It has an evocative name: la Ciudad Perdida (it’s Spanish for the Lost City). It’s called the Lost City because no one knows its real name. The people that lived here long ago, the Tayrona, are gone; their descendants, the Wiwa and Kogi communities, continue to inhabit the region, living in little thatched-hut villages throughout the jungle-shrouded Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park in northern Colombia. The Wiwa and Kogi people claim they still have a connection with la Ciudad Perdida – they call the city Teyuna – and they do undoubtedly have a connection with this place, but the living, thriving, populous city is no more, and the archaeological ruins we’re left with are obscure and poorly understood.
The only way to reach la Ciudad Perdida – short of chartering a helicopter – is via a four-day trek through Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park, the highlights of which I have summarised below.
Most hikers start their tours in the coastal city of Santa Marta. There are only four companies with licences to undertake trekking tours to la Ciudad Perdida and they all provide similar levels of service, and charge roughly the same amount, so don’t waste too much time deliberating between them. It’s a three-hour drive to the trailhead inside Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park.
The first day is a short one, less than three hours of hiking to reach the first night’s camp. Much of the hike is uphill, and daytime temperatures in this part of Colombia can soar, so be prepared for a sweaty affair.
Your first night will be spent in one of several camps along the river, not far from a small village with a road connection to the outside world – accessible only by motorbike. There is a swimming hole in the village, but if your guide is engaged in a bitter feud with the surrounding landowners – as ours was – then no one in your group will be allowed to swim (a couple of guys from our tour group crept back and swam anyway).
Enjoy a night spent in the middle of nowhere. If you haven’t slept in a hammock before, you’ll get the opportunity here. If you’re tall, look for the longest hammock in the room, otherwise be prepared for an uncomfortable night spent folded in two.
Rise early to admire the jungle-covered hills of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park coated in a thick morning mist. Today the track narrows, you leave the intermittent farmland behind, and enter the real jungle.
You’ll never feel alone in the wilderness though; the track to La Ciudad Perdida is a popular one. A total of 70 hikers – spread out over four companies – began the hike the same day I did. And each day you pass an equivalent amount heading in the opposite direction.
Day Two begins with a steep, sweaty climb to the top of a mountain ridge, and then a steep, sweaty descent back down the other side. In this valley you’ll come upon the first of the Wiwa and Kogi villages.
From this point on you’ll frequently encounter individuals from these communities on the trail.
The Wiwa and Kogi communities
The rules regarding these communities is simple. You may take photos of the children but not the adults. And you may not enter the village without permission. It’s a sensible set-up that protects the privacy of the communities, guarding them against the voyeuristic tendencies of certain tourists – namely, the would-be anthropologists.
The presence of the Wiwa and Kogi communities ended up being one of my favourite aspects of the four-day la Ciudad Perdida hike. In my experience interactions with ethnic minority groups are usually awkward and exploitative, but this interaction – essentially just nodding hello to one another as you pass on the trail – remains unobtrusive and equitable. The Wiwa and Kogi, for their part, show little interest in the stream of tourists that wander through their midst; they just want to be left alone to go about their business, floating through the forest in their glowing white smocks.
At one point we came upon a village of Wiwa in the midst of a council meeting. Thirty to forty people were seated in complete silence, beneath a large tree, each in a dirty white smock, each with their thick black hair trimmed into one of several severe haircuts. It was eerie, and mystifying.
Lunch on Day 2
Lunch is taken beside the river, and there are a number of swimming holes around should you feel like taking a dip. There is also beer for sale, which is awfully tempting, but there is a steep hill to climb post-lunch, and it’s the longest and steepest hill of the whole trek, and keep in mind you’ll be climbing during the hottest part of the afternoon. I had a beer, I couldn’t resist; but I paid for it on the ensuing climb.
It’s another early start. Up at 5:00 a.m. this time. Start with a light, easy stroll along the river, then it’s time to confront the relentless 1,200 stair climb used access the lost city.
Congratulations. You’ve made it to la Ciudad Perdida.
La Ciudad Perdida
The city is built on top of a narrow ridge high above the river valley, and the stairs you’ve just climbed are supposedly the only way in.
Here, on the lower levels, you are surrounded by strange, circular, stone structures, their function difficult to intuit. Everything is green, and dripping in plant life; even the stones are green.
These strange, circular, stone structures are the foundations, or platforms, upon which light timber and thatch houses – similar to those in the Wiwa and Kogi villages – were built. Each circular foundation would have contained a single house. All that’s left of the residences are the stone mortar-and-pestle-like grinding bowls each house contained. The rest has rotted away.
There are 200 or so of these circular platforms in la Ciudad Perdida. The population size of the city is speculated to be somewhere between 2,000 and 8,000 people – which should give you some idea how little is known about this place.
It’s thought that la Ciudad Perdida was built sometime around 800 CE – preceding the Incan built Machu Picchu by about 600 years. The city was abandoned during the early 1500s, concomitant with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
As you climb through the city you pass many more platforms, some have had the jungle stripped off them, others remain overgrown. Eventually you reach a grand staircase, and climb to the central part of la Ciudad Perdida.
This is the money shot, the vista of la Ciudad Perdida you see in all the travel magazines. The circular stone foundations are much larger here, they extend across the entire top of the ridge, forming an open plaza.
This was the most important part of the city. This is where the Tayrona priests lived, and it’s where the most important community meetings were held – similar in nature to the meeting we viewed in the Wiwa village the day earlier, only on a larger scale.
Patrolling this open, cleared area are dozens of machine-gun toting members of the Colombian military. They’re here because of an incident that occurred back in 2003 when eight tourists were kidnapped by FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – a guerrilla organisation). Recent talks and agreements between the Colombian government and FARC mean incidents like this one are a thing of the past.
Climb to the uppermost platforms for the optimal view over la Ciudad Perdida. If you’re lucky you’ll get to see the city for a few seconds sans-tourists, but the majority of the time it will be crawling with people.
This is it, this is what you committed four days of your life to see: a mysterious, lost civilisation in the depths of the Colombian rainforest.
You get half an hour or so at this final viewpoint to drink it all in, then it’s time to start the return journey. Down all those stairs, back along the river.
We have a noisy, disrupted night, as ten of the fourteen in our group are stricken with explosive diarrhoea and vomiting (fortunately Ami and I are two of those who are unaffected) – apparently food poisoning is a common occurrence on the trek. A quiet, sobering, final day follows; the time spent slowly retracing your footsteps and reflecting on your experiences of the last few days.
The path gradually becomes wider and sturdier. You pass the last of the Wiwa and Kogi villages and then, sadly, you see them no more. You leave the thick jungle and return to pastureland, with horses and cows, and an increasing number of roadside stalls, and then there are motorbikes whizzing by, and there are houses with TV antennas, and then you are back, in civilisation, and your time exploring lost worlds has come to an end.