Latin-Caribbean Travel

A trek to Colombia’s mountaintop Lost City

Hikers explore the rising concentric circles that make up the ancient city of Teyuna, Colombia's "Lost City," found in the coastal Sierra Nevada mountain range near the city of Santa Marta.
Hikers explore the rising concentric circles that make up the ancient city of Teyuna, Colombia's "Lost City," found in the coastal Sierra Nevada mountain range near the city of Santa Marta. ROB PENNY

It wasn’t hard to convince my brother to visit me in Colombia. He had been hearing rave reviews of the country’s beauty and culture. And while not every square inch of the Colombian jungle is secure, more of the country is accessible than ever before. So, we decided to test what we had been hearing with a multi-day jungle hike to the mountaintop “Lost City.”

The ancient Tayrona civilization once occupied the mountains along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, carving nearly two hundred stone terraces some 3,600 feet above sea level. Reaching the archaeological mountaintop array required two days of hiking through the Sierra Nevada National Forest and a 3,000 foot ascent. We planned to do the round-trip hike in four days. Never mind our near-total lack of preparation.

State-sanctioned tour companies bring in groups daily, providing meals and lodging on the guided hike to Teyuna, as the local indigenous people call the site. The risk of guerrillas kidnapping us also seemed remote, despite the rumors. The Colombian Army cleared them out in 2008, and visits have tripled since then and are expected to top 9,000 this year.

Paramilitaries also once controlled the area. But, Lonely Planet’s Colombia guide boasted sacred mountains and blindingly brilliant jungle. We couldn’t miss it, and I saved the trip for the last few weeks of my time living in the country.

My brother, Nick, 29, had his reservations about the physical demands of the hike. He had been “drinking beer and eating crawfish” in New Orleans for the past year, where he worked as an artist.

About a week before his visit, a Colombian couple passed his art stand in the French Quarter. He excitedly told them about his upcoming hike. The woman’s eyes widened as she said, “You have to be in very good physical condition.” The words rang in his ears as his departure grew closer, and he abruptly started to exercise.

PEACE IN THE JUNGLE

The word “peace” in the same line as “Colombian jungle” still raises eyebrows for many Colombians. But, not today for the backpackers who rank Ciudad Perdida tops on their South America “to-do” lists. Colombians also make the hike, usually over Holy Week in April, December or June/July school holidays.

The Colombian Army maintains three permanent bases and 150 soldiers on the route to protect hikers — most of them Europeans — traveling with guides from five tour companies. All guides also have walkie-talkies and can contact the Army directly if there is trouble.

Teyuna is administered by Colombia’s anthropological institute. The Sierra Nevada is the highest seaside mountain range in the world, containing Colombia’s two tallest peaks, Colón (19,029 feet above sea level) and Bolivar (18,947 feet).

The ancient city has its origins in the seventh century, and was inhabited for 1,000 years. The terraces were built from the 11th to the 14th centuries and became the seat of power for the Tayrona population that lived in at least 26 neighboring housing complexes until 1650, when disease brought by European settlers reached deep into the mountains. Survivors abandoned the city and moved to higher ground.

The Lost City was not discovered by archaeologists until 1976. Since then, more than 200 structures over 30 acres have been unearthed and restored, opening to the public in 1981.

NO MULES HERE, THANK YOU

On the first day and steepest ascent of our hike, our group passed up an offer to have a mule carry all our backpacks for $20. Our companions, ages 20 to 32, wanted the satisfaction of carrying their own packs the whole way. Nobody wanted to appear to be a wimp. I stayed quiet.

The trail starts at about 300 feet and climbs every day, but is not too rigorous for the weekend warrior. My pace was much slower than my brother’s, and within minutes he was out of view. I also like to think I packed too heavily. I had three changes of clothes, a virtual medicine cabinet, a heavy camera and telephoto lens and even a half-pound bag of sugar for my morning coffee.

The trail consists of ups and downs and a healthy bit of humidity at about 85 degrees. But the three- to five-mile daily hike is refreshingly broken up by swims in crystal-clear pools every two or three hours. Cool showers, flush toilets, delicious meals and a good night’s sleep in a hammock or mattress under a mosquito net are nice creature comforts at the lodges.

It turns out the first day was the toughest, with switchback after switchback of burning calves and not-so-inspiring views at the fringes of the protected area. As we enjoyed one vista, watermelon slices were a savior. Before nightfall, we were buying warm beers and sharing stories with our fellow hikers around candlelight.

Colombia has more bird species than any country in the world, including mountain parrots, hawks and condors. You can also spot mammals like jaguars, paramo deer and tapirs amid 126 native plant species.

When I heard the Ciudad Perdida hike was more about the journey than the destination, I thought the biggest appeal would be the jungle sights and sounds. For me at least, it turned out to be our hiking companions.

They were warm, open, funny, friendly and traveling for several weeks in Colombia with stories to tell. The British couple had just hiked Machu Picchu and were wrapping up four months in South America. The 20-year-old recent high school graduate from Germany was on a “detox” for the hike: No beer and just two cigarettes a day after nonstop partying through South America. The Zimbabwean was an American political enthusiast with witty quips that kept us laughing whether on the trail or swaying in our hammocks.

VAMOS A LA FIESTA!

The fact that there’s no road to the Lost City makes you appreciate it that much more. If it were a one-day hike, everyone would do it. But it’s not until you’re halfway through Day2 that the beauty of Colombia’s northern coastal vegetation becomes apparent.

At 5 a.m. every day, our Wiwa guides walked along the hanging hammocks softly calling out “Vamos a la playa!” or “Let’s go to the beach!” We weren’t going to the beach, but it’s not hard to wake up that early when you’re worn out by 8 p.m. We were up and eating fresh papaya, pineapple and cantaloupe with scrambled eggs and juice and ready to hike in no time.

As we climbed through heavy jungle, palm trees poked out of distant mountaintops, macaws accompanied us at pit stops, and condors soared hundreds of feet in the air at lookouts. The jungle was abuzz with chirping birds.

The Buritaca River, with its rapids poring over giant white boulders, was beside us. The sound of water was soothing as we crossed it repeatedly and splashed cool water on our faces. It was during these stretches that I got to know my fellow hikers better, spoke to my brother one-on-one, or just reflected quietly as I walked a few paces behind.

By the last leg of Day2, four months of drought gave way to heavy rains. Most of us at the back of the pack ended up soaked as we slogged through the final muddy steps to the last and largest encampment. Just two miles from the Lost City, about 100 weary hikers congregated in tin-roofed dining halls that have 360-degree river and jungle views.

On the morning of Day3, shouts of “Vamos a la fiesta!” or “Let’s go to the party!” rallied us from cramped bunk beds to the final ascent. We had to get to Teyuna, hike back and far enough out to complete the excursion by the end of Day4.

The party started with 1,200 steep, moss-covered stone steps and no hand rails. We were all slow and careful. Younger women were aided by Colombian guides, but those who had walking poles also had an advantage.

Upon arrival at the first stone structures, our Wiwa guide led us in a ceremonial dropping of coca leaves into a circle, a way of asking permission to enter. He proceeded to misinform us about dates, facts and figures. (Luckily, English-signage posted by the Park Service is plentiful and accurate). We gazed in awe at the stone supported terraces, each more impressive than the last.

Once we reached the highest terrace, every blister en route felt worth it. Toucans swirled around us, calling out from the tree branches as if to herald our arrival. Peering at the terraces from the highest rung, I witnessed an ancient oasis surrounded by thick jungle as far as the eye could see. The screeches of distant howler monkeys reminded me how remote the site was.

I noticed that some terraces were encircled by hundreds of weighty stone blocks. Each one was fashioned and carried up the steep cliffs 500 years ago by natives who knew their labors would be rewarded by the gods.

My brother and I joked, took goofy photographs together and ate sweet snacks distributed by our guide. Reaching the Lost City was impressive, but not the culmination of our hike. The friends we made, the sense of accomplishment, the sights, sounds and touch of the jungle that filled our senses was. All of it contributed to the wonder of Teyuna. And there’s only one way to reach the Lost City: start hiking.

Going to Ciudad Perdida

Getting there: Fly to Santa Marta on Avianca (www.Avianca.com) from Bogota, Cali or Medellin (all nonstop from Miami).

Where to stay: The Masaya Hostel (www.masaya-experience.com) is for backpackers who will pay extra for a little bit of South Beach lounge feel. Its rooftop terrace has limestone walls and wooden boardwalks, and you can play billiards, sip mojitos or just relax in the pool with spectacular views of the old city. Bunks run $13-$20; private double rooms with TV and A/C are $78.

Tour operators: AventureColombia (www.aventurecolombia.com) tour agency is located in the lobby of the Masaya. The French, Spanish and English-speaking operators can set up your tour and pick-up in advance by phone or e-mail. The tour price is set by the Colombian government at about $300 for guide, food, lodging and park entrance. A five- or six-day version of the trek is the same price with local guides, or $25 more for the sixth day with an indigenous guide.

When to go: The trail and archaeological park are open year-round. The dry season is from December to March, and February is the least visited month.

Be ready: Bacteria in the water is common. Use water purification tablets and pass on the fresh vegetables as a precaution. Pack antidiuretics, blister Band-Aids and rehydration pills. Ibuprofen can help for muscle pain and inflammation. Insect repellant with Deet is also essential. Buy it before you get to Colombia; reapply to avoid mosquitos and ticks that ride the friendly dogs and cats at bunking stops. Lonely Planet Colombia has descriptions and contact information for all approved tour companies as well as a hiking pack list.

More exploring nearby: Tayrona National Park, Colombia’s most popular, is a beachfront reserve where no guides are necessary and trails are enhanced by hand rails and boardwalks to guide you over rocks and mud. Camp in the park, stay at a nature lodge or just go for a swim and enjoy fried fish from the lunch stand as you feel the sand between your toes.

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