Are you thinking about trekking to the Lost City - Colombia’s most famous archaeological site, embedded into the Caribbean jungle? Before you go; here are some tips from a guide that has been walking the trail for the past six years.
By Marco Pollone
LOST CITY | 4-MINUTE READ
Few people know the Lost City trek better than Marco Pollone. Having walked the trail over 200 times, leading travelers from all over the world, Kagumu’s main tour leader gives you his top tips for making the most of your journey to the Lost City.
How to get to the Lost City
Daily treks begin every morning (expect for September, when the site is closed) from the centre of Santa Marta. You can drop into one local tour operators’ offices in the centre of the city to join a trip. If you would like to be more prepared, you can choose from one of these pre-planned Lost City trips.
The ride from the city to the start of the trek is about 2.5 hours in a 4x4 truck. You travel along a coastal road that connects Santa Marta with Venezuela and then swerve up a bumpy off-road track to reach the first village called Machete Pelao.
After lunch and a quick briefing, you start the trek.
A lot of people ask me what the trek looks like. Just imagine: a mix of ups and downs, humid forests with low-hanging vines, baking sun, downpours, rivers (that you cross) waterfalls (that you shower under), and natural pools (that you swim in).
Packing is never easy. It’s even more difficult when you know you will be carrying the weight on your shoulders for 4 days! That’s why it is essential to follow this Lost City trek packing list.
Believe me, having patience and packing as light as possible are the keys for success on the Lost City trek.
Length of the trek
Hiking between four and eight hours every day is not always easy. However, you just have to stop and admire the beautiful, wild place and realise how rewarding it is. I mean I have been over 200 times and can’t wait to go back again.
Oh and, don’t be fooled by the distance from a map – 46.6 km there and back as the crow flies is really about 50 km overall.
Climate and Elevation
Weather on the Lost City trek is unpredictable. Rainy season usually starts around June and ends at the beginning of December.
Temperature depends on elevation; the higher you go, the colder it gets. During the day, the air will get to around 30 degrees Celsius, dropping to 15 at the highest point at night. Thermal excursion may make you feel chilly – this is where the long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt come in handy!
In terms of elevation, the trek starts at 150 meters above sea level and reaches 1200 meters. The highest point is actually Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City itself.
Best time of year to visit the Lost City
The trek is open all year long, with the only exception of September. The trail is closed during this month for members of native tribes – Kogui, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankwamo – to take part in spiritual cleaning rituals in the ancient site.
Rainy season lasts from June through the beginning of December while August is the peak time for European travelers. Easter, December, and January are popular dates for South American travelers.
February or April/May is much dryer with fewer travelers.
Type of accommodation on the trek
After a day trekking, you spend the evening in campsites. These have a kitchen, showers (no hot water), toilets and you will sleep in a bed or a hammock – don’t worry; I will show you how to sleep well in a hammock.
You will arrive at the camps in time for dinner and, usually in time for a swim in the rivers and/or under waterfalls. This is a real highlight for many travelers.
There will be a small shop to buy snacks and a beer or two and we will eat each dinner in the camp.
Each bed or hammock will have a mosquito net and a blanket and you will be able to recharge batteries for your camera or cellphone too.
Even though there’s no signal, all campsites are connected by radios and Wi-Fi, which is used in case of emergency.
After dinner, our native guide from the Wiwa community will tell us about their culture that has barely changed for centuries and a few weird stories too.
Lost City trek operators
All Lost City trek operators are local companies based in Santa Marta. International operators like Kagumu Adventures works with the most socially and environmentally responsible company.
When you look at reviews all over the internet, on TripAdvisor or Colombian reddit, you may find posts like: “I went to the Lost City with G Adventures” or “I did the Lost City trek with Intrepid”. It’s not completely false… but it’s not true either: companies usually hire a local operator and send one of their local leaders too.
Kagumu Adventures operates in a similar way, except the tour leader is me. I live in Santa Marta and have spent the last six years guiding groups on the Lost City trail. I’d like to think I know a lot about the route, the history, the stories and the culture and I share this with you along with our and supporting a local native guide from the Wiwa community.
What does the trek include
Prices for the Lost City trek increase slightly every year as agreed upon by local guides, cooks, operators, and local communities.
Every trek includes guides, accommodation, food, transport to and from Machete Pelao - the village where the trek starts and ends. Health insurance and entrance tickets to the archeological site of the Lost City is also included. The money you pay includes a contribution to local farming and native communities too.
Many of the Kagumu packages found here include: airport transfer, indigenous weaving workshop with the Arhuaco community, at least one night in a jungle-embedded eco lodge after the trek, extra meals and a tubing journey down a winding and to a deserted beach.
Each group travels with a cook and food is transported to each camp by local mules. Your breakfast, lunch and dinner will be prepared for you and your group.
Typically, traditional meals are plentiful, with a lot of rice and grains, vegetables, fish, and chicken. Delicious fruits add to the wholesome breakfast and you can enjoy sliced watermelon, freshly squeezed orange juice and bananas at certain points on the trail.
Special food requirements
Guests are often surprised at the options we can give for people with specific food requirements and allergies. I personally buy the food from the local market in Santa Marta the day before the trek. If you are vegetarian, vegan, celiac or anything else, don't worry; we will make sure you have a wide variety of foods to eat.
So, as you may have read on reddit or in the Lonely Planet; the trek is challenging and the climate is often the biggest hurdle to overcome.
If you are an expert hiker but you are not accustomed to high temperatures, mosquitoes and humidity, then you might find it challenging. But that is half the fun, right?
On the other hand, rainy weather makes the experience more adventurous. Trudging through mud can be quite the experience.
My tip is pack light and be patient. Basically, it means controlling things you can, and letting go of the things you can’t control like the weather. Enjoy every second of it, because it’s going to be worth every drop of sweat.
Here are some questions I often get asked
Do I have to carry my backpack all the way up and down?
Yes. But I have a few tips to make life easier.
You can leave your big rucksack in the hotel to pick up afterwards. In terms of your backpack for the journey, you can store things you don’t need at the campsites on the way to the Lost City. You will return along the same trail so you can leave them and pick them up.
How money should I take?
I would suggest around 250.000 Colombian pesos which is around $80 USD. This means you’ll be able to buy drinks on the way, purchase handicrafts or bags from locals and of course enjoy a nice beer as a reward at one of the camps.
Should I tip?
Tipping is completely optional and there is no pressure in Colombia to tip in general. However, if you feel you’d like to show gratitude to locals then tipping, guides, the cooks, helpers and the native guide would be appreciated. Bear in mind that you will be with a guiding team of around five people.
Is the Lost City trek safe?
Yes, I still get asked this question. Nowadays, La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is safe, since the drug trafficking and illegal cultivations have disappeared. However, like any place you visit, you should look after your belongings and listen to instructions from the guide. That’s what we are here for!
In case of a serious accident, evacuation methods are in place for you to be transported by helicopter or by mule, motorbike and/or car to the nearest hospital. In recent years, improved communication has helped making the procedure much faster and more efficient.
Of course, guides, cooks, helpers and staff on the way has been trained in first aid and basic survival too.
Do I need a vaccine?
As of 2019 (and pre Covid-19), no vaccines were required to enter the Lost City. There haven’t been any cases of malaria or yellow fever in recent years even though some travelers get the vaccine and take malaria pills for peace of mind. I have found that sometimes taking malaria pills can make people feel weak, which results in a more difficult trek. I’d say refer to your local doctor if you want to know more about the side effects.
The only thing left to do is decide when to visit us! If you have any other questions about the Lost City trek, please comment below and I will get back to you.
Fancy joining Marco on an adventure? Click here to view our Lost City trips.
From the Spanish conquest to grave-robbers and looters, and from kidnappings to the emergence of Colombia's most famous archaeological site; here's what to know about the Lost City.
By Kagumu Staff
LOST CITY | 5-MINUTE READ
Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the most biodiverse places in world. This coastal mountain range boasts Caribbean beaches, snowy peaks, dense forests, jungle, native communities and ancient pre-Hispanic ruins.
Hidden behind the gnarled trees and low-hanging vines lies a trail to the country’s most famous archeological site: The Lost City. There are still many secrets and unknowns about this spellbinding ancient city, that was hidden from the world for centuries. What we do know however, makes a journey to Colombia’s fast-growing adventure destination even more intriguing.
The Lost City is not called the Lost City
Derived from the spiritual and political capital city of the disappeared Tayrona culture, the site is actually called: Teyuna. The Tayrona people inhabited Colombia’s Caribbean coast around 200 A.C, colonizing the fertile cliffs of La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. They connected their settlements with miles of stone trails and created commercial networks in order to exchange products coming from the mountains and from the sea.
Deep within the dense vegetation, you can spot the remains left by these innovative engineers: stone paths, winding stairs, moss-covered walls and rounded terraces which used to form bases for their buildings and graves for their ancestors.
Over time, Teyuna became known as the Green Hell, then Buritaca 200, and later the Lost City or Ciudad Perdida in Spanish.
Spanish attack and impact on native communities
La Sierra Nevada had been inhabited for centuries by the Tayrona tribe before the Spanish conquerors arrived in the 16th century. Formerly peaceful communities living by the coast were forced to retreat up the mountains to escape violence and illnesses brought by the European invaders.
Their legacy was not completely lost however. Nowadays their descendants are divided into four ethnic groups – the Kogui, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo. The first two communities still inhabit villages along the way to Teyuna with some working in the tourism industry.
Visitors heading to the Lost City learn about the traditions of these communities such as the clothes they wear, the food they eat and the unique tools they hold so dear to their culture.
Farming communities and drug cultivation
In the 1970s, farmers began to inhabit the lower parts of the mountains, escaping other types of violence: Colombia’s civil war and gang conflicts caused by drug trafficking.
At the beginning of the trek you will notice mountains burned grey by chemicals that were used to destroy illegal cultivations. A harsh, lasting memory of the environmental destruction of the drug trafficking industry.
Fortunately, nowadays residents of the region work with tourism - a profitable, safe and legal alternative to marihuana and coca production. Local farmers are heavily involved in the industry, building some of the campsites, leading travelers along the trail and using their mules to carry food for groups visiting the Lost City.
The rediscovery of the Lost City
The Lost City is an archaeological site, spanning 30 hectares, that was abandoned by the Tayronas due to the spread of illnesses such as tuberculosis. Over the next 300 years tagua palms, roaming vines and bushes engulfed the area, hiding it from the world. In the 1970s, looters and grave robbers, looking for tombs and refined golden pieces buried within, accidentally rediscovered the Lost City.
They uncovered an intriguing site boasting a complex system of stone trails, rounded terraces and carved walls. All built by great architects and engineers. And all without any sort of machinery!
Unfortunately, this knowledge has been lost over time, mainly due to their lack of writing systems and historical knowledge. Every now and then, you can find petroglyphs, showing figures nobody is able to give an interpretation to.
Thanks to the Colombian government’s restoration work starting in 1976 coupled with the Colombian Institute of Archeology and History's protection and maintenance, the Lost City has become one of Colombia’s most important attractions. So much so, that the 50.000 Colombian pesos bill has an illustration of the Lost City on it!
Kidnapping in the jungle
Due to its fertility and privileged position in the Caribbean region, the area around the Lost City became the center of a violent conflict for those looking to control drug trafficking routes and cocaine laboratories.
This war between paramilitary and left-wing guerrilla groups led to the kidnapping of eight visitors in the archaeological site in September 2003. This incident forced a stronger army presence in the area and in turn encouraged more people to visit. This created a much safer way of earning money for locals, meaning that drug cultivation is no longer desired. From attracting around 1000 tourists annually, the Lost City trek now welcomes approximately 25000 every year.
Landscapes, flora and fauna
Visitors encounter a wild array of astonishing nature along the trail – mist-engulfed forests, enchanting valleys, natural pools and rivers to plunge into.
You will see humming birds in the morning, toucans crossing the sky, and snakes passing by the trails. Look out for blue morphos flying around and cup your ears for howling monkeys. My tip is to keep your eyes out and listen to your guide who should know where wildlife will be lurking.
The wonderful landscapes make it possible to appreciate not just the Lost City, but also the walk itself. A journey that combines native cultures, unbelievable views, hikes and the most important archaeological discovery in Colombia’s history.
Other lost cities in La Sierra Nevada
The Lost City makes up just a small part of a wider history in La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. According to Santiago Giraldo Peláez, director of Pro Sierra Foundation and leading restoration projection expert in the area, there may be around 600 similar sites buried by the forest in the northern face of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
You can catch professor Giraldo talking about ancient Colombian sites in National Geographic’s TV series: “Lost Cities with Albert Lin.” In this episode he shows us the process of discovering a new archeological site and a possible route into discovering another world of lost civilizations that can teach us more about our ancestors and maybe our own roots.
Fancy exploring the Lost City? Click here to join one of our all-inclusive trips to the Lost City.
This is my way of saying thank you for three weeks with the amazing Kagumu tour company – in the capable hands of Simon and Mateo. Here’s just a few photos of the amazing time we had.
By Clive Davis