I am laying in a very basic wooden bunk bed with my headlight on. I feel the breeze of the evening wind and hear birds tweeting and frogs croaking around me. A river flows just a couple of metres away from me and would be visible from behind the mosquito net that I tucked in well under all sides of my mattress if it wasn’tt for the darkness that has fallen some hours ago. I am in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and today I have finished day 1 of a 4 day hike through the Colombian jungle.
A strenuous uphill hike through muddy red dirt has led us through rolling green hills of farmland lined with palm trees, providing us with vistas of the lush green valley. As my calves were burning with tension, locals drove by on motorcycles and walked by with fully packed mules. The terrain was so rough I was surprised about the ease with which the locals sped by on their bikes. In another world, only professional motor sports drivers would dare to take on these challenging hills. Besides the voluptuous cows grazing in the grass lands, we encountered the less domesticized animals that ensured us we were on the right track towards the jungle. Just above the grid of a field, a web formed by spiders with legs twice the size of their bodies glistened in the sunlight. Just into the forest, we were confronted with the cruelties of mother nature – a beautiful butterfly was trapped inside the web of tropical spiders with impressive camouflage. I had to withhold myself to intervene.
Human intervention in the high mountains is very limited from the point where farmland makes way for jungle. Hidden in the high lands lays Teyuna, the archaeological site of an ancient city better known as Ciudad Perdida or Lost City. The jungle still is only inhabited by indigenous communities such as the Koguis who believe that Teyuna was a city inhabited by their forebears, the Tairona, and locals providing a place to sleep to tourists passing by their house. I have to mention though that being able to buy an ice cold beer and wifi connection did not give me the authentic feel I had expected after a four hour hike with a starting point that can only be reached after a 45-minute bumpy off road drive.
Any other people we encounter on the trail are either tourists, locals guiding mules up and down the trail, tourist guides, and soldiers of the Colombian army.
It has not even been 15 years the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was a no go area due to the conflict between the Colombian National Army, left-wing guerrilla groups like the FARC and ELN and right-wing paramilitary groups that were present in the area. But like many places in Colombia the area can now safely be explored by tourists – be it with a guide and the occasional sighting of soldiers that are stationed en route.
As it is the end of a three month shift for the soldiers that are stationed halfway the trail, their colleagues pass us by on their way up to start their shift in the jungle. Their backpacks are bulky from the food they need to carry up and their rifle and artillery must also weigh down on their shoulders in the heat of the tropics. Even though I am only carrying a day pack with some clean clothes, water and snacks in it, I can feel the sweat dripping on my shoulder from the tip of my braid.
The steep and muddy trail is the only way to get to the Lost City and back, and besides asking for a rough ride on the back of one of the motors speeding us by during the first day, or paying for a donkey to carry your luggage, there are no shortcuts.
The next morning I wake up to dark skies as we are making an early start. The trail leads us through tropical rain forest, where plants in all shades of green seem to tumble over each other and lianas hanging from tall trees give me the ultimate Jungle Book feeling. Other hikers suggest Indiana Jones, Mission Impossible and Tomb Raider.
As we ascend, the jungle becomes thicker and impenetrable with the exception of the path we are walking on. Every now and then the green forest is brightened up by a beautiful tropical red flower or small yellow butterflies dancing in the air.
As we make a descent we once again draw nearer to the river we had climbed away from in the morning and we pass a village of the indigenous Kogi people. Their round houses made of reed have two ‘sticks’ on top, one to connect with the earth and one to connect with the sun and with the other Kogi communities who live higher up in the mountains.
The local inhabitants of this area still live a traditional life and their village – luckily – is not open for tourism. We do however have the fortune to see a glimpse of their daily life as we pass one of their settlements, and to speak to the spiritual leader of one of the communities: the mamo.
We see women wearing simple white jute dresses and men wearing spotless white trousers and long sleeved shirts of the same material. Both men and women wear their thick and dark long straight hair loose. The children chatting with each other in the shade of a tree wear the same white dresses. We are told that you can distinguish the small boys and girls by the brightly coloured beaded necklaces that the girls are decorated with.
When they grow up to about eighteen, boys have to prove that they have become a man by staying awake for four days with the use of coca leaves. Once they have successfully completed this test, they receive their poporo from their spiritual leader, the mamo. A poporo is a gourd filled with lime powder. The Kogi men wet a wooden stick with saliva and then dip it in the lime powder. They then put the stick back in their mouth and mix it with the coca leaves that they constantly chew on. The mixture that is then created is rubbed around the poporo, as if they are writing down the thoughts that have come to their mind while chewing on the coca leaves. The yellowish band that is created around the poporo grows with each day and makes the gourd a heavy one to carry out. Only when the poporo becomes too heavy to carry around, a Kogi men can receive a new poporo from the mamo after he has read the signs of a man’s saliva thought writing.
Not only is the mamo able to read the signs of a man’s poporo; he plays an important role in the lives of the entire community. The spiritual leader is born as such and taken away from the community at an early age to be trained. He is seen as a guardian of the earth and is in contact with the moon, sun and stars and senses whether or not the earth is sending positive energy. The belief of the mamo and entire Kogi community is that in order to receive positive energy from the earth you have to give something to the earth before you take something. An offer they could bring to the earth would be a special, precious stone for instance.
The Kogi people are concerned about the way we, brothers and sisters they call us, handle the earth. There are too many people and we take more than we give back to the earth. I guess he is right, all of us have taken a long-distance flight to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the Colombian jungle.
With this food for thought we continue our trek. But soon the effort I have to put into the hike takes over my thoughts. We follow the bends of the river and we are all eager to jump in as soon as we reach the riverbed. Dipping my toes in the water and sensing the freezing temperature, I am doubting if is not all too refreshing for me. Realizing that we will continue the ascent for some hours more in the heat gives me that final push and eventually our entire group is shouting out ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ as they wade and swim through the water to catch a heat wave from the sunrays shining down on the middle of the river.
As I had expected I soon start sweating again as we continue hiking through the red dirt. As I am watching my feet as I move them forward on the muddy soil, a butterfly the size of my hand flutters by, showing off its vibrant cobalt blue wings. As soon as it lands on a tree branch and closes its wings, it is instantly perfectly camouflaged. But even in closed position its wings boasts a complex pattern, the most intriguing part of which is the circle on the lower half of its wings that looks exactly like a cat’s eye.
Later that night I do not get to test if the pattern can really fool me in the dark as I cannot spot a butterfly at night-time. As I venture out from the camp in the dark with one of the fellow hikers, we do spot big spiders the size of our hand palm hiding near rocks and at the roots of trees. I am still not exactly sure why we are so eager to look at long-legged hairy creatures in the dark that give us both the creeps, but it does feel like we are getting everything out of being in the jungle. And luckily, after this short evening walk, I am still able to fall asleep – obviously after thoroughly checking my bed to see if any of these eight eyed creatures had sneaked through an opening in the mosquito net.
The next morning, it is an early start once again and with good reason. We are hiking up to the ultimate goal of our four day trek to ‘find’ the Lost City. Wide awake after a river crossing just 5 minutes away from camp, I thoroughly enjoy the relatively flat, forestry and slippery trail along the river. A second river crossing however leads us to a steep ascent of 1,200 steps to reach Teyuna. The high and uneven steps require quite some strength from my knees and upper legs but as soon as I lay my eyes on the first terrace I have already forgotten about the exercise. Round terraces of stone are covered by green grass in a place that is believed to have been a city that housed some 2,000 to 8,000 people that abandoned the city during the Spanish conquest. I am impressed by the setting of these ruins in the dense jungle, that are believed to be even 600 years older than those of Macchu Picchu. Although perhaps less impressive than Peru’s main tourist draw, I enjoy the calm of this place – the only other tourists here being those who have also made the effort to hike up for multiple days. Our guide leads us through the archeological site and away from the terraces while I am not ready to go yet. But what I had not realized, is that the best was yet to come. Teyuna is made up out of a series of terraces, many of which have not even been excavated, and the most impressive views of the ruins and the valley surrounding it are from the upper terraces at which I gaze in awe as they come as a jaw dropping surprise to me. No guide book or poster had given away the true size of the Ciudad Perdida, and I love it. I take in the panoramic views and then sit down to enjoy the magic of this long lost city. Lush green hills, a waterfall, tall palm trees and the sounds of tropical birds surround us. And right in front of me is one of the most magical views I have ever seen on my travels around the world. It is truly breath taking.
Also breathtaking but not in the positive figure-of-speech kidn of way, is the one and a half day hiking back to the start of the trail that have my calves burning so badly that I seriously start to question why on earth I ever signed up for this hike. There are some tough descents that seem to never end. Luckily, they do eventually and by the time we reach the farmland fields again I feel reassured that soon I will be back in civilization. I am not sure yet what I will give to the earth in return for a long, hot shower, but I will work that out during the bumpy off-road drive back to the city.
Ready to find the Lost City? Check out some practical information below to get you started on the is adventure.
All tour operators offer the Ciudad Perdida trek for the same price (1,1 mln COP in 2019). Most important to check therefore is whether your tour operator provides an English speaking guide or translator (unless, of course, you understand Spanish). We booked our tour through Turcol and their service was fine. Loads of good food but a crowdy 4×4 drive with sideway benches for the bumpy 45 minute off road drive (and 1 hour more on the main road).
How many days to book?
You might have read in your guide book or on blogs that you can either choose a 4, 5 or 6 day trek to the Lost City depending on your level of fitness and available time. As the price you pay for a hike spread out over multiple days is the same as that of shorter hikes,you might be tempted to opt for a longer hike if time is on your side. I would however recommend to go for the 4 day hike. Since it is a there and back again affair and some of the most challenging parts of the hike are not so exciting given the fact that you are surrounded by red dirt everywhere you look, you will not get to enjoy nature more if you extend the hike. And most importantly, the difference in hiking itinerary is only for the way back so if you would book a 5 day hike you would still arrive at Teyuna in the morning of day 3 after some strenuous ascends on day 1 and 2.
What to bring?
- Refillable water bottle – all tours have a water tank available from which you can refill your bottle.
- Insect repellent – bring plenty! Mosquitos are eager to taste your sweet blood.
- Sun screen – high factor & waterproof, as some parts of the hike will be without any shade and you will be sweating off the sun screen rather quickly.
- Bathing suit – you will be happy to refresh in the river when you get the chance. Mind you: the water will be freezing!
- Plastic bag – a big one to cover your backpack or line its inside if you do not have a rain cover, and a smaller one to store your bathing suit and any other wet clothes since they most probably will not dry overnight. Trust me.
- Quick-dry towel – even though the showers only have cold water, you will still want to wash off all the sweat. Since nothing dries in the jungle you want to pack a towel that dries extremely quickly.
- Dry bag – to keep your valuables safe during the river crossings.
- Sleeping bag or sheet and pillow cover – only in case you (like me) prefer not to fall asleep directly on the moist and dirty linen provided.
- Dry clothes – as I already mentioned, the air in the jungle is humid and your clothes will only dry in the sunshine during daytime. Waking up early morning you will highly appreciate putting on a dry set of clothes before you start hiking again.
- Head light – the camps have electricity in the main areas but the lights are switched off around 9 PM so you’ll want to have your own light to find your way to the toilet or to venture out to spot some spiders.
- Good shoes for walking – I was very pleased with my hiking boots to conquer slippery terrain and cross rivers while keeping my feet dry.