Why you must always throw a cat upstream – the Ciudad Perdida trek

First of all, I should explain why I wanted to drag my exercise-shy ass through a muddy, mosquito-infested jungle for five days, sleeping in hammocks every night. Basically, the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek is said to be a bit like Peru’s Inca Trail, except there are far fewer people doing it, it’s only been open to tours for a few years so it’s far from trampled and it’s said to be more about the journey than the destination, which considering the destination is an awesome abandoned city meant the journey would be incredible. My favourite thing about Colombia is that there are hardly any tourists here – I’ve only been to the most touristy places so far (apart from Cabo and Punta Gallinas) and still there are hardly any other travellers and not many people speak English. That’s why I love being here so much, right now. In a few years the country will be swarming with people realising how safe it is to travel (there are strict penalties for crimes against tourists and I’ve seen first-hand an entire town chasing a man for stealing a mobile phone from someone) and how beautiful and diverse the country is. I’ve only been on the Caribbean coast in my three weeks here but so far I’ve seen a colonial city, a beach town, the desert, remote villages, the jungle and ancient ruins. In the next two weeks I’ll also be seeing snow-capped mountains, rivers, farms, coffee plantations and the Amazon. Everything is in Colombia, except tourists.

Which brings me to the Ciudad Perdida trek, a five-day slog up hills, through mud, enduring rain, insects and lots of sweat and sleeping in damp hammocks to reach a city abandoned and only recently discovered. The Inca Trail sees 500 people a day walking the well-trodden trails and it’s slowly sinking from the weight. The Ciudad Perdida trail sees maybe 40 people a day, according to what I observed. Quite a difference. And apart from mosquitoes and the odd raised tree root it’s totally safe too. Guerrillas used to patrol the jungle here, and tourists have been kidnapped, but today there is no such problem. We passed so many contra guerrillas looking after the route and making sure it’s safe, and many indigenous families still live in the jungle. It is a fantastic place to visit.

The trek started with a two-hour drive to the Sierra Nevada, 11 of us crammed into the back of a tiny 4×4 – a great way to get to know our new travel buddies rather intimately. On the trip was me, Laura, a German brother and sister Jochen and Yana who were the sweetest people and really close, two Slovenian couples Anna and Damien and Dianna and Leon (yes there were essentially four ‘Anna’s in the group), a lovely Belgian couple Marie and Jef and a hilarious Italian guy Michele. Our guides were Miguel (a 23-year-old kid who I call Mogli) and Gabriel, who brought his six-year-old son Gabrielito along for the whole walk. Gabrielito kept up with us the whole way (in fact I think he was in front most of the time) and never complained even though the trek was ridiculously challenging. Brilliant kid, I have a photo of the father and son up at the Lost City, which I want to frame it’s so gorgeous.

So we arrived at Camp 1 in the truck where all we did was have a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch before setting off on foot. We saw a group having lunch next to us who had just come back from the trek, and they all looked clean, sparky and happy, so we (mistakenly) took this to mean the trek couldn’t be that hard… How wrong we were. The walk started along a lovely flat past a school and over a couple of shallow rivers. The flat lasted long enough that I was fooled into thinking the walk wouldn’t be so bad after all. But that day we had four hours to do, and there was so much more to come. Then the uphill started. And never stopped. Mogli carried my backpack for 10 minutes, which was a massive relief but I still managed to sweat from pores I never knew I had. It was hard. But the views were incredible and the banter between the group nicely distracting.

Then came the rain. And the mud and clay. It nearly took my trainers off it was so thick and there was no avoiding it. As we were going up and down steep hills we all kept sliding around and I managed to land butt-down in the clay, covering my backpack (somehow managing to keep my actual bum clean). I was soaked with rain and sweat, muddy and exhausted, and the watermelon and banana breaks faded into the back of my memory as we slogged on.

Finally Camp 2 came into sight and we all rejoiced before picking a hammock for the night. I went for the one on the end thinking I wouldn’t have to be wedged between people. Unfortunately it turned out to be right next to the toilet block, so I spent the entire night listening to people slap past in their flip flops, shining their torches into my hammock, slam the loo door, pee (and worse on one occasion) then slap back. The whole time I thought about the nine-hour uphill trek I had ahead of me on no sleep… But before all that we had a really nice evening, with a delicious dinner of chicken by candlelight and got to learn all about Miguel’s childhood working on his family’s coca farm.

Moving on, needless to say after no sleep and being in a bad mood because of it, I found Day 2 rather difficult, not least because my clothes were still dripping wet from the day before and I only brought one pair of trousers. Not a comfortable experience getting dressed. The first half of the walk had a nice bit of downhill, and I’d mastered the skill of walking in mud without painting the butt of my trousers a different colour, and we had a few fantastic swimming breaks where we all ripped off our sweaty clothes and jumped in in our underwear (no one was prepared with bathing suits). Michele, the hilarious Italian guy, decided after the swim to carry on the trek in just his Y-fronts (we told him looked like Borat), which was especially amusing when we walked past an indigenous family and he asked them innocently if that was a coca plant. I have photos. In fact, here you go I’ll treat you to one…

We stopped at Camp 3 for lunch (the food was amazing throughout the trek and we were given snacks en route just when we needed them) and a swim in the massive river then set off for the second half of the day’s walking. After another long slog uphill we finally arrived at Camp 4, right by the Lost City, where we turned in for the night. That night Michele realised he’d left his technical T-shirt hanging on the washing line at Camp 3. I consoled him with the fact that I’ve left loads of clothes and other things behind in various places, and we decided that Pachamama was taking our things, which made me feel a bit better. “It’s ok, your things are with Pachamama now.” Pachamama is basically Mother Nature. Whenever you leave something behind at a hostel or wherever you will never ever get it back – everyone will deny all knowledge of ever having seen your belongings. So the idea that Pachamama has my things, as opposed to another traveller, makes me feel ok about it, in a stupid way. So far she has taken my shorts, two vests, one T-shirt, my mozzie repellent, a few things I can’t recall anymore and several other things that I haven’t yet realised are gone.

Anyway, back to the story. Camp 4 was a great place, right next to a gushing, freezing river where we all bathed as the shower was broken. So as soon as we arrived we all stripped to our underwear again (we became rather good at this and had a laugh at all the different underwear choices of the boys), got out the bars of soap and scrubbed the sweat and mud off. Bearing in mind we also drank from this river daily I’m surprised no one got sick. Then we covered ourselves in Magic Soap (explained later), stood there air drying and got dressed behind the bunk beds while holding up a towel for each other. There was a section of mud next to the beds that we had all mentally separated into the ‘toothpaste spitting’ area and the ‘changing room’ area. It was a pretty basic camp… Camp 4 was also where we resumed the telling of life stories, starting with Gabriel, followed the next afternoon by half of our group. There was also a kitten there, and I quickly became her mum – she would jump up on my lap and start sucking and kneading on my fleece sleeve. She was so cute and let me carry her around everywhere. Camp 4 had beds as well as hammocks, which meant a better night’s sleep, even though the area was so damp the beds were wet and rotten smelling. But we didn’t exactly smell like flowers ourselves so we gave Pachamama the much less desirable gift of our combined stench. Everyone left their clothes out to dry overnight next to the bunk beds (all open air but with roofs) but they ended up damper than before. Whoops!

The morning of Day 3 was Lost City day, so we got up nice and early and had breakfast with hot chocolate and coffee (a standard for the trip and much appreciated by all as it was rather chilly in the mornings). I should probably mention the weather. The whole time it was pretty humid, especially in the camps. Everything was quite damp and as soon as the sun went down it was practically arctic. I’m so glad I brought my fleece with me, but would have killed for a sleeping bag. Also, every morning (apart from one) it started dry, then rained from 1pm or 2pm onwards. A tip for anyone planning on doing this is bring two pairs of shorts (above the knee) for the walk and five pairs of socks. Also, I wore a gym bra, which was great for swimming in as well as walking. Also, I recommend comfy shoes with excellent grip, a bin bag, a sleeping bag, a waterproof camera, something to sleep in (all the girls had leggings, it was like transporting back to the 80s) and a rain jacket. Oh, and good mozzie repellent. We had a repellent we called Magic Soap, actually named No Pickex or something like that. Every time we put it on (after every river crossing, plus every night and morning) Michele would sing “It’s a kind of magic, magic, magic sooooooaaaap.” It made scrubbing yourself with smelly grey soap a bit more fun than it should be.

So after a good and very necessary Magic Soap session we set off for the fabled Lost City. Basically 20 minutes of scrambling up vertical rock faces with no grips, walking over one-foot-wide muddy paths with a sheer rock face on one side and a river 100ft below and lots of other obstacles more treacherous and dangerous than anything we’d encountered so far on the walk. In a couple of years there will be rope barriers I imagine, ruining the allure of the virgin rainforest. Then there was 40 minutes of craggy, uneven, small, slippery steps up to the City itself. I managed to find myself at the front of the group at one point, dragging one foot after the other up the steps, and when I asked if I was going too slow for everyone there was a collective “yes”. Bloody masochists. Anyway we eventually reached the City after taking a million photos of us all in various poses on the steps and attempting to replicate the photo in the Lonely Planet except with dogs (they followed us from here back to Camp 1 the following Friday). [I realise the picture below is sideways, I blame the technology.]

As we were there bright and early in the morning it wasn’t raining so we got to see the City in perfect weather. The views were incredible. We were above scattered clouds for the whole week, so from here it was stunning to see the City with a backdrop of forested mountains disappearing into smoky clouds, a spooky and incredible sight. We walked to the very top of the City where we had a view of the main part and also where the contra guerrillas lived. We stood at the top for ages chatting and taking photos and eating much-appreciated Bon Bon Bums (boiled sweet lollies with bubble gum inside) from Gabriel and getting our pictures with the contra guerrilla guys and their guns. Then we wandered around the rest of the City, which is sprawling and mostly still covered in dense jungle. We sat down in a little house where people used to spend three days at a time discussing the new houses they wouldbuild, and stopped for a cookie break by a waterfall.

The walk back down the steps was almost harder than the way up, as the steps were practically one under the other, but we did it to shouts of encouragement from Michele who lives in the Dolomites and has scaled K2 and Everest, “Come on you lazy people, you can go faster than that, it’s easy, I do this every day” or something like that. I miss him.

Back at the camp we all promptly fell asleep in hammocks to the sound of heavy rain, a much-needed nap. When we woke up we shouted at the kitchen to please make us some coffee (they did, and gave us popcorn) and sat down in the tables area and chatted. Then I noticed something disturbing: my gatito was soaking wet. “Laura, how do you say ‘Who threw the cat in the river’ in Spanish?” And off I went on a mission. Turned out it was Miguel/Mogli, so I told him the kitten didn’t appreciate being thrown in the river, as she sat there licking the horrible river water off her delicate fur. “She was dirty! And anyway, I threw her upstream. It’s very important to always throw a cat upstream so you can catch it.” I gave her a cuddle, she licked herself dry then checked out a dead rat with its intestines hanging out. Normality resumed.

After popcorn (salty, but I dipped it in sugar, henceforth being known by the group as the girl who loves sugar and sleeping next to toilets – it‘s nice to give a good impression of oneself) we had dinner and another Gol bar (a wafer and caramel chocolate bar that we got after every dinner – I was eating two every time as Laura didn’t like them – like all my Christmases at once) and carried on sharing our life stories. So in our group we had a medical image processor (I can‘t remember the name for it?), a social worker, a professor, a web designer, a student of owls, a light operator (or something, I couldn’t hear everything as Mogli was distracting me with inane chatter), a bus driver in the Dolomites, a student and a journalist.

Everyone was behaving with the reckless abandon of a group of trekkers whose tough days of walking were over and like all we had left was a gentle stroll back to the first camp. We even treated ourselves to a beer, and the Slovenian couple (Anna and Damien had left that morning as they were on a four-day trek so we had only one Slovenian couple left) had brought the local poison from their country, which we all had a swig of. But our celebrating was a little premature it seemed, as the next day was one of the hardest. It started off great, mostly downhill on dry jungle trails past piglets and lots of gorgeous rainforest – I was way at the front of the pack and even ran for some of it with Mogli, I had so much energy and it was great fun. We stopped for lunch after a refreshing dip in the river and resumed the walk. I nearly died. This was on a par with the toughest sections of the outbound journey. The ascent was practically vertical and went on for about three weeks. Of course, Miguel found it easy and decided to prove this by carrying someone’s backpack on his head. We pointed out to each other that he wouldn’t have done that if he’d been at the back of the pack with no one to see him…

Thankfully the terrain flattened out and we could all breathe at a normal pace once again and resume conversations that involved more than just “Going…to…die…”. There was even some nice downhill at one point – a hill I very much remembered coming up, so I cursed it and said “In your face, hill” and lots of other mature things as I ran back down it, stomping on its evil near-vertical surface.

When we arrived back at Camp 2 I ran for the hammock furthest from the toilets while the rest of the group pulled out a bunch of cakes and Milo brownies they’d somehow managed to keep hidden for the past four days. I grabbed the remainder of the trail mix I’d put together (peanuts, raisins and m and m’s) and we had a hearty sugar-filled feast. Then little Gabrielito came and sat with us (well, with Michele, they’d formed an adorable bond), and we gave him his first ever m and m. He bit it in half, asked how it was made, took off the shell and sucked the chocolate. Living in the jungle he has never seen anything like it, it was so cute to watch.

That evening we resumed telling our stories by candlelight, where we discovered the sadder side to some people’s lives. I think we all felt closer as a group and I was glad to have such lovely people to travel with.

The last day wasn’t so bad, a lot of downhill, resulting in painful toes all round, but the views were incredible and we got back to Camp 1 by about 12:30pm, in time for another amazing meal and to warn all the incoming trekkers about to set off that their brand new Salomon trainers were not going to stay so shiny. Mwa ha ha.

After a two-hour drive back to Santa Marta we all agreed to meet for dinner and some well-deserved drinks. I gave my trainers, backpack and clothes to the laundry service (the trainers came out cleaner than when I bought them, how did they do that?!). Then by complete chance Damien and Anna turned up in the hostel, so it was all 11 of us together again! We headed out for dinner but were followed by a Swiss hippy, kind of tainting our team celebrations, but we managed to shake him, had a few cocktails (I got pretty drunk as I’m not used to drinking so finished off with a maracuya smoothie), ate a terrible dinner in a tourist restaurant and went to bed – we were all beyond shattered!

Talking of the maracuya smoothie, I should mention the street food here while I remember – it’s so good, one of my favourite things about Colombia (possibly it’s only on the coast though, I’m yet to venture out in Medellin) – you can go to a street stall and get freshly squeezed smoothies with milk or water of any fruit, all local and delicious, and you can buy all sorts of amazing hot food. My favourite is the papas con carne – a ball of potato with minced beef inside. You can also get arepa con huevo, a dough with a friend egg inside, plus the best hotdogs ever (with pineapple sauce – amazing) and a bunch of other delightful delicacies. I love the food here. I hear the typical plate in Medellin consists of about six different things and is big enough for two people – can’t wait to try that!