The Lost City the Sierra Nevada

The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, of northeastern Colombia (Sketch by Candace Rose Rardon). He appears out of the jungle like an apparition—a man from the Wiwa tribe, one of four indigenous groups who call the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains home. In his traditional outfit—white cotton shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and two colorful mochillas strung across one shoulder—he stands out against the dense foliage of ferns and wax palms. 

It is my first day in the tropical rain forests of northeast Colombia and, along with about a dozen other hikers, I am on the trail to La Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City. The pre-Colombian city was built around 800 A.D., making it some 650 years older than its Inca Empire-counterpart, Machu Picchu, in Peru.

The archaeological site that remains is sacred to the four tribes, all of which descended from the Tairona, who for centuries inhabited the Lost City before the Spanish conquistadors forced them to flee. Even as the jungle reclaimed its stone terraces and trails, the Lost City was never “lost” to the tribes themselves, who say they continued to make regular pilgrimages there. Only in 1975 was the city discovered by the outside world—by looters, no less. Six years later, the site, which the Wiwa call Teyuna, was opened to the public.

Though several operators take visitors to La Ciudad Perdida, Wiwa Tours, founded in 2008 by three brothers from the Wiwa community, is the only company that offers indigenous guides to the Lost City. 

Our trek leader, 17-year-old Juan Daiza Gil, is to meet our group in the village of El Mamey. Like all Wiwa men, Juan wears his jet-black hair long and well past his shoulders, yet has exchanged white pants for jeans tucked into rubber boots.

Within minutes, the road narrows to a single path through the forest. It is hard to believe that just two hours earlier, we were in the bustling port of Santa Marta, one of the oldest cities in South America.

As Juan leads us up steep muddy tracks and across swiftly flowing stream beds, I am cognizant that we are entering a world in which cars, electricity, and cell phones no longer exist—a world traversable only by foot or horse.

Birdsong fills the humid morning air; beside the path—and sometimes even directly on it—cows graze lazily, greeting us with unblinking gazes. Every step seems to bring a new discovery. When I’m not desperately trying to catch my breath on uphill sections or downing water to beat the intense heat, I ask Juan about the flora and fauna we’re sharing the trail with. He points out cacao trees, their maroon-colored pods gleaming in the sun, as well as a butterfly with striking sapphire wings, aptly named the Blue Morpho, that is native to the rain forests of Central and South America. 

But the discoveries take a cultural turn at the home of Manuel, Juan’s older brother and a fellow guide, whose home will be our campsite for the night. While Manuel’s three young sons play fútbol with members of our group, I hear his wife Maria washing clothes in a creek below the house, the thwap of wet fabric hitting rock resounding like thunder. Later, she sits alone on their porch, weaving a mochilla from natural fique fibers.

After dinner, Juan and another of his six brothers, Vicente, prepare a traditional tea for us made from coca leaves, cinnamon, and panela, an unrefined sugarcane product common in Colombia and throughout Latin America. As we sip the sweet steaming liquid, the brothers demonstrate how the leaves are dried—as much for the tea as for the men’s coca-chewing ritual, an essential part of Wiwa culture.

Here in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, our journey is becoming as much a social voyage into the traditions of the Wiwa as it is a physical adventure. 

Our third day on the trail brings five more hours of arduous hiking; our shoes sinking deep into clay and mud, sweat pooling on our skin. As we cross the Buritaca River, clambering over thick roots and fallen logs and past several indigenous houses—redolent woodsmoke seeping through their thatched roofs—we are fueled by a visceral sense of anticipation. Our destination for the day, Campamento Paraíso, will be our last stop before our ascent to the Lost City the next morning.

We wake before the sun has had a chance to rise and depart for the sacred site. Today Juan’s brother, Manuel, accompanies us, and after 20 minutes we arrive at the only thing left between the Lost City and us—1,200 stone steps that Manuel explains are more than a thousand years old.

I climb the stairs slowly, as if each step could deepen my connection with those who have gone before. Manuel leads us through a tiny portion of the 80-acre site, pausing at various points to offer an explanation for what we’re seeing—a boulder carved with a map representing the region or the throne-like seat of the mamo, the leader and tribal priest in charge of protecting the spiritual energy of the Lost City. 

Finally, at nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, we reach a spot where the jungle gives way to a breathtaking vista of layered hills and open sky. And for a brief moment—or until the next tour group comes into view, shattering the illusion—the Lost City spreads out before us, silent and untouched.

That evening, our final night on the trail before returning to Santa Marta, I sit with Manuel’s 8-year-old son Francisco, back at the same campsite by their house that we stayed at nights earlier. He is barefoot and dressed in an oversized white T-shirt, hair still damp from the rain and not yet as long as his father’s. As steady showers beat a mesmerizing rhythm on the corrugated metal roof and mandarin and mango trees whisper in the wind outside, Francisco and I sit down at a table to draw by candlelight.

I make an attempt at sketching, but I’m too entranced by Francisco. He prefaces every picture with, “Now I’m going to draw”—his horse Lucero, his uncle Vicente, the banana trees and aloe plants in his family’s garden, the russet-colored chickens who peck at the soggy ground in their front yard. 

As Francisco fills both sides of a page torn from my notebook, I realize that while I’d come to Colombia to find the Lost City, the greatest discovery had been getting to know the world along the way: the world of the Wiwa.