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Our Search for El Dorado: Christmas in the Colombian Mountains

January 17, 2012
Happy New Year everyone! It’s been awhile since my last blog post, between our Christmas trip to the north of the country and a spat of food poisoning that had us down for the count, I am just getting back online now!

This was officially my 5th Christmas that I’ve celebrated out of Canada. What I learned from this year in particular is that 2 consecutive Christmases away from home is absolutely unbearable. What I have learned in general over the years is that the trick to not getting too homesick is to make the Christmas experience  about as different as possible, although this year I may have outdone myself and it was so different that it barely felt like Christmas at all and I’m not entirely sure that we didn’t in fact actually miss Christmas!

Our idea to ward off homesickness was to make sure, in addition to doing something completely different, we were also busy on the 24th and 25th. So begins our latest adventure…the morning of December 24th we headed off on a 6-day hike through the coastal mountains (Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta) on the northern coast of Colombia to the Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City).

Kevin and I ready to head off on our Christmas 2011 adventure.

The Lost City was once home to the Tairona indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, who were supposedly the first indigenous people Colombus and his explorers met upon arrival to the New World. Fortunately, the Spanish never reached the Lost City (hence the name) but it is said to be the basis of the original legend of El Dorado (the myth of a city made of gold).

The Tairona people managed to fight off the conquistadors successfully for more than 60 years.  However, they eventually fell victim to diseases brought by the Spanish and most of their culture and traditions were lost with them.  There are three indigenous groups that still live in the surrounding areas including the Kogi, Wiwa, and Arauco peoples. They are said to be descendants of the Tairona people. (For more information on the indigenous peoples and this area check out anthropologist Wade Davis’ talk on the the Realm of the Sacred (start at minute 10).

The Lost City itself was the ceremonial centre of the Tairona people and said to have been their largest city.  It is a mystical place far in the jungle of the Sierra Nevada. You reach the lost city on Day 4 of the 6 day trek (depending on your speed, some particularly stressed-out backpackers do the entire trek in 4 days).

The trip is often compared to Machu Picchu, the famous “lost city” of the Incas in Peru. Although I suppose this comparison is inevitable, having done Macchu Picchu a few years ago, I found the two experiences to be completely different. After having done them both I still think Machu Picchu itself is more impressive, and would dare to say that as an archeological site, it is more significant, but the two experiences are so different it’s really hard, and I’m not sure even useful, to compare them. Beyond the two sites themsleves being extremely different, the two journeys are also completely different. Machu Picchu was much more of a spiritual experience for me, although the sheer amount of people around did impact the experience. Ciudad Perdida on the other hand, is a much more raw experience, the trail is not developed, you don’t run into hoards of other hikers, you really feel like you’re out there, which contributes to the mystique of it all.

Our hiking group was comprised of 16 tourists (6 Colombians, 2 Canadians, 2 Dutch, 4 Americans, 1 New Zealander, 1 Brit, 1 German and 1 Israeli), 2 guides and 2 cooks/helpers. I was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the trip went, the food was really good (relatively speaking), the accommodations were good, and the guides were good (none of them spoke English but I quickly became official translator which was actually good practice for me anyway).

Things got off to an interesting start when before we even reached the drop-off point we had a flat tire.  The guides quickly changed it and we were on our way, all giddy with anticipation, chatting and making new friends. The drive was a much bigger ordeal than I had imagined. We knew it was more than 2 hour drive to the drop-off point but what we didn’t know was that there seemed to be about a 60% chance that your vehicle may actually “drop-off” the side of a cliff on the way there. Not knowing the road to come I made the grave mistake of sitting in the back of the jeep where every bump in the “road” [SIC] was amplified ten-fold, and to make matters worse I had been looking backwards (thinking it was going to end soon) which made the waves of nausea come even faster than they otherwise would have. I am not normally a nervous person when it comes to these types of things but being on the outside of the dirt “road”, while we drove frightening close to the side of a deep, deep ravine, I have to admit I was regretting the fact that Kevin was sitting up front and I was imagining myself holding the hand of James, the Brit who I had only just met and was sharing the back end of the jeep with, as we plummeted to our deaths (who was admittedly very friendly but it was a little early to share an important event, such as death). All I could do was harness as much mental strength as possible to try and keep from vomiting or screaming stop, let me out! We later found out this road had been impassible (it arguably still was “impassable”) due to heavy rains until the week before our trek and until then hikers had been walking that road.

Requisite Pre-hike tire change.

View from the front of the jeep...the back view was not as forgiving.

During Day 1 of the Hike

We finally arrived at El Manchete, our drop-off point, and had lunch before setting off on a very late start to a hiking day.  We headed off in the heat of the afternoon sun and walked straight up for hours. We had left so late that we didn’t make it to the camp before nightfall and finished Day 1 of the hike with head-lamps in an otherwise pitch black night (note to all of my European friends who laugh at me for always having a headlamp on hand). We arrived at Camp 1 and chose our respective hammocks for our Christmas Eve sleep.  Over a great Christmas Eve dinner of chicken and the typical Colombian fixins (rice etc.) our Colombian counterparts explained the intricacies of sleeping in a hammock (don’t sleep along the fault-line of the hammock, do sleep diagonally). Then it was off to our first night in hammocks, I curled up in my touque and thermals with my headlamp beside me and boots upside down to avoid any surprise bites during nocturnal bathroom trips.

We awoke to a beautiful Christmas morning in the mountains. We sat wrapped in our blankets and watched the sun rise over the Sierra Nevada and exchanged the (very) small gifts we had carried in for each other. It was very simple but very beautiful at the same time.

Sunrise on Christmas morning

Christmas morning in the Sierra Nevada

Kevin and I on Christmas morning.

Camp 1, Ciudad Perdida hike.

And that was about the end of Christmas for me…Day 2 of hiking was much more difficult than Day 1, we faced long down-hills of slippery mud, that after a couple of hours I literally fell victim to. Shaking with fatigue my legs finally gave out, I somehow got both my feet stuck in the mud between rocks and as I tried to balance myself, the weight of my pack propelled me forward and I fell first on my wrists, then my face. Once Kevin had flipped me over I began the process of dressing my wounds with the massive first aid kit I always carry (note number 2 for those who mock me for always being prepared). There was no crying or whining (well none that I remember anyway), I was just relieved not to have broken anything or had any other injury that would have stopped our trip. Although with these new wounds and the humidity of the jungle I was half expecting to develop an infection that might actually force us to turn back.  In any case Kevin and our guide Diego waited with me while I dressed my wounds and then we were on our way…only to learn that the first river crossing of the day was only about 15 minutes away…so much for the dressing.

A happy start to Day 2, hiking on Christmas Day.

Little friends on Christmas morning.

Our friends Lex and Kim crossing some rapids on Day 2.

Camp 2 was much bigger than Camp 1,  included a row of outdoor bunk beds with mosquito nets, and was situated right beside the river. The river had an extremely strong current and was icy but we took a quick and very careful dip before I re-dressed my Christmas wounds. I had actually sadly, completely forgotten it was Christmas by this point.

Camp 2

Doing our laundry the old-fashioned way at Camp 2.

Luz Elena and Will, hoping not to have to break out any lifeguarding skills, swimming spot at Camp 2.

That night however, was a Christmas night to remember. Out of nowhere all of these indigenous children showed up and wanted to play. We spent much of the evening in a Gringos v. Wiwas battle royale,  arm-wrestling some surprisingly strong little children by candlelight. This was one of those very magical instances that don’t come along often, when you just completely lose yourself in the moment.

Battle Royale, Gringos vs. Wiwas

Kevin and a new friend, arm-wrestling on Christmas night.

Me and a pal, arm-wrestling, a new Christmas night tradition.

One of the best parts of this whole trip, maybe the best part for me, was walking through all of the indigenous communities where the people essentially live exactly how their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. We passed through several communities, most of only a few huts but one that would have been home to more than 20 families. When we passed the larger community the people were all attending a meeting where the Mamu (leader) was addressing the community. It was magical to meet up with these people along the way, but at the same time you felt guilty because before this hike became popular with travellers they would have been completely undisturbed in their daily lives.  However, they do seem to largely just carry on without paying much attention to the hikers.

Some Wiwa children along the way.

Indigenous woman in front of her home, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Indigenous children outside their home.

Traditional indigenous homes, Sierra Nevada.

Each night Diego would give the plan for the next day (and I would translate it in English). That night he told us that the next day, Day 3, would be the most difficult (although the next night he told us the following day would be the most difficult, and so on). Still being a bit traumatized by my fall I was a bit nervous but it ended up being relatively drama-free.  Many more hills, up and down, and lots of mud.  The trail is in much worse shape than I expected, in many parts there is no trail at all, it has fallen away into the brush below, sometimes we were crossing fast-moving water by jumping from rock to rock, made more difficult by the weight of our packs. Sometimes we were crossing under small waterfalls that made the rocks below extremely slippery. Then there were the river crossings where we crossed in sandals, sometimes the water was so deep we crossed in our underwear, one day the water was so high I had our passports in my sports-bra (first time for that move but I think I will incorporate it into my travel regime). Sometimes the current was so strong we held hands and crossed together, a few at a time.  The muddy hills were possibly the most challenging to manouever, the whole time I just kept thinking how lucky we had been with the weather and what a nightmare this would turn into if it started to rain.

Facing yet another muddy uphill.

Helping each other across the rapids.

One of our many river crossings.

Mules crossing the river.

Day 3 included the most interesting river crossing, a bridge-like contraption that was made of a wall-less box attached to a pulley-system where one by one we were pulled across the ravine, high above the rushing rapids. Now I had crossed some pretty sketchy and only partially existent bridges in the Himalayas, but this was my first time crossing a river in a box on a pulley-system.

People waiting to cross the river.

My turn to cross the river!!

Diego cutting a pineapple with his machete, on the route, Day 3.

In any case Day 3 ended relatively smoothly, we reached Camp 3 in the early afternoon. Camp 3 is quite impressive, with a 2 storey building with tents on the 2nd floor. We opted for the tents, which was a mistake and actually ended up being our worst sleep of the hike. The setting at Camp 3 was gorgeous, with beautiful swimming in the river, sunbathing on big rocks, and a waterfall right out of a meditation poster. All of the swimming stops along the way were just breathtaking, it would be impossible to even begin to explain how beautiful the surroundings are, but if I may try; rushing, cold, clear water in the middle of this dense jungle with nothing else around, but big rocks on either side to jump from and waterfalls along the edges. It seriously felt like you were swimming right into a movie, filmed in Paradise. Another interesting fact about Camp 3 is that it is home to some deadly snakes (thanks for the heads up Dustin) which added a little extra excitement to the experience (2 were spotted the day we stayed but luckily no run-ins).

Sleeping quarters, Camp 3.

Swimming spot at Camp 3.

Kev and I by a waterfall across from Camp 3.

Day 4 is the big day. We were up early and off to face the more than 1200 steps up to the archeological site itself. The site is magical, it’s hard to describe, indescribable really but again, here goes; It is not as immediately striking as Machu Picchu (I realize I am now comparing it to Machu Picchu after saying I don’t know why people compare it to Machu Picchu but I need a reference point), but no less magical. It is still largely covered with moss and jungle. Part of what adds to the mysteriousness of the place is that there just is not that much known about the site itself. The Tairona were a very insular people who made a conscious decision not to pass on their cultural traditions as they did not want the conquistadors who had arrived to benefit from their knowledge. As such the last Tairona elders took much of their culture with them to their graves. It is said that 80% of their culture, traditions and knowledge died with them, leaving their descendants with only 20% of their traditional knowledge. Ciudad Perdida, or Teyruna in the Tairona language, is believed to have been the largest of the Tairona cities, it was both a ceremonial centre and a living city. It is not known how the structures were built, some rocks were taken from the same river we crossed, others from one section of the city known as the rock garden. Our guide referred to the rocks used as “metamorphic” rocks and explained that there are several theories on how they manipulated these rocks, including the use of chanting by shamans to bring the rocks to their most malleable form in order to be molded for construction. Most pictures of the Ciudad Perdida show the same platforms which are the ceremonial centre of the city. In front of the platforms is a large rock shaped in the form of a frog, a symbol of fertility for the Tairona people.

Some of the 1200 moss-covered steps leading up to the Ciudad Perdida

Kevin and I in the Ciudad Perdida

Ceremonial Platforms in the Ciudad Perdida

Base of the ceremonial platforms and the frog-rock, a symbol of fertility for the Tairona people.

The site was “re-discovered” by grave-robbers in the early 1970s. Unfortunately those grave robbers made away with many of the keys to the past. The Colombian army then moved in to keep the grave-robbers out which started decades of occupation of the site by military, paramilitary groups and other armed groups. The site has only been opened to tourists since the mid-2000s but even during this time there have at times been security issues. There is now a permanent military outpost, where soldiers spend a few months at a time guarding the site.

The site itself is thought-provoking but probably most memorable is its setting in the mountains and the journey to get there. And in case you’re wondering…no, we didn’t find gold.

Our guide Diego, explaining the map left by the Tairona people. Each line carved into the rock represents a path within the city.

Me at the base of some of the ceremonial platforms.

Kevin and I, view from the top of the Ciudad Perdida.

After leaving the site we still had a long way to go on Day 4, we hiked all the way back down to Camp 2 and only arrived just before nightfall. Day 5 was  bittersweet as some of our group had planned to do the hike in 5 days and others in 6. Although Day 5 was short, it was also extremely taxing and we were happy to have chosen the 6-day option. We arrived at our last camp before lunch, had (cold) showers and spent the afternoon reading in the sun and chatting with our fellow 6-dayers. It was a bit sad to leave our other friends in the group (or have them leave us I guess) but it was wonderful to have an afternoon to relax and just take in the amazing surroundings. And it meant we got to sleep in hammocks one more night!

Day 6 was relatively calm, but as often happens on long hikes, I was nowhere near ready for the journey to end. While I’m sure others were dying for a hot shower and ready to check their emails, I just wanted to keep walking.

View from the trail, Day 6.

Kevin during the last hours of the 6-day hike.

Me on Day 6, bearing my then 5-day old wounds.

6-days later and somewhat worse for wear...we made it!

We ended the hike with our fellow 6 day-ers on a very positive note, the drive out was nowhere near as harrowing, and although I would have preferred to have been swinging in a hammock listening to the jungle sounds, I will admit the large pepperoni pizza we had that evening really hit the spot. I guess there are some benefits to getting back to “civilization”.

A parting shot, contemplating the meaning of life, Ciudad Perdida.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. sarah permalink
    January 17, 2012 1:45 pm

    great post allison! a highly entertaining way to spend a portion of my lunch hour. glad you and kevin had such a memorable christmas!

  2. January 17, 2012 1:48 pm

    What a magical adventure! I find all of your blog posts extremely evocative and descriptive. I’m sure that this trip will live long in your memory. I salute the headlamp, first aid kit and storage space for passports- an experienced traveller you are indeed. I especially appreciated the photos of you and Kevin as well as the ones of the scenery.

    Stay well and keep the blog posts coming!

    Much love from Aunt Marlene.

  3. Claire permalink
    January 17, 2012 3:25 pm

    So nice!!!!! Whaouh next time bring me please!!
    Take care.

  4. Annie permalink
    January 17, 2012 9:44 pm

    “…who was admittedly very friendly but it was a little early to share an important event, such as death…” – I laughed my head off!
    Sounds like you had a wonderful Christmas adventure 🙂 Nothing wrong with being prepared, I’m also a fan of seeing in the dark and cleaning my wounds to avoid infection!

  5. January 18, 2012 11:36 am

    This looks like an amazing adventure. What a great way to spend Christmas. I agree that all experienced travellers carry headlamps 😉

  6. Sharon & Bill permalink
    January 18, 2012 1:16 pm

    Well Allison, what a great read. You are an exceptional writer. Although Kevin told me a few details of your holiday it in no way compared to reading about it in your blog. It sounds like you both had an experience of a life time. We look forward to seeing you when your back in Canada. Hope all continues to go well with you. Stay safe and keep the writings coming.

    Love Always

    Sharon & Bill

  7. Leah permalink
    January 21, 2012 9:07 pm

    Wow, Al! Wonderfully written. Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights in such and entertaining way!

  8. sarah permalink
    January 14, 2016 5:17 pm

    Thank for the great post. I am doing the tour in 3 weeks and want to be prepared. the hammocks ,do they have mosquito nets? do you have any recommendation for me? thanks

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