Ciudad Perdida: The spectacular five-day trek to Colombia’s Lost City

Backpackers in Colombia are divided into two groups: those who have made the exhausting five-day trek to Ciudad Perdida, and those who haven’t.

Dating from the 800s, Ciudad Perdida (literally “Lost City”) was once home to as many as four thousand Tayrona Indians, but its ruins were hidden by dense forest until grave robbers re-discovered the city in 1973 (and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down). Located on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range near Colombia’s northern coast, Ciudad Perdida’s ruins are as impressive as they are remote, containing about 170 stone terraces that were once the foundations for Tayrona houses, markets, and ritual sites.

If the thought of hiking into the remote Colombian forest brings to mind images of armed guerrillas and paramilitaries, fear not. The trek to Ciudad Perdida is incredibly safe, as dozens of armed (and friendly — see photo) military personnel patrol the trail leading up to the ruins. In fact, Ciudad Perdida is probably one of the safest places in Colombia.

That’s not to say it’s always been that way. As recently as 2003, a guerrilla group known as the ELN kidnapped eight foreigners hiking to Ciudad Perdida and held them for three months. It wasn’t until 2005 that the military was sent in, allowing treks to the Lost City to resume safely.

The Lost City is accessible via a challenging but picturesque five-day trek that can be organized in the nearby tourist towns of Santa Marta and Taganga. Several companies operate tours to the ruins, including the highly-recommended Magic Tour and Turcol. (Incidentally, Edwin Rey, a guide for Turcol, was one of the people kidnapped by the ELN in 2003. He’s the one holding up the sign in the photo below. He’ll be happy to show you newspaper clippings about his improbable escape through the thick forest after only one day in captivity.) Your group could contain anywhere from six to twenty-two people; friends are easily made by all but the most awkward.
Though the ruins themselves are impressive, the tiring but gorgeous five-day trek is what sticks in most travelers minds. The trail is often muddy, frequently uphill, and occasionally slick, but it’s also entirely do-able, and often loads of fun. There are several river crossings and numerous places to go for a refreshing swim. Lonely Planet describes the hike as “challenging, but not mercilessly so,” and though that phrase may seem wildly off-base at times during the trek, upon further reflection most hikers will probably agree with it. Most days include about four to five hours of actual hiking, but breaks are frequent and there’s never any rush.

The tours themselves run a very reasonable US$220, a price that includes four nights accomodation in mosquito-netted hammocks or beds, plentiful and tasty meals, fresh fruit, cold showers, and potable water. Hikers should bring their own bug spray, sunscreen, flashlight, water bottles, and playing cards. Your shoes (please don’t bring sandals) will be wet for the duration of the hike. Quick-drying shirts, pants, and socks are worth their weight in gold.

A final note on fitness: If you’re in reasonably good shape, you can do this trek with little problem. Even if you’re not in that great of shape, you can still probably do it and have a good time. BUT, if you’re horribly out of shape (you know who you are), you could very well end up miserable for five days. If you’re debating whether to go, go! But if you’re reading this while eating your fifth donut of the morning, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For more on Ciudad Perdida, check this out. For other Colombian adventures, go here.