27 November 2016

Finding Ciudad Perdida - The Lost City

Besides having a secure marina where Milly could be left for a few days at a time, Santa Marta is a perfectly situated city to explore northern Colombia.  Here’s where the Lost City comes in.  We had heard about it from other cruisers, read about it in cruising guides and The Lonely Planet - which is our favourite tourism series - and we were itching to hike the four day, 47 km roundtrip trail between 900 and 1200 meters above sea level.  

Ciudad Perdida, covering 30 hectacres, is a part of a sacred region and site of the most extensive of 300 other smaller villages in the area. It is, therefore, thought to have been a seat of political power for the surrounding villages.  The population at it’s height is estimated to have been about 2,000.  

The Tairona inhabited the area for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived in the New World.  When the Spanish began to plunder the countryside for gold, the wise people of the Tairona preferred to abandon Ciudad Perdida sometime between 1580 and 1650, instead of allowing the riches of the site to be ransacked and stolen.  It was not until 1976 that this remote and difficult to access site was officially rediscovered, completely overgrown by vegetation but having been plundered in the early 1970's by those seeking gold.

To access the trail and the city it is required to hire a guide and touring company.  We chose Expotur, most highly recommended by our book but they provided an English translator.  We arrived psyched and ready for what we had been told was a tough hike.  It was my first multi day hike and Peter’s first since his childhood hiking in Norway.  We were ready…we thought.  
The cruiser/hikers ready to go.  At the marina, still clean and with smiles.  The smiles remained, not so the cleanliness.
Our group was made up of cruisers Dave of Livin’ Life, Steve of Slow Flight, Brita and Jason of Deep Blue, two young Belgian guys on a two week holiday before their girlfriends at home gave birth in the next weeks, one very young American teacher on a three month backpacking trip and six youngish Colombians.  Note: There is a theme here! 
Two vans, roof rack loaded (overloaded) with food and packs, took us two and a half hours - one hour of which was off, off road - to the trail head situated in a village where we were served a substantial meal.  The van as pictured was battered. The seats lined the sides so the ten passengers sat with alternating knees across from each other.  Sharp turns and braking required us all to lean in unison. 
Heading out of the village.  The 100 meters were on paved road, followed by dirt road, then lane, then single-file trail.

Beautiful green hills and mountains were feasts for the eyes. This region was completely dominated by drug cartels until 2008 when the government cleared the paramilitaries out.  The hills at that time were covered with caca from which cocaine was processed.  The location was perfect because of it's proximity to the Caribbean coast and routes to North America.  The people who lived in the region, reportedly, prospered because of the cocaine business.  However, the violence and guerrilla warfare made their lives unsafe.  Our guide told us they were much happier being hired by the park and tour companies.  Life did not look easy though!
For much of a couple of kilometres on Day 1, we shared the dirt road with mules and motorcycles. The mules carried heavy loads of food.  There were two cooks on our tour who ran from one camp to the next with the mules to be ready for us as we arrived.  They left watermelons and oranges at rest stations on the way.  The whole thing was so well-organized that we only needed to carry enough water to keep us hydrated from station to station. 
George - pronounced Orhey - our translator among other things, cutting fresh watermelon  at the first rest stop.  Chock full of seeds but watermelon had never tasted so good.  There was one rest stop each morning and afternoon. Often there were people selling cold drinks out of coolers, freshly squeezed juices, and occasionally snacks.  These were basically just shelters and the sellers brought their wares up by mule.  

The first hostel on route even had a pool table  on the far side of this bridge.  Don't know how they ever would have got it there.  Our first hostel was twenty minutes further - our guide had warned us of this.  I'm sure he had experienced rebellions when his group thought they could off load their packs and relax.

Our first night was spent under this roof.  No walls to speak of.  Each bunk bed was covered by a mosquito net which we tucked under the mattress to keep scorpions out of our beds.  The guide told me to be careful going to the toilet at night as "this was a jungle and the snakes liked the paths to the toilets."  That kept me under my netting all night - full bladder be damned.  All the hostels had hammocks or bunk beds on dirt floors - the floors were swept each day.  Our group always opted for the bunks which were lined up end to end - sleeping about 60 in a very small space.  No privacy.  Every snore was heard and those who did it heard about it the next day from those who had to listen.  The showers were in what resembled concrete phone booths that I'm sure never dried.  The cold water poured out of a pipe - no shower head.  There were no hooks to hold clothes or towel - that would have been a great addition.  Toilets did not have seats, flushing was always a bit of a puzzle and toilet paper was nonexistent and had not been on the kit list.  This, too, would have been a great addition.  Luckily, I had come equipped for the trail and the hostel on the second night had some for sale.

The dining room with hammocks and bunks in the background.  This hostel served cold beer from one of two chest freezers that were padlocked during the night.  The freezers had been brought up the trail slung in a sheet and carried by several guys.  The price for a beer was still only 5,000COP or $2.50CDN.  It got slightly more expensive 7,000COP or $3.50 CDN.  

The kitchen.  This was opulent compared to the next two hostels.  The photo was taken at 4:30 a.m. when we rose each day.  We were on the trail by 5:30 to beat the heat of the day as much as possible.  Lunch was served at the next hostel on the path, usually around 10:30.

Another rest stop on day 2.  This one had a few items for sale including freshly squeezed orange juice.  Our mules had already delivered some fruit so we had no need to buy.
A Kogi village beside the trail.  Each building is round with mud and thatch walls and thatch roofs.  The two sticks coming out the top of the roof symbolize the two snowcapped mountains in the Sierra Nevada.  

A few people were about the village but we were requested not to take their pictures unless they agreed.  We were also told not to go into their homes - who would do that?? I guess some have.

Our second day lunch spot had a swimming hole in a rushing, frigid river.  To swim out to rocks required a mighty front crawl with only a few inches gained at a time.  Luckily, my arms weren't as tired as my legs and I made it without being swept down river.

Rejuvenated after lunch for a very long, uphill slog.  We were spread out by the time we reached the top.  Steve and Peter were always in the lead - no surprise.

Another suspended bridge over more water.  This one had wide open sides and the plates of metal moved with respect to each other kind of like a "fun house" at the CNE.

Steve in the lead, his speed hampered by the mules.

It poured with rain during the afternoon of the third day.  I had not fallen in the river but was totally drenched from the sky.  The river, of course, was swollen and rushing.  No bridge this time, only a rope we were told to hang onto downstream.

I was a bit disconcerted by a mule coming my way.  But, no worries, it paid no attention to me.  These mules must have done the trip hundreds of times.  At some rest stops, the guy leading the mules would stop while the mules just kept on going on their own.  The guy would have to run after them when he was ready to go.

This bridge has been washed out by the fallout after Hurricane Matthew hit the area.  The river below, fallen trees, mud, all safely negotiated in the rain.

Another bridge.  It was getting a bit chilly, unbelievably, in the wet.

Our second night was spent at a larger hostel just one hour from the city.  Several groups were staying here mostly in bunks but some in hammocks.  We had a second storey loft on a wood floor! with at least 30 bunk beds.  We all shared four toilets and four showers.  There were at least 150 people.  Cozy.

Another river to ford before we got to the stairs leading to the city.  Time: About 6:00 a.m.  We were able to leave our packs at the hostel so we felt extremely light - good thing because their were 1260 uneven, steep steps to climb.

Problem was the steps were so uneven that you had to concentrate climbing and especially going down.  The scenery was a bit lost.  Important to stop and look around.

Steep!  Definitely short of breath.

Two weeks before our arrival, the slopes of the Lost City had been hit by the tail end of Hurricane Matthew.  The wind had lopped the tops off many of the trees, uprooted others.  The park had been closed for 8 days and the trees cleared as much as possible but the devastation was very clear.  The city was fine - a testament to how well it was built.

 I know, I know enough of the stairs but they were pretty, too.  Covered with moss.

This is a map of the region drawn hundreds of years ago.

The cruiser group.  We made it with only a few blisters, a couple of toenails that were going to come off and tired legs.  Really great feeling to arrive.  Now we just had to go back.

Apparently, this was the community area of the town where goods were traded.  The Tairona built rock foundations with wooden walls and thatched roofs.  They buried their dead under the foundations with gold trinkets.  These were plundered in the early 1970's by grave robbers who fought amongst themselves for the spoils.  Finally, in 1976 the government stepped in to protect the site and get rid of the robbers.

Because we left at 5:30 a.m., we were the first group on the site.  Glorious!

There are two Kogi dwellings in the city for the Mama, the enlightened leader of the tribe, and his family.  His wife - he could have two - and the female children stay in the smaller home and he and his sons in the other.  

Our jolly, little guide, Gabriel, with the Mama's wife and female children.  The women of the Kogi tribe do all the work - cooking, harvesting, planting, childcare, and picking the coca leaves - while the men lead the family, impart their wisdom and chew coca leaves.  (Really, according to Gabriel).  The women carry the leaves on their backs in a bag.  The men carry a dried gourd with a long neck and a hole in it's stem through which is a long stick.  Crushed seashells are put into the gourd and manipulated by the stick into a powder.  Meanwhile the men chew coca leaves and rest them in a big wad that you can see in the pocket of their cheek.  Somehow, the details were lost in translation, the shell, spit, coca leaves get combined either in the cheek or in the gourd.  The stick is then used to wipe the paste around and around the neck of the gourd.  The paste hardens and the collar around the gourd gets inches thick.  Once it is a certain thickness, the man takes it to the Mama who gives him another gourd and he starts all over again.  It is a very serious offence for a man to be without his gourd - it has a name - with various punishments including having their hair cut.  Hair is considered to be sacred and both sexes grow it very long.  Men get their first gourd when they are 18 years old. 

The city foundations were terraced because of the steep terrain.  The whole city is built on a ridge.  In this photo you can see the trees and brush that were knocked down by Matthew.

Such beautiful green.

Archeologists have noted that the Tairona were exceptional at providing movement between houses, areas within the city and between cities.  And there were beautiful stairways and paths all over the place.

We stayed at this hostel on our second night and had lunch there on day 3, after coming down all those stairs from the Lost City.  Our sleeping loft was in the building on the left.  At each stop, hikers would empty their packs of wet - from rain or sweat - clothing and hang them on any available line, railing, bedpost, door etc.  It made for a very colourful, smelly camp.

The toilets at a rest stop.  Looking a bit fragile.  Most of the toilets were at least in concrete, unlit cubicles.

Our hostel on day 3 had been our lunch stop on day 2 where we swam in the river.  Another swim instead of shower and then we hung around the dining room table.  No where else to go.

Day 4, returning to civilization.  A very few homes in sensational landscape.

A Kogi family headed down the same road as we were going.  A very long walk for little legs but they must be used to it.  Female children were barefoot and had beaded necklaces.  Male children had rubber boots.  The adult female walked with the children and the much older man walked behind as if herding.  They moved right off the path when we passed.  It was startling how solemn they were - not a smile or a word.  Apparently, they believe they are the world's environmental caretakers and that we are jeopardizing it's health - some truth and wisdom to that.

Mules do a lot of dirty work.  These had a full load.

We arrived back at the starting village for an early lunch.  One shower stall allowed us to clean up before crowding back into the 4x4 for the two hour trip home.  Our bags were on top of the car, just the dirty clothes on our clean skin held our four day aroma.  We stopped for gas on the way back.  Gas is sold in jerry cans by locals - no gas station for miles.

We all tumbled out of the car to get a better view.
The tour was definitely as much about the hike as it was about the destination.  Given that the Lost City itself is spectacular and a place for the imagination to go wild, the trail and all it entails - donkeys, indigenous villages and people, rivers to ford, swinging bridges to cross, primitive lodges, Colombian food - is a Milly voyaging highlight all on it’s own.  We had gruelling, sweaty, short of breath fun!

24 November 2016

Hello, Colombia!

We made landfall in Colombia after an easy sail in what is, by reputation, supposed to be the fourth worst section of the world’s oceans.  We were lucky, only sighting four waterspouts, with, otherwise, light winds and relatively flat seas.

Prominent hydro poles, one street, one storey town as viewed from Milly
The juxtaposition of Aruba to Cabo de La Vela, Colombia was clear even from a distance.  The bay we anchored in was huge and our fleet of three boats were the only recreational boats around.  The small local fishing boats were paddled or motored, several coming out immediately to quietly move around us with family on board to take a look.  Again, after experiencing the Caribbean islands where the only boats approaching Milly would be attempting to sell us something, the curiosity of the locals was a welcome change.  Although the topography was similar to the dry, desert of the ABC’s, the bay was lined by single story, brown dwellings instead of the high developed Aruban coast.  The highest points in “town” were the very obvious hydro poles which although wired were void of electricity.

The bay was full of fish traps and nets, so much so that getting into the bay on Milly was a challenge.  I was on the bow pointing a winding, narrow course for Peter to follow.  It's this kind of anchorage that makes our trip!

We stayed in Cabo de la Vela two nights, went on two hikes and explored the town which is worth noting.  It was a one street town which ran along the bay and was made up of primitive - very - eateries and eco tourist lodges all in the same indigenous architecture made of split and dried cacti.  The uneven cacti left long cracks of air as natural AC.  The lodges were open lofts with hammocks - we were glad to be on luxurious Milly. 
Ubiquitous architecture and building materials.  

Eco tourism lodge.  This was luxurious compared to our accommodation later on our Colombian adventures - coming soon

The bar where we had beers for less than a dollar (American).

The towns tourism, apparently thriving with Colombians during December and January, is based in it’s consistently strong winds - except when we were there - for kiteboarding. The few tourists in October were young, hardcore travellers looking for some good wind to while away the afternoon.  
The intrepid hikers at the top

Natural graffiti as viewed from the top

Hiking on the highway out of town.  Four by fours and motorcycles only vehicles on town although we were followed for awhile by two kids on bikes.

Steve and Dave heading down.  Janice and I are waaay down there. Just a little barren!

The beach.
 After Aruba, I was thrilled to be back in South America wandering around the town.  So very different.  There were no cars, only motorcycle traffic scooting back and forth along the visible tires treads in the sand which comprised the road.  Speeding was kept in check by speed bumps of thick rope laid across the road.  

Speed bump on main (only) street.  

The cemetery had family tombs and, we think, what were shelter or cooking areas for each family.  Given the immense number of bones around - goat, we assumed - we surmised that there were regular celebrations or feasts to honour the dead. Maybe?
We loved it and had a good taste of rural life before heading south to the metropolis of Santa Marta where we had numerous Colombian adventures.
Happy to be back in South America!