Discover Colombia’s lost city and its spectacular coast
Ciudad Perdida has a setting to rival Machu Picchu’s, but without the crowds, and you can trek to its amazing ruins, then relax on the beach
We clamber up 1,260 mossy, rough rock steps, little clouds of mosquitoes in our wake. Finally, breathlessly, we reach the sun-drenched monumental central plaza of the Ciudad Perdida, with its stone structures, staircases, terraces and huge expanse of green. I sigh with relief while emitting an involuntary “Wowwwww!”
From the peaks above us, waterfalls stream like giant taps into a vast emerald canopy. Mountains protect the site to the south and east, and there is shade offered by statuesque ivory nut palms.
This is the apex of Ciudad Perdida — literally, the “Lost City”. Once a monumentally large urban complex, it was the capital city of the sophisticated pre-Columbian Tayrona culture, which flourished in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta until the Spanish conquest in the mid-16th century. This was one of the important civilisations from which the four tribes in the Sierra Nevada today are descended, and this is their most important remnant. It was a significant cultural, political and economic nerve centre, one of the biggest pre-Columbian settlements discovered in South America.
And yet the group I am with is the only one here, with a small band of impossibly youthful Colombian soldiers to keep us company (so bored they are happy to pose for pictures with the women, something I get the impression they do on a daily basis).
The city is hardly undiscovered by tourism; roughly 10,000 backpackers trek here every year — but compare that with Machu Picchu’s 1.2 million. A few things have put the visitors off over the years, principal among those being the previous Colombian armed conflict. The area is now viewed as entirely safe, but in 2003 the guerrilla group ELN kidnapped eight walkers, and the hike was closed down until 2005. (They included a British film-maker, Mark Henderson. The documentary he made about it in 2010, My Kidnapper, follows his return to the Sierra Nevada to talk to his captors.)
One also has to be fit enough to get through the hike. This is a true backpacker experience. It’s at least a four-day circular walk, and although it’s only about 45km, my word it’s tough. We’ve walked through thick brush mingling native cedars, ivory nut and maquenque palms, waded through — and washed in — skin-chilling rivers and hauled ourselves up rock faces. We’ve brushed away a thousand mosquitoes and lived for days in the same sweat-saturated clothing.
Our group includes a Russian lawyer and his fashion-industry wife (keen on walking and smoking), a coterie of competitive German medical students, a post-university group of American friends, as well as Austrians, Belgians, a Chilean and a couple of French-Canadians. We will be moving on to more luxurious, flashpacker-style experiences after the trek. Meanwhile, we have to deal with burning sun, those pernicious mosquitoes, and the “accommodation” — meaning bunk beds, or, if you arrive at camp last, a hammock. After spending the first night in one, I vowed to not make the same mistake twice.
This experience is perhaps the most rewarding of all those available along Colombia’s magical Caribbean coast, itself growing in popularity as mainstream travel rapidly spreads beyond the honey-pot tourist site of Cartagena de Indias city. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which peaks at 5,800m (19,000ft), is the world’s highest coastal mountain range. Its jungles, hills and river valleys hide remote indigenous tribes, who choose to remain largely disengaged from the outside world.
And so the payoffs are immense. The landscape has an ethereal, untouched beauty. You are usually far away from any human settlement. And, while the shy Kogi indigenous people appear ambivalent, at best, about the presence of the walkers, many work as guides or bring in supplies on mules to trekking camps, and being near them can be rewarding. The day I briefly shared a river with Kogi children was one I won’t forget.
A number of the camps are next to a river that you can swim in at the end of a day’s walking. One evening at dusk I was resting in the middle of the river against a giant black boulder that parted the water surging downstream. My friend Rama joined me and here we remained, immobile and speechless, our spongy overworked toes luxuriating in the coldness of the water. A group of small Kogi boys came down to the river and the youngest were about six. They threw off their tunics and dived in under the vicious current, swimming like fish until they emerged on the other side.
From this spectacular ridge of Ciudad Perdida, the historic remains fan out on to mountain slopes and over about 50 acres, with outlying village ruins scattering over 370 acres. Only about 10 per cent has been uncovered, including houses, terraces, stone paths, stairwells, squares, ritual areas, canals and store houses. Striking concentric stone rings that catch the eye were bases for enormous huts, similar to the bohios used by indigenous tribes of the area today, with circular, mud walls and cone-shaped thatches. The entire settlement was constructed using great sophistication, with rainfall channelled to prevent erosion and damage to the buildings.
I finish the walk sunburnt and staggering, but with a priceless feeling of elation
The story of Ciudad Perdida is sad and thrilling. No one is quite sure how old it is, but archaeologists have dated it as having been built between AD800 and AD1360. At the time that it came under threat from the Spanish it was one of about 250 settlements in the region that communicated and traded. These remain enveloped in jungle and the Kogi have banned further digs, with pottery and gold work that was not plundered over the centuries on display in Santa Marta’s impressive new Museo del Oro.
After the Spanish arrived, the Tayrona retreated from the coast deeper into the jungle, forced to live by hunting alone. At some point the city was abandoned, the Tayrona’s numbers greatly reduced. It lay forgotten for 400 years, and the first non-indigenous people to discover it were treasure hunters. In the 1970s unearthing Colombian treasures was a way of making a living validated by the state. The guaqueros — grave robbers — were even unionised. So, after Florentino Sepúlveda and his two sons, Julio César and Jacobo, discovered Ciudad Perdida, rival gangs soon got wind of the opportunity to make off with some booty.
Spats evolved into violence and troops were sent in by 1976 to sort out the troubles in what the guaqueros referred to as the infierno verde (the “green hell”). Archaeologists followed hot on their heels. They found overturned slabs, toppled walls and discarded pottery fragments and tools.
I finish the walk sunburnt and staggering, with blisters the size of Texas, but with a priceless feeling of elation. Our next destination couldn’t be more far removed — a blissed-out beach haven for a post-hike recovery. On the eastern doorstep of Tayrona National Park, about an hour by car from the coastal city of Santa Marta in the direction of Venezuela, Gitana del Mar is an enticing boutique hotel and the whimsical creation of a part-Colombian family. It hogs a wild piece of beachfront with a palm grove sandwiched between its six rooms and the shore. The ecological, rustic but upmarket hotel is reminiscent of Brazil’s famously winsome beachy retreats.
After the trek this is a great place to loll in a hammock, indulge in twice-daily yoga and the treehouse spa, brave the crashing waves and try the life-affirming cuisine, which fuses Colombian coastal influences with Asian and Mediterranean dishes. In 24 hours we consume fat juicy prawns in a coriander chimichurri sauce, oven-roasted fish with coconut rice and a Thai curry sauce, Asian beet coleslaw, Mediterranean stuffed chicken and a filet mignon encrusted in coffee. Breakfasts are a feast of tropical fruits, granolas and home-made arepas.
I can’t think of a better way to recover from the walk than lounging in their hammocks, accompanied by the two affectionate hotel dogs. There’s little public access to the beach, which is deserted apart from a group of fishermen hauling in their catch. By the time we leave here for Santa Marta I am refreshed — blisters healed, sunburn faded into a tan, and nourished and rested.
Gitana del Mar is a new breed of hotel in Colombia, and while it’s one of the pioneers, it is symptomatic of changes at large along this coast. The gorgeous colonial city of Cartagena de Indias, a five-hour drive west, has become a latter-day goldmine for the new, tourist-friendly, entrepreneurial and open Colombia. About 15 years ago its old town was hardly salubrious; now it is a tax-free zone for thriving hotels and gourmet businesses.
As Cartagena is becoming somewhat oversaturated, tentacles of gentrification are creeping into other outposts of the coast. Santa Marta, on the other side of Tayrona National Park, is our next port of call. A first landing point for Spanish colonial sailors, the sleepy city is new to tourism, seeking to discard its history as a hub for cocaine production and distribution. So it retains an unpolished, authentic charm.
Until recent years, local families had abandoned its historic centre. Now, handsome colonial and Republican buildings are being restored as the town embraces a more chic form of tourism. A shining example is Casa Carolina, the creation of Londoner David Schickler and his Colombian wife, Vanessa. It’s a ten-room boutique hotel that they are in the process of doubling in size, taking in the house next door.
Rooms unfurl around a sociable central courtyard with a pool, and there’s a rooftop spa and hot tub with sea and Sierra views. The restaurant shirks the Colombian trend of carbohydrate-heavy fare in favour of light, healthy dishes that fuse international staples such as couscous, hummus and tzatziki with local elements such as mint, limes, avocados, tropical fruits and seafood.
The evening we arrive, David and Vanessa take us out on their new hotel speedboat, with their two young children. We zoom eastwards, dropping anchor by an arid, cactus-covered hill near Bahia de Taganga to snorkel on a small coral reef before continuing to nearby Playa Grande in the bewitchingly pretty Tayrona National Park. David whisks those searching for a totally virgin environment to Tayrona’s Chengue beach, with its white sands and clear waters. This protected coastal reserve also offers wild jungle tracks as less gruelling hiking options than the Ciudad Perdida trek.
That night we join the couple again in nearby Parque de los Novios in Santa Marta. A decade ago this was a derelict space populated by drug users and the homeless. Now, alfresco terraces are rammed with revellers, and street musicians weave through the throng of youth enjoying the balmy air. Our table is not visible under the multiple sharing plates of wood-fired pizzas and slow-cooked octopus at the restaurant Ouzo, which takes over two jam-packed floors.
“Until three years ago there were no parks at all,” David tells us. “There’s also a project for 65 new parks, as well as various other social, infrastructure and educational projects.”
Colombia has finally signed a peace deal with its Farc rebels, ending Latin America’s longest-running conflict. The deal doesn’t have universal popularity, but it draws an official line under the past. And so we toast the new Santa Marta, the new Colombia and the future of tourism on this fabled, gorgeous, Caribbean coast. It’s onwards and upwards from here.
Need to know
Lydia Bell was a guest of Amakuna (020 7193 7582, amakuna.com), which has a seven-night Trek to the Lost City holiday from £1,890pp. This includes two nights’ B&B at Casa Carolina in Santa Marta, three nights’ full board on the Lost City trek and two nights’ full board by the beach at Gitana del Mar in Tayrona. The price includes all domestic flights, the services of guides, transfers and most meals, but not international flights, which cost from £600pp with Avianca (avianca.com). For more information see colombia.travel