Hike up to Colombia’s Lost City.
Credit: Fausto Giaccone / Anzenberger / Redux

After only a day on the trail to Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City, most hikers are sore, sweaty, caked in ankle-sucking mud, and increasingly dependent on their hiking stick to push them up slick, near-vertical portions of the path. Resentment reigns before being suddenly deposed by wonder: A stone civilization rises above Parque Nacional Tayrona’s pristine canopy.

Once home to some 2,000 Tayrona Indians, the Ciudad Perdida now looks like a series of ancient, carved helipads untouched by time – its builders fled inland when the Spanish arrived on the nearby Caribbean coast in the fifteenth century, quickly leaving their political center to the jaguars and toucans. Gravediggers hunting pre-Colombian gold “rediscovered” this site in the 1970s – but our coca-chewing Kogi Indian insisted it was never “lost” to his people.

The City, which dates from 700 AD, opened to tourists in the early 1980s, but the presence of FARC guerrillas kept all but the most reckless away. Though eight hikers and their guide were kidnapped and held for three months in 2003, the nearby jungle – like much of Colombia – has become significantly safer over the last decade. Now that infrastructure is beginning to crop up around the site ,tourists can actually enjoy their visits without fear or pronounced discomfort.

Though the hike in is relatively short as the crow flies, only 14.5 miles each way, the difficult terrain never stops reminding visitors of gravity’s tyranny. A dozen or so river crossings force pilgrims to gently paddle or, when streams swill, semi-swim through chest-deep water while trying to hold their rucksacks aloft. Though the camps along the trail are comfortable, they’re still located in the jungle, a fact that’s hard to forget: Showers are cold and creepy-crawlies are plentiful. Poison arrow frogs and snakes watch the parade of amateur archeologists from the undergrowth.

We reached the City on our third day, having trudged, scrambled, and slipped our way along trails that gambled over gentle farmland and vertiginous rock slides. A precipitous climb up 1,260 slick rock steps took us into the City itself, where multiple verdant terraces stretch out against a staggeringly cliched backdrop of waterfall-dotted jungle. The only other people around were a few dozen baby-faced militiamen, who drank Gatorade and played cards without ever setting down the huge automatic rifles slung across their shoulders. Surely these weren’t the men the Tayronas feared so much that they abandoned their overgrown idyll. 

More Information: Drive to Santa Marta from the beach hub of Cartagena - direct flights are available from New York on JetBlue - and book a reservation with a local outfit. Turcol is a safe bet.