Ciudad Perdida is unquestionably Colombia’s most illustrious hike – and rightfully so – but it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted and is still a firmly off-the-beaten-track adventure. The trail to the Lost City is less well trodden than other major treks in South America. For instance, in only two weeks the same number of tourists walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru as trekkers making the journey to Ciudad Perdida in an entire year.
(And just in case you missed it, you can read the first part here)
Ciudad Perdida had, however, been on my radar for many years. I had seen intriguing old photos of the terraced ruins in an old copy of National Geographic magazine all those years ago as a young boy. These same photos taken in North East Colombia inspired me to one day travel to that far-off exotic place… and now I was finally here.
Leaving the coastal village of Taganga by jeep for Colombia’s oldest port city of Santa Marta to pick up supplies, I was happy to learn from our driver that there were to be only 4 people in our group for the trek; my friend Matt had flown in from England, plus we picked up a Danish girl and an English guy from a hostel on the way. We met our Wiwa guide, Gabriel, or Gabo as we came to know him, at a small roadside kiosk that sold an abundance of tropical fruits. Gabo was in his early twenties, had long shiny jet-black hair that went halfway down his back, a sharp contrast to his loose-fitting white tunic, while he wore pair of black plimsolls with a classic woven mochila bag completing his Wiwa look. It was a couple of hours on a bumpy dirt road to our start point at the menacingly named village of Machete Pelao (Peeled Machete) – the end of the road for our 4WD transport and the start of our 5-day trek to Ciudad Perdida.
After a late start, our group set off, carrying only small backpacks in the sweltering heat of the midday sun. Barely half an hour into the trek, we were rewarded with the first of many river crossings and stunning swimming holes in a deep crystal-clear stream. We didn’t need much encouragement to take refuge from the penetrating sun by jumping into the cool water. This was certainly the calm before the storm as our next task was to climb a seemingly never-ending twisting ascent. Two hours of pain, mild heatstroke and an uphill battle later and we were at the top where a kiosk stocked with Gatorade awaited us. From then on it was a pleasant walk along a ridge with a breeze and mostly downhill paths through sweeping countryside until we reached our first campsite at Adán. By far the best thing about the camp was a fine-looking waterfall with a natural swimming pool several metres below, perfect for a running jump and a refreshing swim to end our day.
On day two we left camp early and our trail passed through lush, green undulating ranch land and we walked by a Colombian army division who were resting at the side of the trail. A little further along I spotted an incredibly rare King Vulture circling on the morning thermals – a truly majestic sight. We managed to make it to the cover of primary rainforest before the relentless sun took hold and for the rest of the day the walk was much more enjoyable under the dappled shade of the tree canopies. I took the time to appreciate the sheer immensity of the trees and the incredible amount of different types of vegetation that surrounded us. Everything in the forest was in flux – some state of living, breathing, growing, decaying or dying. Further along the trail we passed some Wiwa natives who stopped to meet Gabo, he later told us that the man with a distinctive pointy hat was their Mamo, a village elder and shaman.
Not long after, we arrived at our home for the night, a campsite run by a Wiwa family where we slung up hammocks. There were three young boys in the family who were very inquisitive and when they grew tired of pulling their puppy along in a toy truck they began interacting with us. I took a few photos and they laughed and poked fun at each other when they saw themselves on the camera’s digital display.
The day hike had been short so we took the remainder of the afternoon to bathe and explore along the banks of the Rio Buritaca. You could just imagine the elusive jaguar swimming across the river right in front of your eyes – and they had been spotted regularly in the area.
After dinner, Gabo offered to take us out on a night walk, so, with head torches at the ready we set off into the darkness in search of nocturnal wildlife. Along a boulder-clad stream we spotted hand-sized fish-eating spiders, the impressive smoky jungle frog that devours birds and small mammals, and an interesting frog species where the male carries his froglets on his back. Gabo had a keen eye and caught over a dozen freshwater shrimp with his hands, amassing them in a bowl he made from a banana leaf. When we returned to camp they were fried as a treat for our supper.
On the morning of our third day, we said our farewells to the Wiwa family who we would meet again on the return journey in two days time. We were headed for Campamento Paraiso – Paradise – the last campsite before the hike up to the Lost City the following morning. So far on our trek we hadn’t encountered many hiking groups, in fact we had seen more native Wiwa people on the trails going about their farming and daily walks between villages than other tourists. During five hours of gruelling hiking the scenery underwent constant change. We came across a large Wiwa settlement with numerous adobe huts that had thatched roofs and where coca bushes and pineapples grew in the gardens. Our location was so remote that you had to question which century you were in. Cars, computers and television had no place in this distant land. We passed through banana plantations and traversed the Buritaca a few more times and climbed and descended many more muddy trails before we arrived in Paradise. Paradise was full. The campsite was crowded, with around forty other hikers, which was a shock to the system after not having seen many other Westerners on the trails for the past three days. A swim in the river, dinner and an early night were the order of the evening – ready for an early start up to the Lost City the next day.
We succeeded in being the first group up and out of the campsite and we had to trek a mile or so with our head torches as the jungle was still engulfed in darkness. It wasn’t long before the sun rose enough for us to find our way and the path led us down to the Buritaca for yet another river crossing. On the other side the trailhead continued to climb into heavy jungle – the gateway to Ciudad Perdida. Ascending the last few dozen moss-grown stones of a concealed 1,200-step stairway that snaked upward through the stifling rainforest was, in many ways, breathtaking. Reaching our topmost elevation of 3,900 feet in our sweat-soaked gear finally revealed an opening and a panorama of densely layered forest and clear blue skies. Emerging from the undergrowth we had arrived at the entrance to the fabled Lost City of Teyuna, our ultimate destination and the culmination of three days of arduous trekking, along 15 miles of tortuous trails in the steamy Colombian rainforest.
We were the first group to arrive and for almost an hour we had the terraced circular ruins to ourselves, ensuring we felt the magic of the place and lending it an ambience of utter serenity. Gabo requested we take part in a spiritual ceremony to free us of any negative energy and made an offering to mother nature before we entered the sacred site of Teyuna. Passing along the intricate stone pathways we saw a centuries old boulder that had been carved into a slab and engraved with a map of the region. Through moss-covered terraces we made our way to the main plaza terraces where parrots nested in the tall palm trees, past the throne-like seat of the mamo and up to the highest terrace, where an active army post was located. The Lost City spread out before us like islands floating on a green ocean, much of the terraces still covered by dense jungle vegetation. From higher ground I could appreciate the iconic picture-postcard views of Ciudad Perdida. It was a decisive moment in which I fulfilled a long-held ambition and it was a truly magical experience. Here in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains, I realised our journey had not only been a physical adventure in pursuit of the Lost City but a transcendent passage deepening my connection with nature and appreciating the sacred traditions of the Wiwa.
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.