In an Indiana Jones– worthy adventure, travel writer Kevin Raub embarks on a journey into the heart of the Colombian jungle to explore a city that was once lost — and is now found.

Photography by Dennis Drenner

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A group of tourists wind their way through jungle paths to Ciudad Perdida.
It’s not every day — certainly not any of the every days during the last two decades, anyway — that you’d find yourself wandering through a dense, sunburned Colombian jungle, but that’s what I find myself doing at the moment, shoes soaked in sweat and throat parched from breathlessness. With me are a Hungarian and a Scot, a Swiss, an Englishwoman and an Australian. No, we are not hostages, though we are marching heads down, sucking air like oxygen-deprived Mongols on a relocation trek through the Gobi desert. Some of us think we can’t go on, some of us are thirsty and some of us just want it to be over. But make no mistake, we are not here under duress — we have chosen to do this.

All of a sudden, there’s a commotion. The Hungarian in front of me hops, skips and jumps a few feet off trail to the right. I’m next in line, but I have no idea what has happened. There’s a shout, then another, then fingers point, and that’s when I see it: a very tiny snake, no bigger than a standard-size ruler, resting on a boulder along the trail, mouth full of jungle rat (or some such rodent). Our guide wastes no time taking a rock to its head in an effort to incapacitate it, all while my animal-friendly group protests. “Don’t kill it!” no one (and everyone) in particular shouts. “It’s fine. Let’s just go around it,” we say. “This is a rabo amarillo , one of the most deadly snakes in the Colombian jungle. You don’t want it anywhere near us alive,” he informs our group matter-of-factly.

“Oh, my gosh!” says the Hungarian. “I put my hand right down on it to balance myself as I passed through the boulders.” We pause for a spine-chilling moment as the realization of what could have been sinks in. The only thing that saved him from sure death was the fact that the snake had already bitten off more than he could chew. His mouth was full. Otherwise, goner. Remind me again why we have chosen to do this?

Well, that’s easy. We are on our way to Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City, the former ceremonial cradle of the Tayrona Indians, the civilization that thrived here between the 11th and 14th centuries. Ciudad Perdida, often called the Machu Picchu of Colombia, consists of ruins that almost nobody ever visits. They are shrouded in mist and mystery and located deep inside the highest coastal mountain range in the world, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. A part of the Andes, these seaside mountains jut through Colombia, riding along its Caribbean Coast like massive tsunamis in reverse. The ruins are not easy to get to (three days walking in muddy uphill terrain), and they are very much isolated, which explains why Ciudad Perdida does not see the hordes of tourists that Machu Picchu sees. As such, its unspoiled surroundings are pristinely intact. None of us has any idea what to expect when we arrive — it’s an adventure of Indiana Jones proportions.