By Dominic Degrazier
In the lounge area of yet another friendly hostel in South America, a group of travelers drank a few beers while listening to some bossa nova tunes. We shared the customary traveler takes on where each of us was coming from and going to.
After sharing a few of these memories, an Australian in the group delivered those fateful words: La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City). Teyuan.
Did I hear them correctly? Were they talking about one of my favorite movies “The Goonies”? It was time to listen. [“The Goonies” is about a group of teenagers who search for lost treasure.]
La Ciudad Perdida is a Pre-Inca civilization hidden in the Santa Marta Sierra Nevada mountain range of northern Colombia. Built by the Tayrona people around 800 AD, the city was “discovered” in the early 1970s by looters searching through the region. The quotes are used because the local descendents of the Tayrona (Arhuaco, Kogi, and Assario indigenous groups) already knew about the city through the ages.
But I was admittedly more focused on the adventure of reaching the lost city, rather than the site’s history. Not only was this trek going to last two days longer than the “Camino Inca Trail,” there would be only one group allowed on the trail at a time, compared to the multiple groups continually headed to Machu Picchu.
I was decided, but then the first concern voiced itself: “In 2003 a group of eight trekkers was kidnapped by a Colombian rebel army group (ELN) that occupies the area.”
At this point in my extended travels, a certain mindset had set in. The inner voice told me, “I am here to experience as much as possible. I am a backpacker (i.e. not carrying much money or valuables). I speak the local language and understand the culture. I will be fine.”
Clearly, travel dementia had gotten the best of me. One month later I was on a bus headed for the Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta — the gateway to One-Eyed Willy’s Pirate Ship…or La Ciudad Perdida. [One-Eyed Willy was the pirate in “The Goonies.”]
The Path Approaches…
Settling into my hostel in Santa Marta, I learned that we would spend three days of trekking into the mountain range in order to reach the lost city, then another three days to return. There would be a guide, a cook, and seven of us travelers.
While the itinerary did seem lengthy for a hike, it sounded a bit luxurious having a personal cook tagging along. But please rea
d: if you do not like rugged camping or being dirty and wet, do not throw yourself into your own hellish existence. There is nothing too luxurious about the tour — except for the beers drunk after the return.
The expedition began with a breezy jeep ride from Santa Marta in the morning, and then climbed higher into the flora-filled Sierra Nevada peaks. Fairly quickly upon the ascent, the ride proved not to be a leisurely one.
We were repeatedly needed outside of the jeep to push the struggling 4X4 out of sizeable mud holes landed upon in the unpaved road. A few times I thought that we would have to call it off after five minutes of rocking the vehicle forward and backward in battle against a particular mini-muddy-crater.
But finally, luckily, we reached a community. This small village, and lack of any road continuing on, marked the end of the jeep’s role.
We were an international group of eager, nervous, and questioning adventure-souls ready to embark on whatever was out there — or at least most of what was out there. With our local guide, Edwin Rey, leading in his quiet confident manner, the pathway we were to follow for the next 144 hours introduced itself.
Adventure Times Begin
Two rivers had to be crossed within the first hour — our shoes and socks were soaked with an oozing mud that would self-crust itself to form new hiking boots. This “new shoe” would appear and disappear repeatedly over the remaining days’ hike as we crossed more moving water and accompanying wet earth.
We quickly learned to be little Indiana Jones characters via traversing, swimming, swinging, and rock hopping across obstacles while at times being pelted by cursory rain downpours.
At one point the trail’s selfishness screamed when my right hiking boot did not continue on with me for another step (after entering some molasses-type mud). But in its defense, on multiple other strides the trail’s generosity allowed me to sink in three feet deep. For other segments the vision field yielded no more than seven feet ahead due the abundance of water falling from the sky.
This description is not written negatively or regretfully, but much rather with pride and warmth in remembering a lavish land allowing its visitor to experience its bountiful beauties… along with its tough personality.
The glowing greenness of the mountain’s jungle revealed itself abundantly. The rivers’ waters surged clearly and crisply. The freshness of the region opened up engagingly.
When the trail allowed us an open view to the land, we were consistently exposed to valleys and peaks exploding with unobstructed trees and vegetation. It was as if we were being swallowed up in an untouched dreamland.
Along the trail, the group also passed several small hut villages inhabited by the Tayrona descendents -– the Kogi and Assario indigenous people — who have, for the most part, remained unchanged for thousands of years.
After the days’ walking sessions, we would thankfully arrive at shelters offering running water, an elementary kitchen, bench, table, and posts hung with insect-proof netted hammocks for sleeping.
The cook consistently prepared savory snacks and meals which we devoured instantly –- although we could have eaten anything after burning the five million (give or take 4.95 million) calories in each day’s mission.
Although the nights are humming with invisible insect noises, a profound sleep is never too far away with a body exhausted from the daylight hours’ grind, and content after the super-satiating supper.
After three days we had become one with the land. Sounds dramatic, I know, but we were visibly caked in dirt, mud, and other non-distinguishable building blocks of the journey.
Then came the magical moment: realizing that we had reached La Ciudad Perdida while standing in front of mossy, stoned staircase hugged closely by palm trees and ferns.
We had jumped, scurried, fallen down, endured and more along the route; it was a bit surreal to actually arrive. As we climbed the reported (although I was very far away from counting my steps at this point) 1,200-plus steps, the exaggerated closeness to the ancient town grew.
Once on top, Edwin sat us down on one of the central terraces to share his knowledge of its people, its culture, and its past.
Much like Machu Picchu, not too many facts are known about the people of La Ciudad Perdida or its history. Much is based on educated guesswork; hence many of Edwin’s statements began with, “It is believed….”
The aesthetics of La Ciudad Perdida do not equal that of Machu Picchu, in my opinion, but this hidden gem is not only about the final destination.
The commitment taken in order to arrive runs full of ever-changing emotions, unbelievable vistas, sequential struggles and ultimately sincere satisfaction. Saying to myself various times along the way, “Complete isolation,” and, “I am so far away from any modern civilization,” created a powerful feeling –- one that bound the surroundings to its visitor unlike any I have known before.
We learned on the second day that Edwin was the tour guide leading the group of trekkers who were kidnapped by the ELN (National Liberation Army, one of Colombia’s prominent rebel groups) back in 2003.
He told us the saga – how he was tied while the rebels selected whom to take hostage or not due to a few individuals’ inability to hike at the needed ELN pace.
It was frightening to be so close to the nightmare we had heard of. But it was oddly comforting to hear the details from someone trustworthy and, more importantly, still returning to the area.
My pre-trek logic ran along the lines that with an increased risk awaited the higher return. La Ciudad Perdida did not disappoint. Back in Santa Marta, after a hot shower and wearing dry socks, I had my first reflection of the adventure. I immediately understood that the past week was something that I would never forget.
If you are looking for an incredible adventure placed inside a gorgeous, testy, and rewarding package, then La Ciudad Perdida is awaiting to be opened. And please tell Edwin that I say hello.
Hostel I stayed at and bought my tour with:
Street 10C, No. 2-14, Santa Marta
Local Telephone: 5-421-1697
Information on buying tour:
General Trail Information:
What to bring (the minimum):
• Product against the insects – very important
• Hiking Boots
• Sandals or comfortable shoes for after hike times
• Waterproof jacket or thin poncho
• Sleeping bag
• Cotton t-shirts and shorts.
• Sweatshirt and long trousers
• Swimsuit/bathing trunks
• Personal Elements
• Bottle for the water
• Personal Medicine
Dominic Degrazier is a freelance writer and photographer. Growing up in Southern California, he then moved east to Texas for university, and kept on moving east to London, Copenhagen, and San Sebastian after graduation. Hooked on the world, he then lived in Australia for a year, and travelled through parts of South America for another year. Visit his blog Moving Montevideo.