Day three started before dawn so that we could get to the lost city itself before anyone else. This was put into jeopardy by the Colombian six who had a very Colombian attitude to time. Luckily Wilson was like a focused sheep dog, walking around the group with a serious face repeating ‘vamos!’ Until he got bored, when he headed off into the darkness leaving latecomers to catch up. The city is at 1200m above sea level and only one km from the last camp but the last 20 mins is spent tackling 1178 steps. It appears that in approx?????when the city was first inhabited, there were few building standards as referring to the ever ascending lumps of rock ahead of us as ‘steps’ seemed a little generous.
I am not competitive in the least………………but was delighted to be the first tourist to reach the city that morning……….delighted enough that a close observer may have seen me do a minor fist pump in the air and mouth ‘Winner!’.
The city is much more that the few stone circles that feature in the photos; it’s lots of stone circles over a large area of the hillside, some excavated, others still completely owned the by the jungle. If you are interested in the history, click here, but the potted version is a large tribe lived in it from 800AD to about 1650 And used it as their meeting point for important events in their semi nomadic existence. Up to 2500 people lived there, building wooden huts on stone terraces (hence only the terraces remain). The terrain protected them from physical invasion from the Conquistadors but not from the diseases the Europeans brought with them. About 50 people remained alive when they eventually left the city and the jungle reclaimed it.
At the city
Enter 2 farmers in about 1972, who found the city, found the gold in the burial chambers and spent the next few years digging stuff up, selling it in Santa Maratha for a fraction of its value, getting pissed on the profits, telling one or two trusted friends then repeating. By 1976 there were about 60 families doing the same and it ended in tears with someone being shot for a piece of gold. A man called Frankie Ray got scared by this and told some archeologists working on a different site all about it. With the aid of the military and police, the site was reclaimed. About a decade of painstaking excavations took place before a delegation of the descendants of the original inhabitants appeared and said “Oi! Stop! You’re digging up our dead relatives you are!’ It stopped and with the support of the indigenous people, tourism began (and the first guide was Frankie Ray, who was also a mate of Wilson’s, so this is where he got his break). The first trips took 9 days, then the narcos introduced their own tours that did not get to the city, rather it took narco tourists to cocaine labs nearby to see how it was done and get high. They even let a film crew in, but the resulting documentary meant that the government had to appear to act and a very brutal and destructive eradication program began. The governments enthusiasm was fuelled when a group of foreign tourists were kidnapped in the lost city on 2003 and the helicopters that formed part of the rescue mission were greeted with the site of hundreds of acres of coco plantations in the jungle below.
It is now a safely established tourist route and, though the scars left on the countryside by the chemical eradication remain obvious, it passes through a safe and beautiful environment.
In the city we met a ‘Mamos’, a spiritual leader of the local tribe who, with his family (and a small contingent of soldiers) is the only permanent inhabitant of the city. He is charged with keeping the place clean of negative energy and conducting the annual deep cleansing ceremony so that us visitors only get positive energy from being there. The Wiwa people are very connected to nature and are very concerned the overall health of our planet. Their opinion is that in 90 years, it will be completely fucked. Let’s hope they are wrong.
It was interesting to be amongst the Wiwa people. They pretty much live as they always have; they are semi nomadic, they wear traditional hats and clothes (all white), their homes are made from mud, local wood and palm leaves and they mostly survive off what they farm. You do occasionally see a set of headphones under their hats and notice western clothing under the children’s white clothing but I very much felt that it was a very unique culture living in close proximity to a very westernised one. None indigenous people can only go to areas below 2000m above sea level. After that, and there is a fuck of a lot after that, they get to live in total peace. Fantastic.
We left one of our party at this point. Charlotte was a fascinating lady from Cali, who as she hit 60, decided that she wanted to do the walk before she got too old (she was as fit as a butchers dog so didn’t need to worry). She was hugely enthusiastic about the flora and fauna, knew heaps about the local people and spoke good English. She was the owner and manager of the only tea plantation in Colombia, and the producer of Hindi Tea, which is everywhere over here. She also had a fascinating background, having worked in the arts, attended theatre school in London and lectured at Bogotá University until the murder of her brother by guerrillas forced her home to takeover the business (as I say, you don’t have to look far to find someone effected by the ‘violence’ and another of the group had had her father kidnapped). She had opted for the 5 day option which just means you go back slower, but her knowledge of local culture gave her the opportunity to stay in the lost city for the remainder of the day, when she would have had the place completely to herself.
Meeting the Mamos
The return journey became a bit of a man-off, and whilst as I said, I am not competitive, the pace was pushed more and more. One of the youngsters approached Liz and I at the end of a particularly steep ascent and complained that it wasn’t fair that we drank so much beer, got to the top ahead of the others and didn’t seem to sweat (he didn’t realise that my clothing hid the fact I was soaking and that mostly I dried off in the 10 mins waiting for the other to catch up). I advised him that that perhaps he needed to drink more beer.
On the last morning we set off about 45 mins before dawn, first to tackle the hardest hill, and then get home. Just how isolated we had been struck home when we began to see the odd farm house or fenced field. Both Liz and I felt sad to leave the comparative peace of the jungle. I celebrated Aussie new year with a beer at a very inappropriate hour, then continued with the ‘man off’ until Carlos and I found ourselves running with our backpacks for the last hour. We won! So we drank more beer.
Liz was the only women to complete the whole thing, the other three opting to jump on the back of moto taxis that by some miracle manage to navigate the few km closest to the village that marks the start of the walk.
It was lovely to have her along on the walk; not only is she good company but also has that wonderful military self reliance that means I could be comfortable completely ignoring her well-being for the entire trip after being reminded that the only response I would ever get to ‘are you ok?’, would be ‘Yes, of course”.
We headed back to Santa Marta a few hours earlier than anticipated - back to see Jodie and celebrate New Years Eve.