What is Ciudad Perdida?
Some people think of Ciudad Perdida (which literally translates to “Lost City”) as the Inca Trail of Colombia. That’s probably not a very fair comparison however as despite both being 4/5 day treks to ancient cities, the similarities mostly end there.
With a stunning backdrop of luscious rainforest and a waterfall appearing to descend from the clouds there’s an element of magic which is quite fitting for a city which has been hidden for so long. It spans several platforms, the topmost one where everyone takes that photo (we did too…) however the whole site is so much larger than the popular picture can capture. The local guides are able to reveal some of the more mysterious looking structures and their uses, such as pits for prisons, to the old inhabitants. Adultery was really not a good idea in the old town…
The ruins are found in Sierra Nevada, after a 4 to 6 day trek depending on your preference. It’s believed to have been built 700 – 800 AD by the Tairona people. Similar to its Inca counterpart the downfall of the city was brought about by the arrival of the Spanish, however it was actually built 600 – 700 years before. Whilst not purposefully destroyed the city was abandoned by its inhabitants due to a bout of smallpox and Syphillis brought. It was at this time the city gained its famous name as the Lost City, as no one ventured here again until the 1970s when it was found by a couple of opportunistic looters.
It’s since been a source of wonder for many intrepid travellers, however in the earlier days of the trek freelance TV producer Mark Henderson of London made his way to the lost city only to be kidnapped by paramilitary group ELN. He was freed 101 days later. Our guides told us these stories as we walked towards the city but were quick to ensure us there’s no such risk now. The site has been clear of paramilitary activity since 2005 so whatever you do, don’t think of it as a risky move – it’s really not!
- Our provider: Turcol Tours
- Cost: $235 (now costs $310)
- Number of days: 4/5/6, we chose 4
- Pick up point: Santa Marta, from your hostel
Another difference you’ll notice if you decide to make the journey to Ciudad Perdida is that the swathes of groups and tours you see on the Inca Trail aren’t present here, which makes the whole trip feel that much more special. With only 4 companies licensed to run the trek (at the time of writing), from what we hear they’re much of a muchness. After reading far too many reviews online about which operator to go with we decided to book through Turcol tours in the end as it looked like they’d have the best chance of an English speaking guide. Our Spanish was passable at best at the time… But as it turned out we ended up with a guide with very limited English!
In hindsight I think this was a good thing. Not only did it force us to practice our embarrassingly poor Spanish but all too often it felt like backpackers in south America just expected people to speak English, when really the onus should be on us as people lucky enough to visit these fantastic places to put effort into communicating with locals.
We paid $235 for the 4 day trek and this covered everything we needed, spare the tips and the odd much needed sugar rush of a Gatorade at the top of some of the bigger climbs. Its worth nothing though that Turcol have since increased their prices to $310 and we can only see the trend continuing as the site gains more and more attention.
We chose the 4 day trek having looked at the respective itineraries and deciding not only was it feasible, but with only 3 weeks in Colombia we didn’t want to take any more time out of our stay. For what it’s worth, you could spend months in Colombia and never run out of things to do and see, 3 weeks really wasn’t enough. As the trek progressed we were sure we’d made the right choice, the people who stayed on for 5 days added and extra day on the leg home when, after 3 days of humid heat and putting wet socks on we were more than happy to trek a little longer to get in the shower sooner.
When we booked our trek we booked online in advance, although people we met on the trek had no problems booking in Santa Marta without loads of notice. That said – it’s probably worth booking in advance anyway to avoid disappointment (and in our experience the prices online weren’t inflated).
- Distance travelled: 8 km
- AM walking time: –
- PM walking time: 3hrs
We were picked up from our hostel at 8am and taken to the Turcol office in a swanked out Mercedes, which unfortunately turned into a quite crowded jeep truck when we got to the office and loaded up with other backpackers (can’t blame us for hoping?!). Then we had a 2 and a half hour drive to the start of the trek, where we met the 5 other people who’d be in our group. After a stock up on fresh orange juice and a few cocadas blancas – wonderfully sweet local snacks made almost entirely of sugar. We arrived at the village where we would start our trek and had some fresh cooked fish, rice and water. Then we were in our way!
Although it was mentioned elsewhere when we were researching that we’d need a walking stick we’d decided to not bother, and managed to both find a perfectly suitable stick within the first hour. Also if you’re lucky enough as we were, you’ll catch a few people handing over whatever they’d found (as the start and end point is the same).
We hiked for 1 and a half hours on what was most likely one of the stepeest ascents of the trip, then stopped at a viewpoint for the first of many beautiful photo opportunities.
We then hiked a further 2 hours to the first campsite, where we stayed with around another 30 odd trekkers. The campsites themselves are surprisingly pretty – not only can you buy beer there (jackpot!) but each has its own beautiful watering hole. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves but whatever you do, make sure you come prepared to swim as the water is gorgeous and just what you need after a days trek!
After swimming we settled in for dinner and all climbed into our outside hostel type beds. The mattresses are a little worn… But for all intents and purposes did the job – no one had trouble sleeping!
- Distance travelled: 15 km
- AM walking time: 4 hrs
- PM walking time: 3 hrs
The second day started nice and early, with breakfast at 7am. With this being the first full day we covered a good distance, so by the end of the day we would get to the base of Ciudad Perdida.
We definitely climbed the most uphill this day. Also worth mentioning almost every big hill straightened out at the top only to reveal another daunting climb, this will be the toughest day of the trek! That said the views are some of the most spectacular as if you’re lucky enough as we were to get caught in a storm you’ll be literally above and within the clouds when you reach the peaks.
The watering hole on the second day is located where you’ll have lunch (you’ll stay here on the third day) and it’s another beautiful spot, but the water is freezing!
We stopped here for a good 90 mins and then continued through a native town called Mutanyi and hiked up to the second campsite, where we were greeted with crisps and popcorn, a well earned comforting treat.
This was a much bigger site than the first but unfortunately was lacking in swimming spots – that said it was straight to bed for most of us as the hiking that day was enough to knock us out.
Again, we slept in hostel style bunk beds (equally worn), and also had a cold shower available with a slight queue.
- Distance travelled: 8 km
- AM walking time: 3 hrs (Ciudad Tour)
- PM walking time: 3hrs
Ciudad Perdida day! An early rise at 6am gave us time for breakfast and to pack our day packs, however we were able to leave the rest of our belongings at the campsite to return later in the afternoon.
We left around 7am and made our way to the base of the lost city, which took around an hour, with some great river crossings for photos along the way!
By 8am we were greeted with the first set of steps, overly slippy and steep, carved out of centuries old stone. Whilst impressive to look at, it’s worth taking this part easy and minding your footing as they would make for a very painful fall back down…
After a half hour climb we arrived at the base of Ciudad Perdida, where we met our guide, some local Kogi people. This is where the first of the two classic Ciudad Perdida photos is taken, with a number of different groups.
Our guide turned photographer seemed comfortable enough with about 30 cameras and smartphones around his neck, so after a long time posing it’s time for the final stretch.
Then venturing to the top of the (almost) final set of stairs, we were given some background on the site by the local Kogi people And all took part in a welcoming ritual in order to enter the city.
We then spent around 2 hours at the site, with the guides there to showing us around and talking us through the history behind it. This was followed by some time to have an explore ourselves of the main part. Its worth noting though that you can only walk through the path into the city once so it’s worth taking as many snaps as you go in as possible! Your guides should tell you this though.
The tour of the city gives fantastic insight into the lives of the once residents, with remaining structures including food storehouses, prison cells and living quarters. Without wanting to spoil too much, the site itself is better than any museum or single artefact you’ll find elsewhere in Colombia (and possibly the world, but we won’t open that can of worms).
When we had finished exploring the lost city it was back to the same campsite for lunch, picked up our things and were on our way. We walked back to the same spot we had lunch on day 2 through another storm, and spent the night there.
- Distance travelled: 15 km
- AM walking time: 4hrs
- PM walking time: 4hrs
Put simply, day 4 was all about getting back to Santa Marta as fast as our weary legs could take us. We left at 8am, walked exactly the same route back, and had a snack at the same campsite we slept on day 1.
For people wanting to do the 5 day trek, you’ll leave at 11am and then spend a further night at the same campsite as day 1. By this point however, we were glad to get home as quick as possible so wouldn’t recommend the 5 day trek.
We had lunch at the same restaurant we started the trek at and headed back to Santa Marta to the hostel for a much needed shower and rest…