For those who like dates and history, we bring you the Lost City from a chronological view. Enjoy how this civilization developed step by step while leaving us many tangible cultural expressions.

The first human settlements in the region and the development of culture

100 AD The first settlements belong to this period. The first inhabitants of the northern coast of Santa Marta were skilled craftsmen, potters, goldsmiths, fishermen, and hunters. They cultivated corn and cassava.

Lost City stone terraces and staircases

6th to 7th century As they spread along the beaches, valleys, and mountains, they develop the stone-based architecture, with which they build roads, terraces, canals, and small bridges.

10th century By the 10th century there is a large population settled in many parts of the region, their social structure is more organized. They develop their own style in pottery and goldsmithing. From this century to the 16th century it is called the Tairona period. It is during this period that civilization reached its apogee and structures like those of Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) reached their greatest splendor.

Apogee and disappearance of the Tayrona culture

1501 The first Europeans arrive to explore the coast of what is now Santa Marta. They are amazed when they see the Tayronas. Unlike other indigenous tribes, the Taironas cover themselves with cotton fabrics and wear ornaments of semi-precious stones and gold.

1525 – 1526 The city of Santa Marta is founded and the period of conquest begins. The Tayrona Indians, like all the indigenous tribes that inhabited the area would be called over time, made a strong resistance to colonization. The struggles would last 75 years.

1600 It is the final war between the indigenous tribes and the colonizers, from then on many indigenous people take refuge in the parts of the Sierra Nevada that are difficult to access. Others are executed, taken as slaves, and/or placed in encomiendas, settlements where the Indians could continue their lives as long as they pay tribute to the colony and the crown.

17th century During the 17th century while the city was facing pirate attacks. It is believed that in faraway places like the Lost City, the Tayrona continued their life. However, diseases brought by the Europeans unleashed epidemics among the Native Americans that decimated their population and ended their culture and social order. Tayrona culture disappears completely. The Lost City is abandoned.

The Archaeology and the Lost City in modern times

1965 – 1975 There is an increase in the number of looted archaeological sites in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Looters destroy many remains and trade archaeological pieces on the black market.

Human figure of clay, probably depicting a chief
Human figure of clay, probably depicting a chief

1973 An anthropological station is established in the Sierra Nevada to protect and investigate the archaeological legacy of the cultures that inhabited it. Two of the researchers identified 211 archaeological sites, of which Buritaca 200, what is now called the Lost City, is the largest.

1976 Due to the magnitude of this archaeological site, a project for its investigation and restoration is created. The project involves experts from different disciplines, archaeology, architecture, engineering, paleo-botany, and soils study.

1980 The Lost City is declared an Archaeological Park, along with two other sites in Colombia: San Agustín and Tierradentro.

1981 By this date, the restoration makes the stability of the ruins allow it to open to the public, since then begins the history of Ciudad Perdida as a tourist destination until today.

From this moment on, this place became a tourist destination par excellence waiting for you to visit. Book and live this experience with us!

The Lost City is a single site, yet it has many ways of perceiving itself depending on what eyes it is seen through. We want to show you how this beautiful place has been conceived depending on the observer through time. We hope that this article will increase the value that this archaeological site, the Lost City, has for you.

The Lost City according to its builders

As the first inhabitants of this area spread to different parts of the Sierra Nevada their culture also developed. For example, the architecture of the Tayrona people is the result of centuries of adaptation to the different environments they inhabited, such as plains, valleys, and mountains.

Spiritual indigenous leader home Lost City

The first constructions in this area date back to the 6th or 7th century BC so we can imagine the first builders raising the stone and earth platforms and building roads to connect each new village with another. For them, this site became their place of dwelling and doing their daily activities such as growing corn, avocado, cocoa, cotton, among others. Commercial exchanges with people who lived in other areas, pottery, goldwork, and hunting in the surroundings. The Lost City is a place with enough water, either from rain or from nearby rivers, and it is also very rich in biodiversity, surely for the inhabitants, it was a very suitable place to live.

Over time, it may also have been seen as a refuge from colonization during the 16th and 17th centuries, to which unfortunately came diseases brought from the new world and for which the natives had no natural defenses. Epidemics could cause social instability in many villages and hence abandoned and the survivors spread to other areas. Although the latter is only a hypothesis that can be taken into account since the abandonment of indigenous villages was common during the conquest due to epidemics.

From this moment the site remained uninhabited until its discovery in the 70s of the 20th century.

The Lost City according to its discoverers

Broken clay pot
Methods of looting archaeological artifacts involve the destruction of their containers, such as this clay pot

Unfortunately, those who discovered the site were ‘guaqueros’ (grave robbers and traders in archaeological objects). For them, it was the equivalent of discovering a gold mine.

Soon, those who had discovered the Lost City began to attract the attention of other guaqueros, who also found the place. By then, a dispute broke out to control the area, so, many saw Ciudad Perdida as the originator of a bitter confrontation, which gave it the name Infierno Verde or “Green Hell”.

Many archaeological pieces began to flood the market and the looting that was taking place became noticeable. Besides, one of the original discoverers of the Lost City informed the authorities in Bogotá about the site and what was happening. From then on, there were efforts to protect the site and make it an object of study.

The Lost City according to archaeologists

To discover this archaeological site officially, a commission was created to study it. The Buritaca river valley also had other sites that were numbered as they were located, so for the archaeological record, what is now popularly known as the Lost City, was called Buritaca 200. For the archaeologists, Buritaca 200 was a great opportunity to learn more about the culture that had inhabited the area. However, even though the ruins had resisted the passage of time, they required restoration. These works, both the arrival of the first commission to the site and its study and restoration were done with the help of guaqueros and locals who knew the area and the ruins very well.

The Lost City according to actual indigenous tribes

Frog carved on stone
For the indigenous tribes, objects as this frog of stone are offerings Tayrona made many years ago and must be kept where they buried them. They help to keep the balance of the earth.

The indigenous people claim that they have always known about the existence of the Lost City, they say that in their oral tradition there is a story about the site. From a scientific point of view, the archaeological evidence shows that the site was unknown to anyone for approximately 400 years.

In any case, today Ciudad Perdida is a sacred place for the indigenous tribes that inhabit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, it is a point where they make offerings to the gods or guardian spirits to maintain the balance of the Sierra Nevada and therefore of the cosmos. For them, Ciudad Perdida is called Teyuna in honor of a mythical hero who gave birth to the fathers of the natural elements.

The Lost City according to the rest of the world

The restoration and study works were from 1976 to 1986 when it opened its doors to the public. Since then it began to position itself as a tourist destination of worldwide interest. So the famous trek to Ciudad Perdida became for many another item on their bucket list or a challenge to face.

After doing the trek for many it becomes the highlight of their trip to Colombia, a lifechanging experience or a dream come true.

So now the question is…

What will the experience of the trek to Ciudad Perdida be like for you?

We cannot write for you what the trek to Ciudad Perdida will mean to you, so connect with a place that has been conceived in so many ways through time and discover the treasures it has for you! Write your own story!

1. Santa Marta is the first city founded in Colombia

In 1521, the Spanish crown authorized the foundation and colonization of the province of Santa Marta, that had been discovered in 1502. Officially, it is known that the city was founded in 1525 by Rodrigo de Bastidas. Although in 1510 an attempt had already been made to establish a city in territory that is currently Colombian, the city was abandoned over time. Santa Marta was the first city founded in Colombia that is still standing. And the first one founded in continental South America under the order of the Spanish crown.

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Sierra Nevada peaks as seen from Valledupar

2. The two highest peaks in Colombia are located in Santa Marta

Santa Marta area includes part of the mountainous range called Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and its highest peaks Bolivar and Colon, both have an altitude of 5,775 m.a.s.l. (18,946 f.a.s.l), which make them the two highest peaks in Colombia, and take us to the next fact.

3. Santa Marta has all the thermal floors

Although the city is at sea level, Santa Marta has all the thermal floors, ranging from sea level to the perpetual snows of the Bolivar and Colon peaks.

4. Pirates attacked the city for more than 200 years

The first attack to the city was officially registered in 1543 and the last one in 1779. One of this attacks, in 1655 by William Goodson left the city in ruins and it even changed the original layout of the streets of what is now the historical center.

5. The Cathedral of Santa Marta was built thanks to the consumption of aguardiente

Santa Marta Cathedral in 1844 Watercolor
Square of the Cathedral in 1844, Watercolor

The resources given for the construction fell short. Because of that it was necessary to create a tax on each bottle of aguardiente (an alcoholic beverage). This initiative had support of Spain, and worked, thanks to this tax on aguardiente the Cathedral could be finished in 1794 after almost 30 years of construction.

6. One of the two most developed civilizations in Colombia, was in our region

In Colombia, the civilizations that achieved the greatest social and cultural development were the Muiscas and the Tayronas. Of these, the Tayronas inhabited the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and many of their most important archaeological remains are found here, such as Ciudad Perdida (Teyuna) or Pueblito Chairama.

7. You can find the same Bolivar’s equestrian statue in 4 different cities

The equestrian statue of Simon Bolivar that you can see in Bolivar Park in Santa Marta was a gift from Venezuela and is a replica of the one in the Park of the same name in Caracas. The curious thing is that the original one is in Lima, Peru, which was the inspiration to that in Caracas, so there are three of them in South America. But the story does not end here, there is another statue in San Francisco, for a total of 4.

The Tayrona people lived between sea level and an altitude of approximately 2,000 meters, mainly in the area of Santa Marta and near some rivers of the Sierra Nevada.

The Tayrona took advantage of the benefits of the Sierra Nevada and the sea. But they did it too with the limitations the mountains have. Over time, they used both things (benefits and restrictions) to develop into one of the most advanced pre-Columbian civilizations in our country.

The Tayrona house

Spiritual indigenous leader home Lost City
Tayrona houses were similar to those built by the actual indigenous that inhabit the region.

The Tayrona built their houses using wood or bahareque (wood and mud). They built huts with thatched and palm roofs, generally conical in shape, and which from their workmanship we can deduce they were excellent carpenters.

Housing and construction

The great population centers and the lithic architecture are the most outstanding characteristics of the Tayrona culture, since no other reached such a development in terms of material achievements in Colombia.

Tayrona houses were on artificial terraces that they reached by paths or stone stairs. They constructed circular-shaped terraces that were a feature of its lithic architecture (made of stones). These terraces had different levels of complexity. For example, those found in places somewhat far from the centre of the village, where it was relatively unfavourable for building, were more simple. The most elaborated ones could be found in villages more densely inhabited. Nonetheless, the structural characteristics of the Lost City terraces and other similar sites like Ciudad Antigua differs from others in the perfection of its work and are only frequent in the biggest settlements.

Stone stairs Lost City

Stone based architecture

Tayrona people used stone to shape retaining walls, bridge and road crossings and to form stairs, bridges and canals. Stone in blocks of various types was the key to building the retaining walls with which terraces were constructed.

Polished slabs were used to pave squares. Probably, the rocks, carved and sometimes inscribed, were also used to indicate important sites (such as the so-called “map stone” in Teyuna). They evoke the use of the stones among the current peoples of the sierra, with which they point out the sites of astronomical observation, those of meditation and “divination” or those that visually connect the places of daily life with the peaks and ridges that form the sacred landmarks of the territory.

What we can learn today

The way in which we are occupying the Sierra Nevada today shows a lack of respect for the environment, today we have forest cutting, burning, erosion, garbage and drought. Maybe it is time to learn something from the people that have inhabited this region for so many centuries.

The Lost City trek is a must-do while traveling Colombia. Nonetheless, it is possible that due to accesibility, affordability or time reasons, you can not have the chance to do it. And during September, when the site is closed to the public.

In that case knowing that there are ‘sister’ ruins of the Lost City can be very helpful. Here are three alternatives to the Lost City you should know.

Alternative to the Lost City number 1: Ciudad Antigua

With the same architectural structure to the Lost City, Ciudad Antigua (‘Ancient city’) is the most similar site to Ciudad Perdida that you can find open to the public. The site is located on the western face of the Sierra Nevada, in the rural area of Ciénaga, a city near Santa Marta. Pros: Visiting the ruins takes only 2 days, you will arrive there the same day of the departure. There are different activities to those done in the Lost City. Private tours with small sized groups. Cons: As a private tour, the fewer the people the more expensive the tour per person. Recommended if you want to see the archaelogical ruins and do some farm activities.

Alternative to the Lost City number 2: Taykú (A settlement similar to Pueblito Chairama)

Tayku
Tayku

Within the boundaries of the Tayrona Park you can find an indigenous settlement called Taykú. Just a couple of years ago, the most famous ruins in the Tayrona Park were those belonging to the Pueblito – Chairama sacred site. Now, Pueblito is closed to the public and Taykú took its place. While the structures of the lost city were designed to create flat terraces in a steep terrain, those of Pueblito or Taykú are not so impressive since they are on a flatter area. Pros: Full-day tour. Visit a Kogi indigenous community, Cabo San Juan Beach and a do a less challenging trek. Cons: The remains of the Lost City site are quite bigger than those in Taykú. Recommended if you want to have an approach to the indigenous community and visit the most famous beach of the Tayrona Park the same day.

Alternative to the Lost City number 3: “Teyunita”, Mini Ciudad Perdida

The Mini Ciudad Perdida is a group of terraces and stonepaths located on a hill in Paso del Mango. There is no any tour taking people to the site, but if you are going to stay in Paso del Mango you can ask if the Mini Ciudad Perdida is close and the way to go there. This site is perfect for a hike and maybe imagine a little how the ancient inhabitants of this region could live. When you reach the top of the hill you can enjoy a beautiful view of the surroundings. This small archaelogical site is an authentic Tayrona settlement that has not been restored. Pros & Cons: It is not a tourist attraction, what can be considered an advantage and disadvantage at the same time.

The Tayrona citadel of Teyuna

The Lost City, called Teyuna by the actual indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, are the remains of an ancient city that sits between 900 – 1,200 m (2,952 – 3,937 ft) above the sea level. The oldest structures date back to the 6th century CE, but lay under the visible ones, that date back to a more recent time (11th or 12th century)1. The Tayrona people, who constructed this citadel, demised after the Spanish conquest, leaving this site uninhabited. As a result, the public did not know it until its discovery in the second half of the 20th century.

Lost City Teyuna
The Lost City “Teyuna” was covered by vegetation during its 400 years of abandonment.

By the 16th century, what we know as the Lost City, was part of an urban complex very well connected to other villages and towns throughout the Sierra Nevada. The different sectors of the Lost City were gathering places, residential areas, quarries, and the surroundings, croplands. Due to the wars and diseases brought by the colonisers, this civilization dissappeared. All what we know about the Tayrona people is from some conquistadors’ chronicles and modern archaelogical studies.

The “Teyuna” Lost City, a sacred place for the local indigenous communities

The native people do not apply the concept of “Lost” to these ruins. Their oral tradition states that they have known this site from time immemorial. They claim the place is key in their worldview and is mentioned by the spiritual leaders during some rituals.

According to the oral tradition, the city takes its name after a mythical hero, Teyuna. He crafted some human figures of mud and gold. After that, he buried them in Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) to create the fathers of the nature elements. Now the places where he buried these figures are sacred, and consequently, places where to do offerings to their gods and guardian spirits. The intention of the offerings is to keep the balance of the Sierra Nevada and so, the balance of the whole world.

The “heart of the world”

For the indigenous tribes, the Sierra Nevada is like the heart of the world (the concept is quite more complex, but this idea helps us understand it in a simple way). Therefore, it is so important to keep the balance of the natural forces and elements of the Sierra Nevada or it will affect the balance of the entire planet. They consider the extraction of their ancestors’ objects, the destruction of their sacred places and the lack of offering rituals as factors that contribute to the loss of balance of the environment.2

Indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

There are four native tribes in the Sierra Nevada: Kogi, Arhuaco, Wiwa and Kankuamo. Each community has its own language and traditions but they share a common point of view about the Sierra Nevada. All of them consider the Sierra Nevada is a sacred territory and they have to take care of it, by respecting it and doing the required spiritual work.

The indigenous groups you can find doing the Lost City trek

Kogui indigenous getting fique (raw fiber) from maguey leaves
The traditional way of getting fique, the raw fibers for their bags (mochilas). Demonstration during the tour.

The Teyuna – Lost City trail has two sections depending on who owns the land: Peasants and indigenous. When you are doing the Lost City trek you enter into an indigenous reserve the second day. In this area the campsites belongs to natives: Wiwa (Wiwa), Mumake (Kogi) both used for accommodation the third night. Paraíso (Kogi) where you will stay the second night. Finally, the house you will find in the Lost City belongs to Romualdo, the mamo (spiritual leader) of the Kogi of the region.

Kogi village of Mutanyi
Mutanyi is a Kogi village that can be seen from the trail.

As you can see, there are two local native tribes in the Lost City area: Wiwa and Kogi. The Ciudad Perdida tour will let you know more about the Wiwa or the Kogi people, it all depends on the campsite you will stay the third night (Your tour guide chooses where to stay). Generally, there is an activity during that evening, where you can listen about their lifestyle, traditions and craftmanships, told by a native. Knowing a totally different point of view from the one you already have will expand your mind to new ways of seeing life and understanding other human beings. So, what are you waiting for having a new and unique experience!

References:

  1. Los secretos arqueológicos que revela Ciudad Perdida – El Heraldo
  2. Santiago Castro Gómez, Eduardo Restrepo. Genealogías de la colombianidad: formaciones discursivas y tecnologías de gobierno en el siglo XIX y XX. Pag. 88.