Santiago Giraldo oversees a city of 18 persons. A city once reduced to rubble by conquest and its citizens ravaged by disease. Today, only stones remain. Stones, which make up a patchwork of integrated paths, leading everywhere, but always back to the circular terraces of Ciudad Perdida, the ‘Lost City’ of the Tairona.

As the Director-in-Charge of the Teyuna-Ciudad Perdida Archaeological Park, Dr. Giraldo has explored hundreds of acres of thick tropical forest which shrouds this UNESCO World Heritage Site in order to map and document what transpired in one of the great civilizations of pre-Columbus America; and the intricate order of sacred places which remain hidden in the jungle growth of the Sierra Nevada.

Having earned his Ph.D in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, Santiago Giraldo decided that the ‘Lost City’ would become his life’s work – and after living a year with his wife in New York City – took the decision to return to his native country, as no place could be more beneficial for his research as an archaeologist, than the Sierra Nevada coast- al range: conducting field work between 1,000 to 2,000 meters above sea level, watching stunning views of verdant canyons, and working alongside a team of assistants who descended from the three remaining tribes of the Tairona peoples.

“This year we were able to restore and preserve five terraces and 120 meters of walkways,” states Santiago of the 5 to 7 year conservation projects he directs within the 33 hectares of the Archeological Park and as the Director of Global Heritage Fund’s Colombia program.

Santiago is not alone in ‘Ciudad Perdida’ though, as increasingly tourists from around the world embark on a three-day hike from Santa Marta to El Mamey at the base of Ciudad Perdida, and part of the “top things to do” in Colombia. An important element of this archeologist’s work is to put back in their rightful place structures which have been eroded by tropical rains or simply knocked over by a constant flow of feet and hooves.

While the majesty of Ciudad Perdida is tantamount to Macchu Picchu and Angkor Wat (Cambodia), the Lost City received this year some 8,000 tourists and a reduced number than these other world-admired archeological sites receive during the course of one month. “The load capacity of tourism in Ciudad Perdida is 23,000,” states Giraldo, as part of GHF’s mission is to promote sustainable tourism around the Lost City. Yet, the conservation work which takes place is often in difficult and rugged terrain; and one, which for decades, was considered “off limits” to all due to the heavy presence of Marxist rebels and paramilitaries.

Giraldo at work in the Sierra Nevada.
Giraldo at work in the Sierra Nevada.

The improved security situation in the Sierra Nevada has facilitated the work of archaeologists, as well as findings which are contributing to a bigger picture of how the Tairona lived, and what use they gave their circular urbanism.

Findings by GHF are shared with Colombia’s governing entity of anthropology, the Instituto Colombiano de Antro- pología e Historia-ICANH. As an affiliated member of ICAHN, Giraldo, is very much of an ‘in situ’ archeologist, taking notebooks into the jungle where a rich biodiversity thrives. Along with English biologist Nick Bayly, Giraldo, also works on documenting the 600 birds and species, which live among the trees, as much as what remains “hidden” in troves of unexcavated tombs. “So, far tourism is not affecting the biodiversity of the Sierra,” states the archeologist. “For tourists to the Lost City, the objective is the walk and to enjoy the journey of the stone paths.”

While a popular misperception exists that archeologists and treasure hunters are two faces of the same coin (as many of the world’s leading museums are stocked with relics looted during past centuries), Giraldo is a strong advocate that excavations only have validity when put in a social context. “By its definition, ‘excavation’ is destructive and one has to be very careful with sacred sites as they are patrimony of the nation,” states Santiago. “You have to have very clear questions before you attempt to excavate a terrace.”

While the Lost City may have been the epicenter of a vanished civilization, Giraldo is currently moving up the coastal mountain range conducting historical- topographical research in 26 other sites which had a relationship with the Tairona of Ciudad Perdida, but could have maintained political autonomy as trading posts, as well as one more mysterious site on 20 hectares classified by this archeologist as ‘Tigres.’

The launching in November of the Banco de República’s Tairona Gold Museum in Santa Marta is part of a rebirth of anthropology in the region and a tangible asset for those who appreciate what is being researched in the ethnological “belt” of the Sierra Nevada. For Giraldo, much of the study of the Tairona involves understanding the religious and eco- nomic forces at work in a society which flourished along the banks of the Buritaca River from 1,200 BC to the arrival of the Spanish in the Sixteenth Century.

While Tairona gold enchants and dazzles visitors to the Gold museums of Santa Marta and Bogotá, for Dr. Giraldo, the importance of gold comes down to its elaboration by specific goldsmiths rather than its availability within Tairona society. “What we have been finding in our research is that the use of gold for the Tairona was different than what we associate with our contemporary life. For the Tairona, gold was emphasized as personal adornment and not necessarily an element of the elite.”

Reading the chronicles of the first Spanish who arrived in Santa Marta during the conquest provides invaluable research for archeologists and the work of Dr. Giraldo in understanding the sudden disintegration of a culture which remained “undiscovered” for 400 years.

With sites spread across an area of 5,000 square kms of the Sierra Nevada, Giraldo continues the legacy of the first anthropologists who ventured into the Upper Buritaca River in 1975 after looters accidentally “rediscovered” the Lost City in their search for pre-Columbian loot. In 1976, the ICANH took over the Buritaca-200 site and began clearing forest to establish a research station on this three-faced mountain. Much of the credit of the Lost City’s find is attributed to Julio César Sepulveda, a guaquero (tomb raider) who first alerted the Gold Museum in Bogotá of the existence of a major archeological discovery.

Beyond his work as an archeologist, Santiago is passionate about weaving in communities which live alongside his research base so they can generate sustainable incomes from farming and heritage protection. Giraldo and GHF recently inaugurated a healthcare facility for Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kogi families. Giraldo’s Tayrona Foundation for Archaeological and Environmental Research (FIAAT) is the “on the ground” entity which develops environmental protection programs for locals and tourists alike, and also works to strengthen an important partnership between ICANH in Bogotá and GHF in California. In recognition to its tourism and environmental sustainable management, for the first time in decades, a “lost city” was nominated this year in Travel + Leisure’s Global Vision Awards, and a credit to Santiago’s dedication of “living among ruins.”

Santiago’s work is about as close to time travel as we’ll ever get. Although we may never fully understand how the Tairona lived and what eventually brought about their demise, much of Giraldo’s archeological research is directed not only to a global audience of academics but future generations of those who continue to live on this scared massif; and who for weeks at a time, appreciate an educated man putting together piece by piece, layer upon layer, the epic story of their ancestors.