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Reaching Ciudad Perdida, Colombia’s spellbinding lost city that’s centuries older than Machu Picchu

Simon Calder’s Travel

Three decades ago, the Lost City of the Tayrona people, a Machu Picchu-sized pre-Colombian archaeological site set on a high rainforest-swathed ridge in Colombia’s wild Sierra Nevada mountains, was pioneer country. It wasn’t even on South America’s ‘gringo trail’. I’d heard about the walk on a trip through the Colombian Caribbean and on a whim, hiked there.  It was bliss. In five days we saw no other tourists.

We slept in tin-roofed lean-tos with valleys dropping at the feet of our hammocks. I remember the firefly dusks – when millions of gleaming green living lights flickered over the trees under a dome of cold stars. We waded through rushing streams, boots hung over our shoulders, and after three days reached a stair of a thousand mossy steps that rode up a ridge to the Lost City itself. Thunder crashed as we climbed. A shaft of lightning illuminated a vast stela scored with jagged petroglyphs at the Lost City’s entrance. It was a precious epiphany; a connection with the romantic and mystical, a memory to treasure in living memory. But not to repeat. Not now that the Lost City has been found by so many backpackers.

“So why was I repeating it?”, I cursed as I trudged up a steep slope under sweltering sun. The lonely Mamey trailhead I remembered from the 1990s was now a village with tie-dye shops and lattes. Diesel-coughing Land Cruisers ferried in hikers by the dozen. Plastic bags choked the concrete gutters. There were so many walkers we had left in half-hour staggers. And the path ahead of me was still packed. This was a mistake, I thought, a double mistake: among all the fit-looking twentysomethings I was old, paunchy and out of place. And would I even make it to the Lost City this time? 

As the hill finally crested, I paused to catch my breath – and forgot my regrets for a while in the magnificent view. Fields rose from the deep valley below to a tangle of jungle, which clothed the steep valley sides before merging with steamy primary rainforest. The high Sierra Nevada extended beyond, in ripples of green to distant, looming crags. The Lost City was somewhere up there; three days walk away. 

The hike takes visitors deep into remote Colombia

(Alex Robinson)

My reverie was broken by a brilliant yellow bananaquit, small as a wren which flitted past, seemed to glance at me and then to settle in a branch a few…

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