The Lost City of Colombia

Gaelle Sevenier, Free-lance Reporter

June 2004

Following the trail of the 8 foreigners kidnapped last September

The Lost City

"Searching for the Lost City". No, it is not the title of some new Hollywood movie. Rather, the Lost City is an intact pre-Incan settlement finally found discovered 30 years ago, forgotten and overgrown, in the middle of the Colombian Sierra Nevada. The ancient ruins were hidden for five centuries in the jungle close to Santa Marta, on the Atlantic coast of Colombia. Visiting it has become a world famous six day trek, an amazing experience comparable to the "Camino Inca" of Inca Trail leading up to Machu Pichu. Every week, dozens of travellers climb up to the archaeological site despite the kidnappings that occurred last September, perpetrated by the Guerrillas.

The Lost city, technically named "Burritaca 200", is located on a steep mountain at an altitude of 1200m. Both attractive and remote, the archaeological site has been partially excavated and is now conditioned to receive selective visits. To reach the site involves a six day trek through dramatic landscapes and forests, starting from the small indigenous village of Mamaï, a 2 hour truck ride from the city of Santa Marta.

The trek to the Lost City is very popular among travellers. Every week, the tour agency Turcol sends guides to accompany the visitors for the cost of $150. Visitors should be aware, however, that the beautiful trail leading to the Lost City passes through numerous coca fields. The zone belongs to the paramilitaries, who "encourage" the farmers to grow coca leaves used to finance their civil war. Turcol pays about $10 per visitor to the paramilitaries to "ensure their safety". However, in September 2003, for the first time in history, 8 travellers were kidnapped on the site by the ELN guerrilla movement, the Nacional Liberation Army of Colombia.

The stories of the kidnappings are a recurring object of discussion for backpackers climbing the site today. Edwin was the guide accompanying the kidnapped group back in September. At 5am, he was awoken by armed guerrillas in the guest house built near the anthropological site. "They took us out to the field" tells Edwin, "and divided the tourists into two groups."
Ran Atwmon, one of the kidnapped Israelis, told the press that "there was no opportunity to oppose them… they knew what they were doing."

The guerrillas tied up Edwin and chose those foreigners most fit and equipped to walk for days in the jungle. Wilson, another guide coming up with a group just behind them, was warned the next morning by the Indigenous about the kidnappings. "An indigenous told me about the Guerrillas because one of their children had been tied up the night before and had managed to escape. He walked through the night by moonlight to warn the others. We ran to ask for help. But it was too late to rescue the 8 people kidnapped."

The ELN kidnapped 4 Israeli, 2 British and one Spanish man along with the German girl Reinhilt Weigel. The 4 Israelis and one of the British men were in the last group to be freed after being held hostage for 102 days. Apart from walking miles per day in very difficult conditions, the hostages were fairly treated by their kidnappers. They reported often having more to eat than the guerrillas themselves.

The last British to be released, on December 23rd 2003, said that "they were literally at the breaking point when one of their captors unexpectedly said, "right, you are going to be released on Monday." The rebel group said its motivation for the kidnapping was to draw attention to the problems faced by local communities in the Sierra Nevada. No kidnapping attempt has been reported since September 2003. Locals today consider the trek to be safe for tourists.

The young girl who was kidnapped published her diary in the German magazine Stern after she was released to a church-led humanitarian commission in November. Mathew Scott, a 19 year old British boy also made a lot of money by selling his story, saying that he had escaped from the guerrillas after "leaping down a ravine and spending 12 days in the jungle". According to some people in Santa Marta, Mathew exagerated about the escape. " The British didn't really escape " said the tour guide Wilson, who has been working on the site for the past 8 years and has close contacts with the indigenous tribes. "He was either sick or tired. He couldn't walk anymore. The group was close to a village, so they left him behind. Two indigenous men I know took him to their house and told the military." According to the German girl Reinhilt Weigel, who wrote to me after reading the article, Matt did jump, even though herself and the others where against this plan. "Since I was there, I know a 100% that Matt actually jumped down the side of the rigde. I don't know if it took him 12 days, but even if it was 5, be hard enough" explained Reini.

Many backpackers have heard of the Lost City through international press coverage of the kidnapping. The idea that "this could happen to us" is probably part of the vicarious thrill that attracts some of the hundreds of visitors each month. However, the beauty of the site, the amazing hike, the kindness of the indigenous tribes and the amazing feeling of rediscovering an ancient Indigenous civilization, are the primarily reasons for experiencing the trek to the Lost City of Colombia.

The ruins themselves are a mosaic of 49 green platforms which once belonged to the Tayrona Indigenous tribes. Built more than 1800 years ago according to anthropologists, it is thought to be a ceremony centre that was home to the Tayrona elite, an estimated population of about 3 000 priests, artisans and militia. From the top of the mountain they ruled over the indigenous population of the Sierra Nevada.

The villages were thought to be abandoned when the Spanish arrived on the coast of Colombia. However, the conquistadors never found the hidden route to the Lost City. It was only in 1970 that gold seekers discovered the site and it's treasures. After numerous lootings, the location of the site was finally revealed to the Colombian government in 1973. Today, the site has become a part of Colombia's heritage, protected by the National Colombian Institute of Ethnology.

A few indigenous people from the Kogui and the Arzario tribes still live in villages spread out through the valleys surrounding the mountains. Once a year, they meet in the ancestral ruins they call Tayuna, meaning Mother Hearth, to perform their religious ceremonies. These descendants of the Tayrona have kept the culture of their ancestors almost perfectly intact. The chance to walk through the indigenous villages adds to the incredible experience of the trek.

The coca leaf has always been culturally significant for indigenous tribes of the Sierre Nevadas, which explains some of the plantations. In the Kogui culture, the couples, who live in separate houses and remarry 2 or 3 times in their life, are only allowed to make love in the coca fields. If a woman gives birth without any complications, it means the plantation will be fertile. The coca leaves, mixed with shell powder in a wooden object called poporo, are used as a daily stimulant by the men of the tribes, giving them the energy they need to work and walk days through the jungle.

As one walks through the trail of the Lost City, one can not ignore the anthropological dilemma of fighting cocaine production in the Sierra Nevada. "Plan Colombia", for which the United States has given around 2.6 billion dollars since 2000, mainly to fight drug production in Colombia, runs the risk of destroying the indigenous coca plantations which have been an important part of their traditional heritage for centuries.

For more info about visiting the Lost City, contact Turcol, Turismo Colombiano, Carretera 1 C N° 20-15,



Kogui Indigenous tribe

kogui village

stairs to the lost city

Kogui tribe

Gaëlle Sévenier

Author - Other publications