Lost City slickers

Laura Millar embarks on an epic five-day trek to the ancient Ciudad Perdida, Colombia’s answer to Machu Picchu

“Vamonos!” comes the insistent call from Jose, our long-haired, 30-something indigenous guide, who is partly responsible for shepherding my group of seven relatively amateur hikers along 46km of arduous terrain through the lush green mountains of the Sierra Nevada over the next few days. The note of urgency in his voice, hoping to rally us up and away from the welcome breather at a roadside shack selling chilled soft drinks, is spurred on by his knowledge of how the weather works here in the hot, humid rainy season (which runs from mid July to the end of October).

Currently, this is something of which my fellow trekkers and I are blissfully ignorant. It’s only day one of a trip whose ultimate goal – in three days’ time – is to climb up to Colombia’s answer to Machu Picchu: the Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City of Teyuna, an ancient site built by a tribe called the Tairona around 800AD. It’s early August, and the morning’s blazing sunshine has lulled us into a false sense of security. We have over half of today’s scheduled 14km to go before we make our camp for this evening, and the sky is turning an unappealing shade of grey. 

At around 2pm, the clouds burst to coincide with a particularly steep downhill stretch and, as water gushes torrentially forth, we gaze at our feet in dismay as the crumbly, rocky red earth beneath them almost immediately turns into a mudslide. I have never been so grateful for the invention of walking poles, along with the advice of our ‘chief experience officer’, native Colombian Juan Diego Rangel, who recommends we “follow the path of the water as it flows down the track”, rather than trying to avoid it. 

Despite this, it’s not long before one of our party spectacularly loses his footing and slides rather gracelessly down several feet on his backside. The commotion has a domino effect; behind me, another hiker, Tom, sees his legs go up from under him, and his trajectory unfortunately has me in its way – so down I go, too. By this point I am so utterly drenched that the addition of a layer of soggy mud has little effect, either on my clothing or my morale; the only way is forwards, and so onwards we go, doggedly putting one foot in front of the other, down, and then up, gradients so steep that if you were in a car, you definitely wouldn’t want to face the prospect of a hill-start. Welcome to the jungle…

This awe-inspiring five-day trek with G Adventures starts and ends in the small, colonial beach town of Santa Marta, on the northern coast of Colombia. G is one of several intrepid adventure companies that organises tours here, but it’s one of the only ones to work with the indigenous people who have lived in these mountains for more than 2,000 years. Today, the four tribes who populate the area – the Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuacos and Kankuamo – are believed to be direct descendants of the Tairona. As a result, as well as learning about the jaw-dropping scenery and nature, you also learn about the indigenous culture and history, particularly when it comes to setting foot on their most sacred ground, the Lost City.

Trekking groups can consist of up to 16 people and are often a mix of couples, friends, families and solos. Mine includes five individuals and a couple, all ranging in age from mid 20s to late 40s, and we get the chance to get to know each other better in Santa Marta, the day before we set off. The main trek is broken up over four days, with the new addition on day five of a walk to a recently created indigenous village called Gotsezhi. Each morning we set off around 6am to capitalise on the cooler part of the day, with a stop for lunch, a few short rest breaks, and the ultimate aim of arriving at camp before nightfall. 

The camps vary in size – Paraiso, the one closest to the Lost City, is the biggest, sleeping 100 people (on the night we spend there, it is totally full, but lively and sociable). Conditions are, to put it kindly, rustic; showers are cold (actually quite refreshing on tired, swollen feet), although there are flushing toilets and simple bunk beds and hammocks swathed in essential mosquito nets. Every day, you are made breakfast, lunch and dinner by your group cook, who goes on ahead to each camp to rustle up hearty, if basic, meals – we dine on rice and fish or meat, pasta, and local food such as arepas, a flat, fried cornbread. 

On Lost City day, we get off to an even earlier start, creeping out of camp as soon as it is light to get ahead of the other groups, although numbers at the site are limited to 160 per day. This is it, what we’ve been walking towards, through farmlands, cloud forest and pure jungle. We’ve endured river crossings, where we swap our boots for water shoes, survived hour-long, relentless uphill slogs, navigated steep downhill slopes, and now the objective is within sight. Twenty-five minutes from Paraiso, after scrambling over a series of rocks, we have to cross one final river. Thankfully these are only ever knee-high (although at one crossing further back in the trail, if the water is swollen too much from the rain, you have the option of doing it in a kind of bamboo cage suspended by a rope from the trees above it).

Then, one last obstacle: a series of 1,200 steps leading up, up, up to the Ciudad Perdida. I take one look at them and nearly change my mind; they’re incredibly narrow and steep (apparently the average height of the Tairona was 1m 30), not to mention slippery. I am not blessed with the balance of a mountain goat, and am starting to worry about whether I’ll make it without losing my footing and breaking several limbs. However, seeing I’m about to lose my nerve, both Juan Diego and Jose rally around for support; Jose whisks off my backpack and literally bounds up the rest of the way with it, while Juan Diego stays close to ensure I make it safely. 

The good news is, I do. A little bit behind the rest of the group, but the hugs and high fives I get from my little trekking family boosts my spirits no end – not to mention the savage beauty of the site itself. It’s thought that the Tairona abandoned their magnificent city in the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived, bringing unwelcome Catholicism and persecution. However, prior to that, it was a huge, sprawling site covering around 150 acres, with more than 200 terraces cut into the hills. Some were used as bases for traditional homes, others for the Tairona’s temples. And this stunning, spiritually imbued place would have stayed lost, were it not for their tradition of crafting gold. They were buried with their artefacts, a fact that led looters to the site in the 1970s, bringing it to Colombia’s, and eventually the world’s, attention. Tourism only really took off here in the 1980s, with a hiatus in the noughties after a guerrilla group took a group of travellers hostage for 101 days in 2003 (now the site is protected by the Colombian military).

We walk up several terraces which take us to an area from where we get a phenomenal view looking back down over the site. Together, we take in the peace and beauty of the moment, breathing in the clear, crisp air, and marvelling at the clouds which hang, suspended, in the tree-covered mountains around us. We made it; and even though afterwards we have to do the whole journey back again, it’s an utterly incredible feeling. After two or three hours, Jose cries out “vamonos!” once again and it’s time to leave. But not without some incredible memories.

Book through G Adventures; seven days, starting and ending in Santa Marta, including accommodation, meals and guides, starts from £449. Avianca flies from the UK to Santa Marta via Bogota. 

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