Colombia. What an awesome country. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was happily surprised when we went for my 30th birthday last year (yes, it’s a 7 month late birthday posting).
Living in New York City, what I wanted most was to get out of the concrete grid. With two weeks to run amok, we chose to explore the northern coast extensively, rather than not spending much time in any one place by also exploring inland towards Medellin and Bogota. The focus of the trip was a five day trek into the Colombian Sierra Nevada’s Tayrona National Park to La Ciudad Perdida, The Lost City.
It took a steep three-day hike up the mountain on foot to get there, and on the fourth morning we made the ascent to the ancient city on a long and slightly treacherous stone stairway up through the thick of the forest. In the heart of the Sierra, the jungle opened out to an extensive network of paths and clearings and ruins that outline the blueprint of the ancient civilization of the Tayrona people. La Ciudad Perdida is 600 years older than Macchu Pichu. Unlike Macchu Pichu’s big rock formations that have weathered the time, the Tayrona people built huts out of organic materials, which have eroded away over the years and left nothing but circles of land raised on rocks where each family built their home and an extensive system of rock footpaths weaving around the city of hills and rock pools that made up the ancient city.
In retrospect, the climb to the city was as much as a treat as reaching the city itself. Almost immediately as we embarked on the dirt road at the start of the trip, submersing ourselves in the vibrant green and oxygen-thick air, I felt clearer and lighter than I’d been in a long time. My eyes and my body were drinking in the life all around me, and throughout the trek I would often have to stop and take in the splendor of the gigantic leaves, the train of ants carrying leaves on their backs, and the ancient trees. It was exhilarating. We climbed steep slopes, crossed rushing jungle rivers (thank goodness for it being the dry season and the river was relatively cooperative), and stopped to swim in gorgeous little pools along the way. Every day, it would rain like clockwork around 2:30 in the afternoon, cooling us down from the hard trek.
After three and a half days of climbing up the mountain range, we had become quite fit, and a handful of us decided to keep pace with the guide’s son and cook, Ricardo, on the path down. He had always gone ahead of us, making it to camp in time to start preparing food. He was about 17 years old, tall and fit, and he made this journey often. To keep up with him, we had to run.
It was glorious. It felt like we were flying through the jungle weightlessly.
About 45 minutes into our run, all my weight came crashing down onto my left ankle as it rolled out of place.
My blood was hot and adrenaline was pumping, and though I could hardly feel any pain, I knew it was bad. We were 30 minutes from our next camp, and about a 12 hour hike to the village of Machete, the start and end point of the trip. We were still in the middle of the jungle. There was no way I could walk the remainder of the way to camp, and there was no choice but for me to be carried. The Fella was the first to carry me, but tired quickly. The other two guys with us took their turns, too, but they didn’t last long, either. As you learn from mafia movies, human bodies can be unwieldy.
Ricardo decided he would take over, and he handed his pack to the guys to carry. It was not far from my weight – he had been carrying foodstuffs and cooking supplies the whole time, and our group of 14 had already been eating from it for two days. With me on his back, we set off. Somehow, he still outpaced the others, leading the pack jumping stones across rivers and along perilous paths that dropped to the riverbed far below – all in rainboots. When we made it back to camp, though my ankle was akin to an over-sized grapefruit, I was able to hobble around camp to shower and pull myself together. I hoped that the next day the swelling would subside and I might be able to hobble my way to the end.
The next morning, I woke to a rock for an ankle. In contrast to the heat and adrenaline from the day before, it had cooled over night and would not move. There was no way I could finish the trip on foot. Our group went ahead while Ricardo went to rent me a horse (read mule) from an indigenous man who happened to also be going to town that day. When he returned, we set off on the last day of the trip, me on my carriage and the Fella on foot. While it can be expected that it would be difficult for a city man whose livelihood depends on sitting at a computer to keep up with Ricardo, one would also expect that as a man of six foot four inches, his long legs would give him an advantage on Jose, who was well below five feet. But it was the hike of his lifetime.
When we finally caught up with the group who had left ahead of us and surpassed them even, I decided that the Fella would be fine in the company of the group, and I could gallop ahead. Only, he continued to walk with Jose, who spoke no English, and the Fella does not speak Spanish. Though it was difficult, the Fella felt proud that he was able to keep up with the person who was a foot and a half shorter than him. Some way down the path, Jose pulled some cocoa leaves from his bag and licked a stick of seashell powder from the gourd at his hip to activate the cocoa leaves he had started chewing. Legend has it, he then looked at the Fella, flashed him a green, cocoa leaf- stained grin, and shot up the next hill as if he were Mario in a Nintendo game, hopping up and out of the fella’s site complete with bouncing sound effects. Meanwhile, I galloped through the jungle down the trail to Machete with a trader who I’d come across, where I waited for the group to arrive with my foot up (but still no ice) and a beer awaiting for the Fella.
Having fell in love with the land of Northern Colombia, we had hoped to continue our trip exploring the seaside and rivers westward, but my ankle decided otherwise. Instead, we found a little hostel with a pool in a nearby touristy town called Taganga, where the Fella got his PADI certification while I sat with my foot up in a hammock, reading. I can’t say the trip was ruined. The story may have even been worth the fall, but when I got back to New York City, I found that the only place more difficult to have a sprained ankle than the Colombian jungle was the concrete jungle.
Check out more pictures of the trip including Cartagena and Santa Marta.