Colombia – Searching for the Lost City

Sweat drips in my eyes and my sun glasses slip from my nose constantly as I set one foot after the other to climb a steep, dusty path up into the mountain range of the Sierra Nevada. After some doubt my daughter, Naomi, had convinced me before our trip to Colombia to join her on a six-day hike to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), a 46.6 kilometer hike in the northeast of Colombia. The amount of altitude difference covered during this hike is quite a lot and the heat can take its toll. Hidden in the middle of the jungle it’s supposed to be a must-see for tourists, as it was built six hundred and fifty years before Machu Pichu. So I agreed, although when I looked at the posts on several blogs in the internet, which mentioned the tour as to be only for people, who are in good shape and sporty. I like to eat well and to chill with a pile of books, which results in a body to be not very well tuned for athletic activities. But nevertheless I wanted to take the challenge as not to be the wet blanket.

We met the other group members at Santa Marta at the office of the tour operator. Three young male Israelis, who had just finished their military service and were exuberant of testosterone and power. They were ready to take over any challenge, which would get into their way. A young Canadian couple of scientists, Brad and Stephanie, seemed to be ready for hiking too, whatever awaits them. Only the lady from England, Jacky, looked like she might be not too sporty either. My only wish was not to be the tail-light of the group, as Naomi for sure would join the youngsters without difficulties. My hope sank though, when Jacky told us about her hike to Machu Pichu in Peru. In the comfort of the air-conditioned office, I started to doubt my irreversible decision to go for the adventure.

We were packed into a tourist jeep, which had seen better years before and which was without air conditioner. The guide, Jhon (Spanish spelling for John), a happy fellow with braces, managed somehow to tie all our backpacks on the roof. Braces seem to be a status symbol in Colombia, as young adults use to wear them, as soon as they can afford to. The driver, a bad humored Colombian of small, wide stature, honked his way through the crowded streets of the city, where either people on bicycles or donkey-cars miraculously managed to escape being knocked over by our vehicle. Out of town the streets were less crowded, therefore the drivers felt no urge to obey any rules. Only at a few police stops did the cars slow down. But knowing, where the police stops are, they speeded up afterwards and forgot, whatever they might have learned about safe driving in their youth. I kept an eye on a monstrous truck behind us, whose huge hood was only a few meters behind our car. I tried in vain to make out any possible escape, if the truck would smash into the back of our Jeep. I felt relieved, when we turned onto a dirt road after about two hours of mad driving. But also there, our driver managed to take the curves in high speed and to drive carelessly over the 4×4 route, so that our heads constantly bumped into the metal roof of the Jeep. Soon Mat, the Canadian, felt sick and we were more than happy to be arriving on the starting point of our trek in the small village of Macheté after some time, which felt more like a century.

Heading off with our backpacks and hiking shoes, the heat was already bearing down on us. Starting with a decent path meandering through some innocent hills, I felt not too bad. Even more so as we arrived at a deep and fresh water pool at a river, where we could take a swim and the ones who dared, could jump from the high boulders into the clear water. There were some small fish nibbling away on our skin, but nothing to be scared of. Much too soon we had to go on and then came the first steep uphill to conquer in the hot mid afternoon sun.

Every time I think, the steep path comes to an end, another corner turns up. The air is sizzling and only sometimes discontinuances of the walls of soil, which border the dusty path on both sides, let through a little bit of air, which is hot like the air from a hair-dryer. Mules pass on their thin but sturdy legs covering us in thick dust, carrying heavy bags full of supplies. No cars have access to this remote mountain range. The dust, whirled up by their hooves gets into my nose and breathing gets hard. I remember that I read about the first day being one of the hardest, as the altitude to overcome is several hundred meters meaning a couple of hours hike steep uphill. Finally I reach the highest point, where the rest of the group waits and enjoys some fresh fruit. After about two more hours in the heat of the afternoon, we arrive at the night camp. Novelty for Naomi and me: we have to sleep in a hammock and that hammock hangs between at least fifty further hammocks, leaving privacy of a mosquito-net and half a meter to the next sleeping place on both sides. Furthermore there are just three toilets for all hikers, from which just one flushes. Some tourists never learn, that the toilets in Colombia don’t take toilet paper. What is that stinky bucket next to the toilet for?! You have to be fast, too, to slip into one of the three showers, if you don’t want to be waiting in your sweat for hours. As I seem to be far the oldest in the whole camp, I decide that I’m probably just spoiled by comfort and that I’m going to try to sleep in the hammock without prejudice. But in the night despite my tiredness, I don’t hear any noises of the wild in the surrounding nature, but not surprisingly, loud snoring and other noises particularly of the young men during their sleep.

The second day of our hike starts late in the morning. I can’t imagine to go another four days this way. As dreaded, I’m walking almost all the time far behind the group, which seems to be running over hills and through valleys without any problems. The translator of the group, Miguel, whose main task is to translate Jhon’s Spanish explanations into English, makes sure, that I keep up by walking just a few feet behind me. I feel like a mule, where the herder walks behind with a whip and shouts now and again to make it walk faster. I get quite irritated and ask him to give me some space. He takes it literally and I don’t see him again that day as he stays far behind me. Only for a moment I would have liked him closer again, when a beautiful red, white and black colored coral snake, one of the most poisonous snakes of South America, passes my path just in front of my feet.

My clothes hang on my body dripping from sweat and I feel sorry for myself as nobody seems to struggle the same as I do. Now and again Jhon stops, so I can close the gap. When I arrive though, everybody has had a rest but me. On the top of a conquered mountain he pauses occasionally to provide some fruit or to exchange useful knowledge about the surroundings. Once he can catch an armadillo, an animal like an ant-eater, but Naomi and I miss the view, as we are proceeding in front of the group after a break to get ahead. We are still passing farm land, which was planted with cocaine in earlier years. The government got rid of the cocaine by sending airplanes, which sprayed poison on the fields, but which also contaminated the soil in such way, so that people suffered illnesses and deaths afterwards. This region was also violated by various groups to get power over drug distribution. Now cows are grazing peacefully, sugar cane and other legal crops are growing and tourism has become a main source of income to the locals. Only the indigenous descendants of the Tayrona tribe are allowed to grow cocaine for their own use, as they use it for spiritual reasons for generations.

Another night in a hammock, as the few beds available are already overbooked in the next crowded camp. The camp is near to the river and offers a good opportunity to take an other dip in the cool water. Clothes hang all over, as most hikers try to wash the sweat and dust out of their clothes so they can wear the same the next day. Early in the morning we start another tiring hiking day after a few hours of sleep in a most uncomfortable position. I’m feeling stiff and my joints seem to need some grease to work properly. On this day I keep up better, as it goes downhill for a long time and my pace is faster than Stephanie’s, who struggles with a sore knee. I’m sorry for her, but happy for myself. I almost run down all excited not to be the last for once. But as soon as it goes up again I fall back in my old position as tail-light, which I try to retain with composure. “We now get into the untouched jungle”, Jhon announces. It is part of a huge refuge and only in this small part to and at the Lost City they allow tourists and people, who don’t belong to the local tribes. Today the descendants of the Tayrona, who built the Lost City more than thousand years ago, go by the Wiwa, the Arhuacos, the Cancuamo and the Kogi. Most of them are very shy. The indigenous, which we encounter along the path, have serious faces and make way, as soon as they see a tourist coming. Only a few work together with the guides, even as guides themselves or provide supplies. As we pass an original village, the shamans of a few different neighboring tribes have a meeting. Shamans are the political and spiritual leaders of the communities. They wear a distinctive white hat, which symbolizes their wisdom and carry a poporo, which is a dried hollow fruit like a pumpkin, where they put pulverized sea shells in. The men take the powder with a stick out of the bowl to mix it with their saliva. Then they skim it off at the neck of the poporo, which grows thick by the moisture from the saliva. The neck of the poporo gets more voluminous the longer it is in use, which symbolizes the thoughts and wisdom kept within.

The indigenous people live in very basic mud huts covered by material from surrounding plants. The children were urged to go to school in the 1980`s, but that project stopped as their was a rebellion from the tribes against the religion, which was indoctrinated to their children at school. They were not against the education itself, but didn’t want that their children were taught the Catholicism. They opposed being urged to forget their own beliefs of their ancestors. Now the children get only taught about the traditions within their tribe, as far away from modern education as it can be. Nevertheless there will be or already are changes, as contact with so many tourists change their culture. I noticed, stupefied, a huge gold watch on an arm of an indigenous man and a guide of the wiwa-tribe with a satellite phone, wondering if he will retire to his mud hut without water and electricity in the evening.

Surprisingly the indigenous are able to reach an age of more than hundred years. Often though, men get older than women, who carry the risk of giving birth to commonly more than half a dozen children. From my point of view and as I’m taking it possibly too personal out of my cultural background, I consider it as highly unfair, that women of the wiwa-tribe may not have sexual activities anymore after having reached menopause and are substituted by a young woman to add more children to the household. Together they care for the growing family. Hopefully the choice of the husband doesn’t lead to jealousy and misfortune in the relationship between the women. If the husband wasn’t too much of a big love, the first woman might be happy not to have to fulfill any sexual duties anymore. Nevertheless a very patriarchal system, which hurts my emancipated feelings!

Finally we reach the last camp within a tiring 4 1/2 hours, before the last steep uphill to the Lost City. The guide asked during a break that day, if we’d like to add the hike up to the Lost City and back of an additional estimated four hours after lunch on this same day, as to be able to see the ruins of the Lost City almost alone during the afternoon. Most groups arrive in the morning after having slept at the last camp. I’m too tired to argue and feel like I am going to die, if I have to walk anymore. Only Naomi shares my point of view to better be postponing the hike to the Lost City to the next day, as she is also tired and has severe belly cramps. Nevertheless the rest of the group decides, they want to go this very day. Stupefied, we retire after lunch to our uncomfortable beds to recover a bit. The camp is even worse than the ones before, as the space between the beds is nonexistent. Most people are too tired to notice and walk like sleepwalkers all over the place although it is only mid day. Lucky for us a thunderstorm comes up and makes it impossible to get to the Lost City the same day. We just lay like wet, dirty towels on our beds the rest of the day and figure, that it is still more than we already hiked, to get back to civilization. We’ve never felt that miserable before.

Early morning on the fourth day of our trip we climb over slippery paths along the river, as all is wet from the rain of the day before. On several occasions we take off our shoes, when getting through the Buritaca river, which twist and thrashes over the rocks all along the valley. The whole trip we have crossed the river about twenty times. Sometimes I don’t even bother and just walk through with my boots. After about an hour of stony terrain and passing the river the last time, the legendary original stairs with thousand two hundred steps to the Lost City start. With new spirit we make our way up, trying to get our feet set on the narrow, mossy steps without slipping. Not an easy task as the steps are worn out over more than thousand years since they were laid. But the task is rewarding as we arrive finally unharmed at the Lost City itself, although welcomed by thousands of mosquitoes. The stony round ruins of the building, where the Tayrona people lived, worked and held their spiritual meetings are clearly visible. It’s thought that between four and ten thousand people lived in Ciudad Perdida and that the city encompassed over twelve thousand square meters (129,167 square feet). Teyuna, the old name of the Lost City, sits on a thousand three hundred meter (4,265 feet) high ridge. When the Spanish conquistadors invaded Colombian shores, and brought severe illnesses like smallpox and syphilis with them, Teyuna was abandoned. The jungle reclaimed its rocks and pathways, so that for three hundred and fifty years the city lay hidden from the world. Then in 1972, tomb raiders stumbled upon the stairs next to the Buritaca river. A couple of years later the government restored and opened the site to public. The site is divided into several sections with a total of 169 stone terraces, that make up Ciudad Perdida in its current form. Three thousand square meters of the site are open to explore. A winding staircase leads from the market place on to the ceremonial platform, which was not open to the common inhabitants. But deep in the jungle another nine thousand square meters (96,875 square feet) of the structures are still hidden in the coppice. Once maybe even more of this ancient civilization can be brought to light, if the woods don’t claim the place back first. Today the Lost City is a holy place for the indigenous groups, who are descendants of the Tayrona people. They have a festival of two weeks each year, where they don’t allow other people any access to.

We spend more than an hour to discover Ciudad Perdida. After getting some rest and a snack we walk carefully down the slippery thousand two hundred steps to the river and back to the camp, only to have lunch and to shoulder our backpacks to proceed another four hours. Unfortunately it starts to pour with rain in a heavy thunderstorm. The paths turn into dirt rivers. I find out that, when I walk in the stream, I slip less. Soon, I’d rather have some skies than hiking boots to get down the slithery paths. Up the hills it is not easier and Jhon helps me over some muddy sections, where I can’t get through myself without always sliding further back than I manage to go forward. On an open exposed meadow, where we admired two houses of the shamans and some cows on the previous day, I count anxiously how far the thunderstorm is away by separating the seconds of the thunder and the lightning. It’s almost over us, so I try to hurry over the bawdy grounds. Everybody struggles through the inclement weather, soaking wet to the bones. Not that that matters, as it is still warm. We are so distracted that we barely realize, when our guide chops a snake in half with his machete, which he spotted next to the path. Only the last hour before our destination for the day the rain gods feel mercy for us. We spent our night in the same camp as on the second night, only that we can use beds instead of hammocks this time. We don’t have to find our way through the whole camp to relieve ourselves as the beds are near to the toilet in contrast to the stall with the hammocks. Considering the digestion problems of some of us, a serious advantage.

Despite the fact that Naomi and I are dead tired after the more than eight hours hiking in the nasty conditions of the previous day, we decide to try to end the hike in a total of five days with the other group members instead of six as we intended before. We can’t wait to get back to civilization and to find some privacy. So we put on our hiking boots to master another day of six hours hiking at least. The morning starts already crabby as Miguel takes off to walk with the rest of the group members without announcing his departure. Naomi fights her own battle with an upset stomach and tries to keep up with the group nevertheless. Jhon’s knee is hurting, so he seems to take it slow. I figure as I walk most of the time on my own that I detest hiking with a backpack immensely, especially in the heat, with mosquitoes, snakes and other creepy crawlies around. I start to dislike all hikers, who come from the other way too, managing their first or second day of their hike to the Lost City without signs of fatigue. Hours pass by and I don’t see anyone of my group members nor our guide. Hoping that I’m on the right path, I continue, increasingly demoralized. A steep uphill, the one which made me happily overtake Stephanie on the third day of our hike in the other direction, brings me to my boundaries of my capacity. After every turn comes another turn further up hill. Sometimes mules pass and I nearly get pushed from the path, as they don’t seem to have any conscious of going around obstacles like living human beings. The sweat burns in my eyes and I feel exhausted. After a short straight path, I pass another camp full of backpackers, who enjoy the few hours before sunset on the terrace. I dislike them too, sitting there with a cool drink enjoying themselves. Shortly after the camp another steep uphill starts and I remember desperately that it goes over several kilometers. One foot more and one foot more, step after step, I’m on my limits as a young park ranger with his mule and a saddled empty mule passes. He must have seen my pleading eyes, when he offers me a lift. I never, never say anything against mules again. What a lovely strong animals! It carries me all the way up to the top and even a little further. My spirits are back, although I still don’t encounter any of my buddies.

Finally I recognize the steep dusty path from the first day, which is only a few hours from the starting point of the hike. Light headed I walk down, having a rest now and again only to watch the stunning view over the green mountains as far as my eyes can see. I pass a couple, where she obviously struggles to get downhill, as she has injured her feet on a slippery stone in a river bed. And shortly after I keep up with Brad and Stephanie. She struggles again with her knee and only manages a slow pace downhill. Arriving at the river with the pool I realize that I might have been slower than the others, but unharmed by any injuries or sickness. Happy I dive into the cool water and enjoy the feeling, that it’s only an hour to go to the end of the hike and I will never do this struggle again! Despite the odds I’m proud of myself and make peace with my mind and with my fellow hikers. Naomi however still isn’t well. I can’t understand how she was able to walk so far and so fast nevertheless. But finally we arrive at the end of the hike, where we have lunch or in Naomi’s case, she isn’t even able to look at it.

The drive back over the dirt road is even worse than on the way up and we are more than happy after fetching our luggage at the office in Santa Marta to say good-bye hastily and thank Jhon for being such a patient, well humored guide. As we return one day earlier to our hostel than expected, there is no air-conditioned room left for us. We have to take a bed in a four person dorm. But nothing can be worse than the previous nights and so we start our recovery from the hike to the Lost City and celebrate with a glass of ice water, because the still upset stomach can’t yet bear any other. Good to be back!

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Author: Marcelle Simone Heller

I’m searching for natural beauty and wilderness, while I’m travelling relentlessly to find delightful places and encounters with wildlife. I try to capture the thrill of the moments in photography and words, hoping to inspire others with the love for animals and nature.

1 thought on “Colombia – Searching for the Lost City”

  1. I can picture and feel your hike/ordeal. My husband and I did a 4 day guided hike on the south island of New Zealand, the famed Milford Track, in 2002. Even though we had not yet reached age 50, we too usually brought up the rear of the group while hiking. However, one big difference in our experience was that we slept on real beds at night. I studied in Bogotá, Colombia as a college student a looong time ago. I am hoping to return someday, but I think the hike you describe might be off my bucket list.

What do you think? Your comment is most appreciated.