The Tayrona people built over 200 settlements in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern Colombia. With the rediscovery of Ciudad Perdida in 1975, archaeologists have discovered the most beautiful and extensive of them all.
Where We Work
Formed from rammed earth and intricately cut masonry, the more than 250 buildings of Ciudad Perdida formed the political, economic, and social center of the Tayrona civilization until that people mysteriously disappeared in the 16th century. Hidden for over 400 years by the thick jungle brush of northern Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, this “lost city” is finally beginning to share its secrets.
Lost to civilization and to time, the UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve known as Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a triangle-shaped mountainous massif comprising 12,000 square miles that rises from the Colombian coastline to an altitude of approximately 19,000 feet, making it one of the highest and most ecologically diverse coastal mountains in the world.
Within this maze of dense jungle foliage, the Tayrona people built the crown jewel of their mountain empire: Ciudad Perdida, the largest and most impressive of their more than 250 towns and settlements. For unknown reasons, the once-vibrant settlement lost its inhabitants after the 16th century, and was slowly overtaken by the jungle before disappearing entirely. In 1975, a group of looters (known in Colombia as “guaqueros”) happened to stumbled upon the city in their quest to pillage valuable pre-Colombian artifacts.
Thankfully, it was quickly recognized as a place of world heritage significance, and in 1976, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History-ICANH assumed control of the site and has cared for it since then. The institute has reaped rich rewards during its 30 years of stewardship. Archaeologists have located more than 200 structures covering an area of approximately 30 hectares (80 acres). The many buildings include dwellings of various sizes, terraces, stone-lined paths and staircases, plazas, ceremonial and feasting areas, canals, and storehouses. Many remain unexplored, and additional excavation zones around Ciudad Perdida await further archaeological research.
Ciudad Perdida is constructed along mountain ridges that today are threatened by erosion, destabilizing vegetation growth, neglect, and unsustainable tourism, while related sites are also at risk of damage from looting. In partnership with the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, Global Heritage Fund’s goals include the development and implementation of a site Management Plan, documentation and conservation of the archaeological features at Teyuna-Ciudad Perdida Archaeological Park, and the engagement of the local indigenous and peasant communities as major stakeholders in the preservation and sustainable development of the site.
What We Do
Exposed for the first time in hundreds of years, many of Ciudad Perdida’s most epic structures are now the victims of erosion, looting, and generalized decay. With our partners, Global Heritage Fund’s goals for the site include the development and implementation of a site Management Plan, documentation and conservation of the archaeological features, and the engagement of local communities as major stakeholders in the preservation and sustainable development of the site.
In concert with the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH), Global Heritage Fund has developed a management plan for the future development of the Teyuna-Ciudad Perdida National Park. Focusing primarily on regulating visitor impact to the region, this plan also incorporates biological, environmental, and community development assessments in the Buritaca River Valley.
Although looting and paramilitary activity were once the greatest threats to the biodiversity and cultural heritage of the region, that is no longer the case. Rather, the meteoric rise of tourism numbers – from 2,000 in 2007 to 8,000 in 2011 alone – combined with dilapidated infrastructure, a fragile ecosystem, and an unprepared local population make tourism the most pressing problem facing Ciudad Perdida in the coming years.
Under the direction of Santiago Giraldo, the Heritage Program Director for Colombia, our team proceeded to create thorough documentation for the site. The first phase began with work on the Digital Elevation Model of the Upper Buritaca Basin and Ciudad Perdida’s cartography, which in turn allowed us to commence detailed topographic and architectural surveys of the area and its adjacent sites. Satellite imagery and aerial photography was provided, which became crucial for the duration of the project and for all planning activities. Alongside our field studies, this advanced imagery has helped us to identify, map, and assess several risk factors impacting site deterioration, including tree-fall and tree-root damage. Finally, the team mapped the entire trail, guest lodges, rest spots, and picnic zones to produce an accurate map of the trail path.
The immediate concern for our activities in Ciudad Perdida is to stabilize the platform structures most endangered by erosion, and to ensure their long-term survival using appropriate conservation techniques. To that end, our team has completed pre-intervention architectural mapping, and an ICANH conservation team led by Catalina Bateman has been clearing drainages and restoring walls and foundations since 2010.
Until very recently, the lower Buritaca Basin and the town of El Mamey (which serves as the trail head town to Ciudad Perdida) were under the control of paramilitary groups, which demobilized in 2006. This situation seriously hindered conservation and research activities at the park, challenged state authority and the rule of law, and encouraged illicit crop cultivation.
The peasants and small landowners of this region were severely impacted by the imposition of paramilitary rule. At risk of death or physical harm if they did not aid their guerilla administrators, they often grew coca bushes and processed the leaf into a cocaine base to sell at market. After the demobilization agreements of 2006, coca cultivation evaporated and most peasants have slowly shifted back to traditional crops such as coffee, cocoa, and rice. Others have turned to ranching, clearing out new patches of forest for livestock, while a few have hired themselves out as guides, porters, muleteers, or cooks to the outfitters handling tourism to Ciudad Perdida.
In order to strengthen the trend towards more sustainable means of economic activity, Global Heritage Fund launched an educational program in the town of El Mamey to benefit the local people. Our efforts there focused on improving campesino and indigenous-owned eco-tourism lodges in the Buritaca River Basin, training courses for guides, capacity building, and basic infrastructure improvements.
An important component of this project includes consolidating state presence and control through grass-roots development by way of low-impact, controlled tourism, while ensuring the long-term preservation of Teyuna-Ciudad Perdida Archaeological Park and other important archaeological sites in this area. In addition, by regulating and concentrating tourist flow towards this area, it is expected that tourist intrusion to other areas of the Sierra Nevada will be kept at a minimum, in accordance with the objectives of the Colombian Park Service and Indigenous authorities.
Why It's Important
The greatest city of the Tayrona civilization is an outpost of cultural heritage we cannot afford to lose. With your generous support, we will be able to continue our efforts to preserve the structures of this great metropolis while safely guiding the nascent tourism industry in a sustainable direction.
- 100-foot-long suspension bridge completed over Buritaca River to increase safety for local inhabitants and visitors.
- Built a health center for the indigenous community
- One guide and multiple sighting books completed for wildlife trail
- Signage from trailhead to Ciudad Perdida park entrance installed
- Master Conservation Plan completed
- Management plan completed
- Biodiversity Evaluation completed
TRAINING AND CAPACITY BUILDING
- 25 guides, 3 Colombian Park Service Rangers, and 2 Ciudad Perdida Rangers trained in Wilderness First Aid
- 32 guides and 2 rangers trained in white water rescue
- Began design for advanced healthcare training with partner Opepa
- 20 people trained in silvapasture and ranching
- 8 teachers trained in curriculum delivery for local schools
- 230 students benefitting from improved school infrastructure and curricula
- 47 students participating in the GHF-founded Ecological Club, which has cleaned up the local creek, renovated the school with new artwork and flowerbeds, and conducted research on the flora and fauna of the Ciudad Perdida site
- 5 firewood-saving stoves built in indigenous residences
INCOME AND EMPLOYMENT
- 6 lodges renovated with new sanitation systems and fuel-efficient wood stoves.
- Rescue equipment donated to all lodges
- Wildlife guides and binoculars supplied to lodges
- Completed project design for solar lamp entrepreneurship program, with funding decision pending
- Held multiple workshops on traditional handicrafts, such as textile design and weaving workshops for local women.
- Partnering with Environomica to further agro-ecological activities in the Buritaca basin.
Until very recently, the lower Buritaca Basin and the town of El Mamey (which serves as the trailhead town to Ciudad Perdida) were under the control of paramilitary groups, which demobilized in 2006. This situation seriously hindered conservation and research activities at the park, challenged state authority and the rule of law, and encouraged illicit crop cultivation.
Now that looting and paramilitary activity have ebbed as the greatest threats to the cultural heritage of the region, tourism has taken their place. Indeed, the meteoric rise of tourism numbers – from 2,000 in 2007 to 8,000 in 2011 alone – combined with dilapidated infrastructure, a fragile ecosystem, and an unprepared local population make tourism the most pressing problem facing Ciudad Perdida in the coming years.
Efforts in all areas have been very successful to date, leading to a great deal of improvement in the lives of the local stakeholders. In 2013, we noted with pleasure that Ciudad Perdida saw 8,500 annual tourists, with an average of $340 spent per person for a total of $2.89 million in tourism revenue for a town of 1,150 people. These efforts are to be lauded, and Global Heritage Fund intends to continue its positive trajectory and initiate more projects in the coming years:
- Hire additional park ranger personnel
- Continue joint work with Colombian park service to set up a ticket/control booth and interpretation center
- Add additional signage along the trail
- Reprint wildlife guides
- Continue micro-entrepreneurship support
- Destination marketing consulting with local communities
- Language development
- Developed site guidebook
- Opening of a visitor center
- Teacher training
- School construction
- Conferences and workshops
- Introduction/reinforcing of sustainable agricultural practices, reforestation, tree nurseries, and training that serves local livelihoods and tourism maintenance.
- Water management
Walter Hinojosa, Conservation Team Supervisor & Tour Guide
Walter Hinojosa has spent the last 25 years plying the route between El Mamey trailhead and Teyuna-Ciudad Perdida Archaeological Park (PAT – CP) in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Hinojosa worked for 10 years at Ciudad Perdida, where his intimate knowledge of the found state of the site, the extensive looting that took place there, and the original restoration techniques that we used made him an invaluable resource to our conservation teams. His dedication and expertise earned him a post in this important project and in 2011, Hinojosa was hired as the Supervisor of the ICANH-led conservation team, which has already undertaken significant restoration projects throughout the site. GHF envisions further collaboration with Hinojosa as we continue our conservation work at the site.
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