“Ciudad perdida”: on Dora & the Lost City of Gold, and the enduring appeal of the lost city

A publicity shot from Dora & the Lost City of Gold. Image: Paramount.

This article contains spoilers for Dora and the Lost City of Gold, a film for nine year olds.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is one of those surprising, far-better-than-it-needs-to-be kids’ films that occasionally rise from the morass of wisecracking CG animal films and extended toy adverts. A live action sequel to long running pre-school animation Dora the Explorer, it’s a charming, periodically waspish teen comedy that acts as a meta-commentary on the source material, poking fun at and cheerfully deconstructing the tropes of its TV predecessor.

It’s also, as the title promises, a film about a lost city, driven by an adventure plot that pits Dora and her friends against ruthless mercenary treasure hunters in the quest for a fabled Incan city. This slots it comfortably into a vein of adventure fiction where explorers seek out long lost mythical places, in search of treasure or knowledge but often finding that the fabled city was lost for good reason. It’s a sub genre that most of us can probably recite the modern lineage of, a line that runs from the pulps, especially the antics of Allan Quatermain, through the black and white movie serials and given new life by Spielberg and Lucas in the Indiana Jones franchise.

The sub-genre mostly lives on now in videogames, led by Indy’s modern day successors Lara Croft (the Tomb Raider series) and Nathan Drake (Uncharted). That these stories should flourish in an interactive medium isn’t surprising – it’s one thing to see epic vistas of a crumbling metropolis in a couple of nice effects shots in a movie, a whole other level of wish fulfilment to spend hours navigating those deserted streets yourself, evading traps and solving puzzles.

Hollywood, always keen to cash in on a popular multi-media brand, has found it difficult to shift the archaeological adventure genre back to the big screen. Three Tomb Raider movies have received decidedly mixed receptions, while an Uncharted movie has been lost in development hell for so long it’s in danger of fading into myth itself.

For the writers and execs who have fallen into a creative abyss trying to wrangle Nathan Drake’s sprawling adventures into a conventional action movie, it’s a bit awkward that Dora and the Lost City of Gold’s third act so efficiently delivers the thrills and wonder that an audience wants from a lost city story. When Dora and her friends reach Parapata they have to deal with traps, puzzles, and the spectacle of fabulous treasure and lost magical power – all in a movie that crams in jokes, teen angst and a cartoon monkey too.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Dora is a kids movie that allows it to shake off the adult concerns that might inhibit a movie for grown-ups. It can embrace the lost city tropes, worries that protecting a treasure haul with puzzles doesn’t make sense, or the fact that the city would be visible by satellite (even the 1950s-set Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull felt the need to demolish its lost city in the last act so as to “explain” why it wouldn’t show up on Google Maps half a century later). A story for children doesn’t need to mitigate its fantasy with arbitrary divisions between what is and isn’t plausible in the genre. It can just have fun with it.

Plausibility concerns aren’t the only problems with the lost city genre. The idea of lost civilisations can often be tied up with unsavoury presumptions about the arc of history, the racist urge for white fantasy writers to ascribe the architectural achievements of the peoples of Africa and South America to some kind of lost Aryan super race, the kind of “graceful” pallid people that a colonial mentality could allow itself to believe built pyramids and ziggurats. Dora dodges that problem – the indigenous people who protect Parapata are mysterious and understandably hostile to treasure hunting outsiders, but they’re also fair-minded and fully in control of the ancient powers under their protection.

These narrative challenges need to be addressed if the lost city sub-genre is to carry on, and carry on it almost certainly will. In a world that has been mapped so comprehensively we can pore over it via Google Earth, one where are our own urban civilisations seem to be heading for collapse as resources run scarce, the idea of fallen cities, the remnants of past civilisations more advanced or more doomed than our own has an irresistible appeal. To imagine walking through the streets of a long dead city, discovering forbidden knowledge and clues to a history lost to the records book, is to experience a kind of re-enchantment, to take our extensively mapped, resource-depleted world and restore to it a sense of mystery and potential.

That’s an imaginative impulse that will stay with us, until it’s our own cities that fall silent, vegetation slowly reclaiming the streets we once walked.   

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.