We’re just back from a four day trek into the Colombian jungle and have survived, despite – as the title says – a lot of mud, a whole load of sweat and facing fears of things that slither in the night.
Ciudad Perdida, the “Lost City” of the Tayrona tribe was built 500 A.D. in the green jungle of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the north of the country. It was discovered in the 1970s by guaqueros (tomb raiders) who had heard tales of the gold hidden in the jungle from the tribes of ancient civilisation. A father and a son had travelled deep into the jungle, stumbled across a set of stone steps leading up from the River Buritaca and at the top uncovered a world that had been lost for hundreds of years. When we began planning our travels, the trek to Ciudad Perdida had been at the top of my list.
This trek took us into the jungle, an environment I’ve never experienced before: one that is tough, wet, that challenges you and that takes your breath away. Here, I feel like I’m the furthest away that I’ve ever been. There are huge trees, screeches and calls from all around, creepers, enormous roots to climb over. The thunder of the river never leaves us, torrents of water and strong currents that tug at our thighs as we cross, our boots held in one hand and a rope in the other. There are hazy mountains all around, covered in jungle with mist that rises in the valleys in the mornings to be burnt off by the sun by noon.
There were 16 of us in total: 4 Germans, 7 Italians, 1 Dutch guy and 2 other Brits as well our guide, Marrón, and translator Danny. We fall into easy conversation: where we’ve been travelling, what people do for work, where people are headed next. The Italians sing songs and tell us that we can’t make pasta; we give them a detailed run- through of how to make a cup of tea. On the hills though, we’re silent – heads down, struggling for breath.
The trek is hard: four days of constant and steep climbing and clambering, mud sucking at our boots and our clothes soaked with sweat from the first afternoon. Nothing ever dries here and you have to be resigned to the fact that you’ll be wet for the entire time. Any part of skin seems to be slick with sweat and my eyes sting, we have bites from the mosquitos and broken feet. There are huts along the route, normally at the top of a steep hill, where guys give us watermelon and it’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever eaten.
The camps are like little villages, with long tables where we eat and rows of mosquito-netted bunk beds. There are clothes hung out in an attempt to dry them, people playing cards, hopeful dogs under the dinner table, lights out at 9pm and alarms at 4am, willing myself to sleep before the snorers begin.
One night I’m convinced that there’s a snake – my worst fear – hidden at the bottom of my bed. Thankfully there wasn’t although Moz could have killed me with the fuss that I made. We do, however, encounter one the next day: dead on the end of a stick held up by a little boy from the local tribe. This snake can kill a human within a minute of biting them and it was the boy’s father that bashed it over the head with a branch. Snakes can sense footsteps and flee from them, so I spend a lot of time stomping extra heavily and bashing my hands together. Later that afternoon, Moz will spot a body slithering into the jungle and I’m never quite relaxed.
There are lines of ants across the paths, determinedly carrying leaves ten times there size. Mules that walk for miles, roped together and carrying heavy loads of food and provisions on their backs. Butterflies, brilliant blue, that flutter around our heads as we re-tie our boots on the riverbank, and which have paused on our path and rise like leaves around us as we walk through.
The jungle is the home of four indigenous tribes descended from the Tayrona: the Kogi, Wawe, Arhuaco and Assario. We are in the land of the Kogi and we encounter many tribespeople along our way as they travel along the path, forage in the jungle or work in the camps. They wear all white to repel the mosquitos, have long dark hair and are short and strong, passing us at speed as we huff and puff up a steep hill. We pass their villages where I spot a mother feeding a baby, the men chew coca leaves and are unsmiling as are the sombre teenagers who ride a train of mules to camp. Only the little children grin at us as they run from the huts to look at us as we pass.
Marrón tells us about the history of the jungle, the ancient people that lived there, the different tribes that have been affected by the modern world, the farmers that grew crops, the marijuana that flourished here and the cocaine workshops hidden deep in the jungle. Marrón used to work in a cousin factory and tells us about the process of making it and the impact it has had on his country. One night around the camp fire, he shows us a special tool that the Kogi use for meditation – a poporro – which involves saliva from the coca leaf and calcium from seashells: the poporro is the sign of manhood for the Kogi and brings wisdom and fertility to the tribe. Danny tells us that it’s rare for us to experience this and it feels special to have seen it.
The morning of the summit and we’re up at 4am, drink hot coffee in plastic cups and stomach some Nutella on toast, before we leave the camp in the dark. Across the river, we climb stone steps that never seem to end until, at last, they do and we are in the Lost City.
Mud track has become paved footpaths and there are stone terraces stacked up the mountain. It’s just like I imagined and had seen in pictures but more spectacular, more incredible: this city of stone hidden in a jungle of green. There is a boulder placed facing towards the rising sun, an offering to the Sun God for fertility, and rings upon rings of stone terraces that once were filled with people and houses. I imagine the tribes that lived here and the huge ceremonies that would have taken place. The dawn haze has burnt off into sunshine and we’re jubilant that we made it, taking group pictures and marvelling at the view. All around us are jungle and mountains where acres of city lies still hidden: the local tribes have asked to leave them covered so that their ancestors can remain sleeping in peace.
After a day and a half retracing our footsteps, we’re back at the village where we started – dirty, exhausted and delighted to have a cold beer to celebrate over lunch. We swap numbers to share photos and hug each other goodbye.
Later that day, after we’ve returned back to Santa Marta and had a shower, Moz and I go out for pizza and £2 happy hour super-strong caipirinhas: the perfect end to a big adventure!
Next stop: along the coast to the beaches of Palomino and Tayrona National Park!