In the 1970’s the Lost City was discovered high in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta by grave robbers who, over a few too many drinks, shared the location of the city resulting in several years of looting. As news of the city spread, archeologists stepped in to protect and rebuild the site. The Lost City has since been dated at 800 AD and was home to the Tairona people. It is thought to have been the major political and social center for this civilization who had settlements throughout the northern slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
During the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Tairona civilization was nearly wiped out by the Spaniards. The Tairona that survived fled. Interestingly enough, the Spanish never discovered the city and there it sat and was overtaken by the dense jungle for hundreds of years.
Today, what remains of the city are a network of stone paths and roads that wind through the jungle linking clusters of terraces. These terraces formed the foundations for the wood and thatch homes which have long since disintegrated. The part of the city which has the largest terraces and has been restored is thought to have been a place used for ceremonial purposes. These terraces sit on a ridge with a breathtaking view of the Sierra Nevada on one side and on the other is backed by a mountain peak climbing to the clouds with a waterfall cascading down it. The site is jaw droppingly gorgeous.
Encapsulating my experience of trekking through the jungle to the Lost City in a single blog post has proved to be very difficult. When you are impacted by a place and an experience on many different levels it feels that a brief description cannot possibly cover the width and the depth of it. Yet I know that people would like to hear about the trek so I will summarize.
EXPENSE: The 4 to 6 day trek costs 700,000 pesos which converts to approximately $240 US and includes the guide, the tour, food, sleeping accommodations, and transportation to and from the departure site. If you want to take 6 days to complete the trek it costs the same as the 4 day option.
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY: The Lost City is remote! It can only be accessed on foot or by helicopter. Trekking in there isn’t for everyone, the terrain is steep and the camps are set up so you have to cover a certain amount of ground in one day. You are given plenty of breaks however and fresh fruit is provided. Watermelon never tasted so good! You will sweat like you have never sweat before so be prepared with electrolytes of some kind. I think that anyone in reasonably good shape with joints that are functioning well can do this trek. That said, to my humbling surprise my knees were not up to the task of going down the steep slopes of the Sierra Nevada. I thought that I came prepared with trekking poles and I had hiked up and down Thunder Mountain ( the local high spot where I live) three or four times a week throughout the summer without a twinge, yet after one day my knees were complaining and after two days they were downright cranky. After descending the 1800 steps from the city, those knees had gone on strike!!
ACCOMMODATIONS & FOOD: The first night we stayed in a camp with hammocks covered in mosquito netting. I thought that it would be difficult sleeping but I was pleasantly surprised. John, Jordan and I all agreed that we preferred the hammocks to the beds which followed in the subsequent two nights. Not everyone had this experience and there was some grumbling in the group about the hammocks. The camps are rustic and open air, basically a roof to keep out the rain (which it did in torrents each night). There are flush toilets (gravity fed) which I thought was a real feat. In the last two camps there is no electricity so we ate by candlelight! I didn’t expect showers but hurray, there was a shower at the end of the day and I brought one set of clothes to change into at night that stayed dry and clean. The food was very good, especially when you consider all that goes into getting it to the camps and the lack of refrigeration – no generators here so I wondered how they managed to keep things fresh. The cooks did their work over open fires by headlamp. I was impressed.
TOURING THE CITY: Our guide, Jesus, woke us up very early, before any of the other groups so we would be the first to arrive at the Lost City and could take pictures without large numbers of people crowding the site. After a quick breakfast we began the short walk along the Rio Buritaca to the moss covered steps which took us to the city. 1800 stone steps set into the mountain like they were carved out of the rock itself. It felt like I was in a dream or living a movie because the jungle is as pristine and exotic as you can possibly imagine it to be and climbing up steps that the ancients had placed themselves, followed by thousands of footsteps that preceded mine was a little mind blowing. There are many sections of the city but only a few of them are accessible to the public because the indigenous tribes do not allow access to other parts of the city. Honestly, I was surprised that the public is allowed in at all because the descendants of the Tairona still live in these mountains and use the sacred sites for rituals. I suppose it is a delicate line that they have to walk with the government and one that I am not knowledgable about. At any rate, as we reached the top of the winding staircase young Kogi children were walking down the steps. They couldn’t have been more than 7 yrs. old with one of them carrying a baby. We heard their voices before we could see them and it felt like being in a faraway time, hearing the playful voices filtering through the trees.
It was a relief to reach the top of the stairs into an area called the Galleria. The chatter of the group was distracting and, wanting to experience the energy of the place, I took off on one of the trails for a few or maybe more than a few minutes until Jordan came looking for me. I missed hearing most of what the Mamo (the spiritual leader of Ciudad Perdida) had to say. I caught the last bit about him asking us to put thoughts of television and technology away while we were there and to feel the nature that was around us.
Our guide spoke reverently about the city as we walked from one mossy terrace to another before we were let loose to explore on our own. The biggest surprise was how large the city actually is, it encompasses several square miles with well over a hundred terraces. The central terraces are very large and the setting is spectacular, you come out from beneath the jungle canopy onto a cleared ridge and can see the peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta for miles and miles. The ancients really knew how to pick their sites!
The trip back to the camp was slow and painful but the tiny and slippery steps didn’t get the best of me although I had help. It is worth mentioning that just a few weeks before our trek, someone had a bad fall on the steps, had to be carried by stretcher the rest of the way up to the Lost City and airlifted out by helicopter.
MOST HUMBLING MOMENTS: On the second day as I was drenched in sweat and huffing away on a particularly challenging descent, a very pregnant and barefoot Kogi woman passed by me going uphill, cool as a cucumber, sewing as she went.
I told you that my knees went on strike, well, I had to ride a mule out of the jungle on the final day of the trek. Mules are used in large numbers to carry food and supplies back to the camps. They are also used in the case of injury although they can only go so far, the last stretch to the final camp is inaccessible by mule. I was not happy about this to begin with but in the end was enjoying the scenery so much that I wasn’t complaining.
SCARIEST MOMENT: My mule was not happy, a black snake with bright yellow dots was slithering down the trail at high speed straight for us with its head held high as though on a mission to strike. The mule driver somehow kept his mule from jumping into space as this incredibly large specimen slithered around his legs and headed back up the hill straight toward Jordan who was watching wide eyed as this unfolded in front of her. It only took her a moment to turn tail and sprint as fast as she could up the hill while the snake eventually headed off the path into the bushes. Muy peligroso! translates to very dangerous! and that is what the mule driver told me about the snake, that and the snake didn’t bite – thank you to my guardian angel! I found out later that if you get bitten by one of these, you have 24 hrs. to treat the venom before you meet your maker.
INDIGENOUS PRESENCE: The descendants of the Taironas populate the mountains where we passed through to reach the Lost City. Indeed, we walked right past villages where the people still live in the way of their ancestors. The trails we used are also used by the Kogis and the Wiwas who have a close relationship to nature. The Kogis believe that they are the caretakers of the earth and without them holding the energy of the planet, we would all be doomed to destruction and if we do not start taking better care of it, we will as well. The Mamo (spiritual leader) is selected from their tribe and from a young age is kept in a cave, allowed only enough light to enter for the proper development of their eyesight but not allowing them to see the world until they come of age. This is done to connect them with their mother, the earth. It is believed that when they see the world for the first time they are filled with such reverence that it remains with them throughout their lives.
I had read about the Kogis years ago but had no idea that this trek would find me walking their trails and past their sacred sites. I was thrilled but also felt intrusive. I have mixed feelings about it still. I’m not sure that the intrusion of the modern world is benefitting these people in any way, other than offering modern medical care in emergencies. Like so many aspects of life, there are no easy cut and dry answers to the forces that bring change and all anyone can really do is examine their own personal piece of the puzzle.
Two weeks later and my knees are still recovering, my head is still full of images of astounding natural beauty and I am still thinking about what a miracle it was that that snake didn’t bite! I also feel honored to have met (although briefly) the Mamu of Ciudad Perdida and to think more deeply about the message of the Kogis. I feel blessed to have had this opportunity and I also feel blessed to be able to share it with you all. Thank you for reading.