Ciudad Perdida – The Lost City. Straight away your ears prick up. A lost city in the depth of the Colombian jungle, a city built, lived in and left behind by an ancient civilisation vanished to time. What more do you need to hear? Occasionally you come across these places where the sense of intrigue and adventure is so overwhelming that the questions come thick and fast. What is it? Where is it? How was it lost? It’s a city for crying out loud, not a set of car keys. Who found it? More to the point, how do we find it? The answers of all those were to come; but it was the latter we resolved first as we made our way to the Caribbean coastal town of Santa Marta and then to our starting point of Machete, so-called because, well, everyone here carries a machete. Obviously. With our stomachs full and thankfully intact, a multinational group numbering eight alongside us and our local guide Jhon leading the way, we set off to find the lost city.
It hasn’t always been lost. Ciudad Perdida, known as Teyena to the local indigenous tribes, was once a bustling metropolis built by the nomadic Tayrona people who once roamed northern Colombia. It was constructed in around 700AD, about 600 years before Machu Pichu in Peru, and for several hundred years the Tayrona lived in an isolated tranquility up in the jungle. Enter the Spanish. Arriving in the early 1500s the Spaniards first commandeered the coastal towns, before then moving in land with an unquenchable thirst for the gold they saw the indigenous people wearing and trading. Now the key thing here is that the Spaniards never actually found the city. The thick impenetrable jungle combined with a penchant for a mid-afternoon kip meant they never made it that far, and in fact were never even aware of its existence, but it mattered not. The mere threat of their arrival combined with the introduction of a whole host of foreign diseases meant that any Tayrona that were not wiped out fled to the mountain tops, away from the invaders and safe from enslavement. The city meanwhile lay abandoned, lost to the jungle.
Like with any long trek we set off with enthusiasm. Ignoring the hollow eyed, haggered look of the walkers we saw returning, we gleefully strolled alongside a gurgling stream to start with, stopping for a quick dip when the opportunity arose. Our good mood wasn’t to last long. With a path that rose as steeply as our moral dropped, we soon found ourselves plodding slowly skywards, pausing only to let our trio of mules trot through with our food and supplies for the days ahead. The food throughout the trek was plentiful and good, you’d be amazed at the variety of ways in which you can serve up meat and rice, however the accommodation was less so. I’m not complaining, we were generally so exhausted each day we could have slept anywhere, but I’m still straightening out my spine from the hammocks and the mattresses sagged so much I can only assume they let the mules sleep in them from time to time.
For the next few days the walking conditions stayed the same. Climb sharply upwards through steamy jungle, avoid the odd snake falling out of the trees above, then shuffle steeply down the other side into the valley below. The breaks we did have were more than welcome, and none more so than a slight detour through a village inhabited by the Kogui people, one of the four tribes thought to have descended from the Tayrona, where we witnessed a primitive way of life so wonderfully indifferent to our presence. All dressed in traditional white robes and with long raven hair, the children are only differentiated by coloured necklaces for the girls and equally brazen stitched shoulder bags for the boys. There was no pandering to the tourists here, no selling of cheap tat or souvenirs and when we crossed paths along the trek, they would pass without a sideways glance. We were even to meet a Shaman, who by completely ignoring us only added to the air of mystery around him. Having said that, the coca and lime paste they religiously chew here may have added to his supposedly funnel eyed stupor, as could the fact that some previous, more ‘spiritual’ trekkers had bravely decided to kiss his feet. I’m not sure they resented us being there – we were assured that they receive a cut from each tour company in exchange for letting a load of gringos traipse across their land – but then we never felt particularly welcome either, but then why should we?
We took the course of the Buritaca River for most of the walk, which we’d been warned we would have to cross several times. Having heard stories of trekkers being washed away to an untimely and watery end along with groups being helicoptered out due to its rising ferocity, we were relieved to find the river at a languidly waist high level. Its importance here is second to none. Not only is it a valuable water source for both locals and trekkers alike, and even more valuable as a place to do running bombs off big rocks, but it was also along its course that the lost city was found.
It was 1973 when a father and son – some say farmers, others say grave robbers – spotted a man made wall on the far bank of the river. Behind the wall were some steps, and at the top of the steps, well, you can guess the rest. This discovery didn’t lead to public knowledge of the city however, as like all good honest folk would do in the same situation, they kept their findings a secret and spent two years pillaging the site of as much gold as they could. Eventually, as you’d probably expect to happen when you start flogging ancient pieces of gold at the local market, people began to notice, followed them to the site and all hell broke loose. A year on and three gold-squabbling related deaths later, the authorities were finally made aware of the city and it was taken into national care. The outside world were allowed in from the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2003 when a group of foreign trekkers were kidnapped by guerilla group FARC and held hostage for around 100 days that Ciudad Perdida finally received global attention. That was the free advertising it required and since then, it’s never looked back. Where once the area was reliant on the cocaine trade – our guide Jhon was picking coca leaves at the age of 10 – tourism is now the main focus as visitor numbers rise by around 1500 a year. The Lost City is now firmly on the map.
It was at a map that we found ourselves shortly after dawn on our third day, or at least that’s what we were told. Still panting from the 1200 original (read old, skewed, slippery) steps that lead up to the ruins, we found ourselves in front of a large slab of rock covered with strange, but definitely deliberate markings. It’s only the Kogui people who can read this map you see, and while it’s widely agreed that the map tells of other similar sites in the vast areas of surrounding jungle, it seems the Kogui are understandably reluctant to reveal their secrets. For us though, what we had here was more than enough. All around us lay circular stone foundations where wooden huts had once stood, while stone paths led off into a tangle of vines, begging to be explored. Ahead of us a wide, stone staircase led up to further, larger terraces where we were told that ceremonies were once held, crops had once been farmed, an ancient tribe had once lived. The place was eerily quiet. The occasional croak of a Toucan or the screech of Parakeets would disappear off into the canopy, and aside from a few soldiers keeping order with a combination of semiautomatic machine guns and gardening tools, we had the place to ourselves. From the highest part of the city it was an awesome sight, where before us lay over 170 ancient stone terraces in the midst of the jungle covered Sierra Nevada mountains, mountains which quite possibly held many more secrets still. Our journey to find Ciudad Perdida had been every bit the adventure for which we’d hoped; but it seems that while some cities are now easily found, there are others that will forever remain lost.