June 28, 2006 GMT
La Cuidad Perdida (The Lost City)

Walk to the Lost City? Are you mad? Hike for six days over hill and dale in the midst of jungle/rain forest, trees with hanging vines, poisonous snakes, waist deep rivers, guerrillas and cocaine factories, fierce rainstorms and hot sun so I can see moss covered stone steps built in 700 AD then lost in the rain forest until 1975? Did I ask, are you mad? OK, I'll do it.

We start our tour from oldest colonial town surviving in South America, Santa Marta, founded in 1525. The Spanish originally founded this Caribbean town as the first staging area in South America for arriving conquistadors and slaves, and for gold and other precious metals departing for Spain.

It is a three hour drive from Santa Marta to the front ranges of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This massive and solitary mountain rises 5800 metres from the Caribbean in just 45 kilometers, a gradient only equalled by the Himalayas. Apart and away from Los Andes, this giant stands on its own. GoogleEarth it and you will be surprised.

Over the centuries, civilizations have cleared the tropical rain forest along the flanks of this 16,000 square kilometer mountain complex, built flourishing cities, lived well, then withered away for a variety of reasons, leaving the forest to reclaim the slopes once again.

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We are 15 gringos with one guide, three porters, and for the first two days, two mules carrying supplies. On Day 3 the mules stay behind because the trail and the landscape becomes too rugged. By Day 3 I am tempted to keep them company. Our first day involves a two hour switchback climb. Few of us are ready for that, especially me as Katie has been doing all the work for months now. Also, I note, I am at least twice as old as the next closest member of our tour. To keep my lazy mind off such unmotivating thoughts, I pause often to admire the landscape. I see ferns as big as ships' propellors, eucalytpus, banyans and the grandfather arbol of all, the towering 300 year old centenario, with dangling vines as thick as climbing rope. On the campesino cultivated land, banana palms, yuca, elechos, ceiba, pineapple and coca grows. The hills are steeped in greenery.

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At the risk of overstating my impression of Colombia, the countryside is fabulously fertile, thriving with every kind of plant life that calls the tropics home. Unfortunately, shaved sections of the front ranges clear cut for agriculture and livestock make the mountain slopes look like a dog with the mange. In stark contrast to the rich vista verde is the occasional hard steel reflection of a metal roofed home, perched along a ridge top. While I walk, sometimes I hear the sound of axes and machetes. It is a sad sound - more rain forest is being cleared.

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The lower 2000 meters of the mountain are also home to the Kogui indigenous peoples, direct descendants to the original builders of La Cuidad Perdida, the Tayrona. Of jet black hair and wearing clothes that look like off-white cotton sacks, they don't look a happy lot. They weave their own clothes, grow their own produce, and raise their kids, pigs and chickens within the pueblo.

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I offer the children candy, which they take shyly at first. After the first round goes well the oldest asks, almost demands, "mas". I ignore her and ask her young mother if I may take a picture. Not all Kogui speak spanish but she does and quietly agrees. There is deep sadness on her face. Advancing "civilization" has not been kind.

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A strange live-and-let-live relationship appears to be in operation on the slopes of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Spanish farmers clear the land and encroach apon the indigenous. Guerrillas operate nearby as do numerous cocaine factories. We learn this after some of our group pay to take a tour of a factory just fifteen minutes from our camp. The Colombian Army also have bases in these hills. The arrangement seems to be this: tourists like hiking to Cuidad Perdida, Colombia likes tourism so the Army provides protection. Part of our tour money goes to them. Another part of our tour money goes to the guerillas as protection money. Part of our tour money goes to the Kogui so we can pass through their lands. The Army appears not to harrass the guerrillas and vica versa. The guerrillas get the farmers and Kogui to make cocaine paste in the makeshift factories, with final production using acetone left to the guerrillas, as is marketing. We get the impression everyone knows what's going on around here but no one talks about it. Most importantly to us we are left unmolested. The photo below shows what the lowly coca leaf looks like unmolested.

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Our three camp bases, spread along the 44 kilometer hike, are pole structures with galvanized tin roofs, clay floors and no walls. Alberto, the cook, russles up cena (supper) and desayuno (breakfast) using a wood fire built on a concrete bench purposely made. The food, usually a variation of arroz y pollo (rice and chicken) is filling. A couple of two gallon pots, one of black columbian coffee and one of hot chocolate (real chocolate), continuously simmer at the back of the fire.

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From cross members running under the eaves, 19 hammocks are strung. The mosquito nets covering the "hang-matts" create an image of alien cocoons waiting to hatch. I don't sleep well. There is something about lying in a cloth ditch with a mosquito net against my face like a widow's veil that doesn't encourage sleep. One mistimed roll onto my side and I know I won't make the 8 second ride on my tropical rodeo. Because the hammocks are folded away each morning they have a musty damp air to them. The nights pass slowly as I wait for dawn like a still breathing cadaver. I must sleep some because I am not tired come morning. Another latin mystery perhaps, but I'm not investing in hammock stock anytime soon.

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By Day Three, after another two hour climb up a slippery clay singletrack, stepping over and around roots, rocks and deadfall I start thinking about the infamous Athabasca Pass that my friend Dave Clark and I hiked a quarter century ago. The phrase "only one man in a thousand..." keeps running around inside my sweaty head. My clothes are soaked in sweat. In fact, for 6 days I am wet from head to toe and only get reasonably dry in camp at night.

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On Day 3 and 4 we crisscross the Rio Buritaca seven times a day. The good news is the water is warm. The interesting challenge is the calf to waist deep current. Rather than keep changing from hiking boots to river sandals, most of us elect to just hike in sandals. Wet feet slipping within low traction sandals, combined with threading our way around river boulders as big as garden sheds, and picking our way along exposed goat paths above the river make our "time saver" a bit foolhardy.

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Rising from the Rio Buritaca inconspicously are 1200 stone steps leading to La Cuidad Perdida. The moss covered steps are steep and I must put my feet sideways on the narrow stairs in order to get a good purchase. The thought of tumbling down this ancient stone cascade keeps me focused on placing every step carefully. As in mountain climbing, I force myself not to think about what's below.

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Cuidad Perdida, known to the Tayrona people as Teyuna, is almost four kilometers at its widest girth and has 150 stone terraces within its 400 ha area. Linking the terraces, which served as level bases for the homes, are a complex series of staircases, stone pathways and perimetrical walls. Other terraces were used for warehouses, as ceremonial centres for the shaman or royality or for sacrificial (animal and human) purposes.

The stone map below, near the entrance to the city, is an accurate protrayal of the network of paths within the city and the rios and intercity trails beyond. Standing nearby is one of our porters whose energy astounds me. Carrying between 30 and 40 kilograms in a burlap-plastic sack with makeshift shoulder straps, he regularly outhikes even the 20-somethings among us. Then he, like his two colleagues, do camp chores long after we've gone to bed and is up with dawn's light to help cookie with desayuno.

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As we enter the city it is plain this was a most civilized place to call home 1000 years ago. The staircases in town are spacious, the terraces well thought out, water aqueducts channel the rain away from the platforms. The views up the jungle valley is magnificant, as is the view behind of the cascading waterfall. If you weren't on the Shaman's hit list, life would of been pretty fine up here at 1000 meters above sea level. Actually, depending on your place in the neighbourhood, the sprawling city offered choices. As the Teyuna real estate salesmen used to say, "you could be home now" if you lived in Lowerville at 950 meters. Those who had done well in oro and sal (gold and salt) stock lived in Uppityville at 1300 meters. The Shaman and his wife lived well up the mountain, like affluent West Vancouverites.

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Thatched roof family homes were built on the terraces. Depending on the era, between 1500 and 3500 Tayronas lived in Teyuna. Teyuna became La Cuidad Perdida about 1600 A.D. Cause of abandonment? Outside contact with the newcomers wearing hairy beards and shiny helmets brought about one of two unpleasant results. Either you were killed outright or you escaped and brought their deadly European diseases to the folks back home. Teyuna was eventually abandoned because the shaman and leading officials thought the unexplained dying meant the city was cursed.

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The reconstructed home below shows what Teyuna must of looked like. I notice even after the typical afternoon downpour the interior of the home is dry.

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Growing a variety of vegetables and fruits meant a need for mortar and pestle. Not many other artifacts are present but two museums back in Santa Marta have gold objects, ceramics, cloth weavings, funeral pieces and other interesting bits found in situ.

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In the midst of this historia antiqua we find camps of Colombian soldiers. Camoflauged tents store mortars of a different type, hand grenades are visible drying in the sun. From the lumps under canvas, I suspect they have other tools of destruction. The four Israelis in our group immediately recognize the main weapon, the semi automatic Galil 5.52 mm assault rifle, each soldier takes with him everywhere he goes, even if it's to shave by the little creek nearby. The weapon is Israeli made and indestructible. We are delighted when the soldier allows photos to be taken with his weapon. From the waving around of the gun barrel by members of our group, I for one become nervous with the whole idea. Note my non-issue vine belt to hold my pants up. Got a little carried away trying to save weight for the trip.

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Our camp at Cuidad Perdida is apart from the main soldiers camp but they do come over to bum cigarettes, chat, listen to World Cup football matches on a transistor radio and check out the chicks. Like most of the tourists they protect, the soldiers are in their 20's as well and very polite.

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I've got so many mosquito bites on my white legs I look like I have measles and small pox combined. All us white skinned folks look the same. I notice the guides wear shorts too but I don't see a mark on their legs. Hum.

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Our happy little group, not all in this photo, consist of 4 Israelis, 2 Ozzies, 1 English, 2 Dutch, 1 Belgian, 4 French and a Canuck. We bond well and never complain. Our guide, Omar, says he likes our kind of group. Even two of our group, dangerously overweight, make the trip without one unhappy word, although Omar has mules for them to ride when health and possible darkness are a concern. We even hike in a three hour tropical downpour that turns our singletrack into a foot wide river. The rain is so heavy on the forest canopy overhead it sounds like there is a waterfall nearby. We all get soaked to the skin but that's OK because the rain is warm and it was 38 C before it started. Besides, it keeps the mosquitoes down.

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After we make it back to civilization we head out for an evening meal together at a beach restaurant in the little cove town of Taganga. After the grub (no one orders arroz y pollo) we knock off four bottles of Ron Cabana rum, smoke a bunch of cigars and don't break up til 2 am. The restaurant ran out of rum.


Posted by Murray Castle at June 28, 2006 03:43 PM GMT
 



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