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The Lost City Trek

Although dawn had just broken, I found myself covered in sweat after only a few minutes of jungle humidity in northern Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. During the previous two days, I’d hiked 14 miles through tropical forests, taken an aerial cable ferry across a torrential river and clambered over tracts of uneven terrain. Ahead of me lay one final challenge before reaching the Lost City of Teyuna: a near-vertical 1,200-step stone staircase.

It was not an easy climb as it required close attention to the dangers of wet leaves and loose rocks. Resisting the temptation to count each step, I focused instead on the sounds and smells of the jungle. I slipped into a meditative rhythm aided by bird song and brush and soon emerged in a clearing, surprised by how quickly all those stairs had vanished behind me.

Celso, our guide, is a member of the Wiwa tribe, one of four local indigenous groups descended from the ancient Tayrona civilization, which had built Teyuna around A.D. 800. He gathered us around a patch of grass outlined by a circle of arranged stones. In the center stood a stone block covered in offerings of coca leaves. Celso reached into a colorful handwoven pouch draped over his shoulder and carefully placed a few more leaves atop the pile.

He explained that we had arrived at a site that is held sacred both by the ancients and their living descendants. Before we could continue to the upper terraces, he suggested we prepare for the experience by cleansing ourselves of our impurities and letting go of our negative thoughts and emotions. We stood in a semicircle, silent in reflection, just as others had done for centuries before us.

As we explored the site, Celso shared stories passed down to him by shamans, the local indigenous wise men. They told of a deep connection to and respect for nature, ancient beliefs that survive to this day through local ritual and practice. In service to their communities, and perhaps to the world, shamans regularly make an even longer journey to the two highest peaks of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. There, they deliver offerings and perform ceremonies in an attempt to maintain equilibrium with nature and the world.

As I descended the 1,200 steps upon my return, I realized that this journey served as my own ritual of equilibrium—a way to temporarily disconnect from one world, only to reconnect with others, nature and myself.

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