Ciudad Perdida (Spanish for “Lost City”) is an ancient city in Sierra Nevada, Colombia, believed to have been founded around 800 AD. The lost city consists of a series of terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. Members of local tribes call the city Teyuna and believe it was the heart of a network of villages inhabited by their forebears, the Tairona. It was apparently abandoned during the Spanish conquest.
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 rhymes 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 rhymes 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.”