Finding Colombia in a Lost City

‘You’re not going to Colombia, are you?’

Perhaps this phone call home from Panama City in mid-2005 had not been the best idea. My mother was concerned, and I could hardly blame her. Colombia was embroiled in a four-decade civil war and was the epicentre of the world’s cocaine industry.

But I decided to go anyway, and while I was there I discovered that the best way to find out what Colombia was really like wasn’t by wandering the pretty streets of colonial Cartagena or examining the artefacts in the gold museum in Bogotá.

It was by searching for the Lost City.

An old stone path leading to Colombia’s Lost City. Photo: Nick Leonard.

In 1972, a group of gold and treasure thieves — huaqueros — stumbled across a moss-covered stone stairway in the Sierra Nevada mountains on the north coast of Colombia. The stairway consisted of 1200 steps and led to an abandoned ancient city that the looters named Green Hell. Three years later, after items like gold figures and ceramic urns had turned up on the black market, the Colombian government formally announced the discovery of what it called ‘la Ciudad Perdida’: the Lost City.

Thirty-three years after its rediscovery, I set out from Santa Marta in a small group led by guides Edwin and Omar on a six-day trek, the only way to reach the ruins. It was a beautiful hike through thick, mountainous jungle, with occasional rivers and little waterfalls serving as refreshing swimming spots in the summer heat.

Occasionally we passed conical, thatched-roof houses belonging to the Tayrona indigenous people. Initially, they weren’t keen on tourism coming to the Sierra Nevada and had unsuccessfully lobbied the government to close Ciudad Perdida to foreigners for six months each year. But they had been appeased in the end when the agencies who run the Ciudad Perdida treks agreed to pay them if they allowed tourists to take photos.

Tayrona indigenous people in the Sierra Nevada mountains near the Ciudad Perdida. Photo: Nick Leonard.

At night, Edwin and Omar taught us about Colombia: drugs, wars and burras. The latter were female mules, and our guides told us that it was a Colombian rite of passage for teenage boys to screw them. I wasn’t sure whether to believe this or not, but a few days later I came across a passage in Robert Sabbag’s non-fiction work Smoke Screen (a book which doesn’t exactly endear Colombia to the potential visitor) in which a Colombian explains the practice to an American using vulgar language and even more vulgar descriptions that are not printable here.

When Omar first began speaking about the burras, I imagined it as a one-off induction test that a boy had to pass to become a man. But it wasn’t.

According to Omar, sex with the burras typically took place about five times a month for three years between the ages of 12 and 15. I quickly did the sums in my head and could hardly believe the number I came up with — 180 times — but even this was apparently understated. Our cook José, who had been listening from the next table, came over and said that he had started at age nine, and did it plenty more than five times a month.

Capping off the burras tradition was that the mules were named to make them seem more like human women; Omar’s mules were Rebecca and Maria.

Unbelievable as the whole thing sounded at first, I soon accepted it as just another fact of life in Colombia, a country that — I was quickly learning — was more than a little crazier than everywhere else.

Eighty per cent of the world’s cocaine comes from Colombia. In a country where lunch cost $1.50 and a beer less than 50 cents when I was there, the cocaine industry was worth up to $5 billion a year.

‘This one plant is the cause of all the great problems of Colombia,’ Edwin said, and I didn’t doubt it for a minute.

One morning on the trek a man we called the Don took us from our camp to his cocaine factory and charged us eight dollars for a tour. He was 61 years old, and with a brown bowler hat covering his grey hair, he looked the part. Four boys between the ages of 13 and 20, including his son, worked for the Don. This, then, was what 13-year-old boys did in rural Colombia: shagged mules and made cocaine.

The Don’s cocaine ‘factory’ on the way to the Ciudad Perdida. Photo: Nick Leonard.

The ‘factory’ was hardly worthy of the name; it was nothing more than a few wooden poles supporting a tarpaulin. Here the Don showed us how to make cocaine: the stomping of feet — or ‘dancing’, as he called it — on the leaves to crush them, followed by the adding of lime, and later gasoline, which sits on top of the solution.

He then lowered a cup into the bucket beneath the gasoline and when he lifted it up again it was filled with a clear liquid. He added more chemicals, mixed and filtered the solution, and eventually produced cocaine base. This wasn’t pure cocaine; it can’t be sniffed but can be smoked or rubbed on gums.

The Don didn’t perform the final step himself to convert the base to cocaine hydrochloride. He said this was because he didn’t have electricity to power the necessary appliances, but Edwin said it was because he didn’t rank high enough in the mafia hierarchy and was prohibited from doing it.

By lunchtime on the third day, after wading across a river several times, we reached the bottom of the staircase that leads to the Ciudad Perdida. It was a difficult but beautiful climb through dense jungle to the ruins and when I reached the top, I decided it was one of the best things I had ever done.

The stone terraces of the Ciudad Perdida. Photo: Nick Leonard.

The vast site, which was built at least 1300 years ago but is perhaps nearly twice that old, consists of 169 stone terraces and may once have housed up to 8000 people. The buildings themselves, which were made of wood, didn’t survive. But as I would later discover at Machu Picchu, it wasn’t the structures but the location that made the journey so worthwhile.

For the first time on the trek, the Sierra Nevada fully revealed itself. Pristine mountains, completely covered in thick foliage, extended endlessly in every direction while far above us, an impressive waterfall cascaded through the jungle. If there was ever a location for a real-life archeological site worthy of the Indiana Jones movies, then the Ciudad Perdida, a three-day hike from civilisation, was it.

No wonder the Tayrona didn’t want to share it with anyone else.

The Ciudad Perdida and the surrounding mountains. Photo: Nick Leonard.

On 8 September, 2003, Edwin set out for the Ciudad Perdida with a group of five tourists. His colleague Manuel departed with eight tourists the same day.

By the third afternoon both groups had reached the Ciudad Perdida, where they were to stay for two nights. Manuel’s group slept in the three-storey hut that we were sitting in less than two years later as Edwin relayed his story. Edwin’s group was a five-minute walk away in a second hut.

‘But that day,’ Edwin continued sheepishly, ‘there was football.’ Colombia was playing Bolivia and Edwin and his cook wanted to listen to the game on the radio. To avoid disturbing their guests, they took the radio to a third shelter — some distance from the other two — listened to the game, and slept there when it was finished.

At 4:30am, guerrilla rebels arrived in the Lost City to kidnap everyone.

They went to the main shelter first and surprised Manuel and his cook, who were captured, taken behind the bathroom cubicles and tied up. Upstairs, the guerrillas captured Manuel’s eight tourists and marched them to the second shelter, where Edwin’s five tourists slept alone. Having ascertained from the group the location of Edwin and his cook, several of the guerrillas went to find them while the remainder stayed behind and surveyed their 13 foreign hostages. Five of them were left behind in the second shelter with a wire across the doorway that if touched, the guerrillas said, would trigger a bomb that would blow up the shelter. The remaining eight hostages were marched to the guerrillas’ headquarters.

By this time, the rebels had found Edwin’s shelter. ‘I was asleep when they came, and it had been a bad night because Colombia lost 4–0,’ Edwin said. ‘They took me and my cook and tied us up, but they only bound my hands, not my feet. When they left it was easy for me to get my hands free.’

Edwin untied his cook and the pair were free. They correctly assumed that everyone else had already been captured, and that their best bet was to escape. ‘I know these mountains,’ Edwin said. ‘I knew I couldn’t take the path the guerrillas would be taking with the tourists, so I went up there.’ He pointed beyond the ruins to an imposing mountain overlooking the Lost City.

The next day, Edwin and his cook found shelter with some of Edwin’s relatives. Meanwhile, Manuel and his cook had also freed their hands by rubbing the rope that bound them against a table. They rescued the five tourists who had been left behind and took them down the 1200 steps and out of the Ciudad Perdida the same way they had arrived.

Within a day, the kidnapping became international news. One hostage escaped and the others were eventually released, but not before some of them were held for 104 days. One even made a film about it.

Steps and terraces of the Ciudad Perdida. Photo: Nick Leonard.

In the aftermath, the government offered a favourable deal to the guerrillas and the Ciudad Perdida became safe to visit again. This was a positive step, but by the time of my visit the situation had barely improved. The war was still going, the cocaine was still growing, and Colombia was still crazy.

As for the Lost City in the jungle, it represented so much more than steps and terraces. As my enduring memory of Colombia, it was the perfect microcosm of the country itself: beautiful, fascinating and in ruins.

Compulsive traveller, Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Olympic journalist and light-chasing photographer.