For the first time I saw leaf cutter ants, all in a line, carrying their relatively massive loads to who knows where. I stopped to investigate the first few times I saw them crossing the path, but pretty soon we switched from stepping over them with care to troweling through and hoping none clinched to our boots with vengeance on their minds
. I'm still trying to figure out where they're always going. There are leaves EVERYWHERE here. Surely there was a suitable plant less then one foot from their mound. Why are they always carrying leaves ridiculous distances? Seeing those marching ants made me feel like a real pioneer. This stuff is in National Geographic! There are butterflies the size of your face, the kind that you only see in artwork or some framed insect cemetery hanging on a wall. Large, graceful, iridescent, and in a seemingly infinite array of colors they speedily circled us all along the way. Have you ever actually stopped and watched a butterfly use its wings? These things can move! Unfortunately they move too fast for pictures, and we'll be relying on our memories to describe them all back home. Hummingbirds fluttered from tree to tree, and flocks of bright green parrots flew low overhead, demonstrating just how loudly they can shriek. There is the usual assortment of 1950's horror flick-sized spiders, one even sneaking its way into the French guy's backpack. We see them all the time, but we've come to learn that (typically speaking) the bigger they are, the less worried you should be. They're certainly not cuddly, but they're still something special to see. And then there were the trees. They are absolutely massive. Seriously, I mean it, check out the picture! Many of these trees are hundreds of years old and support entire ecosystems among their branches. In some cases animals are born, live, and die without ever leaving them. It's a pretty humbling experience to stand next to something like that and realize it was here long before you were and will still be there long after you're gone.
As if the living creatures weren't enough, we marveled at the mountains, capped not in snow but dense layers of mist. I tried again and again, but a camera just can't capture what the human eye can see
. The light is always coming from just the wrong place, or the mist obscures the view. Towards the end it didn't really matter; after passing paradisaic stream/waterfall/babbling brook #47 the camera stays in your pocket.
We crossed many rivers, but it wasn't anything like I had expected. I had visions of chest-high water, struggling across each time with our packs held high above our heads. I think the worst one was three feet deep. Most of them were only a foot or two, but that still didn't prevent just about everyone from falling in at one point or another (except me! I still have dry boots!). Once the rainy season starts that'll be a whole different story... The largest river we crossed was too powerful to walk through and had a long dinky bridge that only three people could cross at a time. We made fun of its shoddy construction until the guide pointed to something we hadn't even seen: a rusty steel frame suspended from a cable meant to send one person at a time bouncing through the air and over the boulders below. Somehow that swinging death trap had been used up until last year, and its disintegrating remains were only feet from what a moment ago was a disgrace to bridges. I'm thinking we'll have a little more appreciation on our return crossing tomorrow :)
My favorite part of the day (and the hike so far) was reaching an isolated valley, wedged between the mountains
. From that valley we had a full 360 degree view of the range, with hardly any sign of civilization in sight. In the middle of the valley was a tall tree holding several long, hanging nests built by beautiful black and yellow birds. We saw these birds in Guatemala (I still don't know what they're called) and they make the most unique and ear-catching sounds I've ever heard. I'd love to learn how they build their nests, and what those peculiar calls mean. You can see them in the picture of the two of us in the valley.
The blisters are adding up (I have three on one toe that have now joined forces to become...Super Blister!) but now I've finally got a chance to use the stupid survival kit I make us carry around on all of our trips. It's about time I get to pull that out (we discovered antiseptic that expired in 2007)! Brittany's feet are taped up pretty good and she's trying hard not to complain, but we found out after lunch that, even though we had just hiked a solid four hours, we were now going to climb the 1,200 steps to the Lost City. We were both excited to see it, after all it's the reason we've been enduring the pain, but pulling double duty on one day was pushing it. And when I talk about steps here I'm not talking about flat, evenly sized and spaced steps in a Marriott stairwell. Every single step is a different size, height, and shape, which basically means that every step is a trip step at a steep incline approaching 50 degrees. And if you were to fall down said steps, you would likely roll very, very painfully for potentially hundreds of feet. Yay!
It took us over half an hour to reach the first steps, and that half hour was the most dangerous on the entire trek. The trail often narrowed to less than a foot wide with flat boulder on one side and a hundred foot cliff on the other
. I stuck close to Brittany for this section, and stayed with her to the top of the steps. The city was laid out very differently than I had imagined and spread over 30 acres. Construction picked up in the 7th century. It's an interesting feeling to climb on stones and terraces built well over a thousand years ago. Our guide went on and on about this particular rock, and this section of grass. I'm sure it would have been very interesting had we understood a single word of it, but at the end of the day we got our souvenir photo and enjoyed the sweeping views of the Santa Marta National Park. This is a place we will probably never see again. High up in the hills we could see a surging waterfall that must have plunged hundreds of feet. The city wasn't as overwhelmingly impressive as Machu Picchu, but it didn't need to be. Unlike MP, which was swarmed with tourists, our little group of 12 was the only one there. We had the whole place to ourselves, and spent several hours exploring. I'm sure the difference is due to the difficulty in getting there. It took a two hour train ride to get to MP versus, well, you know what to get to Ciudad Perdida. The only other people we came into contact with were the dozens of soldiers stationed at the site to guarantee the safety of the tourists. How boring must that be? They sit around in 90 degree sun all day while wearing full-length fatigues and carrying giant guns, just waiting for something to happen. They were excited to see us, and jumped at the chance to fly their flags
. Brittany and I didn't join everyone else in taking pictures of them but we watched their eyes light up as some in our group used their Spanish skills to start conversations.
Thick mist surrounded the site. At first, I was worried that all that fog would ruin our visit, but it ended up only adding to the mystique. We made one last stop at a natural pool and waterfall for some swimming (we pretended we were swimming; in reality we were just trying to get the first layer of stink off) and then made the surprisingly perilous journey in reverse. The only thing more painful than climbing up over a thousand steps is going down them. You don't lose your breath as quickly, but your kneecaps feel ready to explode. Plus you again face the whole falling to your death thing. Not pleasant.
We're so close to the equator that we've got a pretty even split between day and night. Sun's up at 6am and it's back down at 6pm. It's already dark and we don't have much to do, other than mentally prepare for tomorrow. We need to cover two day's worth of hiking, so we'll be going at it for a full eight hours. If we pull it off our last day will be less than four hours, a bit of a treat (how weird does that sound?). I can imagine how tough it will be, but I already can't wait to revisit that secluded valley again.
We didn't know it when we set out this morning, but today was the day we would reach Tayuna, the Lost City. It was a long journey in getting there though, and the trail rewarded us again and again for all our hard work. Once you've accepted the physical misery and stop hoping for level ground at every corner you spend less time moping and more time engaged with your surroundings. Today was by far the most picturesque hike we've made, and while it lacked the ultra-exotic wildlife I had been hoping to see (sloth, jaguar, unicorn) there was still plenty to keep me fascinated.