RTL Today’s Tom Tutton continues his travel series with a brutal four-day hike to the ruined Lost City on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

It’s 6 p.m. on the first day of the world-famous Lost City trek, and it couldn’t have gone any worse. I’m soaked to the bone, hungry, and absolutely miserable.

As I pull off my mud-drenched shoes and settle in for a night sharing a single bed, there’s only one thought in my mind… why am I doing this again?

My partner Hedda and I are three weeks into our South American adventure, and after trips to the Amazon and Medellin we’ve reached the Caribbean coast.

You’re picturing cocktails on the beach and swimming in crystalline waters, right?

Think again. For some reason, we’ve signed up for the four-day hike to the mystical Lost City of the Tayrona people, high up in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada

Hedda and I are reasonably fit young people, and the tour organizers assure us it’ll be nothing more than a 44-kilometre stroll in the jungle.

It’s safe to say it doesn’t turn out that way.

Day One starts with a bus ride from the bustling city of Santa Marta to the trailhead, a two-hour journey which, you would imagine, can’t really go wrong.

Until our bus gets stuck in some knee-deep mud, that is, and promptly breaks down halfway up a remote hillside. It’s blocking the entire road – or dirt track, to be accurate – and we all help out with some serious pushing to get it out of the way of oncoming motorbikes and 4x4s.

In the meantime, we’re stranded for three hours waiting for a ride, and by the time we set off on the trek, it’s already mid-afternoon, the clouds above us gathering ominously.


You don't want to try crossing this river when it's flooding, trust me / © Hedda Roberts

Our guide, Daniel, is unusually tall for a Colombian, standing at 190 cm. In his mid-fifties, he reckons he’s done the hike around 1,300 times, but as we set off, he looks a little concerned.

Five minutes later, we find out why. It starts raining with a force I’ve never experienced in my entire life, and we’re forced to scramble for shelter under a hut.

We plead with Daniel to wait for the storm to blow over, but he shakes his head. There’s only one way to get to our accommodation for the night, and that’s walking right now, before it gets dark.

Within seconds, we’re soaked to the bone. We’ve brought raincoats and covers for our bags, but they quickly prove to be totally useless in the face of the torrential rain.

Fortunately, it’s still around 30 degrees, so we’re not freezing, but it’s tough going. Our supposedly waterproof shoes are soon drenched as we climb up and down steep jungle ravines, plodding our way through streams of rainwater while trying to avoid stepping on the sudden multitude of crabs.


Donkeys are used to transport supplies to the various camps

After about two hours of determined marching, we spot a small camp used by one of the other tour companies, on the other side of a bridge over a raging, swollen river.

As we descend towards the bridge, one of the pack donkeys – one of dozens used to carry food, supplies and gas to the various camps – becomes separated from the rest of its group, seemingly disorientated by the downpour.

Instead of using the bridge, it heads straight for the river, which on drier days can be crossed on foot. By the time one of the guides notices what’s happening, it’s too late. The donkey steps into the onrushing torrent and is immediately swept away, to the horror of all who witness it.

Deeply shaken, we’re told to keep going, as our camp is just twenty minutes away. Lying in our path, though, is a major obstacle: another river. This one is usually just a stream, ankle-deep at worst; but with the rain continuing to fall in biblical proportions, it’s now risen up to neck height, and there’s no way we’re getting through it.

Luckily, there are a couple of extra mattresses at the previous camp, so we end up with a single bed to share. It’s not the most comfortable night I’ll ever have, but at this point, we’re grateful for anything that’s out of the rain.

Our dinner is also the other side of the neck-deep stream, so we’re left with a bit of spare rice and egg, which, after the day we’ve been through, doesn’t quite hit the spot.

For a while, there’s even concern among the guides that the river might burst its banks and flood the camp, but the rain eventually starts to ease off and the danger is averted.

As we bed down for the night, we’re left wondering what on earth we’re doing here, and dreading the thought of three more days of hell.

And as it turns out, the rest of the trek is indeed an unforgettable experience – but for all the right reasons.


Lush and verdant / © Hedda Roberts

The Lost City hike passes through the lands of the indigenous Kogi people, descendants of the once-mighty Tayrona. The Kogi continue to lead a traditional lifestyle, dressing head-to-toe in white linen and sporting necklaces of colourful beads.

On Day Two, as we pass a local village made up of around twenty circular huts with thatched roofs, we’re briefly caught behind a group of young Kogi children leading their own mules down steep paths. It’s hard to imagine a group of six-year-old Europeans with such a task.

The Kogi also follow the spiritual practices of their ancestors. Arriving at our camp on the second evening, we’re greeted by a local shaman, or mamo.

All in white, he’s chewing a traditional mixture of coca leaves – yes, the very same ones otherwise used to produce cocaine – as he outlines the Kogi worldview, with the sun and moon playing central roles as creators of the universe.

But the mamo has an important message for us, too. Climate change is already starting to affect the Sierra Nevada, disrupting the seasons and damaging the ecosystem, and he begs the ‘little brothers,’ as all outsiders are referred to by the Kogi, to change course before it is too late.

On the road, it’s easy to see why the Kogi live in such harmony with the surrounding nature. This is the world’s highest coastal mountain range, with nearby peaks of up to 5,700m offering dramatic vistas. We’re also in the tropics, so at the lower levels the jungle is lush and verdant, with birds and butterflies all around. The scenery is simply stunning.


The platforms of the Lost City and a nearby waterfall / © Hedda Roberts

The real highlight, though, is reserved for the third day of our hike. Rising at 4am, we set off to climb the 1,200 steps to the ancient citadel of the Tayrona people: the Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City.

The majesty of the site is hard to fully recount. Perched on a hillside above the treetops, it’s surrounded by mountains on all sides, with a huge waterfall dropping from a nearby cliff.

The settlement consists of a series of flat, circular platforms, linked by a network of stone staircases. It is believed to have been founded by the Tayrona around 800 AD, making it around 600 years older than its famous Peruvian rival Machu Picchu.

The site was once a prominent town, with an estimated 6,000 inhabitants. However, in the years following the Spanish conquest, the Tayrona were decimated by diseases such as smallpox, and the survivors were forced to retreat higher into the mountains to avoid contact with the invaders.

This led them to abandon the Lost City at some point in the sixteenth century, and it was soon reclaimed by the jungle, to remain hidden for the next 400 years.


The classic Lost City view / © Hedda Roberts

The Lost City was eventually rediscovered in the early 1970s by treasure hunters who stumbled across the main stairway up to the site. The appearance of gold trinkets and other precious artifacts on black markets in Santa Marta soon alerted archaeologists to the find, and over the next few years they restored the site to its former glory.

Since the mid-1980s, visitors have been flocking to the site in droves, although it’s not always been safe to do so – in 2003, eight foreign tourists were briefly kidnapped by the left-wing guerrilla group ELN.

With Colombia’s civil war now largely over, there are no such issues these days, and as we reach the top platform overlooking the entire area, we’re blown away by its beauty.

The difficulties of the first day are quickly forgotten, and the rest of the trek flies by as we marvel at what we’ve seen.

Reaching the end of the trek, the sense of achievement is overwhelming. We all jump in a river, washing away four days’ worth of accumulated dirt - but the memories we've gathered at Colombia's magical Lost City will last a lifetime.