15th April to 19th April 2014
15.04.2014 - 19.04.2014
We woke up early to pack all our things, after being moved to a different room as our air con didn’t work, which was definitely needed in the stifling heat. Eventually someone from Magic Tours arrived (our lost city tour company) to pick us up and whisk us away on the start of our Colombian jungle adventure. The first part of the adventure was being squashed into a pick-up truck for two and a half hours as we drove through the Tayrona National Park towards a small village called Mamey where the trek started. The last hour was particularly difficult as the road turned into a rough dirt track, which the driver enjoyed a lot by speeding around corners. When we arrived after the sweaty journey, we had lunch at a small restaurant with the rest of the group. Our group consisted of two Dutch girls and eight Colombians on holiday for semana santa and a really nice guide called José or Marón (Mr Brown) who over the trip turned out to be a wealth of information with 23 years of experience. The people in the group were all really nice and it was great to spend some time with actual Colombians, learning more about the country and its culture. By the end of the trip we had invitations to visit people in two cities down in the south, so we get to be guided round by the locals! After our lunch, Marón ominously told us that the first day would be tough, uphill and incredibly hot in the afternoon sun, so with that we began the epic five-day journey to the lost city (Ciudad perdida).
The trek was simply amazing and definitely one of the highlights of our trip around the world so far. It was incredibly tough and we weren’t sure that we’d even make it on some occasions. In total it was a 46km-there-and-back-again trek through agricultural land, forest and primary jungle to the ancient lost city. Each day we trekked at least 4 hours and on a couple of days we did about 8 hours in the stifling heat and humidity – we sweated from places we didn’t know existed! If you imagine entering a tropical butterfly or monkey house in a zoo and try to trek steeply uphill, you might get the idea. The trek was up and down, up and down the whole way which made it even harder – going up was sweaty and really difficult, and going down was hard on the knees. Some of the ascents were particularly tough as we needed to walk up steep slopes for at least an hour. Luckily there were loads of fresh water pools along the river to go swimming in around lunch and dinner time, which were freezing cold but really freshened us up after a hard day’s walking. Most of the pools had little cliffs, so we could jump straight into the water from a height. The most amazing thing was how clear the water was – from above it was a beautiful, turquoise-green colour and was so clear that you could see every stone on the bottom and every little fish that was swimming past. It was quite incredible.
Each day we stopped at one of three camps that were dotted along the trek, each with its own natural swimming pool. For the first two nights we had to sleep in hammocks and then on the final two nights we managed to get beds, which was amazing after so much walking. On the first night, we arrived in the late afternoon and went for a swim before having a big dinner (the food was really good, varied and came in healthy portions). José our guide explained to us some of the history of the area as well as some general Colombian history to set the scene for the rest of the walk. During the civil war that broke out in the 1950s, many people escaped the cities and farmers left for remoter areas to find a safer life. Of these people, many agricultural workers found a home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where the trek is located. However, the situation was bad for them and due to a decline in the commerce of agricultural products, many people lived in poverty. This is where the production of marijuana came in, and it became a viable choice for many people in the area giving them income to survive on. Of course the cultivation of any drug brings with it problems, and in this area the main issue was the arrival of the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) an organisation that opposed the government and got a lot of its revenue through drugs. The FARC began to control the region and drug production in the area. When the government stepped in, they carpet bombed the area with chemicals which destroyed the plantations and also had the knock effect of deformations in babies, deaths and the contamination of the soil which lasts to this day affecting the growth of crops in the area. Still under the control of the FARC, however, drug production in the area quickly moved from marijuana to cocaine which was becoming increasingly popular in the west. Our guide even mentioned how he worked in the cocaine plantations / production factory for a couple of months before he became a tourist guide when the lost city opened for tourism! He said this was simply what people did – there weren’t other options. It is important to bear in mind though that indigenous communities in this area have been growing coca for centuries as a sacred plant that is chewed and drunk as tea; it is only when it’s cut with chemicals that it turns into what we know as cocaine. Both of us tried some of the leaves to eat – it is supposed to give you more energy for the walk but just tasted nasty! Eventually the FARC were pushed out of the area, but paramilitary groups organised by the farmers cropped up to defend themselves where the government and military couldn’t. Nowadays the area is completely secured and the Colombian military control a couple of outposts to keep security. All the cocaine plantations have been destroyed (apart from small amounts of coca leaves for indigenous people which they are still allowed to grow) and the government has supported the farmers in regaining agriculture and commerce, so the picture is a lot better.
But enough of the history… after our talk on the first night we were told abruptly that we needed to get up at 5.15am, so at 9.30pm we rushed to our hammocks to get some sleep. This was pretty much how the rest of the trip went – we arrived in the late afternoon, swam a bit, ate some food, cleaned ourselves up a bit and then went to bed early ready for an early wakeup and more hardcore walking. Day two was a killer and we walked for hours and hours, with much of the trek going uphill. The next day we started early to get up the 1200 steps to the lost city. When we arrived, José gave us a lecture about the place and its history filling in the story at various points as he took us on a three and a half hour tour of the site. The Tayrona civilisation that built the city arrived into Colombia in 500AD having migrated from Asia over many years. In 700AD they built this city and by 1000AD it had become the political, social and religious capital of their civilization, a civilization that spanned over 200 sites in the area. They were also great producers of gold which they moulded into elaborate statutes and adornments to depict social status and worship. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s the relations were initially amicable and revolved around commerce. However, eventually the Spanish began to dominate the Tayrona which started a long war that the Tayrona obviously lost due to their lack of arms. Many were taken as slaves and a lot of interbreeding went on. With the arrival of African slaves, there was more mixture between the three races (Africans, Europeans and Indigenous) which created different hybrid groups that today make up the ethnic diversity of the area and Colombia in general. The indigenous Kogis who still live in the area claim to be pure descendants of the Tayronas. The city was abandoned and only found again in 1973 by a group of grave/gold diggers who found the site and pillaged it for the mass of gold that was buried with the Tayrona’s dead. Often though, these grave diggers shared out the wealth only to have one kill the others to steal their share of the golf. 5 dead people were found in the city by a subsequent grave digger who went to the police. Tayrona people used to bury their dead in their own houses in the centre of the house in the foetal position with some of their belongings. They believed that people needed not just food and drink to get to the afterlife, but also their gold possessions. These houses were abandoned when people died, as other family members had moved onto their own houses. A bit of the corpse’s hair also came up through the earth and when the hair detaches, they know that the dead person had gone to the after world. Tayrona people married, but lived strictly separate lives as sexual relations were seen as unclean. In the late 1970s, the site started to be protected by the government and archaeologists started to restore and research the site, and it opened for tourism in the 1980s. Initially, the site was policed, but after a police chief killed two officers patrolling the site and ran off with the gold (his whereabouts are still unknown), the military moved in and continues to keep the site safe. When we got further into the complex it really was a sight to behold with ever-increasing terraces situated in amongst the densely forested valley – it was quite amazing and we couldn’t believe how people could ever have built such a site.
After the city, we started to head back to camp 2 where we stayed the night. As usual in the morning it was much better and the mulla (horse cross donkey) luckily was able to carry her bag. The rest of the group headed off on the fourth day for the long journey all the way back to the village we started at, while we stayed in camp 1 before finishing the trek on the 5th day. We arrived early to camp 1 and so had loads of time to chill out, read, swim and watch the birds. Generally the trek went off without a hitch for us and the rest of our group. One woman had to turn back on day 2 because she got sick and another girl couldn’t make it after about 30mins into day 1 and so she took a mule for the remainder of the journey apart from the final steps to the city which she unfortunately couldn’t manage. Susanne’s stomach saga continued as she got another round of food poisoning on the 3rd evening (it was during the night in the pitch black with nothing but a torch which wasn’t nice at all) and also had a dodgy foot, so the walk on day 4 was quite tough for her but she battled through and by day 5 she was feeling okay apart from her sore foot. Overall it was an absolutely amazing experience and we loved every minute of it. To spend that long in the jungle and really escape civilisation for days was great, and the difficulty of the walk felt like we put ourselves through some process of purification by sweating and cleaning out the pores! We would recommend it to anyone who ever wants to come to Colombia, although it shouldn’t be taken lightly – it’s a tough old walk! On day 5 we eventually made it back to the village we started in where we had a well-deserved lunch and Matt had his first beer since before the trip. After waiting around for hours, we took a jeep back to Santa Marta with another really nice group. We tried to stay with them at a hostel with a swimming pool just out of town (which would have been great), but it was all booked. So we were taken into the main town where we eventually found a decent enough hotel (which was pretty much the only one available) to rest out weary bones. We looked around Santa Marta for a little bit in the afternoon, which was a bit of a nothingy town apart from the really nice cathedral. Next stop will be Cartagena, an old colonial town four hours along the coast, before making our way south.