Deep in the heart of the Colombian jungle lies the ruins of an ancient civilization. Older and larger than Machu Pichu, it is hailed as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.
It is a place with many names: Teyuna, Posigueica… La Ciudad Perdida: The Lost City. In its heyday, the region was inhabited by up to 8,000 natives known as the Tairona. For hundreds of years they were known as fierce warriors; but they were also deeply knowledgeable about, and connected to, the ecosystem around them. In the 1500s they encountered the Spanish conquistadors and within 100 years were exterminated.
The ruins were discovered in 1972 by a group of local treasure looters known as Los Sepúlvedas. The tale goes that the group was turkey hunting in the jungle. They shot a bird and, upon retrieving it, stumbled upon a piece of exposed staircase. They curiously followed the stairs, brushing leaves and tree limbs out of the way, and the stairway opened up into walls and terraces… an entire lost city.
The magnitude of this discovery was jaw-dropping; It’s like something out of a fantasy novel or an Indiana Jones movie. Can you imagine having been there at that moment?
That’s exactly the feeling I was hoping to experience for myself when I signed up for a Lost City Trek. We’re talking 28 miles of mountainous jungle, rivers and valleys with ample opportunity to sight a dazzling array of biodiversity. The Sierra Nevadas de Santa Marta are designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. In 2013 the International Union for Conservation of Nature identified the park as the most irreplaceable park in the world for threatened species.
I had dreamed of visiting a rainforest ever since I was a little girl playing Amazon Trail in the school computer lab. I still clearly remember a unit in third grade where we decorated the classroom like a rainforest. The kids spent hours cutting out leaves from big rolls of colored paper, and hand-crocheting green yarn into “liana vines” to hang from the ceilings. We read stories and poems about tapirs and toucans. I was fascinated and became fixated on visiting one of these places.
For the first time in my life, I would finally have that opportunity. I would also have the opportunity to learn about the 30,000 indigenous people currently living in these mountains. They’re not the Taironas, but three different modern ethnic groups.
Pre-trip, I was gushing to my friends about the cool way I was going to spend my summer. One of my friends, Dave, asked if he could join me for the trek. Sure thing, Dave! He flew down to Colombia with me and accompanied me not just for the trek, but also the first two weeks of the trip… but that’s a story for another time.
Our route involved crossing six rivers and climbing four mountains. Along the way were bridges, waterfalls, native villages, and countless opportunities to enjoy the nature.
The tour company had multiple options for the trek, with varying levels of difficulty. Dave and I agreed to sign up for the 4-day trek (“medium level”) because we wanted time to take pictures, swim in the rivers and all around enjoy ourselves. We didn’t want to be rushed. The morning of the trek, we arrived at the tour center in Santa Marta to find they canceled the 4-day option and moved us to a 3-day.
“Don’t worry,” they said. “You guys look young and fit! You’ll be fine.”
Hilarious. They were so wrong. Our group consisted of a bunch of trail runners and thru-hikers who sped through the forest like cartoon roadrunners. They were here for the physical challenge and couldn’t care less about the surroundings. Not what I wanted at all! This was my first time ever getting to really experience a rainforest and I was not about to be rushed through it. So for much of the time I trailed along a good distance behind everybody else, stopping frequently for photos or to examine tropical plants.
The other reason I preferred to move slowly was that Dave hadn’t brought a hiking backpack, so I was carrying both of our stuff in my bag. Still, it wasn’t as bad as what I’m used to. The nice thing about treks is that you don’t have to lug around a tent, food, or any significant amount of water. The guides provide those things for you. They had set up rest stations along the trail with snacks and jugs of purified water.
There were permanent open-air cabins set up for the overnights. We slept in bunk beds with bug nets. I’d say it was definitely nice to have a bed set up for you, even if it did take away from the “roughing it” aspect. Large toads came out at night and surrounded the camp. They were extra noisy, serenading us with their mating calls. Falling asleep to the sounds of nature is one of my favorite things in the whole world.
Our group was not the only trekkers out there. This trail is not supposed to get super crowded because tour guides have to obtain the permission of the natives in order to pass through the territory. But apparently the natives are fairly liberal with their permission-granting. Our group shared the camps and snack stations with dozens of other hikers, not to mention cooks, porters, and guides.
Dave liked that he could make friends and have interesting conversations. But to me the crowd was the only disappointing part of the experience because it conflicted with my expectations. I’d pictured very few humans and many more animals. I thought I’d be bush-whacking through the lush jungle like Indiana Jones, not walking down a well-maintained path that was shared with horses and dogs. But how could I complain? I quickly got past it and thoroughly enjoyed this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The first day it rained. Shouldn’t be much of a shock considering it’s a rainforest… but the entire trail turned to mud. I don’t mean it was a little muddy. I mean I sunk down into this stuff to where it was almost to my knees, and had to try and wade through it without losing my boots.
That night a native shaman came and showed us his peace pipe and told us about its meaning. The next day we hiked past a small village, consisting of a number of grass huts in a circle. The shaman had told us that no one lived here- it was solely a place for religious ceremonies. The huts were surrounded by coca plants which many people found exciting and lots of people stopped to take photo breaks here.
Our guide was a small, skinny Colombian girl who looked to be about 15 years old. I asked her whether there were poisonous snakes to be worried about. She responded no, that the only animals we should be cautious of were the frogs.
That night I was using the restroom and noticed something brightly-colored on top of the trashcan. It was a red frog – perched only three feet from my face. I stared at it, remembering what the guide had said.
“Don’t you come any closer to me,” I said out loud. When I was done I bolted out of there and told the others to avoid the bathroom.
In the evenings our group played cards around a table while we were waiting for dinner. It made it even sillier to me that these people were rushing through this super cool ecosystem just to go sit and play cards until dinner was ready. What was the hurry?? We had come all the way out here to see this fabulous forest – not to play cards. The dinners were always delicious and of ample proportions, and we were even given Gol candy bars for dessert. The food definitely exceeded my expectations.
The ruins themselves were every bit as awesome as I imagined. We spent a good couple of hours exploring and climbing around. A ranger told us about the history of the site and the efforts being made to protect it from treasure hunters and vandals. In fact, Colombia stationed military troops there as extra assurance. The ruins were surrounded by lush green jungle on all sides, with the view of a thundering waterfall in the distance. There are likely all kinds of additional ruins in those mountains which have yet to be uncovered.
At one point I climbed onto a large piece of stone with some other girls to take a photo. As we were posing, the guide told us it was an altar to the god of fertility. We all screamed and jumped off, laughing that we were not ready to have kids any time soon!
The last day every inch of my body was stiff and sore, not to mention I was covered in bug bites. It was impossible to keep the bugs from biting you. Bug spray merely washed off with the pounds and pounds of sweat that was coming out of our pores every hour.
There was one girl who started trailing at the back with me. She confided that she’d recently had ACL surgery. She’d been confident that her knee was fully healed, but by the third day it was really giving her a lot of pain. About four miles from the end of the trail, she finally divulged the information to our guide, begging her for help. The guide nodded her head and said she could send a runner ahead to go get a horse.
“Is anyone else willing to go with her?” she asked us. I immediately volunteered, thinking that sounded a lot funner than traipsing the last four miles. Dave offered to join us as well, and a little while later a man came down the trail with three horses.
Riding the horse was great. Not only did my sore legs get a rest, but I actually got to appreciate the rainforest in a different way, simply observing and not having to worry about moving myself.
To our surprise the horses stopped after about a mile, where three young men sat on motorcycles. The owner told us we could get off there and take motorcycles the rest of the way. Dave did not like the idea of sitting on the back of a bike driven by another man, so he decided to walk from there. The other girl and I shrugged and hopped onto the back of the motorcycles. The guys smiled at us and then took off down the trail. The dirt biking was super fun! It’s something I’d never done before but would definitely do again. The young Colombian men seemed pretty enamored with us and proceeded to drive down a side road to intentionally pass a group of their guy-friends and show off. They got around of cheers.
At the end of the trail is a bar where there were nice cold beers waiting for us. The girl and I got there before anyone else and propped our feet up, savoring the refreshing drink and the feeling of rest.
I had a fabulous experience on this adventure. It was definitely a different flavor than wilderness backpacking… more socializing and less worrying about basic needs. I was incredibly proud of myself for completing this, despite “cheating” with the horse and motorcycle at the end. For me this was the fulfillment of a childhood dream: I finally got to explore the rainforest.
Side note 1: It’s worth pointing out that this took place in June 2017. I have no idea whether the area is open to tourism now or how it has been impacted by Covid or climate change.
Side note 2: I gave myself dreadlocks for the trip because I didn’t want to constantly worry about my hair. It worked and was a great idea.
“Colombia’s ‘Lost City’” from the Witness History podcast, Dec 5, 2016