A Visual Trek Through the Sweltering Jungle: In Search of Colombia’s ‘Lost City’


With travel restrictions in place worldwide, we’re turning to photojournalists who can help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. We’re calling this new series “The World Through a Lens.” This week, Stephen Hiltner, an editor on the Travel desk, invites you to join him on an arduous multiday hike to an archaeological site in Colombia.


It was the third day of our trek through the Colombian jungle, just before 5 a.m., when Ailyn Paul, one of our guides, came by to rouse us from our narrow bunks.

“Sudados!” she said, calling out our group’s nickname — The Sweaty Ones — through the scant privacy of our mosquito netting. “Wake up! It’s time to visit the Lost City.”

Lost to memory for 400 years before its accidental rediscovery in the 1970s, Ciudad Perdida is stunning in its scale and complexity: an 80-acre site — parts of which date to the seventh century — with terraces, plazas, canals, storehouses, stone paths and staircases, many of them remarkably preserved.

At its peak, archaeologists have deduced, about 2,500 people may have lived here. But exploring Ciudad Perdida is a hard-earned prize: The only way to reach the site is by completing the nearly 30-mile round-trip trek through the unbearably hot, mountainous, mosquito-swirling Colombian rainforest that surrounds it.

What’s remarkable (and a little disconcerting) about the site, from a tourist’s perspective, is that visitors are free to roam its mostly vacant grounds. And that’s partly a consequence of its layout. “It’s an architecture that’s very alien to us,” Mr. Giraldo explained. “There’s really no such thing as private or public space, as we understand it. That can be a bit unsettling for many people — and it makes it difficult to tease out what belonged to whom.”

The city’s past is rich and intriguing. Ongoing archaeological research has identified structures buried many feet below the visible terraces, suggesting that the area was initially settled sometime around the seventh century. (It likely began acquiring its current form sometime around the 12th century and was abandoned — due to a large number of epidemic cycles — in the late 16th century.)

Skittering, though, wasn’t always possible. At certain points the trek was a grueling slog: sweltering heat, steep dirt trails, direct exposure to the tropical sun, and all of it with a continual swirl of mosquitoes menacing about my head and neck and arms and legs. I sweated through my clothes within the first 10 minutes on the very first day. I had a couple backup shirts tucked away in my pack, but my hiking pants — which I hung up hopelessly each night in the damp, warm air — never completed dried. The fact that I hardly minded is a testament to the enchantment of the jungle.

The trek also enforced a welcome disconnection from all the screens whose ubiquitous glow often fills my waking hours — a reality that now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when almost every one of my daily routines hinges on digital connectivity, seems difficult to conjure.

At our final camp, after three days without scrolling, I handed my phone to a woman working the snack shop; for 5,000 Colombian pesos ($1.25), she entered the camp’s Wi-Fi password. Mostly I was hoping to back up some of my images. But suddenly the world came crashing back with a vengeance: texts from friends and family, an early Covid-19 warning from the C.D.C., news about a dip in the markets.

The government! The markets! How absurdly remote it all seemed! If anything makes you realize just how fantastically intangible stocks are, I thought, it’s the visceral reality of the jungle, where you shake out your boots in the mornings to be sure they’re free of scorpions.



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