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Finding Colombia’s ‘Cuidad Perdida’

Two Englishmen, 2 Dutchmen, 2 Canadian’s, 2 Frenchmen and a yank. It sounds like the start of a dodgy 80’s joke, but no, this is the group that I had the pleasure of spending five days in the Colombian jungle with.

Taganga is a gringo heavy fishing village on the northern coast of Colombia, looking out to the Caribbean sea. It’s the kind of place that travellers enjoy to relax – for too long. The beach is stoney and the sea a little oily. But it is a good place to visit the natural beauty of Tayrona National Park and also to book a trip to El Ciudad Perdida.

Magic Tours were the recommended company to go with and once we had knocked them down 100,000 Peso’s to a price of 450,000, we were good to go. At the time of writing this equates to 130 pounds, which is a lot for your average Colombian, yet more than fair for the western pocket.

The trip was meant to last 6 days, 3 days trekking to the Lost City and 3 days back – we ended up doing it in 5. For your money you get 3 meals a day, accommodation and a guide. Ours was called Luis, a 21 year old that grew up in the jungle and knew his surroundings like the back of his hand.

So, eleven of us set off from Taganga at 9am for a 2 hour drive in a battered old jeep that holds 8. This meant the Dutch couple made their way on motorbike taxi to the base of the entrance. What we didn’t realise was that it was another hours drive up a narrow, muddy, potholed mountain ‘road’ to get to the real starting point. The Dutch zoomed off on bikes, the lowlanders enjoying the uneven terrain, though I’m not sure their rear-ends agreed an hour later.

Lunch over and off we went. Our group certainly looked the part, sporting the very latest in high tech walking boots and waterproofs. Except the two Brits, we opted for the ‘wear whatever clothes you can find’ look. This meant beach shorts, shell toes for my friend and what can be best described as Nike slip-ons for me – we would pay for our lacklustre approach.

Day one was a 3-4 hour trek, mostly uphill, along a muddy, wet trail. When I say muddy, I mean knee deep mud, the sort where your shoe makes that squelchy, suction sound, before removing itself from your foot. Hence to say, day one was no stroll in the park. Sampling a variety of Central and South America’s local brews for 4 months is not ideal preparation for a trek through the jungle. Not only did i find it tiring, but the lack of stability that the slip-ons provided made it more like walking on ice than mud. Arriving at the wooden hut that we would call home for the night, all I could think about was another 5 days of this. Accommodation is basic, very basic. A damp hammock and a hairy rug – I didn’t have the best nights sleep.

This was meant to be dry season, but like everywhere else in the world, the historical nature of a season means very little. On departure the heavens opened and they didn’t stop. Working our way through narrower, steeper trails, it felt more how I thought a jungle would feel. It was wet, humid, hot, cold – an assault on the senses, and yet surprisingly enjoyable.

Along the way Luis would point out various flora and fauna before stopping for a chat with the indigenous tribal people who still live the lives of their ancestors, with one exception – they wear wellies. Good old British, black Wellington’s, and for the first time in my life I wanted to be sporting a pair.

We arrive at the site for our second nights ‘sleep’. The heavens stayed open but a good feed of chicken, rice and salad along with a coffee, lifts spirits, before we begrudgingly go to bed with another hammock and a wet blanket.

You see various groups on your journey to the Lost City. People pass you on their way back, throwing comments about how difficult it is, how it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done. Y’know, nice things to lift the human spirit before a 7 hour trek. But I enjoyed day 3 the best. For starters, it is the day that we got to see what we were there for. Secondly, it was a day closer to civilisation and thirdly, my slip-ons came into a life of their own.

Yes, this was less about mud and clay and more about water and rocks, and I loved it. . I had finally found out what these trainers were designed for. The pointed, narrow body of my shoe meant that I could jump from rock to rock like Michael Flatley but without the tights. My colleagues now cumbersome walking shoes had to be removed at every one of the 8 river crossings (it’s the same river that for some reason is crossed 8 times)…ooh how the tables had turned. The slip-ons and I were moon walking our way through, not bothered if we got wet, we were agile and nimble, my spirits lifting with every step of faith I took.

A big sigh of relief, we were there – well, sort of. A small clearing in the densely covered river banks revealed some steep, rocky steps. One thousand two hundred of them to be precise. A little mental re-adjustment and off we go, lactic acid running through the limbs like there’s no tomorrow. From holding up the rear for the last 2 days its now the trainer clad Brits who were leading the chase, partly because of the footwear and partly because we wanted to be the first people to reach the summit, like Captain Scott but without the flag.

Ciudad Perdida is high up in the jungle. It was cold, cloudy and inevitably wet. Greeted by 45 Colombian militaria who guard the site, there was a real sense of achievement amongst our group. More chicken and rice and its head down on a wet mattress, lights out at 9pm.

The following morning was a much clearer day and the ruins came into their own. Luis gave us an insight into the history, explaining that the the city is approximately 1 kilometre in diameter but that most of it has been swamped by the jungle. But there is still plenty to see. Circular patterns of stones mark the former abodes of its residents. And then the reason for the militaria’s presence comes to light. Discovered in only 1972, excavation work concluded that Ciudad Perdida was once a rich commercial hub. And not any old commerce, but the big one, the stuff the British Government likes to sell for peanuts – gold. Every person that died there was buried under their house, along with a nice big lump of dorado. And it is all still there.

Then there is the 2003 kidnapping of mainly Israeli tourists (who were all released) by the left wing guerrilla group, Ejército de Liberación Nacional. The area was affected by the civil war, but like most of Colombia these days, things have changed. In a country where your local Policeman resembles Robocop it is both understandable and comforting to see the military presence. Oh, and it also gives people like me the rare chance to pose in the Colombian jungle holding an AK47 Рand what lad would miss an opportunity like that!

Our group decided to do the last 3 days in 2. It is more down than up on the way back, though not necessarily any easier. But the thought of normality comes closer to reality with every step and after 5 days of being constantly damp and tired, I was ready for a return to civilisation…and a wash…and a beer.

The trek to Ciudad Perdida is an inspirational experience, it’s an honour to have been to a place which few people in the world have heard of, let alone visited. But in the ever popular Colombia, this could all be about to change.

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