The primary reason my brother, sister and I took a sibling trip to Columbia was to visit Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City. I can’t remember how exactly my brother learned of the site, I believe through an acquaintance in NYC, and it had thus recently been on his radar. Since I had trekked the Inca Trail and visited Machu Picchu a year and a half prior, I envisioned this trek to be something similar (a naive grouping of South American wilderness). I was quite wrong.
Because I found Ciudad Perdida and the Inca Trail quite different, I can’t say one is better than the other, but I found the former to be a more raw experience. It’s perhaps easiest to compare them by first separating the trails from the sites. Ciudad Perdida is a 4 to 6 day trek to and from the Lost City (we went the 4 day option through MagicTours), following the same trail there and back; while the Inca Trail is a 4 day trek ending in Machu Picchu. While the Inca Trail is significantly better maintained, it also covers higher altitude in the Andes, resulting in different types of difficulty. The Ciudad Perdida trail is wet, very steep, and through beautiful jungle scenery.
I personally found the primary difference between Ciudad Perdida and Machu Picchu was the sites themselves. Gazing through the sun gate over a desolate Machu Picchu at sunrise is easily a top ten travel highlight. Though unfortunately, this magical moment doesn’t last long once the buses from Aguas Calientes arrive, and the Incan ruins are transformed into a tourist haven. The Lost City on the other hand, really makes you feel like an explorer surviving the Colombian jungle and stumbling upon these remarkable ruins. There is a much stronger sense of secrecy and enchantment at Ciudad Perdida, perhaps enhanced by the smaller sites leading to the finale, the ability to absorb the ruins in silence for hours, the fulfillment of finding an area to meditate alone, or the ominousness of the Colombian Army silently patrolling the jungle.
Okay, I prefer Ciudad Perdida. And the Colombian Army isn’t always silent, they at times asked us for pictures, a wonderful role reversal.
While I very highly recommend visiting Ciudad Perdida, an alternate title to this post could also be ‘Dengue Fever in the Colombian Jungle,’ because unfortunately this tropical disease played a prominent role in the second half of our experience.
Upon reaching the Lost City, my sister was not only feeling exhausted (odd for her as a marathoner) with a headache, but also freezing. She was shivering despite the heat. Initially we encouraged her to drink water, assuming dehydration. We continued to explore the ruins as she started to feel better following ibuprofen and hydration, but as the shivers began to alternate with hot flashes as the day wore on, a German medical student in our group began to suspect malaria. As we arrived back at camp, my sister could hardly walk as her joints and muscles ached and a high fever assumed. The camp was not near an evacuation site, nor had enough supplies for us to spend an extra night. Therefore, after discussing the options with our guide and the army doctor (a troop of soldiers was luckily spending the night at this camp), we decided to have my sister start taking malaria medication and let the doctor give my sister two shots of pain killers (in her butt – dare I say it was quite a interesting experience watching the doctor try not to smile at my sister’s magenta thong). The hope was that the pain killers would help her muster the strength to be carried to the next camp, and if she had malaria, the medication would kick in by the evening.
In the meantime, our guide and soldiers began constructing a stretcher out of a hammock to carry my sister. A messenger was also sent to order a donkey from a nearby town to meet us on the trail as a significantly safer and more efficient means of transportation. Eventually, post river crossing, the stretcher was deemed to risky, and my sister and our guide walked (as the pain killers kicked in) and rested until the donkey arrived.
As the day was getting late and we had a few hours to camp, a very hard decision my brother and I had to make was whether to continue alongside my sister at her pace or continue on ahead behind the rest of our group. My brother had sprained his ankle the day before, and while was able to hike with a brace, he wasn’t able to keep up with the main group. If we stayed with my sister, we for sure would not make it to camp before dark, and once the donkey arrived and she moved ahead, we would be on our own. This would also leave our guide in a more complicated situation to be concerned not only with my sister, but my brother in the dark as well. We eventually decided it was best for us to continue ahead to safely reach camp before dark.
Eventually my sister, once on the donkey, caught up with my brother and I as we reached camp right at dark. While she was feeling slightly better, the day became even more intense as my brother began to shiver, alternating with hot flashes, and experience joint pain. As a precaution he also took his malaria medication, but it was at this time that we began to suspect dengue fever.
It’s hard to explain exactly how I felt. Terrified is perhaps the best word. I’m thankful we had such supportive people in are tour group and can’t imagine the experience without them.
The following morning my brother and sister were fortunately feeling significantly better, but still very weak. Luckily the night before, I was able to arrange two donkeys to carry them this last day back.
Upon returning to Santa Marta, MagicTours took us to the hospital where it was determined that my siblings did not have malaria but the doctor would not test dengue fever because there were no reported cases in the area. Interesting philosophy considering there will never be reported cases if you don’t test. They would have to wait until returning to the States.
All in all, despite an unexpected stressful second half of the trek, I would both definitely recommend and return to Ciudad Perdida. Most importantly though, I’d to say how impressed and appreciative I am to not only the Colombian army for their assistance, but most importantly to our guide Jonathan. Jonathan’s professionalism, quick thinking, hard work, and thoughtfulness during the entire trek was excellent.