THE DOMESTIC flights terminal of the El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá had the look of a bus station. There were no shops and it was packed with Colombian men and women wearing simple garments, and carrying old beaten suitcases and bags. The ground level building had no passenger boarding bridges and I expected coaches to be stopping right in front of the glass gates any minute now and start taking on passengers. Cold air creeped into the departure lounge through the gaps between the glass doors. I had been travelling for more than 12 hours straight: a short flight from Lisbon to Madrid and an Avianca flight over the Atlantic to the capital of Colombia. I was waiting for the final flight to take me to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast.
The plane landed in Santa Marta close to 10 pm. It was a small provincial airport with basic single level baggage carousels. Outside in the main driveway and in the parking lot beyond it the night air was warm and damp. Taxi drivers, driving both marked and unmarked vehicles, elbowed one another trying to lure passengers. After getting some cash from an ATM machine nearby, I got onto a taxi. Cumbia and Latin rhythms blared from the car speakers and I slumped into the back seat, feeling the warm tropical air blow across my face while the driver sang along to the popular hits. Every now and then, he crossed over the double-line markings to the other lane to attempt risky overtaking maneuvers before blind turns. We drove past Rodadero and followed a pleasant winding road that took us up the hills towards Santa Marta on the other side.
I had decided that I’d spend the following day in Santa Marta to recover from the journey before heading deep into the heart of the Colombian rainforest. Colonial buildings of pastel, dark yellow or light blue colour and old Spanish churches and cathedrals formed a grid in the city centre that extended all the way down to the edge of the small bay in the Caribbean Sea . Although some of these buildings had been restored, there was a general feeling of decay and disrepair about the city. It was easy to imagine a time when pirate ships blasted off their canons against the coastal towns of Santa Marta, Cartagena and Rio Hacha. I was staying at the Brisa Loca hostel, in an old colonial mansion which had been restored to its former glory. I decided I wouldn’t drink or smoke until I completed the physically demanding four-day trek to the ruins of Ciudad Perdida, but sitting down at the hostel’s bar I realized none of the expats or backpackers hanging about seemed to know of that place — it must be something so touristy it’s not even worth mentioning within the inner circle of hardcore backpackers. I ordered a beer and a pack of smokes.
The next day, when I told the tour operator organizing the expedition that I was in for the four-day option instead of the usual five or six day tour, he seemed shocked, as if I was some crazy chico asking for more than I could handle; but when I asked him if the four-day trek was too difficult he said I would be fine. There were six of us in the group plus the local guide. We rode in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser for about an hour before the driver swerved off to a dirt road and stopped in a small village. The dwellings were simple constructions of cement bricks with tin roofs. Outside of each building clothes of vibrant colours hung out drying on a line. Children ran around barefoot in shabby clothes while the driver emptied several jerrycans of fuel into the tank of the Toyota. At length, we returned to the main road and afterwards continued on a dirt side road which led up to a town at the foothill of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The vehicle crossed over rivers and streams and it was a very uncomfortable and bumpy ride along the rocky path. It took us about one hour to reach the town of Machete Pelao.
In town, we had sandwiches and coca-cola for lunch. Porters unloaded the trucks and saddled up the mules with boxes of supplies to be taken up to the villages and camps up in the mountains — Machete Pelao was as far as vehicles could go. There were several other tour groups in town also getting ready to go. When we finally set off into the rainforest our party was about thirty tourists and three or four local guides. They explained that out of the whole group I was the only one doing the shorter four-day trek and therefore would have to wake up earlier the following day and go past hut two to sleep further up at hut three. I began to think that perhaps I had gotten myself into something more than I could take. We stepped on stones to cross a shallow stream and followed along its bank across gentle rolling hills. The air was hot and wet. We walked more or less in a straight line and I found myself dropping behind towards the rear of the group to take photographs. Heavy rainfall and dampness produced a lush vegetation of tropical plants which took on a deep, dark green colour along the banks of the stream. The high canopy of the forest cast its shadow down on the forest floor and on sections of the path.
After a couple of miles, the trees cleared and we began to climb. The widened path had been cut deep into steep slopes in the hill and ended in right-angle turns which revealed yet another steep uphill section. It was not possible to see the top; but judging from a nearby hill there was a great height to be climbed. I had regained a position at the front of the group but began to drop down again; this time, not because I was taking photographs — the camera was neatly stored away in my backpack and taking it out was the last thing on my mind. The loose earth on the freshly cleared path and the steep angle of the climb made walking difficult. My heart started pounding furiously against my chest as if a mad tribal drum player had taken control of my heart and was beating it relentlessly. I thought it was going to explode against my breastbone. Maybe putting all those beers and pack of cigarettes on the bar tab at the hostel hadn’t been such a good idea. I asked myself if this was how I had decided to spend my first vacation in 15 months. Then I considered giving up and going back down to Santa Marta to spend the rest of the week at the beach sipping rum and coke. It took me longer and more frequent stops to catch my breath and slow down my pulse.
After about forty minutes, we reached the halfway of the first climb. We stopped to cool down by a farmer’s hut where ducks and chicken roamed freely on the patio. The second half of the climb was equally steep and challenging. I was drenched in sweat and my eyes were burning from the salt in the sweat running down my face. The backpack seemed to weigh a ton on my shoulders and my legs were starting to fail me. After another forty minutes, we approached the end of the climb. I remembered that the doctor at the Tropical Medicine Centre in Lisbon, where I went to get the Yellow Fever and Hepatitis shots and Malaria tablets, advised me against eating any raw vegetables and fruit. However, when I reached the top of that climb and saw they were handing out slices of watermelon I immediately discarded the recommendation and reached out for my slice of watermelon without giving it a second thought. I had a second and third slices. It was the best watermelon of my life.