When we heard of a “Lost City” high in the mountains a few days trek into the Colombian jungle we knew it would be our type of adventure. Ciudad Perdida (literally – Lost City) is the site of the ancient city of Teyuna that was abandoned during the Spanish conquest in the 1600’s. Construction is believed to have began around 800 CE (some 650 years before Machu Picchu) and eventually the city became the heart of the Tayrona empire which stretched along much of the Caribbean coast and up into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The Lost City was hidden beneath dense jungle for over 300 years until Florentino Sepúlveda, a local farmer, and his sons discovered the 1200 stone steps leading up to it in 1972.
Our friends Mike and Paul had met us in Medellin a week earlier and were on board for the 5 days of trekking required to visit the Lost City. The main starting point is Santa Marta, the oldest city in the Americas, where the Tayrona’s once lived. From here it is a two hour drive by 4-wheel drive vehicle to the village of Machete where the hike begins.
We arrived in Machete mid-day and had lunch before setting out on a 4 hour hike to Camp 1. The trail started easy enough. For the first hour we passed farmland and stepped on rocks to cross a gentle river before we began ascending our first mountain. Then the hard work began as it was an hour and a half climb up to the highest point of the day in the blazing sun. Some motivational words were definitely required and we may have been questioning what we signed up for until we arrived at the rest stop perched on a mountain peak in the middle of nowhere. The sun was starting to drop and covered the mountains in a hazy golden glow. Juicy watermelon was passed around and our spirits started to lift. It was also here that we finally got paired up with our guide, Nelson, and the remainder of our group (It was peak tourism season in Colombia and the trekking companies were struggling with the logistics of organizing so many people). Rejuvenated, we began the hike down the mountain through some dense jungle to the Buritaca River which we would follow for the next few days. We arrived at camp just after dark and devoured our dinner before climbing into our mosquito net-draped hammocks for the night.
The sound of breakfast being cooked woke us early the next morning. We slowly climbed out of our cocoon like hammocks and found seats at the long table where breakfast was being served. The camp cooks served up hearty portions of scrambled eggs and coffee and our guide Nelson briefed us on the adventure ahead. Day 2 was our easiest hike as it was only four hours to the next camp without any major mountains to climb over. The trail cut through thick green jungle in what was now indigenous territory. After a few hours of walking we came to a small village, Mutanshi, of about a dozen mud brick houses. This was a settlement of the Wiwa tribe, one of three tribes believed to be direct descendants of the Tayrona. The Wiwa still live in much the same way as their ancestors have for hundreds of years, living off the land and growing a few crops. They are some of the only people in Colombia who are still allowed to grow Coca (the plant used to make cocaine) as chewing the Coca leaves is deeply rooted in their belief system. The Wiwa (as well as the Kogi, Arhuacos and Cancuamo who are the other descendants of the Tayrona) generally shun the modern world and very few of the members of their community will leave to move to the cities. They still make all their own clothes, use traditional plant medicines and speak their own language. After leaving the village we had a short hike to Camp 2 and still had most of the afternoon to relax.
Camp 2 was a bit of a rugged place to spend the day. With so many trekkers this time of year (the first week of January) there were more bodies than beds or hammocks. Lines of clothes drying in the sun were strung up everywhere and the bathrooms were… well, not pretty. Camp 2 became known as the ‘Refugee Camp’. Luckily it was set next to a slow moving section of the Buritaca River which was great for swimming. We spent a few hours relaxing, swimming and washing some clothes before another huge dinner. The stars out there in the middle of the jungle, a long way from any electricity, were spectacular. While our first couple of days had been unexpectedly hectic, sitting under those stars with our friends will be a lifelong memory we cherish.
Day 3 was our longest hike of the trek and the one that would take us to the Lost City. We had to wake up at 5am for breakfast before hitting the trail. The walk began like most of the days did, a leisurely stroll along the river, which led us to a long suspension bridge that could only hold a few people at a time (it’s a bit concerning when a bridge that size can only hold 3 people, but apparently that was the case). From there it was a grueling hour and a half straight up the mountain side. During these parts of the trek we would keep our heads down and get in the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other. With lots of rest stops we rounded the peak and climbed back down the other side to the river below. Here we had to take off our shoes and wade precariously through the current, trying not to fall over and drop our bags in the water. With the toughest sections of the trek behind us it was on to Camp 3 for lunch and a swim in the river before continuing on. As a group we decided to do the climb up to the Lost City later in the afternoon when there would be less people at the site. This meant climbing 1200 extremely steep stone steps during the hottest part of the day.
Arriving at the top was a bit anticlimactic after two and a half days of trekking. With visions of a grand ‘Lost City’ in our minds our first encounter was three large stone circles in a clearing. Luckily, the best was yet to come. We rested and caught our breath here as Nelson explained the layout of the Lost City and the functions of its different sections. The city was initially built as a retreat and place of worship for the elite of the Tayrona society, but after the Spanish landed in the early 1500’s and battled the Tayrona their people were forced to flee into the mountains and the city was greatly expanded. They couldn’t have picked a better location to build as the city is almost completely surrounded by impassable mountain peaks. The entrance to the city is extremely well hidden and the people were able to live in peace here for another hundred years or so before their civilization vanished for good. As we ventured further into the Lost City we saw more examples of the elaborate stone circles connected by a series of stone paths. The circles were the foundations for houses made of wood which have long since disappeared. In the center of the circles the Tayrona families would bury their relatives along with weapons, gold statues and most of their belongings to help them in their afterlife. We came to another huge staircase which led to the most impressive section of the city where the priests and shamans lived. Here there are a series of larger and more intricate circular platforms rising ever higher into the mountains with the highest one for the most respected priest. The views from the top were completely awe-inspiring and the visions of what this city must have looked like in all it’s glory made the work required to get here totally worth it. In total there are over 600 stone terraces in the area, of which less than 200 have been excavated. We spent a few hours exploring the site and learning more about how the Tayrona lived until the sun began to set and we had to climb back down to camp. The almost vertical stone stairs were even more treacherous on the way down, but luckily we were able to make it safely back to the river just as it was getting dark.
Back at camp Nelson told us the story of how the Lost City was discovered by Florentino Sepúlveda and his sons in 1972. The family was able to keep the discovery a secret while they plundered a lot of the artifacts buried in the terraces and sold them on the black market. Eventually friends of Florentino secretly followed him to the Lost City and forced him to share the riches before murdering him. Their greed led to more murders and valuable treasures being plundered before Colombian archaeologists finally learned of the ancient city’s existence. In 1976 the Colombian government took control of the area and excavated many more sites. The first tourists trekked to the city in the ’80’s.
Day 4, 5
Enlightened and exhausted we climbed into our hammocks and quickly fell asleep. Over the next two days we had to retrace our steps back through the jungle clad mountains of the Sierra Nevada to get back to electricity, running water and the sounds of modern civilization and maybe the best reward of all, a real bed to sleep in.
The Ciudad Perdida – or Lost City – trek can be easily booked one day in advance from a number of tour companies in either Taganga or Santa Marta. No matter which company you book with, you will get basically the same experience. Everyone follows the same route, stays at the same camps and eats the same food although each tour company has their own guides (all of which are spanish speaking only). At all of the camps there is a mix of dorm beds and hammocks (all have mosquito nets) however, when booking your trek you may be able to specifically request to sleep in a bed. The trek can done in either 4, 5, or 6 days (again, they all follow the same route) with the 5 day option being the most popular.
The trek itself, while moderately difficult, is done by a wide range of people with varying levels of fitness. We saw 11 year old kids doing it as well as people approaching 70. If sections of the trek become too difficult there are mules for hire.
The camps all have toilets and drinking water, as well as showers. They also all have a swimming spots in the river. Camp 1 has a spectacular swimming hole with a waterfall and rocks for jumping.
The food is generally pretty decent and does vary from meal to meal with vegetarian options available by request. At each of the camps, as well as rest spots along the way, there are refreshments and snacks for purchase.