A year ago I was teaching a class about cities, about urbanism. The perspective of that class was the history of ideas about modern city planning from the 1890s through the rise of modernism and sprawl in the 1950s to the Jane Jacobs revolution in the 1960s and its continual reverberations to the present day. We read Glaeser, whom I have reviewed before in this blog, and we tended to think of cities in their modern iteration, as large megalopoli built on huge freighters, large trucks, mile-long trains and cars more numerous than bubbles in a champagne glass, their profiles distinguished by skyscrapers recognizable from miles away, their plans defined by a radical manipulation of the natural landscape. Something entirely different from the cowering walled cities of the medieval world. Something defined, as Le Corbusier was wont to do, by fast and effortless modes of transportation.
Los Angeles, a couple weeks ago
Think of the postcards of skyscrapers from the 1920s, always with planes flying around them, cars and trucks bustling at their bases, dirigibles docked on their masts. The modern city was about effortless transportation and commerce, about erasing barriers to speed, whether vertical or horizontal. The skyscraper and the highway, massive and modern.
So it may seem odd that I am thinking of this having just returned from an arduous six-day trek into the Colombian jungles, up and down the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the Tayrona National Park, to the heritage site of Ciudad Perdida, which of course means Lost City. Trudging along jungle paths with all of your gear in a backpack, passing through indigenous villages far beyond the reach of cell phones and the internet, despite constant rain and humidity and insects (ticks especially – they love me – I am a tick magnet), as far as I have been in a dozen years from civilization, sleeping in hammocks, washing in cold water and cooking by wood fires….
backpacking up the trail to Ciudad Perdida
This is surely the opposite of urbanism, yes? No. At the end of the third day you climb the 1280 stone steps from the Buritaca River to Ciudad Perdida, an amazing collection of stone terraces and building foundations dating back to the 6th century AD and representing about a thousand years of habitation and rebuilding. The jungle swallowed this city, built by a group we call the Tayrona, but over that millenium this was a city in more than just name, for it had those essential qualities of urbanism I mentioned above.
The main axis or “chapel” area at Ciudad Perdida
detail of flag stone
What these people did was level a section of the rough mountain, build stone walls and fill them with rammed earth, then finish it with huge flagstones. Then atop these terraces which flattened the incredibly jagged and heavily sloped terrain, they build round stone foundations for houses. We have no idea what these houses looked like, but there were hundreds here. Most importantly, the Tayrona connected these flagged terraces and circular foundations up and down the mountainside with a surfeit, a positively luxurious quantity of stone staircases, connecting each platform and house not essentially, but in manifold fashion, to the others. There are sometimes five or more walkways leading off of a platform or terrace.
This is a modern house of the shaman or mamo, but it gives an idea
These might look like rustic stones, but their function is urban. They make transportation in a jungle, along a jagged mountain, easier. There are no wheels or pack animals, so the stone stairs and pathways create the most efficient and speedy and luxurious method of moving people and goods possible in this environment. The city was built and rebuilt, with terraces covered by another terrace, as seen here:
The main axis of platforms shown above has been cleared, but the terraces continue into the jungle and more are being discovered. Conservation has included repairing many of the terraces and staircases, but there are always more, because this city was continually being built and rebuilt. We savor the nature here, with more bird varieties in this one national park than all of the United States and Canada, not to mention frogs and snakes and even jaguars and puma.
They estimate a population of perhaps 2000, and the number of terraces and rings (to support buildings) are in the hundreds at least. As you trek the three days up (and two back) you have a typically modern concern about the slash-and-burn agriculture which despoils the jungle, yet at its peak Ciudad Perdida was not surrounded by jungle but by farmed land. The jungle we see today, being destroyed for agriculture, is in fact a secondary growth: when the city was at its height this jungle was already destroyed for agriculture. It was urbanized, which is to say completely altered from its natural state.
What Global Heritage Fund has done here through our Project Director Santiago Giraldo and together with the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, is not only help conserve the site, but help build lodges along the way that provide for the tourists making the trek. They also provide development to the peasants and the indigenous, offering more efficient wood-burning stoves, septic systems, training, education and economic development for local communities. We have built one bridge over the sometimes unpredictable Buritaca River, which serves both the indigenous and peasant communities as well as helping the tourists make the trek with one less slog through the water.
You can support GHF’s work by donating here. You can also make the trek from Santa Marta through various approved outfitters, and savor a city that is in many ways like no other city – “Lost” perhaps, but sharing with all of our cities the basic tenets of human civilization in a form very different from what we are used to.
2015 UPDATE: It turns out the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta isn’t the only place with lost cities. Try the whole Amazon rainforest.