Category Archives: colombia

La Ciudad Perdida – The Lost City


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The hike to La Ciudad Perdida was the highlight of my trip to Colombia.  I’m writing this a day after returning from Santa Marta (my base pre & post hike), and I’m still overwhelmed with emotion (and pain in my legs).

La Ciudad Perdida is the Lost City, and it takes about 2-3 days to get there on foot navigating the Sierra Nevada mountains.  The hike is about 44 km, and is moderately difficult.  You need to be somewhat fit, really for your sanity if nothing else.  The ascents consist of steep scrambles or climbing rocks a foot high. Doing that 30 times in a row numerous times over the course of 4-5 days is numbing.

LCP’s history goes back as far as 800AD, and is older then Machu Picchu.  It sits on a 1,300 meter (4,265 feet) high ridge above the valley and consists of 169 exposed terraces over 3000 square meters.  Another 9000 square meters is hidden by the jungle.  It was once inhabited by the Tayronas and abandoned during the Spanish conquest.   It is now guarded by the Kogi, a tribe that lives in the surrounding areas of LCP, whom we crossed paths with frequently.

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In summary, the hike was absolutely beautiful, and it was the scenery, the joy of reaching the top and the group of hikers I was with that made it worthwhile.  Apart from our group, there were about four other groups we frequently bumped into.  The sort of people you get to meet on trips like this is just inspiring.  I was probably the only person doing a 10 day trip.  The others had been traveling for months and a few were traveling solo too.  I felt very much at home.

lcp2We had Luis Bergel and Junior (from Guisa y Baquianos) as our guide and helper, and they were fantastic.  Luis lives in the Sierra Nevada mountains and has been doing this for over 20 years.  Being a guide is something he does out of passion, roughly twice a month.  He loves showing and telling people about the cultures here, and he has a special love for the Kogis.  It was very evident in his stories and interactions with the Kogis whom we passed frequently.

1st day – I’d sign up with Magic Tours, and was shuttled from Santa Marta to Sierra Nevada with a group of others hikers.  We arrived around noon, had a light lunch, and began the hike which was about 3 hours long.  The first day was already tough as we began to ascend.  I was with a great group of about 10 people, travelers from all over, Germany, Switzerland, US, UK, Australia.   That first night we slept in hammocks which was a funny experience.  I kind of thought they’d look like the wide hammocks you see by the beaches, but not really, they look more like cocoons.  Mine was as high as my elbows, and I almost died laughing trying to get in.  I found it comfortable, really, although not many others agreed. Haha.

2nd day – The next day, David and I woke up at 6am and split off from the group we started out with.  We opted to do it in 4-days instead of the usual 5-days and joined another group doing the same from a different company.   Now…this group was REALLY fun, young and were from Netherlands, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.  I called them speedy gonzales, because they were a bunch of fast, young hikers, even our guide, Luis (who had absolutely no trouble with this pace) commented on our speed.   These guys really gave me a workout, and I was seriously considering climbing mountains every week to maintain this level of conditioning.  We hiked for a total of about 6 hours traversing terrains, river crossings, more ascents and ended up at the base, where we would climb 1,200 steps to the Lost City the next day.  We were all fast asleep by 8-9 pm.

lcp33rd-4th day – On the third day, we woke up early and began our trek to the lost city.  It’s an indescribable feeling observing the 1,2000 stone steps the Tayronas had constructed back in the day.  We arrived at the terraces and Luis took his time describing the various structures we passed and we soaked in the stories and beauty around us.

As we started our journey back, which was mainly downhill, I was astounded at the steepness and lengths of the ascents we made.  I don’t remember climbing a lot of it, probably because I was so focused on the pain and making the ascents while controlling my footwork and gasps for air.

On the drive back to Santa Marta, I had a huge smile on my face throughout the 3 hour ride.  We also had a hilarious driver.  Along the way back, we stopped at a house, to fill up gas.  Yes a house.  The driver rang the doorbell, a lady answered, and a guy comes out with two large cans of gasoline.  We were speculating that it was gas from Venezuela (where it is way cheaper).   A gallon at the stations costs about $4.42, which is really expensive considering Colombia’s purchasing power, and that is produces petrol.

I look back and think “I did it”.  I will keep doing shit like this.

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Some practical information below.   Thanks to the many bloggers, reviewers who wrote about their LCP experiences.  It was really helpful in terms of being prepared and keeping that damn backpack as light as possible with essentials.

Packing list

  • Headlamp for the nights and early mornings.
  • DEET, at least 25%.  You get bitten by mosquitoes a shit load without it.
  • Sunscreen, and keep spraying.  I forgot to put some on the third day, and got insanely burnt, still paying for it a few days later.
  • Light towel (I saw some travellers with these Karrimor quick drying towels.  While mine was light, it was not quick drying, and it was annoying.  Once something gets wet, it stays wet in this climate.)
  • Dry sacks.  I got a 15L for dry clothes (for my 22L backpack), and a couple of smaller dry sacks for my camera and Kindle reader.
  • One long sleeve shirt and long pants for the nights.  It gets cold.  You don’t need more than one.
  • 3-4 shirts.  I threw away the first one I wore, mainly because it was still so wet in the morning.  Keep to the dri-fit, lightest possible, quick drying material.  You sweat non stop during the trek, and drying them overnight doesn’t quite work.
  • 1-2 extra shorts
  • Band aids, bandages – which I used.  Although I will say that in my group, I was the person with the most minor bruises. 🙂
  • Flip flops
  • Good shoes.  I bought Merrell’s Barefoot Swift Glove, a comfortable wet shoe with good traction, and it was a good buy.  You cross rivers daily and your shoes inevitably get soaked.  I didn’t bother wearing socks for 3 days with them.
  • Sleeping bag liner – this is more of a personal preference.  You sleep in beds after the first night in a hammock and … in a nutshell, I was glad I brought one.
  • Toilet paper (you can also buy them at the camps)
  • Bring pesos.  You can buy Gatorade, beer, snacks along the way.  Gatorade/beer costs about 5,000 pesos each.
  • Bathing suit.  There are numerous chances to swim in the rivers.  The later bases are by rivers too.
  • Water treatment tablets – A lot of blogs recommended them.  I got these from Wal-mart, and did not use them at all.  You have sufficient opportunities to refill your bottles at the camps with treated water.  At one point, our guide pointed us to a tiny waterfall which we drank water from.  No one in my group was sick.
  • Bring snacks – although you can buy them, there’s nothing more satisfying than having snacks YOU like, on a trip like this.  I’ve been addicted to honey roasted cashews/almonds/walnuts lately and brought a quart of them.  Between lunch and dinner, you do get hungry.

Other worthy mentions..

  • When we returned, I noticed that the back of my hands were full of brown looking freckles.  I was kind of worried, and came across this post on the internet.  I did recall having Lulo, a fruit which seems like a cross between an orange and lime in the middle of the day while the sun was blazing.  The post says they fade in about a month, but mine has already faded halfway 4 days after noticing them. 

Cartagena de Indias

hatsI’m writing the first part two days into Cartagena and this city has swept me off its feet.  Over the past few weeks when speaking of my upcoming trip to Colombia, I’ve been met with various reactions.  Of course there’s the usual: “Are you sure it’s safe? Be careful, it’s dangerous, a lot of bad things happen there.”  Inside I think “But that was years ago when Colombia was in the news a lot for the wrong reasons”.

Now that I’ve been here…..  Yes there are dangerous regions in Colombia, as Fernando, Carmen and many others tell me, but they are in the south east of Colombia where the climate and landscape is kind to growing Coca.  In Cartagena itself, as long as you don’t wander off to the unrecommended areas, you’re fine.  It’s really down to being practical and cautious in any large city, just as you would in NYC, London, Philly, and avoiding the dangerous areas.  I did not feel any less safer than I did living in Kuala Lumpur and Philadelphia.

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San Pedro Cathedral

I’ve been traveling solo.  I feel safe.  The police and military are EVERYWHERE, in the city, on the highway, even in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  They are friendly and terribly cute when they smile.

When visiting a new country, the thing that does it for me are the conversations & interactions with the locals.  I’m thankful for Carmen who lives in a beautiful part of the old city.  It is her home that was my base the first few days for exploring the old city.  I’ve found a cute spot on the ancient walls (on the right of Cafe del Mar, for watching the sunset, listening to music, reading and people watching.  Carmen is naturally funny as hell.  She gave me an overview of how  Catholicism is so ingrained in people’s lives here in Colombia.  There’s a Saint that represents everything, e.g Santa Marta is the Saint to pray to for immigration matters, i.e. if you want your visa to US/UK/etc approved.  Locals travel to the Santa Marta cathedral in Bogota on Tuesdays, and it’s packed and overflowing.  You give your name to the priest who then reads out your name during service.  And it’s literally hundreds of names.  If you don’t get approved its because “god didn’t think the timing was right”.

Carmen tells me a bunch of other hilarious stories like how sometimes the Chinese end up in Colombia on a boat, of course “by accident” (trying to make their way to USA) and because there are practically no Chinese living in Cartagena, they are sooner rather than later caught by the police and unfortunately sent back.

I’m currently re-reading Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and Carmen’s stories of Colombia have helped me understand the Carteganian/Colombian nuances throughout the book.

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Fernando was sweeping the floors outside his shop on an early morning. I was searching for coffee, he read my mind, and asked if I wanted from Kaffe. YES Fernando!

I’ve traversed the streets over and over again.  I keep bumping into the same friendly people.  Fernando whom I met at the San Pedro monastery, who shoved me into a free emerald tour and told me where to get local coffee.  “Don’t go to Hard Rock Cafe!” he tells me. Don’t you worry Fernando, I would never step in there).  Then there’s the guard outside of Parque de Bolivar who I’ve bumped into thrice now and has helped me find my way over and over again.  He doesn’t speak a word of English, i don’t speak a word of Spanish, and yet we converse in utter confusion and laugh it off.  And there are the others who want to help genuinely and ensure I’m having a good time.

The Cartagenians are proud of their city, and it shows.  I love the enthusiastic, passionate love they exude as I talk to them.

During the time I was hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, I met a number of travelers who had been traveling for months throughout South America.  I heard over and over again that Colombia was their favorite country because of the people and authenticity here.

Bocagrande

I’ve spent the last few days following the La Ciudad Perdida hike in Bocagrande, where I “splurged” at the Hilton.  “Splurged” as in I really didn’t splurged, but had all these points I was able to redeem for a 2 night stay there.  I initially had the impression that Bocagrande was going to be something like that horrific strip of hotels in Cancun, but I was wrong.  The locals like to call it a Little Miami, and it’s also a residential area with great street food and ambience.  I spent my last full day with Carmen’s friends and family by the bay, and the conversations have been hilarious, entertaining and educational.

Notable restaurants/places:

Espiritu Santo Restaurante

Espiritu SantoI came here for lunch with Carmen and Marcus, and the experience is like walking into Royal China (a damn good authentic dim sum place in London), I.e. filled with Colombians, hustling, bustling, with good food.  I ordered pescados de coco, fish in coconut sauce, which came with a soup, salad, rice and plantains.  The portions are hearty and satisfying.  As I finished my meal, Carmen goes “Wow I’m really proud of you!”.   I beam at her and accept the compliment with pride.  I’m pretty sure my stomach’s ability to expand during the right moments is something I’ve mastered as a Malaysian.  We love food.


La Esquina Del Pan de Bono

IMG_8060I’m glad Carmen recommended this bakery on the first day, because I’ve gone back everyday that I’m in Cartagena.  I never know what I choose, and it’s a delightful experience biting into the pastry discovering its filling.  Mmmmm.  I love the round buns.  They have this light frosting which tastes a bit like condensed milk, with butter and cheese in the middle.   Their juices are pretty amazing too – lulo and melon are my favorites.  The bakery is opposite this cute little plaza in front of the Cartagena University.  There are counters and bar stools which look out onto the bustling crossroads and great for people watching.

Riquisimo BBQ

riquisimoGreat tasty food.  Ordered off the specials board: red snapper, coconut rice, plantains and salad.  The coconut rice was particularly delicious.  Got the limonada de coco as recommended by another reviewer and did not regret it.  It came with shaved coconut on the top, and it was sooo refreshing.