On the Trail to the “Lost City” in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (5/31/05)

 Clinging to a rickety, brightly-colored jeep as it blindly rounds a dusty mountain road, I am reminded of the many times I was persuaded by other travelers into going to Colombia. As the dense vegetation of deep valleys unfurl before my eyes, I begin to agree with those who swore the six-day trek in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to Ciudad Perdida, the "Lost City," would be the highlight of my ten-month South American trip.

I have been to Machu Picchu twice, once by the now over-priced and highly-regulated four-day Inca Trail. I still find the Inca’s grand city incomparable in setting and fascinating in its construction. But its magnetism for tourists got me looking for a different adventure, far from the crowds of the gringo trail. So I went to Colombia and Ciudad Perdida and got much more than what I had expected – a far more enjoyable trek than the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and a small yet striking glimpse into the heart of Colombia’s 40 year-long civil war.

There are two major reasons why Ciudad Perdida has not made it onto travelers’ checklists in the same way as Machu Picchu. Colombia’s complex civil war makes the mere utterance of the country’s name evoke, at least among most westerners, images of kidnappings, drug lords, leftwing guerrillas, and rightwing paramilitary death squads. A popular traveler’s guidebook notes that the country is often referred to not as Colombia but "Locombia," or "crazy country." Indeed, Colombia’s reality is as absurd as the magic realism of the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia’s foremost national writer. But for veterans of the South American gringo trail, the danger that keeps the crowds at bay, or in Peru and Ecuador, allows for an unforgettable experience.

Secondly, there are only two ways to get to Ciudad Perdida: a wallet-emptying helicopter ride or a six-day trek through dense jungles notorious for guerrilla and paramilitary activity and cocaine production. I crossed my fingers and opted for the walk. Putting the risks aside was not easy but is testament to the kind of persuasion I was subjected to by other travelers.

Hopping out of the jeep with my five other companions, I tied my shoelaces, strapped on my pack, and set off. Passing a group of highly undisciplined Colombian army troops, mere teenagers with guns, I was reminded of the conflict zone we were heading into, helplessly in the hands of our mandatory guide.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a protected national park. That means US-sponsored aerial fumigations of fields, part of the billion-dollar controversial Plan Colombia – aimed at eradicating coca the base plant of Colombia’s most notorious export, cocaine – are not permitted. National park status led to flocking drug barons, paramilitary groups, and guerrillas to the area, putting pressure on already impoverished campesinos and indigenous groups to either grow coca for cocaine production or face displacement or death. Those who stayed face the indiscriminate, and often politically motivated, spraying of their fields, coca-growing or otherwise, as well as the harmful effects of harsh chemicals covering the very place where they live and grow their food.

Our first day of walking through the sticky, humid jungle brought us to a family’s home, already equipped with a sheltered area for our hammocks and mosquito nets. After a deserved and refreshing swim in a nearby swimming hole, fed by a river of clean, drinkable water, we played cards over a hot cup of strong, black, Colombian coffee. It wasn’t long until Colombia’s reality would present itself to us.

As we were discussing how, to foreign turistas, it doesn’t feel like there is a war in Colombia at all, a campesino man wearing wellington boots and a Stetson hat approached the camp and offered to take us to his nearby cocaine laboratory for a "collaboration" fee of about $15 USD. A few in our group were shocked by our proximity to such a place, though I had heard whisperings of the lab among other travelers while in Ecuador.

Refusing to "collaborate" in any way with the production of a drug that is literally destroying Colombia, I stayed behind with a few other abstainers. The curious were led by a nine year-old girl to the laboratory, where a batch of the white stuff was whipped up before my companions’ eyes using various harsh chemicals including gasoline. They returned with big smiles and admittedly interesting digital photos.

Most fascinating was the fact that the laboratory owner boasted that, only the day before, he had lent a couple of mules to the Colombian army, who ought to have been aware of his operation. Clearly those billions wrestled from congress to Plan Colombia in the name of the "war on drugs" are not doing the trick.

Later that night, I fell asleep in my hammock, knowing that the criss-crossing fireflies were not the only things present in the jungle’s eerie darkness.

Everyday started with strong, black, Colombian coffee, which may or may not have helped with getting us going on our walk. One of the nicest aspects of the Ciudad Perdida trip is that one must only walk for four hours each day – just enough to get the legs warmed up and the smoking stragglers moving steadily along. Just as one’s legs begin to feel tired and jelly-like, the camp appears in the valley below, featuring as a rule its own natural swimming hole. Not feeling completely exhausted everyday contributed to the enjoyment of the fantastic views we were being afforded at the top of every pass.

On the second day, we visited an indigenous village. The Kogi people, direct descendants of the builders of Ciudad Perdida, the Tayrona, have only recently begun to come around to tourists visiting their communities and most sacred site. Tourists buy their handicrafts, which gives them the opportunity to purchase for the community commodities like salt, one of the few things not readily available to them in their area. We brought with us pencils and paper supplies for the school, which the teacher seemed to appreciate. However, it appeared we had hung around too long: a village elder bluntly told us to "move along", which we did without hesitation, knowing that we were taking a tour of an area sacred to them and respecting that to the best of our abilities was important us.

The third day was a big one. We walked the most out of all the days, crossing a river no less than six times and climbing over 1000 steps up an ancient staircase, at the top of which we would make camp at the "Lost City" itself. Arriving at the foot of the staircase, it began to rain – torrential, South American-style downpour. We stumbled and crawled our way up the steps, fearing what lay ahead the next day when we would have to slip and slide the wet way down again. At one point, to the excitement of my companions, I was attacked by a platoon of fire ants as I carelessly stepped in their path. I yelped and danced around – and nearly down – a hundred slippery steps.

With my legs buring, I slogged my way to the top of the steps and arrived drenched at Ciudad Perdida, whose mystique was intensified by the rain clouds that were then enveloping it. Our pot-bellied guide set about explaining, for the first time, the history of the site and its former inhabitants.

Built by the Tayrona people, a culture that once had simultaneous trading links with both the Andean Inca and Central American Mayan civilization, Ciudad Perdida is described as the largest known archaeological site in the Americas, dating back to around 500 BCE. The description of the site as a "lost city" is misleading, as the Kogi have always lived nearby. It wasn’t until 1976, when Colombian huaqueros, or "grave robbers", began ransacking the area – selling ancient artifacts on the streets of nearby Santa Marta, a practice still seen today – that the site was "rediscovered" and declared a historical site by the Colombian state.

Due to limited archaeological excavations regulated mainly by the Tayrona descendants themselves, Ciudad Perdida remains largely under the cover of jungle vegetation. All visible is a vast series of circular platforms and pathways etched into the mountainside, overlooking a deep valley carved out by the Buritaca River below. Archeologists believe the site to be the home of important Tayrona warriors and shaman.

From the time of the Tayrona, the site had seen little military activity; but in 2003, the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Marxist guerrilla group, attacked the site in the dead of night, taking several western tourists hostage. In that incident, Edwin, the guide of another group we met on the trail, was kidnapped with the tourists but managed to escape. He described the incident as an ELN effort to be included in government peace talks then being awarded to their ideological allies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). If the ELN kidnapped foreign nationals, their governments would pressure the Colombian state to negotiate with them also. That outcome never transpired, but the tourists returned home safely, showing off photos of themselves sporting AK-47s and describing their three month ordeal with fond anecdotes from the camp of the guerrilla.

Luckily, our group had no problems. But as the rule goes with traveling safely in Colombia, one must always have one ear to the ground. Aside from that, there is not much else one can do but have a good streak of luck.

For me and an increasing number of travelers, the risk of Colombia is well worth taking. With its amazingly hospitable people and natural and historical sites, like Ciudad Perdida, Colombia is a gem for adventurous travelers, who are beginning to put it high on their travel checklists.

Check out Michèal Ó Tuathail’s South America travel blog at http://www.traveljournals.net/travelers/viajeros/