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THIS IS MY TRAIL
Andrew Westbrook
Andrew Westbrook is a travel journalist with a passion for escaping the crowds on remote, long-distance trails.

La Ciudad Perdida

The Lost City of Colombia

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The Lost City

Exploring the six-day Ciudad Perdida trek through deep South American jungle and mountains

La Ciudad Perdida, or The Lost City, is Colombia’s answer to Machu Picchu. These ancient ruins, however, are 650 years older than their Peruvian counterparts and are visited by less than 10,000 people a year, a number racked up by Machu Picchu every four days. Starting just inland from South America’s Caribbean coast, this there-and-back-again jungle trail winds deep into the Sierra Nevada mountains, reaching an altitude of 3,900 feet. The Ciudad Perdida trek measures just 29 miles, but the humid conditions, steep inclines and river crossings mean progress is generally slow and the walk tends to be done in four-to-six days.

  • Trail length: 29mi
  • Climb: 3300ft

Searching for Adventure

Stopping for a breather to admire a hovering hummingbird, I hear a rustle behind me and, looking back, see half a dozen indigenous Kogi people emerge from the thick Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta jungle. Wearing little more than their flowing black hair, Wellington boots and white smocks, they nod politely and hurry past, rapidly disappearing once more into the trees. Standing a couple of days’ hike from the nearest road and having not passed another tourist all morning, it would be easy to forget what century I’m in.

I’m on my way to La Ciudad Perdida, a place I’d first become aware of in 2003, during the final throes of Colombia’s dark days, when tales of guerrillas and cocaine still dominated this now thriving Latin American nation. That was the year that eight Lost City tourists were kidnapped and held for several months.

The terrifying human story (which fortunately had a happy ending) caught my attention, but it was the mysterious and simply stunning backdrop that took hold of my imagination.

A sprawling 9th Century settlement built among the clouds, Teyuna, as the Kogi call Ciudad Perdida, was abandoned during the Spanish conquest only to be rediscovered, by outsiders at least, in the 1970s. Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada peaks and a rainforest dense with orchids and toucans, the city has been standing, atop its 1,200 steps, for more than a millennium, its secrets guarded by the Kogi.

A calmer political situation and heavy military presence mean the Ciudad Perdida trek is thankfully much safer nowadays, but Teyuna is unlikely to see mass tourism any time soon. Hidden deep within mountainous jungle, the ruins are only accessible by foot, meaning an entry fee measured in mosquito bites and sweat. I knew it was a place I had to visit.

"Hidden deep within mountainous jungle, the ruins are only accessible by foot"

Into the Jungle

My journey to Ciudad Perdida begins in the coastal city of Santa Marta, the departure point of my Lost City guides, as it is for the majority of tour operators (you can only visit as part of an organized group).
Leaving the sparkling Caribbean behind, we travel by 4WD for a few hours, exchanging tropical waters for jungle-clad lowlands, and soon reach Machete Pelao, a village that, for us, marks the end of the road.

Immediately into the rainforest, the group chatters excitedly as we skip across streams and under towering trees, the humidity rapidly drenching us and attracting an army of hungry insects. We’re quickly at our first waterhole and, dodging the lurking spiders, gleefully strip off and splash around in the ice cool waters, trying to dismiss the nagging feeling it’s far too early to deserve such a treat.

Indeed we don’t have to wait long to miss that refreshing pool as we’re thrown straight into the Ciudad Perdida trek’s first major climb. Following a dramatic path with impenetrable green to one side and spectacular misty expanses to the other, we grind up a punishing ascent for several hours until reaching our home for the night, the Alfredo Hut, where a line of hammocks lies in wait under a simple tin roof. Luckily for those sleeping just inches to my side, another icy pool is just around the corner.

"we skip across streams and under towering trees, the humidity rapidly drenching us and attracting an army of hungry insects"

Stepping up

to the next level

I’m on a four-day trek (rather than the usual five- or six-day hikes), meaning the pace picks up on day two. Deeper into the jungle and into Kogi territory we go. It also becomes clearer that it’s June, meaning the start of the rainy season. The skies regularly open, drenching both the path and us. The muddy route, it seems, has just two variations – scrambling straight up or sliding vertically down.

On the rare flat sections we often pass the thatched huts of Kogi villages, whose inhabitants we see as often as other tourists. Now and then we reach the Buritaca River or one of its tributaries. Hiking boots off, we wade through the thigh-deep waters, glad we’re not a month or two later when the river would be chest deep and far more treacherous.

On day three we’re up at dawn, our destination within our grasp. There’s just the small matter of another river to cross and 1,200 ancient steps to climb first. But excitement numbs my burning legs as the slippery steps, worn smooth from centuries of use, lead us up, up and up through the clouds to our hallowed destination, La Ciudad Perdida.

"The muddy route, it seems, has just two variations - scrambling straight up or sliding vertically down."

Lost and found

Emerging from the undergrowth, we’re met by the first of the many stone terraces that cover the mountaintop, a place that seems totally inhospitable. It’s incredible it was once home to a thriving community of thousands. Most of the city remains hidden, reclaimed by the hungry jungle, but there is still plenty to be seen.

Passing more moss-strewn terraces we finally reach the Colombian army post at the top. There’s a shift change due, so the current squad are lined up awaiting their chopper back to base. The soldiers just about match the tourists for numbers.

Looking down across the site, it’s true the ruins of low-lying walls can’t compete visually with the majestic remains of Machu Picchu, but Teyuna is a truly spellbinding place, and the feeling of elation it inspires is huge.

Floating magically on a misty jungle, and populated as much by soldiers and Kogi children as by tourists, it’s a lost civilisation about which we know very little. And that’s the way I like it, allowing me to gawp and dream of what may have come before.

I try to spot the trail far below us. It was a hike as challenging as it was fun and I can’t wait to do it all again. Lucky that, as it’s the only way home.

"Floating magically on a misty jungle, and populated as much by soldiers and Kiga children as by tourists, it is a lost civilisation about which we know very little."

View The Lost City in a larger map

Plan your travel

When to go
It's best during the dry season (December to March), but the Ciudad Perdida trek can be done year-round. Alternative routes may be used during the height of the rainy season (May to October).
How to get there
You can fly to departure city Santa Marta, but may need to switch planes at a Colombian international hub, such as Bogota or Cartagena.
Visa
Nationals of many countries, including the US, will be given a visa on arrival for a stay of up to 90 days.
Gear
A comfortable pair of hiking boots or shoes, such as All Out Blaze, are a must. Also be prepared for high winds and low temperatures at some points, so think multiple layers, lightweight trousers and a hooded jacket, such as the Northwick.
Length of Trip
A 4-day trek is ideal for somebody relatively fit, while most operators also offer 5 and 6-day treks.
Difficulty
Moderate. The unfit will struggle with the steep climbs, muddy trails and humid conditions, but the longer treks include lengthy rest periods.
Accommodation
Along the route you sleep in very basic, tin-roofed bunkhouses, with tight rows of mattresses or hammocks under mosquito nets.
Food and Drinks
Guides generally provide main meals and purified water. You can stock up on pricey snacks at the campsite stores.