Everyone travels for different reasons, with different aims and expectations, and with different experiences. For me going to Colombia was a random decision, one made on the flight to Peru as my friend and I looked at a map of South America and roughly planned out our journey, making a simple, vague pact to have what we called a ‘proper adventure’.
I knew nothing about Colombia and like most people that haven’t been there, had a rather naive and negative image that revolved around ideas of cocaine, coffee, corruption and guerrilla wars. Despite this though, we decided to give it a chance, reasoning that Colombia must have a little more to offer a backpacker than these nonsensical preconceived notions. So once touching down in Lima we started venturing directly north through Northern Peru and Ecuador in search of the adventure we’d been looking for.
Arriving at the Caribbean coast of Colombia, it’s easy to get sucked in by its tropical charms: the picturesque colonial towns; the turquoise waters and hammock-laden, pristine beaches; the beautiful salsa dancing locals; and the delicious, fresh seafood. In buzzing and balmy Cartagena it’s impossible not to get swept up in the party atmosphere of the city.
It’s very easy to spend a good week or so living a nocturnal lifestyle here – partying every night, spending daylight hours nursing a headache in an air conditioned room, avoiding the throbbing heat of the afternoon and finally daring to leave when the sun has gone down and salsa music can once again be heard booming from every bar and restaurant in this beautiful, fiesta loving city.
Despite all its charms however, we were still looking for something a bit different: we’d had our beach time, drunk ourselves sober and eaten ourselves silly with seafood. And that’s when we found out about Ciudad Perdida.
In the midst of the famed, dense jungle of Tayrona national park lies Ciudad Perdida, quite literally ‘the Lost City’. Not discovered until the 1970’s, Ciudad Perdida is a pre-Hispanic ancient city that predates Peru’s popular Machu Picchu by around 650 years. Believed to have been an important indigenous trading city, the ruin still holds a place of particular importance to the indigenous tribes who live in the surrounding jungle.
Despite being such a significant archeological site however, significantly less visitors go to visit Ciudad Perdida than the millions that flock every year to Peru’s Machu Picchu or Mexico’s Chichen Itza. Perhaps this is due to Colombia’s misinterpreted image as not being a safe country to visit, or due maybe to the fact that much less is know about the indigenous Colombian tribes than other ancient civilizations such as the Inca people.
However most likely the reason that so few visitors go to see Ciudad Perdida every year is that in order to get to the site there are no direct buses, trains or even horse trails there. Instead, to witness the ruins of Cuidad Perdida, there is no other option but to hike the four or five days through dense jungle, deep rivers and steep ascents. After having spent a month in Colombia searching, we’d finally found our adventure.
The Lost City Trek
Having not previously planned to do the trek or in fact even really researched it, we booked it one afternoon on impulse as we strolled past a travel agent, and the next morning found ourselves being picked up in a beaten up Land Rover. We had no idea what to expect but had followed the tour agent’s advice: to take as little as possible because unlike many other of the popular hiking trails in South America, everything you bring you have to carry yourself. So with five t-shirts, an extra pair of shorts, strong insect repellant and a large tub of suncream, we climbed into a rickety off-road vehicle and met the strangers we were going to spend every minute of the next five days with.
During the drive that began on normal road and quickly progressed into rocky, unpaved dirt track and navigating through small streams, we became quickly acquainted with our group – two young dandelion farmers from France, a couple of English girls who had just competed for the UK ultimate frisbee team in the Cali World Games, and four 63 year old Colombian men who had grown up together and had hiked all over the world. Needless to say, we were a vastly mixed bunch and with a mix of people speaking French, Spanish, English and lots of Spanglish, it made for a much more entertaining conversation than the usual “where are you from?” “where are you traveling?” backpacking introduction formalities.
After a two and a half hour drive and a tired brain from trying to remember high school French and Spanish, we arrived at the start of the trek where we all shared a lovely simple lunch together. We were almost lured into a false sense of relaxing and enjoying the company of our new acquaintances when the guides arrived to divide us into our trekking groups, and where at about 1pm and during the hottest point of the day, we began our hike to the Lost City.
I won’t lie, the first three hours of the trek were brutal. Maybe because we had just enjoyed such a nice relaxing lazy lunch or maybe because we’d spent the last two months backpacking and doing nothing more strenuous than the occasional salsa dance, but during the first few hours I completely questioned what we were doing, why we’d agreed to do this trek, and why on earth we weren’t sat back on one of the wonderful Caribbean beaches sipping a cocktail from a coconut.
Both my friend and I stopped numerous times, completely out of breath, thighs and calves aching, and angry at ourselves for having paid to come and be put through what felt like an army camp. This feeling didn’t last long though. On reaching the top of the brutal summit we had moaned about climbing we were rewarded with some of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen traveling. Mountainous landscapes covered in dense rainforest, deep blue skies and soaring exotic birds. After a little rest and a good look at our surrounding environment, we concluded that in fact that hill hadn’t been that bad and that this trek was going to be worth every penny we paid for it.
After the strenuous start to the trek things evened out a bit and we hiked to our first camp for the night, a little wooden shelter full of hammocks, located in a beautiful little valley beside a stream and a waterfall. On arrival we were led to ´the shower room´ – a nearby waterfall with a natural plunge pool that entailed doing a 5-meter jump off of a rock to enter. The Ultimate Frisbee girls (Team GB as they became to be known) were the first to take the plunge but on seeing that they’d all survived it, the rest of the group quickly followed suit and we all enjoyed our refreshing and much deserved group bath.
We were treated to a simple but delicious evening meal, cooked in the most basic of kitchens – an open wood fire with a grill and a couple of pans. Following a few games of cards and couple of beers (which amazingly they had for sale throughout the whole trek), we were all exhausted and ready for bed before 9pm so climbed into our hammocks and instantly fell asleep to the weird and wonderful sounds of the Colombian jungle.
Awoken at an obscenely early hour, we were treated to an absolute feast for breakfast, something that continued to happen throughout the trek. Eggs, bread, a full plate of fruit, coffee and hot chocolate, it became clear that the extra snacks we’d brought along were not going to be necessary. We set off walking at 6am and hiked through the most beautiful landscapes imaginable, stopping repeatedly to be fed fruit and snacks by our lovely guide Maria. Not being fluent in Spanish (the guides generally speak only Spanish), the Colombian men of our group translated for us and told us all about the various beautiful and exotic plants, butterflies and birds we spotted along the way.
By midday the heat of the sun was reaching an almost unbearable temperature when we stopped at a collection of tiny thatched huts for a rest. Initially thinking that the huts were build for the hikers to rest, it transpired that these simple structures were actually the homes of some of the indigenous tribes people that still live in the Tayrona jungle. Not equipped with either running water or electricity, we were privileged enough to view the simple huts and meet a couple of the indigenous woman and their children, all of whom were dressed in a simple white smock with long black hair, the children’s gender only distinguishable by the females wearing a necklace and the boys carrying a shoulder bag.
Resting in the shade of the tiny village, our guide asked if we’d like to go for a swim to cool down at which all of us quickly agreed. One of the indigenous children who can’t have been more than eight years old, then proceeded to lead us, barefoot, through the dense woods on a barely visible path to an opening that revealed a crystal clear, calm river with large rocks for diving off. Having been informed that it was only a brief hike to our next camp for the evening, we all spent a good part of the afternoon swimming in the beautiful river, sunbathing on the warm rocks and feeling like we’d found a little part of paradise.
Arriving at our camp in the late afternoon we were fed pre-dinner snacks of biscuits, popcorn and hot chocolate, and shown where we would be sleeping for the night – a row of outdoor bunk beds covered with mosquito nets. Again we were given an unbelievable meal considering the basic facilities the camps have, and I believe the last of the group climbed into bed, worn out, at around 9.30pm.
The Kogi Tribe
Starting off the following morning as the sun rose, we were informed that this part of the trek would take us through a real indigenous village. We were warned not to take photos of the village or any of the villagers without express permission and were also given a bit of history about the Kogi tribe we were going to see. Originally a tribe that had lived by the coast, the Kogi people had fled to the jungle during invasions by the Spanish colonizers.
Having lived there ever since, the Kogis along with other indigenous tribes, had built simple villages where they still live preserving their traditional way of life and living very much in harmony with nature – hunting only what they eat, using every part of the animal, eating the fruits of the land, washing in the streams and rivers, and living in the most basic of accommodations. We were told that many of the beliefs and rituals of the Kogi tribe centred around ‘Aluna’, what may be described as ‘Mother Earth’, and around the ideology that the Earth is a living being that must be respected and honoured.
Despite initially appearing like a very calm and simple way of life, we were informed that the indigenous people had had a conflicted past with the Colombian government. Disputes over entitlements to land, the use of coca leaves (the indigenous tribes use the coca leaf, not cocaine, in many of their ceremonies), and issues over the government spraying chemicals over large areas of land to cull the coca plants but simultaneously effecting the flora, wildlife and people within these areas, had meant that the Tayrona tribes had had a disputed history with the Colombian government.
The Kogi Tribe have remained very much secluded from the rest of Colombia and in doing so have managed to maintain their traditional lifestyle that shuns modern amenities and values. The tribe ask for outsiders not to enter their ancestral lands but the uniqueness of the Lost City trek has allowed an agreement to be met that permits hikers to pass through parts of their land and witness first hand brief sightings of the secluded tribe.
This all became very evident when we reached the Kogi village; something that was unbelievable to see. A collection of about 25 huts, the village was full of people in their traditional white smocks going about their daily tasks of cutting wood, preparing food on open fires, washing clothes and children in a nearby stream, and performing other general maintenance duties with very basic tools. It was a beautiful sight to see and jaw dropping in our modern, technology-obsessed world. The local people avoided eye contact with us and seemed very shy, but all of us took in the amazing sight whilst trying to be as polite and respectful as possible. We walked past slowly, absolutely amazed, and no doubt all contemplating how vastly our world varied from theirs.
Having passed the indigenous village and still in awe of what we’d seen, we came upon what appeared to be a fairly rapid river, one with no wire bridge over it to cross. A bit puzzled and looking round to find the appropriate crossing point, we suddenly spotted Maria, our guide, wading out into the river where a solitary wire could be seen. As she reached the centre point, gripping onto the wire and more than waist deep in the water, she gestured for us to cross. Being rather apprehensive myself, some of the Colombian men went first and stationed themselves at various points of the river, helping the rest of us wade through the fairly strong rapids.
Despite being a little scary and requiring a relative amount of strength and fitness to cross the river, for me it only added to the excitement and rawness of the trek. This was proving to be nothing like any other trek I’d ever done. I felt less like I was on an organised commercial hike and more like we were trekkers out in the wild trying to explore and find the Lost City for ourselves, something that was an amazing feeling to have.
Hiking through more beautiful scenery and treated to more unbelievable serene spots to swim and relax in, we reached our third camp sometime in the late afternoon. We were once again fed like royalty and told that we’d reached the base camp to accessing Ciudad Perdida: in the morning we would reach the Lost City ruins. Tucked up in bed before the watershed, I fell asleep with a head full of thoughts of Mother Earth, the ancient world and the lives of our tribal ancestors so long ago.
Arriving at the Lost City
Getting ready in the morning, there was a definite buzz in the group about finally reaching the Lost City. We took off, all of as greatly anticipating the sight that lay ahead of us. Having previously completed the Inca Trail, I was unsure what to expect. I knew the ruins were different but I couldn’t imagine what they’d be like. We’d hiked for three days through dense jungle and I could not possibly imagine how an ancient city could exist here. What I did know was that we still had a steep hike ahead of us and rumours reported that to get to the site, a climb of around 1200 steps was in order.
At about 7am we left base camp and started our ascent to the Lost City, again wading through rivers and overcoming some quite steep terrain. Hiking alongside a rapid river, Maria told us the story of how the ruins had been discovered. The version she shared with us (as to who discovered The Lost City and the exact details around it varies depending on who is telling the story) was that an indigenous family out hunting in the forest spotted the old wall that surrounds the ruins and decided to investigate, revealing the old ruins laden full of treasures. Other versions include treasure hunters and explorers purposely coming to find the ancient city, but all of the stories centre on someone stumbling upon the beautiful ancient wall that marks the city’s perimeter. Hearing these stories only added to further set the scene of the site we were about to witness as we ourselves reached the marker point of the ancient walls.
Feeling like an Indian Jones-esque explorer, having hiked for days though dense jungle, waded through rivers, washed in streams and slept in the most basic of shelters, we approached the beginning of the ancient steps and began climbing the entranceway believed to have been build around 800AD. Ascending the steps we were treated to spectacular sights as the morning light pierced the dense forest and created a photographers paradise of picturesque moss-covered winding stairs, snaking through enormous ancient trees and colourful flora. We took the thousand or so stairs slowly taking in the beautiful sight and after roughly half an hour or so, all arrived at the base of the Lost City.
At the top of the stairs, an opening appeared to reveal a vast area of beautifully constructed terraces, masses of circular plazas and more steps leading to various areas of the city. Maria led us through the ruins describing the roles of each terraced plaza, discussing the ancient civilization, the customs and day-to-day life of the people. On reaching the highest terrace and main centre point of the city we were all awestruck by the sight that lay in front of us: a grand terrace laid out on the peak of a mountain, one that looked out over the rest of the city ruins and gave spectacular views of the forest covered mountains that encircled us and went on for as far as the eye could see.
As we sat to rest and take in the scenery, Maria told us about the surrounding area and about rumours of tribes-people who lived in the dense jungle and had never been contacted by the modern world. Apparently the Kogi and other known tribes had confirmed these sightings and as we gazed out at the vast expanse of forest and mountains, all of us sat wondering about the lives of the people that could be living in those lands. There was a silence among the group as each of us tried to envisage such an existence and I personally enjoyed a serene moment contemplating the tiny role of my own life in such a vast and enormous world.
As the heat of the afternoon once again caught up with us, we cooled down in the Lost City river and waterfalls, easily imagining the city inhabitants having once swam in the very same spots. Leaving the ruins behind, we retreated to the base camp with a euphoric feeling that is impossible to describe. After a satisfying lunch and a good rest, we took off again and started the long hike back to where we’d started four days previously. Revisiting the river crossing, the indigenous village and spending a night at a camp along the way, we reached the point where we’d began the hike on the afternoon of the fifth day just as another group were finishing their lunch and preparing to start their hike to the ruins.
Disheveled, exhausted and mosquito-bitten, lots of the new hikers wanted to ask us how it was and know what it was like. The problem was that it was difficult to put it into words and the only thing we could all advise was that they had to wait and see but that it was most definitely worth the effort. As a group we had all just had the most amazing five days, but for me personally I was absolutely blown away and can honestly say that it was one of the best things I have ever done travelling. It gave me everything I could ever want on a travel adventure – a tough physical challenge, breathtaking scenery, wonderment at seeing such a different way of life and mystery at seeing not only ancient ruins that only very little is known about, but also at seeing a vast forest that people believe untouched civilisations to be living in. The Ciudad Perdida trek filled me with absolute awe and left me wondering about the world and all the people in it, both past and present, for weeks to come.
On return to civilisation my friend and I spent days talking about what we had seen and what we had felt during the trek. Both of us seemed to have had similar experiences of fascination and wonder, but more significantly both of us commented on having felt similar emotions. For me it was exactly what I believe traveling is all about: not just what you see or do, but more importantly what you experience in the way that you feel.
We had seen the most amazing sites and scenery, but whilst doing this both of us had been filled with deep reflections about the way we live our lives, the people in our lives, our own civilisation and about the many possibilities that exist for the different ways it is possible to live a life. These feelings and thoughts are exactly the reason I have and will continue to travel, and Ciudad Perdida offered me one of the best travel experiences I have ever had. The only advice I can offer now, is that should you find yourself in Colombia and you enjoy hiking, make sure you go and experience all that is to be felt in the Lost City.
By Ellen Stott