Andy and I had been waiting the whole trip for the five day hike to the Ciudad Perdida and the anticipation was becoming especially unbearable as we got closer and closer to the date when our yellow fever vaccinations that we had gotten in Tunja would become effective. We weren’t really sure what to expect from this trek in general and part of me was ready to get going just so that it would be over with sooner. We had heard it called the ‘Green Hell’ referring to the oppressive heat, humidity, and rain of the jungle and we had seen multiple different people walking around town with an entire arm or leg covered in overlapping angry red bumps from mosquitoes and sand flies (or no-see-ums). The day our vaccinations kicked in we walked into Magic Tours in Taganga plopped down 420.000 pesos apiece ($228 USD) and we were booked into a five-day tour starting the following day.
Taking the advice of some travelers we had talked to we left the majority of our stuff in the baggage check at our hostel to set out with our packs as light as possible, and a couple of trash bags apiece to hopefully protect our little amount of stuff from the drenching downpours that occur. We were soon on our way, packed into a modified Landcruser with twelve other people who we quickly got to know after chatting for the first hour of the ride and being thrown violently against each other for the last hour. I’m not sure that any other vehicle (besides the motorcycles that kept passing us) could have made up that road; we were fording streams and driving through potholes that looked like meteor craters. One of the men in the truck told us that the government officials in Bogotá think that this road is actually paved and well maintained with the money given to the local officials each year, who are actually pocketing it and letting the mud track slowly erode.
When we finally got to the town at the start of the trail we were divided into our two hiking groups. Andy and I found ourselves with one other hiker, a British guy also named Andy, and our guide, Pedro, while the other five foreigners were sent away with their guides, a father and son team who are both called Caesar.
After a quick lunch we started out along the trail in the early afternoon heat. The entire trail is only about 30 miles long, but I could tell immediately that this was going to be much harder than any 30 mile hike I’d ever done in Oregon. Hiking uphill in a humidity that is so strong it causes you to have streams of sweat pouring down your face almost immediately is not an easy feat, especially if you’re paranoid about bugs like me and choose to wear pants the entire trek. Thankfully the guides are used to having tourists moving at a sweaty zombie pace and take plenty of stops for fresh fruit and river swimming. In a couple of more hours we had made it to our sleeping area for the night, a large covered area with a hundred hammocks, three showers, five toilets, and only us four people sleeping in it.
The next morning we woke up and hiked into the woods for a little demonstration from a local entrepreneur on how to make cocaine. It turns out that to make cocaine all you basically need besides the coca is only eight or so house hold chemicals. Who knew? It was interesting to hear about what the man giving the demonstration had to say about how everyone who was now working in the tourism industry up there used to be involved with the drug trade in various different ways. He may not have been completely truthful about everyone being on the straight and narrow though; Pedro said there were still a lot of drugs growing in the hills.
At about this point in the trek we realized that the powdered juice we were constantly drinking was made with water straight from the river. So much for our iodine pills, because there was no way I was going to turn down the sweet sweet taste of Kool-Aid after Pedro got us hooked on it. We passed by an indigenous village on the way to camp and although we weren’t allowed in it was still interesting to learn a little about their lifestyle.
At camp we met up with the group we had ridden with to the trail head and played cards with each other for a few hours to pass the time. Things really got interesting when a couple of Gol bars (chocolate flavoring covering wafer cookies, caramel, and nuts) were thrown in as prizes to the person who could make the best animal noises. One of the other Americans took the grand prize by whimpering like a dog and nuzzling the older, very stoic, Caesar. I think he even chewed his arm a little.
The next morning we started out earlier than the other group and were followed by a stray dog who had been flip flopping between our group and the other where he had gotten the name No Piña because of his dislike of pineapple. About half an hour into the hike we crossed a river in a box hanging from a cable. When all of us humans were safely across No Piña wasn’t really sure what to do. He had been offered a ride in the box by British Andy and refused (if dogs can do that) so the only thing he could do was try to swim across. We watched from the far side of the river as No Piña swam against the current and slowly got sucked down the river over rocks and through a rapid. We were all pretty depressed thinking that we were watching a dog drown and were extremely relieved to see him pop up on the opposite bank after a few tense moments.
We arrived early in camp at eleven and when the other group caught up with us we got scolded for losing No Piña. With a whole day to kill there wasn’t much to do but play a marathon five hour game of President and A-Hole and do a little swimming in the most amazing swim hole of the trip. It was in the middle of the river in an eddy behind a rock beneath a waterfall. Later in the afternoon it started to rain so hard that we could visibly notice the river rising.
The fourth day was the day we’d all been waiting for. We woke at five-thirty and climbed up the 1200 steps to the Lost City which was actually discovered relatively recently, in 1972, by treasure hunters who were able to steal a lot of gold figurines before the authorities got involved. Pedro led us around to all of the platforms which were held together by rocks and covered in grass and looked very much like the terraces you see people using for farming. And as he described the huts that used to be built on them I started to day dream that I was a Colombian treasure hunter stumbling upon the remains for the first time. The coolest part about being on the ruins was that there where only eight foreigners and our three Colombian guides exploring the area, unless you count the military of course. We were quite out numbered by the military which is a good thing since they were originally stationed there after eight foreigners were kidnapped by the guerrilla group ELN and held hostage for three months in 2003. The area felt quite safe to us now, but it was still a little eerie when Pedro pointed out the trail that the ELN had used to march the tourists away to their hiding place.
There were a crazy amount of mosquitoes at the city and I was happy when the time came to leave. We had just barely set foot outside of the ruins when Pedro stopped short and told us all to stop walking because there was a deadly poisonous snake on the path. He dropped a rock onto it which managed to cut it into two wriggling pieces. Caesar had to grab another large rock to smash the moving head and fangs completely flat. It was exciting and also very scary to think of how close we were to such a deadly jungle creature- the guides told us there was no antidote to this snake’s bite, and even if there were would we be able to get the anti-venom in time so far away from medical treatment?
We walked at a much quicker pace covering ground all the way back to where we slept on night two, the whole time Pedro was telling me stories about the worst things that have happened on his guided trips. One story he told me was of a boy getting bit by a snake at the same place where we camped on night three. Pedro was sent running up the stone steps to the Ciudad Perdida to get the anti-venom from the military. When he was told that the military didn’t have it for whatever reason he turned around and ran back to camp to relay the information to the boy’s father, who also happened to be an indigenous leader. Luckily the leader was able to go into the woods and make some kind of herbal poultice which cured the bite and the next day the boy was fine.
After a few more stories of heart attacks, snakes, and an unconscious Israeli, we spent an hour or so jumping off rocks into the river where we almost saw the demise of No Piña. That night everyone was so too exhausted to play cards and we were happy to pass out under our mosquito nets.
The fifth day was another one started at five thirty in the morning and by noon we had covered the distance of both day one and two combined. After one last lunch together we all squished back into the vehicle again and we were soon back in Taganga.
Overall this trek was one of the most fun things that Andy and I have done in Colombia. At times it was really difficult because of the heat and humidity, but anyone in halfway decent physical shape shouldn’t have a problem completing it. For me the breaks from hiking that we took swimming in the river with fresh fruit cut and laid onto a banana leaf for us to eat were just as fun and amazing as the actual Ciudad Perdida itself. We managed to survive the trip with minimal bug bites, unlike a couple of our companions, by constantly wearing pants and obsessively covering ourselves in bug goop. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone who has enough time on their Colombian holiday, and don’t forget to bring some playing cards.