On the third day, we cross the waist-deep Buritaca River some nine times, and this is our indication that Ciudad Perdida is only a few hours away. By now, our curiosity is intense and easily outweighs our tiredness, dirtiness (our showers along the way consisted of dips in the river, though rudimentary showers were available) and dampness. I’m guessing that what we’re feeling now must come close to what the Colombian guaqueros (treasure hunters) felt when they discovered Ciudad Perdida, known archeologically as Buritaca 200, in the mid-1970s.
During the South American Conquests, the Spaniards wiped out the Tayrona civilization, leaving the former Indian settlements to disappear under the cover of the lush vegetation of the Sierra. In 1499, when the two groups met, the Tayrona, despite having developed since the fifth century A.D. into an outstanding civilization with a complex social and political structure and advanced engineering skills, were decimated by the gun-toting Spaniards over the course of a fiercely fought 75-year battle. There are said to be some 300 Tayrona settlements in these mountains, all once linked by an intricate series of paved roads.
In 1975, a local man, Florentino Sepúlveda, and his two sons, Julio César and Jacobo, stumbled upon the former Tayrona capital while scouring the jungle on one of their grave-robbing expeditions. Unable to keep quiet about their find, Sepúlveda and his sons quickly found themselves at war with rival gangs, and havoc was wreaked on Ciudad Perdida. The site was looted of most artifacts, Julio César was killed, and guaqueros dubbed the site the Inferno Verde, or Green Hell (and you thought I was joking about this being an Indiana Jones–style adventure). Eventually, the government stepped in and by 1976, Ciudad Perdida had fallen under the control of the army and teams of archeologists.
Indomitable but weary, we approach the sign that we have arrived: a set of 1,200 or so moss-strewn stone steps rising mysteriously from the Buritaca River and up into the jungle. It is quite a sight. Though our legs feel like noodles at this point, up we go, slowly, and with great care — the stairs are deadly slippery when wet, which is pretty much always, thanks to the mist and fog. When we finally reach the top, we are greeted with yet another set of stairs, these far wider and less steep. It’s the last leg.
Some 170 terraces, once foundations for Tayrona homes, form the backbone of Ciudad Perdida. More often than not, they are shrouded in an eerie jungle mist. It’s an unsettling sight in its obscurity, and as we ascend the final steps and enter the complex, all we see are a few soldiers from the Colombian Army who protect the ruins on six-month sojourns. There are no tourists here whatsoever.
I remember when I saw Machu Picchu for the first time — my view was clouded by the kaleidoscopic colors of various North Face parkas and Peruvian alpaca sweaters. There were just too many people there. Here, we are alone, which lends itself to the whole sense of actually discovering something in 2010 that hasn’t yet been exploited for the benefit of tourism. There is no ticket booth, no bathroom, no coat check, no buses, no overpriced-food counters, no nothing.
It’s for this reason that Ciudad Perdida is a jaw-dropping sight. What it lacks in grand pyramids or towering temples, it more than makes up for in isolation and serenity. It’s hard to believe it remains in its current state, not yet overwhelmed by visitors, but it’s easy to understand why. For starters, this area of Colombia was once controlled by Hernán Giraldo, aka the Lord of the Sierra and the leader of the Tayrona Resistance Block, a paramilitary group who at one time refused to allow more than one trekking company to safely operate trips to Ciudad Perdida . But all that changed in 2006 when Giraldo signed a peace deal with the Colombian government and demilitarized, which allowed Ciudad Perdida to be opened up to friendly competition.