Our guidebook gave the impression that if you're not Bear Grylls you shouldn't attempt the 6 day trek to the Lost City. The tour guide with dollar signs in his eyes said it'd be easy. The truth lies somewhere between the two, with the slidometer moving to a different point on that scale every 5 minutes.
We opted to do it in 5 days so with 5-days worth of kit in our backpacks we took a 3 hour chivas (open sided jeep with metal bench seats. Very prone to breaking down) away from the coast and into the hills where we met our fellow Trekkers & ate lunch. Timed perfectly to ensure the first days walking began in mid-day heat (around 34 degrees), and on a full stomach.
12 of us plus our guide Rodriguez set off at an alarming pace through a village called Machete and straight onto a trail so gnarled with tree roots we river-danced our way to the first (of 20+) river crossings. With it being dry season the rivers were low so with the exception of 2 crossings that we had to wade through (checking legs for leeches on exit) they were all deemed suitable for leaping across rocks. My mountain-goat like balance was exceptional as I gracefully skipped across without a single swear passing my lips*.
Away from the river we climbed an incredibly steep chalk hill (the path formed from rain cutting through the limestone creating a high sided track that no whisper of a breeze could get to) for 90 minutes. The beauty of climbing up chalk is that it moves under your feet so for every 50cm you step up you slide back 25. By the end of this natures-travelator I considered dying as the most likely way of finishing the trek.
Thankfully an unknown force (later understood to be Flor our cook for the duration) had skipped on ahead and at the final turn we found a tray of melon waiting. This was a reoccurring theme of the walk- every time it got incredibly hot/steep/difficult terrain we were rewarded with fresh fruit. As we were carrying limited water (too heavy) and sweating unbelievable amounts this was a very welcome touch.
After that climb we were assured it was easy from there (all things being relative -it was) until we reached camp: hammocks and a river to swim/wash in.
Once the sun had set (around 6.30- close to the equator here so even day/night hours) it got cold quickly. Changed into long trousers & sleeves, socks over trousers (scouse-style) in an attempt to defy the millions of bird-sized biting bugs, we ate rice & eggs by candlelight & then climbed into hammocks hoping a) the mozzie nets didn't have too many holes in them b) the animals around us kept a polite distance away. That night we saw nothing more than spiders but the frog, monkey & bird chorus was relentless, and like everything in Columbia, really bloody loud.
5.30 Day 2 we waved goodbye to 6 people who'd opted to complete the trek in 4 days and 6 of us enjoyed a lie in (in reality extra time to uncurl limbs and stretch back into human form after a fairly uncomfortable night with not much sleep).
As Rodriguez had gone on with the fast group Flor became our new guide. Rodriguez's 30 or so words of English suddenly seemed quite useful as we realised the fluent bilingual Trekkers were all in the other group and Flor spoke only very fast, loud and feisty Spanish. At 5ft 1, toting a machete, with leg muscles like Jeff Capes, Flor was not a woman to be messed with.
She marched us up and down hills, crossing rivers, pointing out indigenous dwellings and talking non-stop the entire day. Between myself & Goetz (a fellow trekker) we translated and relayed questions back (How high is this climb? Are we nearly there yet?) until we reached camp 2. Flor walked us so quickly we caught the fast group up by lunch time.
Camp 2 was a row of beds under nets, under a tin roof. We washed ourselves and our stinky clothes in the river, explored a bit and were in our stylish night attire by sunset. With no electricity and no other company we bought some beer off the camp owner and settled down for some mindless chat before 8.30 bedtime.
Flor had other ideas however. Sanuel, the camp owner, was the first indigenous person we'd met up close so Flor summoned him to do a 'show and tell' for us. 6 knackered gringos, language barriers in every direction and a naturally shy tribesman would not be anyone's perfect dinner party mix but it was great fun.
Flor : Sanuel, show them what you carry in your bag.
Sanuel (looking slightly baffled) reaches past the leaf-woven traditional bag all Kogi men carry, past the hollow gourd strapped to the waist of his all-white tribal suit and from a nylon bag produces a 1980's CB radio.
After a brilliant 30 seconds of him proffering some old tech at us like he'd just launched a new iPhone, and us all not knowing quite what to say Flor took charge. Sanuel got told off for being dim and was made to put the radio away and show us the contents of the more traditional bags.
As he emptied a fair amount of marching powder on the table you could see the penny drop - Oh, you meant show the gringos the drugs I'm continuously rubbing into my gums. Got it!
Kogi folk prefer their class A traditional style so a mix of ground shells & coca leaves are used to give a little pick me up. It was only polite to try it, and Sanuel told us we'd walk much faster the next day: apparently Kogi men go off hunting for 3 days at a time with no need for food or water, just a gourd full of the good stuff.
With no discernible effects (leaves taste like generic green plant, shells of nothing much) we thanked our host, bought more beer from him and bid him goodnight.
Not sure whether it was our reduction in numbers, the more exposed environment, the big cats & snakes we'd been told about, or exhaustion kicking in but night 2 in the jungle felt different. Eerily silent and very cold (I went minesweeping empty beds and got 3 blankets but was still freezing) it was a long night.
Day 3 was very similar to day 2 - we did indeed walk fast but that was down to Flor rather than coca leaves. She explained on day 2 that as non-indigenous types we weren't allowed into the villages we were walking past but on day 3 she clocked an empty dwelling shared by the local tribe and as no-one was about, took us all in for a look.
In Kogi communities men live in the big huts on the higher ground, women and children in the smaller ones. Marriage occurs within tribe only and the happy couple are sent off to one of the fincas (tribe owned shared hut) away from the village to consummate the event. On their return he joins the men, she returns to the women/children.
This continues for ever! Sex has to be booked in and the whole village knows about it. Privacy is not a privilege of village life.
The exception is the Shaman who lives in his own house (his wife lives in a neighbouring one. Smaller, obvs) and works between villages. We visited a Shamans house and were shown round the herb garden where he grows cures for typhoid, malaria and cancer. This last claim was met with a long silence from our group.
Despite not living as a family unit the wives cook for the family so once a quarter will visit the shared mill and grind enough maize and sugar for their own. The mill is assembled & strapped to a mule who then circles the hut until it's done.
Kogi children go to school until the age of 6 when they start work. In 5 days of walking we passed one school building and when we asked Sanuel he told us it's too far away for his kids to bother going. The average brood incidentally is 10 children per couple.
The Kogi people dress all in white apart from their gum boots, machete harnesses and bags (men only) and are visibly facially different to non-indigenous Columbians. Closer to Mayan features we'd seen in Central America.
Beliefs wise, they're all about the moon and sun- we trekked at full moon and can understand why they revere it: it makes a big difference to your hunting chances when every animal comes out to play, and you can vaguely see them.
Anyway, day 3 got us to base camp where we slept in a tent and got up at 5.30 to climb the steps to the Lost City.
Cuidad Perdida : the Lost City.
From around 900 AD it's believed that several thousand Kogis lived in one settlement (Teyuna) in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They had an established town with 1000ish dwellings, dance floors, ceremonial buildings, sacrificial stones, maps (carved into large rocks), work shops etc but the Spanish invasion bought disease their way and sometime around 1560 they had to abandon the area and move higher into the mountains. The place then reforested and become lost beneath masses of trees.
It wasn't until 1975 that explorers rediscovered the 1200 stone steps up to city and began clearing vast amounts of jungle to reveal the stone remains. From the 80s it's been open to tourists although a bout of kidnapping took it off the 'must do' list until 2003 when the Columbian government put a permanent military presence in place at the site.
Today it's considered very safe and the 20 or so visible soldiers are tourist friendly. We were told there's another 60 or so patrolling the wider area too but we didn't spot them. As a result of the military camp there is wifi in Teyuna.
We'd been warned that the city itself is not that impressive and that the trek is the best bit. The trek was fun (in a sometimes miserable, sweaty, exhausting way) but the Lost City was stunning.
Rodriguez joined us again and gave us lots of information about the way of living and explained things that otherwise would've just looked like small walls. 3 hours of gawping, learning and swatting away huge Mosquitos, we descended the steps and began the full journey in reverse.
Stopping off for another night at Sanuels place we did the return leg a day quicker as there's
more downhill (not that much mind. Still the climbs came in long sections and the descents were pretty brutal too). Our final day we set out at 5.30 and added pitch black river crossings to the list of achievements.
On reflection one of the hardest treks I've done. The distance is only 49km but the terrain, heat, humidity and bugs all made it feel a lot harder but other than flying over in a helicopter it's the only way to see Teyuna and it was definitely worth it.
After several showers, a trip to the launderette and a day lounging back on the coast we'd almost forgotten the misery of the climbs. Pain is fleeting, the thrill of seeing sunrise over Sierra Nevada from a throne in the Lost City will last a lot lot longer.
*in my dreams. At one point Rodriguez ended up in the river trying to help me stay dry.