A first friend had to work. A second had other obligations. A third told me I was nuts and he had no desire to die in the jungle, even with me. I contemplated sending more text invites, but I paused when I recognized that I really didn’t want to travel with anyone. After a year of Zoom meetings, being – lovingly, delightfully – trapped at home with the family, and planning and replanning everything from how to get groceries to how to keep school open, I wanted to be alone. And that was that. I would hike to the Lost City of Colombia by myself.
Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City, is nestled deep in the jungles near the northern coast. The city, a breath-taking mountain top construction of stone walls, streets, and stairs pre-dates Machu Picchu but sees only a small fraction of the tourists. In fact, The Lost City’s best year to-date was 2019, when approximately 20,000 visitors made their way to it. Enter COVID, and tourism is again small fraction of that number.
Why so few? First, it’s only been open to tourists since it’s “rediscovery” in the 1970s. Second, Colombia’s drug wars made it both less accessible and less desirable to visit (a group of foreign tourists were kidnapped by FARC guerrillas as recently 2003 and held them for 102 days until a release could be negotiated. The tourists were in route to the Lost City. But finally, and most significantly, the Lost City is accessible only by foot through rugged jungle terrain, including mudslides, poisonous snakes, and waist-deep river crossings. Three years ago, one tourist fell off a narrow ledge and narrowly survived the fall, and around the same time, another tourist was swept away while attempting a river crossing. The trek itself is approximately 34 miles over 3 and a half days, so the pace is quick and the risks are real. Who wouldn’t call this vacation?
When I arrived at the tour office in Santa Marta on the morning of the departure, there were three guys on the couch drinking beer. It was 8:15. Soon, two of the men left, and one remained – still drinking – and conversing with the employee. Was this our guide? I mean, he didn’t look the part, but then again, I’ve been in mountain treks in Asia where the guides wear flip flops. He crunched the can and lets out a barely audible burp. Dear god, what have I got myself into? 4 days with this guy?
Soon, the small office filled with other backpackers, ready for the expedition. The tension of a I-know-we’re-going-to-spend-the-next-four-days-together-sleeping-eating-pooping was palpable, and they, too, were trying to figure out the role of the beer drinking Columbian.
Finally, a man entered the room, decked out in company-emblazoned travel gear. Ok, so this stocky middle-aged man would be our fearless leader into the jungle. The drunk Colombian, well, turns out he was hoping to go on the trek, but hadn’t gotten his paperwork together. No one seemed disappointed.
Backpacks went on the roof of the jeeps with food supplies, all of which was tied down. The nine of us scattered into the backs of two jeeps where sheer proximity and a 3 hour ride to the trailhead was bound to start conversation.
A group of friends. A mother-daughter combo. A pair of siblings and a girlfriend. And me. They seemed great, and proved to be just that as the trip progressed and new challenges arose.
And it did t take long for the first challenges to arise. After a couple of hours of uphill hiking in the sun, the clouds grew heavy and ominous. “I think we’re going to get lucky!” Shouted one of the guides. I had been used to a passing heavy tropical rain in Florida (you know, the kind you can watch move across a parking lot. But this was not that. The skies opened up and torrential rain – inches per hour – hammered us. The trail, mostly dirt, quickly turned to rivers of mud. Flowing torrents of red water flowed off the edges of cliff, forcing breaks in the thick vegetation, setting the scene for something like the mudslide in Romancing the Stone.
But we didn’t need to go off the side of the cliff fit a mudslide. The trail has little rock or gravel to it, so soon we were struggling to stay afoot as the trail twisted and turned, squished and slimed below our feet. Where were we? At one point, a horse’s skull lay in the path ahead of us. An omen? No, just an unlucky horse, of course. Not ten steps past the horse’s skull, the 8 foot bank of mud on our right collapsed in front of me. If the woman in front of me had gone a step slower or I a step or two faster, our new friends would be busily digging us out of the pile.
Hours later, we slogged into camp. Though we had only just met, everyone quickly stripped off their wet clothes and hung them to dry (as we learned, nothing dries in the jungle. It does make you feel better to hang wet clothes, like maybe there’s a chance, but, nope, those clothes ain’t drying and soon will fill one’s pack with the rancid smell of mildew. But, day one, we were hopeful.
We had been promised a swim in the river upon arrival, but the brown and furiously loud water let us know that wasn’t happening. We headed to the showers to clean the mud and sweat off our bodies, a feeble attempt to regain control over ourselves and our pride after the first day’s drenching hike. The water ran down, a single stream, and the color red like the mud of the hillside and trail. Somewhere a pipe was probably broken, but the desire to clean, even in red water, was strong.
Day one and five miles completed. Tomorrow would be the longest day of hiking – more than 11 miles. We would rise early to try to beat the rain, our guides said. Though there had been talk of card games and socializing, the knowledge of a 5 AM wake up call and the exhaustion of the days struggle led everyone to crawl into their mosquito nets by 730 PM.
By 8 o’clock, the only sound in camp was the roar of the river, a reminder that the journey to the Lost City was to be as much a struggle against the jungle as a trek to a destination.