Colombia’s Lost City stands high up in northern Colombia’s isolated Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. This remarkable city was built by the Tayrona people and is estimated to have housed around 2,000 to 3,000 people at its peak. Despite its significance, the Lost City was only discovered by archaeologists in recent decades after being looted for its gold. The city is believed to have been founded about 800 AD, predating Machu Picchu by about 650 years. The Lost City is one of the largest and most impressive pre-Columbian archaeological sites in South America and offers a glimpse into the rich and complex culture of the Tayrona people.
Caption: Overview of Ciudad Perdida
Attribution: Dwayne Reilander, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:View_of_Ciudad_Perdida.jpg
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The Tayrona People
Tairona or Tayrona was a Pre-Columbian culture of Colombia, which consisted of a group of chiefdoms in the region of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in present-day Cesar, Magdalena and La Guajira Departments of Colombia, South America, which goes back at least to the 1st century AD and had significant demographic growth around the 11th century.
The Tairona people formed one of the two principal linguistic groups of the Chibchan family, the other being the Muisca. Genetic and archaeological evidence shows a relatively dense occupation of the region by at least 200 BC. Pollen data compiled by Luisa Fernanda Herrera in 1980 shows considerable deforestation and the use of cultigens such as yuca and maize since possibly 1200 BC. However, occupation of the Colombian Caribbean coast by sedentary or semi-sedentary populations has been documented to have occurred by c. 4000 BC.
Ethnohistorical data shows that the Tairona tolerated initial contact with the Spanish, but by 1600 AD, confrontations grew, and a small part of the Tairona population moved to the higher stretches of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This movement allowed them to evade the worst of the Spanish colonial system during the 17th and 18th centuries. The indigenous Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuacos (Ijka, Ifca) and Kankuamo people who live in the area today are believed to be direct descendants of the Tairona.
Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida differs from other ancient ruins around the world in that its buildings were made from wood. Over the years since the city was abandoned, the wood has rotted, and nothing is left except for the plazas and platforms where the building once stood.
The first inhabitants of Colombia were migrating members of the Mesoamericans who established themselves in the area around 1200 BC, followed by two other waves around 500 BC and a third one between 400 and 300 BC. The southern regions of present-day Colombia were also part of the Inca Empire. Two main tribes were socially and economically developed at the time of the Spanish arrival in the 16th century: the Muisca and the Tairona. Both were within the Chibchan Nations, a group of indigenous peoples in South America that shared similar linguistic and cultural traits:
- The Muisca were located in the plateaus of Cundinamarca and Boyacá.
- The Tairona who settled along the northern spur of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in present-day Magdalena, Cesar and La Guajira.
The relationship between the Tayrona people and the Chibchas is not entirely pellucid, as there is limited information available about the early history of these groups. However, it is believed that the Tayrona people were one of the groups that migrated into the area around 300 BC, after the arrival of the Mesoamericans. While the Tayrona people were part of the broader Chibchan cultural group, they may not have been directly related to the Mesoamericans who first settled in Colombia.
The Kogi are a Native American tribe indigenous to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Reaching an altitude of 5,700 metres above sea level and less than 40km from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world’s highest coastal range. The Kogi civilisation has existed since the Pre-Columbian era, and today they have a population of approximately 12,000. The Tairona are believed to have inhabited the Sierra Nevada since 200 BC until the 17th century, when encounters with Spanish invaders ultimately decimated their society. Those that survived moved further into the highlands, and today’s Kogi society springs from them.
According to the Kogi people, the Tairona lived for thousands of years, up until the age of the Spanish conquistadors. After years of trade and conflict, the Tairona people fled their homes from the Spaniards sometime in the 16th century.
The Lost City site was discovered in 1972 by a group of local treasure looters and was later officially excavated by archaeologists from the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History in the 1980s. It consists of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a network of tiled roads, and several small circular plazas that the Tayrona people once used to navigate the city. The entrance can be accessed only by climbing 1,200 stone steps through a dense jungle.
Caption: [Cropped] Section of the stone staircase that leads up from the river valley to Ciudad Perdida
Attribution: Dwayne Reilander, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stone_Stairway_to_Ciudad_Perdida.jpg
When the group of treasure hunters discovered the Lost City, they did so after a gruel climb up these same steps. The legendary settlement, believed to have been established in the 9th century but abandoned during the Spanish conquest, clung to the hillside at the top. As gold, ceramic urns, and other artefacts appeared on the local black market, the government intervened and took control of the site in 1975. Today, it is accessible only to those brave and fit enough to undertake the challenging trek through the jungle.
The city s situated deep in the jungle and can only be reached by hiking for several days through rugged terrain and steep mountains. The journey is challenging, but the stunning natural beauty and rich cultural history make it a popular destination for adventurous travellers.
The structures are made of stone and clay and are believed to have been used for religious and ceremonial purposes. The site was abandoned by the Tayrona people in the 16th century, probably due to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the region. It remained hidden in the jungle until its discovery in the 20th century.
In recent years, the Lost City has become an increasingly popular tourist destination, drawing visitors from around the world interested in exploring its ancient ruins and learning about the history and culture of the Tayrona people. The site can only be reached by a four- to six-day trek through the jungle. The influx of tourists has raised concerns about the impact of tourism on the site’s delicate ecosystem and cultural heritage.
To help preserve the site, the Colombian government has implemented strict regulations on visitor access and has worked to promote sustainable tourism practices in the region. The increased foot traffic and development have led to environmental degradation and damage to the archaeological remains. Efforts are being made to mitigate these impacts, including limiting the number of visitors, implementing sustainable tourism practices, and investing in conservation and restoration efforts.
Tourists must now obtain permits to visit the Lost City and are required to follow guidelines to minimize their impact on the environment and cultural heritage of the site.
Most of the city’s construction took place between 1000 and 1500 AD. It was a significant political and economic centre for the Tayrona civilisation, with an estimated population of up to 10,000 people at its peak.
The ruins of Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida
As mentioned above, the ruins consist of a series of stone terraces and plazas connected by a network of paths and staircases. The city is divided into several areas, each with its own distinct architecture and function. The central area, known as the Core, is the most significant and includes a ceremonial centre, a marketplace, and several residential areas. There are also several other areas of the city, including a series of agricultural terraces and a system of aqueducts and water channels.
The city was built using advanced engineering techniques, such as terracing and irrigation, and the construction materials were transported up the mountain by hand. The Tayrona people were skilled metalworkers and craftspeople, producing various goods, including gold and silver objects, ceramics, and textiles.
Ciudad Perdida is a fascinating and unique archaeological site that offers a glimpse into the ancient history and culture of Colombia’s indigenous peoples. However, it is also a fragile and sensitive ecosystem that requires careful management and protection to ensure its preservation for future generations.
The Terraces and Plazas
The terraces were primarily used for agricultural purposes, as the Tayrona people were skilled farmers who cultivated crops such as corn, beans, yucca, and cotton. The terracing and irrigation techniques used by the Tayrona people allowed them to maximize land use in the rugged terrain of the mountainside.
Conversely, the plazas were used for several purposes, including religious and ceremonial activities, social gatherings, and as marketplaces. The circular shape of the plazas suggests that they were used for communal activities and were often situated near important structures such as ceremonial or residential areas.
The terraces and plazas were integral components of the Lost City, serving important functions for the Tayrona people and providing valuable insights into their way of life and culture.
The Ciudad Perdida (translated as ‘Lost City’), also known as Teyuna, a name given by the members of the local Arhuaco, Koguis and Wiwas tribes, was probably the political and manufacturing centre and housed between 2,000 and 8,000 people until it was abandoned during the Spanish conquest. Teyuna is its ancestral name meaning the Origin of the people of the earth. The Kogui and Wiwas believed that the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta was the heart of the World.
In 1972, when treasure hunters found the steps leading to the city, then covered in jungle, they named it the “green hell”.
Caption: Portrait of a Koguis tribeswoman and child on a terrace at Ciudad Perdida
Attribution: Dwayne Reilander, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Koguis_Tribeswoman_with_Child.jpg
The Culture and Customs of the Tayrona People
The Tayrona people, who built and inhabited Ciudad Perdida, had a rich and complex culture with a unique set of customs and practices, a brief overview of which is:
- Education: The Tayrona people had an elaborate educational system that focused on passing down traditional knowledge from generation to generation. Young people would learn from their elders and were trained in various skills such as farming, weaving, and construction.
- Marriages: The Tayrona people practised polygamy, and it was not uncommon for men to have multiple wives. Marriage was seen as a social and economic contract, and it was often arranged by the families of the bride and groom.
- Religion: The Tayrona people had a complex belief system that revolved around worshipping nature and spirits. They believed that the world was divided into two realms, the visible and the invisible and that it was the responsibility of the priests to maintain the balance between the two.
- Burial practices: The Tayrona people had a unique burial practice where they would place the remains of the deceased in urns and store them in caves. They believed this allowed the spirits of the dead to remain close to their loved ones and the community.
- Social structure: The Tayrona people had a hierarchical social structure with different levels of political and religious authority. At the top were the priests, who were responsible for maintaining the balance between the visible and invisible realms. Below them were the rulers and chiefs, followed by the common people.
- Agriculture: The Tayrona people were skilled farmers who cultivated crops such as corn, beans, yucca, and cotton. They also undertook terracing, irrigation, and soil conservation techniques to maximise land use.
- Arts and crafts: The Tayrona people were skilled artisans who produced intricate textiles, ceramics, goldwork, and stone carvings. They also had a unique system of symbols and hieroglyphics to record their history and religious beliefs.
- Gender roles: The Tayrona people had defined gender roles where men were responsible for hunting, fishing, and warfare, while women were responsible for cooking, weaving, and child-rearing. However, women had a significant role in religious ceremonies and were considered to have special spiritual powers.
- Spiritual practices: The Tayrona people had a complex system of spiritual practices that included offerings, sacrifices, and rituals. They believed every aspect of the natural world, including animals, plants, and rocks, had a spiritual essence to be respected and honoured.
- Music and dance: The Tayrona people had a rich musical tradition that included using drums, flutes, and other instruments. They also had a variety of dance styles that were used for both religious and social purposes.
These customs and practices show some things about the rich and complex culture of the people who built and inhabited Ciudad Perdida. While much about them has been lost over time, efforts are being made to preserve and revive their traditions and legacy. There is much more to learn about their unique way of life and the legacy they left behind.
Upon the arrival of the Spaniards, it’s believed that the Tayrona people initially tolerated contact with them, but as confrontations grew, some of the population moved to the higher stretches of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to evade the worst of the Spanish colonial system during the 17th and 18th centuries AD. The indigenous Kogi, together with the Wiwa, Arhuacos (Ijka, Ifca), and Kankuamo people who live in the area today, are believed to be direct descendants of the Tayrona.
Treasures – Found and looted
As for the treasures that have been found and looted, Ciudad Perdida is known to have contained a significant amount of gold and other precious objects, which is one reason why the site was looted for many years before its discovery by archaeologists. In fact, looters still occasionally target the site. It’s estimated that as much as 90% of the original treasures have been lost or destroyed.
Ciudad Perdida contained many gold objects, including jewellery, ceremonial objects, and pottery. Other precious things, such as emeralds and other gemstones, were also likely present. The looters who targeted the site would have been interested primarily in these valuable objects and would have used various methods to extract them from the site, often causing significant damage in the process.
Many objects looted from Ciudad Perdida have been lost or destroyed over time, and it is difficult to know exactly what was taken. However, some examples of objects that have been recovered from the site include gold pendants, earrings, and nose rings, as well as pottery and stone objects. Those objects that were legally recovered from the site are now housed in museums worldwide. For example, the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, Colombia, has an extensive collection of Tayrona gold objects, many of which were likely taken from Ciudad Perdida.
Other museums, such as the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, also have significant collections of gold objects from pre-Columbian South America, some of which may have come from Ciudad Perdida. It is important to stress that while some objects have been recovered and are now in museums, most of the original treasures are likely lost or destroyed.
The looting and destruction of archaeological sites such as Ciudad Perdida represent a significant loss of cultural heritage, and efforts to protect and preserve such sites are essential for ensuring their survival for future generations.
Several books have been written about Ciudad Perdida, which provide detailed information about the site, its history, and its significance. Some examples include:
- The Lost City of the Monkey God, Paperback, by Douglas Preston, 7 Sept. 2017, published by Head of Zeus. Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-City-Monkey-God/dp/1786695073/. This book is a gripping account of the author’s journey to explore the ruins of a lost city in Honduras, which he believes is linked to Ciudad Perdida. Along the way, he encounters dangerous wildlife, drug cartels, and ancient curses.
- The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann, 26 Jan. 2010, published by Vintage. Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-City-Obsession-Vintage-Departures/dp/B004S2XK9Y. This book is a non-fiction account of the search for Ciudad Perdida and the life of British explorer Percy Fawcett, who vanished in the Amazon while searching for the lost city. The author delves into Fawcett’s life, his obsession with finding the lost city, and the dangers he faced in the uncharted wilderness.
- The Archaeology and History of the Caribbean Coast of Colombia: A Synthesis of Knowledge, edited by Manuel Arroyo-Kalin, (University Press of Florida, 2016). Availability not found. This book is a comprehensive overview of the history and archaeology of the Caribbean coast of Colombia, including the region where Ciudad Perdida is located. It covers topics such as pre-Columbian societies, colonialism, and modern-day challenges facing the region.
- Lost City of the Tayrona: A Cultural History of the Archaeological Zone of Teyuna, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, by Julio Cesar Cubillos (Editorial Universidad del Norte, 2011). Availability not found. This book provides a detailed history of the Tayrona people and their culture, with a focus on the archaeological site of Teyuna (the local name for Ciudad Perdida). The author draws on archaeological evidence and historical records to reconstruct Tayrona society and beliefs.
- Magdalena: River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia, by Wade Davis (Vintage, 2021). Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Magdalena-River-Dreams-Wade-Davis/dp/1529112214/. This book is a lyrical exploration of the Magdalena River, which runs through the heart of Colombia and has played a significant role in the country’s history and culture. The author weaves together tales of explorers, revolutionaries, and ordinary Colombians to create a rich portrait of the region.
- Frommer’s EasyGuide to Colombia, by Nicholas Gill (FrommerMedia, 2017). Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Frommers-EasyGuide-Colombia-Easy-Guides/dp/1628872845/. This book is a practical travel guide to Colombia, including information on how to visit Ciudad Perdida. It offers tips on where to stay, what to eat, and what to see in various regions of the country.
- The Colombian Caribbean: A Regional History 1870-1950 (Oxford Historical Monographs), Hardcover, by Eduardo Posada-Carbo (Author), 22 Feb. 1996, published by OUP Oxford. Available at; https://www.amazon.co.uk/Colombian-Caribbean-1870-1950-Historical-Monographs/dp/0198206283/. Amazon describes it as a study of the role of regions in developing modern nations in Latin America. Eduardo Posada-Carbó focuses on the Colombian Caribbean between 1870 and 1950. He examines the achievements and shortcomings of arable agriculture and the significance of the livestock industry, the link between town and countryside, the influence of foreign migrants and foreign capital, the relationship between local and national politics, and the extent to which regionalism represented a challenge to the consolidation of the national state in Colombia.
These books offer various perspectives on Ciudad Perdida and its significance and may be useful resources for anyone interested in learning more about the Colombian site.
Sources and Further Reading
See Bibliography selection.
- Ciudad Perdida: Exploring Lost Cities with Albert Lin, at: https://youtu.be/-lwf1JmmdLY
- Trying to find Colombia’s Lost City: Adventure Hike to Teyuna, also known as Ciudad Perdida, at: https://youtu.be/wE-r4Pevm9k
- Trek to the Lost City – Colombia (Ciudad Perdida), at: https://youtu.be/s4zacz-lq7k
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Caption: Portrait of a Koguis shaman at Ciudad Perdida
Attribution: Dwayne Reilander, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Koguis_Shaman.jpg
End Notes and Explanations
- Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: bing.com [chat] and https://chat.openai.com ↑
- Source: https://www.ancient-origins.net/videos/ciudad-perdida-0018388 ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ciudad_Perdida ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tairona ↑
- Source: Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City): Colombia by Mark Candey (Author), obtainable from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B01DHH3QY4/↑
- Explanation: Mesoamerica is a historical region and cultural area that begins in the southern part of North America and extends to most of Central America, thus comprising the lands of central Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. In the pre-Columbian era, many societies flourished in Mesoamerica for more than 3,000 years before the Spanish colonization of the Americas, which began at Hispaniola island in 1493. In world history, Mesoamerica was the site of two historical transformations: (i) primary urban generation and (ii) the formation of New World cultures from the mixtures of the indigenous Mesoamerican peoples with the European, African, and Asian peoples who were introduced by the Spanish colonisation of the Americas. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesoamerica ↑
- Explanation: The Spanish conquest of the Chibchan nations refers to the conquest by the Spanish monarchy of the Chibcha language-speaking nations, mainly the Muisca and Tairona that inhabited present-day Colombia, beginning the Spanish colonization of the Americas. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_conquest_of_the_Chibchan_nations). The Chibcha, also known as the Muisca, were indigenous peoples of South America who inhabited the high valleys around present-day Bogotá and Tunja in Colombia during the time of the Spanish conquest. They had a population of over 500,000 and were known for their highly centralized political organization, which was unique among the indigenous peoples of South America outside of the Inca empire. (Source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Chibcha). ↑
- Source: https://bnbcolombia.com/tayrona-park-history/ ↑
- Source: Muse, Toby (September–October 2004). “Lost City” Archaeology. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ciudad_Perdida ↑
- Sources: (i) “Explore the Site”. Global Heritage Fund, and (ii) Muse, Toby (September–October 2004). “Lost City” Archaeology. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ciudad_Perdida ↑
- Source: https://expotur-eco.com/en/the-lost-city-7-curious-facts/ ↑