A trek to the Lost City of Colombia
Gaelle Sevenier, Free-lanceReporter
July 2004 - (Tico Times)
"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.
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. Backpackers will walk from 4 to 8 hours each day, sometimes in very muddy and arduous trails. They will sleep in hammocks, and enjoy the cold showers the tour agency has built on the camp sites.
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.
Yet another aspect of the trip is that the beautiful trail passes through numerous coca fields, the other famous product of Colombia . Most are used by the indigenous tribes. The coca leaf has always been culturally significant for indigenous tribes of the Sierre Nevadas. 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.
The zone is controlled by the paramilitaries who encourage farmers to grow coca leaves for the cocaine production. Turcol pays about $10 per visitor to the paramilitaries to "ensure their safety". However, in September 2003, in an unprecedented event, 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."
The guerrillas tied up the guide and chose those foreigners most fit and equipped to walk for days in the jungle. The ELN kidnapped 4 Israeli, 2 British and one Spanish man along with a German girl. 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 treated well by their kidnappers. They reported often having more to eat than the guerrillas themselves.
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. Today Locals consider the trek to be safe for tourists.
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.