-30ish year olds in good shape, 3 people sustained injuries. I fell down and sprained my elbow and wrist and bloodied my shoulder which hurt for about a week. Another girl tripped and fell and bloodied her knee. A third girl was too exhausted to walk, and so the tour guide decided to mount her on one of the pack mules. That, however, backfired, when the pack mule slipped and fell while she was riding it. All the tour guides showed us their scars as well, from the times they themselves had fallen on the trail.

What I wish I’d known

  • I saw a girl buy a beautiful bag woven by hand by the Arhuaco tribe, directly from them for the equivalent of $12 or $13 USD. When I got back to Santa Marta and  later to Cartagena I saw similar ones  for sale for $80-$150. Bring cash if you want one.
  • I should not have brought ANY clothing that was not quick-dry. Putting on a sweat-soaked tshirt before another long hike sucks!
  • Bring tall socks! I bought quick-dry ankle socks  because I figured the jungle was hot, but I would have much preferred tall socks because the mosquitos ate me alive, especially at the ankles, despite the 98% DEET.
  • Watch your pack weight carefully. As a not-too-experienced hiker, I probably should have left the huge camera at home. I also cracked the screen when I fell.
  • Get hiking shoes or hiking sandals! With a lot of tread. Mine were well-worn-in running shoes. This was bad idea.
Quick Dry Clothing highly highly recommended!

Quick Dry Clothing highly highly recommended!

Despite the all-too-common injuries, everyone loved it. Many people said it was the less commercial, warmer, smaller version of Machu Pichu – no train to arrive at the top means less people. If you like to hike and are in Colombia, don’t miss it!

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