Marble teeth and granite bones; built three thousand years ago, then lost for untold generations, La Ciudad Muerta stood hidden among the dense jungle. The four of us – myself, Rodrigo, James, and Patrick – had planned this journey for five years, to rediscover the Dead City lost to time and ruin in the Peruvian Andes. There were none still alive who knew where it lay, only clues pieced together from old stories and local superstitions. It had been our dream for a decade.
The plan had been to set out in July, but there were unexpected delays; visa issues. We were finally granted entry in mid-September, debating whether it was getting too late in the year, but deciding we had waited too long to turn back now. We set out from our base camp at Chilca on the twenty-ninth and followed the trail into the jungle.
After four weeks we had began to despair of finding the city. Some discussion was had as to whether we should turn back, look ahead to next year. We were running low on supplies, and it would still be another ten or twelve days to hike back out. It was agreed for two days straight that we would turn back if we had found nothing by the end of the next day, always wanting just one more day to look. By October 29th we were a full month in and could no longer delay a return.
There was no great rush to break camp the next morning. We lingered over coffee, talking about our experience as though it were already behind us and watched bugs crawl across our boots.
James finally stood and wandered off to relieve himself. The other two were finishing packing their gear. I was watching a falcon glide overhead when James let out a holler so loud and urgent we all three thought he’d fallen off the mountainside. We rushed after him, finding ourselves on the edge of a cliff where the trees ended. James looked as if he’d seen a ghost, pointing down.
The clouds lay thick in the valley, swirling as the sun set the air currents into a dance, but as they parted again, we saw what he had seen.
We stood, looking down in awe at the lost city below us. What a sight it must have been in its glory, acre upon acre of polished stone and shining gold, a tribute to their gods. The remains of what must have been the temple or palace could just be seen, jutting up in the center of the city, so overgrown it looked more like a natural hill – or an island with the ocean of clouds swirling around – but for the places where the stone was visible.
The descent into the valley was treacherous, recent rains having made the path slick and the plants difficult to grip. The jungle enclosed us and we lost sight of our destination, relying on what we could see of the sun for guidance. By early noon we had made the edge of the city. The height of the outer wall, which had not been apparent from a distance, now seemed to tower above. The gate was set with intricate carvings and overgrown with vines.
As we passed beneath the arch and the shadow of the wall fell on us, our souls were beset by a cold oppression. It chilled our bones and stood our hairs on end, and we felt as if the city itself was aware of our presence, watching us.