May 2006: During the time of my first visit to Colombia in 2006, Colombia was just on the cusp of re-opening to tourism and turning the page from decades of war and conflict. Peace agreements between various paramilitary’s, guerillas and the government were in place, but I know that despite this, there was still a high crime rate, a general sense of lawlessness in some areas that were still controlled by paramilitaries and guerilla groups where foreigners could be subject to indefinite detention or kidnap for ransom. Most of the country of Colombia was still off limits for this reason but I wanted to get out of the main cities like Cartegena and Bogota and see the countryside and experience adventure. I discovered the Lost City of Tayrona, the ruins of a 1000-year-old pre-Colombian Indigenous city rumored to contain gold and other riches that is mostly buried by jungle in the mountains of the Sierra De Nevada Santa Marta Mountains along the Caribbean Coast.  The very name intrigued me and but the adventure surrounding this place is what sold me.  The hike to the lost city would take us through multiple days of trekking across farms where cocaine paste is made and sold to the cartel, Kogi Indian tribes live in traditional villages, rivers that crisscross across jungles and finally 1200 steps up a mountain to the abandoned ancient city of Tayrona, shrouded in mystery and considered sacred by the Kogi Indians. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit this place. This is the story of my weeklong adventure to the Lost City of Tayrona with my brother Jesse and friends, Sterling and Jason.

 

About the Lost City of Tayrona

Location of the Lost City

that Located in the jungle clad foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains that rise up to 18,000′, the Lost City of Tayrona, a 1000-year-old city, was recently discovered in 1972. Although the Kogi Indians, likely descended from the Indians of Tayrona, have always known about it, they have kept its location a secret and for good reason because once the city was discovered by others, looters began to remove its treasures and gold and other priceless artifacts started to appear in the local black markets. Even to this day there are rumors that many treasures still remain, but the Kogi have been very tight lipped regarding their locations.

The Lost City and Kogi Indians have been long terrorized by fighting in the region between government forces, paramilitary groups and communist guerrillas. Sadly, many Kogi’s died in the crossfire and the region deemed unsafe for travelers. Then in 2003/2004 a group of travelers were kidnapped by the ELN communist rebels and the area was closed to foreigners until 2015. It was re-opened by paramilitary groups that had wrestled control of the region from guerilla groups and in May 2006, only a year after the area re-opened to foreigners and a couple of years after the kidnapping of foreigners in the Lost City, a trickle of travelers had started to return to the Lost City, and it was rumored that a paramilitary group controlled the area around the Lost City.

Paramilitary groups are right wing groups in Colombia were that originally formed by wealthy landowners who were being victimized by communist guerillas. Paramilitary groups however evolved into criminal gangs that were just as bad as the communists they were formed to battle. Paramilitaries also began to kidnap for ransom, traffic drugs and arbitrary execute anyone deemed a threat to them including government officials.

During our visit part of our entrance fee, we were told went to the paramilitary group that controlled the area along with the proceeds from coco leaves and cocaine paste manufactured by the area’s farmers.

 

Getting to the Lost City

To get to the Lost City, we had to fly to Cartagena, which we did from Panama City. From Cartagena we traveled by public bus to Barranquilla, birth city of Shakira and onward to Santa Marta, while visiting a mud volcano along the way. I arranged the trek via a local operator in Santa Marta, who could obtain the permits via the paramilitary group that controlled the area. We started the trek after visiting Tayrona National Park, a coastal reserve of pristine forest along the Caribbean Coast before the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountain Range.

 

Cartagena

We spent a few nights visiting the Spanish Colonial city of Cartagena, a humid, Caribbean City that harkens back the days of pirate raids, gold treasures, and Spanish galleons. Cartegena is a charming city with its stone forts, fortified walls, and old colonial buildings. The city was yet to be discovered by mass tourism and still had a rough appeal to it. I was drawn to the city because it was featured in one of my favorite childhood movies with Michael Douglas, Romancing the Stone. We stayed in a boutique hotel-Hotel El Viajero- located in an old colonial building with a small pool on the rooftop that overlooked the city. This would be my favorite place in Cartagena, where we could relax on humid nights from the luxury of the pool while looking out over the city with a glass of Coke and Rum.

Spanish fort in Cartagena built to protect the gold and other treasures looted by the Spanish from the New World from being looted by Pirates- Cartegena Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Cartagena Old City

Totumo Mud Volcano

Totumo Volcano is an unmissable destination if visiting this part of Colombia. The active volcano is one of the largest mud volcanos in the world and lava located undergorund heats the mud within causing it to rise to the surface of its crater where visitors can bathe in it and benefit from its perceived healing qualities. The temperature is not too warm and the experience of swimming in the highly viscous mud is a blast.  To reach the volcano, my friends and I had to hire moped taxis and travel in the rain to get there since the volcano was not located near the bus stop. Once at the volcano, we paid the small admission fee, climbed the 15′ ladder to its slopes and just jumped in. Local men inside the mud will start massaging you uninvitedly with the hope of a tip. When we visited the volcano it was after our grueling Lost City trek, so the massage actually felt good and despite my usual discompfrt with any med giving me a massage, I allowed it in this case on my shoulders. After wallowing in the mud for 30 minutes, the next step is to get the mud rinsed off in the nearby lagoon. A group of elderly grandmas await mud covered volcano visitors in the laggon and for a small tip of course, they will rinse you off and rub the mud off of you. We didnt expect for them to pull our shorts nearly off to rinse our neather regions however. 

Mud Volcano

Me being massaged in the mud volcano

Jason harrasing Sterling in the Mud Volcano

Tayrona National Park

We camped in hammocks along the beach of Tayrona national park for a night, a beautiful reserve protecting rainforest and pristine beach along the Caribbean Coast. We arrived by taxi from Santa Marta, checked in with the park rangers and hiked an hour through the jungle to the beach. We spend all day exploring and swimming in the isolated beaches that were studded with enormous granite boulders. Then at night we stayed in a hammock camp dancing to Colombian music and rum. 

Me Swimming in Taryona National Park

The next morning, we had plans to meet our pre-arranged driver to take us to the starting point for the Lost City trek on the road outside of Tayrona National Park. To get to the road we needed to hike through the jungle for an hour and we deiced it would be fun to take horses instead of walking. I was in the front of the group and the horse handler in Spanish asked me if I had been on a horse and I said in a confident tone, “yes.” But I didn’t realize that he was actually trying to figure out if I was comfortable with horses because he was about to give me a difficult one and I had just said yes, no problem. Within a minute of me starting off on my horse, it broke off in a dead sprint through the jungle. The resy of my group was far behind me and I was alone on my horse galloping full speed through the jungle while trying to hold on for dear life while dodging branches and boulders protruding over the trail. i pulled on the reins, yelled stop, halt in English and in Spanish but nothing worked. At one point I contemplated jumping off the horse, but the speed was too fast, and I would have been guaranteed to break something or worse. All I could do was hold on and wait for the horse to tire. The sprint lasted for minutes of pure terror before the horse came to an uphill section and slowed enough for me to jump off. I walked the rest of the way and didn’t get on another horse until I returned to Colombia almost 15 years later.

Visiting a Makeshift Cocaine Lab

Almost 50 percent of the world’s cocaine is produced in Colombia, and it amounts to 10 plus billion dollars in profits every year. It is no wonder that during our trip, we witnessed evidence of the drug trade. Our guide for the Lost City trek picked us up in a colorful makeshift jeep on the main road outside of the gate of Tayrona National Park. As we were picked up, soldiers with heavy duty guns were burning a 10′ tall pile of marijuana seized from traffickers on the main road. We were advised to avoid photographing it. From there we drove a few hours up a rough mountainous dirt road to reach the start of the 5-day trek. Our trek began in hilly farmland that was deforested. Most of the farms in addition to raising cattle and growing crops also grew coca leaves used by farmers in the area to manufacture cocaine paste in makeshift cocaine labs using drums of acid and other chemicals and various filtration methods. The paste would then be placed in empty 2-litre coke bottles and left on the side of the trail to be collected by a mule before being taken to a more sophisticated lab operated by the paramilitary groups to be furtherly processed and diluted into cocaine that is ready for street sale. For a small fee we visited one of the cocaine labs on a farm and the farmer and his kids showed us how the cocaine paste is manufactured. We slept outside of a farmhouse in our hammocks near drums of cocaine paste, and our sleep that night was interrupted a drunken Kogi Indian who wandered over to our hammock camp and passed out on the ground and by a bull howling as it was being castrated by a farmer with a knife.

Farmhouse on our trek

farmer rinsing coca leaves to get the extract needed to make coca paste

farmer showing us the final product cocaine paste

Filtering the cocaine paste

castrating a bull

Kogi Indians

The Kogi Indians live only in the region of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains and are fiercely private. They consider themselves the caretakers of the Earth or the “Big Brothers,” and everyone else to be the lost and confused “Little Brother” that out of confusion is destroying the earth. The Kogi’s have always kept to themselves, and it was until recently that they came out of the mountains adorned in their white cloth sacs and started visiting the villages and cities below. They claimed it was because they realized it was time to teach the Little Brother the error of their ways, but it could have also been because they were curious of the outside world and were seeking help in the civil war of Colombia that they were caught in the middle of. The Kogi’s are the caretakers of the Lost City and have multiple villages located in the jungles near the Lost City, some which are located along the trail that we hiked on. The villages were all very traditional made with wood and thatch and without electricity. Sensing the Kogi’s were shy, we only approached the ones that seemed friendly and inviting. Most of the adults were not and only the children were interested in meeting us. We passed a few men on the trail with stern dispositions. They all were holding a Ghord called a poporo in their hand which contained a mixing spoon and a coca leaf mix that they grinded up and consumed on a constant basis. All Kogi’s wear potato sac looking clothing made out of a cotton that grows in the jungle that they hand weave.

Kogi Village

Kogi Kids

Kogi Village with Coca Plants 

Me with some Kogi Kids and School Supplies We gave Them

Jesse showing his  photos to the Kogi’s

Kogi’s crossing a river

Angelic Kogi Boy

A Very Stern Kogi man Who Was Not Happy to Come Across Us

The Jungle

The jungle hike was hot humid, full of sand fleas, mosquitos and we were pouring in sweat and covered in bug bites. We constantly climbed in the mud and crossed rivers and streams leaving us with wet feet for most of the trek. For this reason, we wore keens, hiking shoes adapted for wet conditions, but we soon developed painful blisters from having wet feet for too long. The misery of the trek was broken up by swimming in the refreshing rivers that were always near our campsites at night. We swam in waterfalls and had the time of our lives frolicking in the cool jungle waters. At night we slept in hammocks in shelters with no walls and occasionally Kogi’s would appear around mealtime, and we would share our food with them.

Wolf Spider

Crossing a river in a cable cart

Swimming in a waterfall

Sterling on a small rock island

Jason, Jesse and Sterling getting cuddly

The Lost City of Tayrona

As we climbed high into the cloud forest, the views of the surrounding mountains and forest became more spectacular and the mist thicker. The temperatures also dipped. In one section of the hike, we crossed a river and then turned into the jungle where our guide pointed to a hidden stone staircase that emerged out of nowhere and appeared to climb upwards into infinity in the green jungle canopy. There are 1200 steps leading up the stair way to the location of the Lost City on top of a rain forested mountain. The city is built on a series of terraces that were carved out of the jungle for the ancient city. Not much is known about the city’s occupants like Peru’s Macchu Picchu. Our guide showed us a large rock with engravings on it that he said likely was a map of the city during its time. The city and jungles around are still believed to conceal priceless treasures.  We slept in an open shelter in canopies and for most of the night it rained. Despite the rain we explored the city and swam in a fountain with a rock pool that is believed to once be the private swimming pool of Tayrona’s king. Aside from a few Kogi Indians that we passed on occasion, we were the only visitors in the city. In fact, in the 5 days of the trek, we didn’t meet any other hikers except for when we were on our way out on the last day of the trek. It was incredible to have such an amazing and ancient place all to us.

Ancient Staircase Climbing to Tayrona

View from Lost City

Terraces of the Lost City Maintained by the Kogis

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