Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ciudad Perdida: The Lost City

Location: Ciudad Perdida: The Lost City

Rundown: A three day uphill trek into the Sierra Nevada mountains through jungles, rivers and native villages to spend two days at a site of an ancient city reclaimed by nature before a three day return trip. Please don't feed the guerillas.

Took a bus north from Cartagena to a city on the coast called Santa Marta, a cross between a beach town and a port, with a beautiful island guarding the harbor and ocean freighters swinging on their moorings right next to kids splashing in the waves.

Spent the night in a dodgy hotel, and in the morning met up with the rest of the group going. Edwin was our guide (the same guide whose group was abducted by ELN guerillas in 2003, and then returned safely), and along with the four other teachers, we had 3 Brits, 3 Germans, 2 Sweeds, an Italian and a Croatian. It was quite a pleasure to get to know everyone along the way.

Took a chiva (cross between a bus and a jeep, without real doors or sides and painted in garish colors) into the interior. Drove for an hour on tarmac, and then spent another two off road climbing into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, often stopping to let people out to hang on appropriate sides of the chiva to keep it from rolling over going over aggressive terrain.

The chiva dropped us off in a little pueblo in the foothills where we began our three day hike. We hiked through the red-dirt foothills up into the jungle, crossing a couple low rivers on the way. Awesome trekking.

Made it to our first encampment just after dark, winding down steep, muddy switchbacks that claimed a few shoes as victims. Check out the little video of the hiking bit of the trek.

The encampment was an open air shelter with a corrugated metal roof under which we slung our cloth hammocks and bug nets. Although we did get bitten, the onslaught was nothing like a June evening in Michigan.

Swam in the morning at the watering hole and played with the resident friendly toucan.

Hiked all the next day in dense jungle, across rivers, and through native Kogui villages where they speak only their indigenous language, and little or no Spanish.

Hiked through dense jungle and high mountian savanna. Up ridges and down valleys... Edwin made us framiliar with the Coca plant that has been so integral to Colombia's history.

Passed a night in our second encampment which was perched about the beautiful and powerful Rio Buritaca. We stayed dry in the heavy rain that night.

Our final day up to the Lost City, we hiked for a few hours, pausing to rest our beaten, bug-gnawed legs, and chow on our daily fresh fruit on massive jungle leaves.

Made five river crossings. The rivers were powerful enough that even though we waded only to our waists, the water was enough warrant linking arms to cross. Fun stuff.

We found ourselves on a rocky island in the middle of the river. On the far side, the earth took a near-vertical leap; the jungle foliage just holding on. Tucked just inside the shadow of the trees, ancient stone steps wove their way up the mountain and disappeared in the brush. We crossed the river and took the stairs.

Most of the steps were no bigger than a shoebox, mossy, and slick, but not in bad shape considering their thousand years of service in harsh jungle climate. An hour and two thousand steps later we emerged (sweaty and wheezing) out of the jungle and onto the first of many stone terraces left by the Tairona people.

The site was a religious center, built into the mountains to communicate with the gods. Five main terraces stuck out of the dense jungle, but thousands of other terraces, some still buried in vegetation, were connected by stone pathways crisscrossing throughout the steep terrain. The site was only ‘discovered’ in 1976, so along the paths, stone steps would disappear into the underbrush, still uncovered.

We stayed the night there and listened to Edwin’s account of being taken by the ELN (similar to the FARC only in that they tote guns, hang out in the jungle, and have their own political agenda). The accomodations included 7 mattresses laid out on the floor with a huge bug net over them on the second floor of an open air shelter. I felt a bit like I was 8 again, making forts with my sisters out of pillows and blankets.

Due to the ease to which any armed group could pluck travelers off of the mountain side, a company of Colombian soldiers were stationed at Ciudad Perdida and in the surrounding hills. They patroled the site with their Israeli arms, but were extremely happy to talk to anyone.

Spent two days at the site wandering around the winding stone paths and swimming in the waterfalls before our return trek. The site was novel, interesting, and beatuiful, but wasn't a place to trek to if one isn't into getting muddy and having a little bit of struggle. As with all my treks, the people and the journey were the best part.

And one little video to cap it off with the theme song of the trip.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Mompos Excursion

Location: Mompos, Colombia

Rundown: Sleepy colonial town on the Rio Magdalena, gotten to by a bus, boat, car, and mototaxi.

The journey getting to Mompos is half the fun of the whole excursion. Our crew, consisting of myself, four other teachers, and a stray Brit, took a bus from Cartagena three hours south to a town called Magangue, a generic little town on a branch of the Rio Magdalena. Haggled a price for a little riverboat called a chalupa which took us upriver to Bodega.

...Turned out to be less of a town, and more of a crossroads, but we found another vehicle to take us the rest of the way to Mompos via pot-holed dirt roads. We careened around rough corners, past corrugated metal shack homes, and through herds of floppy-eared cows. All in all a bumpy 7 hour trip…

Check out the little video!

Mompos used to be part of the river trade route between Cartagena and the interior, and before the route was switched and revenue ceased, Mompos prospered. It’s pretty quiet now, and not much has changed since the late 1800’s. Lots of old, empty churches, cobblestone streets, statued plazas, and people taking their time. Not much to do.

In the morning we took 3-wheeled mototaxis around the town, fed monkeys in the trees at the river’s edge...

...talked to guys unloading a banana truck, and took an unexpected tour of an old lady’s home. Sweet deal.

In the afternoon we took a 30 foot long, 4 foot wide Johnson boat upriver.

Our boatman took a hard right and plunged us into the riverbank foliage, which turned out to be growing over water. We followed a shoulder-wide channel with heavy vegetation that we rammed over like a coastguard cutter over icepack.

Occasionally, the long boat got stuck in the twists and turns and we had to push it out.

Passed people’s houses build up on blocks. Front yards of stagnant, questionable water, chickens living in the trees, pigs on the wooden front porch built over the water, wooden dugout canoes tied to the block walls. Amazing. What do those people DO? Back to the hunter/gatherer stages, I think. We smiled and waved and they smiled and waved, and questioned each other’s lifestyles.

Broke out of the tangle into a wide expanse of deep marsh, found a pleasant spot and swam.

And one more little video...

On the trip home, we hired a couple cars which drove us back towards Bodega again via the pot-holed dirt roads. Again, we careened around rough corners, past corrugated metal shack homes, and through herds of floppy-eared cows. We stopped at a very unexpected traffic jam…in the middle of nowhere. Got out of the cars, and learned that were was a problem with the bridge ahead. Ambled down to the riverfront in the pack of halted people towards a group of longboats to find that the same 400 meter, concrete and steel bridge that we drove across a few days before had collapsed in the heavy rain and was washed away.

A huge bridge that heavy trucks drive over, gone. Sweet. Piled like cattle into another longboat with other stranded people for a trip to the other side. I don’t know if they were bewildered looking because of the missing bridge or because they were wondering what the heck the pack of gringos were doing in this odd end of the earth. I was wondering the same thing myself.

Below are a few extra shots from the trip.