Colombia: Trek to the lost city

Hidden in Colombia's Sierra Nevada mountains, the 'lost city' of Ciudad Perdida awaits adventurers after a tough four-day trek — snakes, spiders, sweat and all

By Emma Thomson
Published 24 Aug 2015, 09:00 BST, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 10:22 BST

I'm sitting beneath the thatched-roof of a restaurant waiting for my indigenous Wiwa guide, Celso, to show up. Long-legged chickens scamper around my booted feet and nearby an enormous sow reclines in the dirt while piglets suckle hungrily at her wizened teats. Léon, the translator I'd picked up in Bogotá, and who seems to live on just two espressos a day, is ahead of me, tapping his foot nervously. And then Celso appears: all 5ft 2in of him, dressed in a white smock and trousers, rubber boots, with a wave of raven black hair flowing from beneath a straw hat to the bottom of his back.

"They ask me to sell it for wigs whenever I go to town!" he laughs. We strap our rucksacks to a pair of mules and, without any pomp, follow Celso as he marches into the forest.

Who among us hasn't yearned to experience the unique travel of past explorers, such as was enjoyed by Thesiger and Chatwin, when all too often it can feel as though everything is established, fenced off and has an admission price slapped on it. I'd almost given up searching for that elusive feeling of 'discovering' something. And then I heard the story of a 'lost city' in South America.

In 1972, a couple of Colombian guaqueros (looters) were hunting for tropical bird feathers in the forests of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. They pulled back some tangled roots and found the ruins of a forgotten city complete with burial plots filled with golden earrings, jadeite figurines and fine pottery. What they had unearthed was a township that was once home to 2,000 Tairona people dating from AD650 — making it 650 years older than Peru's famed Machu Picchu. This community of potters and farmers had carved terraces and made a living from the high hillsides for centuries, until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the late 16th century with gifts of Catholicism, syphilis and smallpox. When they left, the city disappeared from memory for over 400 years.

The presence of narco-traffickers, and fighting between warring drug cartels and FARC guerillas, kept the site off limits even longer. And then, in 2005, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) finally gave the area the green light. Anthropologists were allowed to resume their research and slowly word of the Ciudad Perdida or 'the lost city' started to spread through the travel world.

Teyuna — as the locals know it — is a four-day walk from the nearest road. There are no phones, plug sockets or wi-fi points en route, just the soundtrack of a gazillion birds tooting, cooing, screeching and whistling. I didn't expect — or want — the hike to be easy, but just 10 minutes in and we've already waded through our first river and sweat is staining my T-shirt. Humidity levels reach 90% in this tropical rainforest and the tangle of trees, lianas and blushing heliconias seem to sap all oxygen from the air.

"We never cut our hair because it's the way the brain breathes — if you cut your hair, you cut the oxygen to the brain," says Celso, as we climb. It certainly explains why he's bounding up the incline like a mountain goat, while the rest of my group and I are stopping every few footsteps, gasping for air to calm our thudding hearts.

We continue to haul ourselves up the sandy path snaking up the mountainside. We arrive at the cusp, panting and pale, and plunge our teeth into the segments of orange our mustachioed cook, Enrique, has laid out on a palm leaf for us. Ebony clouds have obscured the sun and we listen to thunder rumbling overhead, as we wipe the sweet juices from our chins.

But the rain never falls and five hours later we reach our first camp at Adán, sitting at the base of a steep valley. Pineapples — common as dandelions — sprout on either side of the path. Mango and satsuma trees sag with fruit and best of all are the deep pools of tannin-coloured water — offshoots of the Buritaca River — that we jump straight into to wash off the muck. It's like swimming in a cold cup of tea.

I string up my hammock beneath a sheet of corrugated iron and watch the skeins of smoke from home fires rise up into the night sky.

Snakes and spiders

Morning has barely broken before the ornithological orchestra strikes up. We have a quick breakfast and pick up the trail again, passing through old coca fields blackened by slash-and-burn to make way for cassava plantations. Suddenly our chef Enrique, who walks in front of me, pounces into the stubbled grass and comes out clutching a tiny, juvenile boa constrictor. It wraps itself around his hand and flickers its forked tongue, trying to look menacing.

All the while I've watched Celso occasionally thrust a hand into his tamburo — a small sack strung about his person — and bring out a pinch of coca leaves before bundling them into his mouth. He then reaches for his poporo — a tennis ball-sized gourd filled with crushed seashells — and removes the stick, which acts as a stopper, to transfer the powder to the wad of coca in his mouth. I'm told the shells activate the alkaloids in the coca to stimulate its active ingredients. He then wipes the spit-flecked remains around the rim of the poporo, where a yellowing crust has built up. It's a quick one-two action either side, like a fiddler warming up his strings. This is interspersed with deep, phlegm-riddled snorts, followed by the contents being spat into the bush. After a while it starts to become quite comforting.

Further down the trail we pass another Wiwa man. Celso reaches into his tamburo and passes a handful of leaves to the man, who does the same. Together they each reach for their poporos and go through the dipping-and-licking ritual. "It's a sign of respect and brotherhood," Enrique tells me.

The track flattens out for a bit as we reach the Wiwa village of Mumake, home to 40 people and a few open grass-roof huts. All around are coffee and coca plants. Celso plucks a large, green pod and slashes it open with his machete so we can try the sweet flesh surrounding the seeds. "Tick-a-licious," grumbles Léon as he pincers a critter off his exposed leg. Celso then shows us how they strip the fibres from the figue plant, and dry and weave them to make their distinctive white tunics; and using natural dyes, their colourful mochila bags are decorated with geometric designs.

Day three dawns just as sunnily and noisily as the previous days, and we press onwards, deeper into the forest — also a UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve and home to tapir, jaguar, ocelot, the Andean condor and growing numbers of howler monkey.

The Buritaca blocks our path once more, so we hop from stone to stone trying to avoid the cold water. Halfway across I notice a rather damp baby tarantula clinging to a rock and skip over it. The trail has transformed from sand to rich, peaty earth. Rather ashamedly, I let out a little yelp when a white snake with brown stripes and two tiny black eyes slithers across the path right in front of me.

"That's a worm!" chuckle Léon and Celso.

"It can't be," I retort with scientific authority, "It's over a foot long and thick as my wrist."

After a quick confab with Celso, Léon turns to me nodding: "They put them in alcohol to make medicine."

The glimpse of the creature is still replaying in my mind as we pass a hand-scrawled wooden post telling us the final camp, El Paraiso, is 2km away. Just in time. Clouds that have been bullying us with the threat of rain for three days finally follow through. Fat drops fall in unceasing sheets from the sky, morphing the descent path into a mud slide that we're forced to slither down on our backsides. We dash beneath the cover of the camp's iron roof and watch the rain bounce off the surface of the river like sweat on a musician's drum.

"Look, sapo!" shouts Léon. We bend over the wooden railings to see dozens of enormous toads — the size of watermelons — hopping up the riverbank. Their bulging eyes alighting on the fireflies flashing green as they buzz around the crackling kitchen fires.

The sacred site

I'm woken by a shake of the shoulder. It's still dark and muffled snoring fills the open-plan hut. I duck beneath my mosquito net, pull on my damp clothes and follow a shadow down to the river. We follow the water downstream, manoeuvring over rocks and tree roots and listening to the first hum of cicadas.

Suddenly, Celso stops and lets out a birdlike whistle to attract our attention. He raises a sun-browned finger and points across the water. Just visible through a curtain of lianas and low-hanging branches, we glimpse a steep flight of stone steps, slick with rain, leading enticingly upwards.

There's no turnstile, or ticket office. Just a carved wooden sign that reads: Parque Arqueológico Teyuna. Tentatively, we start to climb. A pistolero bird points his bill and fires his gunshot call at us as we pass — it feels like a warning and we press on intrepidly.

The 'steps' are thin shards of stone stabbed into the hillside and there are 1,241 of them. They're so steep I'm standing up straight to climb them. Sweat soaks the bandana tied around my forehead. I stop to rest a minute and hear the reassuring sound of Celso snorting coca leaf-laced phlegm. I turn round to see him grinning up at me. He proffers a thumbs-up and we start to climb again.

At the top, we enter a clearing and what we see makes any conversation halt abruptly. Immediately in front of us lie three circles of earth bounded by stones. A smattering of grass covers some of them, but the forest lingers at the edges waiting, almost menacingly, to reclaim them. Just then, the sunrise splinters through the high trees, warming our damp bodies and setting the stones aglow.

Celso instructs our small group to walk around the central circle seven times "to balance your life." A toucan barks from a branch overhead and butterflies dance in the shadows. "Everyone who comes with an open mind will exit happy," he adds.

He points to an upright slab of stone carved with markings as we move up another level. "Do you have powerful dreams about jaguars? Place your hands on this rock and Kapsama ('God of dreams') will disperse the bad energy."

I can't say images of big cats have plagued my sleep, but I lay my palms on the rock nonetheless to feel the rough edges of the scratches etched into it. Celso crouches down beside a large flat rock, the surface of which has been rubbed smooth. He picks up a nearby stone and demonstrates how they would crush bits of rock into powder to make a paste for pottery. Shards of a broken urn lie nearby.

"But why build it all the way up here?" I ask.

"To be close to Wymaco — father of the Gods," he says pointing to the sky. "And it meant they could grow plantain and maize on the lower, less-steep slopes." The Wiwa had been visiting this place of their ancestors long before it was rediscovered. Happily, thanks to their representation in the Colombian senate, this sacred site hasn't been annexed from them and for two weeks in August every year, the city is closed to visitors so the Wiwa and other Tairona descendants — the Kogi, Arhuaco and Kanku — can gather together and use it for ceremonies.

So far, 250 terraces have been excavated over 30 hectares. On them are the foundations of homes, roads, water systems and ceremonial areas. Much more remains hidden under the vegetation. Very little is known about the site and its former residents, although — based on the items found in graves — it's believed they wore shell necklaces, gold nose rings, and the men, penis sheaths. Celso's knowledge of this place comes from his mamo, or shaman, and consequently, the stories he offers differ from the theories put forward by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH), who are excavating here. But that just adds to the mystery.

Either way, the Ciudad Perdida trail is welcome proof that Colombia has changed. Once synonymous with warring drug cartels, guerillas and high murder rates, this misjudged country is riding a well-deserved revival in tourism, thanks to successful peace talks and large-scale clean-up operations in cities such as Bogotá. Today, travellers are safe to enjoy the architecturally rich colonial cities, beach-fringed islands and Amazonian wildlife.

We climb higher to La Capilla — the central section where feasts and rituals were held. The trees fall away and we're left slack-jawed and silent. Spread out before us are tiers of oval terraces that appear to perch on the tree canopy like a floating palace. For a full 20 minutes the scene is totally unblemished by other tourists and the only sound is a woodpecker hammering away at a palm tree trunk, sweetly oblivious to our special moment. There are no ropes barring access and no hawkers proffering postcards and keyrings — just the shy glances of government soldiers who camp at the summit to watch over the site.

As I look across the top of the forest, green and bouncy as florets of broccoli, the isolation of this place sinks in; the effort, sweat and strain of the last four days twinges my muscles and an upwelling feeling of discovery lifts the corners of my mouth into a smile.

As word of her charms spread, the Ciudad Perdida will no doubt meet the same fate as Machu Picchu and other crowded sacred sites. But for a short time, let it be known that we travellers have the chance, after a hard-won trek, to glimpse a true discovery that not even Thesiger would have had the pleasure of seeing: a real-life castle on a cloud.


Getting there
Avianca offers the only direct flights, from Heathrow to Bogotá. Iberia, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and TAP fly via their respective hubs. From Bogotá, connecting flights to Santa Marta are offered by Avianca.
Average flight time: 12h.

Getting around
The trailhead starts in the village of Machete Pelao, a two-hour drive from Santa Marta. You'll need to hire a driver, but most tour operators, including Explore, provide the transfer as part of their package. 

When to go
The trail is busiest during Easter week. Outside of that, it's best to avoid the rainy season, which runs from May to September, making the trail slippery. Days are usually warm and sunny between December and February. Temperatures on the trail range from 16–28C, but humidity is always high. 

Need to know
Visas: British nationals can enter Colombia for up to 90 days as a visitor without a visa.
Currency: Colombian peso (COP). £1 = COP 3,804.
Health: Vaccinations may be required and antimalarials are recommended when in the mountains — contact your GP prior to departure. No yellow fever certificate is required for entry.
International dial code: 00 57.
Time: GMT -5.

More info
Colombia: The Bradt Travel Guide. RRP: £17.99.

How to do it
Explore offers a 10-day Trek to the Lost City tour that costs from £2,395, including return flights, accommodation, some meals, transport and tour leader.

Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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