August 10, 2009

In Search of the Lost City

Below is a travel piece I wrote after my trek to Ciudad Perdida last year. The Washington Post initially offered to publish it, but then stopped responding to my emails - I think they laid off their travel editor or something. I forgot all about it until it popped up in an unrelated mail search.

So here ya go:

In Search of the Lost City

I blame Steven Spielberg. When I arrived on Colombia's Caribbean coast and learned that the remains of an ancient city lay hidden deep in the nearby jungle, visions of Indiana Jones began to dance in my head. A few days later I found myself trekking for six days along steep, muddy, snake- and insect-infested trails, fording whitewater rivers and crossing countless stepping-stone bridges, drinking the river water and sleeping in hammocks, all just to reach and return from the thousand-year-old ruins known as Ciudad Perdida.

The lost city languished untouched for centuries until 1973, when it was rediscovered by treasure hunters. Two years later, after looted artifacts started showing up in the local markets, the Colombian government secured the ruins and brought in archaeologists. A thin trickle of tourists has visited over the last 15 years, although attendance dropped from low to nonexistent in 2003 when eight were abducted by Marxist guerrillas and held hostage in the jungle for months. Since then the Colombian military has maintained a significant presence at the trailhead and the ruins.

The 25-mile trek there and back is no joke, and traveling with one of the four local tour companies that offer the expedition (for US$240, including all meals and accommodations) is highly advisable. My group included seven tourists, a guide, a cook, and a porter. From the ramshackle coastal town of Santa Marta, once the world's biggest cocaine thoroughfare, we journeyed along trails of red mud and white chalk through the half-cultivated foothills of Colombia's highest mountains, and into jungle populated only by the tribes who have lived there for millennia. There were few other foreigners. Colombia's fearsome reputation keeps out the hordes that have turned the Inca Trail into a superhighway, though the country is safer today than it's ever been before.

Countless birds of prey soared high above. We served as a bipedal buffet for countless insects, saw frogs the size of small rabbits, hordes of lizards, and encountered two snakes – one dangerous, one deadly. But there were surprising luxuries, too: gorgeous swimming holes, rudimentary gravity-driven plumbing at the huts where we stayed, and beer and Coke for sale en route, their prices rising with the distance from the road.

One morning we spent $10 each to visit a local jungle laboratory and witness the other kind of coke being made. The skinny, shifty-looking man who demonstrated how to turn coca leaves into cocaine, using only widely available chemicals, even offered to let us smoke what he had synthesized. We declined, but I can attest that the end product numbed the tip of my tongue.

On the third day we reached the 1200 ancient stone steps that lead up to Ciudad Perdida proper. What's left of the city are terraced plazas the size of cathedrals on a ridgetop with stunning views on either side. The only artifacts that remain are those too big to move: a local map carved into a fridge-sized stone, and a frog-shaped rock that served as a fertility symbol. The ruins are still mostly overgrown, and in many places its stone trails disappear into dense, implacable walls of jungle. I found no golden skulls, but if I listened carefully as I wandered those ancient streets, I could almost hear Indy's theme song.

A few sample pictures from this set:

city-jungle simon-hanna alberto-shade mist-wall pineapple-bush local-cowboy long-week waterfall-wall jungle-stairs