Ciudad Perdida is an ancient archeological site in Colombia once inhabited by the Tairona civilization. This former city is estimated by archeologists to have been founded around 600-800 AD and then abandoned sometime in the early-mid 1600s. The surrounding jungle began to take back the ancient city until being “discovered” in 1972. The site had been unknown for centuries in between, hence the name Ciudad Perdida, translated as Lost City.
Shortly thereafter, in the 1980s, light tourism of the site began. But reaching Ciudad Perdida is left only for the adventurous, as it requires a scenic yet grueling multiday trek across the jungle-covered foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. This makes for quite a travel adventure to pursue and often draws comparisons to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Yet by the early 2000s, terrorist kidnappings closed the Ciudad Perdida trek to tourism. But as of 2005, the trek to Ciudad Perdida has reopened and is currently deemed safe from any such terrorist activity. As a result, Colombia’s hike to Ciudad Perdida is now growing in popularity.
The trek to Ciudad Perdida is as much a journey into this lost culture, as it is an incredible travel adventure. Decedents of the Tairona civilization, the Wiwas, still inhabit the area today. They are encountered along the trail and carry on much of the culture and traditions of their Tairona ancestors.
We completed this Ciudad Perdida trek back in April 2014. This blog gives a detailed account of the awesome hike and updated (2019) travel tips for those looking to pursue Colombia’s Lost City trek.
Planning the Ciudad Perdida Hike in Taganga with Expotur
The Ciudad Perdida trek is most often organized in the Caribbean coastal towns of Taganga and Santa Marta, Colombia, both located about a 4-5 drive east of Cartagena. It is required to do the Lost City hike as part of a guided trek and there are five main agencies to book a tour with.
We had been traveling throughout Central America and into Colombia during the previous 100 days. This hike to Ciudad Perdida would be our last big adventure during this leg of our trip and was a perfect culmination of so many things we’ve experienced and overcome while traveling entirely over land and sea, from Mexico to Colombia.
So we decided to base ourselves in the lovely seaside village of Taganga to relax for a few days while organizing the trek. Taganga appealed to us as a more tranquil and laidback alternative to arranging the trek in nearby Santa Marta. It proved to be just that!
It was easy to find the Ciudad Perdida tour agency booths on Taganga’s main drag, scattered amongst the many fresh juice carts. After receiving personal recommendations and reading many great reviews and about Expotur, we decided to book our Ciudad Perdida tour with them.
Although booking with Expotur turned out to be just procedural, as we were actually passed onto Magic Tour, who actually conducted our Ciudad Perdida Trek. Yet we soon found that Expotur had left us in good hands.
Beginning the 4-Day Ciudad Perdida Trek
With our batteries thoroughly recharged after a few days of chilling out in Taganga, we hopped into a 4WD van on a hot and sticky morning. From Taganaga we dropped our luggage off at the tour office in Santa Marta, where it would remain secure while we trekked to the Lost City. From Santa Marta, it was a bit more than a two-hour ride up twisty dirt roads, past Tayrona Nationa Park, to the village of El Mamey. It was there that we’d meet our guide, Jose, and our fellow hikers.
We quickly became acquainted with our trekking companions. There were 11 trekkers total in our group, in addition to our guide.
After meeting each other, we began gearing up and making final preparations for the 47-kilometer (29-mile) hike to Ciudad Perdida. This trek can be completed as either a 4-day, 5-day or 6-day guided hike. We were a bit pressed for time, so somewhat reluctantly, we decided to give the 4-day trek a try.
The 4-day trek to Ciudad Perdida is the most strenuous option since much more ground must be covered each day. While averaging less than 12 kilometers each day (7.3 miles), may not seem too intense, the many steep inclines of the trails in combination with the intense tropical heat must also be factored.
In fact, many of the Ciudad Perdida tour agencies don’t even list the 4-day trek as an option. The Ciudad Perdida tour agencies in Taganaga and Santa Marta actually recommend against it and encourage the 5-day trek. Costs are the same for all the options, so taking five days (or longer) can definitely be more ideal and a better value option for those who have the time to do so.
Day 1: Trek to Ciudad Perdida
We set off for the first stretch of the Ciudad Perdida hike. Where the dirt road ends, the trail begins. The trek delves into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park, one of Colombia’s 59 national parks.
We were relieved to find the trail to be relatively flat. But those nice flat trails at the start were short lived. And in that short time, we had already grown quite tired and soaked in our own sweat in the sauna-like tropical climate. Wow, was this jungle hot and sticky!
We were beginning to second-guess our decision of the 4-day Ciudad Perdida trek and the trip overall. In the steamy tropical heat, elation came when we arrived at a river with a natural pool of water to take a refreshing dip. It came as such a welcomed relief and was the rejuvenation we needed to keep on hiking towards the Lost City.
Revitalized, we got back on the trail to begin our first ascent in the scorching afternoon heat. It was a slow climb, breaking for water often. We each went through our 1.5-liter bottle much more quickly than anticipated.
After a few more hours of trekking across this warm terrain, we became very parched and our energy levels were low. So it was to our astonishment and delight when in the middle of nowhere our guide pulled a watermelon out from behind a rock!
It had been dropped off by one of the support guys, who had trodden ahead on a mule carrying supplies. Awesome surprise! Given the conditions, the lukewarm pieces of watermelon tasted amazing. And these chunks of fruit felt more effective at quenching our dire thirst than a bottle of Gatorade.
There was also a curiously random plastic hose coming out of the ground with water flowing endlessly into a barrel. Presumably, the water was coming upstream from the river we just took a dip in. This is the type of water that should always be treated with tablets.
Unfortunately, none of us came prepared with any purification tablets. Our guide assured us the water was fine to drink. Perhps it was fine for him, but we didn’t trust that our bodies would be able to handle it.
Nonetheless, severe thirst won over common sense. So we gulped down the cool untreated water straight from the hose and topped off our water bottles with the rest. Spoiler alert: we were fine. No stomach problems in the slightest.
Onward we trekked towards Ciudad Perdida. We hiked passed a few indigenous people who live in humble dwellings near the trail. Some men had just come back from foraging for dinner in the jungle.
One guy caught an armadillo with his bare hands. He said it took him a few minutes but ultimately he can run faster than the armadillo to snag it. He proudly showed off his catch. Of course, he said it tastes like chicken. Yum?
After much more hiking over mountains and down through valleys, we finally arrived at camp for our first night. There was also a family here who lives in a very rustic house to care for the camp.
One of the caretakers, whose love for nature and birds was very apparent, introduced us to the prized parrots he also looks after.
This hike to Ciudad Perdida was assisted trek, meaning we didn’t need to carry any food or camping gear. It’s really a nice perk to be able to simply hike with a small backpack containing clothes and personal items.
There are no worries about setting up camp or cooking at the end of the day. That’s all completely catered! And it truly feels like a luxury at the end of a long day of hiking in the jungle.
It was at camp where we met the support guys who would be taking care of all that for us. They were the ones we could thank for dropping off that watermelon behind the rock. They had already begun preparations for a grand feast to pack in the calories we’d need to energize us during the next day.
The roast chicken dinner was surprisingly great and very filling. But if you couldn’t finish your meal while at these camps, there was always a friend around to offer help.
As the moon ascended into the night sky, it was time for bed. Or perhaps I should say it was time for “hammock.”
Early on in our trip between North and South America, back when we were in the Yucatan of Mexico, I had attempted to sleep in a hammock at one of the places we stayed. There was also a bed in our Mexican cabaña. Yet I thought it could be an interesting experience a night in a hammock. But it wasn’t interesting. I couldn’t fall asleep and had to move to the bed.
Here during the Ciudad Perdida trek, we didn’t have the option of a bed. So we pulled back the mosquito net, hopped in the hammock and tried to get comfy. We mentally prepared for a long and sleepless night in such conditions.
Turns out, we were both out cold in about 5 minutes and slept solidly through the entire night.
Day 2: Hiking to Ciudad Perdida
The second day of the 4-day Ciudad Perdida trek is the toughest day. It’s not only the longest day, but it also contains the most uphill portions. During a 5-day trek to Ciudad Perdida, this section is split up into two separate days. Yet we attempted to cover these two days worth of hiking in a single day. So we awoke particularly early to begin the grueling hike through the jungle mountains.
We passed some remote villages where the indigenous Wiwa people live. Our guide stopped to explain about their culture, traditions, and lifestyle.
Hikers are forbidden from entering these villages, as their residents understandably don’t want to be bothered. But that didn’t stop a few children running up to greet us, as our guide dolled out some candy to them.
We finally made it to our lunch stop, which included another much-needed swimming hole. The girls in our group sunned themselves on the rocks chatting about life, while the guys climbed around boulders and swam against the rapids.
Regardless of how we each spent our time, this was without question a favorite pit stop for us all. It felt like paradise after what was a long tough morning of trekking.
But it was back onto the trail toward Ciudad Perdida to tackle more grueling inclines. The scenery throughout the Ciudad Perdida hike grew increasingly more gorgeous, which helped get our minds off the punishing grade.
River crossings became more plentiful, but since this was still the dry season we were able to carefully use stones to get across and keep our shoes dry.
With this need to constantly look down at the trail, we found it to be a good idea to occasionally stop to take a moment to enjoy the phenomenal landscapes that we were trekking through. At times we’d reach peaks to enjoy panoramic views of the rivers and valleys that we’d just come up from.
Out of nowhere an enormous bamboo tree seemingly sprouted right out of the earth.
Although we used stepping stones to cross most rivers, high swing bridges were in place to cross others. This challenging trek to Ciudad Perdida was becoming increasingly interesting and fun. And we still had quite the distance to go to our destination!
We passed fields cleared for livestock and even by a friendly pig living in a tree stump.
The trail continued with several more river crossings. Increasingly so, we also crossed paths more with the Wiwa people.
We finally made it to our second camp, just a few kilometers before the Lost City. It was here that we were rewarded with another filling dinner.
Our guide then briefed us with the plans and information of the next day. Jose only spoke Spanish. At first, we were concerned that we were missing out on critical information. But as he spoke clearly and slowly, we realized that we were able to pick up on most everything he was saying. We came to a proud realization that after months in Latin America, we were finally understanding Spanish!
During Jose’s talk, he explained to us how the Wiwa men consume the coca leaves (used to make cocaine) in their culture. Earlier during our trek, Jose had pointed out fields of the plant. He assured us this was not for cocaine production though, but rather for a cultural tradition.
He further explained how the indigenous people use the coca leaves by mixing them with snails before crushing it all into a fine powder. Apparently, the combination of the snails with the coca leaves provides a potent effect.
We were then given some of the dried coca leaves that we had the option of chewing on during the next days’ trek. But there would be no option for us to use snail mixture. Jose assured us that only the Wiwa people could handle that.
Day 3: Hike to Ciudad Perdida
On the third day of this Ciudad Perdida trek, we would actually head out to the ruin site itself. This was the culmination of the past few days of trekking and excitement grew.
As we set off, we soon realized this was also the most fun and challenging trail of the trek. We were clinging on to the side of the mountains at times and hoisting ourselves up over big rocks.
We finally reached a series of ancient steps and began to ascend them. It’s astonishing to think we were using the very same steps that were placed by indigenous people nearly two thousand years ago!
After climbing a total of 1,400 steps, we had reached what would be the first of dozens of ancient terraces. It was a glorious sight!
Upon planning the hike to Ciudad Perdida and viewing pictures of the site, I didn’t fully comprehend what the big draw was. In the pictures, the Lost City didn’t seem all that impressive to me. But I figured it would still be a fun hike to get there.
I now understand. I get it.
Ciudad Perdida is not just an amazing sight. It’s a special place.
Our small group of twelve was fortunate to be the only people at these ruins aside from a few guards who stand guard protecting this ancient Lost City. It was so serene and quiet up here. The only noises were the cool breezes whisking by and the occasional melodic chatter of songbirds.
As we climbed up higher from terrace to terrace, we could begin to understand and appreciate the grandiosity of this Lost City. The 360-degree panoramic views from the top could only tug at your imagination as to what the civilization that once thrived here was once like.
It was magical to just sit and take it all in.
We were also surprised with just how large Ciudad Perdida is. Most of the pictures of Ciudad Perdida show the same one or two cliffside shots, which is exactly what we’ve just shown in the last few shots in this post. This is the most photogenic spot.
But there’s an entire network of places to explore within Ciudad Perdida. This was a city that once boasted a population of thousands of people. There’s lots to explore!
But with thick jungle and mountainsides obscuring viewpoints, it makes for challenging photography angles. But Ciudad Perdida is not about spending your time with photography. The Lost City is a place to experience!
Being the only ones up here, there was a fantastic sense of exploration. Jungle vines covering blind bends in the trail, would open up to reveal yet more of this fascinating Lost City.
After spending the entire morning in Ciudad Perdida, alas it was time to begin heading back. We returned to camp to get our bags and then it was time to venture back towards El Mamey. So we went back across the river, past the pig-in-the-tree, through the livestock fields, up the mountain peak, over the swing bridge, and back to a camp where we had lunched the day prior.
Once we settled in and had dinner, we sat around chatting under candlelight remarking about our incredible day at the Lost City. But we soon noticed that we weren’t alone.
Two curious Wiwa children had snuck out from a nearby village while their parents were preoccupied with a family reunion. Heather was using her Kindle to read a book and the children were enamored with it. So instead of a book, she turned on Angry Birds. They were able to pick it up and began to play. It was fun to watch them learning to use the touchscreen and giggle at the birds crashing into the pigs.
After about an hour of this, I retired to my bed to use my computer. I simply needed to go through photos of our prior trip to keep or trash them in order to clear up some space on the memory card. After a few minutes of this, I noticed that I too had company.
One of the boys had popped in under my mosquito net and crawled up into my bunk bed to watch what I was doing. Scrolling past pictures of Panama City, his eyes were wide open in amazement. And for whatever reason, pictures of big boats made him laugh out loud. Going through pictures of underwater pictures of coral reefs and beaches, he had a puzzled look on his face.
It was an amazing bonding moment to share these pictures with him. I can only wonder what he may have thought of them and can only hope that I have not in some way corrupted his traditional values. Rather, I hope I gave him a very small glimpse of what lies outside his very remote little village and fueled his imagination. We looked at pictures together for about an hour before I finally had to call it quits and go to bed. It was a special moment that I’ll cherish.
Day 4: Ciudad Perdida Trek: The Adventure Ends
Our final day of trekking Ciudad Perdida was another lengthy one. We awoke earlier than any other day to get a good start and to beat the heat. There were some intensely steep inclines in store for us.
Normally I’d need some short breaks every few minutes in order to tackle the steep gradient. But this morning, I felt a surge of energy that I would take full advantage of. There were no rest breaks. I powered right up the mountains.
Typically my trekking speed was more towards the back of the pack. But this morning I found myself way out in front.
Rather than waiting for the guide and the rest of the group, I decided to use this energy and forge on ahead. I powered up more inclines and found myself running the downhill and flat parts.
As I picked up speed I was literally bouncing off the walls of the trail as I jumped around to ensure I didn’t lose balance. I was determined to finish strong. I felt as if the last three months had all led up to this final trek. In the style of Sonic the Hedgehog, I bolted past a different group, finishing the five-day trek, who looked at me like I was insane.
After several hours of this, I finally reached the first swimming hole we had initially visited. So it was time to take a concluding dip in the same place near where we had started. From here on out, the trail would be pretty flat and I only had another few miles to go.
I got back on the trail and there was a big and seemingly aggressive animal running through the trees. Perhaps it was an elusive jaguar that lives in the area. I’m not sure, but a local boy who was leading three horses back to the village stopped to throw rocks at the large creature. It took a few minutes, but he fended it away and we bonded a bit over this crazy moment.
The boy was tired of riding his horse and wanted to walk instead. So he asked me if I could ride the horse.
“No problemo!” I could now just relax and enjoy this horse ride of triumph during the final stretch of this trail. He helped me to mount one horse, which led two others that were in tow behind me. The boy sped ahead on foot to a point where I couldn’t see him anymore.
Did this guy actually leave his horses with a complete gringo stranger? Yes. Yes, he did!
I knew the way, so just continued onward proudly trotting along.
Finishing Strong and Reflecting Back
Riding back into civilization of this dusty village on my white horse, I reflected not only on the trek but on our entire journey so far…
We had landed in Mexico in early January to initially experience challenges in figuring out the simple logistics of catching a bus. Now we had become pros at public transport, having passed through nine countries and reaching Colombia without taking a single flight.
We had initially struggled on the first few big hikes of our trip, like this one summiting Tajumulco, when we nearly had to quit. Now here we were tackling a 5-day trip in only four days.
In January, sleeping in a hammock was a laughable proposition during our first attempt. Now, it was just another place to rest our tired heads for a great night’s sleep.
Earlier in our journey through Central America, my body struggled to fight off weird infections, but now during this trek even drinking untreated river water couldn’t bring us down.
Our lack of Spanish presented countless challenges for us early in our trip. Now we could understand most of what our guide explained to us.
At first, we were shy to interact with local people we encountered during our roaming. Now we were practically reading bedtime stories to a native ancient civilization.
We really had come a long way, both figuratively and literally.
It was a very proud and victorious moment that I’ll savor for the rest of my life.
The boy who had given me the horses had finally reappeared and I returned his horses. Nearly two and a half hours later, the rest of my group had arrived. It was a bittersweet end to our entire multi-month journey throughout Latin America.
Lost City Trek Info: If You Go on Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida Hike
An organized hike to Ciudad Perdida is the only way to reach the ancient site. You can easily book a Ciudad Perdida hike from the many agencies in Taganga, Santa Marta, and even Cartagena.
You should be able to arrange the trek with one day’s notice (as we did). There are five Ciudad Perdida tour companies to consider:
- Magic Tours,
- Turcol, and
- Guias y Banuianos.
We booked with Expotur based on good reviews and was later combined with a Magic Tours group. We can definitely vouch that Expotur left us in good hands and had a fantastic experience with Magic Tour. We give them all a good review. Jose and crew really did an excellent job guiding us to Ciudad Perdida.
As of 2019, the Ciudad Perdida trek price is: $1,100,000 COP, or about $350 USD per person at today’s rate. This price tends to be locked the same, regardless of the company chosen or the number of days.
This cost covers the two-hour transportation from Taganga or Santa Marta to the Ciudad Perdida trailhead, your guide, your basic sleeping accommodations, all meals, and snacks.
Ultimately we liked the four-day hike to Ciudad Perdida and felt that if we had done five days, there would have been too much unnecessary downtime. That said, we spoke to people on the 5-day trek that attested their length was perfect. So just determine a good length based on your fitness level and preferences for downtime. Note: since the cost is the same no matter the length, you do get more bang for your buck with longer treks if you have the time.
We’d definitely recommend this great excursion overall. As always, feel free to comment below with any questions.
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