Ciudad Perdida (Spanish for ‘Lost City’) is an ancient archaeological site nestled up in the Sierra Nevada mountain region of northern Colombia, built by the Tayrona people and dating to approximately 800 AD – older than Machu Picchu. Long forgotten, nature covered it for centuries, but with the help of archaeologists and the blessing of local indigenous people who today protect their ancestral site, around 10% of it has been uncovered and made open for those who make the pilgrimage here on the Lost City trek.
The Lost City trek in Colombia was a journey that took me from the urban pockets of the Caribbean coastline to the isolated jungle basin that wraps around highest coastal mountain in the world at 5,778 metres above sea level. It was an expedition into the world’s second largest biodiversity system, and a passage through the heartland of Colombia’s oldest indigenous communities.
One third of the 30,000 square kilometres of the UNESCO reserved biosphere Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a National Park open for exploration, where a path has been roughly carved through the wilderness to lead you to a hidden city and the central axis of a lost civilisation.
This rich environment is also home to some of the best preserved cultures in America, isolated and unseen until the second half of the 20th century. The Kogui, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo communities are descendants of the Tayrona (Tairona) people of the Lost City, and have been living here for centuries and now maintain it. You are simply a visitor as you walk amongst them on their land during these days.
Trekking tourism in Colombia is a new lifeline to a region that was once rendered completely off-limits. After decades of violence during the violent years of illegal cocaine trafficking and from looters who discovered the Lost City in the 1970s, the region was reclaimed and declared an indigenous reserve in 1984, where life tries to return as normal.
It’s preciously this isolation and intrigue that brings in the more curious of travellers wanting to embark on the Ciudad Perdida trek. To find the Lost City.
However hard it is to get there.
In the words of my indigenous Wiwa guide, Gabo: “The hard things should be done, and the impossible should be tried.”
That we certainly did, on what is arguably one of the best treks in South America.
- 1 History of the Lost City of Colombia
- 2 How Long is the Trek to the Lost City?
- 3 Ciudad Perdida Tours – Who to Trek With
- 4 How Much Does it Cost to Do the Lost City Trek?
- 5 Best Time to Trek in the Lost City
- 6 Lost City Trekking Route – Snapshot
- 7 Is the Lost City Trek Difficult?
- 8 Do I Need to Train for Lost City Trekking?
- 9 Lost City Trek Day-by-Day
- 10 What to Pack for Lost City Trekking
- 11 Thinking of Trekking to the Lost City? Pin It!
History of the Lost City of Colombia
Getting to the Lost City site is undoubtedly the highlight of the trip, yet much of what it was and why it was there is still being unravelled.
There had always been stories of the lost cities of the Tayrona people of the Sierra Nevada – a remote region that remained unexplored for centuries – but la Ciudad Perdida is the biggest. A site that’s more than 1,400 years old, what we do know about it comes from the knowledge of the indigenous communities, the archaeologists and ongoing research.
The Tayrona people were advanced in construction, engineering and military operation, with a complex hierarchy of society, a religious and political elite, and organised as a federation of towns. It’s thought the Lost City was their capital and most sacred town, connecting and trading with other groups in people in Colombia.
By the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Tayrona (at an estimated one million people) was suspected to be at the edge of becoming a major civilisation in the Americas. At least 60% of them died from diseases brought over by the colonisers, or died defending their land.
What little was found of the Lost City in the 20th century was stolen and often sold on the black market and what was recovered is now in the gold museums in Santa Marta and Bogota.
Today, it remains a permanent archaeological area with archaeologists using the knowledge from the Kogui and Wiwa people, said to be direct descendants or at least related to the Tayrona, to fill the gaps in the story. Outsiders trek to Cuidad Perdida in search of them.
Why is it called the Lost City?
The Lost City has been given four names over the course of its discovery. The indigenous name, Teyuna is alleged to be the name of the lord or the spirit of the city and the most precise name known to date. The ‘The Green Hell’ (‘Inferno Verde’) was given by the looters who first stumbled upon it 1976 which started a battle of control in a remote area with disease and poisonous animals.
By 1978, the Colombian government noticed as important flow of archaeology objects coming from this region, and quickly gained control, sending the army in first to curb the looters, before sending in the archaeologists. Rough location maps were made with the help of the looters, and helicopters were sent out to try to find the exact location. But city was completely covered by the forest, which is how it came to be known as Ciudad Perdida / The Lost City.
The government established a National Park with archaeologists working within it and rebuilding parts of the site, following destruction by looters. During this time it was given an archaeological code name: 200, along the Buritaca River.
The Lost City site was officially opened to visitors in 1981, but only by helicopter. Until the indigenous government said it was not allowed, because after nearly 15 years, they were landing in the main terrace and destroying it. Now, the only way in is a days long trek, with their approval.
How Long is the Trek to the Lost City?
The total distance of the trek to and from the Lost City site is 45km, using the same jungle path. It’s estimated that if you factor in the steep uphill and downhill climbs along this route, in both directions, the total distance is around 1.5 times this, meaning you will rack up closer to 65-70km trekking here.
The standard trek is four days, although some companies offer shorter three-day options and longer options up to six days where you rest for longer periods at some of the camps.
My trek with G Adventures was five days, with the final day being an exclusive trekking route to a Wiwa community, not offered by any other company.
Ciudad Perdida Tours – Who to Trek With
There are many companies offering Lost City treks, with many advertised in the town of Santa Marta. However, it’s important whom you chose to go with.
Regardless of what company you choose, I do stress the importance of choosing a company who not only have licensed trekking guides, but who also work alongside the indigenous communities where a member of the Wiwa community is also trekking with you, or where a significant portion of your money for the trek is being given to indigenous communities.
This is their sacred land (alongside the Kogui community), and there is a risk of a loss of culture and their livelihoods being taken over by businesses running Lost City treks. Anyone not trekking in compliance with the wishes of the indigenous community is simply out for profit and not for good. Those who break rules about what areas of the Lost City are open for exploration, are fracturing the respect of the people who allow us to visit their land, and eventually could get this route closed down.
Also check that money is spread amongst the farmer communities, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park and the Colombian Institute of Archaeology.
My number one rule would be that if an indigenous guide will not be with you during your entire time trekking this sacred space, don’t choose that company. At the forefront of this kind of partnership is Wiwa Tours whose work it is to support the indigenous people, their rights and their protection at the forefront of this trekking route.
Who I Trekked With
I trekked to Ciudad Perdida with G Adventures who are working in partnership with Wiwa Tours to ensure exploration here is carried out in the most sustainable and responsible way. I am also a G Adventures Wanderer (official ambassador) working to highlight the positive social impact ethos of the company through adventurous travel trips.
This is a seven-day package, with accommodation in Santa Marta included before and after the five days on the ground trekking, and the addition of the inclusion of the exclusive fifth day trekking route not open to anyone else. This particular trek package ends at the Wiwa village of Gotsezhi – a social impact project where you can visit the community, learn about the social responsibility of good tourism practice and where your money is being spent on social enterprise and training.
My Wiwa guide, Gabo said it is special when groups go with an indigenous guide, and that it is the real experience.
It’s also good to note that many of the treks are offered in Spanish only, so check if the tour has either an English-speaking guide or a translator who will accompany you. Otherwise you will miss out on a lot of the history and vital information.
How Much Does it Cost to Do the Lost City Trek?
You can expect to pay in the region of $300 for the basic four-day trek package, and from $600+ for the packages up to six days including accommodation in Santa Marta. Usually the same price it applies for four, five or six days with the same company.
My G Adventures Lost City Trek costs around $700 for the seven-day package outlined above, including the fifth day trekking route not open to any other trekking company. In this case, you pay a little extra for the unique experience and you know your money is being put back into the community.
Usually what is included in the trek cost of the Lost City Trek is:
- At least one night of accommodation in Santa Marta either side of the trek, with luggage storage
- Two hour jeep ride to and from Santa Marta to start and end points of the trekking route (Machete and the Gotsezhi Wiwa indigenous community Village)
- Accommodation for the entire trek (basic camps of bunk beds and hammocks)
- Breakfast, lunch and dinners at the trek camps
- A licensed and trained trekking guide and accompanying indigenous guide
- Permits /entrance for trekking in the Lost City / Sierra Nevada national park area
What’s NOT included in the trek cost:
- Travel insurance, which you must arrange yourself and ensure it includes emergency rescue
- International flights / airfare
- Visa costs for Colombia and organisation
- General trekking gear such as walking poles, although I was given a stick from the jungle
- Medication (including altitude sickness tablets)
Best Time to Trek in the Lost City
Ciudad Perdida treks take place all year round, but seasons can affect the terrain.
The National Park is also closed every September for preservation and maintenance, when the indigenous communities perform ceremonies and offer payment in order to restore the balance of energy. They say this mountain is the ‘heart of the world’ for them and that when the balance of this place breaks, the whole world will break. They used to close the National Park for two weeks, but since Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which also hit the area hard, they saw it as a warning and now close for the entire month to balance the bad energies visitors bring in.
In wet season (March to November) the trails can be more slippery and treacherous and Buritaca River waters will rise which makes the crossings a little bi trickier. There are ropes at some crossings, but in other parts you may have to wade through with water at knee or waist height. There is also the possibility of late afternoon and evening torrential rainfall, although when you are tucked up in your camp, this is kind of cathartic.
In dry season (December to March) there is less rain, making the Buritaca River crossings easier where you don’t have to take your shoes and socks off and simply walk over rocks with a light trickle of water flow. Dry season also sees the biggest flow of visitors, although this isn’t a trekking trail that is overrun. Groups are few and staggered, you rarely pass more than two to four people at a time, and often you feel as if you have the entire trail to yourself.
We trekked in June, where the days were hot and heavy rainfall came almost every afternoon from 4pm. We counteracted this by always leaving at 5:30am or 6:30am so that we arrived at our next camp station before being caught up in the downpour. Your trekking guide will know the weather and formulate a strategy. River crossings were deep and had to be tackled slowly to keep balance in the flowing waters, but in the end they are actually fun and you soon dry off in the heat.
Lost City Trekking Route – Snapshot
An Indigenous guide and an English-speaking guide will accompany you the entire trip. The Trek Itinerary looks like this:
Day 1. Santa Marta. Transfer to Machete / Overnight in Wiwa Camp
Day 2. Trek en route to Teyuna Paraiso Camp
Day 3. Early climb up to the Lost City Leave / Overnight in Wiwa Camp
Day 4. Trek back through the jungle, past Kogui communities en route to Ricardito Camp
Day 5. Exclusive extra day trek route to reach the Gotsezhi Wiwa indigenous community Village/ Transfer back to Santa Marta
Is the Lost City Trek Difficult?
Trekking to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) is considered to be high difficulty, requiring high levels of stamina for steep uphill climbs and downhill navigation. The reason this trek isn’t longer than four days there and back is because you are not having to battle with extreme altitude, unlike the set-up with other multi-day treks in mountainous regions like the Everest Base Camp trek which has a similar distance but strategic rest days for high altitude acclimatisation.
The Lost City sits at an altitude of 1,200 metres (3,937 ft.) above sea level and is the highest point of the trek. No technical equipment such as ropes and harnesses are required, but this is raw, uneven jungle territory with narrow pathways, uneven surfaces, loose rocks and dense foliage in parts.
Two avid trekkers on my trip confessed that the Lost City was more difficult than the Inca Trail, climbing Kilimanjaro and the Everest Base Camp trek.
Do I Need to Train for Lost City Trekking?
You need to be in good physical fitness for this trek. If you train regularly in some kind of fitness activity, you will have a good basis for strength and recovery. If not, I suggest taking on some smaller day hikes before this trip, where uphill and downhill terrains can be trained to not only get used to four to six-hour trekking times, but to also get used your body used to the tricky terrain.
Lost City Trek Day-by-Day
DAY 1. Starting the Lost City Trek
Elevation: Started at 340m – climbed to 650m. Slept at 400m at Wiwa campsite
Trekking Time: 7 Hours (with two rest stops)
We left Santa Marta at sunrise for a two-hour jeep journey to the trek starting point at Machete, where we had breakfast. 95 families live in this area, given the name Machete from its former era of violence from narco cartels, guerillas and paramilitary who dominated this area for the production of coca.
We start walking at 8am, stopping after a couple of hours at a rest stop set up by a guy whose income rests on squeezing fresh orange for weary, already sweaty trekkers. This trail continues, leaving the farmland and entering the terrain of indigenous villages where around 80 families, mainly Kogui and Wiwa, reside.
Day one is broken down into three hours back-to-back climbing and descending before stopping for lunch (at the Ricardito Camp where we will sleep on the night of Day 4), before continuing on another three to four-hour stretch of more downhill, even steeper uphill, before the last downhill to the Wiwa campsite.
This consistent up and down is brutal in parts, but the scenery eases the pain, as does always reminding yourself what the end goal is.
DAY 2. The Long Walk to Lost City Base Camp
Elevation: Started at 400m and walked to 800m.
Trekking Time: 5.5 – 6 Hours (with two rest stops)
A 6.30am start for an overall six-hour trek to the Paraiso Teyuna campsite, with two small rest stops in between. This is the camp closest to the Lost City, a form of Base Camp where everyone rests up before the ascent to the Ciudad Perdida.
You first pass a Kogui village. A community of semi-nomadic people and farmers, they don’t actually live in these villages and only come back to them sporadically. The structures are symbolically built, with two stumps on the top of each house representing the two sacred peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain which are the highest points and closest spiritually. The walls represent the earth.
This is another day of arduous uphill climbs on rocky pathways and protruding tree roots, and through small parts of dense jungle and thick forest. You know you are getting more into the heart of the jungle on this day as the thick vegetation scenery is similar in comparison to the varied landscapes on the first day from farmland to the tropics.
It’s also the day you will tackle on one of the river crossings, before navigating as ‘Indiana Jones’ style patch of jungle with steep rocks to climb in order to get on to the trail that led to camp. It felt exciting, raw, untouched, and secret. A feeling in the run up to what is coming.
DAY 3. Arriving at the Lost City.
Elevation: 1,500m at Lost City, before trekking back down to 400m at Wiwa campsite
Trekking Time: 6-7 Hours
Since the Paraiso Teyuna campsite is busy, and usually with around 100 people resting there at a time, groups are staggered in when they leave for the Lost City.
At 5.30am, we were the first to leave. It took one hour on a short jungle walk and river crossing before reaching the 1,200 narrow, steep, uneven stairs that climb up into the entrance to the Lost City.
The overgrown nature that hugs the site gives you a feeling that you are the first to arrive and find the site. With our Wiwa guide we walk silently in a circle and then stand with our eyes closed before putting a leaf in the middle of the circle. It’s a form of offering to nature and the spirits who live here, announcing our presence.
We wander around small stone circles of former market and meeting places, ruins of drainage systems and agricultural structures, before another stone trail takes us up to the ‘Central Axis’. Here was where the main houses and temples once stood, now a site of large, stacked stone terraces that you clamber up climb before turning around for the once-in-a-lifetime magnificent view over the Lost City.
You have to take the same steep stone stairway back down, which requires slow and precise movement. It’s then time for breakfast at camp before leaving at 9am for a four-hour trek back to the Wiwa Camp (from Day 2). You have a chance to ease those aching muscles with a swim in the lake that runs alongside the Wiwa camp.
DAY 4. Leaving the Lost City Trail.
Elevation: Climbing back up to 700m
Trekking Time: 3 hours
We started the morning with a nature cleanse in the waterfall near our camp before continuing back on the same track that we took on the first day. This is the day where you effectively leave the Lost City trekking trail. It took three hours, with an additional one-hour rest, and a last steep uphill 30-minute stretch to reach the Ricardito Camp where we had lunch on the first day. We rested, had diner and slept here.
This was also the chance to spend a restful few hours with our Wiwa guide, Gabo, where we could ask him questions about his culture and the rise of interest in the trek to the lost city.
Day 5. Exclusive Trekking Excursion to Wiwa Community.
Trekking Time: 5 – 6 hours
Despite knowing there was another trekking day ahead of us when we were already exhausted, we knew this final day was special. Leaving at 6am, it was a two-hour steep climb into some farmland and another two hours wading through some deep, untouched jungle.
One last river crossing brings you right to the heart of the Wiwa village, made even more special for the fact that it is the home of our Wiwa guide, Gabo who helped lead our entire journey. We were met by a Mamo (the spiritual leader of the community who keeps the natural order), who blessed us and tied a white ribbon around each of our wrists marking a rather emotional end to these arduous days.
The Wiwa community of Gotsezhi is the location of the first G Adventure, Planeterra project in Colombia. It started in early 2017, with Planaterra offering funding and consultancy on a social impact project that is fully owned by the Wiwa community. The introduction of tourism to this once isolated community allows both for the education of travellers about the indigenous way of life, and for these people to continue to reclaim their land that was once lost or displaced due to the illegal activity in the mountains from the growth of coca plantations for cocaine production.
The project brings benefits and opportunities outside of the trekking corridor, which only benefits people on the trek. Women have been provided with a new means ones of income in the fields of cooking, hospitality and weaving and the men are trained for jobs things like leading the Lost City trek.
With this comes a feeling on empowerment and pride that outsiders want to visit the Wiwa people and better understand them and their culture.
Some of the cooks here will become cooks on the trek and one day, maybe we will even see female guides lead the way on this sacred pilgrimage.
It is here that G travellers enjoy their last lunch together at the restaurant that has been established here as part of the project, before the two-hour jeep ride back to Santa Marta.
What to Pack for Lost City Trekking
You need to packing as little as possible for the Lost City trek since you will be carrying your backpack the entire time. This includes carrying a litre bottle or two of water, which is where the majority of the weight will come from.
There are no porters, and while later on in the trek there is a chance to share the cost of a horse to carry some load for you, you will be carrying that one pack every day.
The jungle is humid, so it’s important to try to keep all your belongings dry otherwise you will just is uncomfortable, miserable and chilly. Washing something at the end of the day and it being dry by the morning are slim. Even our dry clothes felt damp in the morning. We were given a black garbage / bin bag to ensure our bag stayed dry and I also have a small 10 litre dry bag with me to protect my electronics, which fit neatly into my daypack.
Clothing for Lost City Trekking
- Two trekking t-shirts, and one pair of trekking pants (quick dry material is better). This was the advice in order to pack light and be wearing half of what you take! Often people pack two tops, one pair on long pants and a pair of shorts. If you are prone to mosquito bites, like me, ditch the shorts and keep covered.
- A light waterproof jacket for potential late afternoon showers in the wet season. You don’t need a down jacket or a heavy Gore-Tex jacket, as you will be sweltering in jungle humidity.
- I took a light pair of Pyjama bottoms so that I slept in something cool and clean in the evenings. A pair of leggings would also serve the same purpose.
- A light mid layer jacket used for the times it can get a little chilly in the evenings. I always feel the cold, so this isn’t an essential for everyone.
- Good fitting and already broken-in trekking shoes are essential, especially when you are walking on steep uphill and downhill terrain. I’ve had my trekking shoes for a couple of years now so they are well worn-in.
- Flip flops or sandals to change into at the end of the day and for use in the shower.
- Underwear, because you want something to feel clean! Enough to last as things don’t dry very quickly overnight.
- Bikini / swim trunks, since there are plenty of waterfalls and water spaces along the trek which make for a relaxing cool-down after a hard day of trekking.
- One 20 or 30 litre daypack and better if it has various compartments so you can separate your things and be able to get to more essential items like mosquito spray and water quickly.
- Walking Sticks are a perfect means to balance and keep control on difficult parts of the trek. . I don’t usually use walking poles on a long trek but I wish I had brought at least one walking pole for the Lost City Trek. I got lucky that my Wiwa guide went to the jungle and found me a solid stick that I used from beginning to end. It saved me on a couple of bumpy areas and losing my balance on loose ground many a time.
- Bin liner or dry bag to keep all clothing and electronics dry.
- Headlamp fort use at the camps. Electricity and lighting are turning off around 8-9pm.
- Refillable water bottle. Each trekking group normally has their own water tank assigned at each camp.
- Microfibre towel. You will want to shower every afternoon when arriving at camp and quick dry material is the best option, and microfiber also saves space.
- Mini-sized or sachets of shampoo and shower gel. I had an anti-mosquito liquid that could be used as a hair, body and shower gel. I purchased a sachet of hair conditioner at the pharmacy in Santa Marta.
- Toothbrush and small toothpaste tube (lucky for us we were near the end of a regular tube so was able to save space).
- Decent mosquito spray, bought locally. Most of the high deet sprays from home not only don’t work well here, but deet is bad for the environment. Get yourself some Nopikex Mosquito Repellent from a pharmacy in Santa Marta before you leave.
- Sun cream lotion. Because you are on the Caribbean coast after all, and despite some jungle cover, there is a lot of sun exposure.
- Do I need to bring enough toilet paper for the entire trek? It’s wise to bring a small amount and not an entire roll as all the camps are equipped, but can easily run out late into the evening.
- Regular medications, because you can’t purchase anything on the trek. For example I always have to carry two asthma inhalers. I always carry painkillers too for situations like dehydration headaches and muscle pain.
- Rehydration salts or dissoluble tablets. I used these in water everyday to ensure I had extra electrolytes.
Electronics and Extras
- Camera and Phone. There’s no WiFi out here, so enjoy the digital detox. But for some their phone is their main camera, and it also serves as a good torchlight.
- Fully charged power banks. We had two fully charged power packs between us and I took two fully charge camera batteries. Space limitations means not being able to carry a huge bundle of individual chargers.
- Money for buying drinks and snacks. Every camp has a mini snack store with soft drinks, well-deserved beers, chocolate, and other snacks. Expect to pay 4,000 – 5,000 (up to $2) for a drink.
The Lost City trek is one of the most brutal, treacherous and hardest treks I have ever undertaken in one of the most beautiful patches of earth. But while the Lost City has never truly been lost, with Tayrona descendants having always known of its existence under the covering of foliage that kept it hidden from the outside world, we should be grateful we are given the opportunity to witness it, knowing that the pain of getting there only adds greater weight to its meaning.
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