Two days later, we hiked into Ciudad Perdida. The trip up to that point had been amazing: the cloud forest vegetation and flowers, the river, the indigenous dwellings, coca plants, and so much more.
The second day of hiking, we passed an elderly indigenous woman on the trail. She asked with hand signals for a hiking stick from a woman in our group, then with stick in hand, flipped a scorpion out from beside the rock at her feet, and proceeded to pound it to death.
Another time, Quapak, our guide, told us that a snake had bitten a mule right there – and he pointed to the creek bank I was standing on. Two days later, when Quapak hiked back, the mule was still at the water’s edge, but it was dead. Needless to say, I crossed with exceptional care.
I was pretty happy to not see a snake close up, or a tarantula, but I was a bit disappointed that there were none to be seen from a distance. However, we did see this strange creature, which to me, looks like it could be related to a nudibranch if we’d found it underwater.
Finally, on the morning of the third day, we crossed the Rio Buritaca, and climbed the 1,200 stone steps into Ciudad Perdida, gaining 400 meters (over 1,300 feet) in less than a kilometer. It was a brisk climb but not as challenging as that first day when we climbed 640 meters (2,100 feet) beneath the blasting afternoon sun. Now, trees, some with hundreds of pounds of epiphytes attached, towered over us, vines hanging to the ground.
At the entrance to the city, we made an “offering” to show respect to the indigenous culture. I gently tossed a leaf into the sacred circle, and after a shared minute of silence, we walked into the city, which consisted of stone walled circles, filled with earth, the platform foundations of the houses that had once been there.
The city was abandoned about 400 years ago, though the local people continued to use the site for ceremonial purposes. Only the Mamo (the medicine man) and his family continue to live there, a short distance from the main circles.
These days, thirty more people also live nearby – soldiers. An observation post is on the mountain above the highest circle, and the soldiers keep watch, fully armed and ready to protect the visitors.
The stone circles became bigger as we moved higher on the ridge. As in countless civilizations around the world, the more successful families had the biggest circles and the best views. When the rest of the group stopped at the biggest circle, the one reserved for community gatherings, Brad and I kept climbing, up and up, from circle to circle.
Finally at the top, with only the military post higher, we looked back to see our group grown small below. Oropendolas built hanging nests in some tall palms nearby, their tail feathers flashing yellow in the sun. A pair of green parrots flew by, and then a red bird, and one so blue it looked startling against the blue of the sky. Beyond the stone city itself, the expanse of mountains and valley stretched to the horizon, the first mist of the day starting to gather among the trees.
I was standing in a lost city in South America, something that a year ago I would’ve thought was impossible and, considering our financial situation, irresponsible. Okay, so maybe that part hadn’t changed.
But the sight before me, the almost audible hum of energy in the air, the cry of the birds as they enacted their eternal dance, the vines swaying rhythmically to the hot breaths of wind, even a hiker’s laugh from down below – they combined to make that experience far more “real” than the cost, and in that moment, the cost became permanently irrelevant.
So I guess at the end of my life, I’ll die a few thousand dollars poorer, but that’s okay, because I have no doubt that I became much, much richer during these few hours at Ciudad Perdida. And that’s what I call good value.