La Ciudad Perdida – the Lost City

La Ciudad Perdida

The Lost City. Just the name fires your imagination and wanderlust. It conjures up images of 19th century explorers stumbling upon ancient ruins after months of hacking their way through overgrown jungle. Or scaling the walls like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Inevitably, the truth of visiting La Ciudad Perdida in Colombia is very different. For one thing it’s no longer lost, as in high season well over a hundred sweaty tourists begin their hike up the mountain every day. 

A misty first day

The Lost City – or to give it its correct name, Teyuna – is located in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta at a height of over a thousand metres and is surrounded by tropical rainforest. The structures that remain today were built from around 1200AD onwards, but the city was abandoned in the early 17th century with the increasing presence of the Spanish invaders. The jungle subsequently reclaimed the city which wasn’t rediscovered until 1976. Even then, the heavy presence of armed FARC guerrilas meant that the site was off limits until only recently. 

Local village in the Sierra Nevada

Unlike other ancient sites such as Machu Picchu, Teyuna is still in parts inhabited by descendants of the original people who lived here. You can see them negotiating the pathways with greater ease than the tourists. They live in circular huts made of mud and straw and dress in white clothes. The men wear their hair long and the women walk around barefoot with their babies strapped to their backs. This place is still sacred to them and for two weeks at the beginning of September every year the city is closed as the religious leaders congregate to purge it of all the bad energy left behind by trekkers.

One of many river crossings

I began my trip by signing on with Expotur, one of several agencies who organise the hike based in Santa Marta. There were three groups leaving from that agency alone and I met the twelve other people in my group as we were bussed up to El Mamey, a small village at the foot of the mountains. After lunch we began a four hour trek up to our first lodgings. These would turn out to be all pretty similar – very basic, with bunk beds side by side in the open but with mosquito nets, and hammocks. Best of all were the natural swimming pools in the Rio Buritaca.

Locals playing football

Day two involved a 7 hour walk to the next overnight spot. The following day we were all tense with anticipation. This was the day we ascended to the city itself. All 1200 steps! Rough-hewn narrow stone steps which proved quite treacherous in places. The ruins themselves are not hugely impressive, but the site is quite mysterious. The number of tourists swarming all over the place doesn’t help of course, but it’s the sense of achievement at having got here at all that counts.

The steps

After a morning at the site, we climbed back down and then faced a gruelling 7 hour trek back to El Mamey on day four. There are some quite steep sections in places and together with the horrendously high humidity, I don’t think I’ve ever sweated quite so much in my life. Rivulets of salty sweat seep into your eyes, while your clothes feel like you’ve put them on straight from the washing machine but forgotten the spin dry cycle.

Sublime scenery

It’s a great experience, but you do it for the hike itself rather than the ruins. The scenery is gorgeous and on clear days you can apparently see the Caribbean. I saw many birds including tiny humming birds. Also fascinating is the glimpse you get into the way of life of the indigenous people. They believe we are all hermanos, all brothers, all connected to each other and to nature which they strive to preserve. When did it all go so wrong for us?
La Ciudad Perdida

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Punta Gallinas – the northernmost point of South America

Punta Gallinas

Guajira province sits right at the top end of Colombia and the peninsular juts out into the Caribbean. If you are imagining idyllic beaches and swaying palm trees, you’d only be half right. Instead of top end resorts, travel here is basic and rustic. The continent peters out in an almost savage landscape of desert and dunes. The Wayuu people call this home and they lead an impoverished yet independent existence based on fishing, handicrafts and tourism.

Wayuu women

It’s quite difficult to travel here by public transport, so I opted for an organised tour in a jeep with five other tourists. I organised it through a company in Santa Marta, although they were just the agents for Kai Ecotravel in Riohacha, where the tour actually began. I took a three hour bus journey to Riohacha and stayed overnight. 

Salt mines at Manaure

The next day I met my travelling companions and guide and we set off to our first destination, the salt mines at Manaure, which were a surreal sight. Then we headed to Cabo de la Vela where we were to spend the night. Accommodation is strung along the only road which runs parallel to to the beach. You sleep in hammocks, or the locally designed chinchorros which have blankets at the side. There are basic rooms available as well. 

Cabo de la Vela

Cabo de la Vela has a bit of a frontier feel to it with sandy unpaved roads. We climbed the local hill, called Pilón de Azúcar, which has great views over the surrounding area, then swam in the beach below, before watching a spectacular sunset.

Off road in the desert

The following day we continued our journey north to arrive at Playa Taroa, a beach which you access by sliding down sand dunes. A bit further to the west is the lighthouse at Punta Gallinas which marks the northernmost point of the continent. It’s wild and rugged, yet tropical at the same time. Our jeep got stuck in the sand dunes and we spent a hour or so digging out the wheels and pushing.

Playa Taroa

For much of the trip you are travelling off-road, across barren desert landscapes, but occasionally you pass along dirt tracks through Wayuu settlements. The kids and some adults operate a toll system, in which they pull ropes across the roads and only allow you to continue if you contribute gifts, such as water, rice, coffee and biscuits. It’s quite a sad sight. The Wayuu protect their independence fiercely, but in return they get little help from the government. Like indigenous groups all over the world, they are at the bottom rung of the ladder in society.

Wayuu boy accepting a handout

The third day was basically the drive back to Riohacha, but we began with a pleasant if short boat trip across the Bahia Honda. On the whole it was a great trip, but like many organised tours too much time was spent travelling in the jeep. If you are in a group and can share costs, it’s also possible to go independently. It’s not an easy experience, but it’s definitely a real adventure. 

Landing bay near the hostel in Punta Gallinas

A journey back in time in Mompox on the Rio Magdalena

The Rio Magdalena at Mompox

Mompox may sound like something you need to inoculate your children against, but in fact it’s a stunningly humid and attractive old town that sits on the bank of the Rio Magdalena in Colombia. It’s one of those languid country places left behind by history and modernity, a victim of progress, as railways and river transport become a thing of the past. 

Iglesia de Santa Bárbara

I wanted to come 18 years ago on my first trip to Colombia. For centuries Mompox acted as a midway staging post for pirogues and sampans ferrying people and goods from the port city of Cartagena to Honda, from where the journey up to Bogotá in the mountains would be completed on mules. 

Plaza de San Francisco

Back in 1999 it seemed that there was still river transport from Honda to Mompox. Before I ever set foot in Latin America, I’d read “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” and “Love In The Time Of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez and dreamed of journeying down the Rio Magdalena. However, that was a time before so much information was available at a click of Google, so I was a little unprepared. I hadn’t realised that so much of the country was off limits due to guerilla activity, in particular huge stretches of the river. 

Street in Mompox

Almost two decades on travel is safe, but sadly river transport has virtually died out, so I had to catch a bus from Bucamaranga. The journey took about eight hours and the scenery was impressive as we descended from the low mountains of the Andes to the steaming hot plains and farmlands surrounding the river. The sun was setting, casting glorious shades of red, as we crossed over what looked like a new bridge on our way into Mompox and I got my first sighting of the river.

Building by the river in Mompox

There’s not a huge amount to do apart from wander the cobbled streets, admiring the colonial buildings and churches, many of which have been restored. It’s oppressively hot and the streets empty during the heat of the day. In the evening locals eschew television in favour of moving their chairs out onto the street in front of their homes. They talk to passersby and listen to old ballads from the 50s.

Local fisherman

I was keen to get out onto the river and luckily there are boat trips organised every day leaving at 3pm which take you along the Magdalena and then into the narrow channels of the Ciénaga de Pijiño. This is a kind of wetlands where you can see hundreds of herons and white egrets as well as huge lizards and local fishermen casting their nets.

White egrets

For years Mompox has been stuck in a time warp, but things are changing. Restaurants are opening and there are some good places to stay, but it remains a laid back place that hasn’t yet succumbed to mass tourism. It’s a good idea to come now, before it becomes too overdeveloped.

Locals on the river

Enjoying the great outdoors in San Gil, Colombia

Barichara

San Gil in Santander province is one of Colombia’s great outdoors destinations. It’s a mecca for people wanting to go white-water rafting and paragliding. Fortunately, even if you’re not into extreme sports, there are plenty of easier activities to indulge in, such as trekking and swimming. Situated in the low Andes, the surrounding countryside is magnificent. It’s also an extremely religious place, as I discovered when the church bells began pealing at 5.40am. 

Parque El Gallineral

The area north of Bogotá including the states of Boyaca and Santander was a major battlefield for independence from Spain two centuries ago when Bolívar and his armies crossed backwards and forwards into Venezuela. Ever since then Colombia has suffered extraordinary violence, in particular the wars over the last 50 years between the government, the guerillas and the paramilitaries. Luckily, peace has arrived in the past few years and San Gil is now extremely safe to visit.

Parque El Gallineral

On my first day I explored the small city park, El Gallineral, on the banks of the Rio Fonce which has recently been created. For a more rustic local experience I then caught a bus out to the town of Curiti which is close to the Pescaderito, a collection of natural swimming pools and waterfalls. I was told that you can catch a moto taxi from the main square, but I was surprised to see that these were in fact tuk-tuks, or auto rickshaws. For a moment it was like being back in India or Thailand. The first pool is quite tacky with music blaring out, so I wandered further up the track away from the crowds. 

Pescaderito

An alternative to San Gil is to stay in Barichara, a beautifully preserved colonial town just 45 minutes away by bus. However, it’s more expensive, so I was happy to visit as a day trip. From Barichara there is a fabulous restored trekking route, the Camino Real, which descends the valley to the even more timeless hamlet of Guane. It’s a path which follows old trading routes originally linking the local people to the coast and subsequently used by the Spanish. It’s also extremely hot.

Trekking the Camino Real

So far Colombia has surprised me. In some ways it’s not like South America at all, but closer to Europe. It feels safe, it’s easy to get around and the people are extraordinarily friendly and helpful. It’s very different from when I was here in 1999, when travelling by bus was a definite no-no. It’s sad that other countries around the world that I visited are now becoming off limits, like Syria for example. But it’s great to see a place like Colombia emerging from conflict and opening to tourism.