Inocentes (+1) and the hike that almost wasn’t (a few times), Part 1

5 Oct

We boarded a small bus for the port town of Santa Marta, 4 hours away from Cartagena. We had no definitive plans other than to find a hiking group departing for the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) as soon as possible.

Much of Santa Marta’s tourism is focused around three things: El Rodadero (the fancy beach), Parque Natural Nacional Tayrona (a lovely national park) and the hike to Ciudad Perdida. Once we hopped off the bus and into a hostel, we were greeted by friendly faces and fliers for the hike to Ciudad Perdida. Perfect!

Once we got settled, the owner walked us down the street half of a block to a tourism office that organized hiking treks. Because of the difficult nature of the hike, the protected indigenous land you pass through and the cultural and historical significance of the site, you must hike with a registered tour agency, of which there are many, and they handle all of the entrance fees, accommodations and food for the 5 day/4 night expedition. Even in the low season, treks departed every day, and we were scheduled to leave at 9AM the next morning to begin our journey.

We were starving at 4PM, so we walked to a nearby restaurant and ordered the recommended special: shrimp with vegetables. All three of us split a great, local dish and enjoyed the dwindling sunlight and mentally prepared ourselves for the next five days…

…until Brian and I woke up with food poisoning in the middle of the night (first stroke of bad luck).

Greg, somehow spared from the agony of bad seafood, went to the tour agency to let them know we had to postpone for a day or two. The tour company recommended a local doctor, who came over to check us out. Greg was out for a walk, so I tried my best to discern what he was trying to relay. Something something something prescription, something something saline during hike. He wrote out a few things on a piece of paper, and he walked with me to the corner pharmacy.

I returned with one set of pills to treat the stomach issue (Brian had his own) and two saline IV bags along with tubes and two syringes full of…something for our stomachs. My understanding: take the pills, and bring the IV with you in case you get sick. Actual translation: take the pills and I’m going to hook you both up to an IV and give you this stomach treatment as well.

What Greg missed during his walk was a sight to behold: Brian’s IV hanging from the television set, mine hanging from a bolt in the wall, the both of us hydrating and our stomachs beginning to ease. We were hapless and confused, but our symptoms were beginning to ease (ever so slightly). It was a clean operation, complete with the charm of a hostel visit by the doctor himself. The doctor had been on the lost city hike a number of times, typically traveling with groups of older hikers and available for any medical attention that might be necessary (sewing stitches, checking blood pressure, dealing with high temperatures, etc). He told us about the butterflies and scenery, and assured us that we would be ready to depart the following day. I was in disbelief: how could I possibly participate in physical activity?! I never wanted to eat again, let alone hike in the hot and humid Colombian jungle up mountain sides!

But somehow, we were ready to hike the next day. My stomach was still a bit upset and was initially not receptive to liquids or food, but the most important factor was that we were ready to go. We boarded our jeep at 9AM (10AM, CRT) and began our 2 hour journey to our base, the city of Mamey and the barrio of Machete Pelao (more about that, later). We ate sandwiches and departed around 1:30, ready to embark on our jungle trek.

At 1:45, we reached the first stream crossing, a huge brown mass of surging water. Our guide, Marrón, deemed it too dangerous to cross at that point, so we detoured up through someone else’s land, through barbed wire fences, across stinging grass and dodging cow pies to the next stream crossing, a bigger brown mass of surging water. We detoured further up hill, the rain finally reaching us, drenching to the bone within 3 minutes. JUNGLE TREK!

At 2:30 our guide Jose Aguilar (nickname: Morrón, or “brown”) turned to face us. “In reality” he said, “we have had a bit of bad luck. It has been raining in the mountains all day, and these streams are not safe for us to cross. We’re going to head back to Machete Pelao to spend the night and we will leave tomorrow morning (second stroke of bad luck).

In the evening, we tried to dry out and Morrón gave us the history of the Sierra Nevada region, where he grew up amid guerillas and paramilitaries fighting one another, and the complicated history of the dirt-poor farmers–fleeing the Violence of the cities for new lives in the region–making no money from growing food, finding that they could grow marijuana with little effort and big profits (the government eventually indiscriminately poisoned the land, making much of the earth untenable and causing birth defects in many of the pregnant women), moving back to maintaing food crops with little profitability, finding they could grow coca to meet the demands of overseas markets (namely the US) and eventually participating in a program that allowed the government to come in, remove the drugs and replant with legal exports like coffee. Tourism has also become a big revenue generator for the region, with people now making a living off of selling hikers energy drinks and water as well as offering their homes for stops along the way.

And, as for the name Machete Pelao, the description is right out of a Marquez novel. The name of the town translates roughly to “the unsheathed machete”. Machetes–while still terrifying to me–are a functional tool for the farmers who have carved their livelihoods out of the jungle. The men carry them on their hips like cell phone cases, at the ready whenever they get “the call” to use it.

Throughout the Sierras, farmers live on their plots of land with their livestock and food crops. They are relatively isolated from one another and are able to sustain themselves with what food they grow and raise. On Sundays, the men of the house  journey down the mountain via steep, zig zagging trails of clay and dirt and crossing rivers to Machete Pelao in order to purchase things that their family might need. Sundays are a big deal in Machete Pelao. The farmers spend all day in the barrio, buying what they need, then participating in the age old tradition of getting DRUNK. They hang around the plastic patio furniture of the stores, sipping on rum and talking about things that manly men getting drunk talk about. And, oftentimes, they get into disagreements, which leads to–you guessed it!–UNSHEATHED MACHETES settling their arguments. At the end of the day, around midnight in the pitch black, the men somehow make their way home, crossing rivers and hiking what we thought was a pretty strenuous and difficult uphill climb, all while stinking drunk and carrying wares for their families. One day, the leader of the campesinos (farmers) was asked by the head paramilitary to change the name of the town because it was kind of a derogatory name. The leader pointed to two drunk men waving machetes at each other to his right and responded “Look over there, man. How could we possibly change the name of this town?

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