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.”
A little over an hour later — after reluctantly pulling on a damp long-sleeved shirt and gulping down eggs and arepas at our campsite — I hopped across the Buritaca River and found myself staring up at the base of some 1,200 stone steps. At the top lay our destination: Ciudad Perdida, Colombia’s “Lost City,” the home of an ancient people, the Tairona, who occupied this pocket of South America for more than a millennium before the first Spanish settlements appeared here in the early 1500s.
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.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, tourism at Ciudad Perdida had increased dramatically since 2008, though its popularity as an adventure destination and archaeological site is still dwarfed by its main South American rival, Machu Picchu, which in 2019 drew thousands of tourists per day — most of whom opted not to hike there but to arrive instead by train and bus.
Ciudad Perdida, by comparison, where hiking remains the only way in and out, drew about 70 people per day last year. And so far, the various groups who hold sway over the area — including four Indigenous groups and the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History — have resisted plans to ease access. (A proposed cable car that would have facilitated entry, for example, has been rejected on multiple occasions.) “The trek,” said Santiago Giraldo, an anthropologist and archaeologist who has worked in the region for more than 20 years, “is the first line of conservation defense.”
Even so, ubiquitous construction at snack huts and overnight camps hints at both increasing numbers of visitors and a greater local dependence on tourism. These trends are mirrored in Colombia more broadly, where international tourism nearly tripled between 2010 and 2018, from 1.4 million to about 3.9 million, according to figures from The World Bank.
Ciudad Perdida, just one of several hundred ancient Taironan settlements in the area, extends over the crest and slopes of a hill that rises from the Buritaca River. It was rediscovered by looters and heavily raided before one of the looters’ patrons alerted an official at the Gold Museum in Bogotá, sparking a visit by archaeologists from the Colombian Institute of Anthropology in 1976. (The longer version of its rediscovery is worth reading.)
There are several distinct sectors at the site, and the many complex, multilevel terraces and other stone structures, archaeologists speculate, served a range of functions: social, commercial, political, residential, ritualistic. The ascending tiered terraces of the central axis span a narrow ridgeline; the larger terraces were likely used as public spaces for civil or political events. Viewed from the top, these pristine patches appear to have sprouted miraculously from the encroaching jungle.
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.)
The rise in tourism at Ciudad Perdida is generally attributed to demobilization among the rebel groups who long controlled the area. For years, the threat of violence — much of it tied to the cultivation of coca plants and the production of cocaine — helped keep people out.
In 2003, for example, members of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a Marxist guerrilla group, kidnapped eight visitors to the site, holding some of them for 101 days. (Ironically, as our lead guide, Iderle Muñoz, explained, international coverage of the kidnapping eventually led to a surge in visitors — an unlikely marketing campaign.)
Violence in the area is no longer a serious threat to trekkers. The Colombian army maintains several outposts in and around the site, as much to aid with accidents along the trail, it seems, as to protect the place.
In many respects, Ciudad Perdida offers a model of sustainable tourism. Solo, unguided hikes here are forbidden. Instead, would-be visitors must pay 1,150,000 Colombian pesos (about $300) to join a four- or five-day guided tour, the fee for which includes meals (carried in on mules) and basic accommodation at simple camps. (I used Expotur and was continually impressed with the knowledge and expertise of the guides.) All of the guides are locals, or based in nearby Santa Marta — as are the cooks, porters and mule drivers. The campsites, too, are locally owned. Money from trekkers, in other words, has flowed back to the local communities.
By some estimates, the mountain range surrounding Ciudad Perdida — the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta — is home to around 60,000 Indigenous people, along with 350,000 campesinos, or rural farmers.
Guide companies work to facilitate interactions with the communities, and meaningful exchanges do occur. Twice en route, for example, local men displayed and discussed their poporos, intensely personal devices used to store burned and crushed seashells, which, when mixed in the mouth with chewed coca leaves, help stimulate the coca plant’s active ingredients. Guides are also eager to stress that tourism helps provide around 600 local families with a steady income.
There’s no doubt, though, that the site’s growing popularity has caused friction with local inhabitants. Exchanges are sometimes fraught. Some locals actively engage with trekkers by selling supplies at shacks along the way, and greeting those whom they pass on the trail. But others, understandably, seem to be exasperated by the steady stream of gawking tourists, an increasing number of whom are clogging trails, leaving behind waste, and introducing unsanctioned technologies into largely off-the-grid Indigenous cultures.
Moreover, many visitors (most of them are international) belong to socioeconomic classes that are disproportionately contributing to climate change — an existential threat to Indigenous ways of life. The moral dilemma posed by international travel has never felt so immediate to me as when, on the final night of our trek, a Kogi elder implored us to respect Mother Earth.
Cultural, historical and archaeological draws aside, perhaps the most thrilling aspect of trekking to Ciudad Perdida — a destination which, on most tours, you’ll have just three hours to explore — is that the site pulls its visitors through the lush beauty of the Colombian rainforest.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the most biologically diverse mountain ranges on the planet. A staggering array of plants and animals can be found here, including around 630 species of birds — many of which are endemic, or found nowhere else on earth.
All along the edges of the trail, the jungle, folded in its tangles and thickets, stands like an impenetrable wall. More than once, staring into its depths and transfixed by a melodic bird call or by an impossibly vibrant flower, I glanced back toward the hiking path only to realize that I’d fallen more than an hour behind my group. I’d then skitter ahead to regain ground.
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.
Of course, the trek, which I made in February, now feels like a lifetime ago — a different world, a different era. I spoke by phone this week with Ailyn, one of my guides, who said that tours have been suspended indefinitely. Her most immediate concern was for the well-being of the Indigenous groups; they could be especially vulnerable if exposed to the virus, she said. But as with many on the front lines of the travel industry, she was also concerned about the welfare of her fellow guides, cooks and porters, all of whom have come to depend on the trekkers for their livelihoods.
As for the site itself, there’s little cause for concern: Ciudad Perdida has a long history of surviving dormancy. And so the great Taironan city is once again hidden away in the jungle — lost for now to adventurous discovery, if not to memory.