Through the Jungle to the Lost City
“Aren’t we done with this nonsense?” asked Sarah.
My suggestion to spend five days hiking through jungles filled with creepy crawly biting insects didn’t initially go over well with Sarah.
But it was the only way we could visit the “Lost City”, better known by its Spanish name: Ciudad Perdida.
The city was built by the indigenous Tayrona people between the 11th and 13th centuries and most likely served as one of their largest towns. After the Tayronas were conquered and massacred by Spanish invaders, the city was forgotten and swallowed by the jungle.
Tomb raiders discovered Ciudad Perdida several hundred years later in the 1970s. Today, it has been cleared and is under the watch of Colombian military. One thing remains unchanged: no roads lead to it. Visiting the site requires a bit of effort.
Different tour operators offer guided treks to Ciudad Perdida, providing all meals, accommodations, and a Spanish speaking guide. After conferring with a few of them and hearing from people who had raved about the experience, Sarah reluctantly agreed.
The following day our motley group of ten – from USA, Canada, Ireland, France, Brazil and Colombia – crammed into a truck for the bumpy two hour drive from Santa Marta to the trail’s start in El Mamey.
There we met our guide, a faux-hawked native who had been guiding visitors for several years, and set off behind mules loaded with provisions.
Even though we only hiked for half a day during the first three days, it was still exhausting. The path climbed up then down then up again. Sometimes we were exposed to the hot sun while walking on sand and clay. Then we would continue into the jungle where it wasn’t as hot but where we had to deal with insects and the occasional snake.
The path followed the river Baritara on opposite sides, requiring us to cross it probably about a dozen times. Only one crossing had a bridge – constructed over a particularly rough spot where a French tourist had been swept to his death.
The other crossings we either hopscotched across on exposed rocks or waded through.
Along the way we passed huts of the Kogi, the local people descended from Tayrona who support themselves through sustenance farming and raising livestock.
The Kogi adults paid us no attention, but the kids joined us in wading into the river or asking for candy.
The trek was tough, but our group hit it off and made it worthwhile. Each night we spent playing cards, sharing magic tricks, and staying up much later than we probably should have. One member of our group was a yoga instructor who took us through a few sessions.
We even attracted an 11th member when we noticed a small dog following us on day 2. He was named Jake (he spotted a snake before we did) and seemed to know the jungles well.
Accommodations far exceeded our expectations – Sarah and I were expecting tents and sleeping bags, but along the way were permanent campsites with running water, showers, and even beds.
But we were still in the middle of nowhere. Our guide warned us to check our clothes and shoes for scorpions or snakes before putting them on. Nights were pitch black – it looked the same with our eyes open or closed.
Since we hiked only half a day we had plenty of time to cool off in the river.
We started hiking early on day four to cover the last half mile to Ciudad Perdida. After one final river crossing, we arrived at its base and climbed 1360 steps (according to our guide, I lost count) to emerge at the lost city.
Even without considering the major effort we had expended to get there, the site was very impressive. The city once had 170 houses up the mountain. The wooden houses are long gone, but each of their terraces had been cleared of trees and groomed to resembled a golf course. Stone stairs remain, leading us up further until we were in the open.
A few in our group celebrated our arrival strangely.
Since the region was a hotbed for guerilla activity not too long ago, the Colombian government posts military in the area. Two soliders we saw roaming the premises caught us taking pictures and turned to talk to us.
“We weren’t taking pictures of you, just the site” we lied. Fortunately, they were coming back not to stop us from taking pictures, but to pose for them.
At the top of the site were more bored soldiers with even bigger guns.
Only one other trekking group joined us at the city that day, so the site was mostly empty. Our guide tried to tell us about the history and discovery of the site, but we were exhausted and were content just to be sitting. It was sunny, the skies were clear, and we sat around for a few hours enjoying the scenery.
And with that it was time to leave. We were to return on the same path on which we arrived but much faster, taking one and half days instead of three and a half.
So we returned - descending the same stairs, climbing up and down the same mountains, and wading through the same river crossings. Our good luck ran out when it started to pour. Not having any other alternative we trudged on until we were soaked to the core.
Although all of us had been liberally rubbing ourselves with a powerful mosquito repellent, the buggers had managed to bite parts of our body that weren’t exposed and we started to itch.
The last day we woke up early to cover the last nine miles back. Sarah ponied up (pun intended) for a mule to carry her.
Halfway back she decided to dismount and join us in walking the rest of the way.