THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE LOST CITY TREK
Everything you need to know before hiking the Lost City Trek
How to plan your trip, when to go, how much it costs, how to prepare, the itinerary, fitness requirements, where to stay and everything else you need to know
The Inca Trail of Colombia, the "Lost City trek" is one of the world's best trekking expeditions; 4/5 days journeying through the Colombian Caribbean mountains and forests lead to an ancient city, abandoned for 400 years and only rediscovered in the 1970s. This is a hike through a biologically unique environment, alongside indigenous peoples still using their historic paths to reach an archaeological marvel over 1200 years old.... Thats 650 years older than Machu Picchu!
What is the lost city trek?
On the north coast of Colombia, east of Cartagena and south of the Tayrona National Park lies the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. This vast UNESCO biosphere reserve held a huge secret for over 400 years, the lost city of Colombia. Its original name has never been confirmed, but over the years it has collected some alternatives; Green Hell, Wide Set, Buritaca and Teyuna, however the most well known is "The Lost City" or "Cuidad Perdida."
This 4/5 day trek covers 44km through unique Colombian rainforest, rivers and mountains. If you choose to embark on this jungle adventure, you’ll set out in guided groups, carrying your clothes and water, and sleep at 3 forest camps along the route, eating traditional Colombian food & plenty of it. You'll pass indigenous villages, summit peaks, ford rivers, cannonball swimming holes, penetrate dense jungle and unavoidably make firm friends with your group as you celebrate the days successful trekking with beers and chocolate bars. The Lost City patiently waits for your arrival and rewards you with views of the ancient stone citys terraces, stairways and plazas. However exhausted you may feel upon your arrival, your fatigue is soon forgotten...
History of the lost city
Before arriving in Colombia, the Lost City was not something we had ever heard of. Unlike Machu Picchu, it remains relatively unknown & has only recently experienced higher volumes of tourists & backpackers reaching its walls. As a result, we had a bit of research to do in order to understand the history, significance & context of this quiet marvel, hidden deep in the jungle. Here’s what we learnt:
Most archaeologists agree that the first habitation of modern Colombian began around 12,000 BC concentrated on the Caribbean coast, though the oldest known site of human population in Colombia dates from 9,790 BC. The first villages began appearing in 2,000 BC and by 1,000 BC hundreds of different tribes had acquired expertise in farming and mining. From 200 AD small towns began appearing on the coast and by 800 AD stone cities began to appear in the highland - it is here that Ciudad Perdida gained its prominence. At it's peak (around 1200 AD) it could have housed up to 4,000 people and was a maze of over 200 stone structures; including stone paths and stairways, houses, plazas, canals, bridges and ceremonial buildings. It is believed that the city was an essential part of the network connecting the people of the area; the Tairona.
The Tairona were the dominant group of peoples living along the northern coast of Colombia for well over 2000 years, residing in the Colombian departments of Cesar, Magdalena, and La Guajira. They built up a complex system of agriculture, irrigation, trade and engineering until the arrival of the Spanish in the late 15th century. The first contact was peaceful (how novel) but after the Spanish attempted to take women and children as slaves & stole huge amounts of gold in 1578, the Tairona reacted violently resulting in many Spanish deaths. It was only due to the arrival of small-pox which decimated the previously densely populated numbers of the Tairona that the Spanish were able to take the upper hand.
After a Tairona uprising in 1599 was brutally put down, the majority of the Tairona were forced into the Spanish working programs (known as the 'Encomienda System'). Those who remained retreated into the stone cities of the Sierra Nevada to avoid all contact with the Spanish - It is believed the reason that the lost city is only accessible via a series a steep stone steps (a delight to hike…) was to deter the Spanish horses who would have been unable to climb them. It is thought that the city was finally abandoned in the 17th century and by the 18th century the last of the Tairona were forced into the Spanish working camps, leaving behind their city and their ancient trails through the forests.
The South American indigenous people were famous for their gold work, and left many artefacts in the city. Unfortunately the majority of this was taken by looters but a good collection was recovered. The Museo del Oro in Bogota has a fantastic collection of gold metalware and is worth the visit if you make it to the capital.
After the city was abandoned it was believed to have been lost. The indigenous people who still live in the area, descended from the Tairona, are called the Kogi and you will meet several members of the tribe on your journey. Along with the Wiwa, the Arhuaco and the Kankuamo peoples, the Kogi claim that the city was never really "lost"; that they always knew of it existence, and that they regularly visited the city for ceremonial occasions.
It was not until 1972 that looters searching all of north Colombia for pre-Colombian gold stumbled upon the stone steps leading to the city fiercely claimed by the forest. They climbed the steps and found themselves in the huge abanonded city. Everything of value was taken, and when artefacts began showing up on the black market, experts learnt of the new site in the hills of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. In 1976 the Lost City was "discovered" and shared with the world.
However, the next 30 years did not deliver any spikes in tourism - the area remained rarely visited as it was still a site used for marijuana & cocaine production, and an area involved in the on-going conflict between the Colombian National Army, right-wing paramilitary groups and left-wing guerrilla groups like National Liberation Army (ELN) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In 2003 ELN kidnapped 8 tourists who were visiting the lost city and held them for three months.
But not to fear, as of 2007 the area is now completely safe from all military, para-military and drug related activity. The only thing lurking in the jungle that need concern you is the wildlife… and the mosquitoes.
Why is it Popular?
The Lost City Trek is one of Colombia's highlights, 4 or 5 days trekking through the the dense colombian rainforest to reach the ancient city of the Tairona built 650 years before Machu Picchu. Meet indigenous locals walking their ancient trails, discover unqiue plant-life and animals local to the area like parrots, toucans and monkeys. Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria has a huge number of endemic species, you'll be walking through an area of amazing biodiversity. Whilst the walk is challenge, with peaks to climb and rivers to wade all in high temperatures, you are looked after by your guides, cooks and hosts who are on hand to ensure you enjoy your experience. Finally, whilst the Lost City Trek is not cheap, it is a fraction of the cost of the Inca Trail and is one of the best value fully guided multi-day treks in the world.
When is the best time To go?
You can count on warm temperatures in any month on the Colombian north coast due to its location on the Caribbean sea, however there is a dry and a wet season. The Lost city trek can be done all year round, but is best in the dry season which is December to March. The heat is less intense, there is slightly less humidity and the rivers are lower as there is less rain - This means knee deep river crossings, not waist deep.
Wet Season is April to November and usually sees consistant light rains with the odd heavy downpour. There are stories of 4 days on constant rainfall on horrendously muddy tracks, so ensure you're aware of the likely conditions before you book.
Of course the wet and dry seasons also means a high and low season, and that the trails & camps are busier in the dry season and emptier in the wet season.
How to book / book in advance?
The Lost City trek is a guided trek (it’s mandatory), but can be booked through multiple tourist agencies. It is possible to book in advance and this is advisable for the smaller agencys but for the larger they are very used to bookings the day before. The biggest agencies are Magic Tour Colombia and Expotur.
Also recommended is the Indiginous guided tour with a member of the Wiwa tribe, wiwatours.com. They have an excellent focus on sustainability, education & re-investment back into the indigenous communities. It is worth noting however that this is more expensive than the other tours. An excellent review of the experience with Wiwa Tours can be found here.
How Much does the Lost City Trek cost?
We checked around and discovered that all the tours were line-priced, i.e. all the same with very little room for discounts and negotiation due to the ever increasing demand for the popular trek. There is also a price increase every year so check your dates versus the information below.
In 2018 the cost was 950,000 colombian pesos per person, in 2017 the cost was 850,000 and 2016 it was 750,000.
On 1st January 2019 the price went up to 1,100,000pesos. On the current exchange rate that is GBP £267 and USD $354. Assume a price increase of 100,000 per calendar year and check the prices quoted on the tourist websites. The price is the same for a 4 & 5 day hikes.
If you would like to do the tour with the indiginous Wiwa guides this has an additional cost, check their website www.wiwatours.com.
How Fit do I need to be for the lost city trek?
The total distance you'll be challenged to walk is 44km, over 4 days, approximately 10km per day. However, the terrain you be covering will vary significantly and even on the first day you'll come across some of the hardest and steepest hills that the trek has to throw against you.
If you are concerned about your fitness; to prepare, try and build up to walking for 4/5 hours and ensure that before you begin you have covered 10km+ in one go. If this presents a challenge to you right now, this can be easily overcome by building up your time walking over a number of weeks. Begin walking shorter distances every other day and build up to longer distance as you begin to feel more confident in your fitness.
What to Pack for the Lost City Trek?
Included in the cost of the expedition is all your food and water, your bed, mosquito net and bedding. Everything else you'll need to carry with you, so consider the weight of you packpack before you set off. Remember you'll enjoy yourself more with a lighter pack!
The days are hot and humid, so you'll need lightweight shorts, t-shirts, vests etc. whatever you feel comfortable walking in. At night time it doesn't get too cold, but as the sun sets the insects and mosquitos arrive. You'll need long sleeve shirt and trousers to protect yourself from bites.
Lightweight trainers or trail shoes + sandals/flip-flops for nighttime
2 t-shirts, 2 walking shorts, 2 pairs walking socks - or more, they don’t ever seem to dry (alternate items on each day)
Long sleeve shirt, long trousers & evening socks
Underwear enough for 4 days... more is better, so worth prioritising.
Hat for sun protection
A 1 litre water bottle (this can refilled at each camp)
Insect repellent, ensure it has DEET as an ingredient
Toiletries (try and bring minis) & any medication you may need.
1 plastic bag; can be used for rain protection and also for dirty/sweaty laundry.
A camera (you'll need evidence to show everyone!)
Sleeping bag liner (as lightweight as possible, not needed for warmth!)
Extra bin bags / ziplock bags (to keep dry things dry)
Small amount of colombian pesos to buy drinks/beers/chocolate bars at each camp
Where does the Lost City Trek Start?
Traditionally hikers have made their way to Santa Marta on north coast of Colombia, 5 hrs east of Cartagena to start the trail. Santa Marta is a bustling town, slightly lacking in character. Two other starting options have arisen since the hike began; Minca and Palomino. Minca is a town in the hills north of Santa Marta and one of our absolute favourite places, Palomino is a beach town east of Tayrona. Both locations are absolutely worth visiting in their own right, and conveniently both can be a starting location for your Ciudad Perdida trek. Palomino is actually closer to the start of the hike than Santa Marta, whilst Minca is the only starting place for the indigenous guided tours. Your starting position is also your finishing position, and both of these places are great for a few days of relaxing after the challenge. Your tour guide will be able to pick you up & drop you off at your hostel.
Watch our Lost City experience!
Hiking Route Itinerary
Day 1: The Mamey Region
Duration: 4 hours
Arrange with your tour agency on where to be picked up, we found that most of them will pick up from almost any location in Santa Marta or on the route to the start. For our group this included a couple of Belgian travellers from a very remote hotel somewhere near the entrance. It is roughly 2 hours from Santa Marta to El Mamey where the the trek starts, this is half on paved roads and half on bumpy dusty roads, so expect to be jolted around a bit in your 4X4. You'll have lunch (meat or fish, beans & rice and patacón - naturally), and then you’ll begin the hike.
Beware...there is no easy start to this hike, in fact some of the hardest hiking is on the very first afternoon! This is a section with less shade than the rest of the trek, up steep hills winding around mountains. You'll need to stop often as your body gets used to the exertion. The walk on the first day is about 4 hours through the foothills of the mountain range and passes coffee and cacao farms.
The first camp is located next to a natural pool fed by a river running past the site...a perfect place to cannonball into the refreshing water and relax after after your first day. As with every day, you'll set yourself up at your bunk or hammock, change and eat the dinner prepared by the camp kitchen crew. Don your long sleeves & socks… the mosquitoes are coming.
Day 2: Buritaca River
Duration: 7 - 8 hours
Its an early start every day, the guides will rouse the group at 5am and aim to leave by 6am after a breakfast of eggs & toast. You'll spend the day hiking along the river, and will need to cross it multiple times. Depending on the recent rainfall, this might be knee deep or waist deep, hopefully you'll just need to take off your waking shoes and walk barefoot across the river.
In the afternoon you'll pass the indigenous Kogi village of Mutanyi which has many tradtional mud and straw huts. The day has many long uphill climbs but the river crossings can be a refreshing break to cool off hot feet! You'll feel very much within the biosphere and will come across monkeys, birds and local plants that your guide can point out to you.
The second camp is a big one near the start of the steps ascending to the Lost City. Most of the groups visiting the city will stay here so it is the busiest of the camps you'll stay in. Luckily, it is right next to a very pleasant spot on the river where you can swim and play in the gentle rapids or sunbath. Your bed or hammock and hot meal awaits after the long day.
Day 3: Ciudad Perdida
Duration: 7 - 8 hours
You've made it (almost), the 6am departure leads to the infamous steps after about 30mins hiking along the river. Brace yourself… the climb to the entrance begins. Only 1,200 steps seperate you from arrival, and they can be steep, slippery & narrow. The group will spread out over the climb so you'll need to regroup at the opening plaza at the top of the steps.
This was one of our favourite moments. Your guide will ask you to stand in a circle, close your eyes & focus on the sounds of the forest. This both a moment of meditation for your benefit, and a process of ‘cleansing’ which the indigenous request all tourists complete - the site is still sacred & the tribespeople believe it is being tainted by negative energy - so if you’re feeling tired, aggy or hangry - do your best to let this go.
From there your guides should provide a history and explanation of the city and the peoples that lived there for over 1,000 years.
The climb through the city will culminate with a view from the highest viewpoint overlooking the city and should co-incide with the morning light hitting the ancient stones as the sun manages to rise high enough to shine out above the high mountains surrounding the city.
After spending the morning exploring the city, the group will descend through the city on a different path leading to the steps. On occasion you'll be able to meet the local Kogi shaman who presides over the local villages and the the lost city area and who is willing to explain more about his people's culture and answer any questions.
The afternoon is spent hiking back towards the 3rd camp which the group would have passed through the previous day.
Day 4: Return to El Mamey
Duration: 4 hours
On your last day you'll walk back through the forests and back through the river crossings to reach el Mamey for lunch. There will be opportunites to stop at different natural pools and rivers and cool down from the days hike. After lunch, you'll be driven in the 4X4s back to Santa Marta.
Is the Lost City Trek Difficult?
The Lost City Trek is challenging but don't let that put you off. There are steep hills to climb and approxiamtely 10km to walk each day, plus the stone steps to the city, but around that plenty of rest time. Many hikers of varying levels of fitness have completed this trek, and the guides will always walk at your pace so don't worry about being left behind.
How long do you get at the the Lost City?
On the morning of the 3rd day you and your group will awake early and begin the walk from the camp to the start of the 1,200 ancient stone steps. The intention is to have arrived at the central plaza at the top of the city in time for sunrise. You'll begin the ascent on the narrow path and then regroup with the rest of the walkers at the plaza at the top of the stairs. Here our guide will lead a ceremony to cleanse the walkers. The site is still ceremonially important to the Kogi, who ask all visitors to ensure they fully respect the site before entering.
Despite the many walkers you'll have seen heading towards the city over the last 2 days, due to its size the city will seem deserted; providing plently of space for you to imagine how this city lived and thrived 1,000 years ago. Your guide will explain the spaces and give more information about how the Tairona lived...however remember we know precious little about these people. You'll climb the ascending stairways and stone paths past further circular plazas before reaching the main plaza. From here it is a sort walk up the last hill to reach the perfect spot to take a picture of the lost city beneath you as the sun breaks above the surrounding mountains and covers the ruins in morning sunshine.
What is the Accommodation Like? (inc. toilets & showers)
The camps are basic and clean. You'll most likely to sleeping in bunk beds in an open air building inside a mosquito net. The other option will be a hammock with mosquito net. Each camp has toilets and cold-shower facilites, but these remain at present rudimentary. Almost every camp was under-going further construction so these facilites will be improving. Expect to feel a bit sweaty and grimey for a few days until you can return to hot showers and clean clothes.
What is the food like?
How can a tour-guide keep his group happy? Lots and lots of food. You won't go hungry on this trip. Each meal is large and usually a minimum of 2 courses. From what we could tell, it didn’t matter what tour you were with - everyone ate the same.
The only possible discrepancy between tours might be how many snack your guide has on offer. Fruit and chocolate bars are handed out regularly, and there is a special treat when the group reaches the Lost City summit. You'll need to bring a 1L water bottle and this can refilled with clean water at every camp site. If you are concerned about food, stash a few packets of nuts in your backpack...but you're unlikely to need them!
Do I need to bring any money?
Each camp has a small shop selling beers and snacks, and along the way you'll meet a few locals selling handicraft and refreshments. Bring a small amount of pesos to buy any extra food or souvenirs.
Safety on the Route
The route is very safe and the colombian military regularly patrols the area. You'll climb from sea-level to 1,500 above sea level - not enough to induce altitude sickness. Be careful with the river crossings if the rainfall has been high and request assistance from the guides if you concerned by the strength of the current. Similarly, if the rain has been strong beware muddy sections of the path. Ensure you have an effective insect repellent to prevent too many bites.
What do I do with the rest of my luggage?
All hostels and hotels will have storage available where you can put your bigger bags and luggage. If this is not available, your tour agency should be able to keep your bags in their offices.
Where to stay Before and After
Our favourite places in the area were Minca, Palomino and the Costeno beach area. There are some good hostels on the outskirts of Santa Marta.
Have a look for availability at the following:
Santa Marta: The Dreamer Hostel or El Rio Hostel
After your trip
If your trip has piqued your interest in Colombian pre-colombian civilisation and culture then be sure to visit El Museo del Oro in Bogota. This has some of the region's finest goldwork and is one of the highlights of any visit to the country's capital.
Too Long; Didn't Read
If the above is more information than you need, here's a quick summary:
This is a once in a lifetime trek, that must be booked with a tour agency
The trek is 44km over 4days including 1,200 steps; be confident with your fitness.
Check the weather, the sun or rain will have a huge impact on your trip
Pack light for an enjoyable trek
Ready to get Sweaty!? Book your trip right away using this TripAdvisor link
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