It was always a dream of mine to hike the jungle trails in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in pursuit of the Lost City of Teyuna. I had worked in Latin America for over a decade, leading excursions in search of Mayan ruins in Central America, hiking the Inca Trails in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia and exploring the circuits of Patagonia– but Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida had always eluded me. Ill-famed reports of abductions in the Colombian armed conflict and political unrest in the area had warned me off the journey for much of the early 2000s. In 2005 the trailheads were declared safe and tourist hikes became active again. My chance to realise a dream and visit the archaeological site surfaced in April 2014.
The Tairona people established Ciudad Perdida around 800 AD, an ancient collection of nearly two hundred terraces carved into the mountainside; well over half a century earlier than Machu Picchu in Peru. Colombia’s Lost City, known to natives as Teyuna, was thought to be the region’s political centre linking a network of villages skirting the Buritaca River and sheltering as many as 3,000 inhabitants at its peak. The refuge was abandoned during the Spanish Conquest to be reclaimed by the rainforest. The overgrown plateaus were unknown to most of the outside world for centuries and only revealed themselves 42 years ago when looters reached the scene and plundered precious relics that turned up on the black market in 1972. Four years later, archaeologists funded by the Colombian government located the site, recovering, restoring and carrying out research until 1982. Today, the spiritual home of the Kogui tribe still retains its inaccessibility and remoteness – which is why it appeals to the most determined travellers.
Like any well-prepared traveller, I browsed the guidebooks and researched tour operators online and eventually cherry-picked Wiwa Tour, the sole agency created by indigenous people and guided by natives of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Their native guides had a close relationship with the Kogui people we would hopefully see along the trail. I also wanted the chance to see as much wildlife in the rainforest as possible, and in my experience this is much more likely with guides who have grown up in the area and know the lay of the land intimately. It also seemed the group size might be smaller and the type of people joining were very different to the tourists from other agencies. I craved a cultural journey as much as a jungle experience on my next adventure into the wild.
The cost of the trek is standardised at CP$600,000 (US$330) between the regulated tour agencies in Santa Marta and Taganga that have license to operate treks to Ciudad Perdida. The trail to and from the tiered ruins runs along the same route, it is an out-and-back hike, and so it is a choice between the fast-paced 4-day, the steady 5-day or the unhurried 6-day option. I opted for the 5-day trek as I was carrying heavy DSLR camera kit on top of my trekking gear and wanted additional time to spot and photograph wildlife.
With the tour booked I hopped on a flight from Bogota to Santa Marta and stayed a night in Taganga to get used to the scorching weather before embarking on the trek the next day.
It is recommended that you pack light for the trail: a sturdy daypack with rainproof cover, liners to waterproof your bag and clothes, waterproof jacket or poncho, a few t-shirts, shorts, trekking trousers, a warm fleece for the cool jungle nights, quick-dry towel, swimwear, a few changes of socks and underwear. I used hiking boots and packed flip-flops for camp wear. A water bottle, sun cream, head torch, penknife, insect repellent and basic toiletries were the only other items to go in the bag. That’s it, the lighter the better. No Ipod or book – for me anyway – the sounds of the jungle would be my music and I would write my own story.
The only thing left to do was knock back a few cold cervezas and watch the sunset over the Caribbean from Taganga Bay before getting a good night’s sleep to dream about what was to come over the course of the next few days. My ambition to trek the sacred trail with the Wiwa would soon come true.
To be continued….
by Mark Boultwood
About the author:
Mark Boultwood is an Englishman currently living in Bogota, Colombia. Mark first ventured to South America in the late 1990s, years later found himself volunteering at an animal refuge for a year, caring for a Jaguar in the depths of the Bolivian jungle. His passion for travel and new experiences landed him a decade-long role specialised in leading small group tours from Mexico right down to the tip of Argentina and almost every country in between. His interests include wildlife photography, hiking and collecting treasures from the places he travels. He is a freelance correspondent for Uncover Colombia.