By VAWN HIMMELSBACH
After a jungle trek left me with two missing toenails and an intestinal infection that landed me in a Guatemalan hospital, I had sworn off jungle treks. I’d stick to mountains, away from mud, monsoons and mosquitos.
But, here I am, back in the jungle, so hot it feels like I’m trekking in a sauna—or, perhaps more appropriately, a steam room, since the humidity is so thick you could slice it with a machete. I didn’t know it was possible to sweat this much. My quick-dry T-shirt is sopping wet and sweat mingled with sunscreen and mosquito repellent is dripping into my eyes and clouding my contact lenses—and it’s barely after breakfast. The heat of the day is yet to come, and I have mountains to climb. Literally.
But I can’t help myself. After all, this is Colombia, and I’m hiking to a lost city in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. How could I not do this?
Colombia’s Lost City may not be considered one of the world’s epic treks—yet. But that’s only because most people haven’t heard of it. In part, it’s because the region—deep in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which rise from the Caribbean Sea on Colombia’s northern coast—was mired in violence for many decades.
The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, was “re-discovered” in 1973 by looters (who stripped it of its gold and ceramics), though indigenous tribes have known of its existence for centuries and consider it a spiritual centre. The Colombian government took control of Ciudad Perdida in 1976, but the trek remained off limits for years, thanks to continuing violence between the Colombian National Army, right-wing paramilitary groups and left-wing guerillas including FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army).
The trek opened to tourists again in 2005, but only in recent years—since the peace process began in 2012—have foreigners started flocking to Colombia. Now, word is spreading about the fabled Lost City.
It’s often compared to Peru’s Machu Picchu, but that would be a mistake. The archeological ruins aren’t on the same scale; Machu Picchu’s stone-block dwellings and temples are still intact. The Lost City, which is said to predate the Peruvian ruins by 650 years, consists of a series of terraces carved into the mountainside and connected by stone roads and circular plazas; its wooden buildings have long since disappeared.
But, unlike Machu Picchu, you won’t be sharing this site with thousands of other tourists. There are no hotels or restaurants here, no hawkers selling tacky souvenirs or even water, for that matter. There are no roads, no railway and no airstrip. The only way to reach the Lost City is to walk there, which means you’ll only be sharing the site with the few dozen people who feel as compelled to do this trek as you do.
Walking, though, isn’t exactly the right verb. It’s more of a slog, as you clamber up muddy hills in dense jungle, then slip-and-slide your way back down, sometimes scrambling over rocks. Then there are the river crossings, where you kick off your hiking boots and peel off your sweaty socks to wade through rivers, sometimes up to mid-thigh, all the while carrying your own gear.
It’s hard to prepare for a trek like this, unless you can somehow get a Stairmaster into a hot yoga studio. Some of the world’s epic treks, like the Inca Trail in Peru or the Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal, challenge trekkers with their high altitudes and chilly temperatures. The Lost City trek will take you to task with its heat and humidity. And mud. And mosquitos.
The trek doesn’t seem that difficult, on paper. “It’s only 50 kilometres,” says our Colombian guide Felipe Ortiz, who works for travel operator G Adventures. “But it’s 50 kilometres in the jungle.” And that’s a whole different ballgame.
We’re also accompanied by a guide from Wiwa Tours, the only indigenous owned and operated tour company that offers treks to the Lost City. There are three other tour operators based out of Santa Marta, none of which work with the Sierra Nevada’s indigenous tribes: the Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco and Kankuamo. G Adventures works exclusively with Wiwa Tours.
Rafael Rodriguez wears traditional clothing: white pants, long white shirt and white cowboy hat. His hair flows almost to his waist. His spiritual name is Kankemuco, which means “father of nature.” At 19, he’s been guiding with Wiwa Tours for two years—though this is his first trek with G Adventures. All guides with Wiwa Tours are specifically chosen for the task by the community’s mamu, their priest and leader.
After a two-hour drive from Santa Marta, the trek starts in a village called Machete—which I thought might be an indigenous name for something like “beautiful forest.” But, no, it means exactly what it sounds like. Around here, farmers carry machetes.
The trek can be done in either four or five days; five is preferable, unless you’re into ultra-marathons and extreme endurance sports. Plus, five days gives you opportunities to spend more time in the camps, where you can hike to waterfalls and swimming holes (or, alternatively, rest in a hammock with a well-deserved cerveza).
Over the next two days, the trail winds its way through farmland before heading into dense jungle, passing by Kogi villages with their distinctive circular huts. The camps are simple, with bunks and hammocks for sleeping, covered by mosquito nets. There are toilets and showers, but don’t expect hot water. On the trail, you’ll use a bano natural (a.k.a the bush). There’s no cell coverage: prepare to be completely off the grid for the entirety of the trek.
On the third day, you wake up in the dark, eat a hearty meal and leave for the Lost City as the day is breaking. It’s a rugged one-kilometre hike—with yet another river crossing—to reach the base of the 1,200 steps that lead to the Lost City. The steps, built by the ancient Tayrona people, are steep, narrow and slippery—in the rainy season, they can be downright treacherous.
As on any epic trek, it’s not so much about the destination but the journey itself. And the Lost City Trek is no exception. But the destination—well, it’s worth the aching calves and countless mosquito bites. Because now you’re in a lost city; one that only a lucky few get to see.
Before we enter the site, Rafael performs a purification ceremony, where we stand in a circle around a grouping of stones with a pile of coca leaves in the centre as an offering (the indigenous tribes here are permitted to grow coca leaves as a part of their cultural heritage).
The ceremony is meant to rid us of our negative thoughts and emotions before we enter the site, though admittedly I’m feeling some negativity as I look over at another group of trekkers with a Western guide who seem completely oblivious to the spiritual significance of this site. Some are smoking, which is prohibited here, but the Wiwa are too polite to tell them to stop.
It makes me realize why it’s so important to do this trek with an indigenous guide. The Wiwa consider themselves to be the guardians of the Sierra Nevada, and give payments in the form of prayer to Mother Earth—basically, to atone for the sins of those who abuse the environment, which is a big chunk of the rest of the world. The Wiwa have a lot of payments to make.
“We get the chance to share the knowledge we have about nature,” Rafael tells me through a translator (he speaks Spanish, though he’s learning English). “People come to learn and see how we are creating the connection with the Earth, learning about the important job we are doing for giving payments to the Earth for everything we obtain from her, for water, air, trees, food.” He hopes that foreigners will walk away from the Lost City with more knowledge of how to connect with nature—and protect it.
There’s a sense of accomplishment in reaching the Lost City. There’s also awe—that Magical Realism associated with Colombia. I also feel a pang of something else, something more like sadness; I want the Lost City to remain a secret. I don’t want it to become overrun with tourists (or looters or guerillas, for that matter). I’m grateful it’s no walk in the park to get here.
“I feel it’s kind of a pilgrimage for me,” says Oritz, who had dreamed of coming here since he was a child. Now, he’s lucky enough to come here on a regular basis as a tour guide. It’s always a different experience, he says, and it helps him get back to basics. “That’s something I get from going to the Sierra, letting my senses rest.”
A few days later, on the drive back to Santa Marta, the first thing I do—I can’t help myself—is turn on my data roaming. Suddenly, the real world comes rushing at me in the form of email. Back in town, we shower off five days’ worth of dirt, change into luxuriously clean clothes and head out for a celebratory dinner and a night of margaritas and Latin music.
But after five days of modern-day deprivation, the lights seem too bright, the noises too loud, the crowd too claustrophobic. It’s all a bit overwhelming. And I find myself wanting to go back to the jungle—to the mud, monsoons and mosquitos.
If You Go
G Adventures’ seven-day “Colombia—Lost City Trekking” trip starts at $790 (flight extra). gadventures.com
Avianca flies to locations throughout Colombia from several North American and international hubs.
Treks run year-round, though in the rainy season rivers are higher and crossings can be more challenging. The rainy season lasts from March to May and October to November.