Despite the doom-laden warnings from the Foreign Office (
We advise against all but essential travel to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, including the ‘Lost City’. Armed groups are still active in this area, there is extensive cultivation of illegal drugs and the risk of kidnap remains high. While tour organisers may assure you that the area is safe, we do not believe it to be so.), trekking to the ‘Lost City’ (properly known as Buritaca or Teyona) was always right at the top of the list of things I wanted to do in Colombia, and it really didn’t disappoint.
On arriving in the little Caribbean coastal resort of Taganga, I ran into the group of people I’d gone paragliding with in San Gil, and it turned out they were booked onto the trek leaving the very next morning. So with no time even to see the beach, I spent the day running around sorting things out, buying the essential such as mozzie spray and water purification tablets.
After meeting at 9am, we started off with a two and a half hour drive along the coast and then up an extremely bumpy dirt track to the start of the hike. After a thorough search by the Army (despite the warnings by the British government, the area is almost entirely under the control of the army these days), we set off. The first twenty minutes or so were deceptively easy as we trekked along the river, but it wasn’t long though before we reached the first tough bit. Straight after crossing the river, we began a long steep climb. It would have been pretty tiring in normal conditions, but doing it in 95% humidity was simply exhausting. We were all soaked to the skin in sweat after about five minutes of the climb, and it went on for two long, relentless uphill hours. The pace in particular was punishing, as we were being led along the way by Fernet, the 12 year old sign of our guide Jesus, who was helping his dad out on his summer holidays. Despite only having done the trek once before, and not looking all that fit, he hiked at a very fast pace, and was clearly not at all happy about being asked to slow down. Each bend seemed to hold out the promise of a flat bit, but they always turned out to be deceptive. Eventually we reached the top and were rewarded with our first spectacular views of the jungled valleys all the way back to the coast. After that, a short downhill hike took us to our first night stop, where we were able to cool off by hiking down a very steep muddy slope to the bottom of a waterfall, which was just what we needed after all that heat.
After a restless night’s sleep in the hammocks (the local bitch was on heat and her chosen sleeping spot was right under my hammock, so I spent most of the night being woken by horny dogs fighting with each other trying to get to her), we set off for the next day. This was the easiest day of hiking, as we mostly headed downhill – although the enjoyment was tempered by the knowledge that downhill on the way out would mean uphill on the way back. This day also gave us our first real contact with the local indigenous people, descendents of the people who built the lost city, living in little villages of circular wooden huts that we passed along the way. With such a short day’s hiking, we had loads of time to kill, and I was lucky to be with such a great group of people. The seven of us (two Americans and four Brits and one Irishman) got on brilliantly – it makes all the difference when you’re hiking in difficult conditions that we had a real laugh all the way.
Day three was possibly the most tiring day, but was also the most fun. After yet another steep climb onto a ridge, we descended to the river valley and spent the next hour or so walking right along the river. With steep cliffs rising up on either side, the path is forced to cross the water nine times, so we spent much of the day wading through waist deep water and trying to hold our balance in the face of strong currents and slippery rocks. Falling in and getting our bags wet would not have been fun, especially as things don’t really dry out at all in the humidity. Immediately after the final crossing, we reached the start of the site – yet another steep climb up 1,300 very narrow, very slippery steps. With Fernet again dictating the pace of the climb, we were all pretty broken by the time we made it to the top, and we amazed at the fact that our cook made it all the way up carrying all our supplies in a huge sack on his back, smiling all the way. It was all worth it though – after passing through the lower part of the site, we made into the main section, sitting right at the top of a ridge, with spectacular views across the valley. Absolutely stunning, and aside from the local soldiers living around the edge of the site, the seven of us were the only people there. It’s not very often you find ruins like that with so
We spent the afternoon just relaxing, admiring the views and chatting to the soldiers – I really felt sorry for them, it may be a beautiful setting but they’re stuck there for three months at a time with pretty much nothing to do (although they have a nice sideline in selling various bits of their kit to tourists).
For most of us day four was pretty simple, with the main hurdle being to get down the 1,300 steps without slipping over. Unfortunately though, several of the group had spent most of the night awake and in and out of the toilets, meaning they were pretty shattered when it came to the walking. Despite all the water purification tablets, it was probably the food that caused the problems – I imagine it’s pretty hard to keep everything fully hygienic when all five days food is being carried along from the start.
The final day was probably the hardest day of hiking, as we covered the same distance that we did on days one and two, and having seen what we came to see, we were fed up with being constantly sweaty from all the humidity, from being ill (although yet again I am extremely grateful for my iron constitution – I was the only one not to get ill the whole five days), and most of all from being bitten by mozzies, and all we wanted to do was get back. With Fernet as always leading from the front, we made the hike back in less than five hours, with the best part being going down that steep hike from day one – it was so steep, it was actually easier to run down than to walk, so we ran the whole way down, doing what had been a three hour hike on the way up a half hour run on the way back.
It’s certainly not the most challenging hike in the world – with a maximum height of 1,100m, there’s no worry of altitude sickness, and the climbs aren’t all that bad compared to many other South American hikes like the Inca Trail – but five days of of hiking 52km in that humidity really took it out of us, and boy were we ready for the beach.
You can see all of my photos of the trek here, and if you want to read about the rest of my experiences in Colombia you can subscribe to updates viw RSS or email by clicking the links on the right.