A 6-day long initiation into the Colombian jungle between fatigue, sweat, snakes, drug traffickers and an increasing joy to be alive
Better to start pushing all the way.
What better way to start a new series on travels with the best trip I have ever done?
January 2010, just one year from surgery on my anterior cruciate ligament and with an obstinacy that borders on masochism I attempt what for many neo-Israeli soldiers is a sort of rite of initiation before entering service in the occupied Palestine territories. I’m talking about the Camino de la Ciudad Perdida, the Trek of the Lost City, an exhilarating massacre of 6 days in total immersion in the Colombian jungle, among the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This is a huge massif the size of Slovenia that overlooks the beautiful Atlantic Ocean of Colombia.
During these six days of the Colombian jungle, I have seen and heard things of all colours, both around and within me. My experiences during my Lost City Trek will keep you company for most of the month of December.
Today we start with a little history and geography. We will try to understand where we are and what happens over there as we frame El Camino de la Ciudad Perdida in his world.
The Lost City is the archaeological site of an ancient town in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, founded around the tenth century AD, ie more than five centuries before Peru’s Machu Picchu, whom most of the travellers rightly or wrongly attributed the title of lost city. The site is known as Buritaca 200, but the Native Americans call the ruins of the city in the jungle Teyuna. The Kogi and Aruachi still living in the area say that Teyuna was the heart of a great and powerful web city, a political and economic centre inhabited by several thousand indigenous Tayrona, perched on a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountain up to a height of 1300 meters. A network of cobbled streets and several circular squares and a maze of stairs connected the various terraces carved into the rock, but the city could only be accessed by a steep ascent of about 1,500 stone steps through a dense jungle.
La Ciudad Perdidawas abandoned, becoming such, at the time of the invasion and conquest of the area by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. The arrival of the Spaniards first undermined the economy of the community Tayrona, blocking the trade route to the coast, then threatened it demographically, with the rapid expansion of new and deadly diseases, like syphilis and smallpox, for which the natives had no antibodies. In just a few decades the civilization that had flourished on the mountains of Santa Marta was completely wiped out and forgotten, and the jungle swallowed it and began to digest its products, the now obliterated houses, roads and memories.
Although officially Ciudad Perdida was rediscovered in 1972 by a group of local looters of treasures, the descendants of the ancient inhabitants -today’s tribes of Aruachi and Kogi- have regularly visited the ruins in the jungle before they were rediscovered, while trying the secret to preserve their existence. The fact is that in 1972 a man called Florentino Sepulveda and his two sons, whose main profession was plundering treasures, in their wanderings in search of valuable artefacts encountered a series of stone steps going up the mountain and followed them to the top where, with their huge surprise, they found an abandoned city. From that day started a war between rival gangs of looters who were fighting for the gold and ceramic objects that still enriched the ruins, to the point that the first modern nickname of Teyuna became Infierno Verde or Green Hell.
Colombian Government authorities did intervene to stabilize the situation and organised some sort of protection of the ruins of Ciudad Perdida in 1975, just in time to see the area involved in the civil war that still bleeds Colombia. On 15 September 2003, the paramilitary guerrilla group ELN (National Liberation Army) kidnapped eight foreign tourists who were making the trek into the jungle toward the Lost City. The hostages were freed unharmed after three months but for years the trek to the ruins exited the itineraries of extreme tourism. Since 2008 the Colombian army has regained control of the area and actively patrols the area from a small base at the top of Ciudad Perdida, which is now considered perfectly safe for the trekkers.
With my next article I will start a chronicle of our journey of six days in the jungle, where the body fights fatigue, heat and mountain sickness on a rough terrain that makes the going a continual conquest. The eyes and mind though fly and expand taking in the wonders of the country. In addition to dealing with the jungle, crossing rivers and ascending mountains, my tale will delight you with our meetings with the indigenous Kogi, our jungle rum drinking sessions and the games of chess by candlelight in the company of the howling monkeys. Moreover you will read about our encounter with the laboratory of the local cocaine dealers, the attack of a poisonous snake to a fellow traveller and her odyssey toward the antidote and salvation and, finally, the conquest of the top of Ciudad Perdida.
End of Part 1
(To be continued)