Based deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains off the Caribbean coast of Colombia, lie the mystical ancient ruins of “Teyuna”. Sitting at an elevation of 1200 meters (3900 ft) above sea level and surrounded by an emerald green rainforest that is bursting with wildlife, the La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) is a sight to behold.
Built by the Tayronas in 800AD (approximately 600 years before the Incas built Machu Picchu), across a series of terraces high in the clouds, these ancient ruins have significant spiritual, historical and cultural importance for the indigenous communities and descendants of the Tayronas. Whilst it was built long before the Spanish invasion, the inhabitants abandoned the city when it came close to being discovered, to avoid a takeover by the colonialists.
Since this point, The Lost City has remained hidden in the depths of the jungle, until the ruins were discovered in the 1970s by intrepid treasure hunters. Tomb raiders stole most of the gold and valuable artifacts leaving very little of its history. Today, tourists are taken by local inhabitants on a 3-6 day hike to this archaeological jewel, in the hope of educating them about the culture and the importance of preserving this sacred place. In order to ensure the site is not damaged by too many tourists visiting each year, there are only four official tour operators that are allowed to take tourists to The Lost City ~ but choose wisely, some are better than others. We would suggest going with one that works with indigenous guides to give back to the local communities and who really understand the importance of this sacred site.
I recommend going with Guias y Baquianos Tours, who leave from Santa Marta. You can choose to do a 4, 5 or 6 day hike. The difference is usually a relaxed second day and shorting trekking times spread across the other days. The cost is the same at COL$1,100,000 (€313 / $354), so if you wanted to spend more time immersed in the Sierra Nevada forest, away from civilisation, why not take your time!?
Guias y Baquianos Tours were incredible. The Guias y Baquianos Tour agency is located inside Hotel Miramar in the town of Santa Marta. Set up in 1989, this tour agency is one of the first to offer treks to the Ciudad Perdida. They only use local guides, often those who have settlements or originate from the indigenous communities inside the Sierra Nevada forest and with years of experience under their belt. By using the Guias y Baquianos Tour agency, you are supporting and contributing to the indigenous communities of the region, supporting them financially and helping with the education of their families. You will also be playing a critical role in contributing to the research, conservation and maintenance of the Archaeological Park by ICANH (Colombian National Institute of Anthropology and History). You can contact them on: +57 5 431 9667 / 316 745 8947 for more information, LIKE them on Facebook or follow the links in this article to check out their different tours.
Our guide Carlos was exceptional and so wise! We also had an excellent translator, Andres Zubieta. After studying Finance and International Trade in Bogota, and spending some time in Ireland, Andres started working with the Guias y Baquianos Tour agency, really igniting his passion for Anthropology and exploring different cultures. Since working the Wiwa and Kogui tribes, Andres has learnt and explored spiritual beliefs as well as finding a personal connection with the Mother Earth and creating a non profit organisation to help the indigenous communities; so from his personal and professional experience living and working with the indigenous communities, he is able to give a really valuable insight into how the local communities live; their values and beliefs. The food provided on the trek was delicious and the whole 4 days ran seamlessly. I came from Minca and booked through Casa Lomas with two new friends I had made in Medellin. We were picked up early in the morning at 6.30am and driven to Santa Marta and the Guias y Baquianos Tour office. After packing our small backpacks (we left our large backpacks at the tour office), we headed off in our 4WD jeeps.
At 8am our 4WD jeeps left Santa Marta and headed into the hills, towards Mamey (Machete Pelao) You spend 1 hour in the jeep, before arriving at a dirt track leading into the mountains. You then spend a further 1.5 hours driving along an incredibly bumpy road. It is an experience in itself! You will arrive in a place called Mamey (Machete Pelao), where you will have a delicious lunch before beginning the hike. For the first day, you walk around 4-5 hours (7.6km / 4.7 miles) before you reach your camp for the night. There are a few tough hills to climb, but the beauty surrounding you occupies your mind easily. It is breathtaking ~ like no scenery or landscape I have seen before. When you reach your first camp, there is the opportunity to take a shower (although cold) before sitting down with your group for dinner. This is a great time to really get to know the people in your group and who you will be walking with for 4 days. We had an amazing team of 12 and over the 4 days we became like a ‘family’.
The first camp was fantastic. Each of the beds had a mosquito net and they were really comfortable to sleep in. Whilst the showers were cold, they were a welcome relief after an intense day of hiking in the heat and humidity, and the food provided was exceptional. I asked for vegetarian food, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. I had stuffed peppers, frittata, arepas, mixed rice dishes ~ lots of variety. The tour does offer water, but I suggest bringing your own if you have a weak stomach and bring some water purification tablets or use an Ultrification water bottle. You can never be too careful and at the time we did the trek, we had heard about a lot of people getting food poisoning (none of our group did). After a game of cards, it is early to bed, ready for a 5am start.
Day 2 is one of the longest days of trekking, around 10 hours (15km / 9 miles) but it is beautiful. As you venture deeper into the dense rainforest, you begin to lose yourself in an oasis of wildlife and waterfalls. You pass through open fields and local farms, cross babbling brooks and rivers, wind along jungle paths and have the option to cool off in little watering holes along the way. You will have lunch at campsite 2 (The Wiwa Camp) meeting the indigenous community of the Wiwa’s and refresh in the waters of the Buritaca River. Once fed and watered (quite literally), you will continue on, learning about the indigenous culture of the tribes in the Sierra Nevada as you go. You will spend the night at the El Paraiso camp which located close to the base of The Lost City.
The second camp is a little more basic than the first and more overcrowded, but it is still comfortable and as clean as it can be in the middle of a rainforest. You can take a shower here or wash in a neighbouring river, listening to the sound of birds as you breath it all in (biodegradable soap only please!) The food was again delicious, and there is the added bonus of a HUGE bowl of popcorn. Early to bed again because you are rising at 4am!
Setting off in the dark with nothing but your head torch and the sound of the jungle slowly waking up around you, is a magical experience and not one I will forget in a hurry. You head will cross rivers and edge yourself carefully along narrow winding paths, before you reach the 1,200 stone stairs that will take you up to the terraces of The Lost City. Although the climb is tough, especially if it is raining, it is only an hour, and the pure excitement of reaching the The Lost City is enough to keep you going.
Once you reach the top of the stairs, your guide will welcome you to The Lost City. If you are lucky, you will be the first group up there and it is mesmerising. You are literally floating in the clouds, perched on a site that is thousands of years old, holding such a strong historical and cultural significance.
The Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco and Kankumo indigenous tribes are descendants of the Tayronas, who very much carry on the traditions and teachings of their ancestors. Your local guide will take you through a journey and explain the importance of the sacred site, the different terraces and what it represents to them and their culture. N.B The indigenous communities and the local guides wear white cotton to represent the purity of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
You will spend around 1 hour up the top exploring all the different areas and breathing in the clean air, watching the site change as the light slowly rises. You will then head back to the El Paraiso camp where you will have lunch before continuing on to the Wiwa camp from day two, where you will spend the night. This is a long day as you are up super early, but worth it when you think about what you have just seen and experienced. In total you will walk around 15km (9 miles). Enjoy it. It is a once in a lifetime experience.
Evening in the Wiwa Campsite: This was absolutely magical. After a communal dinner you are ushered into a traditional ceremonial wooden hut, where your guides give a presentation on their ancestral traditions. Fascinating and yet shocking in parts (because their traditions are so far removed from Westernised cultures, like their coming of age ceremony), it is an evening to remember. There is lots of music played with traditional instruments and singing and the evening finishes with a ceremonial dance where everyone can get involved.
You will leave the Wiwa camp early and head back to Mamey, you will walk for around 8 hours this day, covering 13km (8 miles). There are some tough terrains with a particularly brutal uphill climb at one point. But there is a stop at a swimming hole and stunning waterfall, to relax and refresh, before making your way back to the very first stop of the hike. Here you can have a shower and enjoy a delicious lunch with your new found family.
Once you have finished lunch, you will take a minibus or 4x4 Jeep back to Santa Marta where you will continue on to the next phase of your travel journey :)
Whilst exploring The Lost City is an incredible experience, Andres Zubieta from the Guias y Baquianos Tour agency gives us a valuable insight into the things that we must be mindful of when exploring this sacred wonder:
The negative impact of tourism:
- The indigenous communities are actually getting sick because the introduction and consumption of industrial/processed food.
- The indigenous communities feel like they are losing their traditions and beliefs. Whilst they still uphold most, there are some that have been compromised by tourism out of necessity and an economic strain.
- The forest has been negatively effected, in terms of cutting down the vegetation to make pathways for tourists and the disruption to nature.
- With exposure to the Western world, unfortunately the indigenous communities have also been exposed to alcohol and recreational drug use.
The positive impact of tourism:
- The traditions and beliefs of the indigenous communities are being exposed to the world, allowing us to learn about their culture and history and appreciate the sacred sight of The Lost City.
- The work of Guias y Baquianos Tour agency and "The Lost City tour" is really helping the indigenous communities, as well as the local farmers who us to be in conflict with the military and paramilitaries groups. The presence of tour guides and groups, helps relax this aggression.
- Tourism really does bring a stable income for the local communities and helps them live more comfortably.
- Tourism helps gather and find otherwise lost information, by investing resources and money.
The Lost City trek is not technical but it can be difficult in parts, with long uphill climbs and some steep descents. At this point on my trip, I had never done a multi day trek and I was absolutely fine, so I am sure you will be too! What makes it difficult is the heat, humidity and bugs! Be prepared to sweat A LOT and get munched on by pesky mosquitoes. Take your time, drink plenty of water and shower in bug spray that is high in deet. If you are really worried about your fitness and the difficulty, opt to do it in 5-6 days instead of 4. The pace is a lot slower so it may be more enjoyable for you. Another thing to note, and this is season dependent, it can rain a lot in the jungle. Come prepared with waterproof clothing and spare clothing, nothing dries in the humidity of the jungle!
- You are carrying your backpack for 4 (potentially 6) days so PACK LIGHT! I took a 15 litre bag and that was fine (although full to the brim!) See my suggested packing list below.
- Bring snacks. Although there are fruit stalls along the way, you are walking a lot and so I found three meals didn’t quite cut it, but then again, that’s me!
- Bring a sleeping sack. I didn’t and I spent most of my time worrying about bed bugs. Remember you are in the middle of the jungle and the beds are probably not changed all that often.
- If you like listening to music when you walk, bring an Ipod. You walk at your own pace, so if you find yourself ahead or behind the rest of the group, it may be nice to listen to music and loose yourself in the surroundings.
- Take Vitamin B tablets at least two weeks before. This changes something in your blood which makes you less attractive to the mosquitoes ~ I promise you, it works!
In the region, there are two seasons. The dry season runs from December through to March and the wet season runs from April to November. Treks to The Lost City are offered all year round but, I highly recommend going during the dry season.
- The dry season offers beautiful clear blue skies, low rivers (which are perfect for crossing) and a chance soak up the rays when relaxing at the waterholes. However, it is extremely hot and humid, with temperatures reaching in excess of 30°C (86°F).
- In the wet season, the rivers are higher and with faster flowing water, they can be difficult to cross, but the guides are always on hand to help. The trails also become more slippery and the stone stairs up to The Lost City have to be approached with caution and at a slower pace.
Whether you go in wet or dry season, there will be alot of bugs and mosquitoes. Bring some high percentage DEET with you and go for a local brand like Nopikex which you can get from a local pharmacy in Santa Marta / Colombia (it is a white bottle with an image of a mosquito on the front). You can also wear mosquito bands and bracelets which reduce the chance of being bitten.
- 4 x t-shirts or vests
- 1 x trekking pants
- 1 x trekking shorts
- 2 x socks (preferable waterproof)
- 1 x hiking shoes (either boots or shoes are fine, as long as they have good grip and support)
- 1 x flip flops for the evenings and showers.
- 1 x set of evening clothes post shower and for bed (pack a long sleeve top)
- 1 x jumper or warm jacket (for the evenings and at the top of The Lost City where it is cold!)
- 1 x waterproof jacket or rain poncho
- 4 x underwear
- 1 x bathing suit
- Waterproof cover for your backpack
- Sleeping sack
- Earplugs and eye mask
- Head torch
- Quick dry towel
- Deodorant / shampoo (make sure it is ecologically friendly)
- Basic first aid kit (plasters, paracetamol, re-hydration sachets, vitamin C, Immodium)
- Hand sanitiser
- Tissues or baby wipes
- Vitamin B Complex ~ I would suggest taking this only if you have been taking if for 2 weeks or more. It helps with the mosquito's as they don’t like the taste of blood when B-1 Thianmine is present. Sounds silly, but believe me, it works!
- Battery pack and cables
- Life Straw. This is an amazing accessory to have when you are trekking and a cheap alternative to buying water along the way, it also saves on buying plastic bottles and for every purchase, a child in a developing country, receives clean drinking water for 1 school year!
- Bags for your wet clothes
The Lost City trek was a real highlight for us, and we really hope it is for you too.
The scenery is breath taking and the tour offers critical insights into the indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada, topped off with the awe inspiring sight of The Lost City. But it is not a walk in the park. There is some tough terrains and uphill climbs and if you go in dry season, which I recommend, it is hot and sweaty. But it is an unbelievable experience, and one you are sure to never forget!