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Ciudad Perdida, the ‘Lost City’ of Colombia

Ciudad Perdida, the ‘Lost City’ of Colombia

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At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exist countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings.

Ciudad Perdida Construction

U ntil very recently, it was believed that Ciudad Perdida´s construction might date to the year A.D. 1000. However, recent archaeological research found that the oldest residential areas date to the year A.D. 650 and were still in use up until A.D. 1100 or 12000, which would place these occupations within what is known as Neguanje period.

These residential areas are located towards the northern end of the town and correspond to the first cluster of terraces found at the beginning of the staircase leading down to the Buritaca River. The early period structures are buried below the stone masonry terraces and rings on view, which also gives us a good idea of the specific order in which this sector and the Core area was built.

The terraces for this residential cluster, as well as the string of terraces in the Core Area leading up to the great central terrace were built in an ascending order, from the lowest to the highest one.

To sum up, what this means is that the stone-masonry terraces and walls that were cleaned out and restored between 1976 and 1986 which are currently on view, were built between A.D. 1200 and A.D. 1600, modifying and burying other earlier structures. It was in this time period that the town acquired the form and layout that you can see today.

Some archaeologists estimate that by the 16th century Teyuna might have had a population between fifteen hundred and two thousand people if we add the population estimated for the surrounding settlements, approximately ten thousand people were living in this area alone at this time. Bear in mind that these are estimations since precise demographics for pre –Columbian populations are very difficult to calculate.

Do you know that…?

En las familias de las comunidades indigenas que viven en la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta los hombres duermen separados de las mujeres y los niños en un Bohío diferente?

Thousands of unique species inhabit in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada amongst them some unique and endemic birds of our region.

4 days tour.

5 days tour.

6 days tour.

Bird Watching.

It is a demanding trek which requires good physical condition and endurance plus an interest in nature. Ciudad Perdida trekking is a unique experience that is worth living and enjoying.

  • Make reservations in advance
  • Avoid high season
  • Make sure you keep hydrated during the trek
  • Bring back all your waste
  • Use biodegradable items
  • Stay on the marked hiking paths
  • Always follow the guide´s instructions

During the tour there will not be network or any type of digital communication hence this is an amazing opportunity for you to connect yourself with nature and its stunning surroundings.

Ciudad Perdida: The “Lost City” of Colombia

Ciudad Perdida is the archaeological site of an ancient city in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada.

It is also known as Teyna and Buritaca and it is believed to have been found about 800 CE, some 650 years before Machu Picchu. Translated from Spanish it means “Lost City” and it was discovered in 1972 by a group of local treasure looters.

They found a series of stone steps and followed them to an abandoned city. The name that they gave to this ancient city was “Green Hell” or “Wide Set”. The director of the Instituto Colombiano de Antropologia was informed that some golden artifacts started to mysteriously appear on the black market.

In 1976, he decided to look for this city, and when he reached the site immediately initiated an excavation.

Wooden structures once stood on the stone platforms. Photo Credit

The excavation was completed in 1982. The members of the local tribes stated that they regularly visited the site and that they think that this city and its associated network of villages were inhabited by their forebears.

They also say that they knew about this place long before it was discovered but that it was kept secret.

Stone steps at Ciudad Perdida. Photo Credit

It is presumed that Ciudad Perdida was the political and manufacturing center on the Buritaca River and housed between 2,000 and 8,000 people. It is built across 169 terraces carved into the mountain and features several circular plazas.

The only entrance into this lost city is a long climb up some 1,200 stone steps. The Tayrona people are the ones that built this city and it was apparently abandoned during the Spanish conquest.

Given the location of this city in the dense jungles of Colombia, this Ciudad Perdida has been associated with some unfortunate events. In 2013 The National Liberation Army kidnaped 8 tourists from the site. However, after negotiation with the Columbian government, they released the hostages three months later.

In 2005 the hikes became safe again and since then there have been no incidents. The Columbian army is actively patrolling the area making it safe for tourist and visitors.

A boulder with carved markings believed to be a map of the area around Ciudad Perdida. Photo Credit

The non-profit organization Global Heritage Fund (GHF) has been since 2009 to preserve and protect this city against climate changes and looting.

GHF’s goals are to document and conserve all of the archeological finds at Ciudad Perdida.

Modern Times

At 4:30AM on the 12th of September 2003, men carrying guns and wearing military uniforms walked into a tourist hut at La Ciudad Perdida. They woke up the tourists sleeping inside by pushing guns into their chests. They told them that two people had been killed further up the track. The men said that they would get the tourists out of the area and to safety via another route. The men rounded up another group of tourists in a different hut then divided the whole group into those they thought were fit and those who weren’t. The men said that they were right wing paramilitaries. It made sense to the tourists because they had heard that part of their payment for the tour went to these people as protection money.

One of the guides who had been tied up in a room managed to escape. He walked through the jungle for three days before arriving in the coastal city of Santa Marta. He told the police what had happened and they were suspicious about how he had escaped. The guide found out that the other guide on the trip and five out of the 13 other tourists had been released because they were deemed politically unimportant.

Back up in the dense jungles of the Sierra Nevada the remaining eight hostages were being marched further and further away. The guerrillas made the group walk for 15 hours straight, deep into the jungle. They were told the next morning that they were being held hostage. One hostage in the group managed to jump off a steep incline into the jungle and made it back to civilization after surviving for twelve days by himself.

For the other seven, the days turned into months and every day was a day where they were unsure if they would see their families again. They were marched even deeper into the jungle and had to walk for 18 hours at a time. They lived under sheets of plastic and ate rice, blocks of cane sugar, yucca and scraps of meat.

The men responsible for the kidnapping eventually told their hostages that they belonged to the National Liberation Army (ELN). The group had been at war with the Colombian government for over 40 years at the time.

The ELN believed that government-backed right-wing paramilitaries were attacking peasants living in the mountains. The group said that they wanted to draw outside attention to the situation. They wanted an international delegation to investigate the crimes.

The rebel group negotiated for an international team to investigate the reports of the human rights violations in the area in exchange for the release of the hostages.

After more than 100 days in captivity, the rest of the hostages were freed. Mentally shaken but well fed and physically unharmed, a military chopper flew them out of the Sierra Nevada so they could return home.

There is some debate even today over who’s protecting who. Some of the tour price is said to go to the guerillas as protection money. The safety of the walk can only be judged on the fact that there hasn’t been a kidnapping incident since 2003.


The Lost City is a Colombian archaeological site located in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the department of Magdalena, Colombia.

It is said that its construction was from the year 700 AD to 1000 AD, by an ancestral indigenous culture called Tayrona, which took around 400 years to complete its construction.

It was an indigenous city, with a structure that even after 400 years is amazing, since its discovery in 1972 by grave diggers, when they were searching and exploring new places to find more gold.

In 1976 an expedition led by Gilberto Cadavid and Luisa Fernanda Herrera and made up of 3 archaeologists, an architect and 2 guaqueros (who served as guides) and after almost 12 days of crossing they reached the very heart of the archaeological site where they collected sufficient evidence and They took them to the country's capital so that the then President Alfonso López Michelsen approved the budget for the recovery of the so-called Buritaca 200.

Members of the local tribes, the Arhuaco, the Kogis and the Wiwas, have stated that they visited the site regularly before it was widely discovered, but had remained silent about it. They call the lost city "Teyuna" and believe that it was the heart of a network of villages inhabited by their ancestors, the Tayrona.

Lost City was probably the region's political and manufacturing center on the banks of the Buritaca River and may have housed 2,000 to 3,000 people. It was apparently abandoned during the Spanish conquest.

It’s A Four Or Five Day Route

Our hike was quite unusual in that it lasted four nights / five days instead of the standard three nights / four days.

Most tour companies take two days to get to the Lost City, with a couple of hours spent exploring the ruins on the morning of the third day before turning around and spending one last night on the trail before driving back to Santa Marta on day four. It generally looks like this and usually involves a wake-up call between 5 a.m. - 7 a.m. each day:

Day One: Transport from Santa Marta + 3-5 hours hiking + night on trail

Day Two: 7-9 hours hiking + night on trail

Day Three: 1-2 hours hiking + Lost City site visit + 6-8 hours hiking + night on trail

Day Four: 5-7 hours hiking + transport to Santa Marta

This route generally encompasses 48 - 50 kms, but thankfully does not involve the high altitudes of many other South America treks (the highest points are 900 - 1,200m). All your meals and accommodation on the trek will be included, alongside transport to/from Santa Marta and entry to the Lost City.

Our route with G Adventures was however a little different. We reached the Lost City along the same route as the other groups, but after the ruins our pace slowed and we spent another night on the trail on day four, and took an exclusive off-the-beaten path trail on the fifth day in order to visit one the excellent Planeterra projects in a village called Gotsezhi to help support and develop sustainable community-led tourism and take in some incredible untouched scenery.

See the full itinerary with G Adventures here.

Discovering Colombia’s Lost City

He appears out of the jungle like an apparition—a man from the Wiwa tribe, one of four indigenous groups who call the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains home. In his traditional outfit—white cotton shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and two colorful mochillas strung across one shoulder—he stands out against the dense foliage of ferns and wax palms.

It is my first day in the tropical rain forests of northeast Colombia and, along with about a dozen other hikers, I am on the trail to La Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City. The pre-Colombian city was built around 800 A.D., making it some 650 years older than its Inca Empire counterpart, Machu Picchu, in Peru.

The archaeological site that remains is sacred to the four tribes, all of which descended from the Tairona, who for centuries inhabited the Lost City before the Spanish conquistadors forced them to flee. Even as the jungle reclaimed its stone terraces and trails, the Lost City was never “lost” to the tribes themselves, who say they continued to make regular pilgrimages there. Only in 1975 was the city discovered by the outside world—by looters, no less. Six years later, the site, which the Wiwa call Teyuna, was opened to the public.

Though several operators take visitors to La Ciudad Perdida, Wiwa Tours, founded in 2008 by three brothers from the Wiwa community, is the only company that offers indigenous guides to the Lost City.

Our trek leader, 17-year-old Juan Daiza Gil, is to meet our group in the village of El Mamey. Like all Wiwa men, Juan wears his jet-black hair long and well past his shoulders, yet has exchanged white pants for jeans tucked into rubber boots.

Within minutes, the road narrows to a single path through the forest. It is hard to believe that just two hours earlier, we were in the bustling port of Santa Marta, one of the oldest cities in South America.

As Juan leads us up steep muddy tracks and across swiftly flowing stream beds, I am cognizant that we are entering a world in which cars, electricity, and cell phones no longer exist—a world traversable only by foot or horse.

Birdsong fills the humid morning air beside the path—and sometimes even directly on it—cows graze lazily, greeting us with unblinking gazes. Every step seems to bring a new discovery. When I’m not desperately trying to catch my breath on uphill sections or downing water to beat the intense heat, I ask Juan about the flora and fauna we’re sharing the trail with. He points out cacao trees, their maroon-colored pods gleaming in the sun, as well as a butterfly with striking sapphire wings, aptly named the Blue Morpho, that is native to the rain forests of Central and South America.

But the discoveries take a cultural turn at the home of Manuel, Juan’s older brother and a fellow guide, whose home will be our campsite for the night. While Manuel’s three young sons play fútbol with members of our group, I hear his wife Maria washing clothes in a creek below the house, the thwap of wet fabric hitting rock resounding like thunder. Later, she sits alone on their porch, weaving a mochilla from natural fique fibers.

After dinner, Juan and another of his six brothers, Vicente, prepare a traditional tea for us made from coca leaves, cinnamon, and panela, an unrefined sugarcane product common in Colombia and throughout Latin America. As we sip the sweet steaming liquid, the brothers demonstrate how the leaves are dried—as much for the tea as for the men’s coca-chewing ritual, an essential part of Wiwa culture.

Here in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, our journey is becoming as much a social voyage into the traditions of the Wiwa as it is a physical adventure.

Our third day on the trail brings five more hours of arduous hiking, with our shoes sinking deep into clay and mud, sweat pooling on our skin. As we cross the Buritaca River, clambering over thick roots and fallen logs and past several indigenous houses—redolent woodsmoke seeping through their thatched roofs—we are fueled by a visceral sense of anticipation. Our destination for the day, Campamento Paraíso, will be our last stop before our ascent to the Lost City the next morning.

We wake before the sun has had a chance to rise and depart for the sacred site. Today Juan’s brother, Manuel, accompanies us, and after 20 minutes we arrive at the only thing left between the Lost City and us—1,200 stone steps that Manuel explains are more than a thousand years old.

I climb the stairs slowly, as if each step could deepen my connection with those who have gone before. Manuel leads us through a tiny portion of the 80-acre site, pausing at various points to offer an explanation for what we’re seeing—things like a boulder carved with a map representing the region or the throne-like seat of the mamo, the leader and tribal priest in charge of protecting the spiritual energy of the Lost City.

Finally, at nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, we reach a spot where the jungle gives way to a breathtaking vista of layered hills and open sky. And for a brief moment—or until the next tour group comes into view, shattering the illusion—the Lost City spreads out before us, silent and untouched.

That evening, our final night on the trail before returning to Santa Marta, I sit with Manuel’s 8-year-old son Francisco, back at the same campsite by their house that we stayed at a few nights earlier. He is barefoot and dressed in an oversize white T-shirt, hair still damp from the rain and not yet as long as his father’s. As steady showers beat a mesmerizing rhythm on the corrugated metal roof and mandarin and mango trees whisper in the wind outside, Francisco and I sit down at a table to draw by candlelight.

I make an attempt at sketching, but I’m too entranced by Francisco. He prefaces every picture with “Now I’m going to draw”—his horse Lucero, his uncle Vicente, the banana trees and aloe plants in his family’s garden, the russet-colored chickens who peck at the soggy ground in their front yard.

As Francisco fills both sides of a page torn from my notebook, I realize that while I’d come to Colombia to find the Lost City, the greatest discovery had been getting to know the world along the way: the world of the Wiwa.

Candace Rose Rardon is a writer and sketch artist with a passion for storytelling. In addition to keeping her blog, The Great Affair, up to date, Rardon recently released her first book of travel sketches, Beneath the Lantern’s Glow. Follow her on Twitter @candacerardon and on Instagram @candaceroserardon.

Warlike goldsmiths

The Tairona culture developed in the region around A.D. 200.The Tairona were related to the Muisca peoples, who lived to the south around what is now the Colombian capital of Bogotá. Like the Muisca, the Tairona excelled in craftsmanship of precious metals such as gold, which may have fed the myth of El Dorado. They were noted for their resistance to the Spanish conquistadores, staving off the invaders until around 1600, a remarkable feat given the relatively rapid subjugation of the mighty Inca and Aztec.

Spanish chronicler Juan de Castellanos identified them as “Tairos” in the mid-1500s. Their conspicuously rich dress attracted the attention of other chroniclers, who described them as both “astute” and “imperious.” The Spanish reported that they wore patterned capes, headdresses of feathers, and necklaces of beads, mother of pearl, carnelian, and gold.

Colombia's Ciudad Perdida: Secrets of the Lost City

The jungle hummed in my ear as the violet dawn receded and cicadas began to rattle like maracas. One in front of the other, we picked our way in silence over the tree roots and rounded boulders that lined the babbling Buritaca River wiping away the drops of sweat the already sultry air dragged from our foreheads. Suddenly, Celso – our indigenous Wiwa guide – stopped and let out a birdlike whistle to get our attention. He raised a sun-browned finger and pointed across the water. Just visible, through a curtain of lianas and low-hanging branches, was a steep flight of stone steps – browned with lichens and leaves – leading enticingly upwards. I would have walked right past it.

And that's exactly what happened to Colombia's Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) for nigh on 400 years. Built by the Tairona people around AD700-800 – which makes it more than six centuries older than Machu Picchu – it was once home to a 2,000-strong township of potters and farmers who carved terraces and a living from the high hillsides of the 5,700m Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. They remained there unencumbered until Spanish conquistadors arrived in the late 16th century with Catholicism, syphilis and smallpox. The site was abandoned and, like a fairytale castle, all memory of her was forgotten until the mid-1970s when guaqueros (looters), hunting for tropical bird feathers, pulled back the tangled roots and discovered a deserted metropolis complete with burial plots filled with golden earrings, jadeite figurines and fine pottery.

Today, Teyuna – as the locals know it – is still a four-day walk from the nearest road. It has been clear of narco-traffickers and rebel armies since 2005 and word of its beauty is spreading quickly among intrepid hikers. I had joined a new tour with adventure operator Explore to see if the buzz was justified.

On the drive from the coastal town of Santa Marta to the start of the trail in El Mamey, we pass groups crowding around silver-barrelled water tankers they were pushing their buckets towards the tap on its side that spouted agua. "No rain has fallen here for five months," laments our Bogotan translator, Léon, grinding his black-stubble jawline in worry. "The situation is getting pretty desperate."

1 /4 Colombia's Ciudad Perdida

Colombia's Ciudad Perdida

Colombia's Ciudad Perdida

Colombia's Ciudad Perdida

Colombia's Ciudad Perdida

Colombia's Ciudad Perdida

Colombia's Ciudad Perdida

Colombia's Ciudad Perdida

Colombia's Ciudad Perdida

In El Mamey, we meet Celso for the first time. Like his Tairona descendants, a curtain of ebony hair trails down the back of his white tunic slung across his body is a mochila bag woven with colourful geometric designs. We nod "hello" and, without ceremony, he strides off down the sandy path and we scuttle after him.

After an hour, all conversation has wilted away as we focus on hauling ourselves up a 600m hill in 90 per cent humidity. I feel like a wrung-out teabag. At the summit, we sink our teeth into segments of bittersweet orange laid out on palm leaves by our cook, Enrique.

Then it's down and down towards our first camp, Adán – a collection of tin-roofed huts shoehorned into a steep valley overgrown with giant yellow daisies and mango, orange and lime trees. The river has carved out a plunge pool and we jump from the rocks into the cool water and wallow while small fish nibble at our toes. Drying off, we assess our beds for the night. "Hammocks are so uncomfortable," Simon, a fellow hiker, remarks. "No way! They're like a cuddle in your mother's arms" Léon enthuses.

We break camp early the next morning while skeins of smoke rise from the morning fires of families in the valley, and tramp past slopes singed black by slash-and-burn to replace coca plantations with cassava and cacao. Something rustles in the parched grass and Enrique pounces on it. "Look!" he exclaims proudly, holding up a snakelet. "It's a baby Boa constrictor."

At midday, we take shelter from the high sun at a Wiwa camp. Celso leads us to a cacao tree where he slices off a green pod with his machete, tears it in half, and gestures for us to try some. I scoop my fingers around the slimy, white flesh and pop a piece into my mouth. It's soft and sweet and tastes slightly of oranges.

In the afternoon, teasing rumbles of thunder pass overhead, but no rain follows, so we press on passing beneath boughs of unripened bana-nas that hang from the palms and blushing heliconia flowers.

On the fourth day, we rise in the darkness, pull on sweat-soaked T-shirts and shorts, and sneak out of El Paraiso camp while the other groups are sleeping. Tentatively, we start to climb the 1,200 steps – thin shards of stone stabbed into the hillside – that lead to Teyuna. Halfway up, my thighs are burning. I stop to rest a minute and behind me I hear the reassuring sound of Celso snorting coca leaf-laced phlegm and spitting it into the forest. I turn round to see him grinning up at me. He gives me a thumbs-up and we start to climb again.

At the top, we enter a clearing. Three circles of stone spread out before us, as Celso explains that Wymaco – father of the gods – chose the site so his people could live closer to the stars. The sunrise splinters through the high trees, warming our damp bodies and setting the stones aglow. When he's finished, we stand a moment in silence, looking up at the lianas. "How does being here make you feel?" I ask him. "I feel joyful – it's mine. It's a representation of who I am," translates Léon on his behalf.

Celso instructs us to walk around one of the stone circles seven times "to clear away bad spirits" and then we climb higher to La Capilla – the central section where feasts and rituals were held. We chat quietly, pointing to a barking toucan in a tall palm, but then the trees fall away and we are left open-mouthed and silenced: spread out before us are tiers of oval terraces that appear to perch on the clouds and tree canopy like a floating palace. For a full 20 minutes the scene is totally unblemished by other tourists.

So far, 250 terraces have been excavated over 30 hectares, with many more still hidden under the vegetation and, yet, very little is known about the site and its former residents. What facts there are have been cobbled together from a mish-mash of research conducted by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH). And the stories told by Colombian guides and indigenous guides differ dramatically too. But that just adds to the mystery.

Perhaps what's more important is that the Ciudad Perdida trail is welcome proof of how much Colombia has changed: just a decade ago, the Sierra Nevada mountains echoed with gunfire between warring drug cartels and Farc guerillas, but now the government soldiers – camped at the summit to care for and watch over the site – wink at the girls and smile for pictures.

We hike back to El Paraiso camp and are just about to bite into our breakfast arepas when drops of rain start to splash on to the tin roof a few at first, then a deluge, until the earth is dancing to the drum of the water. I think back to the families crowding around the water tanker in Santa Marta and can't help feeling a little superstitious – here is a blessing from Wymaco far better than gold.

The gateway to Colombia is Bogotá. Emma Thomson travelled with Iberia (0870 609 0500 iberia.com), which flies daily from Madrid. From Bogotá, connecting flights to Santa Marta are offered by Avianca (0871 744 7472 avianca.co.uk), which also flies non-stop from Heathrow to Bogotá.

Trekking there

Explore (0844 499 0901 explore.co.uk) offers a 10-day "Trek to the Lost City" tour that costs from £2,380, including return flights, accommodation, transport and tour leader. The trail is busiest during Easter week.

More information

Colombia: The Bradt Travel Guide (bradtguides.com)


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