Forget the hordes of Machu Picchu and instead brave an Indiana Jones-style hike through Colombia's jungle-dense Caribbean coast, writes JANINE KELSO...
A seemingly never-ending series of moss-covered steps rise up out of the river like an MC Escher sketch. After three days of Indiana Jones-style trekking through steamy dense jungle in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, on Colombia's Caribbean coast, followed by a 20-minute wade in a fast-flowing river, we've almost reached our destination.
Flanked by swarming jungle, the 1,500 crooked and slippery steps make for a tough ascent.
After passing up and over a mist of clouds, we arrive at the top of the stairs at the mountain's summit, the dramatic setting for the Ciudad Perdida ("lost city"), an ancient city dating back to 500 years BC, where the Kogi Indians once made their home.
Scattered across a 4km radius are the remains of the ancient city: more than 100 weed-encrusted and palm-fringed stone terraces that once provided the base for the villagers' wooden huts, linked by a labyrinth of winding paths and steps, studded with wildflowers.
As our group of 10 are the only people wandering around this crumbling city, it feels like we're discovering a lost world, one that has sat forgotten for hundreds of years. There is an eerily quiet feel to the place, especially when you consider thousands of people lived here until it was abandoned during the Spanish Conquest. And with its endless hidden staircases, untamed vegetation and lack of tourists, I feel like a child in a fairytale exploring a secret garden.
The Lost City was unearthed in 1972 by treasure looters and has since been hailed a national gem by the Colombian government. But thanks to its remote setting, it has not become as touristy
as Machu Picchu and the walk itself is nowhere near as well-trampled.
The only way to reach it is by doing a five-day gruelling and sticky hike, sloshing through rivers, tackling steep hills, sleeping in hammocks and bathing in waterfalls, all while fending off mozzies. Alternatively, it's possible to visit the spot by helicopter if you're willing to splash the cash (according to rumour, Colombian pop princess Shakira went for this option). The site's lofty position offers sweeping views of the lush jungle-clad mountains as well as revealing a sky alive with exotic birds and brilliantly coloured butterflies.
Just below us is a clutch of pretty thatched huts, lived in by Tayrona Indian tribes, descendants of the Lost City inhabitants who watch over the city. The natives say they knew about this city long before it was 'discovered' in the 1970s, but unsurprisingly they wanted to keep this peaceful retreat to themselves. Our guide tells us the city was built to make farming possible at different altitudes and the paths were designed in such a way that the residents could hear people coming from great distances.