Changing the tire on the jeep
I am deep in the Colombian jungle, 10 minutes from where we spent the night with the Colombian military, and this guy is showing us how to make cocaine. But that probably isn't the best place to start the story. The story starts with the jungle, and the reason for going to the jungle was to hike to Ciudad Perdida
, a six day journey from the edge of civilization into the heart of the jungle. Our group consisted of 12 people, two Italians, two South Africans, two Germans, four Americans, one Colombian, and a Dutch girl, plus our two guides.
In order to even reach the beginning of the trail we needed to take a 3-4 hour jeep ride from Santa Marta
to the trailhead.
The jeep stuck in the mud
The chiva or jeep that they had for us was an old Toyota Landcruiser which was colorfully painted and looked more than rugged enough for any purpose. Into this eight of us plus the two guides and a driver piled in with all of our stuff and other supplies being lashed to the top. The other four went in another vehicle as there wasn't enough room in the jeep for everyone. The first part of the ride was slow as the loaded jeep couldn't manage more than 40mph, so it took us over an hour to get to the turn-off from the paved road to the dirt road. Once we reached this point, the road began to slowly deteriorate until we needed every bit of four wheel drive power that the jeep could muster. Unfortunately, this wasn't always enough. I was sitting on the edge of one of the rows with little door comprised of bars and small ledge that went up to my hip, with the whole upper part open until the support beams for the roof so I had quite a good view of the road we were going over and of what lay beyond the road on my side.
The trail on the first day, a good part, before it started raining
The first time we got stuck we tried to cross this section of muddy road with tire ruts over a foot deep. As the driver revved the engine and the jeep started to slow and sink into the mud the whole vehicle angled over totally towards my side and when we came to a stop I had a nice view of the tire which was about 18 inches from edge of the road which then dropped of into a ravine about 60 feet straight down. At this point we all had to get out of the jeep so they could back it up and try to make it through again, which they were successful in doing without our added weight. Later on the road we were forced to stop and get out another time, only to discover that the steel on the tire around the lugnuts had a 4 inch long gash in it. After the driver and guides agreed that it looked okay to continue, they tightened the lugnuts and we proceeded.
The Colombian soldiers that we hung out with
Several minutes later the driver felt that the wheel wasn't holding up so we all had to get out, move the stuff from the roof, pull down the spare tire and change the tire amidst the mud on the road. Soon after this we got stuck again. This time the jeep couldn't even make it through the mud without us so we were forced to push the jeep through this 4-6 inch deep mud. There were several other close calls but we were able to make it to the little village located at the trailhead. The people in the other vehicle later said that they were scared watching us drive because the jeep would shift from side to side at such big angles. Maybe it looked worse than it was, I don't know.
After lunch we started hiking and the trail was nice, we were all talking and getting to know each other, and we crossed a few shallow rivers without getting wet.
Not your average tourist photo
Our food supplies were loaded up on mules and they traveled ahead of us. Then we got to the first uphill stretch, it was rather steep and quite rocky but not terrible. Then it started to rain. This was probably why they gave us garbage bags before we started hiking. As the rain worsened we all donned plastic bags over our backpacks and continued hiking uphill. Then it started to absolutely pour rain and we continued uphill past a military checkpoint and a little store shack selling drinks and snacks. After leveling out for a while the trail turned sharply downhill and at this point it was not so much a trail as deep muddy chasm carved into the ground with a river of muddy water from the unrelenting rain running down the middle and off to the sides at every angle.
This is one of the reasons why you sleep in hammocks under mosquito nets in the jungle
The trail and the rain continued like this for another solid hour, at which point we reached our campsite for the night and it continued to rain just as hard as ever. Everyone was glad to reach the campsite as were totally soaked from the rain, but at least our backpacks were dry from the garbage bags. We ate dinner and spent the night hanging out with the Colombian military troops that were there and talking amongst ourselves. We slept in hammocks because of all the giant frogs, spiders, and ants that are everywhere in the jungle (see pictures), I guess that everything is bigger in the jungle.
When we woke up in the morning the military was gone and this meant that we got to take a side trip with this guy that used to run cocaine factories. He told us that the army had blown up two of his factories so he no longer did that.
Learning how to make cocaine
That would be the same army that stayed with us in the camp the previous night. They had moved on looking for and trying to destroy coca plants, as this whole region is prime coca country and used to be a region with heavy guerilla activity as recently as five years ago when several people were kidnapped at the Lost City. A heavy military presence has since moved the threat of any hostile activity much deeper into the jungle. So this guy is walking us through the whole process of how to make cocaine from the coca leaves. It was really like one of those cooking shows where they pull out pots of the dish at various stages like this is the mixture after baking for five hours and this is it after soaking in acid for several minutes, etc. The whole process was actually remarkably simple and anyone with access to basic chemistry lab and a few kilos of coca leaves could make a few grams of cocaine in a day (and no I'm not going to tell you how to do it, it's probably on the internet anyways).
The finished coca paste
He takes it all the way to the coca paste which just has to be dried out to make the powdered cocaine. He offered us to try it out so I rubbed a little on my sunburned lip and it was numb for about 30 minutes. But knowing all the chemicals that go into it, the damaging effects that is has on people aren't surprising. After our little lesson it was off for another day of hiking, this time we were lucky enough to hike in the morning when it is dry and you only have to put up with the sweltering heat and humidity. And of course all of our clothes were still soaking wet from the previous day. Rule number one in the jungle is that anything that gets wet stays wet. Unless it gets direct sunlight, the high humidity keeps everything damp. After a short easy stretch of the trail it was straight uphill for 90 minutes of mud-slogging from all the rain that fell yesterday, and then downhill for about 30 minutes and then uphill for another 60 minutes.
Indigenous village on the trail
At times we were hiking with soldiers in front of us and soldiers behind us, kind of an eery feeling. There was obviously no threat as sometimes we would come to a clearing to find the soldiers hanging out washing their clothes with their guns hung up on trees or placed on rocks somewhat nearby, so they apparently weren't worried about anything. The trail crossed nearby the villages of some of the indigenous people and through some spectacular jungle scenery before ending at the camp where we caught up with the soldiers again. Even though it didn't rain we were all still soaking wet from sweating in the jungle heat during our four hours of hiking. We were able to swim in the river to wash off and cool down. As the afternoon came, it started to rain and then it started to rain harder until it was raining about as hard as it possibly can and it continued like that for about 3 hours before slowly tapering off over several hours.
Looking into the valley where the lost city is located
The third day was supposed to be the longest hiking day and we would actually reach the Lost City. The clear river that we swam in the day before was now a churning mass of muddy brown water from all the rain. The first part of the hike started with us inching our way around the edges of slippery rocks that dropped away about 30 feet to muddy class 3 and 4 rapids in the river below. After that we had to cross the river which flowing quickly with strong currents and was waist deep. The guides used a rope to pull us across the river to make sure that no one slipped and got washed away. More hiking through the jungle past other indigenous villages led us to a river which we hiked along and crossed back and forth about 7 times to avoid the various waterfalls and all of sudden we came into view of these rock steps descending toward the river from the jungle.
The entrance to the Lost City from the river
This was the entrance to the Lost City. Climbing up the steps, all 1200 of them was tiring, some of them were really small and they were steep and slippery. It was amazing that there was a city located up on these mountains. Eventually we reached a clearing which was the first part of the city, through this led more stairs into the heart of the city and soon we reached the main staircase which was much wider and went straight up into the jungle. Coming up from the main staircase to the top of the lost city was spectacular. The Lost City is nestled in the shadow of giant mountain peaks with a terrace overlooking the surrounding valleys and lesser mountains. The whole city was crawling with soldiers, they even had their own command post, towards the top of the Lost City, looking down on it all.
Some of the 1200 steps
After some time wandering around the city we headed to the campsite where we had some food and settled in before the fog came in and the rain started coming down. Naturally the guidebooks are wrong and the dry season doesn't start until January.
The next morning we had a guided tour of the Lost City. It was amazing to learn that over 2000 people lived at the site in about 240 dwellings and it is only 30% excavated because of a lack of funds. It was certainly a hard place to reach and I am sure it had great strategic value. Our guide also told us of another lost city, reachable only by helicopter unless you want to walk for seven days bent over at the waist and face a tribe that lives in caves and is hostile towards outsiders because someone stole their golden armadillo years ago (armadillo recovered and thief murdered).
Me in front of the grand staircase
Spending the morning at the Lost City was great, it is such a peaceful place in such a beautiful location, and other than the soldiers we had it all to ourselves. A distinct advantage over something like Macchu Picchu. But we had to head back, so it was down those 1200 steep slippery stairs very cautiously and across the river 7 more times and back to camp, a much easier hike this time because it was mostly downhill. Back at the second camp we had to share it with two other two groups so it was packed with people and we were relegated to our hammocks for a lot of the time because there was nowhere else to sit, and of course it was raining. When it was finally our turn to use the tables we ate our food and started to play cards. So we're playing cards and a dogfight breaks out between two of the dogs that were hanging around.
Finally reaching the central clearing
The other group was sitting along a row of benches and the snarling dogfight moved itself under the bench leading everyone to pull their feet up as the dogs bit and clawed at each other. No one could really break it up, some of the guides tried throwing water on the dogs but they continued to go at each other. Then the one guide reached in and grabbed one of the dogs by the hind leg and ripped it out from under the bench and away from the fight. I'm not sure if they would have fought to the death but at least until one of them was injured enough to back down. The fight almost erupted a few other times but they were able to prevent it. Because we were all tired of wearing the same wet clothes and we had an easy hike the next day, we decided to hike the rest of the way out in one day rather than two.
Looking down on the Lost City
We had to start at dawn to get out of the jungle and into the jeep before the afternoon rains came.
Hiking out was much easier than hiking in because it was mostly downhill with only two big uphill stretches. We made great time and made it out to the village by around 12:30 giving us plenty of time to change out of our wet clothes, relax and have a a couple beers and lunch and wait for the jeep to come and pick us up. Because we hiked out faster we had to share the jeep with another group of four and their guide. This forced three people to take motorcycle taxis out to the main road because the jeep couldn't take all of us. When the jeep finally came after a couple of hours it looked as if it was going to rain any minute. The questionable road would obviously be less than driveable if it really started to rain.
A stairway to another part of the Lost City
So we loaded everything onto the roof of the jeep and we piled in, this time there were 15 of us, with 13 inside the jeep and two of the guides riding on the roof. The overloaded jeep had some trouble with some of the sections and pitched from side to side even more and we all had to get out as it navigated some bad stretches. At this point we're all wearing sandals and aren't exactly prepared to hike through the mud and the when we all had to get out the jeep would plow ahead and we would all have to run behind it in the mud with our sandals to catch up because they really wanted to get off the bad section before it got dark. With all the weight we were riding considerably lower to the ground and a few times the gas tank was hit by trees and rocks. One guy got out to check it several times and because he spoke the fastest that I've ever heard anyone speak no one could tell if we were leaking gas or not, but it smelled a bit like we were.
A clearing that held several dwellings
So to review, our overloaded jeep that's possibly leaking gas is hurrying through this rough road trying to make it out before dark. And then it started to rain. Fortunately it wasn't the torrential downpour that happened while we were hiking. But we did overhear one of the guys in the front say to the driver, "They should know that this is dangerous." Luckily enough we made it without incident to the better portion of the road where we passed a truck that had pulled over. We weren't sure what the problem was because the guy that spoke really fast was talking to them. Then we heard our driver say to the truck driver, "You really shouldn't go down this hill without brakes." The soldiers guarding the entrance to highway got a good laugh when our driver told them that there was a truck with no brakes behind us, they probably thought it was a joke.
Inside the Lost City
Another hour and a half on paved roads and we were back in Santa Marta, back in civilization and out of the jungle.