In Colombia, the terraces of a 'Lost City' beckon travellers willing to hoof it

Ciudad Perdida, a 1,200-year-old city in northern Colombia's coastal mountains, is becoming one of South America's more popular trekking destinations.

Ciudad Perdida is quieter than Peru's Machu Picchu and also easier to reach

Ciudad Perdida was built between 800 and 1400 in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a coastal mountain range in northern Colombia. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

On the steep side of a forested mountain in northern Colombia, dozens of tourists are snaking their way up 1,200 stone steps toward what's becoming one of South America's most popular trekking destinations.

There's a Dutch police officer who normally spends his days in Holland overseeing homicide investigations. There's a Polish musician who toted a violin through the jungle by swaddling the instrument in a waterproof Ikea shopping bag. There's an Israeli on an extended tour of South America.

They're all huffing and puffing their way through the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world's second-highest coastal mountain range, to see the oval terraces of Ciudad Perdida, an architectural marvel known in English as the "Lost City."

The 1,200-year-old city is also called Teyuna by the Indigenous Kogi and Wiwa people, who never lost track of the site, built by the Tairona people they consider ancestors. The Indigenous people of the Sierra chose to keep the city's location hidden from waves of Spanish colonizers and Colombian settlers.

In 1972, hunters happened upon Ciudad Perdida and carted gold artifacts away to the markets of Santa Marta, a nearby port city on the Caribbean Sea. This started a four-year period of Perdida plundering that lasted until 1976, when archeologists made their way to the mountain terraces to protect the site from further looting.

The oval terraces at Ciudad Perdida set it apart from Mayan and Inca sites, where rectangular structures dominate. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Today, Ciudad Perdida is lost in name only. This year, about 25,000 tourists will visit the site as part of a 47-kilometre trek that involves the ascent and descent of four mountains — twice — over the course of four days.

It's sort of like the walk to Machu Picchu, albeit without the extreme temperature swings, higher altitudes and larger crowds of tourists encountered along the way to Peru's most famous archeological site. About a million people visit Machu Picchu every year.

After peace, comes tourism

Tourism to Ciudad Perdida, though relatively new, has already made the destination one of the best-known archeological sites in Colombia — a nation that's still trying to shake its old reputation for political instability.

In 2003, armed forces with the left-wing National Liberation Army seized eight tourists on their way to Ciudad Perdida and held them hostage in the jungle for 100 days. The kidnapping was part of an effort to convince the Colombian government to investigate attacks on villagers by right-wing paramilitary groups. All the travellers were eventually released unharmed.

Within years, tourists returned to the Sierra under the watchful eye of Colombian soldiers, who continue to patrol the walk to Ciudad Perdida. The only way to visit today is to take part in a guided tour run by one of five companies that operate with the blessing of the Colombian authorities, as well as the Kogi, Wiwa and other Indigenous people who continue to make the mountains their home.

Dominika Bienias, a tourist from Poland, plays the violin to Kogi children. (Lynne Skromeda/CBC)

For centuries, the Kogi and Wiwa tried to adapt to colonization by limiting their contact with Europeans. When the Spanish arrived on the Caribbean coast, the locals headed farther uphill and kept to themselves as best as they could.

In the 20th century, Colombia's civil war and the cocaine trade made the isolation tough to preserve. Now, peace deals between the government and insurgent groups have provided a measure of security for the Kogi and Wiwa who live along the trail to Ciudad Perdida.

Most continue to live a traditional hunting, gathering and horticultural lifestyle, though some derive income from supplying and maintaining tourist camps along the route.

A walk in the tropical woods

The walk itself is a big part of the attraction. Starting at the village of Machete, hikers amble along a dirt road that narrows into a muddy track as the trail climbs higher into a mountain forest of Panama rubber, royal palm and fig-like Poulsenia trees, strewn with lianas, vines and impressive tiger-spider webs.

Vultures and large songbirds called oropendolas ride thermals along the Sierra's slopes, while clouds of parakeets and lone green parrots occasionally visit mountaintops.

Trekkers to Ciudad Perdida can cool off in rivers and watering holes such as this one at Camp Adan. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

On paper, this walk involves an ascent from 140 metres above sea level at Machete to 1,150 metres at Ciudad Perdida. But the actual elevation gain and loss is closer to 2,700 metres, given that the trail ascends and descends four small mountains.

This is not a walk for the unmotivated or the unfit, even though trekkers need only carry their own clothes. Mules transport food and other supplies to the camps where tourists sleep in bunks covered by mosquito netting.

Most of the tourists are European. Canadians and Americans are not as common in Colombia as they are in Mexico, Central America or in the Caribbean. Norteamericanos appear to be scared off by Colombia's old wartime image and TV shows like Narcos.

The trail to Ciudad Perdida ascends and descends four small mountains, twice, for a total elevation gain and loss of about 2,700 metres. (Lynne Skromeda/CBC)

This situation is not likely to last, based on Ciudad Perdida alone. After ascending the 1,200 stone steps on the final approach to the city, trekkers emerge onto a mountain ridge, flattened into a terraced plain marked by oval retaining walls.

Each oval, built between 800 and 1400, marks the foundation of an earth home. The structures are unusual for the Americas, considering Mayan and Incan buildings tend to be rectangular.

Ovals, unlike rectangles, mimic natural features of the surrounding landscape, like Poulsenia trunks, boulders in the Buritaca River and tops of the mountains themselves, which the Kogi and Wiwa regard as spiritual antennae that allow contact with Indigenous people elsewhere in the world. 

On a clear day, the grassy ovals of Ciudad Perdida stretch out like a spirograph, marking one edge of a city that once housed thousands.

Indigenous leaders come once a year to cleanse Teyuna, which was trading with its neighbours 600 years before the construction of Machu Picchu, 700 years before the first Europeans laid their eyes on the Colombian coast and more than a millennium before looters and archeologists "discovered" what was never lost.

About 25,000 tourists make the 47-kilometre return trek to Ciudad Perdida every year. (Lynne Skromeda/CBC)

Getting there

Air Canada Rouge flies direct from Toronto to Bogotá, the Colombian capital. From there, Avianca flies several times a day to Santa Marta, the departure point for Ciudad Perdida. Avianca also flies from Miami to Santa Marta.

No fewer than six companies are licensed to guide tourists to Ciudad Perdida. Most offer tours of four or five days in length, with English interpretation. Tours include accommodation, food and national archeological site fees. Independent travellers aren't permitted to visit on their own.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.


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