The lost city of Colombia

The river is floating lazily by, crystal clear water over small rounded rocks, huge boulders sprouting out along the riverbed, trees leaning in, wanting to soak up the water with their green vines. The sound of the river is a constant around me, calling me to jump in, and I do, with all my clothes, my dirty sweaty clothes – stained by a day of walking in the heat, uphill, uphill, uphill, the humidity draining out more sweat of my body than I thought possible, soaking every single piece I’m wearing. I cool down, I wash, I float in the cold refreshing water, dipping my head, my hair – brain freeze, almost – who would have thought that a climate this warm and sweltering could have such cold water? And later: clean, warm, dry clothes, that wonderful feeling. I hang my wet clothes to dry, even though I know they’ll still be soaking in the morning.


I don’t know what I was expecting of this trip; I wasn’t even planning on taking it, but I sure as hell don’t regret it. “The lost city”, ruins of a lost civilization, the “Machu Picchu of Colombia”, except that it’s nothing like Machu Picchu. The ruins, some round terraces connected by stairs made out of stone in Las Sierras Nevadas de Santa Marta, is not nearly as visually stunning, nor spectacular as it’s Peruvian “brother”. But still, it’s alluring. The only way to get there is to walk through the jungle for a couple of days, beautiful green lush jungle covering the hills and mountains, with clear rivers and waterholes to cool down everywhere. Stunning vistas of mountains, even without the carrot of the ruins at the end, this trek is wonderful, and what the ruins lack in absolute wow-factor (though they are still quite astonishing) they make up in its fascinating and bloody (especially recent) history.


The settlement belonged to the Tairona Indians who originally lived along the northern Colombian coast, and it was probably built and founded around year 700-800. It was abandoned some hundred years or so after the arrival of the Spaniards to the Americas, probably due to conflicts when the Spaniards ventured further away from the coast as well, and then left to be devoured by the jungle for some 400 years.


In 1972 two tomb raiders randomly discovered the ruins after spotting some stairs carved out of stone leading up from the river, they discovered the terraces and also that many of them contained graves filled with gold and valuables. They were the only ones reaping the valuables of the graves for a while but soon the word spread by mouth, through drunken nights and encounters, and the lost city became filled with looters wanting to make a quick buck. It was a lawless place where people were killed for nothing and blood tainted the ground until, as the story goes, one of the looters felt thing had gotten so out of hand that he reported the place to the government. Archeologists and anthropologists replaced the tomb raiders, and the city was then cleared and reconstructed and later became a tourist destination.



Fast forward some thirty years and we are sitting on the ground outside our second camp. Our stomachs full and satisfied, everyone happy that this night we will get to sleep in beds instead of hammocks. Some candles are flickering, lighting up some pictures and news clips scattered before us. Pictures of artifacts, gold, jewelry things that were found and taken from the graves, and then a picture of some guys holding up their hands triumphantly, a helicopter can be perceived in the background. It’s history time, our guide Yonatan has taken us from the beginning through the discovery of the city, and has now ventured to the 21th century.


On the 12th of September 2003 eight tourists sleeping in the lost city were kidnapped by the guerilla group ELN. One of the tourists managed to escape the first day and wandered alone in the jungle for 12 days before he was encountered. The five who was deemed the strongest (and most rebellious and aggressive) were held captive for over three months before they finally were released. The kidnapping was a way for the ELN to try to draw international attention to land displacement and human rights violations happening in the area as a result of the conflict between the Colombian government, guerilla groups and the paramilitary. The kidnappings sure managed to get international attention, and it resulted in the Colombian government sending in huge military forces to clear the area. The face of Yonatan clouds over when he answers someone’s question about what happened to the guerrillas during “the clean up”: – The military has no respect for life.


Tourism and tours started up again in 2005, but it wasn’t until one of the kidnapped – a British documentary maker – met one of his kidnappers, went back to the lost city with some of the others tourists that were kidnapped and made a documentary about it (“My kidnapper” released in 2010) that tourists started to flock to the site. Though still, not nearly as many as visit Machu Picchu.


The dark history of the place (when we are walking through the ruins the next morning, Yonatan tells us another grim story, about the earlier days of it’s rediscovery, when the police and not the military were in charge of security. One day when the headquarter in Santa Marta couldn’t contact anyone at the camp they sent in a helicopter and found all the guards killed, and the chief missing, probably with some gold and artifacts as well) can’t take away the beauty and the tranquility I feel when walking through the jungle, up the moss covered stone steps, seeing the mountainous vistas and hearing the trickling sound of water.The only thing that makes you remember the dark past for a second, and the continuous threat and conflict in Colombia is the permanent little military camp at the top of the terraces.

I wasn’t planning on going to the lost city, but the road made it well worth the visit.






(The camp were we spent our first night, sleeping in hammocks).

(We were well fed during the trek).


(One of many river crossings. During the wet season people might have to wade through waist deep water).