Ciudad Perdida: Amazing jungle trek to the lost city

The first time I heard of the lost city trek was from Rory – part of the Everest summit team in May. He had lived in South America for some time when he was still a professional poker player. In Colombia itself most hikers won’t miss that trek. While that made me somewhat suspicious, the trip delivered with great (and advanced) hiking, good group spirit and a rewarding lost city experience.

I booked the trek in my Santa Marta hostel (Masaya – recommended). A little research suggested that while there are 6 companies or so offering the tour, they have all the same itinerary and charge exactly the same (COP850,000). Doing it unguided isn’t really an option given required transport to the trailhead (needs off-road jeep and knowledge as to where), no good camping/tent options and difficulties getting food as each hiking team brings their own food & chef. I did it with expotour.

A little background

The city was built between the eighth and the fourteenth centuries by the Tayrona Indians. Nowadays only circular stone terraces covered by jungle remain, but the views and the location of the site are extraordinary. A local name for Ciudad Perdida/Lost City is Teyuna.  

Tayrona Indians: When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, tension mounted over many years until confrontations between the Spanish and the Tayrona forced the natives to move their settlements higher into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This move saved them from both the system of rule the Spanish brought to the region and from an unseen killer, disease. Today the descendants of the Tayrona go by the names of the Wiwa, the Arhuacos, the Cancuamo and the Kogi.

See here & here for more.

4 day return hike (~46km) – not for beginners

We left the tour office in Santa Marta around 10am crammed into two jeeps. I travelled with two dutch girls (one jusgt completed the NY marathon, one a Spanish ace), a swede (Johan), joe (uk) and a couple from Alabama (news of dangerous animals such as snakes, but also great beaches were new to me). The journey was meant to take 2,5h would It not have been for an accident induced hold-up. Our driver basically took out a motorbike in a bend injuring both riders. Silly driving really. Then it got really busy as a large truck delivering a digger also arrived to remove some landslide that coverred the road on several occasions after heavy rain the night before. Once the police had arrived we got loaded on a new vehicle and continued. The last hour of driving through the jungle and by now in indigenous territory to the pueblo El Mamey was pretty rocky and with often a steep way down on our left (my window). But we made it without further delay or motion sickness. Time for lunch & more introductions.

Day 1: How wet is wet?

The short hike on the first day would take us some 3,5-4h and included ascending 500m. As luck had it, the so far hot day was not to last. As soon as we had crossed the first river the skies opened and we basically walked all the way in rain. It made some mud-fight and soggy shoes. But somehow it felt great and liberating. After key sections we got refreshments (watermelon – how fitting if I think about it now ;o) or had the opportunity to buy them (water, beer, snacks).

I ended up finishing the day with Markus & Eva from Germany (somewhere near Ulm). They are on their annual leave and we had much to talk about including useful tips on my Yukon plans (as Markus had been there). Key takeaways: a) take loads of whiskey & b) prepare yourself for war with the mosquitos. It felt like a victory when we reached camp after dark for a great dinner (fish on the menu).

Once we sorted equipment, it was time for entertainment. To my surprise, the monopoly deal game i brought along was an instant hit and we played until lights were switched off. Bedtime in the largest outdoor dorm I have come across – luxury alomost considering where we were.


What to take with you? 

  • Enough cash (beers go for 5-7,000 a piece)
  • Insect repellent (take a good one!)
  • Sun lotion
  • Snacks (not heavy and good between meals)
  • Short trousers
  • Two easy drying tops
  • Swim trunk/suit
  • Towel
  • Aqua pack (1.5-2l, ideally take some supplement tablets as you sweat a lot)
  • Head-torch
  • Hiking poles (really helps on the muddy trek)
  • Hiking boots & two pair of socks
  • Havajianas
  • Light jumper for evenings (in general you might appreciate long clothing for mosquitos)
  • Hat/baseball cap & buff (for the sweat)
  • Water for first day (purified water afterwards is ok)
  • Cards (monopoly deal was a hit!)
  • Wireless speaker (UE2 BOOM no less)
  • Battery pack (not essential as you can charge phone in the camps)
  • Dry bags for all your stuff
  • One book (max., I finally managed to finish ‘Born to Run’)
  • Sunglasses
  • Hygiene stuff (ideally biodegfradeable soap)
  • Basic meds (guides are ill prepared for issues and you are remote, ibuprofen / paracetamol at least)

Day 2: Learning about Tayrona Indian culture

The second day started with a 5am wake-up, 5.30am breakfast until we got going around 6.15am. Boots remained as wet as last night – which goes for any clothing. The humidity is so high that you are better off keeping it in a bucket of water overnight! Today we had some 200-300m altitude gain ahead of us until the final camp before reaching the lost city.

We passed indigenous villages (where kids traded sweets for pictures), learned about the indigenous culture. These Tayrona Indians live here completely self sustained. Impressive. Coka is an important part of their culture though only consumed by men in the form of leaves – not in the processed (white) version. In fact, locals chew the coka leavers together with powder/calcium from crushed seashells. The residue (spit?!) over time forms a  ever growing, white ring on the poporo. The men use it as a powerful mix that keeps away hunger and lets them walk on for a long time. Appearantly the shaman is also reading from it every 10y or so … what it says I don’t know ;o)

Weather wise we stayed dry all day, enjoyed a swim over lunch time and and generally felt much better about things with some stunning scenary and flora on the way. While the way was still mainly up, the group was pretty fast and maanged all distances well below guided time.

poporo.jpeg

A Poporo – the white bit wasn’t there when the Poporo was new

Day 3: Entering the lost city

We started early again. 4.30am we were up. Main reason was a pretty noisy columbian school class, which we wanted to front-run basically before they got to ciudad perdida. The hike up was pretty short (c1h), but very steep. Once up, we got a low down of the history. How it was used as sacred place (still, indigenous meet every September here), how tomb raiders went after the gold burried with past dead residents and how a farer family rediscivered the city.

The city itself turned out a lot larger than I had thought and we had it almost to ourselves early on. Great panoramic views made the journey here really worthwhile. The next two hours or so we spent venturing around the place. Me & Johan were in a particularly good mood and really took in the views. What a cool place! Memorable experience for sure.

The way down seemed even steeper and it was super humid. By the time we got back to camp we all appreciated a pre-lunch swim in the cold river. Add  bit of UE2 Boom music and a few aguila beers and you have a little party going right there.

The way to our overnight camp was in tendency down, but not straightline. Amazing jungle views all over and the weather remained kind. At the end waited another river to refresh in and relax as well as the final round of Monopoly deal (I won the company at least 3-4 buyers … should consider charging commission!).

On a more negative note, our chef had slipped in the lost city and dislocated his arm. The swelling was huge and his pain likeewise. Poor fella though good to note that he was better the day after.

Day 4: Home

The last day is a crisp 6h walk with a few stops with fruits and drinks. Again no rain, great vistas and the indigenous villages we saw on the way in. Everyone happy to have made it and after a well deserved lunch also ready to get back to civilisation (and mobile reception). Don’t miss that trek if you visit colombia. It’s really worth it.

Advertisements

Tracing Pablo Escobar & adios a Medellin!

And three weeks in this fantastic city are already over. One thing is sure – it was not enough time and I will be back! Hasta luego!

“Quien no conoce su historia esta condenado a repetirla”

“Who does not know his history is condemned to repeat it”

Banner in Pablo Escobar prison, Medellin

School got off to a late start after the Ayahuasca weekend. The last week at Toucan wasn’t all happy though. I got a little fed up with our group session (where things got repetitive after a teacher change) and some organisational issues at school.

img_9917-1

Vegan burger in Medellin … thanks to Uri i now know a bit more about that cuisine

However, the private lessons got me started on future and past tenses and seriously make talking easier. In the end I made to the bottom range of intermediary level and can express myself reasonably well. Understanding free-flowing Spanish remains a challenge. Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day either.

Outside school I managed to see a few more places in Medellin including Pueblito Paisa and some spots of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. And there were also a few goodbye’s from friends.

Pueblito Paisa, a reconstructed traditional village in the middle of the city, was great. It also offers good views over Medellin. The x-mas decoration that was put in place further served a timely reminder that i need to sort presents ;o) (weather here makes you forget that all too easy).

The Pablo Escobar trip, however, didn’t meet my expectations after it had been praised so much by friends (i booked the afternoon session with free tours). We basically saw his old apartment house in Medellin, his prison and his grave (alongside family). His big countryside finca was too far away and probably offers a bit more. Some stories were interesting such as Pablo inviting seemingly not loyal partners, kill them and feed them to their subordinates later on. Would have liked to see the picture of their faces when Pablo announced what they had just eaten – their bosses!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ancient medicine: Recollections of my Yage (Ayahuasca) retreat

What a surreal weekend lies behind me. Hard to put into words, but I give it a shot anyway in this blog. I had been thinking about joining a traditional retreat for some time. Curiosity and the healing power of ancient medicine attracted me. Already in Russia I spent quite some time reading up about Yage (or Ayahuasca), what it does, where it is available etc. During my search I came across ‘Camino al Sol‘, which offers bi-weekly, traditional retreats close to Medellin in a circle of the ‘karari’ people (a group of indigenous & white people honoring old & new traditions and gods of various origins). After a cross check (thank you Siddharta) I booked my session to find out for myself.

“Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity. ” (Hippocrates)

camino.jpg

group pic at 6am Sunday … can you spot me?

Preparation

In order to prepare body & soul as well as to respect tradition, participants should adhere to some rules for (at least) the week preceding the ceremony. This includes no alcohol, no meat, no drugs and no sex. I met all conditions by the time I arrived … some proving harder to adhere to than others. In the end, I already felt pretty good going there after one of my healthiest weeks in recent memory.

Day 1 – Friday

A bus picked us up from Poblado Park at 3pm (well, a bit later after waiting for all clients) to take us to the retreat near Santa Elena (45min transfer). Located at 2,640m it boasts a much chillier climate than Medellin (1,600m). Once arrived we all settled into the dorm rooms and then had a brief info session with the organiser. Our first night would involve a plant bath, fire ceremony and the Yage ceremony itself. First up though was a little introduction as to what we have to expect in the days (nights) ahead.

Plant bath

Its basically hot water where they have three plants simmering for a while. These are lemon grass (limoncillo in Spanish), basil (albahaca) and rue (ruda). You shower yourself slowly with the mix while thinking of the questions you want to ask the Yage remedy later. The mixture is meant to cleanse your body, protect and harmonise you.

Fire blessing

You take off your shirt and get some incense on your body, arms and neck as well as pants on the outside. Then fire in a bowl is used to bless your body.

Yage ceremony

The ceremony is held in a maloka (round hut with straw top) around a fire. The elder is in charge of the process. This time, we had an elder with his wife from the Cofan tribe visiting from Putumajo – 23h travel away. Before any Yage comes into play, men are given tobaco essence on the hand (‘ambil’, looks like sticky Marmite) and dried, crushed coca leaves to chew (‘mambe’). Women get tobacco and some corn base paste to lick (which wasn’t available that night, they don’t get coca leaves). We then moved to another tradition – the circle of words. Here often a topic is picked for discussion (love, tradition etc), but this time we discussed the native culture these people preserve. While listening & speaking, a cup with pineapple juice passes round for everyone to take a sip (or a few). Everytime when someone finishes speaking/singing it is greeted with a ‘hey’ by the audience.

Who participates

It was the whole community of c30 people. Less than 10 were foreigners giving the whole ceremony a very authentic feeling. Literally all age groups were present (and participated in drinking medicine) from 5y to say 65y. Amazing really. Some kids, like Christoph who at the age of 12y can solve the magic cube, have been given the medicine since birth (he will become shaman). Everyone is taking it regularly in this community.

My first experience

You receive your cup from the shaman. I estimate some 5cl of Yage. The first 10min nothing happened, then very quickly colours come and you begin to drift into another world. You see colours and shapes, hear sounds, gaze at the ever-changing fire in the middle of the room and I saw memories of old episodes of my life as far back as my childhood and more recent ones. Others even saw their ancestors many generations ago. I never let myself drift properly though, but by opening my eyes kind of came back to this world only to see the net clip played when i closed my eyes again.

lrg_dsc02066

tobacco essence

The whole trip was quite intense by now. At some stage I left for the toilet opposite the maloka under heavy rain. I felt a bit stuck there, as it seemed quite far to get back and i had little desire to maneuver around the little creeks that had formed by now. At this stage, the natural side effect of yage saw many people vomiting (purification process) and/or having diarrhea. I was fine as would be the case for the whole weekend.

After a while I was off to the hammock room to rest and see my visions in a more comfi position. There were voices everywhere in the room, loads of colourful visions yet also many clear thoughts about a range of issues in my past and future life. The mix of hot and cold I went through left me a bit uncomfortable and I was still fighting to drop too deep into my visions out of fear to see something negative (which you often face with ayahuasca and is part of the healing experience). Generally though, I felt in control.

I skipped/missed the 2nd round of drinking and only wandered over to the maloka for life music & singing in early hours of Saturday before sleeping a bit more. We finaly all laid down in our proper beds at 7.30am.

What is Yage/Ayahuasca? Ayahuasca is a brew from the Amazon that is traditional mixed of Chacruna (DMT) and Caapi (MAOI). Over time, people started experimenting with the ingredients and found that Mimosa (DMT) and Harmala (MAOI) is the most potent and smooth trip if used correctly. Used for over 5000 years by the shamans or healers or teachers Ayahuasqueros as a way for the expansion of consciousness (Soul). And now it is used in Peru to help drug addicts and a substitute for antidepressant pills. (https://www.soul-herbs.com/what-is-ayahuasca/)

Day 2 – Saturday

After a relaxed afternoon around the camp, we started with a long circle of words around traditions with all foreigners speaking including myself. It was a good moment to share some of my background and motivation to be here and express my gratitude for being able to join this community.

At 11pm the first cup got me going pretty quickly with colours and some visions. Visited again some places of my past and childhood and saw lots of LSD type colours, but was always in control (open the eyes basically, that doesn’t always work though). I again retired in my hammock to meditate, but took my watch this time so not to stay too long and miss round two and not to be lazy. After less than 1h I was back in the main tent. By then I had already landed and still not purged. Others were busier working with the medicine.

lrg_dsc02071

At 2am we got a second cup – much bigger than last (80cl?). This one caused me some diarrhea, but otherwise wasn’t very strong when it came to visions. By now I had already gotten the understanding that I am probably not on such a bad path in life and had less to deal with than others. At 4am we were brought to the maloka again. Three guys already sitting topless in front of the fire (including one on a heck of a trip with constant vomiting). I joined together with Uri – my friend from Israel who I study spanish with. Once undressed we were rubbed with some essence before shamans were gathering around us, spitting some watery stuff at us all the time humming and waving while the other tribal people dance in tune to the drums. Quite an experience where i got repeatedly told off not to cross my arms or legs (probably to let the energy flow).

Day 3 – Sunday

The main difference on our last Yage evening was that the elder had left and we held the ceremony in the way they do it in Santa Elena. First that meant we started at 8pm and not 9-10pm. Second it meant a lot more music and singing. The effect of both the first and second cup were even weaker than before (although there should not be a memory effect) and seemingly all participants had an easier time (well, not so Shannon). The fire ritual I went through the night before was repeated for three others (where I participated in making music and danced) and I got a nice therapy (meaning back & shoulder massage).

My thoughts throughout Sunday were very clear and I had loads of time to think about what lies ahead (I keep that to myself though). My mind wasn’t the only clear thing, it was also the first night without rain. Most of us went outside at some stage to gaze at the bright and plentiful stars (even saw a shooting star). We all felt by now as part of the community. Initial awkwardness had disappeared. And so, with loads of music and singing, we ended a wonderful weekend retreat.

lrg_dsc02055-1

It shall not remain the last one for me and whoever feels like trying the medicine … look no further than Camino al Sol. You are in safe hands.

lrg_dsc02077-1

Even scopolamine (‘devils breath’) grows in the garden

Week two at school & more of Medellin’s

Short, but sweet week after the bank holiday Monday in Guatape. We had a new teacher as we moved up to A1.2 level (spanish speaking only this time), an interesting visit to Comuna 13 (formerly the most dangerous part of town), hanging out in Colombia & Envigado district and the cable car to the top of the hills surrounding Medellin. 

Spanish classes: Week two of my Spanish education is already over and things are looking up. Our new teacher Lorena is a quite cheerful person and, more importantly, speaks 99% in Spanish. Really helps and I feel the progress is really good across the class (even though top marks on my weekly assessment didn’t materialise). Key issue for me grammatically is the lack of past/future tense (just makes it awkward to tell stories) though most challenging remains to understand spoken Spanish. It’s just so fast. Friday we went to Minorista food market and practiced our fruit & veggie pronunciation skills. I guess we ended up more chatting away, but it was fun.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Comuna 13 – looking back at Medellin’s dark past: Before the rise of cocaine in the US in the 70’s & 80’s, this area of Medellin was not a bad place to live. However, once drug lords around the Medellin cartel took over this changed drastically. Worse still, was the period after the assassination of pablo escobar on 2 Dec 1993. With the head of the hydra removed, fierce power struggles made the place the most dangerous area in the city (with the city being the most dangerous globally). So going to Medellin included a free pass to hell back then.

This changed for the better after the government intervened with force on the 16 Oct 2002 with operation ‘Orion’. 1,500 police men supported by helicopters. It was pretty bloody, but eventually paved the way for a peaceful period lasting now some 15y. Crime hasn’t gone completely though, as the mafia still extorts protection money from local businesses. Yet, it’s perfectly safe to visit if you follow some simple rules. I went with zippi free walking tours. Naturally, loads of Germans including two ladies from Hamburg & Cologne who I had the pleasure of sharing the final bit of the tour. We even visited the guides house in the comuna. So good insights over all.

lrg_dsc01971

Germany is never far away in Colombia …

Another step in the recovery was the installation of a 384m escalator route up the steep hills in 2011. This enables better access to the city and was welcome by all our walking tour participants. It’s certainly has become a landmark of the suburb and Medellin by now. I liked most the many graffiti’s you find in comuna 13 – be it those that were created over time or the ones added during a graffiti contest in recent years. Most of them reflect to a high degree the troubled past and the revival now.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Metrocable: Right from San Javier station (where you stop for comuna 13 tours anyway) departs another means of transport that connects the city with poorer areas. There are two such cables in Medellin – I went up to La Aurora station to take in some great views of Medellin at sunset. Recommended. Safe. Cheap.

Mercado del Rio: Located in the district of colombia, it’s a great venue to go for an evening meal or drink. You have many stalls offering all varieties of food though come naturally a bit pricier than your standard colombian restaurant. Thanks Claudia.

Mosaicosbien-Restaurante-mercados-del-rio4

Envigado: This neighborhood is located some 6km from central poblado. I had heard about it from Uri, my Israeli fellow student, and wanted to see what its like. First up a visit to the park (where some Saint was honored that day) and, following Claudia’s advice, then off to calle 30 (calle buena mesa) for dinner. It’s a really great area and significantly more local than gringo-Poblado. Probably the area I like best so far.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Rocket on the rock: Weekend in Guatape

When you live in Medellin you actually have plenty of options to spend your weekend other than going crazy in Lleras Park or any of the other nightlife venues the city offers during its busy weekends. Having spent half the weekend doing the latter, i opted to visit Guatape instead. What a great trip it would be!

The journey to Guatape usually takes about 2h with buses from Medellin’s north terminal (COP13,500) and depart every 15min. While heavy traffic slowed us down the journey went by quickly as I was joined by Claudia for the trip and we weren’t short of topics to talk about.

lrg_dsc01645-1

Our first stop was El Penol well before the actual town of Guatape, as we stopped in to climb up the Guatape rock (well, right after a good paisa lunch with a view). The granite rock stands out in the scenery at 650ft and requires the visitor to climb some 700 stairs to reach the top. Takes a little effort, but is well worth it as the effort is rewarded with stunning views from the top across the reservior with its hilly landscape and my little islands.

How did this landscape come about? There wasn’t always a lake in Guatape/El Penol. Only in the late 1970’s a dam was built to store water for the summer month. the city of el Penol actually fell victim to this decision and was completely submerged. A model city has been build and a large white cross on the lake marks the locatiuon of the now flooded church.

By the time we climbed down from the rock the sun had set (sadly without a nice red colour as clouds were in the way), but the hotel (Hotel Zocalo Campestre) was thankfull right nearby. While some 2.5km outside Guatape town, the location is beautiful and boasts views of the rock as well as the lake. Great to wake up to in the morning and enjoy the view over a colombian breakfast.

Guatape city can be easily reached with one of the motos – essentially moped powered taxis for two guests. Fun gratis! We went to Luigi’s pizzeria (great pizza & fantastic athmosphere) before strolling about town. The place is pretty tranquile, the houses full of colours and it feels really safe everywhere. There was even a few openair movies shown by local artists with the main one being ‘Taxi‘. My Spanish, unfortunately, wasn’t quite up to the challenge yet though I definately got the gist of it (the fact that Claudia’s english is also very good made for little training). Next time!

On Monday we took it pretty slow and did a little more city exploring in daylight including the local mueseum. There was another performance on at the mini-amphitheatre – this time two musicians from Brasil that are touring south america. Great to listen to. After a well earned lunch, we got on one of the boat trips on the lake (COP15,000), which took some 1.5h return from memory.

You can take in the scenary a bit more close up and admire the villas of Colombia’s rich & famous such as football James Rodriguez. The main attraction on the tour though is a huge finca of the late Pablo Escobar. He built it for his daughter, visited it 3 times before it was bombed with 200kg of dynamite. Quite impressive construction that goes some way to show how much money the cocaine trade produced for him (estimates suggest USD60m+ per day for the Medellin cartel).

… and so quickly was the long weekend over… just a few more snacks from the street vendors … and back to Medellin!