On a Saturday evening last August my other half and I and left the Upper East Side of Manhattan in a taxi bound for JFK. Excitement and apprehension were in the air as we were eager to leave, but about to commend our kids to my mother in law for a week. We had, and have not since, been away for so long from our children. After arriving, we were informed that we were extremely early. Stuck in the purgatory of the waiting area outside the terminal, we polished off of dinner in a nondescript diner, eagerly biding our time. After a period of time, we passed through security and boarded our red-eye to Santa Marta by way of Bogota.
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Having gathered a little bit of sleep on the plane, we were in Santa Marta, and it was a glorious radiant morning. Into a taxi bound for Hotel Tayromar we went. After a drive through this unfamiliar country and a conversation utilizing my rusty Spanish, we arrived. With the day free and our bags stowed at the hotel, fighting the need for sleep, we took to the streets. Cafe Ikaro was adjacent, thus it was the next logical stop for coffee and a bite to eat. We snapped some excellent photos following an afternoon rainstorm.
When we roused from an early evening nap, a steak and ceviche dinner followed. We had introductions and some time to get familiar with the group who would enter our lives for the next five days. After conversing with our guides and fellow travelers, we turned in, prepared for the journey ahead.
Day 1 - Santa Marta to Wiwa Camp
At dawn our group hopped into two all wheel drive vehicles. The beginning of a one and a half hour winding ride up into the foothills of la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Breakfast was served in a village by the name of Machete Pelao. One of our guides explained the namesake, people there invariably had to maintain a machete at the ready. The substantial food and better hospitality after the Colombian fashion set us up for a good day of walking.
Once breakfast had settled drove a bit further, lurching to a halt at the trail-head. The pavement ended. The dust from our rides driving away cemented the finality of the fact that we would devote the next five days to being afoot. The beginning of the day was invested walking on a dirt road that was mixed use, though the lone vehicles we observed were motorcycles. The road wound up farther into the mountains, through cattle pasture and coffee fields that had until perhaps a decade ago been under cultivation for cocaine and cannabis. The conversion to coffee, cattle and tourism represented a turn for the better. During the midday heat we stopped to have a break at a roadside refreshment stand and I observed the first local arachnid of the trip.
Our path continued, traversing a few more miles in the sweltering heat of the exposed pasture. The relief was palpable when we reached the border of Wiwa and Kogi lands. This zone was under permacultural cultivation and the forest canopy was in tact. The perceived and effective temperature of the August sun in Colombia was much reduced. We started to pass creeks, rivers and springs unused for intensive agriculture. Our indigenous guide drank directly from the springs. Though our minds still felt a need to pass the water through chemical and mechanical purification, perhaps out of fear of the unknown. We included a few stops along the way to consume succulent fruits, which aided me immensely.
Towards the waning of the day, we began passing by Kogi settlements. Most of the tribe still lives in the traditional fashion. It was explained to us that the elect and the Mamos are the solitary ones burdened by interacting with the external world. Utilizing unnatural or composite materials to deliver opportunity to the community and export their ideas. We got a glimpse into a reflection what life in precolonial Colombia might have been like. At this point there were no more motorcycles or cars, all transit was powered by human or mule.
Some time later once the hinterlands of dusk were playing upon the sky, we struck Wiwa camp, our home for the night. There was a natural pool in the Buritaca River nearby, and we all experienced a much needed dip in the cool mountain waters. Once we had devoured a hearty dinner prepared by our trail chef discovered stories and myths regaled by our Wiwa guide and translated to us in English by our jovial Colombian guide. After listening to the tales and enjoying a cold beer, it was time to retire. At Wiwa Camp beds and hammocks were provided. However, my wife and had brought our own two person hammock, that would prove a sensible choice. We suspended it and slept like the dead.
Day 2 - Wiwa Camp to Paraiso
The morning arrived with stiffness present. We had mistakenly packed more then needed, being used to unsupported hikes. We shook down our packs and took down our shelter. We took the opportunity to drop off many bits of unneeded gear in a lockup at this camp, to come back for it in a few days. Feeling heartened by a lighter load and a solid breakfast we embraced the day.
There was an optional trip to a nearby waterfall which a subset of the group, us included, partook of. We all swam, which at least for me helped soothe the ache of my neophyte trail legs. Then our guide suggested standing under the waterfall, which I withstood the fury of, a backcountry massage. After some relaxation we left to reunite with the remnant who had remained at camp and resume our journey. On the way out we had the privilege of observing a traditional greeting ritual.
After that we hit the trail for a shorter day by mileage, but a harder one in terms of elevation change and terrain. After some time following the river, we had an opportunity to take a swim. The next leg of the journey was described to the group as two hours up, one hour down and two hours up. Given that, we all decided to stop and swim. Afterwards we resumed our journey and went uphill. Then we kept going uphill.
Once we got to the top of the first mountain, a few hours later, we stopped for some delicious Colombian green oranges and a rest. Once we were all sufficiently recovered our traversal of the Sierra resumed in earnest. Passing, and almost being run over by mules was constant enjoyment. We pushed to Teyuna Paraiso Camp and arrived in early afternoon, beating a rainstorm by a few minutes. After this small blessing we ate lunch, some of us swam again or soaked sore feet in the ever-colder Buritaca.
I had lugged a deck of cards against humanity all the way through the jungle. It was a boon as it kept us busy when we were under the roof, dodging the foul weather. Playing with the locals and people from all around the world was extremely interesting, if a strain for our bilingual guide, who translated it all. After the game we had a scrumptious dinner prepared by our awesome camp chefs, once again.
Our Wiwa guide explained more about his culture and the ritual items such as the porporo, bag and coca leaves. He told us various stories of the Wiwa verbal tradition. Then our Colombian guide told us more about the contemporary history and rediscovery of Teyuna by looters in the nineteen seventies. Apparently the looters had seen the error of their ways and some of them are now involved in running the treks. After enjoying some peaceful time, we all turned in - ready to see the Lost City.
Day 3 - The Lost City
At about four o’clock, before the sun had even thought of rising, we awoke. Our culinary companions miraculously had breakfast served by four thirty. Afterwards, we hurriedly stowed our packs and departed for the Lost City, carrying only water bottles. Leaving so early made us the first group out of camp and the first to arrive at Ciudad Perdida. The sun was rising by the time we reached the crossing of the Buritaca.
The stairs were rediscovered quite by accident. You could pass by them on the riverbank without knowing they were there. Even now the are shrouded in the deep green of the forest. We crossed the swiftly flowing river on the upstream side of a rope to prevent us from taking an unwanted ride downstream. After getting shoes back on wet feet, we started to climb. All the way up one thousand two hundred steps, made with narrow stones twelve centuries ago.
When we reached the top, we made an offering of coca leaves to the ancestors guarding the city. Then, our guides told us all about the various features of the main axis, which is the central excavated portion. Foolishly I did not take notes or make journal entries, and my memories three quarters of a year later are wanting. One sharp thing in my memory is the map of all the waterways and trails in the Sierra, carved centuries ago. The fact that most of these sites and trails are so remote is intriguing. It seems likely to me that there is still much to be discovered about the precolonial civilization in la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
After climbing a few hundred more steps, those of us with the energy climbed another set, and then another. From the rarefied heights we had a birds eye view of a mostly empty main axis. The scale is not done justice by the pictures. What is pictured here is perhaps five percent of the entire settlement. That settlement further extends under the jungle not as of yet excavated in all directions.
This was where the nobility and priesthood lived for centuries, a city that would fill with peasantry from the countryside during rituals. Each generation building on the houses of the previous. All of the rings are foundations of these multi-generational houses and ceremonial buildings. The wood bodies of which are long since gone. Ever September the whole city still closes for these rituals. Our guide morbidly hinted that they used to involve human sacrifice.
After the main axis we made wishes on a ceremonial stone that had been there for ten or more centuries. Our group had the unique chance to see a newly uncovered area. A part of the city where craftspeople would produce refined goods. Some of the stone tooling was still present. This was where all the metallurgy that had attracted the treasure hunters in the seventies took place.
We walked by the home of the Mamo, who is caretaker of the city. Passing through his gardens provided an image of what the houses on top of those foundations might have once looked like. Then it was time for the long climb down the steep and narrow stairway. Once down the stairway, after stopping at Paraiso to pick up our bags and eat, it was time for the long walk back to Wiwa Camp.
On the way back to Wiwa Camp there was a torrential downpour. The mountains turned into mudslides and the rivers swelled up like angry serpents. We were in a race against the weather. Sometimes it felt like the rivers would sweep you away during a crossing. Luckily we all made it in without any injury. Dinner and more stories about the locale and indigenous beliefs ensued. Then we went to sleep for what must have been a solid twelve hours.
Day 4 - Wiwa Camp to Vista Hermosa
We left Wiwa Camp after a hearty breakfast and retraced our path back along the way we had come in day prior. Although the day was balmy, it is amazing how much I, at least, had adapted to the heat. The vistas were as stunning as they were on the way out. I enjoyed the way back more as I had my trail legs and was able to expend that surplus energy in admiration of the scenery. The trail was shepherding us back towards the outside world.
We stopped for a fruit break at Adán Camp. There were artifacts there that had been looted from the Lost City when it was initially discovered. This was fascinating to see, but definitely highlighted the exploitation which had occurred there. After eating and catching our wind, some of us stopped to swim. The rest of us continued uphill to Ricardito Camp.
On the trip up the hill, we encountered the first motorcycles and telephone signal in days. We were coming back to the world, and I was not completely certain that was something I desired. When we arrived, we enjoyed another fantastic lunch. Then we enjoyed an afternoon of sitting around and relaxing. That was something I was certainly ready for.
Once we had decompressed and bathed in the views, yet another extraordinary dinner came and went. Then, for the first time on the trip, we had a campfire. We sat around the fire and talked about the Wiwa creation myths. Later on we sang songs in native tongues, Spanish and English, reflecting on the journey so far. Slowly members of the group drifted off and then we turned in, ready for the final day of walking yet to come.
Day 5 - Vista Hermosa to Gotsezhi Village
From Ricardito Camp we had a unique opportunity to visit Gotsezhi Village, which in an indigenous Wiwa community. Walking through the pastures on our way there we were out in the open under the tropical sun. Luckily we had an early start and reached our destination before the heat of the day. When we arrived at Gotsezhi Village we had the opportunity to enjoy more traditional cuisine prepared by the Wiwa people and shop for goods produced locally by the Wiwa.
Once we took that in and took another swim in another gorgeous swimming hole, it was time to return to Santa Marta. We all boarded our 4x4 livery for a two hour ride. The roads were some of the roughest I have ever been on. Unexpectedly the air conditioning in the vehicles felt unbearably cold. It is amazing how the body changes after adjusting to sleeping under the stars in the tropical heat for a week.
On return to Santa Marta, we all had some time to settle in, then went out on the town for a final dinner. The dinner was at a local restaurant and we were treated to the famous Colombian hospitality. Afterwards, a subset of the group went out dancing to experience the Santa Marta nightlife, us included. This was our last night in Colombia, and so there was reason to resist the strong urge to sleep.
The next morning, being just two again, we bid farewell to the hotel and went out for breakfast at a cafe. Then we hopped in a taxi, feeling nostalgic for our time in the jungle and headed back to our own concrete jungle.