Colombian Gold: Two Reads on Colombia

We really enjoyed our time in Colombia. The big cities are quite cosmopolitan especially FallingMedellin, and the coast as well as the Sierra Nevadas are just beautiful. In our opinion, Colombia gets a bad rap which decades ago, was probably valid, but things have changed.  The negative perception is due to its troubled past and problems with drug manufacturing and distribution as well its violent political history.

To understand more, I dove into a couple books on the former subject. The first was written by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a young and upcoming writer from Colombia. The Sound of Things Falling is set in Bogota during the bloody drug war years (1980’s-1990’s) and follows the story of a young law professor. It is a well-written, historical novel that provides great context on how the violence changed people’s lives in Colombia. It is an award winning , fast read that you will devour quickly.  Good airplane fodder.

518UESGvRlL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The second is not quite as deep or well written.  Killing Pablo was written by Mark Bowden who also wrote Black Hawk Down. It reads like a long magazine article which was good and bad. The writer’s research is impressive, and there are so many details and data on the notorious drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar- his life, the violence and killings to which he subjected Colombia for years. His upbringing, rise to power, ruthlessness, and strange habits are fascinating.  The first half of the book is intriguing, but the latter half slows down.  You can get trapped in the minute details, the endless introductions of new politicians and the grind of the search for Pablo. Also, Pablo’s demise is a bit of an anticlimax . However, if you are interested in the drug wars of Colombia or pet hippopotamuses (Pablo had three), you will find parts of the book interesting.

 

The Only Book to Read in Cartagena, Colombia

Go Circa Mundi

41Bn22qtn6L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Gabriel Garcia Marquez may be Latin America’s most well known writer. Hailing from Colombia he went to school and spent some time working in Cartagena. Many find his stories, such asOne Hundred Years  of Solitude (perhaps his most renowned novel) difficult to read. But Love in the Time of Cholereais not.  On a basic level, it is a classic love story set in colonial Cartagena about two lovers separated for most of their lives. On a deeper level, the story explores  love of many types and forms – marital and adulterous love, physical and platonic love, learned love, lusty love, etc. There is an interesting cast of characters with a story that keeps you wondering if the guy will get the gal until the very end.  Its all set in Cartagena during a boom time and in times of war and widespread disease (mostly notably cholera). It is a unique story and…

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Livin’ La Vida Loca en Cartagena

“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Cartagena, Colombia, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez went to school and spent some time, is a city full of history. It was the key port for the Spanish during colonial times when they looted and pillaged South and Central America of their gold. And it was this gold that attracted pirates from all over the world. It was also the scene of battles between the English and French with the Spanish. The surrounding seas are covered with shipwrecks from the past and the bays and inlets are surrounded by old Spanish forts.

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Today, it is a beautiful seaport town that attracts international travelers (and cruise ships) as well as Colombian retirees and second-homers.  It is a vibrant city with many different neighborhoods each with its own look and feel- there is the Old Town with its ancient stone walls, a mini-Miami neighborhood named Bocagrande with its high-rise condos and then there is Getsemani, a neighborhood in the middle of a renaissance and is just outside of Old Town away from the hawkers selling just about anything. Getsemani is an authentically charming neighborhood with traditional buildings. We stayed in one of these charming buildings in Getsemani that has been turned into a small hotel with a gorgeous rooftop deck and pool, Casa Canabal.  Getsemani had the right mix of activity for travelers but also had a neighborhood feel and interesting vibe.

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The week we spent in Cartagena was the completion of almost a month in Colombia, and the weather in Cartagena was torrid and humid.  During our 6 am morning runs, the heat was so strong, we returned to the hotel dripping with sweat.  So we mostly kicked back,  hung by the pool and used the time for some planning and reading. It was the type of heat that sitting by the pool reading was the logical, smart thing to do.  Also, the Old Town, which is beautiful, happens to be very touristy, and it is hard to stroll around without being accosted by touts selling their wares and services. And the beach scene notorious for its “spring-break” atmosphere, rowdy island bars and overcrowded ferries, although very popular, was not what interests us.

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But we enjoyed our relaxed week here.  We strolled the back streets admiring the colonial architecture, street art and door-knockers.

 

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The Old Town has a small but beautiful modern art museum that we enjoyed for its architecture and variety.  There was not a single Botero there.  (Surprising for a Colombian art museum.  Botero is prolific in Colombia and revered.  We found his pieces all over Bogota and Medellin.)

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And we did hop on some bikes for a day.  We took a 6 hour tour around the city and its outlying neighborhoods in the searing, oppressive midday sun. Probably not the smartest thing to do, but it was a good way to see some of the forts and more of the city.

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English coin celebrating their victory in Cartagena that never materialized. Cartagenians are very proud of that win, even today.

We also continued to enjoy the Colombian cuisine as well as the Italian and pizza joints that are actually pretty good and prevalent throughout South America. In a tourist town as large as Cartagena, dining can be hit or miss, but we had time to experiment and found some great restaurants in the neighborhood where we were staying.  And we highly recommend eating outside the walls of the old city where there is better food and better value (although La Mulata is an exception).  Two others that we enjoyed most are La Cocina de Pepina for local food (run by a super nice young guy), and Di Silvio Trattoria for excellent pizza. At the Cocina, we really enjoyed his soups including mote y queso (yam and cheese) and a Caribbean fish stew.

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Cafe Tinto – better than Dunkin’s or Starbucks

The town is filled with happy hour spots to watch the sunset so we made the obligatory stop at Cafe Del Mar as recommended by friends and to meet up a local friend-of-a-friend.

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It was not our favorite destination in Colombia (see our post on Medellin or La Perdida Cuidad), but we’ll remember and recount our week in the beautiful city of Cartagena as a great one.

 

The Only Book to Read in Cartagena, Colombia

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez may be Latin America’s most well known writer. Hailing from Colombia he went to school and spent some time working in Cartagena. Many find his stories, such as One Hundred Years  of Solitude (perhaps his most renowned novel) difficult to read. But Love in the Time of Cholerea is not.  On a basic level, it is a classic love story set in colonial Cartagena about two lovers separated for most of their lives. On a deeper level, the story explores  love of many types and forms – marital and adulterous love, physical and platonic love, learned love, lusty love, etc. There is an interesting cast of characters with a story that keeps you wondering if the guy will get the gal until the very end.  Its all set in Cartagena during a boom time and in times of war and widespread disease (mostly notably cholera). It is a unique story and a good example of why Marquez is considered one of the best writers of our day.  Interesting note: he wrote it in 1985 and it was based on the tragic true story of an elderly American couple that were murdered in Mexico.

Its a classic and good read.

 

Medellin’s Metamorphosis

A few decades ago, Medellin was one of the most dangerous and murderous cities in the world. A place where several car bombs a day would explode.  The infamous Pablo Escobar and his drug cartel were at war with the government among other challenges. (It is mind-boggling to see t-shirts with Pablo’s picture being sold around the city – but not dissimilar to the Che and Mao shirts you see around the world. The deaths and destruction caused by these three could only be celebrated by those that don’t understand their history. IMHO).

However, visiting Medellin in 2016, it appears the city has made significant progress reducing the violence.  Like any big city, one needs to be vigilant, but today, Medellin is a vibrant, lovely city.   There is the vibrant neighborhood of El Poblado with cafes and chic stores.  In downtown, there is a park full of Botero’s sculptures  and in the hilly barrio of Comuna 13 beautiful graffiti art is everywhere.

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Medellin is often referred to as the “City of Eternal Spring”, and spring is immediately evident upon arrival by the various shades of green in the landscape and mostly cool temperatures.  Driving from the airport to downtown is amazing, the mountains which surround the valley where the city center is nestled are green and lush. It is a fantastic city with great food and interesting sights. It is not Paris, London, or Hong Kong, but it is definitely othe shorter list of top cities of the world.

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An interesting aspect of Medellin is the fantastic metro line has 3 lines of cable cars (think ski gondola) which offer a key means of transportation to the hillsides that climb out of the valley’s center.  It is quite unique for an urban core.

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We were in Medellin for about eight days and our goal for the week to study Spanish at the Toucan Spanish School.  We stayed in the El Poblado neighborhood and had a 30min walk to and from class everyday which was perfecto! It was a great way to experience the sights and sounds of the city everyday.

In addition to our Spanish classes, another highlight of our trip to Medellin was our walking tour of Comuna 13.  Colombia’s neighborhoods are divided into six strata.  The house or apartment building that one lives in is designated by the government as being in a zone or stratum, 1 through 6; those in stratum 1 supposedly are those in the poorest urban areas and those in 6 in the richest. Depending on where one lives, you have a different tax rate, and you pay different rates for your public utilities.  Comuna 13 is stratum 1.

For years, criminal groups -from street gangs to leftist rebels to drug trafficking organizations – made Comuna 13 area their home.  On October 16, 2002, the Colombian government carried out a military operation in Comuna 13. While the army, police, air force and paramilitary groups combated left-wing urban militias, the then approximately 100,000 residents of Comuna 13 were caught in the crossfire, leaving hundreds injured and some killed.

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Snake Oil Sales are alive and well here in Colombia

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Since the war in 2002, Comuna 13 has been trying to transform itself.  Graffiti and hip-hop music are a couple of the tools that are used by some to help change the neighborhood.

 

The government also invested $8.5 million in a set of escalators in Comuna 13.  The escalators are used by locals and tourists.  For locals, the escalators are an important commuting vehicle cutting commuting time substantially as well as helping the elderly and disabled in the area move around.  Each of the escalators is staffed with security guards.  (Everywhere we went in Colombia, there are security guards (most with machine guns), and several times, a taxi we were in was stopped by police checkpoints.)  Security guards and checkpoints seem to be more a preventative measure, at this point, to ensure the progress continues.

Walking around the streets of Comuna 13, the residents were friendly greeting us with “Buenas”.  We also found some kids having a blast on slide in the neighborhood.

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The neighborhood is extremely colorful with a lot of beautiful graffiti art.

At the end of the walking tour, we had a chance to try our hand at graffiti creating our own tag.  We definitely have a deeper appreciation for graffiti art !  (It is a challenge to prevent the spray paint from running.)

If anyone has the 80’s or 90’s stereotypical perception of Medellin or Colombia ( I know there are a few readers out that with this perception :>), Medellin (and Colombia as a whole as we are now on our third week here) has made significant progress and is well worth a visit.

Colombian Cuisine: Arepas, Lechona and Bandeja Paisa

We are less than a couple weeks into Colombia and have already spent some time in Bogota, Santa Marta, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Medellin. The cities, beaches, mountains and jungles have been great, but the food has been fantastico! Colombia’s treats, while heavily influenced by the Spanish, certainly have a style of its own that reflects the local fruits, vegetables and spices.  They embrace the pig down here which always makes for some interesting and tasty dishes. Local supermercado’s bake their own bread fresh every night. And the fruit is just off the charts.  Fruits are picked from the tree or bush ripe (and are not grabbed green so they can ripen in the back of a truck for 2 weeks). And there are so many  varieties that are not found in the States.

We spent a morning in Bogota exploring the local market in Plaza de Mercado Paloquemao, where locals buy a lot of their produce, meats and fish for the week or month. The market is a frothy mix of wholesale buyers, locals, and tourists muscling their way through the tiny corridors to find the best fruit, meat or other goods. It is also the site of a giant flower market where an incredible number and variety of flowers are sold every morning.

 

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#nofilter

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We arrived early in the morning so it made sense to sample the local breakfast.  We sampled pan de yucca which is a staple for breakfast here and washed it down with some avena, another local favorite. Pan de yucca comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes but is generally a sweet bread with some warm fruit compote in the middle and queso (cheese). Avena is an oat-based drink that is a rich and creamy (with a touch of cinnamon) and simply delicious with the pan. Also common for breakfast is arepas which are typically fried maize flour with some cheese or sweets (like chocolate) in the middle.

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Pan de Yucca
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Sue digging in to some pan de yucca and avena.  Perfecto!

 

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Grilled arepas.  Muy bueno!

Fruit is a main staple in Colombia. Throughout the cities, vendors are selling fresh fruit and juice. Out in the jungle and on the trails, we constantly ate fresh watermelon, mango, and pineapple. At the market, we tried so many different, delicious fruits including mangostina, uchava (a sweet ground cherry), higo, pitaya (similar to jackfruit), freijoa, lulo (which they often juice), and the king of the fruits – gunabana.

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Purple Mangostinas
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A blurry higo.
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and a blurry freijoa.

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Gunabana from the outside
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Gunabana from the inside

 

The fruit sampling at the market was fantastic, and we have been eating these exotic varieties all week.

While not a fruit, the star of the market visit was the lechona, a dish made by stuffing a whole pig with pork, rice, peas, and spices and then slow cooked for typically 8 hours. It is served with crackling on top. This could be one of the best pork dishes we have EVER had. For sure, it will kill you, but sooo tasty.

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Another dish which we enjoyed in Bogota was ajiaco, a hearty soup of chicken, potatoes and corn served with giant, ripe avocados, monster capers, and some sour cream.  We have actually been making this dish in Seattle for years (Food and Wine recipe) but, of course, it was much better here in Colombia.

In Medellin, the specialty is bandeja paisa, which is a platter of food usually including pork, rice, beans, chorizo, a fried egg, and avocado.  Sopa de mondongo,  a hearty stew of pig or cow stomach also seems to be popular here in Medellin (it is also popular in the Philippines) . We have had it at restaurant named Mondongo where there is only a handful of dishes but all of them are capable of quickly putting you in a food coma.  We have limited our ingestion of these dishes to lunch where we can follow the feeding with a light dinner later in the evening.

For desert or just for an afternoon street snack,  obleas are popular. They are a thin waffle or crepe stuffed with cheese and jam or chocolate.  Every street corner in Bogota had someone selling them from a cart and more than a few were leveraging the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger’s recent visit to Bogota for some additional marketing.

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Beer seems to be the way to wash all these dishes down.  Club Colombia is a popular brand. It is a pretty standard pilsner but is perfect for the heat and humidity of Medellin and Santa Marta.

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We will be eating here in Medellin for a few more days and then we are off to Cartagena for some sun and seafood.  For our other ramblings on Colombia, check out our posts here.

Trekking in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

A comfort zone is a beautiful thing, but nothing ever grows there.- Anonymous quote

Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the world’s highest coastal range as it soars over 18k feet in just 26 miles from the Caribbean Coast. A large portion of this mountain range is now a national park and includes a popular, multi-day trek to ruins of an ancient city. Fresh off our fantastic trek to Machu Picchu, we were both looking forward to another outing in the jungle and mountains of Colombia.  However, this trek to La Cuidad Perdida (“The Lost City” en Espanol) was outside of my comfort zone but was, nonetheless, an interesting, learning experience.  Although I would not do this trek again nor would I recommend it to most people, I am grateful we did it.  The views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, learning about the indigenous people of the area, meeting the shaman at the Lost City, visiting the ruins of the Lost City and swimming in the beautiful Buritaca river that runs along most of the trail made the hike well worth it.

The 4 or 5 day trek starts in the small town of El Mamey (also referred to as Machete) which is about a 2 hour drive outside of Santa Marta, Colombia (which happens to be a beautiful, little coastal town on the Caribbean sea).  Here are some facts and things you should know before hiking to La Cuidad Perdida:

  • The hike to the city is about 29 miles round trip trek through the jungle and hills of the Sierra Nevada in Colombia.
  • It may seem short for a multi-day trip, but the trek is constantly going up and down hills with the highest elevation at about 4,000 feet.
  • The average temperature is about 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity is super high. Be prepared to sweat a lot. Make sure to bring many water bottles.
  • In 2003, a group of 8 tourists were kidnapped by the ELN.  However, since then the Colombia Army has had a presence at The Lost City, and the area has been without incident since 2003. Check out the trailer for a  documentary made by one of the victims.
  • Coca farms used to line the hills and jungles outside of Machete, the starting point for the hike, but the coca farms (for the most part) have been extinguished by the Colombian government, and the farms have been turned into camps for those hiking to the Lost City.  We were told that the locals prefer tourism to growing coca because it is safer although less money. (This is Reagan and Bush “War on Drugs” country, and the US spent heavily to eradicate the coca that was grown in this area.).
  • The area is inhabited by indigenous people- Wiwas, Koguis and Arhuacos. They roam the woods and the trail with their all white outfits (celebrating the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevadas) that seem completely out of place in the dusty, dirty, jungle environment.
  • Unlike the Inca Trail, there are no porters, and one must carry their own gear.  The food, however,  is carried on mules to the camps along the trail. We booked the trip with One Seed Expeditions (who uses a local guide company called Expotur) and we had a guide, Wilson, as well as a cook.  The food is carried on mules to the camps along the trail.  It is another trek where logistics and regulations make it virtually impossible to do on your own.

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  • The trek is typically done in 4 or 5 days.  We actually booked the 5 day trek, but after one sleepless night at camp 1 and our above average speed on days 1 and 2, we talked our guide into doing the trek in 4 days. The hike is really meant to be done in 4 days. Three is too short, and five is too long.
  • The word “camping” is used loosely here.  There are a number of camp sites along the trail that, in some cases, house 120 people.  The “camping” involves bunk beds with mosquito nets with one person right next to the other.
  • There is no privacy.  Guests sleep in bunk beds, and the guides, cooks, assistants at the camps sleep in hammocks.  There are bathrooms and showers at the camps, but again, there is no privacy and shared with the other guiding companies and guests. We had anywhere from 15-50+ campers in each of the 3 different camps.

On day 1, the trek begins with a morning pickup from the Santa Marta airport.  (We flew in from Bogota where we had spent a couple days, and the flight was a little over an hour.) From the Santa Marta airport, after dropping our extra luggage off at the hotel in Santa Marta, La Calzado del Santo (where we would be staying after the hike), we had a 2-hour drive (mostly off road) by 4-wheel-drive vehicle to the small town of Machete. Machete got its name because the people in town used to fight with machetes after having some beers – it was a bit of a “wild west” town in its day.

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After lunch, we started the 3 hour hike to camp 1 where we spent the first night. The day 1 hike was along a newly graded path which was more like a road so that motor bikes can take goods to camp 1. The path is dusty with a lot of steep ups and downs.  We also did this section of the hike during the hottest part of the day from 1-4 pm. It was only about 5 miles, but with the steeps and the heat, we were both feeling it.

The one upside to the camps was cold beer at the bottom camp (camp 1) and warm beer at the higher camps (camp 2 & 3) where there was no electricity.

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On day 2, we woke up around 5:30 am and started trekking around 6 am.  (The truth is we were both up every hour during the night because you do not sleep in bunk beds in rows for 20-40 people – someone is always getting up to go to bathroom, decides to have a conversation in the middle of night, switches on a headlamp accidentally shining it in your limited space or something else.)  Today, we hiked about 6 hours with a stop at camp 2 for a leisurely lunch and swim in the Buritaca river. Along the way, we stopped at the native community of Mutanyi, where the Kogi indigenous group live.  Visiting the native community and hiking with the Kogis and Wiwas along the trail is a fascinating experience as we felt like we were stepping back in time.  The indigenous people are living in huts without electricity, running water, bathrooms and practicing ancient rituals- e.g. When a family member dies, they are buried under the floor of the home with some of their artifacts.  The house is abandoned for 1-2 years and then the family returns, exhumes the body and puts the remains in some type of urn.

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Our final destination on day 2 was camp 3, Paraiso Teyuna which was only about 1-2 km to La Cuidad Perdida but is a challenging ascent which includes 1200 steps.

On day 3, it was another early morning for a couple of reasons.  Again, there is no sleep in these camps given the amount of people and lack of privacy, and we wanted to be the first to arrive at La Cuidad Perdida before the other teams of people so we could enjoy the peace and get some photos without people.  We hiked along a ridge above the river and crossed the river before we started climbing 1,200 steps to our main destination to reach the beautiful Lost City.  From camp 3 to the Lost City, it probably took us a little less than 1 hour. We hiked during a very dry time and had no issues with river crossings. However, when hiking in the rainy seasons, the river swells and can present challenges.

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The Lost City was founded about 800 CE, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu. La Ciudad Perdida was later “found” in 1972 when a group of local treasure looters found a series of stone steps rising up the mountainside and followed them to an abandoned city which they named “Green Hell” because of the long, arduous trek through the jungle.

Ciudad Perdida was probably the region’s political and manufacturing center and may have housed 2,000 to 8,000 people. It was apparently abandoned when the Spanish arrived.

There are some interesting artifacts still remaining despite the site being pillaged by treasure hunters.  The photo on the left below shows the mortar used for corn and the photo on the right shows what is believed to be a map of the area carved into a rock.

After visiting the city in the morning, we hiked back to camp 2 for dinner and to spend our last night.

Day 4, we were up early and excited to get back to Santa Marta where a hot shower and a comfortable, private hotel room were waiting for us.  We headed out of camp 2 around 5:45 am.  For some reason our guide, Wilson, started walking super fast.  He was trying to make it to the other camp 2 to catch the mules before they left to see if my backpack could be put on a mule.  The hiking had been strenuous mostly because of the heat, and there were some steep climbs, but I felt good and energized thinking about the hot shower and comfortable, private hotel room at the end of the hike.  Wilson estimated we would get back to Machete around noon (about 6 hours of hiking).  We had a few steep climbs in front of us.

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We arrived at camp 1 around 8:30 am.  We made good time.  We had some passion fruit juice and some watermelon before tackling the last few climbs to the end.  After camp 1, we had just about two more hours of hiking before we got to Machete where lunch, cold beer, and our ride was waiting to take us to Santa Marta.

During the hike on day 4, while it covered the same ground as day 1, there was not as much haze, and we had some great views of the Sierra Nevada mountains which kept our spirits high – despite the grinding ascents and descents.

On the last stretch to Machete, the sun was strong, and the sand was like powder.  We were covered in sand, dust and sweat.  Our guide suggested a short cut to a swimming hole before reaching Machete.  Given the dust, sand and sweat on our bodies, we agreed the swimming hole was a great idea despite the steep 30 minute descent.

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We arrived in Machete around 11/ 11:30 am (we beat our goal).

Some travel articles compare the Lost City to Machu Picchu.  The truth is these treks are totally different- the weather, the culture, the amount of climbing, the ruins, time frame in which the ruins were built, etc.  We are grateful we did this trek, and it was a fascinating learning experience.  We are especially grateful to our guide, Wilson, for his experience, flexibility and getting us to the Lost City before the other teams.  But the probability we will do this trek again is extremely low.

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