Colombia's lost city

JUNGLE RUINS: view from the top of Colombia's Lost City.
JUNGLE RUINS: view from the top of Colombia's Lost City.

History seems to commemorate only those who achieve the greatest triumphs or commit the most heinous deeds.

Falling between the gaps - or even accidentally straddling them - brings few rewards.

Take the nameless souls who discovered Colombia's Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in 1973.

The men spent weeks in the jungle, fighting off clouds of mosquitoes and avoiding snakes, before discovering one of South America's most important archaeological sites.

They immediately set about ruining their chance of greatness by stealing everything of value and didn't stop until almost three years later, when news of their bounty filtered beyond the jungle.

Though the theft ruined large parts of the site for dedicated archaeologists, the party's initial pioneering opened the settlement to the world.

Twenty-five years since its "official" rediscovery, the Lost City receives hundreds of visitors a month - which, as my legs quiver beneath me, seems like an awful lot of masochists.

Within half an hour of setting out, we've crossed a river twice and we're approaching our first ascent.

Tours of the Lost City have been operating since 1994 on a route little changed since the early days.

The ruins can be reached only by trekking through 50 kilometres of testing jungle terrain, a round trip that takes five days.

It's unlikely the mosquitoes are any less ferocious today than when the city was built by the pre-Colombian Tairona civilisation, about 1200 years ago.

 To ward off insects, I'm doused in Repel 100, a diabolically powerful repellent that claims to contain 98.11 per cent DEET. The others in my group marvel at its toxicity, but it stinks and seems to heat my skin.

Now we're trekking uphill, above the canopy, and the heat is teamed with humidity. Every muscle in my body bounces to the rhythm. This, I presume, is what it's like to die in a microwave oven.

After an hour of climbing, we stop at a clearing to listen to our guide, Edwin Rey, explain how this area inside the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park is changing.

Just a few years ago, this vista would have been a sea of coca plants (until recently, it was rumoured that visitors could tour a cocaine laboratory). Then, in 2008, with the backing of the US government, the former Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, implemented a plan to pay farmers a subsidy to grow other crops. Today, the valley is home to coffee farms and cattle.

After a night sleeping on hammocks in a riverside hut, our second day begins with another testing climb. Below our feet, legions of army ants march across the path, waving neatly cut leaves, like windsurfers struggling with little green sails.

They're not the only distraction from the pain; the jungle birdsong is sometimes tuneful, sometimes comical and one unseen tumbling-then-crashing voice sounds uncannily like an eight-bit computer sprite losing its life. Listening to the birds is easy; picking them out from the thick vegetation is not.

We clamber over a nameless summit, skirt across a plateau, then plunge back into the jungle, taking hourly breaks for fruit and water.

Like yesterday, we reach our destination after just four hours of intense, impossibly sweaty walking. We're soaked and in the permanent humidity of the jungle, nothing will dry until we are back in the city of Santa Marta, our starting point.

As the region's most experienced Lost City guide, Rey is a merciless pacesetter. It's not until the close of our third day of hiking, as we reach our spartan accommodation on the outskirts of the ruins, that I have a chance to rest and talk with him.

His surname translates as "King" but that is about Rey's only regal attribute. The 50-year-old Colombian speaks little English but with such slow, accent-free Spanish and eloquent gestures, he's easily understood. Despite the language barrier, I like him immediately.

Rey has been officially visiting the Lost City since the Santa Marta-based Turcol Tours pioneered hikes there in the mid-1990s.

But his connection to the place is much older than that. His father was with the original anthropological and archaeological groups who studied the site and, Rey concedes with a smile, was probably there before anything "official" was going on at all.

Rey jnr was working as a financial controller for a construction company in Santa Marta when Turcol opened the route to hikers.

He immediately changed careers and literally followed in his father's footsteps.

Other than the usual perils (accidents, snakes), everything went smoothly until September 15, 2003, when Rey found himself involved in the infamous kidnapping of 15 people from within the grounds of the Lost City.

At the time, groups spent at least one night sleeping in huts inside the ruins.

Armed guerillas approached the trekkers, told them people had been killed nearby and escorted them away under the pretence of safety. The ruse didn't last long. Rey, one of two guides with the group, was tied up and locked alone in a hut.

He quickly reached the conclusion he would be killed - a local guide without wealth isn't worth much as a hostage.

 He did the only thing he could: he freed himself and set out for help, hiking a circuitous route through the jungle back to Santa Martain the belief the kidnappers were on his tail.

At the end of the third day, Rey limped into the city to tell the police what had happened.

To his amazement, he learnt that his fellow guide and five of the 13 tourists (including two Australians) had been deemed politically unimportant and released by the guerillas.

 They had followed the most direct route home and arrived before Rey. The guerillas, however, were still at large with the group's remaining eight hostages, the last of whom were released after 102 days in the jungle.

Rey was handed over to notoriously brutal paramilitaries for questioning. How had he escaped alone? Why hadn't he remained? Why didn't he have any tourists with him?

The married father of one was eventually released and returned to work with trepidation; the guerillas remained in the mountains with their hostages and knew Rey's face and name from newspaper reports.

These days, he is asked to tell the story so many times he couldn't forget it even if he wanted to.

He seems to wish he could. At one point on our trip, a man with a machete walks past our hut and fails to answer Rey's first four or five calls. Our guide sits bolt upright, trying to get a better look and on the brink of panic, until the man offers a casual "hola".

Earlier this year, one of the last hostages to be released, Englishman Mark Henderson, made My Kidnapper, a feature-length documentary about his experiences. Rey refused to take part or even watch it.

He is trying to put the trauma behind him and write a book on the history of Ciudad Perdida, though it's difficult when trekkers book with Turcol and ask for him by name.

The number of people trekking to the Lost City is increasing every year, partly because of the improved security on the route and partly in response to the crowding and development at other ancient sites, such as Machu Picchu in Peru.

On our fourth morning, we wade across a river five times to get to the base of 1200 slippery stairs leading to the partially exposed ruins and, finally, to a large clearing.

The morning sun has burnt off the valley cloud and above the trees we can see Ciudad Perdida, looking like something halfway between Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat.

But unlike its nominal rivals, there's barely a soul here. As we climb further into the ancient settlement, past two great, mossy platforms where wooden huts once stood, we find a couple of High Mountain Battalion soldiers selling drinks from a cooler. There's a feeling that we are the ones discovering this place for the first time.

As far as being a tourist attraction, a good deal of work still has to be done. There isn't a single sign explaining what we're looking at, for example, and only a fraction of the estimated 169 terraces have been cleared.

But the rawness of the site - the toads leaping up broken stone stairs, the tree roots gripping ancient walls - is what makes it magical.

The walk here took three days and we need to get back in a day and a half. As we turn for home, it seems a pity that there's no one to thank for its discovery. Instead I decide to thank Rey - I just need to catch him first.


Walking there

Several tour agencies follow the route to the Lost City but none has more experience than Turcol, which opened the route to tourists.

The five-day return hike from Santa Marta costs 600,000 Colombian pesos (NZ$411) and includes transfers from Santa Marta to the national park, basic accommodation (at least one night sleeping in hammocks), food and safe drinking water; see

The 50-kilometre trek is challenging and requires hiking experience. There are no porters; you carry your gear, so pack light. The 10 river crossings mean cameras need to be protected in dive bags or similar.


The 2003 kidnapping was the first and only such incident in the region, partly because a dedicated mountain battalion was assigned to protect the Sierra Nevada park. These days the biggest concerns are mosquitoes and the occasional snake.

Sydney Morning Herald