Friday 18 October 2019

The Lost City

Cocaine factories, paramilitary-infested jungle and a history of kidnappings have kept Colombia's answer to Machu Picchu an undiscovered secret, says Tyler Wetherall

The Lost City
The Lost City
A Kogui family expertly traverses a jungle river

Tyler Wetherall

The Lost City would be on the top of any traveller's hit list if it wasn't quite so hard to get to. A six-day trek through the Colombian jungle, crossing eight rivers and 40km of tough terrain -- and climbing 1,200 ancient steps -- to find some ruins in what could be a potentially life-threatening (and definitely foot-blistering) feat, is enough to put even the most seasoned traveller off. But the sweat, fear and toil are worth it.

The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida in Spanish, is the archaeological remains of the ancient capital of the Tairona Indian civilisation, created around 800AD. Older than Machu Picchu, it stretches across 169 stone terraces carved into the mountainside, making it one of South America's largest pre-Colombian sites.

But it's not just about finding the Lost City; spending nights staring at the stars from your hammock, meeting indigenous tribespeople, washing in waterfalls and seeing nature at its most wild and overgrown are the real highlights of this incredible experience.

However, as a girl waiting for the trek to begin in Santa Marta -- the one-time drug-smuggling capital of the world -- I began to have my doubts. The Embassy warnings were ringing loudly in my ears.

Speaking of the Sierra Nevada they "advise against all but essential travel" and warn "the risk of kidnap remains high". Just to make sure you get the message, they add that, "Armed groups are still active in this area, there is extensive cultivation of illegal drugs" and "while tour organisers may assure you that the area is safe, we do not believe it to be so".

The Lost City has been off the tourist circuit ever since eight tourists, including two British, were kidnapped from an organised tour group in 2003. The victims spent several months in captivity before being freed. The trek was reopened to the public in 2005 -- the same year kidnappings in Colombia fell by 78pc -- and there have been no problems since, with around 500 people making the trek every year.

Even the British Embassy concedes that of the 18,000 trips made by British citizens to Colombia per year, most are trouble free.

To put our minds at ease, we grilled our guide-to-be before handing over our pesos. José, 38, who does the trek on average three times a month, assuaged our fears with typical Caribbean cool: "You should worry more about breaking your ankle than getting kidnapped."

After 30 years of civil war, president Álvaro Uribe has achieved what many thought impossible and an end to the country's legacy of drugs and violence is in sight. The murderous guerrillas have fled to the remotest corners and more than 31,000 paramilitaries have surrendered their arms. Although huge problems remain, great tracts of the country are passable again with the improved security situation, including this trek.

Beginning in Santa Marta, you hike for three to eight hours each day, ending up in a pre-erected base camp. These are basic shelters with no electricity, but each is set amid spectacular jungle scenery often close to swimming holes. The tour takes three days to reach the city, one to explore the ruins, and two to return to civilisation.

This was all I knew when I loaded myself into a multi-coloured, rickety old chiva along with 15 other travellers for the initial two-hour drive into the wilderness. Our first brush with death came within hours of setting off. The shambolic vehicle lost its balance on the difficult terrain, leaving two wheels spinning furiously over the cliff edge while we all piled on to one side to rebalance or tumble over. 'Safely' on our way, we hoped that was our last near-death experience.

We were thrown in the deep end on our first day as torrential rain made the three-hour uphill trek no better than a mud bath. Every step, our feet sunk deeper in the mud as hands, knees and sticks were employed to stop us from sliding down the hill. Our only solace was that the rain washed off a portion of the sweat. As soon as we reached base camp, we threw ourselves in the river to wash, with bloody knees and mud-drenched clothes.

While I expected a basic menu of rice and beans, the guides rustled up fantastic local fare out of nowhere. We had lamb stews for dinner and arepas de huevo, a local speciality of fried egg in batter, for breakfast. Every day we were given a mid-morning snack of fresh watermelon and pineapple, and an afternoon chocolate treat to keep us going. On my first night, after negotiating a semi-comfortable position in my hammock -- a skill I soon mastered -- I thought I had no chance of a good night's sleep amidst the spooky jungle rustlings. But, in fact, I was knackered.

This is not an experience for the squeamish. There are mosquitoes, termites and some snakes. The only reprieve from the blistering heat is a daily downpour. There are only basic hole-in-the-ground loos and don't even mention a flush. This was my idea of living hell.

But while drinking water straight from a river, or sharing evenings by candlelight, staring out at an endless night sky without street lamps to mute the stars, or the buzz of traffic in the background, I realised I had truly escaped the daily grind. In a world where normally I cannot survive without my mobile phone and my microwave, it was a liberating experience to forgo all luxuries.

On the second day we passed our first military camp and the soldiers shouted out: "Any chicas in the group today?" These boys, some baby-faced 17 year olds, are posted in the jungle for up to six months at a time and the sight of female flesh causes a stir of excitement. While their black face paint and machine-guns look menacing, they are the good guys.

These soldiers and the native tribes are the only human contact we had; the full army gear a stark contrast to the simple white robes and long black hair of the indigenous families. The Koguis are one of the few surviving indigenous peoples of pre-Colombian South America and modern descendants of the Taironas.

We first spot a group of Kogui boys, no older than 10, leading a pig on a string, expertly making their way across a stream and keeping their feet dry in Wellington boots. Although they have minimal contact with the outside world, the guides bring them gifts of sweets, junk food and wellies as a thank-you for passage through their land.

They are spiritual people who live a simple life based on their belief in the Earth as the Great Mother, and themselves as chosen protectors of the land. Although a few speak Spanish, as well as their own unwritten language, they are shy and suspicious of strangers.

José introduced us while passing one of their thatched hut villages so we could buy some of the beautiful handicraft they wear, such as weaved shoulder bags and colourful beaded necklaces. They also let us try chewing dried coca leaves in the traditional way, which the Kogui use in spiritual ceremonies.

We reached the city by mid-afternoon on the third day. The ascent was tough, scrabbling over boulders with hands and knees and through waist-high water carrying our packs on our heads. But after 1,200 wobbly steps, reaching the first plateau with aching thighs, the city was a spectacular discovery. The dense palms open to reveal the central temple where up to 4,000 people once converged for ceremonies. From this height, there are unmatchable views of the great expanse of rugged mountains steeped in cloud forests, which we catch glimpses of as we make our way through the overgrown paths.

This mountainside city stretches over 32 acres and archaeologists believe there were once around 184 roofed homes on the multi-layered terraces, housing about 2,000 people. As the 'capital' of the Tairona civilisation, they are the best-known remains, but there are more than 200 villages scattered throughout the Sierra Nevada, with traces of paths linking them. Evidence of sewers, bridges and tombs show how advanced this civilisation was. Unfortunately, the treasure hunters who discovered the site in 1972 looted many artefacts, including gold figurines and ceramic urns, but enough evidence remains to be of interest, including a five-foot carved stone believed to depict a map of the area.

On the last day, we arranged to visit a cocaine factory for an extra €8. We are led along a stream deep into the jungle into a small, mosquito-infested army tent where a teenage boy demonstrates how to make the raw product -- a process scary enough to put even the most hardened user off their next line. It begins with him stamping on a pile of dried coca leaves with his bare feet before adding petrol, potassium and sulphuric acid. This is hardly sipping a Pina Colada by the pool, but you certainly experience the reality of another way of life.

After six days, I am ready to return to civilisation. While waiting in a café to be transferred back to my hotel, I am painfully aware of the mud and sweat in every crevice. I fantasise about a hot shower and a good night's sleep in a normal bed, all cherished luxuries to rediscover. And, at the same time, I feel like I have survived the jungle and am somehow more capable of dealing with what life throws at me.

Relaxing? No, but definitely memorable.

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