The Lost City of Teyuna
The icy water pounds at my legs as I try to find my footing on the riverbed, bare feet tentatively feeling their way over great rounded rocks that twitch and shift underfoot. Although my trousers are rolled up to my knees, it’s a lost cause as the water level quickly rises above. With an abrupt stop, Sixto, our Spanish guide, locks himself into the middle of the knee-deep torrent right in front of me, his English translator, Pedro, just beyond. They attempt to form a human chain against the relentless rush of water, but in doing so force me upstream on a new course. My sudden shift in weight and direction is enough to tip me forwards, I reach out to break the fall but the river swallows my arm in an instant. Sixto is lightning fast and has hold of me before I know it. Miraculously I’ve kept my walking boots above water, held aloft in my right hand. Hidden inside is a pair of dry socks and an iPhone. Just as I think I’ve survived a near miss, Pedro cries out and my heart sinks.
‘Oh, the camera!’
I look to my boots again. Then along my arm to where I've hiked up the wrist strap of my FujiFilm X100F to the elbow. The cord disappears into the water like a fishing line. I yank my arm upwards and the camera appears sodden and dripping. Water sloshes around in the viewfinder like the drum of a washing machine on rinse.
After two days hiking through the jungle I’m just 1,200 stone steps (and half a river crossing) away from arriving at La Ciudad Perdida, The Lost City. Built around 800AD, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu, it was rediscovered in the early 1970s when a group of local treasure hunters found a series of stone steps rising up the mountainside. They followed them to an abandoned city which they named ‘Green Hell’. A reference to the extreme terrain of the surrounding jungle; perhaps, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the Colombian Army secured the area from rebel militants and narco-traffickers. I look down at my sodden, now useless camera, and that early nickname suddenly feels quite appropriate, all these years later.
Two days earlier we’re faced with a sharp three-hour ascent to our first camp for the night. We rise and fall over the terrain and it’s soon apparent that the hard work up doesn’t mean an easy descent home. But the company is amiable and diverse in background and the landscape is spectacular and equally varied. We wind our way up dirt tracks, hemmed in by thick foliage. Break out on open peaks to glimpse low cloud draped over distant hills. Pass small shacks selling simple refreshments and local crafts. One of the biggest, run by a father and son team, has a lone horse tied up outside. A group of young soldiers from the Colombian Army sit opposite, resting on the muddy banks beside the path. They’re dressed in dark green camflado pixelado. Hefty packs and automatic rifles are strewn casually around them. When we set off in the intense heat once again, two join our group, and we have an armed escort as the highlands turn to jungle.
The final stretch to our first camp is a steep scramble down a narrow channel thick with clay. Once we get to the lip of the first switchback we overlook the river valley below, packed with vegetation and studded with vibrant trumpet-shaped flowers. Butterflies flutter. Birds chatter. The sound of a steady flow of water rises from beneath the canopy. Corrugated tin roofs can be glimpsed between the greenery. A rickety rope bridge connects our muddy bank to relative civilisation. Pedro tells me the trumpet-shaped flowers can be used to make roofies. Not the first of his questionable facts of the trip, and certainly not the last.
That night, after a hot meal and a cold shower, we meet some Kogi children, indigenous descendants of the Tairona culture who flourished before the Spanish conquest. They’re joined by some of their friends from the Wiwa tribe, identifiable only by the addition of hats to the traditional dress of plain white smocks. We're told the Kogi and Wiwa are only allowed to socialise as children, when they reach adulthood they must go their separate ways.
We’d already glimpsed some of the Kogi tribe on our trek, an ancient society with old traditions. The women and children walk with bare feet through the mud. Wives carry babies in simple papooses, guiding their young beside them and often carrying an additional load. The men follow behind on a donkey high above, with nothing but themselves aboard. They stare impassively as we pass, faces expressionless.
The Kogi and the Wiwa, especially the children, are beautiful and androgynous. Strong bone structures and contrasting soft features; round faces, dimpled chins. Large, deep brown eyes. Jet black hair. Terrible teeth.
It's probably down to the constant chewing of coca leaves and not brushing them, ever. But it's no doubt partially a result of our guide, and guides alike, dishing out handfuls of candy. We were advised to offer the children a small treat like this ourselves. As an offer of friendship or a trade for their likeness on film. But personally I would rather talk to them, get to know them, than bribe and perhaps even corrupt them, so the idea of this offering sits uncomfortably. But they understand very little Spanish and still communicate in their own dialects, so instead I attempt to break down the language barrier by taking their pictures and showing them the results. This dissolves the stern and distant unblinking stares into warm smiles that make them look like children again. We laugh together and I'm soon trading pictures for happy smiles and quiet giggles.
The route on the second day is spectacular, a slow and steady trek up steep, narrow trails laden with orchids and lined with waxy oversized palms. Leafcutter ants run super-highways across the paths ahead, each tiny insect hefting a load that belies its diminutive size. Hummingbirds thrum in and out of view before I can so much as raise a camera. Vivid Santa Marta parakeets call from the treetops. The burrows of land crabs are glimpsed in passing, but their inhabitants remain unseen. Hundreds of sulpher-yellow butterflies line the wet sand at river crossings and swarm into the air as we approach. The abundance of wildlife is staggering. It’s no surprise that the cloud forest of the Sierra Nevada is a national park, one that was once declared the most important concentration of threatened mammals, birds and amphibians on Earth.
Donkeys are a hazard of the trail, and there’s always a shout of ‘Mulas!’ from Sixto ahead, a cry that prompts us to clamber up an inside bank lest we be knocked off a cliff or into thick jungle as they pass. But the trail and heavy loads are also a hazard to the donkeys. We pass one laying dead in a thick bog of mud, it’s neck twisted at an impossible angle.
A Kogi mother and child are selling traditional hand-woven bracelets at a simple stand that acts as a rest point. It’s incredibly hard to tell if the child is a girl or a boy from looks alone, but the previous night we learned that the boys carry a traditional bag like a long-handled tote. I heft my own bag back onto my shoulders, far more sizeable than his, and although I’ve packed light for this trek, it’s a heavy burden in the heat and laden with wet clothes from the previous day. The hike is intense, and any additional weight is pronounced.
My backpack is well suited to the city and street photography but not as a pack for trekking through the jungle. This one doesn’t have any ribbing on the rear panel so my back suffocates beneath the nylon. It doesn’t have a waist or chest strap, so I can’t distribute the weight evenly, or double up the straps as attachment points for my camera gear. When I’m trekking I like to have things to hand without stopping and there’s a distinct lack of fastenings on this one. It doesn’t have a pocket for my water bottle and I’m pining for the simplicity of my CamelBak, complete with water reservoir and drinking tube. But I made the mistake of sending that home. The jungle heat and humidity means I’m constantly losing fluids and I end up juggling water bottle, camera, and urgent mopping of brow, between swatting the numerous unseen insects that pester us for a drop of blood. In the end I loop the handle of my water bottle through the fastening of my camera dry bag and clip it to my backpack.
Not long afterwards, as we’re walking perilously close to a cliff high above the rushing torrent that is Buritaca river, something smacks to the ground behind me. My water bottle bounces along the rough path and I grab it just before it leaps over the edge like a lemming. It's ripped the fastening clean off my dry bag. I’m left with a basic pouch, a broken handle, and no chance of keeping anything dry.
It’s a long, hard climb to our final camp. Along the way, Sixto and Pedro leave us to our own devices in a section that offers up multiple paths to the summit, but all end in the same place. A perfect opportunity to slow down, take in our surroundings and capture the flora and fauna of the Sierra Nevada on camera. Sunlight breaks through the thick canopy above in shards of light that pool on the forest floor. Pigs belonging to the local tribes snuffle and rummage in the undergrowth. The air is thick with the smell of compost. Grinding stones, old remnants of the wider Lost City, are spotted here and there.
We’re up at dawn the next morning, roused from our mosquito-net-encased-capsules by another group setting off slightly ahead of us. At the morning briefing Pedro advises us to stash our bags at the camp and only carry a water bottle and camera to the Lost City. This seems somewhat at odds with the difficult terrain of the previous days, but we’re told the hike is short, and after all, the guides make this trip week-in, week-out. What could possibly go wrong?
Alarm bells are soon raised by the ever-narrowing path that has some of us scrambling up rocks on all fours, the Buritaca river churning noisily below. Not the easiest terrain to navigate when you have both hands hampered by a camera and a water bottle. I find I’m using the water bottle and the flat of my other arm to steady myself. It would have been far easier to hike with full packs and free hands.
We should be creeping along these narrow cliff-edge paths, but Pedro is pushing on, a man on a mission. Perhaps he’s trying to put some distance between us and the group behind. But they’re fast approaching and their presence can be felt already. The chase ebbs and flows as if we’re competing explorers trying to claim La Ciudad Perdida for ourselves.
And then we’re presented with that unexpected final river crossing.
It’s by far the widest and most turbulent crossing we’ve arrived at, bolstered by storms high up in hills the previous night. There’s an unspoken understanding between guides and group that it won’t be the usual splash across a stream. And yet, both Sixto and Pedro had failed to mention this reality earlier. I pull my camera wrist-strap up my arm as far as I can, remove my boots and stuff my iPhone and socks into them. Boots in one hand, water bottle in the other, trousers pulled up as high as they'll go, I venture into the icy water. As I stumble slowly forward, keen to get this risk to personal property and personal health over with as quickly as possible, I become more and more uneasy. The water level rises unexpectedly with every step. The intensity of the current threatens to take my feet from under me with every movement. And my extremely expensive electronics wobble loosely at hand, just above the rushing torrent.
And then I’m sitting on the opposite bank, wet, cold, holding a drowned camera, and very, very angry.
I remove the battery and memory card, my only hope being that I manage to preserve the photographs I've already taken. Drops of water sit within the empty slots. I’ve trekked hard for the last two days, full of excitement at the prospect of photographing this lost city, and now I sit right on its boundary with a camera that’s useless. Pedro attempts to ease my pain.
‘I feel bad,’ he says. ‘You’re not the first. You won’t be the last’.
‘Then why the hell don’t you warn people about a final torrential and potentially perilous river crossing?’ I demand. ‘Why instead, do you advise people to fill their hands with electronics if many before us have lost their cameras to this very same river crossing?’
He has no words of response, except that he’s sorry. And I too, am sorry. I know all too clearly that it’s ultimately down to me. That I should have taken better precautions. Been better prepared. Made better decisions. Regardless of the advice.
After fuming for a time, I get up, and turn to face the final 1,200 stone steps into The Lost City. The immense, almost vertical staircase looks like something straight out of Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom, or one of Nathan Drake’s contemporary adventures from Uncharted: Among Thieves. It’s spectacular. A cobbled street of a stairway with rough hewn stones rising up and up and up. Lined with palms and dangling lianas, the boundary is abundant with lush foliage. Dappled light illuminates the way in scattershot patterns. As a photographer, it pains me to casually snap this moment on my iPhone and not slow it down with my camera. So instead, I begin the long trek up above the clouds to take in La Ciudad Perdida with only my eyes and my memories.
The route out of The Lost City is a much more perilous flight of stairs, winding and twisting down the hillside in harsh switchbacks. It’s easy to slip, or trip, and there’s nothing to stop you tumbling right to the bottom with only the stonework to break your fall. I survive this intact but my legs are complaining. I even survive the return river crossing at the foot of the lost city. But when we reach a second crossing later that day, I’m beaten by the jungle one last time. My foot selects the wrong stone. It shifts beneath the water like a seesaw and I’m thrown onto my back. ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake!’ I can feel the last of my resolve falling away as I fall. My pack fills with water. My walking boots float off down the river. I’m soaked from head to toe. But Sixto once again has a hold of me, and I lay there, exhausted, bobbing in the current. He hoists me to my feet. Pedro has managed to grab my boots, but my socks are lost. Fortunately, this time my iPhone is stashed safely away.
As I trudge onwards, the last of my energy fading, my frustration building, weary from four days trekking through the jungle; the heat, the humidity, the insects, the altitude, the damp clothes, my multiple dips in the river and the emotion of those mishaps; a Kogi woman passes me with her baby on her back and laden with low slung bags. Her bare feet tread lightly and with precision over the mud, avoiding slippery rocks. She performs a kind of brief wall-run on a muddy bank with effortless grace to skip a water hazard. The baby blinks at me from his or her papoose. A young child follows closely behind. She looks up as she passes and I see that she is beautiful; adorned with several bright necklaces, and equally elegant in her traversal of the land. I watch as they make their way up the path and smile to myself at the sight of us westerners from their perspective. Westerners who can’t navigate a river without falling in, who have all the gear when they have nothing but the basics, who have destroyed cameras worth more than they probably see in their lifetimes. A pang of guilt runs through me and my stomach sinks. But at the same time, my frustration falls away. My concern for that replaceable gadget vanishes. I look up again at the woman, and her child, and her baby, and her bags, and I notice something else. She’s knitting as she goes.
I shot this entire trip, up until that fatal fall in the Buritaca, on the FujiFilm X100F, which has a fixed 23mm lens. It’s a fantastic little advanced compact, perfect for street, and an ideal travel companion. Just be aware that it doesn’t have weather sealing, and it isn’t fond of rivers. Having said that, I left it in a bag of rice for a few weeks and it was as good as new again, everything still working as it should. Which was a relief, and somewhat miraculous.
I hiked into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to discover The Lost City with Expotur, over four days. Despite some questionable advice before our final ascent to La Ciudad Perdida, the trek was otherwise incredible. We were well looked after, well fed, and (mostly) kept in excellent spirits throughout. Keep an eye on the weather beforehand, as I've heard horror stories about this hike after periods of heavy rain.
Expotur, Santa Marta
Prices: $950.000 COP per person. Includes round trip transfers from your hotel or hostel, all meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and snacks, accommodation, SENA-trained guides, park entrance fees, and travel insurance for the trip.
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