Sunday, 22 March 2015

Ciudad Perdida/Lost City

The main reason for us being in Santa Marta was to take the trip to Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City.
Similar to Machu Piccu, the Lost City has only been known since 1982 and up until ten years ago was completely off limits to tourists due to the internal conflict between drug gangs - a group of some of the first tourists were even kidnapped on this route for a ransom. The walk to the city was to be guided by Hernan, an ex-military man who had fought the very same drug cartels. The army are still present in the area as a preventative measure and at some points of the hike we are accompanied by the soldiers, many of whom are straight from school as part of conscription. 
Colombia has had its fair share of drug related issues; first there was a marijuana boom and then cocaine became the biggest export. Although both are still legally grown in the area it is for personal use only and the government are working with the tribes to educate them on how to make economical progress without the control of the drug barons. 

Following a debrief of the walk which included what to do in the event of snake bites, jaguar attacks etc and also how the 50km round trip would be broken down, we started the hike and what would be the hardest thing I've ever done. Walking over Sierra Nevada, the highest coastal mountains in the world which has four micro climates brings with it logistical problems. Having to climb vertical gradients of sand, rocks, rubble, muddy sludge, waterfalls and donkey manure means most of the time our eyes were on the ground and the views ignored but once you reach a plateau the scenery is absolutely breathtaking; lush green mountains sprawl out for miles around and for the first part the sea glitters on the horizon. There are some areas victim of the 'slash and burn' technique used by land owners looking for quick cash but on the whole the forest is healthy, dense and following a short 15 day study home to over 200 species of animals, with many more expected to be found.

Alongside the animals live four tribes who make up the indigenous Tayrona people who used to live in the area all the way down to the Inca land in Peru until the Spanish invasion where they retreated to the Lost City. Some live so high up in the mountains that they won't ever have seen a white person before. The tribes in the area we cross live off of the land on a diet with strictly no salt as this hinders their development. They all dress in white to reflect the purity of nature and have no interest in interacting with us who they see as contaminated. Despite this they are keen for tourists to recommend the area to other foreigners to encourage financial gain and benefit for the area and country, something we are happy to do after a fantastic experience. 

The boys are brought up to be both mentally and physically strong; the perfect example being that we passed an eight year old carrying 40kg on his head. Thanks to government intervention the children are now all able to go to school to recieve an education on how to sustain the land and heritage they have, something the tribal elders are keen on continuing. The children we pass on the trek will only pose for photos in exchange for chocolate and sweets - a sad example of how tourism is influencing the younger generations. 

At 18 boys are given poporo, a pot which they mix powdered sea shells, coca leaves and saliva in to create a paste which they consume every 10-15 minutes, all day every day for their whole lives. This poporo holds huge reverence and only the owner is allowed to touch it. The benefit of following this tradition is it allows the men to connect with the spirits and gods, all of whom guide them through life's issues from when it is the right time to have children to what crops they should grow. During our trip the tribal leaders or mamas of each tribes were gathering to discuss how money from tourism should be split between those on the land - 90% of the locals rely on tourism. The women play a second class role in tribal life; they are solely there for household chores, to pick coca leaves, make clothes and reproduce - some women have up to 15 children and the average woman life expectancy is only 52 compared to the 80 years men are expected to live to. 

After two days of intense trekking and swimming in natural pools and waterfalls we made it to Ciudad Perdida but not before we were thrown one last hurdle. A vertical climb up a waterfall and 1200 steps later we had made it!! The city is vast and spreads for 30 hectares but areas are still being unearthed daily. Burial sites, neighbourhoods, stone maps, social areas, healing baths and sacrificial monuments all make up the city. When we finally make it to the top oval plateau the views of the wild jungle are incredible and it's easy to see why the Spanish invaders couldn't find it in - and how it has stayed 'lost' for so many years. Like a floating palace, the City rises from the canopies and sits among the early morning low cloud. 

As we walk around and back down the steps, Hernan tells us we are passing even more sights which have yet to be unearthed. When the whole area has been excavated it is expected that there will be over 1000 sites; a site to rival Machu Piccu which currently has 1 million visitors a year - Ciudad Perdida has 8,500. The government and heads of the tribes say they will cap the visits to 20,000 a year. It's hard to believe this will be the case as although the tribes are forceful in the upkeep of their heritage and hesitant of foreigners, money is the ultimate deciding factor and considering how many local people rely on tourism, the future of Ciudad Perdida and the Tayrona people is certainly in the hands of the gods.