Lost City found and lost again

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
An indigenous community in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

The trek can take anywhere from two to three days, depending on your pace and level of fitness to reach the stone terraces of Cuidad Perdida (Lost City). The climb, and subsequent return, takes you through the lush forest and steamy jungle of the Sierra Nevada, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. Traversing mountains, clambering through at times knee deep mud, combating mosquitoes, heat and humidity, and crossing several rivers before the final ascent of approximately 1,200 steps into the Lost City is an unforgettable journey into the heart of Colombian history, culture and nature.

Guides will tell you it’s just 44 kilometers, but at times it seems longer, as one’s sense of distance is clouded by difficult terrain, sometimes made more treacherous by tropical rain showers. But trekking does offer striking views of this fast-changing landscape and an incredible insight into the lifestyle and culture of the Indigenous communities which still inhabit their sacred mountain. Constructed around 800 A.D. and only rediscovered in 1975 by Colombian archeologist Alvaro Soto, the area has had a turbulent history of looting, warfare, intermittent excavation and tourism; an interesting concept to comprehend that the mysteries of an ancient civilization still live on in the secret minds of today’s Indigenous elders.

Less than 40 years ago, the ruins of the Lost City remained unknown to the outside world. Comprised of a series of terraces etched into the mountain with cobbled paths and steps linking the city together through stealth of jungle mass, the site is an interesting trip for history and nature lovers. However, the real enchantment of the Sierra Nevada is kept within the Indigenous people whose language, culture, religion and lifestyle transform the walk to the Lost City.

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On speaking with an elder representative from a local community, one gathers the profound respect and understanding for how everything in their lives and ideology pivots around nature and the environment. The Sierra Nevada is thought to be home to over 500 protected Indigenous communities, who have remained undisturbed since the Spanish settlement and whose story and culture may answer the questions archeologists have on the origins of the Lost City’s early inhabitants.

The trek also provides moments of interacting with the local Indigenous children. At a few stages along the walk you are provided the opportunity to talk to them and offer them “gifts” of candy or chocolate in exchange for learning about their families and homes, and an incredible opportunity to have your photo taken with them.

The hike is an excellent way to learn about traditional agriculture and a self-sustaining lifestyle, which city dwellers too easily forget. Visitors also learn about tropical fruits and how the locals produce and weave bags with wool and plant fibres. The Global Heritage Fund (GHF) is currently working in collaboration with the area’s Indigenous communities to achieve the preservation of the archaeological site from the ravages of climate change, vegetation control and unsustainable tourism. GHF’s partnership with the indigenous communities initiates and engages the local people in the business, archaeological preservation and political ventures of the Lost City whilst protecting their rights to the site though their cultural heritage.

One can’t help but wonder, however, of the conservation and sustainability of the people and indigenous cultures of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada, cultures, which until 1975 were undisturbed. Whilst the local Indigenous communities are an important part of the experience in trekking to the Lost City, the question remains: in the 40 years since its discovery, what impact has tourism had on the sustainability of the ancient cultures of the Sierra Nevada?

Already it is evident in the assimilation of the communities along the path to the Lost City, who have learnt Spanish and necessarily engage in commerce, particularly in Santa Marta in order to ensure their livelihood. These protected communities are exposed day to day to people, cultures, languages, religions and even foods from Colombia and all around the world. Are tourists to the area willing to consider the impacts we have on the local communities and consider that courtesy aside, are the benefits of few dozen tourists a day offering delicious, yet completely un-nutritional snacks to the local children as a treaty, sufficient to ignore the obvious future health and economic problems that the children will face? What will the future generations of these indigenous communities be like? Will they speak their own language and make traditional bags and clothing? Or, will the introduction between their traditional and our western civilization mean the end of their own culture?

In a globalized world, remembering that communities still exist in the depths of jungles, undisturbed for thousands of years, seems incomprehensible. For many of us, separating from technology, let alone the thought of not using bug spray and sunscreen whilst in the jungle, seems unintelligible. So, at the end of the most memorable adventure into the Sierra Nevada, the most controversial question in my mind remains. If the Indigenous communities are rightfully protected, and the children are to grow up into their traditional culture ‘away’ from most of the influences of the outer world, do we try to stop the children who are learning Spanish from tourism from seeking an education and a life in the Western world, if they want one? How can we preserve the Lost City and all of its secrets, now that it is found?


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