Wake up man rooster was scheduled to crow at 500 again. After a quick breakfast, we would cross a river and make the final climb to The Lost City.
The Lost City predates Columbus by a thousand years, having been founded sometime around the year 500 AD by indigenous Tayrona people – the descendants of whom still occupy the lands, control the park in which the trek takes place, and collect the fees from thrill seeking jungle trekkers. The City, perched high in the mountains with extensive lines of sight in all directions, was constructed by harvesting the jungle stone: heating massive boulders and then dousing them in water to fracture the boulders into small and flat pieces. This city in the jungle is a massive network of stone terraces, stairs, and walkways. Houses were constructed from wood and leaves, and so no original dwellings remain.
The Tayrona bury the dead in the floors of their homes – and the dead are buried with their valued assets – gold, precious stones, beads. And that practice led, ultimately, to the rediscovery of the Lost City in 1973. The Lost City was largely abandoned by 1650 after the Western diseases brought by early Europeans swept through the community and killed most of its residents. Those who survived turned their backs on the city, believing it cursed, and for the next several centuries, the jungle retook control of the land.
Tomb raiders, learning of the burial practices of the Tayrona, started digging around the site in 1973, extracting gold, gems, and antiquities that made their way to the black market. The government seized control in 1976, and the Ciudad Perdida was declared found.
However, much of the riches are still in the ground. The regional indigenous groups only allowed archaeologists to excavate a portion of the city – enough to display the wonder but limit the number of tourists who could visit at any one time. In all directions from the excavated city lie hundreds upon hundreds of untouched mounds. Our translator shared that some tour guides sneak off at night to dig in the soil of the mounds, and that these clandestine finds had actually helped some guides make it through the pandemic when tourism dried up. Because of frequent and heavy rains, the treasures regularly surface and can be found on any given day. On our trip to the site, our translator picked out of the mud an urn top that was at least 500 years old.
I can feel the temptation to dig, when so much lies buried just below our feet. I will have stifle my inner Indiana Jones, for now.
The Lost City lies at the top of more than 1200 stone stairs, a jungle staircase only accessible to those willing to first cross the river. There was no bridge for this river, in large part to help isolate the Lost City, so we would have to wade across the fast-flowing river that separated the City from our camp. We left most gear behind that morning because of the river crossing. There were no safety harnesses or nets – slip or let go of the rope, and you were likely done for.
With the group safely across the river, the moment had arrived – the ascent to the Lost City. Slowly, methodically, we made our way up the stone staircase, a vestige of another time and place in history, and unlike so many historical sites, not updated with handrails, fences, or barricades. We were walking the same stairs that had existed for more than a thousand years – and they most definitely looked the part.
And, after 1200 stairs (this number is approximate – no one in the group was supportive of my proposal to sing the countdown ditty “1,200 stone stairs on the wall,” so it will take another group to confirm the accuracy of the number). We arrived at the top. While we had all seen photos on the internet of the Lost City, no one was prepared for the breadth and complexity of what we found.
We spent several hours exploring the city, taking photos, and learning some of its secrets (one of them is that there is a Colombian military outpost is nestled in the mountains next to the Lost City. Many drone-fliers have been lost their devices to Colombian military hacks while trying to get the perfect flyover shot). Eventually, it was time to depart and begin the 17 mile hike back to the start of the trail.
We stopped for night about halfway home. By now, the group members had grown weary, and the excitement of the Lost City discovery was no longer propelling us forward. Conversation about hot showers and meals began to fill our conversation on the trail. But, it was as if the jungle had one more surprise for us.
As if just thinking about digging for treasure in the Lost City was poor decision enough, The jungle sent us a wave of plagues on our final night together. At dinner, the flies grew so thick, we could barely see past them. They were drawn to the light of the camp, yes, but they also covered our drying clothes and gear in clusters of tens and hundreds. And, where there are flies, there are… toads. Big, fat toads, some weighing at least ten pounds. They came out of no where, and quickly, the camp was overrun by them.
Hard-nosed hikers who had been little bothered by anything thus far, could not handle the arrival of the toads. We chased them and kicked them off A buggy our sleeping areas, and even when gone from the floor, they croaked loudly into the night from outside the camp walls.
And then, a wave of diarrhea and sickness hit our group. Some were vomiting, others ran for the toilets. Toilet paper was scarce, only complicating the challenge. On top of that, it was night, and turning on one’s headlamp to go to the bathroom meant a swarm of jungle flies. But without a headlamp, one could step on a toad – or three. It was a still and humid night, and no one in the party slept well tucked under their mosquito nets and mildewed sheets.
The final day’s journey was a long one. Weakened by the plagues, lack of sleep, and general weariness, the trek would prove an especially arduous one.
We had met as strangers to journey together to the Lost City of Colombia. While the City was always our goal, it was the journey through the jungle, the struggles and laughter together, that made it an incredible experience. We agreed that it was one of the hardest things we had ever undertaken, and, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding.