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, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History and the Global Heritage Fund — 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.)
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.”