After a day’s trek through the jungle and along the ridges of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, we arrive at our first camp: a handful of dorms and facilities with red tin roofs, scattered along both sides of a stream and joined by a suspension bridge. Pedro, our guide, tells us there is a natural spring nearby, then gives us the afternoon off. “Frankly, I was expecting worse,” says Thibault, an athletic Frenchman who, like me, barely broke a sweat on this first leg of our adventure. He’s talking about the journey here, not the sleeping quarters. In fact, the dorms and the group’s high spirits make me feel like we’re at a summer camp for millennials looking to disconnect, rather than on an expedition into deepest Colombia. This was a region controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC) up until 2016, when a peace treaty signed with the government ended five decades of fighting and allowed rebels to emerge from the shadows of the jungle – and intrepid travellers to rush in. I chug a cold beer and then let out a cry as I jump from a cliff a few metres high into the plunge pool below.
The region of Santa Marta, Colombia, is slowly opening up to tourists and revealing its hidden prize: the ruins of a 1,300–year–old city.
Thibault has a point: To discover Colombia, I chose a hike that is still little–travelled, and everything I read in preparation for it warned of a punishing four–day climb. My final destination, Ciudad Perdida, is the Lost City long kept secret from the outside population by local indigenous communities, who consider it a sacred place where life itself began and where the remains of their ancestors lie. It was revealed to the world by chance, explains Pedro, after Colombian treasure hunters stumbled upon it in the 1970s and news spread of the riches to be found among the ruins. The site has long since been relieved of any precious metals, but tourism is slowly turning Ciudad Perdida into a different sort of gold mine for the country. Tourists like me, who pride themselves on exploring places off the beaten path, will find what they’re looking for here, and for now, we’re a comparatively small group: This site, first opened in 1978, is visited by fewer than 30,000 hikers a year. Over in Peru, the mecca of ruins, Machu Picchu, endures over a million visitors annually. Climbing to Ciudad Perdida still feels like we’re about to uncover a treasure.
The difficulty of getting to a destination heightens its value for me. I want days of arduous trekking along steep trails; the same ruins, reached by a cushy train ride, wouldn’t have the same effect. And even though travel options for Ciudad Perdida are growing to answer the demand of adventurous tourists seduced by both the absence of crowds and the increase in the country’s safety, you can’t just come and go as you please: Access is available only through trained and authorized guides like Pedro, who is a bit of a celebrity here – as we make our way along the trails, guides from other companies call out Pedrito! Pedrito! He’s taking us to discover the Lost City, but I’ve come here for the prestige of conquering the gruelling route. My focus in on the journey, rather than the destination. Or so I thought.
On the second day, that journey turns into the promised slog. A proper expedition always includes a moment when you curse your talent for putting yourself in unpleasant situations, and for me, it’s when I sweat through the third layer of sunscreen I had applied since dawn. The clouds of dust I kick up with each step cling to my calves as we pick our way along a pitched trail of loose, parched, bright orange soil that threatens to crumble at any moment and send us cascading down below, taking a line of hikers along with us. (One small comfort: It isn’t rainy season, when hiking this section is said to be like trying to climb a waterslide.) I exchange a glance with Thibault: Flushed, soaked and out of breath, we’ve lost our arrogance and are eating yesterday’s words.
Adventure guide Pedro Patiño takes 10.
Pedro takes me out of my whirling thoughts, pointing off in the distance to his farm down in the middle of the valley, where he grows coffee. Like many here, he works as both a farmer and a guide – since 2006, the government has bolstered the tourism industry by providing aid to the community, training chefs and guides, and contributing money to tourism projects in the region. In part, it’s a strategic way to encourage farmers to pursue a legal living (rather than grow coca), but it also provides future job prospects: A young Colombian can now go from selling drinks in a small stand on the path to Cuidad Perdida to getting a job as a cook in the camps to running the kitchen of a local restaurant. Nearly every person in Sierra Nevada now depends on tourism for an income, Pedro says.
I simply nod in silence and stare into the valley. At this point, I can’t begin to hold a conversation.
Up since 5 a.m. on day three, fuelled by a breakfast of rice, eggs and local coffee, I find myself at last before a “staircase” of over 1,200 steps made of unstable–looking stone, the last obstacle separating me from the Lost City. I begin the climb at a half–run, excited now that the goal is so near. The first terraces, about four or five metres wide, are covered by a dense canopy of trees. But the site begins to reveal itself as we finally emerge from the vegetation, the various plateaus spread out across the clearing like a giant architectural Russian doll.
Climbing a few more steps, we soon get an overview of the city. It looks like a collection of circular football fields that have been erected on stilts – or have descended from the heavens. I have to remind myself that this was all done by hand. As we head down to the adjacent plateaus, we’re once again enveloped in lush vegetation and lose sight of the sheer scale and complexity of the structure we are exploring.
After two hours of hopping from one terrace to the next, I feel I have barely scratched the surface; there are roughly 250 of these terraces in total. Built around 650 AD, they made up various sectors of a city that once was home to some 2,000 people. In the 1,368 years since, the Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco and Kankuamo nations have helped maintain the site; they’re also the ones who, in the 40 years since Ciudad Perdida opened to tourists, close it each September for purification rituals to maintain the spiritual equilibrium of the land. A number of Kogi families live on the terraces in round, rough–hewn wooden cabins with thatched palm–leaf roofs – they watch as we pass by, keeping to themselves.
Ciudad Perdida leaves me awestruck. It’s incredible to imagine hundreds, even thousands, of people travelling exhausting distances like the one I just crossed, carrying tools and building materials and having the genius to construct a structure this complex in an area so wild and remote. This network of aqueducts, reservoirs, paths, and retaining walls made of piled stones is an organizational miracle in the jungle, crafted 800 years before anyone had dropped a stone at Machu Picchu. And what I see in front of me is just a fraction of what’s there; a full 80 percent of the site remains hidden by the dense vegetation.
The exclusive nature of the experience adds to the spell it casts: Not many people have the privilege of laying eyes on these ruins, and I’m overwhelmed with wonder. Though the journey first drew me more than the destination did, as I descend the uneven stone steps, I understand what gives this incredible ruin its sacred character. Ciudad Perdida shows how human ingenuity can be larger than life – and, yes, even magical.