Into the Magic: Palomino & the Lost City
Palomino & the Lost City. After two weeks in Cartagena, the day finally came to hit the South American road. My friend Jolein & I had planned to leave Cartagena together, spend New Years in the northern coastal town of Palomino & then do a 4-day trek through the jungle together to the ancient Ciudad Perdida (Lost City). There’s something about strapping on a backpack & stepping into the unknown - it’s exhilarating & daunting all at the same time. You don’t know where the road will take you, or who you’ll meet & I guess that’s the beauty of the adventure. I definitely had butterflies in my stomach that day.
From the Cartagena terminal, Jolein & I found a bus to take us most of the way to Palomino & we were off. That bus ride was my rapid-fire introduction to South American public transportation: non-existent or hidden seatbelts, crazy lane changes involving fear of head-on collision & very little room for error, vendors that enter the bus at every stop to sell homemade chifles (banana chips) & other food, music videos on full blast for the entire bus to enjoy… I remember sitting wide-eyed next to Jolein during the passing maneuvers, thinking “This may be it… this may be it,” while she slept like a baby. Eventually, I got so used to it that I got to that point too, but it took awhile.
We arrived at Casa Lina just outside of Palomino on December 30th, 2015. As we entered the front gate, I remember being immediately struck by the charm of the beach-front property. Two-story, thatched-roof bungalows & tall palms dotted the verdant grounds & the ocean roared in the background not 150 meters away. Of course, the bungalows weren’t in our backpacker’s budget & everything else in Palomino was full for the New Year, so we had arranged to sleep in hammocks under an open-air patio literally a few meters from the ocean. This wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it ended up being beautiful & relaxing. We enjoyed delicious breakfasts (fresh fruit, bread, tea & coffee) at Casa Lina & our accommodation all for under $10/night.
Palomino itself ended up being a small, low-key vacation spot that didn’t even boast an ATM. We spent a few relaxed afternoons on the beach & our friend Mike from Cartagena ended up joining us as well. We expected New Years to involve a big beach party, but we quickly learned that holidays in Colombia are usually spent at home with family - so the three of us rang in the New Year in a very small local bar with only the solitary Colombian bartender in charge of the place. We actually ended up having a blast, sharing music from across the globe with each other all night long. The only sign of life we saw that night from the Colombians was the barrage of homemade fireworks set off at the stroke of midnight.
For Jolein & I, the next leg of our journey brought us to Santa Marta, where we stayed one night at The Dreamer Hostel before embarking on our Lost City trek with Expotur. The Dreamer was a beautiful little hostel built around a courtyard complete with a pool, plenty of hammocks for lounging & a very nice bar & restaurant. The next morning, Expotur picked us up from the hostel & brought us to their main office in Santa Marta to prepare for our trip. From there, we met our trekking group & traveled a few hours into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to begin our four-day hike.
During our hike, we were told that Ciudad Perdida, an ancient civilization that had once been a hub for tribes of the region, had been “lost” during the Spanish conquest. Legend has it that the society was abandoned out of a fear that its discovery would lead to the complete decimation of the area’s native indigenous peoples. It was “resdicovered” in the 1970s by looters who successfully excavated & sold much of the site’s gold over several years. The city itself is an impressive archaeological feat comprised of stone-lined plots (formerly the site of homes), nestled in a high valley surrounded by dense jungle. Ciudad Perdida is far-removed from any location you can get to by car, but the Colombian military now guards it from a perch accessible by helicopter. Getting there involved an intense, several-day hike that sometimes required walking uphill for hours on end.
Don’t get me wrong, however, the hike was spectacular & unlike anything I’d ever done before. Through it, I got a real sense of the magical realism Colombia is famous for - it’s something you can’t really describe, but you know it when you feel it. We navigated lush valleys where paramilitaries used to operate, swam in natural waterfalls, interacted with local tribes who still live a primitive lifestyle & are extremely connected to nature, & enjoyed every single minute of it. The entire hike was extremely well-coordinated by Expotur & our guides. We slept at fully-stocked, clean encampments & enjoyed fresh meals that had been prepared with food that traveled ahead of us by mule.
The most rewarding connection I made during the trek was with a Colombian couple from Barranquilla. Yomaira & her husband were the oldest of our entire group of probably 15 & we admired their determination to complete the hike that was so physically exhausting for all of us 20-somethings. The two had a real magnetic spark about them. They told me about their children who had established themselves in Germany & how happy they were to now have a grandchild. Maybe this was what Yomaira & I really bonded over; I felt I could totally relate to her because my Dutch grandmother and I were always extremely close even though I grew up in Texas. By the end of the trip, Yomaira had extended an invitation to come stay with her in her hometown of Barranquilla (famous for Carnaval) & I had decided I had to go.
Stay tuned for my next blog post, covering the rest of my time in Santa Marta, Minca & last, but certainly not least, Barranquilla!