This post was originally written for and published on Colombia Eco Travel.
My boyfriend tried to warn me against signing up; he’s been an off-trail backpacker all his life, and he just couldn’t get over paying to hike. But in the end, I brushed off his warnings; the Trip Advisor reviews were amazing, and I reassured myself it was a good thing that some trails were regulated to help protect sacred sites. It was both of our first time on a guided group hiking tour, and it wasn’t entirely by choice – it’s required to go with a licensed guide if you want to visit the 1,000-year-old Lost City outside Santa Marta, Colombia in the midst of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The trek and ruins have been described as the Colombian version of “Machu Picchu.” It drew me in because of the chance to learn about the indigenous people of the area (the Kogi), and it’s true that in the end – I accomplished that objective. Furthermore, the trail was beautiful; the Bucarita river was incredible, and the Lost City ruins and the 1,000 ancient steps leading up to it were awe-inspiring. There were moments when I felt just like Indiana Jones, and it’ll certainly never be forgotten. But I couldn’t help but wonder at what cost the experience came, and I don’t mean just the $750,000 COP, but what kind of tourism was I contributing to?
First, this is not a hike for beginners. This is not a hike for intermediates. This is for expert hikers only. It is 26 steep miles in brutal conditions: sticky jungle heat, heavy humidity, and dense mosquitos (who unfortunately seemed to particularly favor me). We were lucky to avoid the rain, but I can only imagine how slippery it is when that clay trail is wet. The tour companies don’t advertise this and don’t offer many warnings. I got the impression they would sign anyone up as long as he or she was paying, even if it was clear they weren’t physically up to the task. In our 5-day group, an older woman was in so much pain she didn’t arrive to one of the campsites way past dark, hours behind most of us (despite the jaguars that come out at night). Upon arrival, she went straight to bed without even eating and ended up paying more money to hire a fatigued mule for the last day.
In addition to the physical demand, the campsites required their own kind of mental resilience. Most of the mosquito nets have holes, and most of the hammocks reeked of mildew. Because of this, the hike felt more like a race to get to the next campsite for the newest beds and hammocks than an experience with nature. It was so crowded when I was there that there weren’t even enough beds for the cooks or guides. The campsites were littered with trash, just a breeze away from ending up in the unblemished Bucarita River. The bathrooms were particularly awful; the trashcans provided were so full that used feminine hygiene products were stuffed in between the wooden slats. It was clear the camps were way past capacity.
As for the guide, ours was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the area. He has lived there all his life and experienced the slow shift from guerilla warfare and narcotrafficking to tourism first-hand. He also had a great relationship with all the Kogi people we passed and did an excellent job educating us about the local animal and plant life – even finding some raw cocoa beans for us to try along the way. But on our last night, a bottle of tequila and a lover’s quarrel came between him and our hike. He was so hung over the next morning that he was unable to accompany us on our last day. It was of course somewhat amusing (and I definitely didn’t complain about a shot of tequila after 4 days of brutal hiking), but it was also a disappointment to go without him (and especially considering the strict no trekking without a guide regulation).
When I arrived at the Lost City, I learned how the gold statues buried by the Kogi that represent precious memories were dug up and sent to a museum in Bogota for protection from looters. I learned how we hiked this far into the jungle only to find a military base with WiFi right above the ruins, a remnant from when a group of 8 tourists were kidnapped in 2003. It felt surreal to be surrounded with assault rifles in what should have been the middle of nowhere, but to be fair when I noticed the soldiers staring at us through their binoculars, I waved, and they waved back with enthusiasm. As we exited, we walked past several Kogi homes, trying hard not to gawk or take photos. They’ve lived in the area for over a thousand years, but they’re now surrounded by an ever-increasing number of tourists (visitors quadrupled from 2007-2011).
A lot of this might be explained because I went in high season (around Christmas/New Year), but I don’t know how many more high seasons the area can sustain. There did not appear be a maximum allowed number of visitors per day, and so with time – the problems will only multiply. The Global Heritage Fund has been working with the site since 2009 to help replace drug trafficking as a source of income for locals with tourism, but I hope that the tourism can be sustained in a way that will preserve this site and the people and pristine jungle around it. If not, I worry that the Lost City might become lost forever.