By Joshua Rapp Learn, Contributing Reporter
TEYUNA, COLOMBIA – Strange stone shapes rise out of the hillside like ancient podiums in the midst of a jungle otherwise unbroken for kilometers. The structures look out across a valley towards cotton-like clouds that disappear as their moisture is sucked up by the creeping vegetation.
The grand structures of the ruins sit like an empty testimony to the civilization of the former Tairona people in the Colombian Sierra Nevada. Often referred to as the Ciudad Perdida, Teyuna is the ruin of an ancient city built around 800 AD.
The city was apparently abandoned around the time of the Spanish Conquest, and wasn’t discovered again until grave robbers stumbled upon a set of some 1,200 steps leading up the side of a steep mountainside. Archaeologists followed and some of the 170 terraces were restored on top of the hillside.
According to archaeologists and the Kogui people who consider themselves cultural descendants of the ancient Tairona, the podiums were probably actually base structures for wooden houses and other structures. The city would have been the center of a large commercial network around 600 years ago.
The trek itself usually takes around six days, but it can be done in as little as four if you barrel through it. Aside from the ruins, the walk itself is a beautiful journey through the Colombian Sierra Nevada, complete with numerous wildlife sighting opportunities and camping sites near fresh water swimming holes. The trip includes a raucous safari through the back roads in a colorful, open-air chiva, a form of rural Colombian transportation.
Although safety was a concern in the area in the past, tours have been operating smoothly for the past five years. In 2003 a trekking group was kidnapped by the ELN, a group of left-wing rebels even though the AUC, a paramilitary group, had declared itself protector of the area. A form of ‘tax’ to the latter was (and perhaps still is) included in the tour fee. As of today, the Colombian army actively patrols the area, ensuring the safety of the historical attraction.
The ancient Tairona certainly had a large degree of foresight when building their city as the podium structures make for perfect helicopter landing pads for tourists less interested in carrying a backpack through a sweaty jungle for six days to get to the hill and back. If you are keen to avoid the hike, helicopter tours can be arranged from Santa Marta.
Competition for trekking tours to the Lost City can be fierce in Santa Marta, with different guides haggling for tourists. The majority of them have agreed to a set price of around R$450, so when choosing a guide you are probably better off going on personality or experience.
Many of the guides hired out of Santa Marta or nearby Taganga have been running tours to the ruins for years. The guide and sometimes a porter will provide the food and cook three meals a day during the journey. The various camping sites are equipped with hammocks and mosquito nets as well. The Kogui shaman who keeps watch of the ruins even sells cold beer from his generator-powered fridge.