Enveloped by the Colombian jungle for 500 years, the ‘Lost City’ of the Tairona has definitely been rediscovered

Lost cities...there are estimated to be 250 towns scattered across the mountains.

Coffee and mud

The Buritaca River is a thin white line through the deep green coffee fields. We will follow the river upstream until we reach the Cuidad Perdida, the Lost City, an ancient ruin deep in Columbia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. The 48 km hike will take five days, three there and two back.

As we continue along the steep track above the river it begins to rain, a tropical downpour which slakes the humidity but turns the path to yellow mud. César, one of our two young guides, removes his T-shirt and assists the blonde Dutch girls up the slippery track. I suspect César’s job motivation is not entirely the landscape.

We step aside for a farmer herding a line of burros along the track. The burros are laden with hessian sacks of coffee, the crop that has come to dominate this area after troubled decades growing coca. It’s amazing to think that this track, originally made by the ancient Tairona people, has been in use for over a thousand years.

We reach the first camp mid-afternoon, an open-sided hut with an earth floor and a shoal of hammocks. Juan, the second guide, quietly sings Columbian vallenato songs as he prepares dinner over a spluttering fire. Like César he is 23 years old. He is shy and thin, with a sparse moustache.

The 14 of us – 12 tourists and two guides – gather at the rough planked table to eat Juan’s tasty chicken and rice. There’s a mix of Australians, French, Italian, English, Americans and Chileans, leading to a riot of traveller’s talk. After dinner we drink hot chocolate in the candlelight and watch the blink of fireflies at the edge of the forest.

Kogi – the descendants of the Tairona

Back on the track, the fierce morning sun generates new tidemarks of sweat on my shirt. We pass the Kogi village of Mutanzhi, a cluster of circular wattle and daub huts. The Kogi, who number around 12,000, are one of the four indigenous groups – descendants of the Tairona – who live in the mountains. A Kogi man passes us leading a convoy of heavily laden burros. He is small and solemn, wearing white cotton clothes despite the heat and mud, his long black hair tumbling halfway down his back. His cheek bulges with coca leaves, chewed in conjunction with lime scraped from the large seashell he carries.

We reach the second hut in the early afternoon just as it begins to rain. We pass the rest of the day reading and trying to recall the rules to card games, while César gives the Dutch girls foot rubs. Juan again prepares the food, showing the Chilean girl, Antonia, how to make empanadas by cutting dough discs with an upturned plastic cup.

Over dinner the rain is so heavy on the tin roof it sounds as if we are beneath a waterfall. We fall asleep on our bunks to the dove-like cooing of frogs.

The rain stops as we set out the next morning. The path clings to the side of the narrowing valley while the swollen river careers against boulders below. When we reach our first river crossing I eye the water nervously. Although the crossing is at a wide, shallow point in the river, the flow is still swift. We cross one-by-one. César and Juan wrangle me across a thigh deep section and help me to the other side.

On the far bank we find a boulder piled high with red and yellow wild banana flowers – Kogi offerings for safe passage. The view across the mountains distracts me from the tough climb out of the valley. The forested hills are veiled in mist like a Chinese watercolour.

History of the Lost City

Camp three is one kilometre and one hour from the Lost City. César has his shirt off again, ostensibly checking his chest for mosquito bites. The Dutch girls laugh off his offer to check them for ticks.

During the long rainy afternoon, Antonia and I chat with Juan. His father was a local coffee grower who supplemented his merge income by working as a guaquero, or tomb-robber. For 20 years he searched the surrounding mountains for Taironan ruins, occasionally uncovering delicate golden ornaments beneath the tumbled stones which he sold for a pittance in town.

Juan’s dad never found the Lost City, instead it was another group of guaqueroes who stumbled upon the ruins in 1972 and were soon extracting golden figurines, urns and precious gems. In 1976 the looters fought over access to the site, leaving four of the six dead, one survivor staggering into Santa Marta to alert the police, inadvertently bringing the Lost City to the attention of the world. It wasn’t until 2005 when armed groups were driven from the area (as they were from much of the country) that visitor numbers really started to rise. These days Juan and César are kept busy guiding some of the 6000 hikers who tackle the trek each year. After three days of sweat and insect bites I can’t wait to see the Lost City for myself.

Reaching the Lost City

Early the next morning we follow the river through the forest, the sun catching the tops of the surrounding hills. We cross the river and climb a long stone staircase to a series of circular platforms. The platforms, neatly buttressed with stone and linked with flagstone paths, are just some of the 200 structures discovered on the 30 hectare site. The whole hillside has been terraced to follow the contours of the mountain, providing flat areas on which the city’s houses, temples, storehouses and plazas would have been built. Although the wooden buildings are long gone and tree roots snake between the stones, the site is remarkably well preserved.

We follow stone tracks and curved staircases between terraces. A grinding stone rests on the edge of a platform, an oval stone sitting in its worn groove. Little is known about the Tairona, and jungle still covers much of the site, but walking these paths makes you dream of what the city must have been like at its peak.

César seems bored, but Juan comes alive, explaining the city was founded around 650 AD and flourished by growing crops of corn, sweet potato, yucca, beans, squash and avocado. The Lost City, known to indigenous people as Teyuna, was also a ceremonial centre for priests and artisans, where intricate golden ornaments were cast using the lost wax method. At its height the city was a regional economic and political centre, home to around 2000 people.

The Spanish arrived in 1498, and although they apparently never reached the site, the city was abandoned sometime between 1580 and 1650. The jungle moved in to cover the site.

We climb to a viewpoint overlooking the Central Terrace, a series of 10 metre diameter platforms which would have been used as gathering places for rituals and feasts. Juan and Antonia have their photo taken together, arms around each others shoulders. César sits off to the side, dejectedly scraping moss from a rock with a stick.

The Lost City. There are many other ruins still enveloped by the jungle.

Juan leads us to a rock slab, chest high and shoulder wide, its flat surface deeply etched with a complex network of lines. He explains that it’s a map, each line representing a paved track through the forest linking Taironan communities. He says archaeologists estimate there are 250 towns scattered across the mountains, most of which are yet to be explored.

The Lost City may have been rediscovered, but there is still plenty more to be revealed.

Fact File

  • Colombia is now a relatively safe country, as their advertising slogan used to say, ‘The only risk is wanting to stay.’ You cannot hike the track independently – tours depart from Santa Marta on northern Colombian coast. There are regular flights from Bogota to Santa Marta.
  • The hike costs 600,000 Colombian pesos (about AUD$300), all inclusive. Expect rain, humid conditions, biting insects, mud, steep tracks and potentially dangerous river crossings.
  • For more information click here.


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