Few places on earth speak of adventure like a trek to a Colombian lost city, in a region that is only loosely controlled by the government, is home to paramilitary groups, and the site of former kidnappings of international travelers. The trek to Ciudad Perdida checked many of these adventures off of my list adventures.
A combination of a corrupt government and many different right and left wing groups had left Colombia quite off limits to visitors, but that is all changing. As more people visit they are seeing that those dangers are mostly in the past. Cruise ships now dock in Cartagena – a city full of colonial mansions turned chic boutique hotels – as if they always have. Beach resorts are being swarmed with sunbathers. Sports like wind and kite surfing are taking off along the coast. Coffee farms and haciendas are seeing visitors. It has become one of the places that can generally be lumped into the category of countries youÂ previouslyÂ shouldn’t have traveled to.Â There are isolated still dangers, mostly in far off corners of the jungle, but they hold little threat to tourists.
You arrive by bus to a small town called Mame where the roads end and the park begins. The trek passes pristine mountain streams, waterfalls, and through thick jungle trails. The scenery is quite stunning, but the trek isn’t easy though. Much of it is quite steep; taking a 1,000-meter ascent only to find that you must descend immediately and then go right back up over the next pass. The air is perpetually moist and you never seem to get dry and you are often trudging through knee high mud. You sleep in mosquito netted hammocks, which are hung in small shelters that have been built along the way. Cooking areas and bathrooms (with clean running water!!!) are found here as well. The food is generally carb heavy meals such as rice or pasta or egg. Every meal is followed by hot chocolate and lemongrass tea, which uses lemongrass that is found along the way. Each of the campsites is conveniently located near a river with a small waterfall where you can wash off the dirt, mud, and continual sweat that accompanies you. The heat is consistent here. It is always hot throughout the day. Every day. At night it can get a bit cool, so a sleeping bag is necessary. Fireflies and glowworms put on what appears to be highly choreographed light show every night and billions of insects provide the chorus.The basic trek takes 6 days/ 5 nights, although extensions are possible for a few more days. For the typical trek it is about 15 km each way, with an average of 6-7 hours of hiking each day. My group was made up of one other American, a Slovenian, an Italian, a German, a few Israeli’s and a few Brits. The makeup of travelers that come to Colombia is generally quite diverse. Most tend to be just the over-adventurous sorts that want to get off the beaten track. A horseman/cook also accompanied us and took all of the food, sleeping bags, and other equipment to each campsite. Our guide on the trek, Manuel, one of the best known, was the one leading them one of the groups that were kidnapped. Edwin, another of the well-known guides was the other. Manuel recounted the story of what had happened and also showed us a few newspaper interviews he did afterwards. He kind of laughed about all the attention. We saw the pictures of the hostages while being held and they looked ok actually. They were smiling and laughing. They looked like they enjoyed it.
Mountains in the Mist
The Sierra Nevada’s rise nearly 6000 meters at their highest points, nearly right out of the Caribbean and are mostly covered by cloud forest. The lawlessness and inaccessibility of the land has left it wild and mostly uninhabited. Rare and brilliant wildlife is abundant.
Ciudad Perdida was only discovered in 1972 by treasure hunters. Gold items began to flood the black market and soon the authorities learned of the location. The ruins are located in the northern part of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, at Cerro Corea and encompass 400 hectares. There are more than 150 terraces carved set at different heights on the mountainside, many supported by large stonewalls. The differences in elevation allowed the people to experiment with a variety of other crops, somewhat like the way Moray was used by the Incas in Cusco. There is also a network of stone paths, a few circular plazas, several outlines of dwellings (as well as a few that have been reconstructed by archeologists). On the third night of the trek you actually sleep in a small shelter in the city. There’s also a second shelter for the archeologists, anthropologists, and whatever other scientist is there. Generally there are a few. The ruins are as isolated and majestic as Machu Picchu. The setting and the ruins themselves are less impressive, although they are practically tourist free and much more mysterious. Many prefer it to Machu Picchu, perhaps because the idea of it alone is far more exciting.
Members of local tribes like the Arhuaco, the Kogi and the Assario visited the site on a regular basis before it was discovered, however, kept it secret. It is believed to have been a political and commercial hub that may have had a population somewhere between 4,000-10,000 people. At the time of conquest it was likely abandoned, however. Other ruins have been found in the jungle further in the mountains. My guide said he had visited one that was much bigger than Ciudad Perdida and it took more than a week to get to. Another even larger city he said was discovered even deeper in the jungle, although he has yet to go. It could be another Machu Picchu. Who knows? The Colombian jungle has been off limits for so long that there is so much land that has been unexplored. The government hasn’t promoted the other sites, however. They have done very little to increase access to them or fund further explorations or studies.
The trail to Ciudad Perdida gained international notoriety on September 15, 2003, 8 foreign tourists, mostly Israeli’s were kidnapped en route to Ciudad Perdida by the EjÃ©rcito de LiberaciÃ³n Nacional (ELN). Some were held as long as three months as the left wing guerilla group demanded government intervention and an investigation into human rights abuses in exchange for the hostages. The AUC, a right wing paramilitary group controlled the area soon after the kidnappings, but increased government control has made the area a bit safer as of late. Cocaine production is still an issue, however.Â
The Tairona and the Kogies
The Tairona culture was not as large as say the Incas, yet they were quite sophisticated. They built stone houses and paths, drainage systems, terraces, and stone bridges. They developed a trading network that extended to the coast. Near Tayrona National Park there is a settlement that was built, Pueblito, as a coastal trade center. The Taironas date back to the 1st century, although traces of the people have been found several hundred years earlier. Their high period was from about the 3rd-8th centuries around the Rio Buritaca, but they were pushed into isolated fringes of the region by the time of conquest and then slowly disappeared. They were known for their detailed gold work which was found on pendants (caciques), nose rings, necklaces, earrings, lip-plugs and worn by different members of society, not just the elite. Much of what has been found can be seen in the Museo del Oro, or Gold Museum, in Bogota. The Kogies are their direct descendents.
The Kogies, a native tribe shyly pass you on the trails. You pass through several of their villages with coca plants scattered about. Although coca is being eradicated in Colombia, it’s legal here for these people and part of a long tradition. The other plants in the area, though, are used for making cocaine. You will see these too. The people bashfully hide in their doorways when seeing tourists, but are curious as well. The children have begun to ask for candy, but the village leader asked if we had any pens to spare. Both sexes dress in long white shirts and carry a small, colorful pouch full of coca leaves. The men are often seen grinding bits of rock and shell in a small gourd that they put in their mouths with coca leaves which gives a numbing effect. They have a wand that they crush the minerals with and the put in their mouth. Afterwards they rub the spit on the outside of the gourd. A build-up occurs and the shape of the gourd is thought to tell the future. The women are often seen carrying spools of thread which they weave as they walk. They don’t wear shoes because it is believed that they will be more fertile; closer to the earth in body and spirit.
The Cocaine Factory
On the last night of the trek, where we stayed in the same campsite as the first night, my group had the option of going to a cocaine factory. Actually, we had to ask about the factory. Our guides didn’t seem interested but we heard about it from others in Santa Marta that had gone. We kept bugging them until finally they asked. Each of us would pay about $10 each, a price that the always-thrifty Israeli couple negotiated. It was a factory in the sense that yes, they did make cocaine there. It was just a small tent that resembled a messy garage with grease and tools strewn about. The man was a short mestizo looking fellow with a pointy green hat and lots of curly, gray hair climbing out of his shirt at his chest. He said that he used to grow cocoa, avocados, and other crops but the USDA had sprayed the hillsides trying to eradicate coca production, but all the other crops were killed and now it is the only thing that will grow.
He explained the process. He and his sons gathered the coca leaves (100 kilos at a time), which were grown on the nearby hills and mashed them down. They mixed them with chalk and lime, and then overnight let them soak in gasoline. The gasoline is drained and next comes the sulphuric acid. That is drained and then bicarbonate soda, then iodine, and a few other steps. After that no one was really interested in a free sample; not that any were offered. He brings the cocaine into the nearest town maybe once a month he said. Then he sells it for a $1 a gram and will make just a few hundred dollars a month. He said he had little other option and if he could do grow something else he would. This side tour cost us about $10 each, which isn’t a bad income and why it was worth the risk to show us. He goes to Santa Marta about once a month to meet his buyer. Where it goes from there even he doesn’t know.
There were few short years where the government tried to promote the site, luring both Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro (not at the same time of course) via helicopter. Researchers cried that the occasional landings of helicopters would lead to a landslide, therefore they were discontinued. Thus, Ciudad Perdida will likely remain one of the more isolated attractions in the country. The adventure will stay. Without helicopters there is no easy way to get there and building a road there is near impossible. When the other sites eventually do open up and the area becomes firmly stable in government control, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta could easily become one of the continent’s best network of trails. Well, at least the best with an optional cocaine factory tour.
Miramar – Calle 10C, #11A-98; Phone 423-3276. This is the basic backpacker dive 40 years and running. It is the center of all tours in the area.
Irotama (km 14 on the way to the airport; phone 432-0077, www.irotama.com) and
Tamaca (Carerra 2, #11A-98, Phone 422-7015) are both at El Playa Rodadero the nearest beach resort a few kilometers away. It makes a much better alternative to staying in the cheap hotels in Santa Marta.
Turcol – Carerra 1C, #20-25; Phone 421-2256, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daily flights to and from BogotÃ¡ and other Colombian cities use El Rodadero airport outside of Santa Marta on the road to Barranquilla.
Air-conditioned buses run daily from Santa Marta to Cartagena, Barranquilla, BogotÃ¡ and other cities.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.