Backpacking to a lost indigenous city in the jungles of Colombia was my way of ending 2018 with a bang. My dad and my brother, Alan, accompanied me on my first-ever four-day backpacking trip in Santa Marta, Colombia. We did not know what to expect, but ended up glad we took on the challenge.
Older than Machu Picchu, “La Ciudad Perdida,” or Lost City, was inhabited by the Tairona people of Colombia around 800 C.E. The site was abandoned during the Spanish conquests and discovered by treasure looters in the early 70’s. From the late 70’s to early 80’s, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology worked to reconstruct and preserve the Lost City. Now the Global Heritage Fund works to preserve and maintain the site, while the Colombian military makes sure it is safe.
On the first day, we took a two-hour Jeep ride to the town of El Mamey, where we met our hiking group of about 50 to 60 people. People were speaking German, English (both American and British accents), Spanish, French, Dutch, and Hungarian. I was going to spend four days with hikers from around the world. This trip was going to be special.
After having lunch, we departed around 1:00 pm and hiked for five hours to the first campsite, Alfredo Camp. We had dinner around 7:00 pm and ate grilled chicken with plantains and rice. At night, we slept in bunk beds covered with a lining so that mosquitos and bugs could not get inside. Seven kilometers down.
On the second day, we woke up at 5:00 am and went from Alfredo to Mumake Camp. We hiked for three hours on mid to steep inclines until arriving at a fruit station to rest. After a couple of hours hiking through scenic routes, we passed by an amazing Kugoi (coh-gee) village. After arriving at Mumake Camp, we settled down and I went for a swim at the river with my brother and the other hikers. It was beautiful (waterfall and everything), but it was also quite cold.
As it was explained to me, the two indigenous groups that live in the area are the Kugoi and the Wiwa (wee-wa). The Kugoi are very conservative and traditional in their ways, while the Wiwa are very progressive and interact a lot with the outside world. An easy way to distinguish the two is that the Wiwa wear a western-style white hat, or they are playing Candy Crush on their smartphone.
But there was a change of plans. The Mumake Camp was filled to capacity, so our tour guide offered for us to sleep at the Lost City. The offer didn’t seem too legal or safe, but we went along with it. After crossing the Buritaca River twice, we arrived at an opening in the jungle. Suddenly, we ran into some stones. Those stones were stairs built by Tairona Aborigines hundreds of years ago. 1,200 narrow, slippery stone steps, to be exact.
To be honest, heights are terrifying for me, so walking up those stairs was quite hard. But after about 20 or so minutes, I saw a big stone terrace. We had arrived. My brother and I wandered around the desolate Ciudad Perdida in wonder. We were the only tourists there yet. It was so unreal. The city was huge and situated on top of a mountain with hidden stairs as the only entrance. It really was a Lost City.
We slept in a tree house with a Hungarian couple and some Colombian friends from Houston, TX, that we made on the trip. The night was cold, very cold, but my brother and I woke up the next day to the beautiful sunrise. What a trip.
On the third day, we explored and took pictures of the Ciudad Perdida. Our tour guide, Oscar, gave us a run through of the history and meaning behind much of the architecture and the people who lived there. Then we descended back down the 1,200 stairs to hike back to Mumake Camp. We ate meat, plantains, rice, and salad and stayed overnight.
Something that stuck with me during the third day occurred when I was speaking with the tour guide about Colombian identity. He shared with me that he was writing a song about being proud about being a Colombian. I told him that I liked to run and that I was good at it. He requested a video of me racing so that he could add it to his music video. I’m excited to see what he sends me on WhatsApp (everyone uses WhatsApp in Colombia).
On the last day, we hiked 14 kilometers to El Mamey – the original camping site. After hiking for five hours through steep inclines, we arrived at El Mamey to celebrate with the other returned hikers. I had a long political conversation with a French biker named Isabelle, which broadened my horizons about contemporary international affairs. We thanked our tour guide and took a Jeep that drove us two hours to Santa Marta.
The trip was extraordinary and exhausting. It gave me perspective about my life and allowed me to get back to the basics. I would definitely do it again. Granted, in about 10 years.