Brand-new white Chuck Taylors and gleaming white tube socks. I couldn’t take my eyes off the footwear on this freshly-showered and optimistic hiker preparing for a multi-day jungle trek, one that I had just completed. Clearly, he wasn’t sweating the mud-slide trails and hip-deep streams from which I had just emerged victorious, though worse for wear. Equally, he and the rest of his nine-person wolf-pack were mesmerized–and not a little scared–by my tour group, which was bedraggled and exhausted, covered in dirt and sweat, having just trudged into the trail-head restaurant, eager for a cold beer at the end of our journey. Welcome to La Ciudad Perdida, Colombia’s Lost City.
Inland of Colombia’s Caribbean coast lies this ancient city, built by the now-extinct Tayrona tribe in 800 AD, 600 years before the Incans built Machu Picchu. In stark contrast to Machu Picchu’s manicured lawns, pristine stone foundations and camera-snapping day-trippers, La Ciudad Perdida is hidden by the jungle that surrounds it, and is accessible only by foot and helicopter. Experts estimate that the city reached its political and economic heights in the late 17th century, was then abandoned during the Spanish conquest, and was finally discovered and restored by archaeologists between 1972-1982. Today, three indigenous tribes and a rich cultural heritage have survived and developed in this jungle despite outside political, turf and drug wars, natural disasters and crafty grave robbers.
My husband and I arrived in Santa Marta, Colombia, on a hot August afternoon, and quickly booked a four-day tour leaving for La Ciudad Perdida the next morning. It’s possible to book a 5- or 6-day tour for the same price, but we felt good about our physical strength, and didn’t want to spend more time than we had to without running water (which never actually happened). Our experience is that when officials quote how difficult a trail is or how long it will take, they inflate the numbers to make hikers feel better about themselves when they beat the averages… not so with this tour, as we would learn that the difficulty and time estimates were dead-on.
I wouldn’t call myself an adventure hiker, but I have hiked up Half Dome and into/out of the Grand Canyon twice. I can say with some solid reference points that La Ciudad Perdida is no joke. The tour outfitters provide lengthy packing lists that include several pairs of socks, 50%+ DEET bug spray, sunscreen, and long-sleeved shirts and pants, despite the tropical heat. Word of warning: head-lamps may seem like a good idea, but they are like a mosquito magnet on your forehead. Think again.
We would be part of a ten-person group: Seth and me, two of our friends from California, four school buddy Brits extending their trip after a wedding in Cartagena, a Spanish scientist and an Austrian world-ranked competitive orienteer racer. Our leader was Juan, and he was accompanied by a porter and a cook. We started the trip as strangers, and returned as a family.
Each day was harder than the last, but easier knowing that every step we took was a step behind us. As we trekked deeper into the jungle, up and over mountains, and across streams and rock-beds, we moved farther away from civilization; icy beverages at the first camp were simply beverages at the second camp; electric lights were exchanged for lanterns and flashlights. Luckily, we always had running water, and delicious food three times a day.
On the second morning, it was time to hike up the thousand-step staircase to the ruins themselves. Heavy stone slabs were stacked up the mountainside presumably by the Tayrona themselves, and moss, vines and ferns threatened to reclaim the path at the slightest neglect. As the jungle foliage parted, we could see the wide city complex, reduced to foundations after centuries of disuse. It was a breath-taking sight, and worth every step.
All in all, our group spent over two hours touring through the ruins, Juan pointing out the different structures and uses, providing history and backstory to help us comprehend the significance of this long-ago civilization. Over the next day and a half, as we made our way back to Santa Marta, we kept busy chatting on the trails, discussed what we had learned on this hike, and on others. At the last ten meters, when we knew that our trek was at its end, we held up and entered the basecamp as a group. We had done it. And now we got cold drinks and actual chairs to sit on.
Hiking to La Ciudad Perdida is incredible for its historical and cultural significance, the physical challenge, and the comraderie built with virtual strangers. My only regret is not knowing what ever happened to the guy with the brilliantly white shoes and socks. Our Spaniard put it best when he said, “I would pay money to be here when that guy gets back.”