Tuesday 9 April 2024

Ciudad Perdida - lost in the jungle

Me and Dan left Ismene and Ioanna at the beach for four days while taking a tour to Ciudad Perdida (the lost city) in the mountains of the north of Colombia. Ciudad Perdida was the centre of Tayrona culture. The Tayrona, a group of nomads, arrived in South America around 900AD. They were peaceful people and only traded with the other cultures and did not try to conquer them. They established themselves in what is now known as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains and lived there peacefully until the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century.

We did the hike in a group but as I did not ask people if I could talk about them, I will just describe what happened and the story of the place.

We started the hike after lunch, having driven up into the hills, and the first part of the walk, was through campesino or farmer territory. The path was wide and dusty, climbing steeply upwards, and we made it to a refreshing watermelon stop and a rest. The campesino area was mostly fields of steep, lush crops with a few scattered parts of forest.

In the 1960s, the Sierra Nevada was inhabited by farmers growing marijuana. The US paid Colombia to spray the area with glyphosate killing everything. Only one plant could still grow: coca. At first the farmers just had a little ‘military group’ to defend itself from drug cartels. It then became one itself and was responsible to “defend” a large part of Colombia. In the end, the government stopped this cartel, but our guide was in the coca plantations as a boy – picking leaves and working in cocaine laboratories.

The second day we crossed into Indigenous territory and the path became thinner and more twisty. It felt like we were walking through a shallow, thin canyon and the area around us became increasingly forested and truly wild!

Before lunch, we met with an Indigenous of the Wiwa tribe, one of the descendants of the Tairona. He told us how they make their traditional bags: the men take the leaves of a succulent and scrape the outside of to reveal a pale fibre. The women take the fibres, and for a plain bag just weave them like that. If they want a coloured bag, the men also collect different dyes from plants, and mix them into the fibre: White for snow and purity, yellow for man and sun, purple for women, black and dark blue for night, light blue for water and green for earth. He explained that the bag is like a diary for the women, weaving in different colours.

When you are a child, you are only allowed one bag but once an adult, you are allowed two. The women of the Wiwa, have a kind of tribal passport, their spindle. The men have a passport and diary in one: they chew coca leaves (which only Indigenous groups are allowed to grow) and mix it with saliva and a calcium paste made of crushed seashell. They take the calcium paste from a hollowed-out squash gourd, called a poporo, using a stick. After mixing all that in their mouths, it leaves a thick substance on the stick which they use to write on their gourd, not in our way though the just go round and round the top. But our Wiwa guide explained that, as they have no writing, the meditate and use the poporo to record their thoughts. After eight years or so they will need a new poporo as it will weigh around 20kg!

On the third day, we arrived at the Lost City (tourist name), green hell (the tomb looters name), Buritaca 200 (scientific name), or Paraiso Terayano (Indigenous name). It took us a while to get up though - you can’t climb 1,200 steps in a second, it was worth it though, and with me leading the way, we arrived first! BONUS!!!

I was glad we had a guide and there were lots of things to see: The marketplace, where you first arrived, with what I called the purification circle where the Indigenous walked around and by putting a plant in the middle, removed their bad energies with it. There were three stone maps of the city’s surrounding area, and hundreds of houses. The city had a meeting place for offerings to the gods and also like a chapel. Just higher than the “chapel” was the history classroom where kids would be taught the Tairona's history by the shaman above there was the shaman’s house, by far the largest and at a very high point. Alongside all this were hundreds of other buildings: houses, store rooms and much much more. None of the buildings were actually there but there were bases where and you could tell a house from a store room by the shape. The city was the religious and political centre of a wide area of mountains inhabited by the Tairona people - around 2,000 people lived there but up to 10,000 would gather for ceremonies.

When the Spanish arrived, at first they traded with the locals: gold figures, for food and seeds. But when the Spanish went back to Spain, and melted down the gold, they realised that it wasn’t pure gold, it was a mix of copper and gold which was the tradition in the area. The Spanish grew mad, thought they had been tricked, and went back to the Tairona, revenge in their minds. This time they traded the Tayrona for clothes, which had purposely infected, and horrible diseases spread around the Tayrona settlements. The Tayrona fled to the hills and dispersed among other tribes higher in the hills. Meanwhile, the Spanish with no idea where Ciudad Perdida was and the city became abandoned.

In the 20th century farmers from the valley were robbing Tayrona tombs. Some tomb raiders, or guaqueros, moved up the valley looking for treasure. One family hacked their way through the jungle to find the steps to the city. Following them up they discovered the city in 1972, totally covered in jungle. They tried to keep it quiet word leaked out and the guaqueros started fighting over the loot. Several years later, after a murder on the site, one guaquero went down to some archaeologists working in Tayrona national park and told them of the city. They hiked up, some army with them, and  reached the city, where more than half of the houses had been looted. Six years later the site was opened to the public but still closes every September for various Indigenous ceremonies.

Walking down, I felt dazed and wowed. I wondered what it would be like living as a Tayrona in the city and thought about how different the environment would have been and how many more animals there would have been. Immersed in my thoughts, I almost missed an armadillo on the side of the path but became more alert and saw a large snake slithering through the trees.

I'm really glad I did this amazing hike and wouldn't miss it for anything. But now, for the northern most part of South America and a whole new adventure!!


  1. What an awesome and super interesting place! Thanks for sharing your experience. Fleur x

    1. Thanks Fleur. say hi to Xanthe for me. Orestis

  2. Phew what an extraordinary read. I am learning so much from your blog, so much to learn. Scary how quickly people jump to conclusions which can then destroy a whole way of life. Love the way you write, it feels like I am with you experiencing everything you describe. Who were you hiking with? Other tourists? Where did you sleep? Are there many tourists or are you a bit of a phenomenon? Lots of love to you all and huge well done on doing such an amazing hike, Mxxxx