Colombia’s Lost City gets long-term preservation plan

Last year, Gadling’s Aaron Hotfelder braved the mountainous jungles of Colombia to visit Ciudad Perdida, the nation’s famous “Lost City“.

These remote ruins were built by the Tayrona, a culture that thrived from 200 AD to c.1650 AD. More than 250 of their stone settlements have been found in a 2,000 square-mile area. The Lost City is the largest Tayrona site known with more than 200 structures over 80 acres. One highlight is a strange carving, shown below, that appears to be a map of the city.

Unknown to the outside world until the 1975, the site now attracts an increasing number of tourists willing to make the five-day trek, and this is destabilizing some of the structures. Erosion and local narcotics traffickers are also taking their toll, Popular Archaeology reports.

Now the Global Heritage Fund has teamed up with the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, which runs the Teyuna-Ciudad Perdida Archaeological Park, to preserve the site. The area will be fully mapped and examined, and they’ll create a management plan to reduce natural and man-made damage to the site. One good aspect of the plan is that it’s incorporating the local indigenous people. They’ve always known about the Lost City and consider it sacred, so their input will be crucial to ensure its future.

Photos courtesy William Neuheisal.

10 reasons to choose Colombia as your next vacation destination

It’s safe, it’s affordable, and it’s attracting travelers like never before. Colombia, the closest South American getaway to the United States, has seemingly appeared on just about every “hip new travel destination” list over the last few years, including the New York Times list of 31 Places to Go in 2010. So why is everyone raving about it? Here are ten reasons:

10. Medellin Named the world’s most dangerous city only two decades ago thanks largely to the exploits of Pablo Escobar, Medellin has cleaned up its act in a big way since the drug lord’s death in 1993. Nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, Medellin’s near-perfect climate, cosmopolitan atmosphere, and vibrant nightlife make it a must-visit Colombia destination.

If you can, schedule your trip so that you can witness Medellin’s one-of-a-kind Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) in early August. My fellow travelers who attended could not shut up about it. Check out Anthony Bourdain‘s thoughts on the city here.

9. Cartagena The word is out about Cartagena: it might just be the prettiest and best-preserved colonial city in South America.

Strolling the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, with its massive balconies covered in bougainvillea and church spires looming overhead, feels like something out of a fairy tale. If your significant other is overtaken by the city’s romance, take him or her to the Palace of the Inquisition to check out its vast collection of medieval torture instruments. That’ll stop all the marriage talk!

8. The food and drink
Colombia does not have much of a culinary reputation, and in many small towns it’s not hard to figure out why. Much of the cuisine, as my trusty Lonely Planet notes, is “unseasond, unspiced food, prepared simply and ungarnished.” Exciting it is not. Fortunately, despite the blandness of some Colombian food, you’ll still find many things to tempt the ol’ tastebuds, like the ubiquitous arepas (buttery corn tortillas), patacones (plantains that are pressed flat and fried), exotic fruits like the lulo, and fresh fish on the coast. As the home of Juan Valdez, Colombia also serves up an above-average cup of coffee, unlike much of South America which relies almost exclusively on the execrable instant coffee Nescafe. Fresh, exotic fruit juice, or jugo, is widely available and incredibly tasty. Colombia’s national spirit is aguardiente, an anise-flavored white liquor that almost makes up for its godawful taste with its 29% alcohol content. Almost.

7. It’s safer thank you think! If you caught Ingrid Betancourt on Oprah the other day (hey, my remote was broken!), you might get the impression that Colombia’s still-dodgy reputation is well-deserved. Betancourt, you’ll remember, was the Colombian presidential candidate kidnapped by the guerrilla group FARC back in 2002 and held until 2008 when she was dramatically rescued by the Colombian military.

Yes, Colombia has long been associated with drug trafficking, kidnapping, guerilla groups, and violence, but those days are mostly behind it. Medellin, once the most dangerous city in the world with about 380 murders per 100,000 people, is now one of the safest cities in South America. The vast majority of Colombia’s dangerous areas lie in the country’s sparsely-populated eastern half, a region well off the tourist trail. (We didn’t go there and neither should you, with the exception of the Amazonian town Leticia.) Colombia’s big cities and small towns, as well as every attraction on this list, are as safe as anywhere in Latin America.

6. San Gil Far and away the adventure sports capital of Colombia, San Gil attracts travelers seeking cheap (and we mean cheap) thrills, whether it’s white-water rafting, paragliding, horseback riding, caving, or rappelling down a waterfall. The town itself, though admittedly short on culinary delights, is home to a pleasant tree-lined square which lies an easy walk from Parque El Gallineral, a beautiful ten-acre park perfect for an afternoon stroll.

5. Barichara For those travelers who are more Betty White than Bear Grylls, avoid the white-knuckle adventure (“these kids and their paragliding!”) and take a 45-minute bus ride from San Gil to the picturesque town of Barichara. This beautiful pueblo, with its cobblestone streets, colonial churches, and quaint cafés, makes a wonderful day-trip destination.

Its culinary scene is also surprisingly developed for a town of 10,000, with several restaurants offering regional dishes like cabro con pepitoria (goat with blood and organs) and the (in)famous hormigas culonas, giant ants that have been fried or roasted. Surprisingly tolerable!

4. Taganga Looking for a bargain-basement PADI course so you can finally learn what all the scuba diving fuss is about? Make your way to the fishing village of Taganga, where several operators offer four-day open water courses for about US$250. Taganga also makes a great base for trips to Tayrona National Park and Ciudad Perdida (see below), and as such, the town attracts gringo backpackers like moths to a flame. This means, among other things, that there are plenty of inexpensive and occasionally rowdy hostels in town, as well as some pretty good restaurants and coffee shops. Embrace your gringo-ness at the Swedish-owned Café Bonsai just a half-block from the waterfront. Cool music, tasty food, hot drinks, cocktail specials… Is there more to life?

3. Tayrona National Park
Located on a small stretch of Caribbean coastline, this 93-square-mile national park offers an abundance of attractions for hikers, nature lovers and beach bums alike. Easily accessible from the towns of Santa Marta by bus or Taganga by boat, the park’s dense jungle leads to pristine white-sand beaches, some of the best in Colombia.

Spend lazy days bronzing on the beach and swimming in the warm Caribbean waters, or take advantage of extensive trails to see some of the park’s 300 species of birds and 770 species of plants. Swing yourself to sleep in a hammock at one of the many campgrounds in the park– just don’t forget the bug spray!

2. Bogotá More than just another noisy, crowded Latin American capital, Bogotá might just be the most pleasant surprise of your trip. Progressive and cosmopolitan, Bogotá was recently named the world’s third-most bike-friendly city after Amsterdam and Copenhagen. The original home of the now much-copied ciclovía concept, Bogotá closes 122 kilometers of roads to cars every Sunday for hundreds of thousands of cyclists to enjoy. Its walkable colonial neighborhood La Candelaria, home to the Plaza de Bolivar (pictured), boasts the world-class Gold Museum and the worthwhile Donación Botero, a museum with works by Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, as well as unknown dabblers like Picasso, Renoir, and Monet. La Candelaria is also a food-lover’s paradise, with top-notch international cuisine, tasty and inexpensive local fare, and scores of street vendors selling aromatica, a wonderfully addictive spiced hot tea.

1. Ciudad Perdida Accessible by a challenging five-day trek through the jungle, Ciudad Perdida (“Lost City”) is, for me, Colombia’s top attraction. Dating from the 9th Century, Ciudad Perdida’s ruins were hidden for centuries beneath thick vegetation until grave-robbers discovered the site in 1973. But Ciudad Perdida is special not because of the ruins themselves, but because of the spectacular five-day hike required to get there. For more on this great hike, check out my recent should-have-been-award-winning Gadling piece on Ciudad Perdida.

For more wanderlust-inspiring articles about Colombia, check out a couple favorites from the Gadling vault: The rebirth of Medellin? and Coming attractions: Colombia. The New York Times has also been all over Colombia recently; check out their coverage here.

[All photos belong to the Colombia Board of Tourism or your humble correspondent]

Ciudad Perdida: The spectacular five-day trek to Colombia’s Lost City

Backpackers in Colombia are divided into two groups: those who have made the exhausting five-day trek to Ciudad Perdida, and those who haven’t.

Dating from the 800s, Ciudad Perdida (literally “Lost City”) was once home to as many as four thousand Tayrona Indians, but its ruins were hidden by dense forest until grave robbers re-discovered the city in 1973 (and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down). Located on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range near Colombia’s northern coast, Ciudad Perdida’s ruins are as impressive as they are remote, containing about 170 stone terraces that were once the foundations for Tayrona houses, markets, and ritual sites.

If the thought of hiking into the remote Colombian forest brings to mind images of armed guerrillas and paramilitaries, fear not. The trek to Ciudad Perdida is incredibly safe, as dozens of armed (and friendly — see photo) military personnel patrol the trail leading up to the ruins. In fact, Ciudad Perdida is probably one of the safest places in Colombia.

That’s not to say it’s always been that way. As recently as 2003, a guerrilla group known as the ELN kidnapped eight foreigners hiking to Ciudad Perdida and held them for three months. It wasn’t until 2005 that the military was sent in, allowing treks to the Lost City to resume safely.

The Lost City is accessible via a challenging but picturesque five-day trek that can be organized in the nearby tourist towns of Santa Marta and Taganga. Several companies operate tours to the ruins, including the highly-recommended Magic Tour and Turcol. (Incidentally, Edwin Rey, a guide for Turcol, was one of the people kidnapped by the ELN in 2003. He’s the one holding up the sign in the photo below. He’ll be happy to show you newspaper clippings about his improbable escape through the thick forest after only one day in captivity.) Your group could contain anywhere from six to twenty-two people; friends are easily made by all but the most awkward.
Though the ruins themselves are impressive, the tiring but gorgeous five-day trek is what sticks in most travelers minds. The trail is often muddy, frequently uphill, and occasionally slick, but it’s also entirely do-able, and often loads of fun. There are several river crossings and numerous places to go for a refreshing swim. Lonely Planet describes the hike as “challenging, but not mercilessly so,” and though that phrase may seem wildly off-base at times during the trek, upon further reflection most hikers will probably agree with it. Most days include about four to five hours of actual hiking, but breaks are frequent and there’s never any rush.

The tours themselves run a very reasonable US$220, a price that includes four nights accomodation in mosquito-netted hammocks or beds, plentiful and tasty meals, fresh fruit, cold showers, and potable water. Hikers should bring their own bug spray, sunscreen, flashlight, water bottles, and playing cards. Your shoes (please don’t bring sandals) will be wet for the duration of the hike. Quick-drying shirts, pants, and socks are worth their weight in gold.

A final note on fitness: If you’re in reasonably good shape, you can do this trek with little problem. Even if you’re not in that great of shape, you can still probably do it and have a good time. BUT, if you’re horribly out of shape (you know who you are), you could very well end up miserable for five days. If you’re debating whether to go, go! But if you’re reading this while eating your fifth donut of the morning, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For more on Ciudad Perdida, check this out. For other Colombian adventures, go here.