The “Lost City” (Ciudad Perdida in Spanish) is one of South America’s “hidden” gems, tucked away in the remote jungle of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains. If you’re adventurous and fit, the trek to get there is an experience of a lifetime.
Our adventure began in Santa Marta, a port on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. We were picked up at our hotel in a serious looking Toyota Land Cruiser with oversized tires and I could tell right away that we were embarking on something more than the usual tourist experience. We drove up the coast and turned off the highway onto a jeep road so steep and gnarly that I had to move to the front seat to keep from yacking my breakfast. We finally arrived at a mountain village appropriately nicknamed Machete and began our walk after a huge sendoff lunch. The sky was blue and the hills rolled away from us in steep, lush, green, carpeted folds.
Ranchers and farmers have inhabited these steep slopes for centuries alongside local indigenous tribes. Because of its remoteness, the region became a center for cultivation of coca (the plant that is processed to produce cocaine) during the decades of Colombia’s armed conflict fueled by the drug trade. Coca production was ultimately replaced by tourism and other cash crops allowing the area to become safe enough to welcome foreigners.
The hiking trail starts out navigable by motorcycles, but is quickly reduced to a rutted, rocky and narrow path that twists up and down river gorges as it roughly follows the course of the wildly beautiful Buritaca river. Don’t underestimate the rigor of the trip. It is over 46 km to the city and back and my GPS clocked more than 11,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. We hit the trail at 6:00 am every morning in order to make it to the sleepover camps before nightfall around 5:30 pm. Most hikers (including us) finish the trip in 4 days. The route is punctuated by adrenaline pumping thigh high river crossings as well as idyllic and refreshing swimming holes.
The city known as Teyuna, “sacred place of the ancestors,” was never really lost or forgotten to the area’s indigenous people. The original city was constructed around 700 – 800 AD, more than six centuries before Machu Picchu. It was a thriving commercial and political center until it was abruptly abandoned at the time of the conquistadors. Fast forward to about 1972 when gold and other artifacts began to appear on the local black market and drunken stories were told of a “Lost City” (as it eventually came to be known) deep in the mountains, flush with buried treasure. After that, it didn’t take long for looters to “find” the city and start digging up its treasures; desecrating ancient graves where the dead were buried alongside their most valuable possessions to barter with as they continued their celestial journey through the afterlife.
Recognizing its historical and cultural significance, the Colombian military quickly secured the site and archaeologists restored it to its (somewhat manicured) but more original state. So far, 169 stone terraces have been uncovered along with thousands of steps and trails, while much of the city remains unexcavated and still overgrown by jungle. The military presence is visible today with an army post along the trail and at the site of the city itself. The soldiers are armed with assault rifles, but they gladly posed for pictures with the tourists and most of them seemed more interested in looking at their cell phones.
The trek is a poignant reminder that the journey is often more memorable than the destination. The landscape is a stunning vista of verdant vegetation covered slopes and becomes even wilder and remote the further you penetrate the jungle. I walked alone for much of the trip, savoring the mostly undisturbed lushness of the jungle. Around every corner, I encountered exotic butterflies and insects, and could hear and see birds only familiar to me from nature shows on public television. In camp at the end of each day, I got to meet and share experiences with interesting people from all over the world.
Access to the park is tightly controlled and because the city can only be reached by an arduous hike, it only sees about 8,500 visitors a year, compared to Machu Picchu which gets up to 5000 visitors a day during peaks and over a million a year. I felt very blessed to be able to experience the magic of this relatively unknown treasure before notoriety spoils it forever.
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