Cartegena had prepared me somewhat for the temperatures and humidity of Santa Marta. But I was about to embark on a 4 day trek in the jungle where I would find a new brand of suffering from the heat, one that had bugs, mosquito repellant, sunscreen and sweat all mixed into one disgusting mass that would cascade off one’s body in uncontrollable puddles. In addition, 4 days of gross would not end up being enough for me and I sought more punishment by actually combining what is typically two trips into one – hiking through and staying in Tayrona on my return journey from Ciudad Perdida, aka The Lost City.
The actual Lost City is a set of archaeological ruins from a city built by the Tayrona people in approximately 800 AD. It was only discovered in the 1970’s by a team of explorers searching the hills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in search of gold. What has now been re-constructed is about 600 stone ‘platforms’ that formed the basis for their sacred city in the jungle.
There were at least 30 or so individuals starting the hike the same day I did, and it became quickly obvious that this was not going to be as easy from a physical standpoint as I had been expecting. These were long, arduous uphill slogs, river crossings and often marching through clouds of thick dust that kicked up and coated your skin with white powder. The vegetation was lush and beautiful and often gave way to impressive vistas of mountains covered in thick trees as far as the eye could see.
Along the trail, we encountered several villages of the indigenous people who still live in this valley – The Kogi. Our guides talked us through the Kogi traditions and ways of life which were totally fascinating, albeit slightly disturbing as well. These people still live in huts made from tree bark and all the men and women wear white dress-like garments and keep their hair long, only parted in the middle. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish the males from the females except for their cultural trademarks: women wear multiple colorful beads, and the men carry a “mochilla’ – a colorful purse that contains their “gord” of power.
Gord of power? – you may ask. Well, the Kogi men officially become so on their 18th birthdays. At this time, they are brought to one of the Shamens of the village to receive their gord and instruction on how to use it. Essentially, the hollow gord is used to mix crushed coca leaves with a type of sea shell powder that they then stick a type of spoon into, then lick, and continually do this from morning till night. The powder and coca leaves combine to form a potent drug that keeps the men alert and full of vigor. It is essentially one of the old processes that helped form the idea for cocaine production.
Oh! The men at 18 also get to spend a few days with the Shamens’ wife and she teaches them the art of sex. Which I think is actually a pretty cool tradition. However, even after couples are married (very soon after this “induction”) they do not get to sleep in the same hut. Women and men have their own huts and sleep separately. All “relations” occur outside in the open where they can be blessed by Mother Earth.
And I’m sure Mother Earth also blesses with mosquito bites.
Unfortunately for them, the women are not allowed to partake of the coca leaf mixture, nor even the coca leaves themselves. No, they must be content to do the work of growing the coca plants and harvesting them for the men. And, of course, having lots of babies starting at the age of 15. I saw so many young girls with babies strapped to their backs, fronts, and toddlers running in front of them.
So, yeah, fascinating culture to have the privilege of observing during our foray into the jungle.
Each day we walked between four and seven hours and generally we had the chance to stop at a swimming hole for a refreshing dip both once during the hike, and then once we got to camp. I usually was so hot and filthy that I just jumped in still wearing all of my clothes, happily walking in them still wet for hours after.
Each camp had stacks of bunks with mosquito nets and various quality of mattress ranging from “like sleeping on concrete” to “bowed in the middle”. It was still a higher standard than I was expecting and since it was surprisingly cool in the evening, I was able to get a decent amount of sleep.
Evenings consisted of interpretive talks, socializing with the other travelers on the trek, and reading by headlamp. It was a relaxing time, especially after a nice dip in the cold river.
Unfortunately, the morning of our climb up 1200 stairs to the Lost City itself, I found I had come down with yet another mystery virus/stomach bug. I was proud that I made it up those damn steps, but once I got there, had very little energy for really taking in the monuments themselves.
The walk to our third camp that afternoon was very difficult. I was throwing up and had a high fever and couldn’t keep food down. But I still had to walk, and the walk was not easy. Luckily, I’d learned the mind over matter technique that worked for me when I was really sick in Peru, and I at least didn’t have to contend with altitude on top of the heat and being ill.
I awoke on our last day with an appetite and feeling far more like myself again. The walk out was long but manageable and lunch awaiting us at our jeep pick-up point was well deserved.
I tried again to convince some of the others to jump out of the return vehicles and come with me directly to Tayrona, but unfortunately, people said they were too tired and nobody was feeling as adventurous as I was.