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For many travellers, Colombia offers a healthy dose of the unknown -- and it does not get more mysterious than the country’s famed archaeological site, Ciudad Perdida, which loosely translates as the Lost City. Hidden in the jungle for more than a thousand years and only accessible by a 44km trek through inhospitable terrain, visiting Ciudad Perdida gives travellers the chance to live out their Indiana Jones fantasies as they battle rock scrambles, steep ascents and numerous waterfalls along the way.

Built in 800AD, some 650 years before Peru’s Machu Picchu, Ciudad Perdida lies in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta & Teyuna Archaeological Park in the Sierra Nevada region of northern Colombia. Treasure hunters discovered the archaeological site in the early 1970s when they climbed the 1,263 stone steps from the riverbank to find an isolated site consisting of more than 150 terraces, plazas and stone paths that cascade down the mountain. Thought to have once been a commercial centre for trade, only 10% of the Lost City has been excavated by archaeologists, giving it an eerie, haunted atmosphere.

Until recently, the Lost City was largely protected from outside influence, not only because of its isolated, dense jungle location, but also because of the drug warfare and paramilitary activity that has plagued the jungle around Ciudad Perdida since the mid-1960s.  Colombia is responsible for about 80% of the world's cocaine trade and the drug has played a massive role in the devastating internal conflict that has crippled Colombia for years. Narcotics are one of Colombia’s very visible demons – and crops of coca, the plant that is refined into cocaine, can be seen throughout the Sierra Nevada region.

In 2003, a group of eight tourists and their guide were kidnapped on the way to the Lost City. The site was shut down and it was not until 2005 that tours and archaeological work began again (the tourists were released three months after being kidnapped). Today, the Colombian military maintains a strong visible presence throughout the area, with tour groups often sharing camps with soldiers at night. On a recent visit, the young men with automatic rifles wandered the riverside camps, showing the travellers best spots to dive from rocks into the river, swapping their Gatorade rations for cigarettes and, after propping their guns against the table, played a round of the children’s card game Uno with the hikers. 

As Colombia has slowly gotten safer, however, the Lost City has soared in popularity among travellers, and questions are being raised about the sustainability of tourism to the area. According to the Global Heritage Fund, a non-governmental organisation that has been working with the Lost City since 2009, visitor numbers to the site increased from 2,000 in 2007 to 8,000 in 2011. There are now five operators offering three- to six-day treks, passing through agricultural farmland and pristine jungle, and a number of indigenous villages where life has remained largely unchanged for centuries.

In one of Colombia’s Kogi Indian villages, crops were spread out on the ground to dry in the sun, while the pelt of a jungle cat hung from the roof of a nearby hut. The Kogi have lived in the area for countless generations and believe they are the descendants of the Tairona people who once occupied the Lost City. Though they knew about Ciudad Perdida, they kept quiet for fear of attracting the very crowds that now visit the site, which could lead to the disruption of local indigenous populations and the destruction or looting of the site.

There are many challenges facing the Lost City – and even more for travellers who wish to visit it – but even with the knee-deep mud, the swarms of mosquitoes and almost vertical climbs, the Lost City is well worth the effort. Nursing bruises and bites, travellers are able to discover an abandoned city that is still revealing its secrets, exploring green copses and stone paths through dense jungle, bathing in waterfalls, sleeping among ruins, and most majestic of all, watching the clouds spill across the terraces at sunset each night.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the Lost City was located in the Parque Nacional Tayrona. This has been fixed.

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