'...the simplicity of the days, one foot in front of the other, I would miss'
My biggest concern with doing the four day trek to the Lost City through the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta was not the act of trekking for up to eight hours a day itself. No, it was instead the thought of trying to sleep under mosquito nets in a snakey, bug infested rain-forest. Oh, and they have big cats too, like Jaguars. Being Irish i'm from a country where Saint Patrick apparently banished all snakes and where creepy crawlies do not get much more threatening than the dreaded daddy long legs who inevitably resides tucked up in the corner of your bathroom while you shower. In fact, my reservations about doing the trek were such that I spent over a week procrastinating. But, from the marina in Santa Marta the Sierra Nevada Mountain range loomed large and unmoving except for the almost constant cloud and haze passing over it. Just up there, we read, lies The Lost City or Ciudad Perdida, a city that predates Machu Picchu by several hundred years. It is the home of an ancient people, the Tairona, who occupied this part of south America before the Spanish settlements appeared in the 1500's. And they are still living in the area today. We couldn’t really miss it.
And so, we made our way uncertainly through the streets in town to the tour booking office carrying a backpack each, containing, we hoped, everything we would need to get us through the next four days but not a kilogram more since we would carry our things all the way to the Lost City and back again. We were soon shown onto our bus which drove us deep into the Sierra Nevada mountains where we would commence our trek. At some point on that two hour 15 minute bus ride I decided to treat the trek like an ocean passage which maybe I was well trained for. As on the sea, we would disappear from the real world temporarily and emerge as if by magic on the other side, changed slightly with a new perspective and outlook. Getting there would be an exercise in discipline. It would be hard work, but we would never ever regret it.
We disembarked the bus and were given a suspiciously big lunch. It was only the first day and already one o’clock. I assumed there wouldn’t be much trekking until the following morning. I was wrong. We were briefed by our two guides and told that we would set off momentarily on a four-hour hike to our first camp. These first hours, it turned out, were a sign of things to come. Our group of about ten people were soon hiking quickly and steadily through dirt track, surrounded by hundreds of shades of green at times with views across the mountains for miles and other times shaded by the rain-forest and jungle canopy with the sounds of rivers never far from us. We stepped through streams, long grass and red mud. Nobody will forget that mud on the first day; as if the steep hill climbs and knee breaking downward scrambles weren’t enough, our group managed to take a wrong turn about three hours in and we got completely separated from our guides. We waded through the wettest, sludgiest, terracotta mud I have ever seen. One misstep would result in a lost shoe. We had, it later transpired, taken the route used by the mules that transport food and supplies to the camps on their backs. That explained the large hooved indents. As we clambered onto a narrow grassy ridge to escape the dreaded mud, we spotted the other group and our guides on a trail lower down the mountain where we should have been. Concerned about the inevitable fading light we hoped this wrong path would connect us to the right one and of course, it did.
I needn’t have fretted about the basic nature of the camp because when we finally arrived, we were both a hungry tired mess. After a mighty dinner and a chat with new friends we retired to our little wooden camp beds where we hung out wet, smelly clothes on lines and ensured our backpacks hung from the bunk bed ladders, away from the floor and its night critters. Before bed we were told to check our shoes very carefully for spiders and scorpions the following morning before putting them on. Getting into bed at just seven pm that night I untucked and very carefully re-tucked the mosquito net into the mattress around me and surprisingly fell asleep quickly and easily.
We were woken each morning at five. We had been informed that the second day would be long and tough, with up to eight hours of hiking ahead. You could say that what followed was more of the same but that would be to ignore the rivers we crossed, the ever more elevated points we reached from which to view our surroundings and our now much dirtier clothes and soaking wet socks. Halfway through the day we reached another camp where our cooks prepared another much needed meal. Afterwards, we hung out our still wet hiking clothes which we were keen to dry in the sunshine while we stepped over stones and into the cool river water for a swim. Soon it was time to set off again for another four hours which would be mainly uphill until we reached the next camp for the night. By now I had blisters and a few sore toes, but I was moving fast. Fast enough to make the odd tired mistake like stepping into thigh-high mud much to the amusement of the group.
We were now really out in the wild and indigenous people walked the same trails we did, but with much more efficiency, wearing traditional pristine white clothing and sometimes in bare feet holding children and supplies as they went. We were in their land now, passing their huts and homes, their sacred gathering places. It was beautiful. Another day done, another dinner and to bed once again to rest for day three in which we would climb the 1,200 ancient slippery steps to the Lost City itself.
We were on the trail again at six am in order to avoid the heat and rains that would surely come later on. We reached the steps under an hour later and I began to climb and climb. Due to the narrowness of the steps, we ascended carefully and in single file. The climb was a silent one and I had a moment to reflect on what a privilege it was to be there then doing this amazing thing. We sailed here to this place, I thought. To Colombia. All the way from Europe. And then more quickly than I expected, I had reached the top. But of course, the top was just the beginning of a series of circular terraces which constitutes the Lost City and is connected by more steps. We spent about two hours walking around the Lost City with our guides who recounted to us the story of how it was finally rediscovered in the 1970's by two farmers. The secret got out then and ancient treasures were pillaged and sold, never to be recovered. This was happening alongside the turbulent civil unrest and cocaine wars in the same region. Exhausted but spell bound by it all, we sat down as a group and breathed in, what for me was one of the most magnificent and memorable views of my life so far.
With another long day behind us, I realised facing into the third and last evening, that this would all be over very soon. I wouldn’t miss my nightly retreat behind the mosquito net as I looked out at the bugs looking in, but the simplicity of the days, one foot in front of the other, I would miss. After dinner our group was visited by an indigenous man, assisted by our translator. He wanted to help us understand the ways and beliefs of his people. The Sierra Nevada, he explained, is their world, like a microcosm of the larger world. We are all interconnected and what we do in the wider world has a direct impact on the Sierra Nevada and vice versa. His people and their Shaman worship mother nature. Their Sierra Nevada, their world, is like a female body. And she is sick. Her body parts: the mountains, the rivers, the trees are like organs, and they are feeling the effects of global warming and pollution. She has been damaged. Poisoned. We learned more from him about their unique traditions and independence from Colombia and its laws. It felt a privilege to have him with us that evening.
In the morning we left our last camp, but we still had up to eight hours of trekking ahead of us back the way we had come. It would be a punishing and gruelling day for us all but as with every other day we were duly rewarded with the views, in the company of new friends and with fresh fruit handed out every few hours. As we neared the end, the end itself didn’t seem to appear quite where I wanted it to; the road felt longer, the sun hotter and my backpack heavier than I remembered going the other way but I wanted to feel the burn and I decided to jog the last few miles. Finally, the little restaurant where we had eaten lunch on that first day came into sight. I threw down my backpack and splashed water on my face in the bathroom. I changed into clean clothes for the first time in four days, clothes which I had been desperately trying to keep fresh and dry wrapped in plastic and which now felt like the greatest luxury ever. We ate lunch together with the group and laughed about the various ups and downs of the trek, but we all agreed it was one of the best experiences we’d had in a very long time. I had a few mosquito bites, one tic on my back and am, a few months later still in the process of losing a few toenails but I certainly have no regrets. In fact, it will stand out as one of the finest things we have done for many years to come.