Perspective is Everything: Ciudad Perdida, Colombia’s Machu Picchu

Blog9 (683x1024)There is plenty of time to reflect during a 26-mile hike in the jungle.  About life and love and why I believed that a five-day trek to Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) would be fun.

Because it wasn’t.

It was a lot of other things, of course.  Magical.  And torturous.  Stunning.  Profoundly uncomfortable.  Challenging.  Tedious.  Formidable.  Beautiful.  Nasty.  But not fun.  My two most oft-repeated sentences were, “You’ve gotta be f*-ing kidding me” and “Oh.  Wow.

And because I’m feeling all deep and metaphorical here, this hike seems like a good analogy for life, which is typically a pretty even mix of breath-taking amazement and suckaliciousness.  So here are two reviews of the trip — both equally accurate and authentic — but written from two profoundly different perspectives.  And the real question for me to reflect on is this: which version will I adopt as my story?  Which will be the one I tell over and over, until it becomes my truth?

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onestar Skip it!

The hike to Ciudad Perdida is a brutal one: 26 miles round trip with a 1000-meter elevation gain. To a fit hiker, this may sound reasonable but know that for every agonizing 100 meters you climb, you will later descend 75 meters as the trail wanders dishearteningly over jungle passes. The trail itself is comprised of either ankle-deep, lung-smothering dust (in the early sections where the locals have destroyed the original forest and let their cattle strip the land) or slippery, ankle-twisting rocks.  The tropical climate means you will sweat out your body weight within 24 hours; your clothes will never dry.  In fact, by the fourth day, they will grow mold.  The accommodations are extremely primitive; the tour companies promise beds and showers, but be warned that the showers are merely a PVC pipe of cold river water in a cinderblock shed, and you will be sleeping on a foul-smelling wish-I was-a-mattress a mere 18 inches from stinking strangers.  Along the way, you’ll pass through a few indigenous settlements in an uncomfortable form of “People Zoo.”  The guides will bribe rot-toothed children with lollipops to stare sullenly so you can snap photos.  The 15-year-old girl will be not the sister but the mother of both the snotty toddler clinging to her tunic and the baby hanging in a sack strung around her forehead and down her back; girls are married off at puberty and expected to give birth both immediately and frequently or risk being abandoned by their 18-year-old husbands.  You can then engage in the uncomfortable mental gymnastics of trying to be respectful of cultures different from your own, and simultaneously being completely appalled. The “city” itself is small; nothing much remains except some terraces, guarded by a camp of soldiers young enough to still have acne, yet toting gigantic weapons.  The terraces are accessible by a seemingly-endless staircase where each step varies in height, depth and angle, like a deranged primitive Stairmaster set to random; be warned that coming down is worse than going up.  By the end, our group suffered from strained ankles, ribs bruised from falls, ticks, and various rotting rashes.   Take the train to Machu Picchu instead and spend your Colombian time sipping beer on the beach.

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fivestar Don’t Miss it!

Hiking to Ciudad Perdida is walking backwards through time.  As you leave the town of Machete (its real name!), you hike through increasingly remote and primitive settlements — and increasingly virgin rain forest — until you arrive at the grand ancient terraces of the Lost City itself.  Home to over 2000 indigenous people until 1600, threats (and smallpox-infected blankets) from the Spanish invaders wiped the city from the map.  The ruins were re-discovered in 1976; both the recent history of Colombia and their remoteness — only accessible on foot or mule, two days each way — have kept this gem uncrowded and magical.  It’s like Macchu Pichu, but without the clamorous busloads of jostling tourists.  The hike isn’t easy, but at least twice per day — and more often is you ask for it — there are fern-encrusted swimming holes filled by a sparkling waterfall or a crystalline river pouring down from the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevadas.  And at the top of every difficult climb, the guides offer cold watermelon or fresh-squeezed orange juice that appear like magic out of the jungle.  The food is one of the highlights of the trip: flavorful meat, rice and beans cooked in giant vats over fire, served by candlelight.   Our guide, Melkis, was our own personal MacGyver, fixing our son’s broken flip flop one night with thread and candle wax.  His partner, Miller, took us to a hidden healing pool behind the Lost City; I can’t vouch for the eternal youth he promised, but the hike back was certainly easier than the hike up!  Our group was eclectic, international and educated; one highlight was a post-swim snack of beer and fresh popcorn (waded out to us by our guide) on a chunk of granite in the middle of the river, discussing European and South American politics.  The remoteness and challenge of the hike cause those beautifully intense trail friendships where, upon parting, everyone tears up and promises to stay in touch with people whose names they are just learning.  Why would anyone put up with the crowds of Machu Picchu when this is a more authentic experience?

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Also, I wrote this while cursing the trail.

The Hiking Manifesto

In order to create an appropriate and enjoyable outdoor experience, all hikes entered into by [INSERT HIKER NAME HERE] will hereafter comply with the following rules and guidelines:

  • The following items are strictly prohibited: mosquito, ticks, leeches, rain, stray dogs, aggressive cows, crowds, and all destinations also accessible via bus tour.
  • All hikes will conform to The 5/10/25/1000 Rule: no more than FIVE hours, no more than TEN miles, ambient temperature not to exceed TWENTY-FIVE degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), and no more than ONE THOUSAND feet in cumulative elevation gain (or Total Upward Steps (TUS))*
  • Gratuitous upward climbs are expressly forbidden unless they terminate in (1) a 360-degree view of unusual attractiveness or (2) a cocktail and massage therapist.
  • The hiker is never required to carry items exceeding the weight of a one-liter water bottle, regardless of hike length and duration.  However, ample food and water shall be provided as necessary and on demand from someone else’s pack.  Also, clean bathrooms equipped with toilet paper.
  • Beer and/or ice cream must be available at the end of every hike.  Also beds with mattresses and blankets appropriate to the climate.
  • The following are acceptable odors: salty sea air, fragrant pines, woodland flowers and fresh grass.  Under no circumstances are odors of manure or sewage permitted.
  • Hikes including any of the following are given special consideration: waterfalls, rivers lined with granite rocks, swimming opportunities, sweeping panoramic views, and loop trails.

I have read the preceding requirements and agree to engage only in hikes that comply with all specifications:

Sign here ______________________

* Note that TUS counts every upward step, not just absolute point-to-point altitude change which would make the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim hike appear “flat” which a priori it is not.

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More Photos

Photo credits: Retta

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