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Finding Colombia’s Lost City

One of the things we wanted to do on our trip was explore a rainforest, and the 44 kilometre trek to Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range gave us the perfect opportunity to do just that.

This is what we wanted to see. Ciudad Perdida was believed to have been created in around 800AD (600 years earlier than the more famous Machu Picchu in Peru) by the Tairona people who were indigenous to the area.  Like Machu Picchu, no one quite knows why the city was abandoned by the Tairona’s (who were later wiped out by the invading Spanish), but it’s widely believed it may have been due to illness that was brought to the area during the Spanish conquest.  Today guides run tours to the city, but the only way to access it is by a tough trek through dense jungle.

This is what we were trekking to. Ciudad Perdida was believed to have been created in around 800AD (600 years earlier than the more famous Machu Picchu in Peru) by the Tairona people who were indigenous to the area.  Like Machu Picchu, no one quite knows why the city was abandoned by the Tairona’s (who were later wiped out by the invading Spanish), but it’s widely believed it may have been due to illness that was brought to the area during the Spanish conquest.  Today guides run tours to the city, but the only way to access it is by a tough trek through dense jungle.

On day one, we turned up to our guide’s office in Santa Marta (we went with Guias y Baquianos, which was recommended by our hostel) and were introduced to the rest of our team. Doing the trek with us were two Spaniards, a couple from Germany, a physiotherapist from Australia and an insurance broker from Newcastle.  After a three hour drive to the starting point of the trek – a little town called El Mamey – we fuelled-up with some sandwiches and then we were off!

Our team!

Our team!

We knew the trek was strenuous, but we didn’t know how difficult it would be until we got to the first hill. An hour-long slog going uphill at a 45 degree angle in the baking heat with no shade was much harder than we expected. We had to stop several times, but our lovely guide Ruth was happy to wait with us until we caught our breath and cooled down a bit. When we finally got to the top (after what seemed like forever!) Ruth’s son, Carlos, was already waiting there with fresh watermelon. He said that on some occasions he’s had to wait more than 45 minutes at the top for the whole group to arrive.

After the refreshments we were back on the trail where we really started to notice the amazing scenery of the jungle-covered mountains all around us. At the next stop (beside a very pretty river) some of the group decided to cool down with a swim. Carlos pointed out a snake in the water that, when disturbed, made a beeline for the people swimming!

I wish I had a picture of the people in the water freaking out, but all I managed to get was the snake swimming away!

I wish I had a picture of the people in the water freaking out, but all I managed to get was the snake swimming away!

When we eventually arrived at the first camp, everyone was impressed with how beautiful it was – surrounded by tropical flowers and a stream running through its centre.

The view from the bridge over the stream in our camp

The view from the bridge over the stream in our camp

All of us took the opportunity to have a quick swim in the cool lagoon at the base of a nearby waterfall before it got too dark.

All of us took the opportunity to have a quick swim in the cool lagoon at the base of a nearby waterfall before it got too dark.

After a filling dinner and some chatting with our group, we headed to surprisingly comfy beds and fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle.

These are the beds we slept in - we had been expecting something far more basic!

These are the beds we slept in – we had been expecting something far more basic!

In the morning we were up bright and early to complete the next 14km slog of our journey to the last camp before Ciudad Perdida. At this point we really started to notice that we were in the jungle, with lush greenery all around, vines hanging down and only occasional glimpses of the neighbouring mountains through the foliage.

I kept having to pinch myself - I couldn't believe we were really in the jungle!

I kept having to pinch myself – I couldn’t believe we were really in the jungle!

We also saw a settlement that was inhabited by the Kogis – a tribe that is descendent from the Taironas and still lives on the mountains.

A Kogi hut is round - to symbolise the sun - and the most important one in the village has two 'peaks' - just like the Sierra Nevada mountains

A Kogi hut is round – to symbolise the sun – and the most important one in the village has two ‘peaks’ – just like the Sierra Nevada mountains

The Kogis maintain much of the path that we were trekking on and even run the camps closer to Ciudad Perdida. They have a way of life that is very closely linked with the flora and fauna around them and they believe that they are the guardians of Pachamama (mother nature). We were told that the Kogis have large families of up to nine children and that the men were allowed to take two wives in their lifetime – first an older woman and, when she can no longer bear children, the woman will pick a second (younger) wife for her husband. Then, when the man has died, the ‘younger’ woman would then become an older wife for another man. All very efficient in terms of making babies!

The village was deserted but for children, who are left to play while the adults work

The village was deserted but for children, who are left to play while the adults work

We were also told about how the Kogi men still have the tradition of chewing coca leaves and that it’s a very important part of their society. When a Kogi reaches 18, he’s given a bag that will hold coca leaves and a hot rock to dry them. It also contains a gourd holding lime (made from ground shells) that they take with the coca leaves to help them chew it. This bag is very significant to any Kogi and on receiving it he is told he must respect it and treat it like his wife! We caught a glimpse of a few Kogi’s chewing the leaves and it felt like we were getting to see a very private part of their culture.

We had a quick stop at the second camp for lunch, where we took advantage of another jungle lagoon, and then carried on to our camp for the night. Unfortunately, on reaching the top of another hill it had started spitting and we took refuge in a disused sugar farm for another break. After a few minutes it became clear that the rain was getting harder and the guides started ushering us to go with shouts of ‘vamos! vamos!’. After we’d set off, I heard that one of the guides was worried all the rain would swell the rivers – ones we were going to have to cross!

Rain's a-coming!

Rain’s a-coming!

The rain, which was initially cooling and refreshing, soon became torrential. After 20 minutes or so, we were all soaked to the bone (whether people had waterproofs on or not). The paths we were walking on quickly became streams, the streams that crossed the path became rivers, and the rivers we needed to cross became raging rapids. One of the rivers we crossed came right up to my waist! The guides were careful to make sure that everyone got across the rivers safely though – Carlos had to hold my hand on several occasions to make sure I didn’t fall over!

Drenched!

Drenched!

When we finally made it to camp, some of us still had dry clothes to change into (top tip: make sure everything in your bag is packed inside a plastic bag!). We enjoyed our warming dinner, chatted some more and then headed to bed for our second night in the jungle.

On the third day we were up especially early to beat the other groups and get up to Ciudad Perdida first. The hour long trek to the lost city was probably the most treacherous part we encountered; it was a very narrow pathway with edges that were sheer cliffs to the bottom of the mountain. In parts there were flimsy barriers made from sticks and plastic tape saying ‘do not cross’ in Spanish, but for the majority of time it was just a sheer drop.

The last river crossing before Ciudad Perdida

The last river crossing before Ciudad Perdida

When we finally reached the base of the mountain that Ciudad Perdida rests on top of, we were informed that we would need to climb 1,200 steps to the city.

Ever wondered what 1,200 steps looks like? Well this is only some of them!

Ever wondered what 1,200 steps looks like? Well this is only some of them!

When we reached the top we got our first glimpse of the ruins. After a few minutes wondering around, we were amazed by how big the city actually was. While in use, it had room for more than 2,000 inhabitants, with more than 100 terraces carved into the mountainside, a network of paved roads and several circular plazas. It’s not possible to see all of it (a large proportion of it is still covered by jungle), but when it was inhabited the whole area would have been open to the elements.

Ciudad Perdida

Ciudad Perdida

We made it!

We made it!

We were told it wasn’t clear exactly how the city was ‘rediscovered’, but one story is that warring drug cartels (that had found the site and looted what gold they could find) ended up disclosing its location to authorities to spite each other. The tribal people that still live in the area to this day (the Kogi’s and the Arhuaco) maintain that they had always known of the city’s location but kept it secret because it is a sacred place.

The scenery at the top was absolutely spectacular

The scenery at the top was absolutely spectacular

After spending an hour or so looking around the remnants of impressive craftsmanship within the foundations of the city and the spectacular views from the top of the mountain, we started to head back to the camp where we’d stopped for lunch the previous day (for more swimming in the lagoon!).

Another beautiful lagoon to swim in...

Another beautiful lagoon to swim in…

Over the next few days, the trek back to El Mamey was just as amazing (and tough!) as the trek to Ciudad Perdida. We took it a bit slower to try and spot some of the wildlife; we saw butterflies, some wild pigs, lots of leaf-cutter ants and some colourful birds, but no toucans or monkeys!

Some of the wildlife we saw on the trek

Some of the wildlife we saw on the trek

On making it back to El Mamey, we had a celebratory lunch and cold beer before we said goodbye to the group and our guides and headed to Parque Tayrona – where we would spend a few days relaxing on the beach. Unfortunately, the beach we wanted to get to was the furthest one away and it involved a two-hour hike to get there!

A whole beach to ourselves!

A whole beach to ourselves!

Reaching Cabo San Juan was worth it though and it was a beautiful place to relax, with soft sand and cool clear water. When we arrived there was only tents available to sleep in (which were incredibly hot and we didn’t get any sleep), so we spent the next night in hammocks in a hut perched on top of a mound of rocks in the sea. It was much better to stay there with the sound of the waves lapping around the rocks to send us to sleep!

We got to sleep in hammocks in the hut on the rocks in the top right picture

We got to sleep in hammocks in the hut on the rocks in the top right picture

We were sorry to leave the beach, but we were very pleased to get back to Santa Marta where we had proper beds, warm showers and clean clothes to wear!

Such a rich and diverse country, with busy cities, masses of culture and heritage, beautiful beaches and amazing jungles

Such a rich and diverse country, with busy cities, masses of culture and heritage, beautiful beaches and amazing jungles

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