Sunday, 17 July 2011

There Will Be Mud: Ciudad Perdida Trek

Having completed the Inca Trail less than two weeks previously, Stu and I decided we were suckers for punishment and signed ourselves up for an epic five-day jungle trek to the Ciudad Perdida (´Lost City´) deep in the Sierra Nevada (tropical Colombian foresty mountains). We signed up with Expotur in Taganga, who were excellent. When we initially signed up we were told we would be in a small group of seven people (including our friend Richie who we met in Cartagena), but by the morning of the trip this had expanded drastically to 18 people! At first we had our reservations about this, but it turned out to be no problem at all since the whole group got on brilliantly and the fantastic people on the trek with us elevated the experience from a memorable trek to one of the most fun things we´ve done on our entire trip!

Day 1

We started on South American Time (i.e. waiting around while everyone faffed about for ages) before 10 trekkers, 2 guides and a driver were crammed into a jeep and driven for a hot and sweaty couple of hours down an increasingly bumpy road to the start of the trek. We arrived to meet the second van-load of our group in the village that would be our starting point, and got to know each other over a lunch of sandwiches. Richie had kindly lent us a backpack (we otherwise only had one between us), so we set off with our backpacks lightly packed for ease of trekking, our walking sticks from the Inca Trail, and some wet shoes for river crossings which turned out to be incredibly useful.

Not ten minutes had passed before we reached our first river crossing and changed out of our hiking boots and into our wet shoes. It is so hot out here that wading through the rivers is a refreshing treat, but it was about to get a whole lot wetter: about 15 minutes into the trek the skies opened and it bucketed down with rain! Heavy, hot, tropical rain that soaked us to the skin in seconds. We shrouded our backpacks in plastic bags and stayed in our wet shoes, continuing on through the jungle while taking a compulsory open-air shower. I actually really began to appreciate how cooling the rain was when the sun came out again and baked us!

It was uphill for ages on the first day, on a path that ranged from a neat country trail to a red mudslide, and went through sections of jungle and up onto hilltops with beautiful views of the countryside. We had stop for watermelon slices and coffee, which made all the difference.

A tidy-looking path at the start of the trek:

The view:
The mud:

We arrived at camp around 5pm, and I was impressed by how good it was. We were sleeping in hammocks that were covered by mosquito nets, and the camp was sheltered by a roof so we wouldn´t be soaked by the regular tropical rains. The camp also had showers (the luxury!) and big wood burning stoves for our dinner. (I hung my soaking wet, folorn-looking shorts over the stove overnight in the hope of drying them, but we quickly discovered that nothing really dries in the humidity of the jungle. Better to grow accustomed to the constant damp instead.) We were fed really well on the trek too, with big plates of rice and veg, and even soy meat for me and the other veggie in the group! We spent the evening trying (unsuccessfully) to dodge mosquitoes, while playing the card game ´spoons´. I slept surprisingly well in the hammock, too.

Our hammocks:
Day 2

The second day was the easiest one of all. We got up around 7am to coffee/hot chocolate and a delicious breakfast of granola, fruit and yoghurt (very rare in South America), before doing a reasonably easy two and half hours walking to the next camp.

Filling up a water bottle from a waterfall:

Some noisy wildlife:

The two of us on fine trekking form (note the long socks pulled up to provide a little extra protection against the mosquitoes - they love to bite your ankles!):

The weather was much sunnier too, although after the first day we were deeper in the shady jungle so it wasn´t too baking hot. Nevertheless, we were all pretty sweaty by the time we arrived at camp, so we all headed down to the river to jump in for a swim - lovely! There was a 7-8 metre rock jump into the deep river, and a tough swim against the current to get back across - a very refreshing start to a relaxing afternoon in the jungle.

After lunch, we took a walk to a nearby Kogui village, which was really interesting. The Koguis are one of the tribes of people indigenous to northern Colombia, and they are the most traditional of these communities. They still speak their own language (although many speak Spanish as well), and they live in traditional round thatched huts and wear white. (Our campsite was run by a different indigenous people, the Arsarios, and they made us feel very welcome.)

Kogui homes:
Some Kogui boys we met at the village:

In the evening of Day 2, Stu and I taught everyone a card game we had learned during our Bolivian salt flats trip: ´Werewolf´. It´s something of a murder mystery game, and it became an ongoing theme of the trip, with many games played each night!

Day 3

More rain. Lots of rain. We were supposed to be up at 5am but the rain delayed our start so the guides let us sleep till 6am! Nevertheless we set off quickly so that we would make it across all the rivers before they got too swollen with the rain. The first big river didn´t actually require wading since there was a lift contraption set up to carry us across the valley. The lift hung from ropes and was pulled across the drop by guides at either end. Everything went smoothly until my turn came, when the rope jammed in the pulley and I was momentarily stuck, suspended over the raging river below! Luckily I didn´t have time to get worried, as with a jolt (which nearly sent me flying out the back) the rope was freed and I made it to the other side.

Trekking in the rain:

Stu crossing the river in the rickety lift contraption:

Me with our excellent guide/translator Carlos, with an enormous bamboo thicket behind us:

There was a lot of uphill walking on the third day, but our spirits were kept up with regular stops for snacks of pineapple, bananas and sugar cane. We emerged out of the jungle onto this big open hilltop, with great views and a very friendly horse which ate all our banana skins:

On the final part of our ascent to the campsite, we had to wade through a waist-deep river against a really strong current - we had to hold hands in a long line to keep everyone upright, and inch our way slowly from one side to the other. Felt very intrepid, although totally soaked!

Arrival at the third campsite:

There was only one shower at this campsite, so Stu took advantage of the downpour and showered in the rain! Rather predictably, the rain calmed down a lot just after he´d got fully covered in shampoo, so he had to stand under the dripping corners of buildings for ages to get washed off.

Our treat for the third night was that Stu and I got a comfy tent to sleep in instead of hammocks, and I was very glad of that because it was really cold that night and I hadn´t counted on it being cold so I didn´t bring warm clothes! Rooky error. Nevertheless we had another fun evening in the campsite playing ´Werewolf´and building houses of cards with ´Agua´ (´Water´), a seven-year-old local boy who was very sweet.

Some friendly locals at the third campsite, during a break in the rain:

Day 4:

This was the big one: finally, we got to the lost city. We were up early, had a hot drink and headed straight to the Ciudad Perdida. It was about an hour away from the camp - half an hour through jungle and across a river, then another half an hour up some ancient, mossy stone steps the first of the city´s many terraces.

Another river crossing:
The steep climb up the stone steps to the lost city:

The steps were really small for us - I think because the people who built the city were so much smaller than we are. So it was 1200 little steps up and up through the forest until we emerged into a clearing decorated with several stone circles that were apparently the locations of houses. This first clearing was once the city´s market, centuries ago.

Made it!:
In the clearing our excellent guide Archie and translator Carlos gave us an interesting history of the city. It is believed to date back to 800AD (making it over six centuries older than Machu Picchu), and the local indigenous communities call it´Teyuna´. It was originally inhabited by the Tairona people, who were the ancestors of today´s indigenous tribes. The city was never really ´lost´to the local peoples who have alway lived deep in the jungle here, but it was more widely discovered in 1972 after treasure hunters found the stone steps which led to the abandoned city (it was apparently abandoned during the Spanish conquest). The local tribes still hold a festival in the city every year.

The city consists of a network of circular terraces and plazas, joined by stone staircases. It was really amazing to wander through it, you never really got a sense of the scale of the city because each terrace was obscured from the next by the thick jungle. Staircases go off in lots of directions and it would be easy to get lost there! It was also mosquito-central: I had never seen so many enormous mossies in my life, and you couldn´t stand still for long without being totally devoured by them! As we were given the history of the place, we must have looked like a group of crazies, all swatting around at the air and smacking ourselves to get rid of them!

One of the many mossy stone staircases leading through the jungle to the cleared terraces that made up this jungle city:

Staircase leading up to one of the terraces:

View from one of the upper terraces:

Stu had enough of the staircases...:

The site has some slightly scary stories in its past. In 2003, a group of tourists was kidnapped from there and held for three months, although they were released unharmed eventually. There have also been fights between looters and police, which resulted in some deaths. However, security has been increased and army soldiers now guard the city so it is safe for tourists again. We met the soldiers who were happy to chat with us about their experiences there - they are posted to the Ciudad Perdida for 5 months at a time!

The soldiers guarding the site, who were both very friendly and very heavily armed:

After a few hours exploring this amazing place, we headed back down the steps to camp for a delicious lunch of hot lentil soup and fried arepas, as we still had a lot of walking to do: all the way back to the campsite we stayed in on Day 2! It was a long walk, and very slippery to go downhill in all that mud - lots of people fell over at various points. But we were all so pleased to have reached our goal that spirits were high as we spent our last night in hammocks.

Day 5

Our final day meant walking from Day 2´s campsite all the way back to the start of the trek: that´s the first two days walking in reverse, in one day. It was much easier of course going downhill (with exhausted legs on the final day I couldn´t imagine the insanity of walking up the steep slopes that we had managed on the first day). We were up at 5am to start walking at 6am, so that we could make it back to the start in time for lunch. One of the guys in our group hilariously managed to bargain with a local to get a ride back on a mule, which unfortunately gave Stu a minor allergic reaction. A quick break and a couple of antihistamines later, we caught up with the group in time for a well-earned stop at a natural swimming hole - bliss! :

Our victory lunch back at the start point included a few bottles of bubbly provided by the tour to celebrate! I felt elated to have made it back, happy to have had such a good time with such good people, relieved that I would sleep in a proper bed again at last, and sad that the trip was over. I also said goodbye to my walking boots, which had seen me through about eight years but were well and truly finished off by this trek!

After a bumpy ride back to Taganga, we had the most amazing showers and naps EVER. But we made sure to get up to meet all our group (including our guide Carlos) for dinner at our hostel. A few Colombian rums later and we headed out to a bar/club on the beach which had an open-air dancefloor balcony with amazing views across the bay. Despite aching limbs, we danced the night away before collapsing back at the hostel after one of the best experiences of the year.

The morning after, Stu in a hammock in our lovely hostel, writing the dates of this second trek on our Inca Trail walking sticks:


  1. It all sounds utterly wonderful. Really, superb days. Can you bring me back some fried arepas, by the way? love love love, Dad X

  2. Hey Ania and Stu! I stumbled across your blog while searching for information about the Ciudad Perdida trek.. I am in Santa Marta now and likely doing it the week after next!

    Anyway, I wonder if I could ask you about the cool map you have up there. I am trying to make my own and can't figure out for the life of me where/how to get it up on my own blog (technicoloryarn.blogspot.com). Any advice??

    Best wishes..


  3. Hi Karen, so sorry for the huuuuge delay in replying to your comment. We have selected to moderate comments since having some spam appear on the blog and blogger is supposed to notify us by email when someone writes something genuine like yourself! I will try to fix this.

    Did you trek the Ciudad Perdida? I hope you enjoyed it, it was one of the highlights of our whole trip.

    As for our map, we found it on a website called Blogabond (the link is in the bottom left of the map at the top of our blog). It's really good. You just copy in a piece of html coding and fill in where you went and when. It updates automatically. Good luck and happy travels!