Ciudad Perdida: The ‘Lost City’ of Teyuna, Part I

from top of terraces
From the highest terrace of the ‘lost city’

Who wouldn’t want to see a recently rediscovered ancient city? Bygone civilizations, ruins, and abandoned places have always captured people’s attention—just think of ancient Rome’s obsession with the pyramids or the excavation and tourism of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the mid-18th century. Relatively speaking Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida is a new kid on the block, which is why we found ourselves in the middle of the jungle over the long Easter weekend.

The night before we were to scale the 1200 steps to reach the Lost City, our group settled around a small fire alongside the Buritaca River and listened as our guide, Celso, explained the history and importance of this sacred site.

Celso with a carved map, inside the Lost City.

Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains are the world’s highest coastal mountain range. One peak in particular, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, was home to four indigenous groups, who—though distinct—shared the site of the Ciudad Perdida. To the Arhuaco, Kogui, Kankuamo and Wiwa people, the Lost City is known as Teyuna. More importantly, they never considered it ‘lost.’

Teyuna was built around the 11th century, though origins of the site date back to the 7th. Celso, a member of the Wiwa tribe, tells us how rather than see this sacred place ruined by the Spanish who were conquering their way across the Sierra Nevadas, the site was left to be covered—and therefore protected—by the jungle.

And there it rested, under a thick blanket of green, until people clearing the slopes for marijuana crops uncovered the edges of the Teyuna in the 1970s. Grave robbers followed, looting many of the city’s sacred objects; by 1976 the government had sent troops and archaeologists to protect and explore the city.

Wiwa people still live in the jungle surrounding Teyuna. After our visit we had a chance to listen to Renaldo, a Wiwa elder.
Wiwa people still live in the jungle surrounding Teyuna. After our visit we had a chance to listen to Renaldo, a tribe elder.

Today, Teyuna is one of the largest pre-Columbian villages that has been discovered in the Americas. The site is remote and remains reachable only by foot. Because of the security situation in Colombia, people have only begun visiting Teyuna over the past 25 years or so, which makes the difficulty of visiting worth the effort.

swimming hole
Expect to be walking in brutal heat and humidity. Thankfully, there are natural swimming pools waiting for you at the end of each day.

Anyone wanting to visit must do so through a tour agency and all companies use the same itinerary and fee structure (as mandated by the government). However, WiwaTours differentiates itself by being the only group to employ indigenous people, meaning that everything Celso told us is what he had learned through the Wiwa oral tradition.

You’ll hike between 5-8km per day with lunch, snacks, and breaks at just the right moments. Camps are very basic—think roofed shelters with rows of hammocks or bunks—and each has cold water showers and toilets. Even though it’s close quarters, mosquito nets offer a little cocoon of privacy. Helping drown out the rustling and shifting of your fellow hikers will be the sound of rushing water, joined by a chorus of what seems like a hundred different varieties of frogs and insects that come alive after dark.

If you’d like to see and exact itinerary you can check out the WiwaTours website here.

jungle canopy

The stunning jungle views are reason enough to do the trek. I also loved the total immersion in nature and being disconnected from the world, with my social media dings and traffic noise outside my apartment replaced with forest-y music and sound of my own breath. Mix that with the meditative repetition of steps, and you have yourself a zen-y kind of weekend.

trail w:guide
Your guides will walk behind the group, keeping pace with the slower hikers and making sure no one is left behind. Don’t worry about getting lost: there’s only one trail.
This girl shyly asked us to take and then show her a photo of herself.

As you walk you’ll also pass by little clusters of homes. Some are the thatched huts of Wiwa people and others are made of concrete—all will have a few chickens or other animals loitering in the yards. The Wiwa kids we bump into—identifiable by their simple white shifts and mochilas—are excited and curious, asking us to take their pictures or give them treats.  

It's all uphill to Teyuna
Some of the 1200 steps you’ll climb to reach Teyuna
purification ritual
Celso explaining the Wiwa purification ritual

The morning of the third day we visited Teyuna itself. As the other groups ascended, Celso had us pause at the first group of terraces to explain how the Wiwa prepare themselves to enter the city. Standing around a stone circle we’re all quiet, looking solemnly at a center stone, on top of which sits a pile of flowers and herbs. Celso tells us to leave our negative thoughts and bad energy behind and leads us in a few deep breaths. With that, we were ready to climb the final stretch.

celso terraces
Just above the first level, our guide Celso pauses to explain that the ‘terraces’ are the foundations of buildings, which have long since decomposed.

It was an hour or so after sunrise when we caught our first glimpses of the central terraces, which stretch across a ridge above the jungle canopy. As the thick cover of clouds burned away, we were treated to a view of Teyuna in a full spectrum of light.

terraces mist


terrace view

After and hour or so of meandering around, we found our little groups and began the walk back.

As we went, I couldn’t help but notice how friendly our group had become and that there was a definite whiff of summer camp (maybe it was the communal schedule?) to the whole experience. Instead of looking into our cell phones, at the group dinner tables, we all sat around talking to one another. Wow, it’s funny how that works.

Tiffany and I in Machete, where the trek begins and ends. If you finish early enough, you might have enough time for a few games of tejo before heading back to Santa Marta.
Tiffany and I in Machete, where the trek begins and ends. If you finish early enough, you might have enough time for a few games of tejo before heading back to Santa Marta.

All these pics left little room for some of the practical advice about a visit to Teyuna, and I promise you’ll see those details next week in Part II. In the meantime, have any of you visited the Lost City in the past? Please tell me what you thought in the comments below!

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