You spent the last few days exploring Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest city. The gorgeous colonial city, on the country’s northeastern coast, has a new marina, beautiful beaches, and fascinating historical sites. But they aren’t enough to make you stay. You’re giving up a comfortable boutique hotel, delicious food at tapas bars, and music drifting from jazz clubs to head into the dense Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. There’s only one reason you’d venture into a jungle once controlled by the National Liberation Army, a left-wing guerrilla group. You’re searching for the Lost City.
Many consider Ciudad Perdida the next Machu Picchu. The ancient city was founded around 800 CE, 650 years earlier than the Incan citadel. It was later abandoned during the Spanish conquest of Colombia. Though local tribes considered the site sacred, few others knew it existed for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when ceramic urns and gold figurines started appearing on the black market, that archeologists set out to find this mysterious location. They were amazed by their discovery.
The trip to Ciudad Perdida is not an easy one. Unlike Machu Picchu, relatively few people have seen this archeological site due to its remote location. From the village of Macheté, it’s a multi-day hike through the jungle. While it can be accomplished in four days, most tours—this is not a trek to attempt on your own—take five or six days, roundtrip. You join the Wiwa Tour, the only one that’s indigenous owned and operated.
The hike passes through indigenous communities, over rushing rivers, and up steep ascents. Along the way, you swim under crystal-clear waterfalls. You learn about the plants and the animals for which you should be on the lookout. You eat lots of rice and beans when dusk arrives early. And you sleep in hammocks in communal shelters.
Boulders marked with carvings are the first signs that you’re getting close to Ciudad Perdida. They’re followed by lots of stone steps—more than 1,200 of them actually—that wind up the hillside. This last section of the hike is strenuous, but the reward is worth it. Ahead of you stand large stone platforms around circular plazas. Wooden structures once stood on them. A spiritual leader explains the different areas of the site and shares stories about the sacred spot. It’s hard to follow him, since all you want to do is explore this breathtaking spot that’s practically hidden by thick greenery.
Though only a few companies lead tours into the jungle, this sacred site no longer feels like a secret. Hikers have trampled a well-worn path up the mountainside. Vegetation has been cleared away from the stones. Plus looters got away with the treasures years ago. Hopefully Ciudad Perdida doesn’t become the next Machu Picchu. Some mysteries aren’t meant to be answered.