Monday, February 8, 2016

Ciudad Perdida

I'd first heard about the "Lost City" hike from David, way back when we were travelling together through El Salvador and Nicaragua. Then in Boquete, I got another glowing review of the hike from Anou and Clara. Still, I wasn't completely sure if I'd do it or not, since it was four or five days, which was longer than I'd spent in most places up until then.

But then I had the accident, and I was going to have to stay somewhat close to Cartagena for a few weeks, so I decided it was time to head out into the jungle.

I signed up at Magic Tours (the company recommended by Anou and Clara) as soon as I got into Santa Marta to make sure I could get on it quickly - the shop had told me the motorcycle would be ready Friday afternoon, and I wanted to get back there to pick it up Monday at the latest. There was a choice between a four, five, and six day tour, all the same price, so I went with the five day because it sounded like a good middle ground.

However, the next morning when we all met at the tour office to head out, one of the employees came over to confirm that I was doing the five day tour. I glanced at the list on the clip board he was holding and saw "4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 5, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4..." so I made the decision then to do the four day instead. After talking to a few other of the people in my tour, that seemed to be the right decision - the only difference between the two is that on the fourth day one group finishes the hike, and the other group takes two days to do that much hiking. Even though four days still got me back Friday evening - too late to pick up the motorcycle that day - I decided to go for it, if for nothing else than just to stick with the rest of the group.

After mingling a bit as everyone got paperwork sorted out, we hopped in a super uncomfortable truck (two sideways benches in the back with no handles, almost no cushioning, and knees practically touching the person across from us) and took a two hour ride up to the start of the hike. After an hour of highway, we turned off to a dirt road for the second hour, doubling the discomfort, but finally arrived at the town of Machete to get moving. There we met our two guides for the trip, Gabriel and Juan Carlos. Off we went, and almost immediately, the scenery was interesting.

Our first river crossing, about 10 minutes into the hike - motorcycles were heading back and forth across this part too.

The beginning of the hike was mostly a road, with motorcycles, donkeys packing lots of stuff, and people on horseback also using the trail.

It was somewhat steep to begin with, but that meant we very quickly got to good views from up high.

It was technically a road, but it stayed pretty steep.
After what seemed like not that long, we arrived at our first break, a small stand at the top of a hill. When we arrived, they had fresh sliced watermelon available for us, which hit the spot, as we were already all pretty hot and sweaty despite the clouds keeping the sun off of us. The watermelon was really some of the best fruit I'd had in a while. After eating, we stopped and enjoyed the view for a bit at a stand just up the road.

The clouds are rolling in. But we're in dry season, so it won't rain... right?
Suddenly clouds started rolling in, so we all got out what rain gear we had and suited up. Many of us hadn't brought much, because they hadn't told us we'd need it. Juan Carlos told us that it was the first time it had rained in the last four months - which made it far worse than it would have been otherwise, because there was so much built-up loose dust that almost immediately turned into a super slick mud. As we continued on, the rain continued - never raining too hard, but just a steady continuing drizzle such that by the time we got to some parts, they'd been getting rain for a few hours and were pretty slick.

And then came a portion of the trail where we had to head downhill on a relatively steep trail. Given how slick parts of it had become, that turned out to be a rather perilous adventure. I ended up climbing as much as I could to stay up on the less-muddy sides of the trail, which had the advantage of giving me a good angle for taking some video at one of the worst sections of the trail.

By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, all of us were wet, and almost all of us had gotten pretty muddy. (I managed to not fall at all, mostly by avoiding those parts and staying up high.) Even Juan Carlos fell while trying to help Nadja down a slippery part, and he said he never falls.

That night we hung up our clothes to dry, took a (cold) shower, and crowded around the table for dinner. The meals that we got on the trip were actually all really good, which surprised me - hauling all that food out there and cooking it seems like no easy task. But they have quite a good supply chain set up with most of the stuff getting hauled in by lines of mules, and a cook assigned to each group who would head out ahead of us and prepare food, and then continue on before we did. The result was that we had meals like chicken with spices, with sides of rice and potatoes and fresh juice, or an entire fried fish (you can just tell yourself it's butter) with plantains and rice.

After dinner, we sat around and talked for a bit, but we were all pretty exhausted from the day, and pretty quickly retired to our hammocks. I discovered that the hammock I picked may not have been the best choice, as it happened to be within bumping distance of the hammock next to me, occupied by another member of our group. If one of us moved too much, the hammocks would start rocking and we'd bump against each other over and over until they stopped moving again. It wasn't the best night of sleep I've had, I'll say that.

In the morning, the wakeup call came at 5:30 - well, for most of us. Gael from France had apparently heard the info wrong, and was convinced that the guide had said 7:00, so by the time most of us had eaten and packed and were ready to move, he was just getting up. Gabriel decided to head off with the rest of us while Juan Carlos waited for Gael.

Of course, packing wasn't easy - when I woke up and checked the clothes that I'd hung up to dry, they felt like they might actually be wetter than they had been the night before, enough so that I looked at the roof pretty carefully to make sure it hadn't been leaking right over my clothes. The guides told us that at lunch we'd have an opportunity to dry stuff, but if we wanted, we could leave clothes behind at this stop and they'd wash them and have them ready for us when we came back on the return trip. Since mine weren't muddy (I avoided falling) I declined, but was still looking forward to drying things out.

Luckily day two was much sunnier and ended up being a gorgeous day for hiking. We started early because day two is one of the longer days of hiking - after only 3.5 hours the first day in the afternoon, the second day was four hours in the morning and 3.5 hours more after lunch, and we wanted to try to get there before the potential rain swept in for the afternoon, so we moved a little fast but still had time to snap a few pictures here and there.

Another river crossing.

Out to some open fields.

Perched on a rock.
At some point in the morning, we came to a little village. The guides told us that the village usually isn't lived in, but rather serves as a place for them to gather for celebrations and festivals. The people in the area are farmers and have different fields with different crops, so they all have a few different places they'll live depending on what crops need to be tended at a given time.

The village from up on the hill.

Continuing onward uphill.

This kid (I believe it's a boy, but it was remarkably hard to tell with the kids) followed us for a while. At some point they said they liked my hat, so we traded for a bit, but after some fiddling they decided they wanted theirs back.
We continued onward until lunch, where we stopped at another little camp. All of the camps were (according to a story I heard) formerly coca processing centers, but they were basically large concrete areas with roofs. One section would have a kitchen and some tables, and another would have either some wooden bunkbeds with thin mattresses, or hammocks hanging from the ceiling. Our lunch stop this day was one of these right next to the river. Since it had gotten sunny now, we all laid our clothes out in the sun to dry (still just as wet as they'd been the night before) and then changed into our swimming suits to hop in the river and wash some of the sweat off from the morning hike.

Getting ready to go in.

An-Tam showing off his yoga skills.

The view up the river.
After another delicious meal, we picked up our (now dry) clothes and continued onward, following the river for quite a while. There were a few river crossings, including a suspension bridge that we could only go two at a time across.

Hiking up the trail next to the river.

The janky bridge.

Paused for a second to take a selfie.
Then we headed up into the mountains and away from the river for a bit. At one of the quick breaks we took, there was a little house with no one and nothing in it except for an old mill. We hiked through some more open fields, up and down some steep hills, and then had our only river crossing that required us to get wet - I'd heard beforehand that there were three or four waist-deep crossings, but we only had one knee-deep crossing, perhaps because it was dry season.

The old mill.

Wide open fields in the hills. 

More steep parts.

Our river crossing.

While we were changing in and out of our shoes for the river crossing, the guide pointed to the butterfly and said "Look at the number!" We didn't understand him until we looked at it and saw that there was actually a number on the wings.
Arrived at camp and started relaxing with our three-legged friend.
We arrived at our second overnight camp, this one only an hour from the Lost City. Luckily we beat out the afternoon drizzle, so this time we weren't quite as wet and muddy (though still soaked in sweat from a day of hard hiking). After a shower and a change and another delicious meal, we all sat around the table in candlelight and played cards for a while, and then played "the age game" where we guessed everyone's ages. Most people got pretty close on mine, a few under 30 and a few over 30, and I was usually pretty close on other people's ages as well (though there were a few that I went much younger on than they actually were). We discovered that Gabriel, the guide we thought was the younger of the two (I would have guessed 38) was actually 46, and Juan Carlos (who we'd taken to calling JuanCa since we heard Gabriel call him that) was probably around his early 40's even though he looked a bit older.

This time we got beds to sleep in instead of hammocks, but my back wasn't much more comfortable on the thin mattress, since I could feel the wood through it and I didn't have a pillow that supported my head at all. Nonetheless, we all got up in the morning and packed up some water and a camera, and finally headed up to the Lost City. We crossed the river once more, and then started up a 1,200-step stairway.

The "bridge" was a board.

Up the "stairs," which were super slippery, angled, smooth, wet rocks. It wasn't super quick going, and it was quite a workout.
In less time than I expected, we reached the top and JuanCa started telling us a little bit about the history of the city, which was super interesting. The city was probably founded around 800, and in the 1500's when the Spanish came through, the locals buried all their gold so that the Spanish couldn't take it. It wasn't until the 1970's that some treasure hunters stumbled across the city and started digging up the terraces, destroying much of it, that the city was rediscovered. Once the gold started appearing on the market, archaeologists went up to the site and began to reconstruct the damage done by the looters and by 500 years of jungle encroachment.

A stone bowl right at the entrance.

JuanCa giving us the history lesson, with Nadja as our translator.
After walking around the lower part a bit, we came to another stairway (seriously? more stairs?) that took us up to the main terraces that compose the site. But we paused for a quick group photo first.

The stairs continue.

Group photo. A little blurry because the old guy who took the picture wasn't quite sure how smartphones work. Technically we're all here, since Joel is in the back heading up the stairs.
And then we were up to the terraces... which were stunning. Yet another time that I was struck with a feeling of "Yeah, I can see why they would want to build this here." The sun started to creep over the mountains as we were up there, and we walked around and got more info from JuanCa and Gabriel about the construction and history.

A few of the 169 terraces that make up the site.

Morning dew.

From up near the top. There's actually some terraces higher, but there was a military outpost there to keep the site safe from FARC, so we couldn't go up there.

Relaxing and enjoying the sun and the view.
After a few hours up on the site, we headed down a trail to go see the house where the "Mamo" lives - for the indigenous people, a mamo is a spiritual leader of a city, and the spiritual leader of the lost city is one of the more important ones. He talked to us for a bit, and then took questions, so we got to learn a lot about how he lives. For example, the mamo is selected from all the (male) children of the previous mamo, and they choose the one who seems smartest and most capable. Then, once he's selected at the age of 15, he stays in a house for 10 years, seeing only his parents and eating only one meal a day, while he's taught what he needs to know to be a mamo.

One of the things they learn is how to read signs from the poporo gourds. They take a gourd and hollow it out, and then fill it with crushed seashells for calcium and chewed coca leaves. Then they dip a stick in the mixture and lick it (essentially, uh, getting high) and smear the remains of what's on the stick on the outside of the gourd. Then they read the patterns it makes to determine the future, or communicate with other mamo's in other cities (though he did say if they need to communicate something important, they'll send a messenger).

After talking with him for a while, he gave us each a bracelet which he tied on our wrists. I hadn't noticed as much when I was listening to him, but sitting close to him it seemed like... well, like the dude was high as balls, to be honest, and only had the most passing understanding of what was going on around him. But it was an interesting look into the culture that's been there since the Spanish conquistadors pushed them up into the mountains to escape.

Getting my bracelet. The hat is the signifier that this is the mamo. We saw another one later down the hike in a different city.
And then it was time to head back. We made a quick stop at the "fountain of youth" for a swim, and then headed back down the stairway and to the camp we'd stayed at the night before to pack up.

The pool was gorgeous, once again. Another great place for a swim.
I didn't take many pictures the rest of that day for two reasons: first, we'd already been by this terrain, since we were heading back down the same trail. And second, we were moving fast. Or at least some of us were. A large portion of our group just decided to pick up the pace, and we were hiking at a pace that was faster than my default pace. If I relaxed and hiked comfortably, I started falling behind, so I had to continuously push myself to go a bit faster if I wanted to keep up. It was tiring, but it felt really good - it made me miss Cross Country races from high school, in a way. We were going fast enough that JuanCa was bragging to the other guides about how fast we were making it.

I did have a bit of a surprise at one of the places we took a break for fruit. It was a pretty busy break point, with people going our direction who had just seen the City, and people heading in who were going to see the City tomorrow. As I wandered up, I looked around and spotted Clement! We said hi and chatted about the hike a bit. If I'd known ahead of time that he was going to be starting the hike a day after me (and that my motorcycle wasn't going to be ready until a week after promised so I had no rush) I would have waited and done it with him... though I'm kind of glad I got to meet new people and be with a group that spoke primarily English so I didn't have to spend the whole time speaking in a second language.

We arrived at camp that afternoon, once again just before the rain, at the place that we'd stopped for lunch the day before. Since there was a good swimming spot, a couple of us went down for a quick swim (though without the hot afternoon sun it was pretty chilly) and then settled in for dinner.

After dinner, we had story time with JuanCa. Nadja did most of the translating, but I occasionally helped out when her English wasn't quite good enough to come up with the word. She's a Spanish and French teacher who also speaks German, English, and some Italian - pretty impressive, especially since her worst languages are about as good as my best ones.

Story time with JuanCa
JuanCa told us some pretty interesting stories, primarily about how he had a coca plantation (in an area which he said we could see from the hike on the first day) and how cocaine was processed, complete with demonstrations of what chemicals you mix with what using empty glasses on the dinner table. I think part of the point of that was to demonstrate to us exactly what's in cocaine and why you shouldn't do it - kind of a "look what we were doing, and this is what you'd be consuming" sort of talk. But it was super interesting to hear it from a local, and to hear about how he was still running the plantation while doing tours. He also gave us a lot of the background on FARC and the paramilitary group in the area and the back and forth that happened there.

Before going to bed, we said goodbye to a couple of our group - the ones who were doing the five day. For those of us on the four-day tour, we were going to get up early and arrive back in the town of Machete by about 1pm. The five-day group, on the other hand, wouldn't be leaving camp that day until about noon, and would take two days to do the same amount of hiking. I was glad I had chosen the four-day group, as I didn't really feel like spending another night in the humid jungle when I could be back by lunchtime.

The rest of us got up early and headed out with JuanCa (Gabriel staying behind with the five-day group) and started making tracks.. fast. Even more than the day before, we were moving fast and keeping up the pace. We knew the trail by this point (and for most of it, it was hard to lose), so we were often in front of JuanCa by quite a bit. In fact, for the first time on the trip, I saw the cook as we were hiking. He was hiking without much stuff, so he could go a bit faster than us, but we were mostly keeping up with him for the first time.

With only a quick fruit and cake stop at the place we slept the first night, we made it back to Machete in no time. Well, a few of us stopped in the river crossing 10 minutes from Machete to swim and rinse off all the sweat from the hard hiking, but other than that we took very few breaks. I mostly hiked with Nadja and An-Tam, and we had some really good discussions as we hiked, though we never really slowed down the pace.

Sun over the mountains.

This guy really liked the little wrapped cakes we had - so much that he'd fly right at your face as you opened one if he didn't already have some in his claw.

Taken from the same place as the 5th picture up in the post, where the clouds were rolling in just before it rained.
And with that... we were back. We had lunch in Machete, and then all packed into a tight little van again (this time much smellier than on the way in), spent a miserable hour on a dirt road followed by a slightly less miserable hour back to Santa Marta, and then that was it.

I can honestly say that this was one of my favorite things I've done on this trip. The ruins themselves were good but not amazing (compared to, say, Palenque), but the hike... the scenery... I heard someone say once that they were more of a jungle person than a beach person, and I think that's true for me too. I'd much rather be hiking in the woods or the jungle than laying out on the beach, and this trip filled that need exactly. And it didn't hurt that we had a good group of people who all got along well too. Add in some really fun and knowledgeable guides and top it off with delicious food, and it made for one heck of an experience.

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