Colombia days 12-16: Go Get Lost at the Ciudad Perdida

The campsites each night came with all the creatures, if not always the comforts. Our toilets were shared with frogs, spiders and the risk of snakes, and our mattresses with bed bugs. 

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Blog post 3 lost city
The Lost City trek in Northern Colombia usually takes four days to complete. Usually, because in 2003 a group of trekkers took 101 days after being kidnapped by the Marxist ELN guerrillas. Either that, or they got really FARC-ing lost.

Their experience was nothing compared to the Tayrona civilisation that lived there however; they spent 2,400 years there, until the Spanish arrived and expediently helped them ‘find’ God.

The site was ‘rediscovered’ in 1972 by tomb raiders looking for gold. And while never truly ‘lost’ to the local communities, nowadays it’s been well and truly found.

Up to 150 trekkers embark on the route each day, and the gold flows the other way: 30% of the tour price is distributed among local communities to promote sustainable living (read: not farming coca).

With a military encampment now situated directly above the ruins, the risk of kidnapping is close to none. But that’s not to say the trek is without other dangers.

Running of the Bulls
Those who thought only drunk Australians in Pamplona could run with bulls, have yet to experience the Colombian version.

The first leg of the trek is an ascent up a dirt road, a steep embankment on one side and a ravine on the other, shared with local cowboys taking herds of cattle to the mountain pastures.

Sometimes the animals break free, and just like the tour operators, they charge like wounded bulls. A few years ago, 6 tourists were hurt by one animal alone.

Mules
Time was in Colombia that mule still actually meant an infertile donkey-horse hybrid. These plod along the Lost City track each day tied nose to tail like a donkey centipede, carrying up to 100 kilos of gear – and that’s just on the outside. While usually placid, wander too close behind and they are liable to kick out a hind leg.

Watering holes
The track follows mountain streams with many swimming holes and waterfalls. The most picturesque is at the camp on first night, a natural rock pool with a three-metre ledge you can safely jump off.

It also has also a six-metre ledge you can easily slip off. One girl caught her leg upon leaping off and cartwheeled down the cliff face. While she fortunately avoided head injury and certain death, she unfortunately did not capture it on Go-Pro.

Other tourists had not been so lucky: a Frenchman had broken his neck diving off here a previous time, while another had broken his back jumping in at a different spot.

Accommodation
The campsites each night came with all the creatures, if not always the comforts. Our toilets were shared with frogs, spiders and the risk of snakes, and our mattresses with bed bugs.

The first night’s camp beds smelt like Battersea Dogs Home in the jungle. A young Dutch couple opted to sleep in hammocks, which was more hygienic once they’d removed the used tampon found within.

Colombia marching powder
As mentioned, part of the trekking fee is returned to locals to incentivise them not to harvest coca, the source material used in cocaine. Despite government efforts, Colombia’s coca production is at its highest point since 1994.

Around the Lost City local communities mix the leaves with ground sea shells to use in initiation ceremonies for adolescent boys, and for sustenance to walk long distances without food: it is literally a marching powder.

When I took some one evening as part of our ‘cultural awareness’ aspect of the trip (no, seriously), my lips went numb and I lay restless for two hours in bed listening to the rain.

Us being jerks
We were searching for a lost civilisation, but at some point civility too got lost along the way.
On day 2 we met our first group returning from the City, as the track is one route in and out.

“Just 10 minutes!” said one trekker as we passed, struggling up an interminable muddy slope. It was 50 minutes before we made the top of the hill, and then another hour to the camp.

When it was us on the return, we knew what to do. .

“Just 10 minutes!” we said, giggling, to a sweaty older German man, who had at least 1.5 days to go of the trek, and looking at him, less of life. The ante was soon upped.

“It’s shit, turn back!” we said to the next.

Changing tack, we started to speak aloud snippets of false conversations as we passed each new walker. These soon took a dark turn:

“They say she was attacked by a machete.”

“The snake was in the toilet. He couldn’t escape from it.”

“Taken by a jaguar. Who’d have thought…”

The worst though was asking the solo Dutch girl whether she’d liked the Lost City.

“What do you mean? I haven’t reached it yet.”

“You should have, it was back there…” A look of horror on her face, she hurried off to reach her group and tell them there’d been a big mistake.

It’s a well-worn trope of backpackers to say that “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” that matters.

Well, in the Lost City, it’s definitely the destination. Unless you’ve been kidnapped, at which point the return is also important.

Colombia, day 17-20: Slackpackers on the Caribbean

Stuart from England promised he knew the “best drinking game involving ping-pong balls”.

Blog post 4 image slackpackers

Stuart from England promised he knew the “best drinking game involving ping-pong balls”.

We were happy prisoners in the Dreamer Hostel in Palomino on the Caribbean, where everyone was describing Colombia as the “new Thailand” for backpackers.

Given Thailand’s reputation, I was curious to see what Stu’s ping-pong ball game entailed. “It’s called Chunderella,” he announced.

We put down the pool cues and gathered around for Stu to explain his game. “The rules are as follows,” he began.

I’ll spare you the swear words of a direct quote, but in essence, everyone puts some of their drink in their cup and arranges them in a circle around a central cup, which contains some of everyone’s drinks.

You then take turns to bounce a ping-pong ball over the cups, and whoever’s cup it lands in, drinks.

If it lands in the central cup, everyone drinks, and then races to flip their cup upside down. The last person to do so, drinks the concoction in the central cup. And everyone cheers.

With a bit of imagination you could see the upstairs at Downton Abbey playing it as a parlour game after charades.

It wasn’t Mah Jong in its complexity, but flipping an upside-down cup onto a table could still be devilishly hard.

This missing life skill was yet another difference I had noted between myself and the younger generation of backpackers around me.

It was all part of the cultural experience of backpacking in my 30s. And spending three weeks among the youth was nothing if not a life-affirming experience.

Just as activism has given away to slacktivism, so too has the art of backpacking become almost as easy as clicking a button. So, here are some observations I made about Generation Slackpacker:

  • Thanks to smartphones, wifi and WhatsApp, it’s really easy to look up anything: hostels, travel itineraries, and that Dutch girl with the cheeky smile on Facebook.
  • No thanks to smartphones, conversation is harder IRL. There’s a diminished sense of community in backpackers, with more people nose-deep in smartphones or laptops (which are lighter than ever to carry).
  • The time once spent working out logistics, is now spent on working out your body: every single male by the poolside has a six pack, (except for when I was at the poolside).
  • My lack of any tattoos was a permanent marker of my age.

Yet for everything that has changed around the world in the last 10 years, backpacking among youth is still as life-affirmed as ever.

Part of the reason is that so few care to ask what you do. And for good reason: young backpackers don’t define themselves by the jobs they do, but the places they’ve been.

In fact, backpackers are invariably only interested in the same three questions:

  • Where are you from?
  • Where have you come from?
  • And was it any good? 

The hostel in the Unesco-listed Cartagena had even formalised the questions into its arrivals card for new occupants.

“Coming from?”, it asked on one line. I wrote: “The Amazon”.

“Going to?:” it said below. Ignoring my dorm roomies (the two huffy French girls and the German kid far too young for his existential crisis), I wrote: “Have a good time.”

And have a good time I certainly did.