Ciudad Perdida

Trip Start Feb 22, 2007
Trip End Aug 22, 2007

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Saturday, August 11, 2007


Steve has described me as Sara "There's trekking in South America?" Brunetti.

It's true that my favourite vacation activity in lying on a beach, so I'm still not sure how Steve managed to talk me into a 6-day trek to Ciudad Perdida, aka "The Lost City".

The drawbacks:
Lots and lots of walking, mainly uphill
It's rainy season, meaning clothes will get wet and stay wet
My running shoes are somewhere in Venezuela
Must carry all belongings needed for 6 days on my back
Guide books advise "extreme caution" since 8 tourists were kidnapped in 2003
I thought our (alternative) Inca Trail trek was hard and it was only 4 days
Did I mention a lot of walking?

The incentives:
Only a few weeks of the trip left, so must make the most of them
Already skipped Mount Roraima trek, to Steve's dismay (but I'm still happy about skipping it once I heard that you had to poop into plastic bags)
Shut Steve up about how lazy I am, hopefully not inspiring a sequel to "Sara's Diary"
Off-the-beaten path attraction... Ciudad Perdida has been to compared to Machu Picchu, except without the tourists

So you may be asking, what is Ciudad Perdida? According to the Lonely Planet...

"Ciudad Perdida, aka Lost City, was built between the 11th and 14th centuries and is one of the largest pre-Columbian towns discovered in the Americas. There are about 150 stone terraces, which once served as foundations for houses. It's hidden deep in thick forest amid rugged mountains, far from any access roads - the return hike to the city takes six days.

Although the city was built between the 11th and 14th centuries, its origins are much older, going back to perhaps the 7th century. Spread over an area of about 2 sq km, it is the largest Tayrona city found so far, and appears to have been their major political and economic center. Some 2000 to 4000 people are believed to have lived here.

During the Conquest, the Spaniards wiped out the Tayronas, and their settlements disappeared without a trace under lush tropical vegetation. Ciudad Perdida lay hidden for four centuries, until its discovery by guaqueros (treasure hunters) in 1975."

OK... a lost city, rugged mountains, newly discovered... sounds pretty cool. I tell Steve that I'll think about it.


We arrive in Santa Marta late in the afternoon, after a hellish two-day journey from Merida, Venezuela. We decide to take a tourist bus over the Venezuela-Colombian border to prevent any hassles, even though it costs much more than we had anticipated. We're guaranteed that we will stay on the same bus, but instead, we're hussled off the bus with our belongings into an old car, driven over the border, and put on a local bus in Colombia. We could have done that ourselves for much cheaper and I wouldn't have lost my running shoes in the process.

I'm still up in the air about doing the trek, so we go to Turcol travel agency (the only agency that runs the tours to Ciudad Perdida) to see when the next tour leaves. We are told tomorrow, and given the impression that they don't go every day. It's 5:30pm and she need to know if we're going in the next half hour. I can tell that Steve really wants to go and if we're going to do it, I want to get it over with asap so I can hit the beach asap. We quickly buy the most expensive shoes that we can find for me in Santa Marta, and sign up for the tour.


One of the many reasons that I don't enjoy trekking is that you must keep up with the group so that you're not stranded in the jungle. And generally speaking, I am usually the slowest of the group, huffing and puffing at the back. I joke to Steve that I would like a grandma or two in our group, so I won't be the only one struggling.

To my surprise, when we show up the next morning, we are paired with Martin from Switzerland and the entire Ortiz family, originally from Colombia and now living in NYC. Their family includes two teenage boys, mother, father, two teenage cousins, father's cousin and family friend. Fatima, the family friend, tells me immediately that she's 57. Eliza, the mother, tells me that she was talked into this and doesn't like walking either. My prayers have been answered!

We embark on a jeep ride to starting point. It's a strange-looking vehicle and Steve and I keep bumping our heads on the roof as we bounce along the unpaved road. We're in pain and we haven't even started yet...

We pass a military checkpoint up in the woods, where our driver presents a list of our names and passport information. Some of the guys look very young and all are carrying massive guns. One is even carrying the biggest gun that I've ever seen in real life, but we don't dare take a photo.

A weary group of tourists who have just finished the trek are waiting for us at the starting point. They are dirty, smelly, ravaged by mosquitoes and obviously drained of any energy. "It's worth it," they all say but there is an underlying fatigue that lends a false air to their enthusiasm. You can tell they are all glad that it's over.

We begin our walking. Steve and I stroll along, enjoying the fresh air and a few river crossings. Until we hit test number one, an uphill hour or so where I remember exactly why I HATE trekking. I immediately give Steve my backpack to carry and keep going with my philosophy of "slow and steady, just don't stop". When I try to explain this to our guide Miguel in Spanish, he says "mas rapido?", as in "you want to go faster?" No, I just don't want to stop. I am slightly mollified by the fact that I am in the middle of the pack.

We arrive at Camp #1, where we sleep in the best hammocks so far. I find out that the "clean water" that we're being provided with for our water bottles is from the river. I really hope that I make it through this trip without getting sick.


Rise and shine. We find out later that the other group visited a cocaine factory in the morning (which they said was disappointing) but our group is strictly pg13. We spend the whole morning walking, climbing, walking through mud.

It's hot and we take advantage of every watering hole we find. I become less picky about drinking the water from the river. Steve's so hot he sheds his clothes at one such watering hole, a bathing beauty (foreshadowing more nudity to come). Otherwise, not too much excitement until we reach Camp #2, where I head for the shower and the boys in our group immediately go for a swim in the river.

After my shower, I walk down there with my camera... only to see that Eliza the mother is crying and her older son Carlito is stranded on the other side of the river. Turns out he and another guy jumped off a rock and swam to the other side, but the current is too strong to swim back. What makes it really funny is that the other guy is buck naked. He didn't want to lose his boxers so he'd taken them off while he went for a dip, never thinking he could get stuck for over a half hour while the guides struggled to set up a guide rope to hold onto.

So you have Carlito (totally calm), his mother (visibly upset), a naked guy (holding his hands over his nuts), guides (trying repeatedly to throw rope to one another) and a bunch of onlookers on the other side (sensing some danger but mostly watching with amusement, especially the naked guy). Once the rope is set up, there is no problem crossing back to the right side. Mother and son are reunited, naked engish boy gets his shorts back, mother berates guides for letting underage son participate... life is good.

It wasn't until the excitement is over that I realize that for the first time on this trip, Steve acted sensibly. When I told him that I was surprised to see him on this side watching instead of being stranded on the other, Steve called it "a moment of clarity and good sense". Wish he had those more often.


We begin the day with a bit of rock climbing. We walk along a small ledge with a solid rock wall to one side and the edge of the cliff on the other. It has been raining so the ledge is muddy and seems to be getting smaller by the minute.

We arrive at the water's edge to see the other group just finishing wading across the water. Our group is extra cautious after yesterday's mishap, so we cross by cable car. Unlike in Peru, you don't have to pull yourself along and it's about a third of the length. I'm like an old veteran of cable cars, this one is no problem!

We begin the real walk, more uphill with lots of rocks in the way. I notice on the way up that the sole of my cheap shoe is starting to separate from the body of the shoe. I also notice that Carlos, the father of the family, has two pairs of running shoes hanging from his bag. When I ask if these are indeed extra shoes, he says yes and would I like to borrow them? I feel bad and decide to wait until the shoes actually fall apart. This happens just one hour later.

I put on the shoes, prepared to walk for the next three days with shoes that don't fit, but lo and behold, they fit absolutely perfectly. I am meant to be in this group. No backpacker would have an extra pair of shoes and even if they did, they would hesitate to lend them to you. Someone is definitely looking out for me. Thanks again, Carlos!

I am extra cautious as we approach the river, which we are apparently going to cross 9 times today. At the first top, I take off the shoes, take off my pants and gingerly cross the river in my bathing suit. At the same time, another group returning from the trek emerges from the woods and stomps through the river, clothes and shoes and all. It's obvious that they know something we don't.

From then on, we embark on one river crossing after another. So far, my experience has been limited to: jumping across stones, balancing on a log, crossing on a brokedown-looking bridge, or using a cable car. Because of the strong current in these rivers, this time the guides tie rope on either side and we hold the rope tightly as we fight to move against the current. This is a first for me, and it's a lot harder than it seems.

The guides stand right behind us so we don't get pulled away by the current. In my case, they even carry my bag so it doesn't get soaked as I get pulled backwards. In cases where no rope is required but it's still tricky walking in the river, they even hold my hand. What gentlemen. Steve waits behind me to take pictures in the hopes that I loose my balance and fall in the river. What a gentleman.

We finally stop for a bite to eat after hours of walking, just as the sky is starting to cloud over. We're told we've reached the bottom of the Lost City, it's just an hour walk straight uphill on ancient stone steps. 1300 stone steps, to be exact.

I tell Steve to go ahead, and I'll finish at my own pace. Natalia and I attack the steps my way, slow and steady. I count the steps as I go, and realize that this won't be as bad as I thought. That is, until the sky opens up and we are soaked to the skin in minutes.

It's reminds me of our Machu Picchu climb, but this one is even more remote. The steps are narrow, we're pushing water off our faces and as we emerge from the path, we can see round platforms made of stone foundations. We meet another guy who asks us if we know where we're going. Me: "Up?"

We realize we are at the start of the Lost City. As we continue to climb, we see more of these foundations and eventually, we reach a massive one that we're told was the city centre. It is eerie and really cool to be standing in the pouring rain as we imagine this place as it once was. At one point, I hear a huge clap of thunder, probably the loudest I've ever heard in my life.

Next we're taken to our camp. The rain means that the water crossing has flooded and we're basically walking over the top of a waterfall to our camp. Steve is already there, watching the rain from our remote camp, which is completely surrounded by trees. We're sharing this camp with more people than we imagined, but we enjoy the atmosphere regardless.


I should have saved that paragraph on the history of the Lost City for this part, because even though we had an excellent guide, all I know is that it was a major commercial centre for the Tayronas way back when, thriving on trade between the tribes located at the bottom of the river. When the Spaniards came, they were impressed with how advanced their trade system was and realized that to conquer the Tayronas, they would need to cripple it. They did this by forbidding the lower tribes from trading with the Tayronas. Cut off from the outside world, they eventually heard about the Spaniards and fled to the surrounding forest. As a result, the Spanish never explored Ciudad Perdida and didn't have the chance to swipe all its valuables.

Two feuding graverobbing brothers found the site in the 1970s and long story short, eventually had a fight to the death. The one brother who survived began selling antiquities on the black market, attracting the attention of the Colombian government, who sent their own team of archeologists to protect the site.

Our guide was among those who spent years at Ciudad Perdida, so he knew every nook and cranny. We would have liked to see more but as usual, it started pouring around 2pm so we were marooned in our small camp on the hill. We played Steve's "weed" card game with the two teenagers in our group, I'm sure much to the delight of their parents. We enjoyed a silent lightning show in the evening... wait, didn't we pay lots of money in Venezuela to see that apparently "unique" experience?


We got up early to get a headstart on this day, billed as the hardest day of walking and disappointing because you've already reached your destination and this is just the crappy part of walking back. Today, we'll cover the ground of day 2 and day 3.

After a slow descent down the 1,300 steps (almost harder coming down than going up, because they're so narrow and slippery), we cross the river. Because the current is strong, we take a path through the woods, instead of crossing the river 9x again. It was like rock climbing... way up, way down, river crossings, etc. Steve says it was the most exciting part of the entire walk. I say it was the hardest walking that I've ever done in my whole life. Not for the first time, I wonder how the older ladies in our group can handle this. They are at the back of the group, but not too far behind.

As we cross the river for the last time, I take a look down at Carlos' shoes - they are soaked and really filty. I'll bet when he lent me his shoes, he never expected they would get treated like this!

The walk back to camp #2, where we will have lunch, is marked by two events - the guides obviously felt sorry for me because as we approached another one-hour uphill session, they offered to carry my bag. This was a bonus for Steve. And I actually passed someone as we were walking - two girls and their guide. The girls looked completely miserable, while I was buoyed by the fact that we were progressing towards the end.

After lunch, the daily rain started. Unfortunately for us, it was just as strong as the downpour at Ciudad Perdida, but we had another 4 hours of walking to go. Steve had his usual "business" to take care of at the camp, so he was late joining up with the group. I was worried that he would get lost because the path was immediately flooded over, turning some river crossings into waterfalls. But the navigational genius found his way.

The rain contributed to some miserable walking that afternoon. Even after it stopped, it had turned the path into a mess of mud. We climbed up muddy hills, we struggled not to slip down muddy declines. As Steve and I guided ourselves back to the camp, we questioned ourselves at several points, but after a seemingly endless walk, stumbled upon the same lady from the beginning of the trip selling snacks. Steve and I both bought a coke, a taste of pure heaven after five days of drinking river water.

I thought we were finally down, but she told us we had another 45 minutes to go. It was approaching sunset, so we walked quickly. Just as darkness arrived, we had one last river crossing and finally, finally, we were at the camp.

The young kids were already there. To our surprise, so was one of the older ladies - she had hired a mule. I was proud of myself that I didn't have to hire a mule, like I did in Colca Canyon in Peru. (Steve had brought some money with us, just in case, but now we were able to be more generous with tips, since the guides carried my bag so much).

The final three members of our group came in about a half hour after us, by then it was pitch black. It was the longest day of walking that I've ever had in my life, and even sleeping in a hammock sounded great.

Martin from Switzerland was sick of wearing wet shoes, so decided to warm his shoes by the fire. We all laughed at him but little did we know that it would be him who had the last laugh.


When we woke up, Steve's shoes were still soaking wet and with blisters all over his feet, he decided to follow Martin's example and put his shoes on the fire. So did Juan. Next thing I know, Steve has a layer of skin missing from his hand - when he grabbed his shoe, the rubber from the shoe label had melted and burned into his hand. Juan wasn't injured but his shoes were in worse shape - the laces had burned and there was a huge hole in one of his shoes.

Having a doctor in our group once again paid off for us - he had an extensive first-aid kit that was much better than my sad pack of wet bandaids. After Steve's hand was wrapped and Juan's shoes were put back together using a Macguyer-like method (turning random objects into relevant tools), we took off on our final day of walking.

Steve was on pace with me as we descended the last huge hill, due to all of the blisters on his feet. Remember that I am wearing someone else's shoes, but they fit perfectly and I am totally blister-free. Thanks again, Carlos!

We start to see familiar sights as the town comes into view. We are excited to reach the same restaurant where we started, because that means we are finally done. One of the older ladies also took a mule today but her counterpart, Fatima, reaches the restaurant not too far behind us and tells us that she's not even tired. "Let's walk back to Santa Marta!" she says. (It's a 2-hour drive) I hope that I can take a walk about the block when I'm 60, let alone complete a strenous hike to the middle of nowhere.

We are dirty, we are tired, I've wrecked two pairs of shoes, Steve's shoes are history... but we're feeling pretty good. I could not have done such a trip at the beginning of our South American trip, but this wasn't too bad and a pretty unique experience. I am happy about our decision to take this journey... but still look forward to heading to the beach.

Of course, being South America, we're not totally finished. On the way home, our bus busts up a tire.


With all that walking behind us, Steve and I decide to drop off the face of the earth at Parque Tayrona, where you spend your day on the beach and your night in a hammock. We find out that we have to walk 45 minutes to the first beach, then 30 to the next, then 30 to the next. I guess we aren't done with walking just yet.... but at least we're combining the walking with my favourite activity - lying on the beach. Can we stay here forever?

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