The Lost City. Just the name fires your imagination and wanderlust. It conjures up images of 19th century explorers stumbling upon ancient ruins after months of hacking their way through overgrown jungle. Or scaling the walls like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Inevitably, the truth of visiting La Ciudad Perdida in Colombia is very different. For one thing it’s no longer lost, as in high season well over a hundred sweaty tourists begin their hike up the mountain every day.
The Lost City – or to give it its correct name, Teyuna – is located in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta at a height of over a thousand metres and is surrounded by tropical rainforest. The structures that remain today were built from around 1200AD onwards, but the city was abandoned in the early 17th century with the increasing presence of the Spanish invaders. The jungle subsequently reclaimed the city which wasn’t rediscovered until 1976. Even then, the heavy presence of armed FARC guerrilas meant that the site was off limits until only recently.
Unlike other ancient sites such as Machu Picchu, Teyuna is still in parts inhabited by descendants of the original people who lived here. You can see them negotiating the pathways with greater ease than the tourists. They live in circular huts made of mud and straw and dress in white clothes. The men wear their hair long and the women walk around barefoot with their babies strapped to their backs. This place is still sacred to them and for two weeks at the beginning of September every year the city is closed as the religious leaders congregate to purge it of all the bad energy left behind by trekkers.
I began my trip by signing on with Expotur, one of several agencies who organise the hike based in Santa Marta. There were three groups leaving from that agency alone and I met the twelve other people in my group as we were bussed up to El Mamey, a small village at the foot of the mountains. After lunch we began a four hour trek up to our first lodgings. These would turn out to be all pretty similar – very basic, with bunk beds side by side in the open but with mosquito nets, and hammocks. Best of all were the natural swimming pools in the Rio Buritaca.
Day two involved a 7 hour walk to the next overnight spot. The following day we were all tense with anticipation. This was the day we ascended to the city itself. All 1200 steps! Rough-hewn narrow stone steps which proved quite treacherous in places. The ruins themselves are not hugely impressive, but the site is quite mysterious. The number of tourists swarming all over the place doesn’t help of course, but it’s the sense of achievement at having got here at all that counts.
After a morning at the site, we climbed back down and then faced a gruelling 7 hour trek back to El Mamey on day four. There are some quite steep sections in places and together with the horrendously high humidity, I don’t think I’ve ever sweated quite so much in my life. Rivulets of salty sweat seep into your eyes, while your clothes feel like you’ve put them on straight from the washing machine but forgotten the spin dry cycle.
It’s a great experience, but you do it for the hike itself rather than the ruins. The scenery is gorgeous and on clear days you can apparently see the Caribbean. I saw many birds including tiny humming birds. Also fascinating is the glimpse you get into the way of life of the indigenous people. They believe we are all hermanos, all brothers, all connected to each other and to nature which they strive to preserve. When did it all go so wrong for us?