I found the Lost City
Five minutes out of the harbor in Cartagena and I already have my first challenge of South America: getting out of Cartagena. The roads are very busy especially with scooters that come from all directions. To make life more fun my GPS decides to be crap: it keeps sending me into one way streets in the wrong direction, dead end streets and construction sites. I end up driving past the same toll booth twice in five minutes hoping the lady wouldn’t notice (she did). After some interesting driving I finally manage to get out and get to my campsite for the next two days. I picked a spot close to the city so I wouldn’t have to drive to much after the harbor madness. Turns out it’s literally someone’s yard. It’s a bit hard to get in because it’s behind two gates. I manage to walk past the first one where I find some neighbors that call the owners to open the gates for me. It’s such a nice place with a very nice family. I get to use their toilet and shower in their house and get to pet the dogs all day. A perfect spot to get my van and plan sorted.
Originally I wanted to go from here to Baranquilla for the carnaval. It’s the second biggest in the world (after Rio). But by now hotel rooms and AirBnBs only start at 120 dollars per night and then there’s still the question of where to park the van. So I decide to skip carnaval and head to the coast at Santa Marta. On the way there I get another good scare when I see masked people with big sticks in their hand pulling a rope across the street. Roadblock! But when I get closer I notice it’s kids dressed up for carnaval that want money to buy candy. Not too bad. In Santa Marta I can’t really find any camping so I head over the hill to Tagaganga. Not too nice for camping either but on of the hostels let’s me park in their ungated parking lot.
For the next four days I have big plans. I signed up for the four day Lost City hike. It’s a hike that leads deep into the jungle of the Sierra Madre de Santa Marta to the ruins of a pre-Colombian city. It’s pretty expensive but it supposed to be one of the best multi day hikes of South America. The touring organisation is nice enough to let me park my van at their parking lot. So the next morning we head off towards the town of Machete (great name) with our group of eight people. The last bit of the road is steep and really really bad. We keep flying through the back of our jeep. A good way to get to know the rest of our group. In the meantime we expanded to 12 people with some additions coming from other towns. The first day of hiking only starts after lunch but is steep with little shade. Our guide has been doing this trip with tourists for 28 years which is impressive since they only discovered the city in the seventies. Our first camp is at a river just across a wobbly suspension bridge. It’s almost dark when we get there so we need to hurry to get to the swimming spot in the river where you can jump off a five meter high rock in to the refreshing water. Everyone is pretty tired and we’re supposed to get up early tomorrow morning so when I go to bed at 9 I’m the last person awake.
On day two of the hike we are joined by another 4 people and their local indigenous guide bringing us to 16 people. At one of the stops we stop at an indigenous village, The village is completely empty because it is only used for ceremonial events. Normally the people live in the mountains where they can grow crops and raise animals. We walk through some coca fields. Even though growing coca is mostly banned in Colombia, the indigenous people are allowed to grow it for their own consumption. They chew the leaves all day. Our lunch spot is another camp on a river. While we go for another nice swim, our cook (who runs ahead of us all the time) cooks us a great lunch. Later that day we have to cross another wobbly suspension bridge, This one is apparently so bad that only two people are allowed to cross it at a time. From there there it’s a steep long hike up. Once we’re at the top we run into the weirdest event of the hike. A little indigenous girl comes running out of the forest. She’s wearing the traditional long white gown and has long black hair. We don’t really understand what’s she’s saying, so we assume she’s saying ‘hi’ in her own language. So we happily wave and say “Hola”. But something is a bit odd. She talks with a very low voice and with an almost angry looking face. When she repeats herself we finally understand what she’s saying: “Dulce”, she wants candy. We tell here we don’t have any and keep walking. Then she runs up to me and starts kicking my boots. We’re a bit surprised but we just keep walking. Later we hear from other people in our group that where walking a bit behind us that the girl did the same to them but actually started throwing rocks at them. This would have been the perfect beginning of a horror movie. Another big surprise came at the next snack stop. This is the middle of nowhere in the jungle. There is nothing but a bunch of wooden shacks. The road is not accessible for cars or even the motorbikes that were driving the first bit of the trail. This is only foot and mule area, but somehow there was a newish flat screen TV showing live footage of a Champions League game. Weird. In order to get to our camp today we need to cross a river without a bridge. Cold! At camp we finally notice how many people are doing this trail. I think there’s about three groups our size. Talking about groups our size: we get another two people to join us. From the group the day before us 9 out of 12 people got sick and spend the whole night on/over the toilet. Two of them were too sick to continue the trip today so they will join us tomorrow. Also of course it’s time for another swim. It is clear however that the higher we get the colder the water is. But it’s better and more fun than the stinky and equally freezing shower.
I guess people do get sick here. Our group is fine but large parts of the other groups spend the whole night on toilet time. We get up at 5, it’s still dark and only just getting light when we head towards the lost city. We have to cross another river and then it’s time for the infamous 1200 steps leading through the thick jungle to the city. The city is so much bigger than I thought. It’s mostly large stone circles and stairs. The reason that only stone circles remain of the city is because the houses themselves were made of wood and only the foundations where made out of stone. The city itself was actually already abandoned before the Spanish came. The indigenous people would like to move back here, but the government doesn’t let them claiming it’s a monument. On the other hand the indigenous people won’t let any archaeologists in anymore because they keep wanting to dig in what are holy sites for the indigenous people. An interesting and complicated standoff. To make matters more interesting there used to be a huge rebel presence in the area resulting in the kidnapping of 8 tourists in 2005. Because of that there is now a lot of military around the site. Also now we find out that our guide was actually here helping the archaeologists when the city was rediscovered. He points us at some spots (including a prison) that he had found. After we get to meet the shaman and his family (the only indigenous people that are allowed to live within the city), we start heading down the 1200 steps back to our camp from last night. This time we’ll only have lunch here and continue to yesterdays lunch camp to sleep. At camp we obviously go for another swim. We head upstream and with some complicated manoevres we manage to get past some waterfalls and make our own canyoning parcours. A day at the river wouldn’t be complete if we did not also try to build a dam too. Check! During dinner it starts pouring tropical rains so it’s time for good stories by candle light. Turns out our guide actually helped the military during the 100 days the tourists were kidnapped because he knows the area and the locals really well. Good stories guaranteed. Another story was about all the ghosts and witches that inhabited the camps. After naming quite a few the last one was called something diarrhea and was supposed to live at the last camp. Our guide just keeps getting better and better.
The last day is another good one we get up at 5 and need to be at the beginning of the trail by lunch. The creepy girl does not show up this time but at the TV spot we do play some football with an indigenous kid and our guide. Playing with hiking boots on top of a mountain isn’t easy. (Actually I’m only goalie for some 5 minutes). At one of the stops we meet the new groups going up. Turns out going during carnaval weekend was a good choice. It looks like at least three times the people are going up now. Way too busy. After lunch and a victory beer at Machete we head back by jeep to Santa Marta where I pick up my van and head back to my spot in Taganga. A car with a German couple pulls up next to me. They tell a story about how their stuff got stolen out of their car at this spot in Taganga a few weeks ago. That story sounds familiar to me, I’ve heard that one before. Turns that they shipped with Mike and Lyndsay a few weeks ago. The overlanding world is so small.
After the four days of hiking I deserved some lazy time on the beach. The Tayrona National Park next to Taganga is supposed to have the prettiest beaches in Colombia. However, entrance is pretty expensive and because it was closed for two or three months it might be quite busy. But first an interesting shopping experience. I drive up to a mall to stock up on food and cash. There are at least eight ATMs in the mall but all of them have a queue of at least 10 people standing there. Maybe it’s paycheck day? After I finally get my cash I go for groceries. When I’m in the queue to pay I notice there are chairs in the queue for people to sit down. Bad sign! I end up standing in the queue for more than 1.5 hours! It’s not that I picked the wrong queue. None of them were moving. I guess after carnaval everyone had run out of food and money? Well off to Tayrona NP. Or maybe not. More queues. So it is really busy there too. Luckily there is another campsite next to it at Playa Los Angeles. Same beaches, no entrance fee, way less people. There are two big RVs there with German plates and after a quick chat I found out Renzo and Mary left this spot today. (Did I mention yet that the overlander world is small?). I spend three nights on this beautiful camp under the coconut palms on the beach. I go for some short walks and enjoy the nice weather. However the weather slowly starts turning bad with more and more wind and rain. Also the currents and the waves to too strong to go further than knee deep in the water. I guess this is a good time to say farewell to the Caribbean after visiting it in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama. Now it is time to head south and head into the mountains.