Dabbling in Jet Lag
Buried deep in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta jungle lies an elusive ancient city, Ciudad Perdida (Lost City). For thousands of years, this magnificent wonder was closed to the outside world. It was decades before anyone even found a path to its doors. But today you can visit Ciudad Perdida by what is commonly called the Lost City Trek. This four-day hike takes you through the dense jungle, where the humidity is so thick, that you’ll feel like you’re walking through a waterfall. And the heat? There is no escape. Even in the shade of the trees, you can feel the blistering sun. It’s a grueling trek no doubt. You’ll forge rivers, trek through knee-high mud, and sweat more than you could have ever imagined. But, for a chance to stand on the high terraces and take in the views of the Lost City, it’s worth it!
Over the years, I’ve visited the ruins of many ancient civilizations, like the Mayan Ruins in Mexico, but none compared to Ciudad Perdida. It requires skills, determination, and perseverance to see this hidden gem. And it’s this very exclusivity that made it that much more rewarding. So, to help you get the most out of your trip I’ve included everything you need to know about the Lost City Trek.
Table of Contents
- A Brief History of Colombia’s Lost City
- Lost City Tour Companies
- Practical Information
- Hiking Itinerary
- Packing List
- Tips for Trekking to Ciudad Perdida
A Brief History of Colombia’s Lost City
It’s believed that Colombia’s Lost City was founded some 650 years before Machu Picchu, around the seventh century. At its peak, archaeologists believe some 2500 people inhabited this 80-acre site. Interestingly, it was built by the Taironas, an indigenous tribe, who named it Teyuna. And it wasn’t until the 1970s when it was rediscovered, that it was dubbed Ciudad Perdida or Lost City.
Today, much of the Lost City remains buried in the jungle, and only about 15% has been uncovered. There are no plans for further excavation, but this site is so impressively large that it takes hours to visit.
Lost City Tour Companies
Colombia’s Lost City can only be accessed as part of an organized tour. Not only that but there are a limited number of tour operators. The goal is to keep the visitor numbers down and promote local businesses. Each agency has its own guides, translators, and chefs. And, while the trek and the cost are the same, the service is not.
In Santa Marta, there are four main tour agencies: Expotur Eco Tours, Magic Tours, Guias Y Baquianos, and Turcol Travel. Of these four, Expotur and Magic Tours offer the best and most consistent service. Not only that but they use local guides and provide a translator.
Useful Tip: I used Expotur Eco-Tours and was pleased with the quality of service. They went above and beyond to ensure we had a good time!
Location: The trek starts and ends in Santa Marta where you will take a bus to and from El Mamey (the trailhead).
Distance (round trip): 44 kilometers (27.4 miles)
Time: 4 days
Useful Tip: Tour companies offer five and six-day treks. If you think you will need a recovery day, then it’s worth considering these options. The price is the same either way. But most hikers wanted to return to Santa Marta on day four.
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult.
Signage: There are no signs, so you’ll have to follow your guide.
Terrain: The trail is a muddy and rocky footpath. There are almost no flat sections. It’s mostly rolling hills.
Elevation: Lowest point – 200 meters (656 ft.), Highest point – 1200 meters (3936 ft).
Accommodation: Hammocks and/or twin-size beds.
Resupply points: There are a few options to buy snacks and drinks on the trail and at campsites. Make sure to bring extra cash, debit/credit cards are not accepted.
Water: Tour companies provide refills.
Electricity: You can recharge your phone at each campsite, but there are a limited number of outlets. It’s best to have an external battery.
When to Go: The Lost City Trek can be done year-round, except in September. Since the dry season in Colombia is from December to March, these are the best months to go. Outside this time, torrential downpours can be expected on a daily basis.
Cost: $1.400.000 COP ($350 USD) + gratuities.
Hiking Itinerary for Ciudad Perdida
Ciudad Perdida Itinerary – Day 1
Total Distance for Day 1: 6.8 kilometers (4.2 miles)
9:00 am to 12:00 pm – The first day starts in Santa Marta at your tour company. You’ll then drive to El Mamey where you’ll eat lunch and begin hiking to Camp 1.
12:00 pm to 4:00 pm – From El Mamey to Camp 1, it’s a 4-hour uphill climb. As you enter the jungle the heat and the humidity will hit you like a ton of bricks. But fear not, at the top of the first hill, there is fresh-squeezed orange juice. It will quench your insatiable thirst and give you the energy you’ll need to finish the first day.
4:00 pm to 8:00 pm – Once you arrive at Camp 1, you’ll be able to take a cold shower and rinse the salty sweat off your body. After everyone has showered, you’ll eat dinner and watch the sunset over the jungle. By eight o’clock, most hikers are already in bed.
Ciudad Perdida Itinerary – Day 2
Total Distance for Day 2: 14.7 kilometers (9.1 miles)
5:00 am – Wake-up call! Most tours start hiking as early as possible. The afternoon heat is nothing to be trifled with, and this is the best way to avoid it.
6:00 am to 11:00 am – After a hearty breakfast, you’ll head out to Camp 2 for lunch. It’s not far, but the muddy trail will slow you down. It’s like treading water and no matter how fast you think you’re going; you never seem to get very far.
11:00 am to 1:30 pm – Once everyone arrives at Camp 2, you’ll eat lunch and, if you want to cool off, you can swim in the river.
1:30 pm to 3:30 pm – After lunch, you’ll head out to Camp 3. It’s not as difficult as the first part of the day, but the intense heat from the sun will slow you down. Make sure to take your time and drink plenty of water.
3:30 pm to 8:00 pm – The end of the second day finishes like the first day. Except here you’ll have the opportunity to sleep in a hammock. It’s significantly cooler than a bed and makes for a pleasant night.
Ciudad Perdida Itinerary – Day 3
Total Distance for Day 3: 6 kilometers (3.7 miles)
5:00 am – Wake-up call!
6:00 am to 11:00 am – After breakfast, you’ll head out for the most anticipated day of the hike. It’s only an hour to the entrance of the Lost City, but don’t be fooled. You’ll have a few obstacles along the way. First, you forge a waste-high river, then you’ll climb 1200 narrow and slippery stairs. But once you reach the top, you forget the journey and be in awe of the beauty around you. You’ll spend the morning learning about its history, exploring the ruins, and taking in the magnificent views. Not only that but, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to meet the Shaman (i.e. the highest member among the indigenous tribe). Only he and his family are allowed to live in the city!
11:00 am to 1:00 pm – After visiting the Lost City, you’ll head back to Camp 3 for lunch.
1:00 pm to 4:00 pm – Then, it’s a short hike to Camp 2, where you’ll eat dinner and have another opportunity to swim in the river.
4:00 pm to 8:00 pm – The end of the third day finishes like the others. The beds here are without a doubt the comfiest, guaranteeing a perfect night’s rest. Be forewarned, there is a shortage of beds here, so you may have to share with one of your fellow hikers.
Ciudad Perdida Itinerary – Day 4
Total Distance for Day 4: 16.5 kilometers (10.2 miles)
5:00 am – Wake-up call!
5:30 am to 12:30 am – Today is your last day and it’s an easy one. After breakfast, you’ll head back to the trailhead and it’s all downhill.
Useful Tip: Make sure to have trekking poles. The descent can be hard on your knees and trekking polls can decrease the impact.
12:30 am to 1:30 pm – One last lunch in El Mamey with your fellow hikers and you’ll head back to Santa Marta.
Check out my ultimate hiking gear checklist for the specifics of each item listed below.
- Backpack (20-30 Liters) – check out my guide on choosing the right backpack.
- First Aid Kit (Mosquito repellent, Band-Aids, disinfectant, and pills (ibuprofen, anti-nausea, and anti-diarrhea))
- Water Bladder/Bottle (2 Liters)
- Dry Bags (or rain cover for your backpack)
- Trekking Poles
- Hiking Boots
- Quick-dry T-shirt (4x)
- Standard Hiking Shorts (1x)
- Hiking Socks (4x)
- Underwear (4x)
- Bandana/Hiking Buff
Personal Hygiene Items
- Toilet Paper
- Extra Contacts and Contact Solution
- Toothbrush and Toothpaste
- Face/Body Soap
- Phone (with maps.me downloaded)
- Camera Gear
- External Battery
Tips for Trekking to Ciudad Perdida
- Make sure everything is in waterproof bags. Torrential downpours are not uncommon.
- Drink a lot of water. The heat and humidity are intense and it’s easy to become dehydrated.
- Make sure to follow Leave No Trace Principles.
- Wear fast-drying clothes. Even in the dry season, the heat is so intense that you’ll are constantly sweating.
- Bring extra cash and don’t carry more than 2L of water. You can buy fresh orange juice and Gatorade at campsites and various spots along the trail. It’s best to keep your bag as light as possible.
- Use Nopikex Bug Repellent. It’s sold in a little black box at the pharmacies in Santa Marta. It’s the only brand that works.
- Bring a bandana or hiking buff to wipe the sweat from your eyes during the trek.
- Bring a lightweight bed liner. The bedsheets at the camps are not washed. While it is required to take a shower before use, it’s better to have one.
- Carry the lightest pack possible. Some people hiked with only one shirt and a bottle of water.
- Hiking boots are necessary. The trail is slippery even in the dry season, and you’ll need extra ankle support.
Trekking to Colombia’s Lost City is an adventure like no other. It will challenge you in every way possible. But if you’re willing to make the effort, you won’t regret it. So, use the guide to help plan your adventure. It’s guaranteed to be nothing short of spectacular. Then, plan a trip to Salento, the perfect place to relax and rest your weary feet!
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