Inocentes (+1) and the hike that almost wasn’t (a few times), Part 2

5 Oct

Our first night was spent in a schoolhouse on twin beds. All 11 of us (three of us, two quasi-Germans and 6 Dutch friends) were awoken at 530AM to get up, get ready and come to the staging area for coffee and bread. Sadly, ten of us had not slept because one of the Dutch guys was a deep, snoring sleeper (bad luck stroke 3). Our clothes had not dried overnight, unsurprisingly, and I resigned myself to the fact that I would be putting on cold, wet clothes for the next few days.

We set out around 6AM, and we had a lot of ground to cover. Instead of doing 5-6 km every day (with a lot of 45 degree angles going uphill), we would be doing 12 km in order to make up for lost time, consolidating two days into one. We reached the first stream crossing, the three of us changed into our hiking sandals, and were greeted with a crystal clear, trickling crossing that the day before prevented us from moving forward. After the third crossing, I cracked my big toenail on a rock, splitting it halfway down the middle (bad luck stroke 4). There was a lot of blood, and it was the last time we used our sandals for anything other than resting. I hiked the rest of the days with little toenail agonies, and putting socks on the next morning was a nightmare–do you realize how often you touch your toenails when you put on socks?! We crossed every river (3 or 4 each day) with our shoes and socks on from there on out; our shoes did not dry out until well after the hike was over and we had returned to Santa Marta.

Despite the consolidated hike, we made great time thanks, in part, to the Dutch national hiking team, who kept the pace. Seriously, who knew the Dutch were in such great shape?!

The hike was difficult, but not prohibitively so. I should mention that Greg and Brian carried my things, because they had rain covers for their bags. So…my life was a lot easier. Thanks, guys!

After our first stop to have a formal breakfast of eggs and bread, I realized my bug spray had been washed off in the river, and little mosquitoes had already made a meal of my ankles. I had amassed the first of MANY bites. After the entire trip, I had around 70 on my left leg, and by day three of the hike I could feel the strain on the skin of my legs; there were so many swollen areas that there wasn’t a lot of give for bending and stretching. Sorry, that’s a bit graphic, but it’s true!

We made it to our final camp just as it started to rain, great timing by Morrón. We had passed through the land of the Kogi, the local indigenous people, who were living out of a different epoch. It was shocking and beautiful, and a bit odd to see people living in grass huts and women carrying their children from bags secured to their heads, all of them wearing the same white clothes handmade from local plants. The tourists who pass by must look like weird, ugly aliens to them. They were, not surprisingly, very shy, but have also benefitted from the tourism in the area in different, complicated ways. They now own the campsites where we stayed, because much of the mountains have been designated as indigenous land. This means they profit from the tourists coming through. While they barter among themselves, they do use currency to purchase necessities and have adapted to consumer culture in odd ways. They typically have livestock like chickens or goats, the men carry machetes with them like the campesinos, and many of the men and children wear rain boots, which are necessary considering the long walks they go on every day through the forest. And, yet, they sleep on the dirt around the fire in their huts.

I digress.

The next day we hiked a considerably shorter distance to the final base camp to the lost city. Because it was gray and threatening rain, we opted to go up early the next morning when the sun was out and trek back to our first campsite. Our morning in the Ciudad Perdida was actually quite magical, as the sun shone for this first time since we began our trip. We hiked over 1,000 small, slippery stone steps up to the city, and kept moving throughout the plots, up more stairs and learning about the Tayrona who lived and thrived there until the Spanish arrived.

Our way back down the steps was slow going, and on our hike back, our guide fell 5 meters down rocks into the bush, below (bad luck again). After 500+ trips to the Ciudad Perdida, Morrón–who had literally carried men out of the jungle on his back when they were injured–fell for the first time. Luckily, we were close to camp and one of the Dutchmen was a doctor who had brought a medical kit with him. We sat at the picnic table while Morrón’s knee was stitched up. It was visibly painful (the thread was a big gauge intended for major trauma and the needle was too fine, so the thread had to be pulled through with tweezers) but for Morrón, who had elaborated on his own background, it was just a bit of a flesh wound. He finished the hike on foot (except for the very last leg) moving very closely with our fast-paced group.

The final day we covered two legs in one. It was still difficult, but it was mostly downhill this time. It was hot, as no rains moved through, so the stream crossings became more like purposeful, full-body immersions. We ended in Machete Pelao with fried chicken and cold beer, looking like wet, sweaty, bug-bitten messes. Other groups–preparing to head out–were checking out our legs with horrified faces, raising eyebrows, bugging out their eyes, thinking “that’s not going to happen to us“. But no one escapes the mosquitoes of the Colombian jungle.

The highlights:

  • Our guide, Morrón. From the mountains, with a long history with the Kogi people, he was a fountain of knowledge. From his hundreds of treks through the mountains, his intimate knowledge of the terrain, his deep respect for the indigenous people of the region and his nightly lectures on the history of the region, Morrón was a living monument to spirit of the Colombian people. An unbelievable personal history coupled with the natural capacity to lead a group of unruly foreigners, and the fact that he walked, bleeding and injured, out of the jungle as if he had just a few scratches instead of four stitches on his knee was awesome in the true sense of the word
  • The dog of Ciudad Perdida. Well, it was more of a dog who lived at the base camp, but he trekked along with us to the lost city, running around like an idiot, sitting on sacred burial sites, chasing sticks and running between our legs walking downhill
  • Brian showing a Kogi kid, Vincente, a few videos on his iPhone. Never has a 7 year old been so impervious to other people as when he has seen his first videos, ever
  • The views: stunning rolling hills and foreboding mountain peaks covered in thick jungly terrain and massive cliffside waterfalls. We seemed to pass through different ecosystems every day, from plains and hills with grazing cows to dense and perennially soaking wet mountain passes, the ground covered in dirt, bright red clay or deep gray-brown mud with studs of pink and white marble peppering the trails. It was unreal
  • The (s)we(a)t. The humidity coupled with the heat and the constant river crossings meant that we had to get used to sloshing around in wet shoes and stinking up whatever joint we waltzed into. The climate meant that nothing ever dried, so every morning your wet pants (or sports bra) were an instant wake-up call
  • The Kogi. So close to the developed world and yet worlds and worlds away. Adopting functional parts of developed society (eg: rain boots, machetes, bus rides to far-away Riohacha to collect sea shells for ceremonies) and eschewing all else. Also, they are well adapted to life in the mountains, hiking daily through the terrain–the women all barefoot and carrying the babies on their backs using satchels by balancing the straps around their foreheads. A number of times we passed Kogi coming up and down the mountain, and while we were pink in the face and drenched with sweat, they calmly waited for us to pass before shooting past us, not sweating, not breathing laboredly, just out for a stroll to the next village
  • The food! Full and delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners at the ready just when hunger began to strike, and plenty of fruit stops along the way with fresh pineapple, watermelon (ew), oranges and bananas. Sometimes you might even find a bushel of bananas that had fallen from a tree onto the jungle floor and you would just grab a banana to-go, straight from the bush. To me, that was unbelievably exotic

It was a really amazing experience, one that was worth every tiring step and annoying bug bite. But, man, just thinking about it makes me tired.

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