I’ve never really liked hiking. Don’t get me wrong, I love the outdoors, but for some reason hiking and I have never really gotten along. As a kid, when my parents would announce we were off on a family hike, I would hide. Then I’d sulk all the way up the mountain and back, making sure that in my true stubborn fashion, everyone knew I didn’t want to be there. If I dislike hiking so much, then how did I end up on a seven day hiking trip to Colombia’s Lost City? The answer is simple; I was on the search for clarity.
For a few years now, I have become increasingly unsure of myself. I have been struggling to find a way to reconnect and become firmly grounded. When my school offered a two-week hiking excursion in Colombia I thought to myself, “Maybe this is just what I need. I mean it worked for the woman in Wild.” And just like that, my decision was made. Before I knew it I was on a plane with eight of my peers and two teachers, flying from the comforts of Canada to the adventure ahead in Colombia.
Exiting the plane in my brand new hiking clothes, I was immediately hit with a wave of sticky heat. It was the kind of heat that causes you to sweat while standing still. That’s when I started to get nervous. Boarding the van my heart started to beat at an alarming rate, and I felt my palms dampen. I was panicking. Had I made the wrong decision?
Our first day of hiking was described to us as a “warm up hike.” We would be hiking in Tayrona National Park before beginning our trek to the Lost City the next day. With our packs on our backs, and more bug spray on than I ever thought possible, we left our suitcases and began trekking. The first bit of the path was flat. “I’ve got this,” I thought to myself. I was regaining confidence when suddenly the ground felt closer to my face, and beadlets of sweat graced my arms. It was the first hill, and it felt never ending. Suddenly my confident demeanor was slashed. I was huffing and puffing, and I could feel my pale face turning a charming shade of red. That hill was miniscule compared to what we would scale later.
After what felt like hours, we stopped to regroup. I turned to our guide, “We’ve got to be about halfway, right?”
“We’ve gone 1 kilometer,” he chuckled.
“How many are we doing in total?” I asked.
“10.” The guide says with a smirk.
I almost spat out my water.
The day plugged by slowly, and before we knew it, we had reached our camp. That night we stayed at an eco-lodge in the national park. It was luxurious, but we didn’t know that yet. The effects of the long day began to set in, and it wasn’t long before I was sleeping soundly in my hammock.
The next morning marked our first day of our trek to the Lost City. Once again, with our packs on our backs, we headed into the jungle, but this time, we wouldn’t return for 6 days.
The first portion of that day featured steep paths that seemed to spiral around the mountain. We were already higher than before, and the view was already spectacular. All you could see for miles was the leafy green canopy of the jungle. The sky was a spectacular shade of blue, and you could feel the sun’s rays beating on the back of your neck. Suddenly, the colour of the sky became ominous. The rain started all at once. It was as if the sky opened up, letting out pea sized droplets of water. Within seconds we were soaked through.
The path became a mudslide, and at this time, we began descending into the valley where we would be staying for camp. Now I’m not exactly the lightest on my feet, and I’m known to be pretty clumsy. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get down the hill with the constant flow of mud. Eventually I accepted I might not make it the whole way on two feet. It wasn’t long before my black pants were stained with the red clay from the ground.
The rain soon stopped, and as the sun began to set, we finally reached camp. We were soaked and tired, but we had made it. Our campsite was a long strip of shelter which housed a wall of bunk-beds on one side and was open to the river below on the other. After shedding our wet clothes for dry ones, we indulged in what would become a standard meal for the next few days: chicken, beans and rice. Exhaustion set in quickly, and soon enough I was curled into my bottom bunk, surrounded by the bug net that kept me safe, and lulled to sleep by the sound of the river rushing past.
Day 2 of our hike followed a similar pattern to the day before. We started the morning hiking out of the valley, and then spent the later hours hiking back into the valley to camp. The significant difference in this day was that we reached camp around 1, rather than at dusk. We spent the afternoon playing card games and enjoying the time off to relax.
As the sun began to set, we had one of the most enriching experiences of the trip. We were given the opportunity to talk to a political leader of the local Kogi tribe. We had hiked past the thatched huts of the Kogi people during the day, but this was the first time we got a real understanding of the culture of the community. The leader sat in front of us, adorned in the white robes all Kogi people wear. He explained to us that the Kogi people view themselves as the “older brothers” of the world, and that the rest of us are the “younger brothers.” He thanked us for taking the time out of our lives to visit a place that so desperately needs the love and care of the world.
After this meeting with the Kogi leader, I felt a newfound appreciation for their people, and as we hiked day 3, I made an effort to say “hola” to each tribe member we passed. At camp 3, we were engaged again as our guide, Edwin, told us the story of a tour group in 2003 that was kidnapped by guerrilla fighters during their hike to the Lost City. Edwin had been their guide, and gave us a first hand look into how dangerous Colombia used to be. Colombia has taken major steps in the past few years to ensure that nothing like this ever occurs again, and throughout the trip, I never felt even the slightest bit unsafe. I realized that for much of my life, I have taken my safety for granted.
As the sun set on day 3, four members of our group came down with a bout of food poisoning. I lovingly patted my stomach and thanked it for being made of steel. Flash forward 3 hours, four members becomes five. I am the unlucky fifth member. “So much for that stomach of steel,” my friend groggily teased.
The sun rose too quickly that morning, and our 5 am wake up call felt torturous. Weakened by the previous night’s sickness, we headed for what would be the hardest hike of the trek: the day we would finally reach the Lost City. We walked for about 20 minutes when suddenly my stomach lurched. 1,200 stone stairs going virtually straight up. I almost burst into tears.
I’m not going to lie to you, climbing those stairs was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Upon reaching the top, I immediately sat down, and began to quietly cry. I couldn’t believe that I’d made it, and I was awestruck by the support of my group throughout the experience.
The Lost City was a sight to behold. The green circles of grass surrounded by stones that seemed to extend up for miles. From the top it felt as though we could see the whole world. As far as the eye could see the world was a leafy green, dotted with waterfalls, and the sky was once again powder blue. The Lost City was virtually empty, but for one other group, and as I looked into the horizon I felt something I rarely have ever felt before. I felt strong.
Before leaving the Lost City, we got to meet with the Mamo: the religious leader of the area. He thanked us for coming, and told us that he wishes for us not to give to their people in monetary ways, but rather that we should take care of the Earth. He gave us each a bracelet with yellow, red and blue beads. Yellow representing the moon, red representing the sun, and blue representing the sky.
Two days later as we exited the park I felt more whole than I have ever felt. I came to the realization that life mimics the mountains. Some days you go up, and some days you go down, but everyday you are moving forward, and that’s what matters. The trek taught me the power of disconnecting. The friendships I was able to make without the allure of my cellphone are some of the strongest connections I have ever felt. I think it’s safe to say that I found the clarity I was looking for, and I fell in love with hiking. The hike to the Lost City not only taught me exponential amounts about myself, but it taught me that sometimes the greatest gift we are given is the planet we live on.
Contributed by Betsy MacDonnell
Betsy hales from New York and is in her final year at Lakefield College School. She has called the Peterborough area home while attending high school in Lakefield. She has travelled extensively and is a blossoming photographer and writer. See and read more on her VSCO or website, Just Another People Person.