Biblical downpours. Inescapable heat. Insects that penetrate the skin and require several forceful tugs to release. These might sound like scenes from an apocalyptic adventure movie, but on the trail to Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida, they’re all in a day’s trek. The land at the end of the trail is enchanting, cloaked in spellbinding history and ancient traditions—but it takes plenty of fortitude to get there.
For centuries, Ciudad Perdida—which lurks high in the mountainous Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta reserve on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast—was hidden from the world. In 800 C.E., the Tairona people built the city, which they called Teyuna, and lived there until the 16th-century Spanish invasion forced them to abandon their homes. Gnarled roots and creeping foliage slowly enveloped the land; it was almost completely overgrown when treasure hunters rediscovered the area in 1972. They dubbed it the “Lost City.”
Today, the ruins are still buried under thick vegetation; however, swells of visitors are bulldozing a path for intrepid travelers.
You cannot visit the Lost City without a tour group, and local communities only allow select companies to make the trip. The 32-mile trek lasts from three to six days and, unlike Peru’s most famous ancient archaeological site, Machu Picchu, luxury doesn’t pave the way. There are no shiny trains full of well-to-do tourists chugging through the mountains. And swanky lodges? Forget it. Everyone journeys on foot and sleeps in sheltered camps; bunk or hammock, you decide.
When I visited with G Adventures in November, it was just before the dry season, which is December through March—but still, it was hot. To avoid the intense heat, we began each day’s trek at 6 a.m., mornings humming with the sound of cicadas. During our seven-hour days, we followed rivers that run alongside the trail and reflect the overhanging jungle, but the path in front of us was parched.
“I prefer wet season,” my guide, Gabriel—“Gabo”—Moscote said. He described how daily downpours from April through November can cause the Buritaca River to gush over, forcing trekkers to wade through waist-high water, bags above their heads. But rain brings relief from the heat. “And it keeps the garrapatas [ticks] away,” he said.
Gabo is part of the indigenous Wiwa community that, along with the Kogi, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo communities, descended from the Tairona people. They continue to live in and care for the region in much the same way their ancestors did, respecting the mountains and living in harmony with Mother Earth.
Wiwa men often work as guides, welcoming outsiders, yet maintaining and protecting their traditions. Unlike non-indigenous local guides in their baseball caps and faded Colombia soccer jerseys, Wiwa guides wear traditional white clothes, a symbol of purity, which accentuate their easy, familiar movements over the region’s glistening streams and along its rocky precipices.
They also each carry a poporo: a short, yellow, phallic-shaped instrument received as a sign of manhood. Inside this handheld wooden tool, they mix powdered seashells with dried coca leaves. “The leafs give us energy and keep us awake during nightly spiritual meetings,” Gabo told me while pressing the stick into his gums.
While they are willing to explain their unique customs, remarkable history, and life mission to protect the land, Gabo and his Wiwa brothers don’t do so standing on rocks in company-emblazoned polo shirts, putting on a show. After the massacres and upheaval caused by Spanish conquest and then again by the invasion of left-wing Colombian rebels and paramilitary groups from the 1970s through the 1990s, locals have come to keep things close to the chest. Their narratives sit quietly within their souls.
For centuries, Ciudad Perdida—which lurks high in the mountainous Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta reserve on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast—was hidden from the world.
During our last overnight before entering la Ciudad Perdida, after we staggered into our low-roofed camp, called Paraíso (Paradise), I discovered my first garrapata. While some trekkers collapsed to the earth in a kind of delirium, and others squirted water on their blotchy, reddened faces, I worked to dislodge the determined bug that had lodged its head so firmly inside me.
That night, like all the other nights, we feasted on plates of beans, fluffy rice, chicken, and passion fruit. After dinner, visitors played cards and drank beer. Wiwa guides sat around a campfire, silently chewing the coca mixture and scrubbing their poporos.
“Tomorrow,” Gabo told me before bed, “we will visit our sacred land.” After days of trekking together, swinging next to each other in hammocks, interacting in Spanish (even when a hammock and a siesta seemed preferable), and seeing who could spit watermelon seeds the farthest, Gabo was finally starting to open up.
Around 1,200 steps on a moss-covered trail, tunneled with protruding vines and branches, lead to Teyuna. At one time, this ancient city boomed as the political and social hub for hundreds of villages. Residents—around 2,000 of them—filled its plazas, trading goods and food with visiting farmers, craftsmen, and potters.
Today, the 30 or so visible circular platforms (there are 169 in total) are empty. Covered in grass, the layered rock bases, which range from five to 10 feet, resemble a series of tiered helipads ascending through the clouds.
There, among ancient city remains, surrounded by mist-cloaked mountain peaks that stretched to 18,700 feet, we performed a spiritual dance with Gabo. We imitated serpents, vultures, warthogs, and hummingbirds. Gabo described how the ritual has been performed in Ciudad Perdida as far back as the seventh century C.E.
“We do this every month,” he said. “It’s to pay tribute to each species and maintain the equilibrium between us, the animals and Mother Nature.”
We spent the afternoon trailing our guide through all the sites, climbing the single-file stone steps that wind up each platform and wandering the flagstone walkways—each dusty beige slab perfectly flat and fitted like a jigsaw puzzle—that connect the terraces. There are submerged jails that housed lawbreakers and several troughs and chutes that run throughout the city, drainage systems that now spawn blotches of sage-green lichens. The city’s map—a head-high boulder that was beautifully chiseled and, I was assured, meticulously accurate—once guided villagers around this prosperous land.
Although what remains today of Ciudad Perdida is its rocky foundations, the traditions continue to live on and to thrive. Even locals’ desire to honor nature and everything in it still burns strongly. Indeed, while dancing alongside Gabo, I realized that this was the magic I’d been searching for. Trekking here with the Wiwa guides had allowed me to feel their beliefs, experience their ancient way of living, and discover not just a “Lost City” but Teyuna.