Fifty years ago, Álvaro Soto-Holguín began dreaming of finding a lost city.

As a student of anthropology at the Los Andes University during the 1960s, he would sit over cups of tea with his friend and teacher, anthropologist Gerardo Reichel Dolmatoff and talk “archeological issues.” It was the summer of his second semester at the university, and having returned from San Agustín where he volunteered to excavate within the archeological park, Soto listened to the advice of his mentor that the Tayronas would make for groundbreaking research.

It would take Soto several more years before he could move from Bogotá to Santa Marta and study the Tayronas. Although his first thesis explored “witchcraft in Barú” and the Afro-Colombian traditions of this island near Cartagena, Soto wanted to finish a doctorate at the prestigious University of California Riverside in anthropology and archaeology before returning to his native country and embarking on a career that would result in the discovery of Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City).

Since the earliest expressions of man on the continent, the Tayronas inhabited the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. As the ancestors of the three indigenous groups in the Sierra – Arhuaco, Kogi and Kankuamo – they traded along the Caribbean coast and the slopes of the pyramid-shaped massif.

Ciudad Perdida (Photo by William Neuheisel)

As seen from above, the Ciudad Perdida is an intricate network of terraces and stone paths, comparable to other important archaeological sites like Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu.

With its many gorges and ridges, the Sierra Nevada, now a UNESCO World Biosphere reserve, was a daunting place to explore. Tropical rainforests cascade into the pristine waters of the Caribbean and the topographic diversity and rich biodiversity had lured scientists and explorers since the late 19th century. British geographer Simons visited the Sierra from 1887 to 1880 and developed the first map of the massif. But few traces of the ancient Tayrona civilization existed.

From the Spanish conquest to Independence and the politically-motivated turbulence of La Violencia, the tribes of the Sierra lived in isolation and although they knew of the existence of archeological sites within the park, the only history of the existence of the Tayronas was an oral one, handed down through out generations from the elders.

Alvaro Soto saw paramount the need to establish anthropological research stations in regions of Colombia where the study of ancient cultures could be conducted by teams of national and international scientists. Between 1972 and 1973, Soto set up the Anthropological Station of the Sierra in Santa Marta and a systematic exploration of the area began.

Treasure hunters were a valuable source of information. Through their stories of crumbling terraces and burial grounds, it was time to put together a team and head high in the hills. The objective was to find pre-Columbian settlements of the Tayrona and protect the Upper Buritaca River from scavengers.

As the project leader, Soto convinced some of the treasure hunters (guaqueros) to become part of the expedition into the Sierra. Given the reality that many guaqueros had no other source of income, and that looting was seasonal, they could prove key in the recovery of ancient artifacts.

The ambitious director of the International Cartographic Association then sought out the help of friend and architect Bernardo Valderrama to do a preliminary drawing of the terraces and paths of the Lost City he was now convinced existed. Beyond its grandeur and size, what Soto couldn’t imagine, was that the ‘Lost City’ was one of 200 lost cities.

As important as other pre-Hispanic sites in the Americas, such as Machu Picchu, Teotihuacán or Chichen Itza, Ciudad Perdida was the citadel of citadels. With their elaborate network of stone footpaths and ceremonial round terraces, the Tayronas’ reach extended up the Magdalena River valley into the interior and across the southern Caribbean into Central America.

For Soto, finding Ciudad Perdida would take only eight days of hiking, but “discovering” Ciudad Perdida would take decades; and for this he needed the financial backing of the Colombian presidency.