Colombia: An epic trek to discover the Lost City of Teyuna
Laura Millar embarks on an epic five-day trek through Colombia's Sierra Nevada...
'Vamonos!" calls Jose, our long-haired, thirty-something indigenous guide.
He's partly responsible for shepherding seven amateur hikers over 46km of tough but lush terrain in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The note of urgency in his voice, rallying us from a welcome breather at a roadside shack selling chilled soft drinks, is spurred by his knowledge of the weather. We're in the middle of the hot, humid, rainy season.
It's Day One of a trip in which the ultimate goal - three days later - is to ascend to Colombia's Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City of Teyuna, an ancient site built by a tribe called the Tairona, around 700AD. The morning's blazing sunshine has lulled us into a false sense of security. We have over half a day to go before we make our camp for the evening, and the sky is turning an unappealing shade of grey.
At around 2pm, the clouds burst to coincide with a particularly steep downhill stretch. Water gushes torrentially forth, and the rocky red earth beneath our feet turns into a mudslide. I give thanks for the invention of walking poles, along with the advice of our guide, Juan Diego Rangel, who recommends that we "walk in the path of the water as it flows down the track", rather than trying to avoid it.
Despite this, it's not long before one of our party spectacularly loses his footing and slides down several feet on his backside. The commotion has a domino effect; behind me, the legs of another hiker go out from under him, and his trajectory, unfortunately, has me in its way. By this point, I am so utterly drenched that another layer of soggy mud has little effect on my clothing or morale. The only way is forwards, so forwards we go, doggedly putting one foot in front of the other, down, and up, the steep gradients.
I've embarked on this intrepid, five-day group trek with G Adventures. Groups are small, between eight and 12 people, and most of us are solo travellers. The beauty of a trip like this is that I've got several instant new mates to support me, and for me to be supportive of (applying sunscreen or anti-mozzie spray, lending loo roll, gee-ing you up when things get tough by telling filthy jokes, etc). My lot range in age from their early twenties to mid-forties, and while some are into adventure travel, not all are, so I don't feel left out, or that I can't share the experience.
And what an experience it turns out to be. It starts, and ends, in the small, colonial beach town of Santa Marta, on the northern coast of Colombia, a two-hour drive from the trail. G works with indigenous people who have lived in these mountains - which they describe as "the heart of the world" - for over 2,000 years. Today, the four tribes who still populate the area - the Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuacos and Kankuamo - are believed to be direct descendants of the Tairona. En route, Jose, a Wiwa, and his fellow guide Javier, a Kogi, enlighten us about their culture and history, especially their most sacred ground, Teyuna, as well as the terrain we walk through.
The main trek is broken up over four days, with the addition (on Day Five) of a walk to a newly created indigenous village called Gotsezhi, where visitors can learn more about the Wiwa. Every morning, boot-camp-style, we're up at 5am for breakfast, then set off an hour later to capitalise on the cooler part of the day, with a stop for lunch, a few short breaks, and the aim of arriving at camp before nightfall. Not only do we have to contend with those gruelling inclines, but also hot-yoga levels of humidity, vicious and persistent mosquitoes, and permanently damp socks.
However, the breathtaking scenery we trek through is enough to take our minds off all that. Snaking through the mountains' foothills, farmlands and cloud forest, we pass through luxuriant, electric-green valleys, encountering throngs of leafy plantains, the odd cluster of dark jade bamboo, and giant, Jurassic Park-like ferns. Hidden toucans croak in the background, and we're regularly overtaken by the patient, plodding mules who are available to ferry trekkers' excess equipment between camps.
Camp conditions, are, it has to be said… rustic. Showers are cold (though refreshing on tired, swollen feet), but there are flushing toilets, and simple bunk beds and hammocks swathed in essential mosquito nets.
On Lost City day, we creep out at dawn to get ahead of the other groups also making their way there (numbers at the site are limited to 160 per day). Twenty-five minutes later, after scrambling over a series of rocks, we have to cross the shallow Rio Buritaca, which runs parallel to our route, one more time.
Then, the last obstacle: a series of 1,200 dizzying steps leading up, up, up to the Ciudad Perdida. I take one look at them and nearly change my mind; the steps are incredibly steep and narrow (the average height of the Tairona was only 1.3m, apparently), not to mention slippery. I'm not blessed with the balance of a mountain goat, and start to worry that I'll lose my footing. Seeing that I'm about to lose my nerve, however, Jose takes my backpack and Javier, my poles, while Juan Diego hovers close to ensure I make it safely.
Thankfully, I do. The hugs and high-fives I get from my little trekking family boost my spirits no end, not to mention the savage beauty of the site itself, atmospherically scattered with tall trees draped with lianas.
It's thought the Tairona abandoned their magnificent city in the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived, bringing unwelcome Catholicism and persecution. Then, it was a huge, sprawling site covering around 150 acres (today around 50 are still visible), with a series of over 200 terraces cut into the hills, used as bases for houses and temples built here, explains Jose, to be "closer to the stars." And this stunning, spiritually imbued place would have stayed lost, were it not for looters who stumbled on it in the 1970s, unearthing the gold artefacts buried with the Tairona, bringing it to Colombia's, and eventually the world's, attention. Tourism took off in the 1980s, with a hiatus in the noughties after a guerrilla group took a group of travellers hostage for 101 days (now, it's protected by the Colombian military).
We walk up several terraces to an area with phenomenal views back down over the site. Together, we take in the peace and beauty of the moment, breathing in the clear, crisp air, and marvelling at the clouds which hang, suspended, in the forested mountains around us. Even though we have to do the whole journey back again, it's an utterly incredible feeling. After a couple of hours, Jose cries out "Vamonos!" once more, and regrettably, it's time to go.
Colombia: Top six tips
Eat like a local
In Santa Marta, try Hemingway (Carrera 3) for grilled seafood on its rooftop, or Soul Food (Calle 20) for Caribbean-influenced dishes and hearty meat plates. Natural Food is good for healthier options. - LM
Take a walk
Explore the old, colonial quarters of Candelaria in Bogota, the walled city in Cartagena, or the popular Poblado District in Medellin. You'll find free walking, graffiti and bike tours in each city. - SK
Colombia is one of the world's top exporters of coffee. Learn about this famous commodity whilst sipping a cup (and buying a souvenir) by visiting a plantation like Hacienda Venecia in Manizales. haciendavenecia.com - SK
On the ball
Football fans should make the pilgrimage to Santa Marta's stadium, Estadio Eduardo Santos (Carrera 18). It's notable mainly for its giant-sized statue of corkscrew-curled Colombian player Carlos Valderrama. - LM
Take a food tour
The True Colombian Experience in Bogota offers a five-hour walking and eating tour - a great way to meet people and familiarise yourself with traditional Colombian food, making Empanadas along the way. thetruecolombianexperience.com - SK
Try prison food
The chefs and wait staff at Interno Restaurant in Cartagena's Women's Prison are prisoners. Funds improve living conditions in the prison. One prisoner told us the restaurant gives hope and keeps her sane - it's also lively and food is fantastic. restauranteinterno.com - SK
What to pack
Essentials for any hiking trip include walking poles; Compeed for blisters; a small first aid kit with anti-inflammatory tablets, anti-histamines/ soothing cream for bites, and Immodium; mosquito/bug repellent (ideally high in DEET); soluble Dioralyte sachets; sleeping bag liner; waterproof shoes/sandals.
Laura was a guest of G Adventures (gadventures.com), which has a seven-day Colombia - Lost City Trekking tour including accommodation, meals and guides from €639pp (ex. flights).
Several airlines fly non-direct from Dublin to Bogota; Avianca flies from Bogota to Santa Marta (avianca.com).
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