Bothrops atrox, or Talla X in Spanish: a highly venomous snake with a bite that will kill a man within two hours if no antivenom is available. We found it and killed it just outside the camp last night.“ In other words, a mere fifteen metres from the bed in which I was peacefully dreaming of the mysterious cities of gold. As I pondered the possible implication of our tour guide’s motivational message, the first mosquito of the day valet parked itself onto my right ankle, gleefully cashing in its all-you-can-eat-succulent-white-meat lunch ticket. “Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got bugs and snakes…” After an opening five weeks involving only inner city urban exploration, I had finally made it out into the wilderness, and the wilderness was sending out its finest welcoming party to greet me.

A full two and a quarter days’ walk into Sierra Nevada National Park in Northern Colombia, and reachable only on foot or by mule, lies the archaeological site of an ancient city of immense cultural importance that predates Machu Picchu in Peru by almost 600 years but remains almost unknown to anyone who has not visited Colombia: La Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City. Built between the 7th and 14th centuries AD by the Tayrona, an advanced indigenous civilisation that had settled in the area in the 5th century AD, it was here in the Sierra Nevada that the Spanish conquistadors were first dazzled by the sight of local gold, giving rise to the myth of El Dorado. Having plundered their riches, the Spaniards then predictably wiped out the Tayronas, and all trace of their existence disappeared in the tropical jungle until rediscovered by grave-robbers more than four centuries later, in 1972.

As seen on many every single tourist brochure for Colombia

The Lost City may have relinquished its tangible riches to both conquistadors and grave-robbers, but it remains the undisputed jewel in Colombia’s cultural and touristic crown. That reaching it involves four days of strenuous jungle trekking, climbing brutally steep dirt tracks in 32c heat and barometer-breaking humidity, whilst questioning the animal origin of any rustling, slithering, crunching and hissing sounds in the undergrowth could only make the final reward all the sweeter. I struck my own gold with a tour group that combined a fantastic blend of travellers with guides holding over 30 years’ on-site experience, allowing us unique insight into the customs and traditions of the local indigenous communities. I set off with almost childlike excitement at the impending adventure, conveniently forgetting that four days in the jungle meant four days of sweat, bites, and snakes.

Joselito, son of the community Mamu, or indigenous spiritual leader

If the joy very often lies in the journey, then this was a masochist’s delight. For two seemingly interminable days of trekking up, down and across mountains of lush tropical vegetation, we talked, sang, and swore our way through jungle terrain of such remarkable beauty that we stopped as much to take photos as to rest from the back-breaking ascents. Generous lunch breaks with unexpectedly good food included muscle-refreshing dips in crystal clear river rock pools whilst we waited for our sweat-drenched clothes to dry in the sun. In the evenings, the 5am wake up calls and seven hours of daily hiking took their toll, with all but the hardiest retiring to their mosquito-netted bunks by 7pm. The German sisters and I can forever be proud of our second night 90s college rock karaoke and our record-setting bedtime of 7:41pm.

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to trek we go…

On the morning of the third day, after a short walk from camp and a knee-deep river crossing, we finally looked up at the vertiginously imposing sight of the 1,260 moss-covered steep stone steps that lay between us and our very own discovery of the Lost City, and climbed them eagerly. A judiciously routed walking orientation of the 169 terraces chiselled out of the mountainside, linked by paved roads and a number of circular plazas, gave us detailed historical and cultural context to the Tayrona civilisation before finally finishing our journey at the layered group of plateaux that adorns the cover of every local travel agency brochure. With the mid-morning sun now bathing the Lost City and all its surrounding valleys in perfect warm light, and only one other small group with whom to share our prize, we spent the next two hours marvelling at the spectacular setting unfurling itself before our eyes. What a reward for our efforts, and our weary muscles.

The team, appreciating the reward for two days of hard trekking

For all my fears of finishing my days in the stomach of a constrictor boa, the greatest threat to my wellbeing came from a source much closer to home. Shortly after lunch on the third day, as we negotiated another steep rocky incline in the searing midday sun on our way back, we walked near what I assumed to be the decomposing body of a farm animal that had died of some obscure tropical disease. The reek of putrefaction was so intense that I quickened my step and held my breath, in spite of the tough conditions. As I turned a third corner and descended two further hills, however, the sad and brutal truth finally hit me that the pungent stench I was trying to escape was in fact coming along for the ride and emanating from my very own pores. I honked. Indeed I honked like I had never honked before. At least I would no longer have to worry about having finished my can of insect repellent the previous night; good luck to any animal trying to get close to me…

Pit viper KOed by JMK’s Eau de Blocked Toilette

River crossing just before the 1,260 steps up to the Lost City

Beautiful to look at, a right arse to walk up and down…

And with one last look over our shoulder, the Lost City was gone again…

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  1. I remember slogging up that hill f rom Parque Tayrona – it was the humidity that made it difficult.

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