photos – Lost City trek, Colombia

One of the great treks in the world — smack dab in the middle of a guerrillas, narcotrafficers & kidnappers.

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travelogue – Colombia

Colombia is one of the most intriguing & memorable countries I have visited.

I heard many horror stories — but my experience there was wonderful. Friendly people. Great towns & cities. Wonderful people.

I travelled to Colombia from Venezuela.

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Colombia? Why go to Colombia?

Colombia is the number 2 coffee producer in the World. Café con leche was available everywhere for about C$.10 — that is reason enough!

In Venezuela, I had heard of an amazing hike to a lost jungle city just across the border in Santa Marta, Colombia. But it was almost impossible to get there by land from Venezuela. The border rife with smugglers, kidnappers, paramilitary, banditos & crooked cops.

Colombia is poor, Venezuela rich — hence the tension.

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Somehow I managed to cross a 50k no-mans-land on a series of buses and taxis. I would have been detained at at least one of a dozen check stops except that a businessman took me under his protection.

I was vastly relieved to reach a fortress of a hotel on the Colombian side of the border.

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Santa Marta, the oldest city in Colombia (1525), is pretty & undeveloped. Backpackers love this place. Cobble-stoned houses, overhanging balconies, churches and military fortresses. Kids, dogs, pool halls, power failures and loud music.

It is the jumping off point for the Lost City trek.

I was psyched.

jlost_riverSix-day return treks to the ruins of La Ciudad Perdida are only allowed through a government agency. Guides arrange transport, food and accommodation — essential because the area is a significant marijuana and coca-growing region.

I, like the other backpackers in Santa Marta, was nervous about making the trip.

A selling point, however, was that hikers of all nationalities were allowed to trek except Americans — they make too attractive kidnap victims.

k_guideOur guide was most famous and experienced having made the trip over 500 times since the Lost City had been rediscovered in 1976.

I carried my tent on the trek, much to the consternation of my old guide. He insisted we sleep in hammocks in the South American tradition.

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We visited a number of traditional villages en route. The guide was welcomed warmly everywhere we went.

A log bridge provides a crossing when the water is higher. As a gymnast I volunteered to walk across as if it were a balance beam.

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OK. Not quite like a balance beam.

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The Lost City is remote & difficult to access.

I was disappointed to see a sign showing the route. 🙂

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Finally, atop the steepest coastal mountain range in the world, we reached The Lost City.

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It is very Indiana Jones. Mysterious & enigmatic.

The site is pre-Hispanic. In fact some artifacts there date from 500 B.C.

It’s less a city, than an entangled net of tiled roads, terraces and small circular plazas supported by walls on the sharper mountains.

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The site begs the question; why here?

Access to the coast is near impossible.

Theory is that the native inhabitants had a variety of climates, ranging from the hot to cold temperatures. Consequently, they had access to a great variety of game & wild fruit.

Rediscovered by grave robbers, the hundreds of overgrown stone terraces which once held a city have been restored.

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Huts like these have been restored only in a few places.

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On a king’s throne in the Lost City.

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Colombia is strongly Catholic. I found these trees evocative.

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On the return, in a native village, we were shown trees growing a date rape drug — borrachero, I believe it is called — a soporific often used too, in South America, on hapless tourists.

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Oropendulas (related to blackbirds and orioles) are communal nesters. Each male builds its own hanging nest, which are then grouped together in a favorite tree. The same tree may be used for many generations. Their name comes from the gold (= “oro” in Spanish) color on their tails, and the pendulum-like nest..

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A couple of days walk from the highway, a vendor had set up shop for our handful of hikers — the only gringos on the moutain.

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On the trip up the mountain we were cautious & nervous — worried about narco-trafficers, slick trails, moss, suckers & vines, toads & snakes, thunder & lightening, mud & dark.

We removed our shoes at every creek crossing.

On the way down we were confident & relaxed, shirtless, splashing in every waterway to cool off. One of the hikers was savvy enough to bring a snorkel!

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The Lost City was a terrific hike. We loved it.

The danger and adrenaline added to the allure.

At one point on the track, I stopped to watch a wasp paralyze a much larger spider, then lay her eggs on the spider’s back.

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Just like National Geographic.

Survivors. Lost City trek, Colombia, 1997.

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In 2003 a group of 8 hikers like ours was kidnapped. One escaped almost immediately, but others were held for over 100 days.

Colombia should be one of the world’s most exciting destinations. Unfortunately, guerrilla war, cocaine cartels & kidnapping scare most tourists away.

It was unsafe in 1997. But Colombia worsened in 2002 when the government cut off peace negotiations with the Marxist rebel organization FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

Colombia is charmingly undeveloped & non-Western. Many women in South America want to be voluptuous. They sashay sexy.

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I was impressed with the confident swagger of the women. They need not turn down their eyes from every man who checks them out.

My hiking guide — who had finally convinced me of the advantages of a hammock over my tent — took me to the market to purchase an authentic, quality Colombian double hammock.

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I still use it, even sleeping outside in minus 40 degrees Celsius Canada.

Hammock quality varies widely. Cheaper ones fall apart quickly.

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From Santa Marta, I travelled down the coast to Cartagena, every tourist’s favourite spot.

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You might be in Europe. Overhanging balconies are much photographed.

Cartagena is an old city with a big colonial fortress. The main tourist attraction is the clear sea.

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I saw the movie The English Patient in a huge, beautiful theatre here. The locale added to the romance of the film.

Colonial architecture, churches & plazas are lovely.

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San Felipe castle, Caragena, Colombia.

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To connect to a flight out of the country, I travelled to the capital for a couple of days.

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Bogotá is a city of modern architecture, a vibrant and diverse cultural and intellectual life, splendid colonial churches and brilliant museums. It is also a city of Dickensian waifs, beggars, shantytowns, drug dealers and traffic jams. This amazing mixture of prosperity and poverty, Maseratis and mules, makes it one of the world’s most chaotic, fascinating and aggressive metropolises.

I was totally impressed by the Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) which contains many relics of pre-Colombian history.

Colombia should be one of the prize backpacker destinations in the world. The people are terrific. The coast dramatically beautiful. The rainforests, mountains and beaches wonderful.

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But drug kingpins and corrupt politicians have made it almost impossible. In 2003, more than 3000 people were abducted.

I would love to return some day. When it is safer.

Departing South America I was stung by crooked airport officials for about US$10.:-(

Adios.

travelogue – Venezuela

Lost overnight in the Andes, rafting an unknown river & fishing for piranha, Venezuela was memorable.

I’d heard of Angel Falls, the world’s highest. And heard of strange flat-topped mountains.

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I had originally planned to fly to Peru to hike — but two Swedish dope smokers in Trinidad convinced me that Venezuela was an even better hiking destination and was only a few kms away. I could almost SWIM!

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Caracus was not recommended. And it was the wrong time of year for Angel Falls. So I connected directly to Merida in the Andes. A good decision.

Venezuela and surrounds are famous for beautiful women. (Tourist bumpf emphasizes this.)

On my flight to Venezuela was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. An auspicious start.

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Merida is rightly acclaimed as one of the best mountain destinations in the world. The small town sits at the foot of the highest mountain in Venezuela.

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Unhurried and bohemian, backpackers love Merida.

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They all stay near a small park with a magic view of the mountains. I felt fate had brought me here when I saw gymnastics equipment outdoors down the street from my hostel. Local strong men and a few tourists work out there with Andean inspiration.

Not much of a photographer, I did snap this with a disposable camera, one of my favourite travel shots, in a Merida graveyard.

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South America was still strongly Catholic when I was there in 1997.

The main attraction, Merida boasts the world’s highest (4765m) and longest (12.5km) cable car. Unfortunately, in the 1980s a car on the top crashed killing an undisclosed number of tourists. The last section of the ride up was never repaired.

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Still, I could ride to 4000m and hike from there. Overnight camping is technically illegal so almost no one knew where I was going as I headed up the mountain.

Merida sits on a flat messeta, a high terrace between 2 parallel rivers. Stunning. The short airport runway is right in the centre of town.

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The Virgin of the Snows, a statue of Mary high atop a mountain in Venezuela. I would not visit Mary — instead camping away from this, the usual tourist route.

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The vegetation and scenery is amazing — so different than any other alpine area I had seen.

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Tourists examining the fallen cables, untouched since wind blew them down in the 1980s.

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Excited, I planned to tent solo for 1 night in the Andes. My dinner would have a Spanish theme: crusty bread, cheese, anchovies and a bottle of rough red wine.

I climbed a ridge. The vista was magic with clouds blowing in and out. I dropped my pack at the first possible tent site & continued up looking for a better spot. The terrain was steep, exposed & rugged. Not many options for a tent.

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I knew that at the top of the mountain was The Virgin of the Snows, a statue of the Virgin Mary. She led me on.

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On a whim I decided to kiss the Virgin — once the day hiking tourists had departed for the day.

I was careful to note landmarks on my way up so I could return to the pack. Unfortunately they all disappeared in the clouds.

Blast.

Lost in the Andes above 4000m. I vainly searched for the ridge back down to my tent, pack and sleeping bag. Finally, as night fell, I resolved to take refuge in a grotto beneath an overhanging rock. I had water but no food.

For 10 hours I huddled shivering, calculating the probability of death from hypothermia in just a t-shirt and fleece pants. I’d like to tell you I learned something from this experience — but I didn’t. It was a drag.

At first light I tried another long route down. What a relief when, four hours later, I bumped into an elderly Swiss couple on the trail! They gave me a cookie & directions. I had been hopelessly lost.

To add insult to injury, officials on the cable car wanted to arrest me for camping illegally.

Lesson learned? Never leave your pack.

My legs were ruined from sprinting around the mountain.

What to do? I signed up for a 5-day rafting tour thinking it would give my legs time to heal up.

On the drive to the start our group stopped for lunch at a lovely ranch with stone buildings.

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We played with the pet monkey.

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I felt sorry for the lonely monkey. For company he hung out with the farm pigs.

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Our crazy Dutch guide was the highlight of the trip. He married a Venezuelan woman but complained that she did nothing but watch Spanish soap operas on TV.

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We came upon a dead sting ray in the river. The guide cut some flesh from the huge creature and had us fish for Pirayna — we caught them instantly in only 3 inches of water. The river is teeming with them!

The tiny fish are all teeth. But we still roasted them over an open fire as an appetizer.

Our guide convinced us to try rafting a NEW river. It was nice to be certain we would not see any other tourists on the trip.

We had 3 Germans, 1 Israeli, 2 Brits, 2 Canucks — typical of eco-adventure tour groups. This was a good one. Very relaxing.

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Los Llanos (the plains), is Venezuela’s greatest repository of wildlife surpassing even the biomass of Amazonia. Imagine Alberta suddenly close to the equator.

I was there at the best time, the end of the dry season. Wildlife is forced to the major rivers where gringo tourists float.

It’s lovely country but prone to malaria. We saw farmers spraying DDT from backpack tanks to keep mosquitos down. DDT is not banned in Venezuela.

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Trying to get to the river from the dirt road was an adventure. We had to carry raft overhead through a plantation.

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Putting in.
Putting in.

Something was eerie on the river, though. It took me a couple of days before I realized there are no water birds in Venezuela. There’s a lurker at every river bend ready to take any bird that alights.

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We swam with the piranha and other beasts of the rivers many times a day without a second thought.

Our guide had never floated this river. Each day he searched out a camp site.

One night we stayed at this traditional cattle ranch, sleeping in hammocks. Another night we strung hammocks in a simple shelter providing shade for stock animals.

ranchTerrific trip. Great fun.

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The worst thing about Venezuela?

Terrible food! Inedible, really. Our tour took us to the most famous steak restaurant in the country. It was awful.

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The coffee was fantastic, however, & available everywhere for something like C$.10 a shot.

In Venezuela I first heard of an amazing hike to a lost city hidden in the jungle. Unfortunately it was in Colombia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. (Eight hikers were kidnapped on that hike in 2003. One escaped, the rest survived over 100 days in captivity.)

I instantly resolved to go for it.

First I had to climb back up the mountain to retrieve my pack. It was exactly where I had left it 6 days before.

On to Colombia!

 

 

 

 

Alive ‘95, hiking the Rockwall

July 1995 by Ricardo McCharles, Survivor

This is the draft copy I sent to the editor of the red-eye, our friendship newsletter. It is an expose of our hike on the Rockwall Trail.

I asked that the Reditor edit. I know everyone needs an editor. Even Hitler. His original title for MEIN KAMPF was “Four-and-a-half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice.”

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rick_mugI write in order that the truth be known, and to dispel the many rumours about what happened in the Rockies. This is the story of what we suffered and how we stayed alive. It is a catharsis, yet I hope it may prevent such tragedy in the future.

On Thursday, July 13th, five would-be mountaineers set off from Bragg Creek for Kootenay National Park in British Columbia. Reports of good weather elevated the spirits of our ill-prepared band, though most of us were badly hungover. To steel our nerve, we had been drinking heavily on departure’s eve. Ironically, we snacked on “prairie oysters” at Bottlescrew Bill’s Testicle Festival.

The sixth hiker in our party, Ana Farries, left her home in Kimberly, British Columbia to rendezvous at the trailhead. Ana, a journalist whose byline occasionally appeared in publications of a lesser sort, was a first-time alpinist. She didn’t yet know what she didn’t know about mountain survival. No one expected her to live.

We met as scheduled and, overconfident in the bright sunshine, our rough tribe set off. An interpretive walk … to Hell.

Party-leader Rocco (Party-on, Rock!) Ciancio feigned enthusiasm, a picture of false bravado. A professional ass-coverer for the Petro-toxin industry, Rocco’s legendary shitheadedness might help him survive.

Herr Professor-to-be, Juan Long was stoically calm. Late 30s, thin, neat, and unmarried — not that there is anything wrong with that — he was just finishing 23 years of education in order to become an electrician. Juan would be valuable if any of the flashlights went kaput at high altitude.

Ronaldo Shewchuk, the bulky “Buckfart”, anticipated a particularly grueling ascent. Tough and experienced, the cost-unconscious Ronaldo was, none-the-less, heavily laden. And he presented too tempting a caloric windfall as he lumbered up the path ahead. He was also vulnerable in that he slept in his own tent, alone or with some one night bag-boy.

I feared most the menacing Roberto Glaser — sullen and brooding, haunted by ghosts from his past. A latter day Lord of the Flies, I only barely resisted raising a war council against him. Roberto inevitably charged ahead of the group. I stayed close in order to stay in the first echelon of power, and to avoid ambush. I did not intend to go down easily, and Roberto knew it.

I had announced my intentions clearly to Rob’s wife, and mother of 3, Judith, as we departed. “Six-in, six-out. That’s the goal.”

I knew that if I failed we would be killed-off one-at-a-time. Fresh meat. But who would be first?

Most at risk was the trail-rookie Ana Farries. She immediately fell back, left behind to be dispatched by the bears. When Roberto backtracked to claim her corpse, the spunkster was still hobbling along despite gangrenous feet. Disgusted, Rob abandoned her again.

Night 1 — Helmet Creek

We got immediately, and utterly, Shewchuked. While the others tried to out-inebriate each other, I carefully substituted my own Tequila with creek water. I calculated that the highest probability of violent mortality would be at the height of a drinking binge, not on some icy ridge.

Late in the evening, Ana somehow stumbled into camp. Too bad. Now she would suffer the indignity of the rookie hazing.

Yet, somehow Ana survived the profane song, nudity, the physical abuse. I admired her tenacity! Venus envy, I guess.

Night 2 — Tumbling Creek

Camped for the night., we got Shewchuk-faced, again. Roberto decided to give away some of our food to two starving dike fingerers. “What the Hell was he thinking? What’s coming down?”, I fumed, re-checking my secret stash of life sustaining licorice jaw breakers.

Forebodingly, Rocco sang Dolomite. Would it be his swan song?

Day 3 — Tumbling glacier

Roberto’s bestial passions rose as we gained elevation, approaching the high and hideous Tumbling glacier. The impassable and lifeless rock wall loomed immense on our right.

In environs of utmost desolation, astoundingly, that metamorphic shist disturber Rocco collected … rocks, adding them to his pack even as he sucked at the oxygen depleted air.

Night 3 — Numa Creek

Somehow, still alive. Unwashed savages, somehow few peccadilloes offended. Unstated, we knew that we must stick together if we were going to get out alive. But we trusted no one.

What about tomorrow? Would we be lost? Poisoned? A Swiss-army-knife-related fatality at a luncheon boil-up? I slept fitfully.

We had to hike dry — no booze and scarcely any food unless you count the dozen packages of strokanoff which we all refused.

Live dangerously, dread naught.

At low ebb, I could smell freedom. Ana and I took the last of the food and fled the group in a race for civilization.

We got immediately lost. Done for. I had sabotaged Roberto’s pack to discourage pursuit but forgot to nick his map. We were forced to simply follow the creek down the mountain.

At midday on Sunday, July 16th, we walked out of the mountains. No rescue team. No helicopters. Simply eyes-closed-home-run-hitting, numb, dumb luck.

Six-in, six-out? How did our tribe of 8-balls; of back-country boozers, do it? I have no idea.

Somehow, life had won out over death.

There’s no moral. No reason. No justice.

Live dangerously, dread naught. Who dares, wins. You can hike and survive. It happened to us.

—-

Inspired by the novel Alive and the Himalayan writing style of Hunter S. Thompson.

The Myth of Sissy-fuss, hiking O’Hara

Aug. 1994

This was my comic review of our annual hike. It was first posted in a (pre-internet) friendship newsletter called the red-eye.

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rick_mugThe Gods condemn me to hike with sissy-fussers at the lake of O‘Hara.

“There is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.”

To hear them boast, to gawk at horse and pony, you may conclude they are admirable men.

Nay.

I speak from that hellish overworld to tell truth.

I am the absurd hero of this tale — not the sissy-fussers. Mine is the …

“unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.”

If you could see me; face screwed up, cheeks tight, shoulder bracing the day pack (I, of course, carried beer for ALL), arms outstretched to grasp the heavens ….

But noooooooooo!

Ron forgets his new wet fly. Rocco needs lip balm. Rob dreads perspiration. John Long seeks the mild man within. And where is Ian?

The sissy-fussers balk at 2.8 km over well-groomed trails. They fear bears. They fear avalanche. They fear porcupine. They fear fear itself. Four year old children skip by as the fussers decide to pack it in for the day. It is 11:00 am.

“My face that toils so close to stone is already stone itself!” I go back down to the plain with heavy, measured step.

The sissy-fussers came. They saw. They went for mocha.

Oh, the travesty of Le Roleaux gourmet coffee in the Rockies! Merde!

In a saga less Homer than Homer Simpson, the sissy-fussers are a gaggle of giggling school girls. The soundtrack is Gershwin and Mantovani. Yoho-ho, indeed!

A meal with these pantywaists is punctuated by a Flanderian up-tempo “God is Great”. They pooh-pooh single-ply bog roll. Ron contemplates busing down the mountain to use a flush toilet. (The MegaGorp was too fiber-rich!)

Actually carrying a pack is anathema for a sissy-fusser. Ian arrived for the hike with an “ugly dog” — a suitcase with wheels on a leash. Ron and Rocco used a wheelbarrow to move their goods from bus stop to liquor cabinet.

If this myth is tragic, it is because I am conscious. Hope is my torture.

“My boundless grief is too heavy to bear.”

“You, too, work every day at the same tasks. Your fate is no less absurd.”

“The absurd man says yes and his effort will hence forth be unceasing.”

But, “imagine me happy.” I smile an absurd victory smile.

“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”