This is the first in a new series of first-person stories from the road. Dispatches is a place where readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, is Colombia's version of Machu Picchu, except even more ancient, and only accessible with a four-day trek through thick jungle. It's located in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, and home to four indigenous tribes, the Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco and Kankuamo, who escaped Spanish colonization by seeking refuge in higher altitudes.
My friend had done the hike a few years back. She's not very sporty, and hadn't mentioned any difficulties, so I expected a fairly easy four days, as I consider my level of fitness far superior to hers. If she can do it, well, I can do it easily.
Before Sara and I meet the rest of our tour group, we sit on a terrace in El Mamey, sipping cold beer and eating a lunch of plantains, rice and overcooked chicken. Four hikers finishing the trek walk, or rather, waddle, by. Their boots and legs are splattered with thick reddish mud; each step looks painful; their bodies stiffen with every impact. Every inch of the back of their legs is covered with large, red insect bites. If I were more informed, this sight might be alarming. But I haven't really bothered to do any research.
The tour company has put me and my friend Sara in a large group. We are the only two Canadians – there's an Australian, and everyone else is European. Most, like me, are escaping their day jobs to play Indiana Jones under the tropical sun.
We set out after lunch in the village of El Mamey with our guide, Javier. The heat is humid and stifling. Within a few minutes, the trail starts a steep and unrelenting climb that will last at least 40 minutes. Boulders and mud, which alternates between sticky and slippery, make things more difficult. It takes just 15 minutes to be drenched in sweat and gasping for breath. It feels like hiking in a sauna. Barely an hour later, as the heat subsides, a torrential downpour crashes down and the mud turns into a slow running river. All I can hear is the rain and the squishy, sloppy noises of my own footsteps. I turn around every so often to let others catch up, not wanting to be too alone in this place.
We arrive after sundown at the first camp. The row of bunk beds draped in mosquito nets is covered by a thatched roof with no walls. My mattress smells of wet dog. Javier tells us to use flashlights at all times, "The snakes are poisonous here. If you step on one, you'll die quickly. And check your beds to make sure there are no scorpions or spiders. Those, too, are deadly." He's not joking.
Not surprisingly, sleep is elusive.
The next day offers no reprieve. The climb is less steep, but the day much longer; we're up at 5:30 and walk for eight hours. Along the way we stop at a cluster of a dozen huts, a village of the local Wiwa tribe. A small woman with long, shiny black hair, dressed in a white robe, is standing in the middle of tall bushes, holding a small child, and staring back at us from the other side of a fence. "Those are coca plants," Javier points. "The women collect the coca leaves in their bags, then dry them. Only the men are allowed to chew it."
Coca is an integral part of the culture of the local Indians. They don't consider it addictive and believe that chewing the natural coca leaves civilizes men, keeping them in harmony with nature and allowing them to communicate with their ancestors. In this harsh mountainous environment, it also allows them to walk long distances without food or sleep, especially at high altitudes.
By early afternoon, I'm spent. My legs are sore, and I've got stomach pains. During one of our breaks, I point to a bush: "Javier, is that a coca bush?" He takes a close look. "No, it's not. The leaves are different."
"Oh." I'm disappointed.
"Do you want to try some? I can get some leaves from one of the Indians."
I try to mute my enthusiasm: "Umm … sure. Yeah."
Javier takes off and quickly reappears with a handful of dried coca leaves. While I normally like to respect local customs, my physical state and curiosity get the better of me; I grab a few pinches of the leaves and hesitantly put them in my mouth. As I chew, my mouth goes numb. The taste is unpleasantly bitter. We head back on the trail and, as I chew, I feel stronger. What a few minutes ago was an encroaching jungle, waiting for me to falter so it can swallow me up, is now benign greenery shrinking from me. My steps, until now hesitant and fearful of slipping, are confident and strong. The pain in my stomach seems remote, an afterthought. Is this just a placebo effect? It doesn't matter. It will get me to the next camp. (It's the only day I try the coca leaves as Javier doesn't offer any more, and I don't insist.)
The morning of the third day we reach the lost city.
The site gives an expansive view of the jungle-coated mountains, and while I try to enjoy the scenery and listen to Javier's history lesson my legs are being swarmed by giant mosquitoes and itchy, red welts are popping up all over.
The lost city is a series of grass-covered platforms where the houses used to sit, interwoven by stone pathways, like an ancient blueprint amid the jungle. Javier points to a large rock with lines carved in it. "Archeologists think this is a map of the area, and this city is one amongst a network of others." He points to a circle in the rock. "This is supposedly another, larger city, but the Indians refuse to reveal it's location."
The descent back is quick and we stop to swim in the river that follows the trail. The jump from the rock is six metres high. I hesitate, then launch myself off the rock. As I crash into the water, the coolness soothes my mosquito bites, dissipates the hot, searing pain in my feet and legs, and washes away my sweat and that persistent smell of wet dog. I savour the crispness of the water that comes from the snow melt on the highest peaks, and emerge fresh and re-energized. There are two more hours to go to reach El Mamey, and by then, I'll again be covered in mud and sweat, the mosquito bites swollen and itchy, and my legs stiff with pain, but I'll have a new-found respect for the harsh beauty of the jungle and the people who still make it their home.
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