By Sasha Mishkin
With limited vacation days for endless travel dreams, it’s hard to plan the perfect trip. That’s why instead of perfection I strive for indelibility. On my last trip to South America, I found just that with an unforgettable four-day hike to “La Ciudad Perdida” (The Lost City). Originally called Teyuna, the archaeological site was built over 1000 years ago. A 650-year precursor to Machu Pichu, the city was abandoned when the Spanish invasion forced the indigenous dwellers deeper into the Sierra Nevada.
Untouched for centuries, the beauty of the ruinous city was reclaimed by treasure hunters in the early 1970s. Since then, adventure seekers have been visiting the Lost City to explore the dense jungle, cool off in waterfalls, sleep in nature and watch the sun roll across the mountains. On Thanksgiving, I was grateful to be one of them.
My friend Sophia and I landed in Cartagena and were immediately met with rides to Santa Marta, the starting point for our trek in northern Colombia. Carrying our monstrous hiking bags on our backs, our destination was obvious. The three and a half hour trip along the coast took double the time because the driver kept stopping the van to chat with friends and buy snacks. By the time we reached our hotel for the night, we had learned our first important lesson in South America: everything runs on Colombian time.
In the morning, we enjoyed a nice breakfast of authentic Colombian coffee and muesli with fruit on the lovely outdoor rooftop. When it was time to go, we tied up the laces on our hiking boots, strapped ourselves into our packs and rode in a 4-wheeler to Machete Pelao, a town that marks the starting point of the trek like a marker for a race. Two hours in on the winding dirt path along the Buritaca River and I was ready to post up for the night. My pack kept stealing the breath I needed to climb the steep inclines and I cursed all 40 pounds of it with every huff.
At the resting point, my group indulged in refreshing watermelon. Chomping into a juicy watermelon slice and sitting on the grass overlooking the mountains was heavenly. A dreamlike fog veiled part of the mountains, making them look even more ethereal. Another hour to the camp and we would get to rest for the night.
By day three, I was in sync with the remoteness of the jungle. I acclimated to the arctic shower water that sputtered from a single pipe; I was okay with my sweat being a third party in private conversations; and I fell asleep to nighttime jungle noises underneath a mosquito net. Up at five and on the trail by six, with incredibly delicious coffee to fuel my steps, I felt myself growing physically stronger and mentally present. Most of the time I could only hear my own breath, my sole concentration on putting my left foot in front of my right.
Every so often, I hung back from the group to snap a photo; and every time, appreciation for where I was swelled inside me. I had that same feeling when one of the two Israeli soldiers in my group readjusted my monster pack for me, tightening it on my hips and shoulders so it wouldn’t strain my back like it had been. It made all the difference and I wanted to bring it everywhere. Though, this proved foolish when we went to a waterfall that afternoon to escape the stinging heat. I was crossing the river when I lost my balance on a slick stone and crashed onto it, the weight of my pack only adding to the brusque fall. My knees were in excruciating pain and immediately erupted in deep bruising and contusions.
It seemed worse because the trek had been grueling until that point, and only seemed all the more impossible because there was more than a day still to go. The steamy heat never relented, sharp inclines and descents only grew more daunting after rainfall and the guides rarely stopped for water breaks. Thankfully, my new comrades were zealously helpful. We were all doing the trek together, and even with me marching slowly along, we would finish together. Sophia expressed this fully when I was reluctant to cliff jump into the river and she told me that we were there for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I should just come to the piscina (natural waterfall pool). Despite the hardships that arise on a trip, you should always go to the piscina. That was my second learned lesson in South America.
When we finally neared La Ciudad Perdida, excitement reverberated in my hiking boots. Each of the 1,263 mossy steps was narrow, carefully leading us further into Colombia’s northernmost uncovered mystery. A map of the city was carved on the facades of two stones. Studying them made me wonder what life was like when people lived here; it was so remote, so barren, yet filled with enough resplendence to lift away the wrinkles of time.
At the highest terrace, we were met with a few Colombian military men, stationed at the Lost City to guard it and ensure the safety of tourists. You can only embark on the trek if you have a guide due to kidnappings in the early 2000’s. A few other tour groups wandered around in awe. The views were truly magnificent and being so high above everything made me feel like I could jump into the air and land in a net of dreams. I’ve walked many miles in my life, but none have been quite as memorable as the 37.5 miles (and 23,600 feet up and down in elevation) as the Lost City.
Sasha Mishkin grew up on the North Shore and attended college in New York City. She has written travel and lifestyle stories for various publications. Track her latest travels, tips and insights on Instagram (@cityfone) and Twitter (@sashamish).