27 October 2014 Trek to The Lost City near Santa Marta, Colombia
We first met Tony and Jane Good on SV Capisce (UK registered) when in Bonaire in March 2014. Tony and Jane were also interested in going (some months later) to Santa Marta, Colombia - and they first brought to our attention the tourist highlight of “The Lost City” trek. Its important to mention this because if it hadn’t been for Tony and Jane, we wouldn’t have known anything about this Lost City trek. I should also add that when we left - Tony and Jane were “nowhere in sight” and we ended up doing the trek without them. When we were on Day 4 of the trek, Tony and Jane arrived in the marina. Paul and Andy Atkinson on SV Talulah Ruby III (UK registered) were on the same dock as us (and we’ve known them for months), so we set about on this trek as a foursome. The 2014 Superyacht Services Guide calls the Lost City Trek an epic adventure of “Indiana Jones” style, requiring six days to achieve. In the past month or so, we had done a bit of “training”, walking about town - but nothing could have prepared us for the real thing.
The Lost City of Teyuna (Ciudad Perdida in Spanish) is an ancient (built between the eighth and fourteenth century by the Tayrona Indians) ruined city located in the Colombian jungle near Santa Marta. Nowadays, only circular terraces covered by jungle remain, but the views and isolated location of this site make it extraordinary. Treks to the Lost City are arranged by only 5 tour operators, and we went with Guias y Baquianos Tour (GBT), the only agency that could offer an English speaking guide (in our case it was “Miller”) and apparently GBT was the first tour company to offer tours to the Lost City. All the tour operators charged the same price and trekkers seemed to float from one group to another, at the discretion of the guide - in order to respond to differing capabilities, injuries, weather and local conditions. Our cost was 600,000 Colombian pesos (COP) per person (about $ 300US). In addition to this cost, we chose to rent a mule to carry our backpacks. In fact, we had to rent one mule on the way up (100,000 COP or $ 50US), one mule on the way down (100,000 COP or $ 50US) and indigenous people to carry the backpacks on the last leg from Cabana 3 up to the Lost City and back (another 120,000 COP or $ 60US). In total, our costs were 1,300,000 COP (or $ 650US) for the trip, because we shared the extra mule costs with Paul and Andy. The actual trek is about 48 km long and the time taken is normally 5 days. However, the original tour was designed to be 6 days, but with younger backpackers and time constraints, it seems that most do it in 5 days. Having said that, there are some (maybe 10%) that do the trek in only 4 days and one of the guys who started out in our group (Pedro, an extremely fit young Spanish guy who trained specifically for this trek for the past year) did the trek in only 3 days. Due to heavy rains, our age and less than fit conditions - we opted for the full 6 day package. In fact, it doesn’t matter how long you take to do the trip, the price is the same. Helicopter tours used to be offered, but were discontinued in 2010 when it was discovered that landings were responsible for site deterioration.
On Day 1, we started by driving in the back of a heavy duty Land Cruiser as far as we could. The first 2 hours we drove around Santa Marta collecting trekkers and then finally the last hour (it seemed much longer) up high to the start point at the village of Macheté (or El Mamay). Then we walked about 5 hours to the first camp. This leg is designed to be about a 3 hour walk, but we experienced torrential rainfalls and the path was dangerous to say the least. At one point, I saw a fit Dutchman (maybe 40 years old) walk by me, confidently and rapidly walking along. Several hours later in the evening, I saw him in the Cabana/camp and he couldn’t walk a single step. Apparently, he had fallen in the mud and tore his groin muscle. The next day he was evacuated by mule because he couldn’t continue any further. His wife and daughter continued forward on mules.
On Day 2, we walked further still, passing incredible vistas, often walking on a ridge overlooking the river, but many times walking up the mountain, then down to the river, crossing it, and then walking up the next mountain. We passed by many indigenous people, the Kogies, as they are known, the legacy of the Tairona civilization - as we passed through several of their villages. We were prepared for this and brought candies to give to the children. It isn’t easy to tell the boys from the girls as they both have long hair and the same clothes but if you look closely, the girls sometimes wear a necklace. We stayed overnight at a Cabana or campsite at Mumake.
By 1100am on Day 3, we were at the base of the last mountain, the one containing the Lost City. Now we had some 1200 very steep steps (and I use the term step very loosely) to climb. These steps are chunks of rock placed hundreds of years ago. Most of them were firmly in place but the size of the rock and the rise between stairs was totally random. We could only walk about a dozen steps, stop for 20 seconds to catch our breath and carry on. It was incredibly difficult to climb these “stairs”. There are about 35 Colombian Army soldiers actually stationed now at the site of the Lost City. We heard that in 2003, a group of trekkers was kidnapped and held for ransom for approximately 100 days by guerrillas. In the end, no ransom money was paid but some concessions were made by the government, and of course, since then - it has been rare for foreigners to stay overnight in the Lost City.
At the Lost City, there are two Shamons, one religious and one political. We met the religious Shamon, his two wives and family. No, he didn’t speak English, but he did answer questions through our guide.
During the trek we passed many small streams and waterfalls, some of which we could swim in, and all offered incredible views. Many of the uphill climbs were very steep, where you had to walk hand over hand and take care with your footing. We met a few people who sustained injuries, sprained ankles or knees. In some cases they were able to carry on with a mule. We heard many stories of tourists over past years who had fallen and were injured or had died. Although the rain was welcome to cleanse your body and reduce the temperature, it oftentimes made the path extremely slippery, dangerous.
Every camp offered either beds or hammocks, sometimes with a pillow, nearly always with a mosquito screen. Our overnight conditions in the Lost City were the most spartan, with no pillows or mosquito screens and a dangerous 10 minute walk to the toilets. Every camp offered showers (direct water flow using PVC pipe from the extremely cold river or stream nearby) and toilets, many with actual toilet-seats. The meals served were basic but scrumptious after the intense activity of getting there.
Plenty of carbohydrates with rice, potatoes or pasta and chicken/beef or fish. Every camp offered beverages to purchase, other than the water or juice offered. One camp had a water/hydro powered generator. At one camp, Paul and I worked for about an hour to help troubleshoot their diesel powered 5.5KW generator. Apparently, it had not been working for 6 days. Someone had pulled the plug out and didn’t know which sockets the wires fitted into. It was a standard 115V 30A female plug (3 wire, ground/hot/neutral) with 2 bare wires inserted into it. After I figured it out, we had electricity for about 4 hours - and then it ran out of fuel….
I put mosquito lotion on my feet, ankles and legs every morning and night. Mosquitoes weren’t much of a problem on the walk itself, unless you stopped in a shaded, windless, overgrown area for more than a minute. Then they seemed to come from out of nowhere to bite you. The area of the Lost City itself was the worst for mosquitoes. Diane suffered more than me, and when we returned to the boat, her feet, ankles and calves were swollen.
Both Diane and I brought “baby wipes” to use as toilet paper. This was a good strategy because nearly none of the toilets had toilet paper, some didn’t even have seats. With “baby wipes”, you can clean your butt quickly, and efficiently using very little paper. However, I did find that during the day, while walking on the trail - I was holding back a bowel movement, the pressure was building! I was often on the lookout for a safe place to leave the trail and leaf selection was high on my list of concerns. Although I never had to leave the trail for an “emergency dump”, the possibility was always high!
Footwear was a big issue. Both Diane and I chose to wear the same kind of walking shoes that we have become accustomed to over the past 5 years - closed toe lightweight hiking sandals (mine were made by Merrell and Diane’s by Keen). The uppers of my shoes were made of neoprene. There were well suited to the wet conditions but not to the arduous uphill or downhill walking. When wet, my feet had little support and were sliding from side to side in the shoe. Also, since I wasn’t wearing socks, I developed some serious wear points and blisters that will take a week to heal. Diane suffered a “blow-out” with one of her shoes on Day 2 and the other on Day 3. Both of her soles just fell off the shoe. We tried taping them with duct tape (I brought a whole roll of duct tape along), tying them with string and even sewing the sole with a borrowed needle and thread.
Finally, when we reached the summit at the Lost City, we discovered that the man who runs the place was actually an “amateur cobbler” and he repaired both of Diane’s shoes with contact cement, an awl and polypropylene line. His repair (done at the end of Day 3) got her through to Day 6.
When we reached the base camp at the end of Day 6, I tossed my shoes in the garbage bin and reverted to my sandals.
Apparently, Colombia has the highest diversity of bird life of any country on earth and it quickly became apparent on this trek, with bright hummingbirds darting around, flocks of emerald green Toucanettes squawking - simply amazing.
I saw two snakes during the trek. Sometimes, I was walking out in front of the group, maybe 50m in front, maybe more. I saw one snake, a dark red coloured 2m long snake on rocks next to the river. He was about 2m in front of me and quickly slithered across the path in front of me, going under a rock. Another day, I saw a completely different snake, again about 2m long, but this one was dark brown and in a wet environment. He was in a small creek or stream and moved in the water and quickly hid amongst some rocks. Both times I tried to get a photo but the snakes were too quick and my camera lens was fogged up from either the persistent rain or the humidity. I should add that none of my pictures show the rainy/wet conditions. Although my camera is waterproof, the wet lens just doesn’t promote good photos and the fuzziness can’t be edited out.
We came across many of the indigenous people living in the area around the Lost City. These people have been chewing the leaves of coca plants (the same plants that are used in the production of cocaine) for centuries. When a young man reaches the age of 18, he is presented with his first “Poporo” - a device used for the mixture and consumption of coca leaves. The “Poporo” has two pieces: the receptacle, and the lid which includes a pin that is used to carry the lime to the mouth while chewing coca leaves. Since the chewing of coca is sacred for the indigenous people, the poporos are also attributed with mystical powers and social status.
The terrain varied a lot. Initially, we started out on a nice sandy path about 2 feet wide. This then changed to red clay (that became slippery when wet) and then red clay with rocks or gravel. Frequently, we were walking on gravel or eroded stone. In the past, there was a lot of mining for gold in this area and I’ll bet that the Spanish were annoyed when they brought back “fools gold” to their homeland, mistaking this gold glitter for the real thing.
I should say a few words about our guide (Miller) and cook (Luis), and also in the first four days we were coupled with another group whose guide was Mis-eye-il (I don’t know how to spell his name but this is the way it is pronounced phonetically. In short, their support was fabulous. Although only Miller spoke English, all three were always there to assist when necessary or offer help otherwise - spoken language was not a barrier to communication. The meals were hot, fresh and tasty.
Along the way, we had dozens of conversations with Miller about the history of the Lost City, and the indigenous people who live in the area. Miller himself was often chewing coca leaves, although he didn’t have a Poporo. Mis-eye-il is studying to be an Anthropologist and was a wealth of information as well.
In summary, we underestimated the difficulty of this trek.
Was it worth the effort? Yes.
Would I do it again? No.
Did I wish that I hadn’t done the trek, and not have sore muscles, blisters and mosquito bites - that’s debatable, probably - yes.
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SV Joana is listed for sale at this site (in case you're wondering why, we're not planning to give up the cruising lifestyle or our home, but most things are for sale and since we've met many cruisers who have listed their boat, we figured we'd do it too).
Countries Visited: (Departed Canada: May 2009)
Antigua: May 2011
Bermuda: June - August 2009
Bonaire: February - April 2014
Bahamas: December 2009 - March 2010, December 2010 - February 2011
Barbados: March 2012
British Virgin Islands: May 2011
Colombia: Oct 2014 -
Cuba: March - May 2010
Curaçao: May 2014 - September 2014
Dominica: May 2011, April 2013
Dominican Republic: March - April 2011
Grenada: June-November 2011
Guadeloupe: March 2013
Martinique: March 2012, March 2013
Puerto Rico: April 2011
St Lucia: May-June 2011, December 2011 - February 2012, December 2012 - February 2013
St Martin /Netherlands Antilles: May 2011
St Vincent and the Grenadines: June 2011, February 2012, December 2012, April-May 2013
Tobago: March-May 2012
Trinidad: May - December 2012, June - November 2013
USA: August - November 2009, June - November 2010
US Virgin Islands: May 2011
Venezuela: November 2013 - February 2014