It’s like Machu Picchu, but remote and not overrun by tourists. So definitely put La Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) near the top of your travel list! La Ciudad Perdida is a vast, ancient city in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada mountains on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It is believed to have been built by the Tairona culture around 800 CE, about 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu. Researchers estimate it housed between 2,000 to 8,000 people. La Ciudad Perdida can only be accessed via a two-day trek on foot into the coastal jungle of Colombia. As such, it has nowhere near the crowds, and “touristy feel” of Machu Picchu. The following is a Guide to Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida Trek, which has all the information to plan a successful and rewarding trip to this incredible site.
Top 5 Reasons to Go on Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida Trek
- La Ciudad Perdida is on par with Machu Picchu, but without the mass of humanity. Alison and I were on the site for almost an hour before seeing another person.
- La Ciudad Perdida Trek is crazy cheap (only $230 USD for four days, food, accommodation, guiding and fees!) and faster/easier to access compared to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. And at only 1200 meters there are no altitude acclimatization issues.
- You are a guest in indigenous lands at their sacred site. You literally trek through indigenous villages and lands of the descendants who built and lived in the city. It’s far from an overrun tourist trap!
- The walk through the jungle is amazing— some of it is virgin jungle. We know of few multi-day treks in the jungle. Swimming in the cool jungle rivers was one of the trip highlights.
- A culturally sensitive eco tour. Our guiding company, Wiwa Tour is owned and operated by the Wiwa indigenous group, descendants of the Tairona who built the city. The Wiwa fought to protect the Ciudad Perdida historic site from mining and other commercial atrocities. In other words, your tourists dollars go to indigenous guides who contribute to preserving and protecting the Ciudad Perdida historic site and its indigenous communities against climate impacts, vegetation loss, neglect, looting, and unsustainable tourism.
Note that the “Lost” City of the Teyuna was never actually lost. Local indigenous groups, descendants of the Tairona who built the city knew of the city and traveled through it. It was only “lost” to the outside/non-native world. It was “found” in the early 1970s by local treasure hunters/looters and artifacts started showing up on the black market. Since then, there have been great efforts to preserve and protect the site. La Ciudad Perdida consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. Archaeological work is still ongoing.
Table of Quick Links to Plan Your Lost City Trek
|Quick Links to: A Step by Step Planner for Your La Ciudad Perdida Trek|
|Basic Trek Info (below)||Top 5 Things to Know||Packing List, Gear for the Trek|
|Clothing for Insects & Disease||What Camps Are Like (sleeping)||Food and Water|
|Quick Links to General Information: Maps, Guides, and Transportation|
|Map, Daily Itineraries, Distances|
(and Elevation Profiles)
|Transportation, Getting to Trip Start||Guiding Companies|
Basic Trek Info
- Time to go: Colombia is equatorial so you can do this trek year-round. The best time is December to March which is the dry season and a few degrees cooler. Even so, afternoon rain is common in the mountains and should be expected. People from northern climates may appreciate taking a warm weather trip in the middle of winter.
- Guiding: You can only do the trek with a guiding company (remember: you are an invited guest into sacred tribal lands).
- Climate: This is a hot and humid trek through tropical jungle, with all that it entails.
- Difficulty: Moderate intensity hiking with some up and down on sometimes muddy/slippery jungle trails.
- Distance: About 44 km (28 miles) out and back, with 2,700 m (9,000 ft) of elevation gain and loss.
- Duration: The Trek is usually done in 4 days (a half-day, two full days, and a final half-day).
- Altitude: Maximum elevation is at La Ciudad Perdida itself at 1,150 meters, around 3,800 feet. So you will have no altitude issues.
- Safety: The area has been safe for over 10 years. The Colombian army actively patrols the area and you will be on a guided trip. In 2016, Colombia’s president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace agreement with leftist rebel groups.
Top 5 things to know
- Climate and terrain: This is the jungle. It is hot much of the time and humid all the time. It will likely rain. You will get wet and muddy either from the rain and/or your own sweat. Your clothes will not dry overnight. You need to dress and pack appropriately. See our Gear and Packing List…
- Accommodations: This is far from a luxury trip. Camps are minimal with open walled shelters–many with dirt floors. They have netted sleeping bunks (or hammocks), cold showers and flush toilets. Some camps have very limited electricity (lighting and a few outlets for the whole camp), while other camps have no electricity.
- Food: Simple, local food is served on the trek. You get breakfast, lunch and dinner in camps and there are two fruit/snack stops during the day. Portion sizes are about right. Food is prepared in a very basic, outdoor cooking area. We ate and drank what they gave us and did fine with no problems.
- Water: We did not need to treat water. There is free purified water in the camps. And between camps, if you run out of water there were stands at a few places along the route with snacks, beverages, and bottled water for sale. Even fresh squeezed orange juice if you are lucky!
- Insects and disease: This is third world, tropical trekking in the jungle. The US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends visiting your travel doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines and/or medicines you may need. More on Disease Prevention, Insects & Clothing…
Packing List for La Ciudad Perdida
- A heavy pack will make uphill hiking hot and unpleasant. We recommend a small pack with minimal gear — less than 4 kilos (8 pounds) per person — under 3 kilos is even better. See our gear packing list below for ideas to save weight.
- It’s not advertised, but you can have gear carried between camps by mule. [All food and supplies go in and out on mule. So the mule is going anyway and you are supporting the local economy!] It’s around 20,000 Colombia peso (COP) per bag for each leg (about $7 USD). Our strategy was to put most our gear (for the two of us) into a single pack to be carried on the mule. We then shared a single 20-liter pack between us to carry our minimal gear while trekking during the day.
- A simple and inexpensive 10-20 liter daypack works just fine — you probably own one. A mesh/vented back panel is desirable as you’ll be sweating tons hiking uphill in the heat. While not cheap, we found our Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20, with its breathable mesh back and numerous pockets ideal.
- We strongly recommend a few light dry bags to keep gear in your pack dry — especially, cameras, electronics and important documents like your passport, etc. And these dry bags should have a valve-free air expelling design for compact packing.
- Trekking poles make it much easier to negotiate sections of muddy/slippery trail and river crossings. They are far lighter and more functional than the single wooden staff most trekkers use. We took these inexpensive but excellent carbon fiber trekking poles. They are ideal for travel as they compact to fit into carry-on luggage.
- You’ll want a good headlamp. It gets dark at 18:00 and most areas of camp are unlit.
Finally, this is a trip to take pictures!
- If you are serious about photography, you’ll want to bring a very good camera, and have a strategy that allows you to shoot in light or intermittent rain.
Gear for La Ciudad Perdida Trek
|Clothing||and insect repellents||See Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing below for our clothing list and strategy for avoiding mosquito and other bug bites|
|Day Pack||Just about any 10-20 liter pack||If you are sending most of your gear on a mule: We shared an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20|
|Backpack for all your gear||30 to 40+ liter backpack||If you are carrying ALL your gear (NO mule): See Recommended Lightweight Backpacks. Since food and bed are provided you can get by with a smaller/lighter pack.|
|Dry bags||These inexpensive dry bags||to keep gear in your pack dry — especially, cameras, electronics and important documents like your passport, etc. and these dry bags have a valve-free air expelling design for compact packing|
|Trek poles||Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon||15.2||Help on muddy/slippery trails. Pers favorites. 1/3 price but equal to the best poles|
|Water bottle||SoftBottle Water Bottle||One liter is fine. Can use standard commercial bottle. Or collapsable ones like these|
|Camera||Camera Equipment||You’ll want a good one. See Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras|
|Earplugs||Foam Earplugs NRR 33||If sensitive to noise. Tight sleeping quarters.|
|Charging||EasyAcc USB Battery (5.4)||Charge iPhone 6s ~3x, iPhone 6s Plus or Samsung Galaxy s6 ~2x (5,500 mAh, actual!)|
|Electronics||An excellent kit for travel||See “Best Lightweight Travel/Backpacking Electronics Gear” for both on and off trail use|
|Headlamp||Black Diamond Ion (54g)||1.9||Light and bright. Use around camp and in unlit sleeping areas. It gets dark at 18:00.|
|Headlamp||Black Diamond Iota||Weather sealed. Bright 150 lumens. Can be recharged in the field! E.g the EasyAcc battery pack. Reduce battery waste, and see better!|
|Toilet paper||In waterproof Ziplock bag||TP not always at toilets in camp.|
|Sanitizer||Travel size alcohol sanitizer||For use when water/soap not available|
|Soap||Dr. Bronners||0.5||Dr. Bronner’s – repackaged into small bottle|
|Towel||PackTowl Personal Towel||Fast drying. Get one less than 100g (3 oz)|
|Sunscreen||small plastic tube about 1/2 full||0.5||for face & hands: most of body covered—large hat|
|Sunglasses||mostly not needed in shaded jungle|
|Lip balm||Bert’s Bees or similar||0.2||Minimal wt for dedicated lip balm|
|First Aid Kit||Meds, wound/injury, foot care||3.0||A small personal kit|
|Headnet||Sea to Summit Head Net (1.2)||Mosquito netting – don’t take on most trips|
|Insect repell.||Sawyer Picaridin or DEET for skin||0.5 oz pump is airline OK, small, pocketable, and easily applied in field. Picardin also in lotion|
|Knife/scissors||Wescott blunt tip school scissors||0.9||More useful than knife – OK for plane carryon|
|Knife||Gerber L.S.T. Drop Point (1.2 oz)||Can cut bread and salami – very light for 2.6″ blade|
|Repair||Tenacious patch, duct tape, glue||0.2||Also consider Aquaseal and a NeoAir patch kit|
Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing
This is third world trekking in the tropical jungle with possible exposure to a number of diseases. The CDC recommends visiting your travel doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines or medicines you may need. As of this writing the CDC was recommending for the La Ciudad Perdida area, vaccinations/medicines for Hepatitis A, Yellow Fever, Typhoid and Malaria, in addition to “routine travel vaccines.” (Zika is also present in Colombia. As of 2016, it cannot be prevented by medications or vaccines.)
Your first and best strategy for not contracting insect transmitted diseases is not to get bitten in the first place
Per the CDC’s section for travelers on “Maximizing protection from mosquitoes and ticks:”
- We chose to wear long sleeve shirts and full-length pants factory-treated with insect repellent (permethrin). Pre treated clothing has near-permanent effectiveness (clothing treated before purchase is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings). You can also treat your own clothing with a Permethrin spray (Sawyer) which lasts up to 6 weeks (or 6 washings).
- You’ll want a change of dry clothing reserved for camp use only*. We recommend long sleeve shirts and full-leg insect treated pants as insects are active in camp.
- Some may also choose to wear insect repellent treated socks, altho in our case our pants draped sufficiently over our shoes.
- To complete the insect repellent treatment for 100% of our body, we applied insect repellent to the unprotected areas of our hands, neck and face; DEET (or the newer Picaridin which doesn’t degrade clothing or plastics). We prefer airline friendly 0.5 pump sprays, which are small, pocketable and easily applied in the field. And as always, follow the product’s directions!
- Per the CDC apply sunscreen before applying insect repellent.
- Washing clothes: There’s a great swimming hole at camp Wiwah. You don’t really need a swimsuit. Alan swam in his hiking shorts commando. Alison swam in her running bra and underwear (very close to matching). It was a great way to rise out/wash hiking clothes. It’s a great way to rinse sweat and salt off your body and out of your hiking clothes. Otherwise you can wash clothes in the camp in the evening.
* Note: We took two set of insect repellent pants and shirts — one pair exclusively for hiking, and one pair reserved for dry/camp use only. The reason is that hiking clothes will get wet with rain and/or sweat during the day and will not dry completely overnight. In the morning we just put on our damp hiking clothes (they will be dry in 30-60 minutes from your body heat), and put our dry camp clothes back in our packs. That way we always had dry camp clothes to change into. Bliss!
Clothing and Insect Protection (a light set that won’t weigh you down)
|Shirt hiking||RailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s Oasis||10.0||Our favorite: Light, cool, sun protection AND continuous insect repellent. Nice pockets.|
|Shirt (camp)||Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’s||Also good, widely available via Amazon and other retailers like REI Continuous insect repellent.|
|Pants (hiking or camp)||RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect Shield||10.0||RailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. Continuous insect repellent.|
|Pants hiking||ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’s||16.0||Avail in both M’s and W’s. Light, cool, sun protection. Continuous insect repellent.|
|Insect repellent||Sawyer Picaridin or DEET for skin||0.5 oz pump is airline OK, small, pocketable, and easily applied in field. Picardin also in lotion|
|Insect repellent||Sawyer Permethrin, treat clothing||Allows you to treat your current clothing. Lasts up to 6 weeks (or 6 washings).|
|Rain Jacket*||Outdoor Research Helium II|
or inexpensive REI Coop
|6.4||Great for staying dry when in camp. Likely too hot to wear hiking except downhill.|
|Fleece shirt||North Face TKA 100 1/4-Zip||7.9||Light and compact travel garment. For warmth in camp at night and sleeping. Good pillow!|
|Underwear||Patagonia briefs Mens|
Patagonia briefs Women’s
|2.0||Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days|
|Bra||Patagonia Active spots bra||Alison’s favorite|
|Hat insect||Exofficio Bugsaway Hat||Sun and additional insect protection for head|
|Hat regular||Outdoor Research Sun Runner Hat||2.5||Removable sun cape. Adaptable to most situations|
|Shoes hiking||Lightweight trail running shoes||Boots not desirable! Most non-Goretex trail running shoes that fit. You probably own a pair.|
|Shoes sugg.|| Altra Superior Trail-Running|
(or Lone Peaks)
|18.0||Light. Huge toe room. Super comfortable!|
|Shoes sugg.||Inov-8 ROCLITE 295 (20oz)||Another favorite. Light, sticky rubber, durable.|
|Shoessugg.||Brooks Cascadia (25 oz)||Popular trail shoe, available many stores|
|camp footwear||Sandals for showering/camp||Put insect repellent on your feet after showering or use with socks to wear around camp|
|Socks||Inexpensive cotton M’s and W’s|
(bring 3 to 4 pairs)
|Socks get dirty & stinky fast in the muddy jungle. Best to wear cheap ones & use as rags after the trip. [Can treat with Permethrin if you want.]|
|Gaiters||Dirty Girl gaiters (1.2 oz)||1.2||Optional, but does seal ankles against tick entry. Tucking pants into socks also works.|
|Swimsuit||If you don’t want to swim in your clothes. See washing clothes above.|
*Note: You don’t absolutely need a rain jacket. But it’s nice for getting around camp when it’s raining. Or when you are hiking long downhills in torrential rain. Otherwise it’s too hot and the rain is refreshing.
As noted earlier we chose to go with an indigenous tour company. Our guiding company, Wiwa Tour is owned and operated by the Wiwa indigenous group, descendants of the Tairona who built the city. Other tour companies are below. All tour companies operate out of Santa Marta.
Note that many of these tours will be in Spanish. You may need to make arrangement for an English language tour or an interpreter
Transportation, Getting to Trip Start
- NOTE as of 2020: There are now direct flights from Bogota into Santa Marta. You can arrange pick up at the airport with the guides.
- From the US, it’s easiest to fly into Cartagena.
- At the airport (as long as it is before about 8:00pm), you can take a taxi to one of several buses that will take you to Santa Marta. The information desk at the airport can assist in getting a taxi to bus services. (Alternatively, stay a few days in Cartagena and get used to the hot weather.)
- It’s about a 4-hour drive to Santa Marta and the roads can be busy at any time of day. You’ll go through the city of Barranquilla (Colombia’s 4th largest) and will experience heavy traffic there unless it’s off-peak.
- The most attractive options we found were buses leaving from near the airport: Marsol for COP 30,000/pp and has a set schedule leaving about 5-6 times per day. Last bus at 4pm. Berlinas, which has good WiFi on-board (COP 40,000/pp) and seems to leave about every 30 minutes from 5am ish to 8pm ish–the Marbella Office is 10 minutes from the Airport.
- If you go to the Main Bus Terminal in Cartagena, you will find the cheapest buses to Santa Marta. But it will take a lot more time to get to Santa Marta. It’s a long way from the airport to the Main Terminal and the cheapest buses make more stops.
- The trek starts in Santa Marta. Most treks start between 8-9am from the trekking company’s office.
- At that point, any unpaid balance is paid and then trekkers are loaded up in the back of a jeep for a 3-hour drive. The jeep’s not very comfortable and packs go on top of the car (our driver covered packs with garbage bags when it started to rain).
- The jeep then leaves the main road and begins an hour long ascent to El Mamey on a narrow and bumpy dirt road. At El Mamey, after lunch, the hike begins.
- As noted, at this point if you’d like to use the mules to carry your gear, let the guides know and they can help to organize that for you (it was about $20,000 COP/day).
What Camps Are Like (sleeping)
NOTE as of 2020: Reports are that camps have been completely overhauled and now are, in fact, very nice. Its not what we found but hope that this is indeed the case.
This far from a luxury trip. Camps are minimal. Open walled shelters–many with dirt floors. Netted sleeping bunks (or hammocks). Cold showers and flush toilets. Some camps have very limited electricity (lighting and a few outlets for the whole camp), and other camps have no electricity. See Best Backpacking and Travel electronics Gear to keep your electronics charged and running whether there is electricity or not. Sleeping quarters are tight and you may want to wear earplugs at night.
Note: Although we did not have problems, we did hear a report of insect bites (fleas? bedbugs?) in the bunks at Camp 2 (Wiwa).
Food and Water
Simple, local food is served on the trek. You get breakfast, lunch and dinner in camps and there are two fruit/snack stops during the day. Portion sizes are about right. Food is prepared in a very basic, outdoor cooking area. We ate and drank what they gave us and did fine with no problems.We did not need to treat water. There is free purified water in all the camps housed in large containers (but ask before just to make sure it has been purified!).
Detailed Daily Itinerary and Map (4 Day Tour)
While daily hiking distances are modest, this is not a flat trek with easy trails. The tropical heat and humidity make the days seem longer and harder. Most folks in our group managed fine, but some sections of the trail are steeply up and down. Some sections are deeply eroded, rutted, and wet. There are more than a few muddy, slippery or rocky sections. There are a number of river crossings. And note that wet rocks (and stairs) can be insane slippery!
Note: Guides set the schedule of when you arrive and leave rest stops and camps. As such, your personal hiking speeds/times are likely not relevant. However, we did not hike as one group. The faster hikers arrived at the rest stops earlier, and left the rest stops before the slower hikers were ready to leave.
Daily Itinerary for 4 Day Tour
Note 1: most days we woke before dawn, breakfasted and start hiking around daylight (about 6 am). This was to avoid hiking in the heat of the day and to hopefully arrive in camp before the afternoon/evening rain.
Note 2: Guides set the schedule of when you arrive and leave rest stops and camps. As such, your personal hiking speeds/times are likely not relevant. However, we did not hike as one group. The faster hikers arrived at the rest stops earlier, and left the rest stops before the slower hikers were ready to leave.
Day 1 – ½ day hiking to Adán – 7.6 km (4.7 mi) 1,900 ft ascent, 900 ft descent
Text descriptions below are adapted from Wiwa Tour and we’ve left some obvious grammatical errors. Our notes/corrections are in  brackets.
We start from the oldest city in Colombia, Santa Marta at 8:30 am in a heated [I think they mean air conditioned] van to the sector Aguacatera, there perform transshipment to a 4 × 4 vehicle [No transfer. We took a single 4×4 vehicle all the way from Santa Marta to El Mamey. No A/C in the vehicle but not really needed.] that will lead us towards the sector mamey (Machete Pelao) in there we will have lunch. After lunch we start a walk of 7.6 km to the first camp (Adan hut, peasant community) where we spend the night. We will also make a stop in a crystal clear river for a refreshing bath. Some people complete the walk in 3 hours, others in 5, all depends on your physical condition. During the night, the Indian guide will talk about the history and customs of their community and the region.
[It is full sun and can be very hot hiking steeply uphill in the first afternoon. But there is strong sun is only the first ½ day and last ½ day (Mamey to Adan section). Otherwise you are in the jungle and could get by without a hat or sunglasses depending on your preference.]
Day 2 – to Paradise Camp – 14.7 km (9.1 mi) 3500 ft ascent, 2000 ft descent
Begin a walk of about 8 hours, halfway visit the indigenous community of Mutanzhi and we interact with them, then get to the cabin 3. (Paradise cabin Teyuna, indigenous community). Located at an altitude of 830 meters above sea level, here we are at the foot of Teizhuna (Teyuna), the holy city of the Tayrona. On this tour we will appreciate much of the fauna and flora of our Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. In the afternoon we can relax and take a bath in the river. At night the guide will tell you more about Lost City and its sacred meaning for the natives of the Sierra.
Day 3 – to the Lost City, then return to Wiwa camp – 12 km (7.5 miles) 1800 ft ascent, 3500 ft descent
After breakfast we depart at 7 a.m. to Lost City. To reach the holy city will go up by 1200 steps built by the ancient Tayrona. After about an hour we reach the city and take a journey through the different sacred sites of this. There, the Mamo (Indian spiritual leader) sacred stories tell us and give us advice for life. At 11 a.m. back to the cabin 3 for lunch. After lunch we start down 5 to 6 hours to camp 2 (cabin Mumake, indigenous community [actually Camp Wiwa]) where we spend the night.
Day 4 – ½ day hiking to El Mamey, Return to Santa Marta – 12.7 km (7.9 mi) 2200 ft ascent, 3000 ft descent
In hours of the morning to the Mamey (Machete Pelao), in the way we visit a small natural waterfall to freshen up and take a bath. Arriving at the mamey take lunch, then we collect the vehicle that will take us to the avocado industry [no avocado tour], we will take a heated van that will take us back to Santa Marta. arrival at approximately 4:00 pm.