The Tayrona Trail to Cuidad Perdida

Published: September 10th 2009
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Cue the theme music. Strap on your bullwhip and best jungle clothes as Ann and Gordon attempt to emulate Indiana and make it to the lost city of the Tayrona people. Making it there was fine, getting back was a little trickier, but more on that later. Firstly what is Ciudad Perdida and who were the Tayrona.....yep time again for a little history lesson.

[bThe Tayrona
Colombia has a number of diverse indigenous populations. The Tayrona were one such population who inhabited the Sierra Nevada de Santa Martha which is the mountain range in the North East of the country on the Caribbean Coast. The Tayrona's built their main urban centre at what is now known as Ciudad Perdida (translated as Lost City) on the Northern slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Martha. The city was occupied from 900BC to 1500BC before it was abandoned as a result of attempts by conquistadors to overrun the local population in search of gold. As a result of the mountainous terrain the city was built on a series of stone terraces and today what remain are largely these terraces and the paved paths that connect them showing the outline of what a great metropolis it once would have been. All in the entire site covers some 40 hectares, but a large amount of this remains swallowed up by the jungle which surrounds the city.

The trek to and from Ciudad Perdida is a standard 6 day trek. It’s possible to do it in a shorter time, but to be honest that would kind of be like going to Paris, seeing the Eiffel Tower and whole city, all in one day and not bothering to really enjoy the whole experience, ravenous mosquitoes and all!


Day 1

Day one was basically really hot! As instructed we got to the tour office at usual in South America we then sat around for a couple of hours while things were organised, people finally turned up (used to the south american way), money was finally collected from those who forgot to get cash ou beforehand....and we finally left the tour office at about 10.30 ..............after, that was, a heated discussion as to how you could possibly fit 12 trekkers, 3 guides and a driver into a 12 seater Chiva......especially since the driver accounted for at least 2 of the people (and wasn't willing to share his space whatsoever). Eventually the trekkers prevailed and 4 people got into a taxi to drive them to the edge of the park. After the obligatory security check by the Colombian Military, who responsible for maintaining security in the park, we continued towards a small village from where our transport would leave us and our feet would take over.

The day's walk itself was hot.....not just from the sun but the humidity was high and after about an hour of walking it was a HUGE relief to come across a pool in which we could swim. All 12 of us couldn't get into our swimquits quick enough (in fact some didn't even bother) and jump into the cooling water. After a half hour of cooling off it was back to the trek though and we walked for another 3 hours before we hit camp, where we had the opportunity for another dip in a natural pool....again highly appreciated by all. We spent the night in hammocks, which thankfully werewn't half as bad as we had been led to fact they were really comfortable, especially for us shorties (it's nice to have the advantage for once).

Day 2

It was an early start for us but given the heat of the midday sun this was not a bad idea. It was again to be another 4 or 5 hours of walking to the next camp. The first part of the day was on fairly flat paths. It was again pretty warm but, unlike the previous day, there was more shade provided by the forest as we moved further away from civilisation. After about 2 hours of walking we came to a river crossing and, as one does when in the humid jungle, stopped for a break and had another cooling dip. Thanks to the heat (and our great exertions) it was difficult to distinguish between us pre-swim and post-swim. The main difference being that we felt a whole lot cooler! We continued on....this next part of the trek was largely downhill, though the path was extremely muddy and thus difficult to traverse. Coming back this way would not be easy on Day 5! The second part of the day was in much thicker jungle which provided some relief from the sun and so heat. We passed for the first time through traditional indigenous villages and met some of the local children. It really is amazing to see the basic lifestyle they lead with absolutely no modern conveniences, including many that we could not live without! However children will be children and the running round, chasing and playing(and asking for sweeties!! were just the same. We reached the end of day 2 in the early afternoon which gave us plenty of time to have a dip in a very fast running quiet swimming pool here!! it was quite exciting jumping in and then swimming hard left to catch the rock and not be swept downstream. I don't think any of us have swum so fast in our lives. Here we had luxury and spent the night in bunk beds! So much for deepest, darkest, basic jungle living.

Day 3

Day 3 was the big day. The day involved 8 river crossings, 1400 steps and, finally, us reaching Ciudad Perdida. Where days 1 and 2 had been 4 or 5 hours of walking day 3 promised 8 or 9 hours of walking, so we set off early. The first half hour, 45 minutes from camp 2, follows the course
The Ultimate Contest..Tarantual v WaspThe Ultimate Contest..Tarantual v WaspThe Ultimate Contest..Tarantual v Wasp

This is a classic David Attenborough scene.....the two battle it out. Thw wasp if it wins doesn't kill the Tarantula, it merely subdues it, lays eggs on it so when they hatch they have a ready meal.
of the river. Of course in parts the path has been washed away, so it is necessary to scramble over very steep rocks, putting one foot in front of the other and holding on to little crags and grips in order to get yourself over (NOTE: remember this point for later). Needless to say, although it’s only about a couple of hundred metres, it takes a while. Cue river crossing number 1.........this means crossing the river which we could barely swim in the day before. Of course, heading half an hour up river you come to a suitable crossing point, where it’s only just above the knees depending on how tall you are of course). Our guides were great, standing in the water and making sure everyone gets through ok. After this we had a 2 hour hill climb which quickly removes any of the freshness that the river crossing provided. You pass through an Indian village along the way and once you reach the top you arrive at another army checkpoint.

The army are stationed for 3 months inside the park and therefore, as you can imagine, are quite keen to trade with you for cigarettes etc. They are happy for some money too, to sell you their cap. Free of charge, just for their entertainment, they're more than happy to take photos with you (see the evidence). In the past, the area has had some clashes between the military and ELN, a leftist anti-government group. About 6 years ago ELN abducted a group of trekkers who were heading to Ciudad Perdida and held them hostage, keeping some for 3 months! 6 Days in the jungle is more than enough! Coincidently our guide, Omar, was one of the guides on that ill-fated trip and he tells a tale of being made to lie on the ground with his hands behind his head. He thought at that point that it was curtains, especially since being a local his ransom value was minimal! In response to this, the Colombian Government heavily patrols the area around Ciudad Perdida and the paths leading to it.

From the military checkpoint, it’s another couple of hours walking along jungle paths. The air is thick and humid, with very little wind. Your clothes by this point are saturated.........and smelly (boys especially!!!). Gradually we descended towards the river and began a series of 7 river crossings. Some of the crossings are a little hairy ,with bags being held over our heads, as the torrent gets to waist high. Also, because many of the crossings are 5 minutes apart we switch to Tevas or flip flops, making some of the walking a little treacherous at times. However, we made it and the final river crossing brings you to the bottom of some steps...the 1400 steps that lead up to Ciudad Perdida!

At this point aching muscles, overheated bodies and tiredness disappear as the end of the quest is almost within sight. With renewed vigour we charged up the stairs......ok, we charged for the first dozen or so and then resumed the plod....1400 stairs are a lot of stairs and it was hot! Just as the reserves of energy are diminishing, the first stone terrace comes into sight! It is a feeling of euphoria and relief. What strikes you is how quiet it all is. How the jungle has overgrown paths and given the place a surreal lost world feel. Whilst the terraces themselves offer nothing more than an idea as to the foundations of the city, it is obvious that its scale is vast. Omar, our guide was later to tell us that a large part of the city remains "unexcavated" and unreclaimed from the jungle which enveloped it once the Tayrona's abandoned the city in the 1500's.

Day 4
We overnighted it in a refugio built within Ciudad Perdida (only mattresses and mossy nets here). Next morning our guide Omar, after making a celebratory visit to the arriving helicoptor, containing TV crew and previous hostages (he says he wasn't going to be on the documentary), took us on a tour of the city and told us some of the history of the place. The city was discovered after being lost in the 1970's when tomb robbers, with the assistance of local indigenous people.....who had actually never lost the city..... came to the overgrown ruins with the intention of excavating in search of valuable antiquities. Well one thing led to another and there was a massive fight between the grave robbers over the artefacts which led to the military intervening and the site being handed over to archaeologists. The tour demonstrated the scale of the city, with many paths interconnecting the various terraces. The city had an order to it with the upper terraces, those higher up away from the river being where the Tayrona nobility resided. The lower terraces were where the working classes and trading classes resided and enabled contact with the other indigenous peoples.

After lunch we began the return trek. This involved returning down the 1400 steps, crossing the 7 rivers and then trekking through the jungle paths towards the military checkpoint. We reached top of the hill at about half 3 in the afternoon and had a break. Day 4 of the trek, in the heat had left most of us a little fatigued. Gordon and Fabien set off, whilst Ann and Wendy rested a while longer with Omar. They had started the descent towards the final river crossing and had been going no more than 15 minutes when it happened..........Gordon's feet slipped in the loose dirt and according to the only eyewitness, Fabien, he rolled a couple of times down the hill before sticking his right hand out to brace himself and stop the fall.......disaster! As Gordon describes it, he "heard a crack, followed by the sensation of extreme pain.........and then let out an almighty expletive!" Fabien rushed back and called for
Omar, who rushed down (in a much more experienced and safer manner). A quick analysis indicated that it wasn't a shoulder injury but that Gordon was unable to bend the elbow, thus indicating that it could be a dislocation or a break. By now Ann, worried and concerned had rushed down (surprisingly not taking a tumble herself) and demanded that a helicopter be flown in to airlift Gordon out of the hindsight the concern was touching....if a little impractical. In the end practicality reigned. Omar cut a tree and created a splint with Gordon's arm immobilised. Fabien went on ahead, the aim being to alert the team, who should now be nearing camp, that there had been an accident and, given that daylight was diminishing, we would need torches. Ann and Wendy followed, while Omar became Gordon's crutch and we began the very slow descent down the hill towards the river crossing.

Typically it should have taken 1 1/2 hours to get back to camp but, given the invalid, it took two hours just to reach the river. By this stage darkness had taken over and, though Fabien’s mission had been a success (our other guide had returned to us with 2 torches) the adventure had only just began. Omar got Gordon safely across the river (success number one) then come the real fun. Remember Day 1 and our point to "NOTE: remember this later"...those tight ledges, on sheer rock, where you held onto small cracks...well that was hard enough in full daylight and being fully able. Well in the dark...OMG!! (had to put his in as we've heard it's going to make it into the next version of the English dictionary!!)..both Ann and Wendy felt they deserved medals making it safelt across (thanks to the help of our guide Raul) came Gordon....At this point it’s worth thanking Omar for his unbelievable support in getting Gordon through that last section. Ann couldn't watch and just had to concentrate on calm breathing. It took about an hour, with Gordon gripping on for dear life and Omar, at times walking backwards, shining the torch in the places where he wanted Gordon to place his hand or feet. At one point Omar slipped and we thought that was it. At about 7.30pm, some 3 hours after the fall, Gordon, Omar, Wendy and Ann finally walked into camp!
Well normally the story should end there but no! As luck the group going in the other direction, contained 3 doctors and a nurse! One of the doctors, Carlos happened to be an Orthopaedic Specialist! He offered to examine the arm and, if it was dislocated, reset it. As double luck would have it Carlos had decided to pack a pretty significant medical kit, complete with syringes and intravenous pain killers, one of which he duly administered. Within 5 minutes an arm which couldn’t be moved for love nor money was able to be manipulated, prodded and poked. Carlos identified no dislocation...yippeeee! However there was a break and advised that it should be x-rayed and treated when we got back to Santa Martha. His only concern was that the arm and the hand were really swollen so he prescribed, when sleeping that the arm be kept vertical...not an easy position in which to sleep. This was achieved by propping the arm up with bags and dry bags!

Day 5 & 6

Well, given that a helicopter was not an option, there was little else to do but walk out. After Carlos' treatment the arm was able to be put in a sling and with the painkillers
Gordon Tasting Chocolate FruitGordon Tasting Chocolate FruitGordon Tasting Chocolate Fruit

The fruit actually is wild chocolate.....unfortunately it wasn't ripe!
and anti-inflamatories administered there was very little discomfort. Despite the heat and inability to make use of the bathing pools the walk was probably a little easier that we'd imagined. Certainly the last part on day 6 was trying as we'd left the protection of the jungle canopy and the sun was very strong and draining. The feeling of relief when we reached the village we had started at was unbelievable. The trek was over, though we definitely had some memories which were not going to fade too fast!

Upon returning to Santa Marta, we caught up with the other people on our trek who were staying at this great hostel called Las Brisas Locas. Gordon went to the clinic Carlos suggested. The arm was Xrayed and the doctor pronounced a fracture to the right ulna head (luckily he spoke english..otherwise who knows what we'd have understood) and promptly put the arm in a plaster cast......that put pay to any diving in Taganga or laying on a beach in Tayrona! and hence Bogota was happily returned to sooner than expected.

Arm "n" all it was a great hike and great adventure and Ciudad Perdida is well worth the
Walking the Tayrona TrailWalking the Tayrona TrailWalking the Tayrona Trail

This picture pretty much sums up what large parts of the trail are like. Jungle on either side and a thin paved stone path.
effort....and really a small fracture (we couldn't spot it until the doctor circled it with a pen) was not a bad outcome from six months of travel.

Additional photos below
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