Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Lost City

I find that I typically don't like to spend much time describing the historical significance of places we visit or break down our day-to-day activities in too much detail. My feeling is that superior descriptions to what I am capable or willing to provide are available elsewhere on the internet and that the pictures and captions we post hopefully help tell the story. That said, our latest adventure was a little more off the beaten path and unlike anything we have done previously, so I hope you'll indulge me with this Coles Notes version of the trek and a slightly longer post than usual.


Ciudad Perdida (literally translated - The Lost City) is an archaeological site in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia that was founded by the Tayrona indigenous people as a town and spiritual center around 800 A.D. The Tayronas were wiped out during the Spanish conquest and the City was forgotten until rediscovered in the early 1970s by grave robbers. The return trek to the site is typically organized as a six-day adventure through the jungle, with the highlight being the 1200-step climb to the ancient center, but we got on with a group that did the trip in five days. On the trek, you sleep in mosquito-netted hammocks, constantly cross rivers and streams and pass by more waterfalls and things of striking beauty than your mind seems to register. The words "clean" and "dry" exist only in sentences beginning with "I wish I was....", and the heat, humidity and insect life is off the charts. Finally, everything is slippery and I would say there is a realistic chance you could fall and break a bone almost any moment you stop paying attention, but probably only a handful of times when you are in danger of doing something much worse.

Perhaps with time and perspective I will be to figure it out for myself, but the trek was likely one of two things:
  1. A shining example of the indomitable spirit of humankind, willing itself to overcome the elements to gain further knowledge in respect of a fascinating cultural legacy, culminating in a visit to a priceless archaeological site; or
  2. A clever ruse by an organized network of mosquitoes to chase unsuspecting tourists up hills and further into the jungle, culminating in a retreat to a priceless archaeological site where 85% of their population lies in wait for an incredible blood feast.

I'd like to think that the trek was the former, as the I don't like the thought that we were bested by a bunch of insects. I'd also like to think that our group willingly traded several litres of blood to the mosquitoes for the privilege of exploring their city and not that those little bastards stole it from us.

To appreciate our experience, you probably need to have some understanding of the people involved. Our group included a German couple, a French woman, two Irish girls, two London girls, one Spanish lady, one Colombian girl, one Slovakian girl, our guide, our cook and ourselves. Everybody was really nice, but we tended to gravitate most towards the German couple (who are our age, just quit their jobs to embark on a one-year sojourn, and are currently doing a six-month South American portion with starting and ending dates almost identical to our own) and the French woman. She was a Parisian executive with Louis Vuitton. In addition to having a personality that we very much enjoyed, it was interesting and novel to listen to her stories about the fashion industry. She was also memorable for the moment that completely made the trip worthwhile for Kristin .... when she asked Kristin if she had ever been scouted as a model before. (Aside number 1 - This was also the moment when I realized that thing keeping us from that his and her modelling contract we have been seeking very well may be "him".)

The readiness for the trek varied greatly within the group. Kristin and I prepared like we were going to war. We thought long and hard about every item we brought (and on the trip were asked to share our bandages, toilet paper, water purification tablets and Swiss-Army knife by people who didn't bring as much) and had readied ourselves mentally to "endure". We even spent time speculating about whether the benefits of having just hiked at altitude would more than offset the difficulty we would face hiking in the tropical conditions closer to sea level (in my mind, the trade off was a net loss). In sharp contrast to our level of preparedness, I was shocked when an hour into the trek one of the London girls stated that this was her first hike ever. I was less shocked when she developed truly horrific blisters hiking in her fabric Converse sneakers. I would be immensely shocked if she ever hiked again.

Because of what we had read and because of the horrors we were expecting, we found the trek to be extremely challenging at times but much less unpleasant than anticipated. I think the trek could be completed by any physically-fit person who is willing to deal with a healthy amount of "grossness", as Kristin calls it. Everyone in our group finished in one piece, though a couple of the people in the group had had enough and hired horses to walk them out on the last, gruelling day. (Aside number 2 - On this trek and after some of the exhausting climbs, I truly began to appreciate how satisfying Kristin finds the actual punishing physical activity itself. In contrast, I don't enjoy wondering if I am going to die while I exercise, but do rather enjoy the feeling of having completed something fairly intense and then pretending afterwards that it was no big deal when debriefing others.)

While the tour itself was an unbelievably rewarding experience, both Kristin and I had a host of concerns about the tour company and its service. I don't think there is much benefit in discussing them in any great detail here, but it was my feeling that the trip was organized and carried out in a way that detracted from the overall experience and made the trip much more dangerous than was necessary. Also, the information we were provided in the booking process proved largely to be a series of half-truths and lies, the most disturbing of which was when we were casually told that a mudslide had wiped away the camp we were going to spend the third night at a "couple of weeks ago" and that things were now safe. The truth turned out to be that the mudslide was just six days before our trek began, the last of the tourists had been helicoptered out by the military just four days before our trek began and, judging from the reaction of some of the guides on the trek, it was clear that certain of the areas where we walked and slept were not particularly safe given the rainfall in the previous days and weeks. The upside to the mudslide is that since there was nowhere for us to sleep near The Lost City, we were provided with the opportunity to spend the night in The Lost City itself, which is normally forbidden by the modern-day descendants of the Tayronas. (Aside number 3 - It seems that every time I travel, some sort of record is set. We understand that that this is the wettest "dry season" on record in Colombia (hence the mudslide); when I travelled to Europe for the first time, in 2003, it was the hottest summer in a 57-year period; and when we went to Italy last year, Kristin set the all-time record for the most consecutive days where a person consumed a pizza and at least one litre of wine...)

My Ciudad Perdida experience by the numbers:

Red jungle wasp stings: 1
Mystery jungle face rashes: 1
Lost toenails: 0.5 (a tragic toe-stubbing accident while playing cards one afternoon)
Momentary lapses in concentration leading to falls: 2
Number of bug bites (mosquito and sandfly inclusive): 20'ish, with Kristin checking in at around 40'ish
Number of times I feared for my life: 1200 (one for each of the steps I had to descend from The Lost City - the Tayronas clearly did not have size 12 feet)
Blisters: Zero (Surprisingly)
Louis Vuitton Modelling Offers: Zero (Unsurprisingly)

The pictures from The Lost City are here.

7 comments:

  1. Kev,

    You state that "The Tayronas were wiped out during the Spanish conquest" and also that "we were provided with the opportunity to spend the night in The Lost City itself, which is normally forbidden by the modern-day descendants of the Tayronas." If they were wiped out, how could they have descendants?

    I guess my real question is, was it the tour group lying to you again or is the truth that this whole "trip" is an elaborate ruse and you're really just living as hermits in Kristin's parents' basement for 6 months and photoshopping yourselves into stock photos of Colombia? I'm onto you.

    Keep the posts coming.

    - Jim

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  2. Jim, thanks for your comment. Rest assured that as soon I figure out how to block IP addresses, I will be using you as a test case. People like you are probably another reason I shouldn't try to add any facts to my posts.

    To answer your question, it was explained to us that the Kogui indigenous people that still inhabit the region are descendants of the Tayrona people. The Tayronas flourished at the time of the conquests but were largely killed off by the Spanish, and those that were not had their homes burned or were forced to abandon them. In the sense that they completely lost their culture and way of life and were forced to be integrated into the Spanish order, you could say they were wiped out. Apparently, some of the Tayronas fled into the jungle to hide and the resulting communities are no longer considered to be Tayrona, but they enjoy certain rights and play a supervisory role in the area.

    Lastly, you know me well enough to know that I would never be able to figure out how to photoshop anything with any degree of sophistication. That, and I can assure you that the sounds my stomach is making today could only occur in South America.

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  3. What an amazing adventure! You are both very brave....I hate bugs...and I think my Kevin hates them even more.

    Just a quick comment on the last few pictures... broad spectrum antibiotics! Ahhh, it looks like those blisters/bites would never heal! Something to be said for a cold, dry climate!

    Keep posting and stay safe!

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  4. Thanks, Renee, but now you have Kristin worried that the 30 or so bites she has on her legs will never heal. I told her she could just grow her leg hair really long and nobody would be able to tell, but I don't think that made her feel any better.

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  5. Rest assured Kritin,the jungle has many plants with medicinal properties (so Discovery channel says anyhow...)

    Nothing to worry about, just words from a jealous RN on night shift...

    ReplyDelete
  6. You might be less jealous if you saw my sunburn. Ask your Kevin about the time he rubbed baby oil all over his pastey body in high school and then went and lay in the sun. I'm sort of that colour.

    ReplyDelete
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    ReplyDelete