Up to the challenge

We did it! We just completed the 4 day hike to La Ciudad Perdida, The Lost City, in Colombia’s Amazon jungle. Our original plan was to hike Machu Picchu but once again my delay in planning led to all of the spots being booked for the entire season (I’m starting to notice a trend here, guess I’m not such a great planner after all). Originally I was super bummed but decided I wasn’t going to let it ruin the thought of a backpacking trip. We wanted an epic hike so I did some googling and found La Ciudad Perdida listed as one of the best hikes in South America. We were already going to be in that area of Colombia anyhow and it was supposed to be just as cool but cheaper and less well known. It said moderate difficulty but we eat healthy and work out so it wouldn’t be a problem. Perfect! I went with Wiwa tours, a local tour company run solely by the indigenous people of the area.

We got picked up at 8:30 in the morning to start our trek. All three of us were bright eyed and optimistic. It involved a 2.5 hour drive from Santa Marta into the Sierra Nevada mountain range in an old diesel 4×4 land cruiser. We met our hiking group, 8 of us in total plus our 2 guides. We had lunch at a little restaurant in the last town before the trail head then shouldered our packs and headed out. We were told that the hike was 14.5 miles each way, the elevation change was "only" 3,000 ft, and that we would be hiking anywhere from 4 to 8 hours a day. Totally doable! Then the hike started. It was straight up the mountain on a switch back road in the blistering sun. It took all of 10 minutes for us to be pouring sweat and out of breath. Two hours in and Shane was annoyed that it wasn’t a "real" trail (weren’t jungles supposed to have trees?), Chris’ knee was already acting up, and I was so hot and out of breath that I wasn’t talking anymore. About every hour they would stop for us to rest and every two hours we would stop at a little stand tucked on the side of the trail which would have fresh fruit for us to snack on. After four hours we finally got to our first camp, Mamey. Thank goodness! Shane had long been out of sight with his boundless energy, with Chris and I holding up the back of the group. I remember coming around the bend a little ways ahead of Chris and shouting "Chris, its camp!!!". We tumbled across the little bridge over the river and collapsed onto benches. The guides encouraged us to head to the swimming hole right away, which we grudgingly obeyed. So glad we did. It was a beautiful swimming hole with a waterfall tumbling down the rocks next to it and lush jungle all around. The water was absolutely pristine and FREEZING! That’s why the guides got us to swim, the cold helps to reduce swelling of the muscles and joints like a full body ice pack, plus that was our shower! We had a delicious dinner the chef made and fell asleep around 8pm (it was a struggle to even stay up that long) to the sound of river tumbling by and the occasional call of a frog or cicada.

The next morning we woke up at 5am and had a hearty carb loaded breakfast to give us energy for the day. Yesterday had thoroughly kicked our @$$ and that was a short day so we decided to hire a donkey to carry Chris’ pack to the next camp since his was the biggest. We left Mamey by 6am tired but determined. By now we were finally on a "real" trail by Shane’s standards. It was a narrow path weaving through lush trees, ferns, and vines. Birds were calling from the trees and lizards were darting across our path. Even though it was shaded the humidity was so high that the feels like temperature of 102 F didn’t seem to do it justice. We started uphill and reached our first fruit stop by 8:30am. Quite the start to the morning. Shane was doing fine but Chris and I were really having some trouble. I was beginning to question whether I would be able to make this trek. The guides had mentioned that there was a side detour to a river midday today (one hour each way) and I was contemplating just not going and resting at where ever the turn off point was. Luckily I decided that if I was here, I’m not going to miss anything. We entered the Wiwa camp midday for the promised swim in the river and lunch. For us non-acclimated gringos the steaming bowl of soup that was offered for lunch was not exactly what we were hoping for. It was so good I couldn’t help but finish it but by the end of my bowl I looked like Reuben Feffer from Along Came Polly after eating the Indian food. Within minutes of finishing our lunch we were back on the trail for "the hard part of the day", a hike STRAIGHT up to that nights camp. Apparently switch backs aren’t just for roads/cars, they are for people hiking as well. Shane was me and Chris’ superman. He shoulder both of our packs so that we could try to keep up with the group and would walk back and forth between us giving us water and taking pictures long the way. Just when I thought I couldn’t go any further we finally made it to that nights camp eight hours later. Teyuna Cabins (we learned that the La Ciudad Perdida is the tourist name given to the city Teyuna which has been known to the four indigenous tribes since it was built). Chris and I looked like we were 90, our legs practically giving out on us every time we sat for too long. The next day was our ascent to Teyuna so after dinner, we passed out right away.

Five in the morning came all too quickly. When I got up out of bed my knees felt like they were swollen to the size of grapefruits. We managed to gather ourselves for breakfast and the essentials for getting to Teyuna (we would come back to camp for the rest of our stuff later). After a river crossing in fast moving water we were at the base of the steps to Teyuna, all 1,200 of them carved out of rock. I guess they weren’t aware of the concept of rise over run in 800AD because the tiny irregular steep steps which were covered in moss and clay were not the easiest to navigate. As we reached the top a huge terrace opened up in the jungle, seemingly from nowhere. The sun filtered through the trees and the butterflies floated past us going from flower to flower. Paradise in the middle of the jungle. All the hard work getting there was instantly worth it. We spent the next three hours wandering the four acres of recovered plazas, ceremonial areas, stone-lined paths, staircases, and canals that make up this ancient city. There are another 30 acres still covered in dirt and plants that the jungle has reclaimed. We got to see the huge carved stones that they used to map out the rivers and mountains of the Sierra Nevadas. Although there is no written record the Mamos, religious leaders, have maintained a verbal accounting of the city throughout time. The story says that the city was abandoned when the Spanish came and disease struck the city. The four sons of the ruling leader each split off to form their own tribes in different areas in the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains. The four current indigenous tribes (Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo) have continued to use Teyuna for ceremonial and religious events for the past several hundred years and do so to this day. Each December the site is closed to all tourism and the military stationed there are required to leave. They then have the a week long ceremony where the four tribes come together in celebration. After hearing the accounts from our two Kogi guides it seems like this "lost city" has really not been lost to those who knew about it in the first place.

Unfortunately, once back down the steps and across the river reality set back in that this was a round trip hike. What we did coming in had to be done going out. After lunch we had a five hour hike back to Wiwa camp. All those "short" downhill stretches that we encountered coming to Teyuna were now the long uphill stretches coming out. Night three found Chris and I, along with most of our group, nearly dead with exhaustion. Even Shane was starting to feel it in his shoulders from carrying two packs most of the time. Chris (and half our group) couldn’t make the ten minute descent down to the swimming hole from camp but Shane and I managed to get down there. It was so refreshing and relaxing to flop into the clear, cold water after all that we had done that day. Even our guides joined us and entertained us by flipping off the rocks and rope swings into the water. Aside from our time in Teyuna, floating in the swimming holes will be one of my favorite memories from this trek. We had dinner and once again settled into our mosquito net draped beds for one last night in the jungle.

Early morning wake ups were beginning to feeling like the norm. We once again hired a donkey to carry out the big pack all the way to where the car would pick us up. Our guide came to check in with Chris and I about the trip and even offered to have a donkey carry us out. Both of us were determined to finish what we had started though, regardless of creaky swollen knees and fatigue. We had six long hours to hike back out. Its funny, in the beginning those uphill portions seemed like the worst of it leaving me breathless and exhausted. But by the end of the trip my knees where so bad that the downhill was far worse. Our guides were amazing, they patiently hung at the back with us as we fumbled our way along. They had a calm smile and quiet personality that made me feel comfortable with going at my own pace. We even practiced our languages with each other teaching them numbers in English and us body parts in Spanish. As we walked they would methodically chew their dried coca leaves (not to be confused with cocaine) and work on their poporo (a hollowed out gourd with crushed shell in it). They would chew the coca which they said was used to forget about hunger and thirst on the trail and use the shell from the poporo to activate the properties of the coca. The mixture of saliva and excess shell was then rubbed onto the outside of the gourd to form a yellow collar on the gourd with each man creating his own unique shape. They were amazing, attentive guides (may other companies we saw did not have the authenticity or care that they offered to us) and I am so happy we had them with us for this journey. All trips come to an end, thank goodness! We finally made it back to the same restaurant we started at and flopped happily into our chairs. We were beyond physical exhaustion, smelled like goats, had bites of unknown origin, and were covered in a thick coat of sweat and mud. But we did it!

Back at our hostel in Santa Marta that night I ran into someone who was planning to hike to La Ciudad Perdida the next day. He asked me some questions about packing and then asked if I would do it again. I instantly blurted out "No!". But I felt an explanation was needed to clarify. No I would not do the same hike again, but yes it is totally worth the trek. Teyuna was beautiful and I loved to learn about the history of the ancient city. It was wonderful to see the culture of the indigenous tribes of the area that are still living a beautifully simple life in today’s globalized world. The lush tropical jungle, rugged mountain terrain, and the cold clear rivers were a sight to behold. All wonderful experiences but ultimately Mother Nature always has a way of humbling us it seems. This trip ended up mostly being about the challenge and accomplishment of doing it. Of not giving up even though my body was telling to throw in the towel on numerous occasions. Oddly enough, I’m starting to love getting out of my comfort zone. Because every time I do, every time I push myself when I think I cant (or shouldn’t), I come out feeling better for it. The knowledge that I can do anything I put my mind to is so empowering. It doesn’t always have to be a huge life changing or physical trial. Sometime all it takes to prove to ourselves that we are up for the challenge is the little things in life. Saying no when its easier to say yes, standing up for yourself when you feel slighted, or choosing to be true to yourself even when you may not "fit in". Try it sometime, you just might find out how awesome it feels!