Jungle trek to find a Lost City

Ciudad Perdida is an ancient city built by the Tairona people in 700AD in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta jungle, Colombia.  Only officially found in 1975, it is still relatively undiscovered by mass tourism: just 40 people visit the Ciudad Perdida per day compared to the 500 of Machu Picchu in Peru. For this reason and for its isolated location, only accessible by walking 20km into the jungle for 3 days, it’s a special place that can offer a unique adventure.

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The six days trek starts from Mamey, a small village two hours drive from the city of Santa Marta. Before entering the jungle all visitors must go through a military checkpoint where armed police check ID’s, permits and belongings. The 4×4 jeep is essential to negotiate the steep and pot holed dirt road, which takes you to the starting point of the trek.

Our party consisted of nine people: a Swiss couple, Paola and Nicolas, two Kiwi guys, James and Matt, an Aussie couple, Jess and Wayne, Ramesh from Australia, Felicity and I. None of us were super fit or had much experience of trekking in the jungle. At first I thought the group was too big, considering we had to spend 24 hours a day together. Later I realised that it actually didn’t matter: luckily we all got on well and there was always someone to recount a good travel tail to keep us amused.

I didn’t expect the first day to be so hard, maybe because Felicity and I weren’t used to the heat and the humidity (we arrived the day before from El Cocuy where the average temperature was never higher than 20 degrees) or maybe because we had an expectation that the first 3 hours would be more of an introduction than a proper trek.  The first part of the trail was relatively flat:  everybody was talking, joking  and some even smoking a cigarettes. After only half an hour, all I could hear was the heavy panting of our fellow companions.  Soon afterwords  we were all tired, sweaty, dehydrated, red faced and ready to call it a day. Unfortunately it was another two and a half hours of steep muddy trails until we arrived at camp 1. To make conditions even harder it started to rain and thick mist surrounded us, as a final warning that this was a serious hike in the jungle and not a walk in the park.

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We arrived at the first camp at about 5pm with welcoming cold drinks waiting for us. We were exhausted but relieved to find the accommodation better than  we expected, even clean showers! After a refreshing wash I felt like a new person: wearing dry clothes had never felt so good and it was something we would all come to appreciate more and more over the next 6 days.  After a delicious candle lit dinner of vegetable soup and rice, we all went to sleep in our hammocks: it was only 8.30 pm but we were on jungle time now.

Day 2

I woke at 7am to a sunny and warm day after a surprisingly good night’s sleep. A cup of coffee was already waiting on the table and the view of the jungle was just spectacular. What a great way to start the day! Felicity and the rest of the group woke soon afterwards and we ate the best breakfast we would have for days: fresh fruit salad with yogurt and muesli. I couldn’t believe my eyes: everything looked just perfect. Unfortunately this was the only day we had such a good breakfast, but I didn’t know it at the time.

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So in a good mood, full of energy and enthusiasm we started the second day of the trek at 9am. It was only a 3 hour walk but completely different from the previous day: after the first steep hill, the trail was mostly flat or downhill. After about an hour of walking in the jungle we had our first encounter with a member of the indigenous Koguis tribe: a woman in simple cream tunic, barefoot carrying her baby on her back, drinking water from a stream. Although we were expecting to see members of the Koguis tribe it was still a surprise to see how primitive they were. Shortly afterwards we came across a small Kogui village: among the thatched roofed huts a couple of children were playing and looking at us in the hope of getting some sort of gift. Read more about the Koguis

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As we continued on the trail the scenery was changing from an open valleys to dense jungle with only the occasional viewpoints.  We arrived at Camp 2 at 12.30pm: in comparison to the previous day it seemed like we had only walked half the distance and we were just getting warmed up. Ramesh even complained that the walk was too short and wanted to carry on for another hour or so: the next camp was another 6-7 hours walk so this wasn’t an option.  With day two being a relatively easy day, we had time to swim and cool off in the river next to the camp before lunch. It was a welcome relief to get rid of the heat and sweat of the jungle. While swimming we even spotted a water snake gliding across the river then disappearing into the jungle.

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The group we met on the first day was also staying at the same Camp along with another group returning from the Lost City. It was rather busy that evening: all together, including guides, cooks and porters we were forty-five people.  Because of this we had to endure a long wait for our dinner to be served.

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After the meal a couple of the guides gave us an impromptu performance of singing and bongo playing. Some of the Kogui women and children hung around the camp for most of the evening:  their main motive was to get some food to take back to their village, but they stayed to watch the singing and bongo playing noticeably enjoying the music. Even with the entertainment it was still early to bed: by 9.30pm we were all in the hammocks sleeping.

Day 3 – the final trek to the Lost City

The night was cold and noisy:  there were just too many of us under the same roof. The breakfast wasn’t so good either: simply bread, eggs, jam and a cup of coffee, which was always ready as soon as we woke up.  So the final assent to the Lost City started at 8am: our guide Gabriel explained it would be 6 hours walking in total, including 8 river crossing with no bridges, so we had to get wet with the cold water coming up to waist height. We also had an extra companion:  a skinny dog from Camp 2 we had befriended the evening before. He caused great amusement as he attempted to cross the fast flowing water and almost got washed down river. It was a sunny, warm day and the trail wasn’t as hard as we had expected maybe because we were more used to the climate or maybe because we were excited to see the lost city. The path was very up and down through dense jungle vegetation and the many river crossings were a welcome relief from the heat.

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We ate lunch on the river just before the final ascent, the 1200 steps to La Ciudad Perdida.  The steps were incredibly steep, slippery and narrow which made the climb even harder than we expected. The jungle environment made me feel like we were in an Indian Jones film, searching for a lost city. After half an hours walk from the river we encountered the first part of the city: a round terrace with two different levels and various rocky paths leading off from it. Our guide  explained that this would have been the outskirts of the city where the poorest people lived. The wealthier and more influential would have lived closer to the city center, which I suppose is very similar to modern times.

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It took us another half an hour to finally reach the main plaza: emotions were high so was the excitement to finally see what we have been waiting for.  We finally made it to the top: the jungle suddenly opened up to reveal an incredible view of the valley and the mountains surrounding us. After days of walking with very few viewpoints, it felt like we were on top of the world. We couldn’t stop staring and turning around to admire the incredible view.  Now we fully understood why the Tairona’s named the city Teyuna (mother nature) and why they decided to live in such a majestic and unique setting.

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The one thing that brings you firmly back to reality is the presence of military soldiers to ensure nothing happens to the City and its visitors: each unit spend 4-6 months in the jungle patrolling the area and it seemed meeting and chatting with the tourists was the highlight of their days. We were so immersed in the peace and beauty of our surroundings we didn’t realise it was getting dark until our guide asked us to follow him to the camp for the night. The cabana was located just behind the main terrace of the lost city: amazingly there were five cans of cold beer waiting for us, which disappeared in seconds. This camp was the most basic of all, but it didn’t matter as everyone was suddenly feeling very tired after three days spent in the jungle.

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Day 4 – The Return

The next day awaking at the Lost City we were greeted with the magnificent view of the valley from the top terrace: it seemed almost surreal, with the realization of how far we had trekked into the jungle. The morning started with an hour guided tour of the Ciudad with Gabriel who explained how the Tairona civilisation lived and why they abandoned the city  (full details at the bottom of the article).

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At 10.30am we started our descent back to camp 2: of course going back wasn’t as exhilarating as we had already achieved our goal, but it was a relatively easy trail, mostly downhill. We ate sandwiches on the river and arrived at camp 2 at 4pm. To avoid having to wash in the dirty and broken shower we went for a swim in the river, with soap and shampoo. It was raining and the water was cold but it was fun and relaxing knowing the hardest part of the trek was over. We ate dinner at 7pm and then played a few games of charades, which proved to be quite hilarious due to the different nationalities and one member of the group coming up with rather obscure Woody Allen movies.

Day 5 and 6 – Back to civilization

Day 5 was the hardest because it was the easiest on the way up. The weather was hot, humidity high and the trail was muddy and slippery because of heavy rain the night before. The  path was steep and uphill for most of the morning: we finally arrived at camp 1 at 12pm exhausted from walking only three hours.

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After a quick shower we all went for an afternoon sleep. This was the last night and none of us were sad to leave the jungle:  we were ready to go back to civilisation.

On the last day we walked 3 hours to the point where we started: it was mostly downhill so not very taxing.  After a lunch of pescado, potatoes and salad we jumped in the jeep for the ride back to Santa Marta. After 6 days, which actually felt like two weeks due to harsh jungle environment taking its toll, we departed from our group. Not for long: we agreed to meet up for dinner in Santa Marta for a last meal together.

It was a remarkable journey rich in emotion and amazing scenery. We shared this experience with good companions and we will always remember our days spent in the jungle to find the Lost City.

History – The Tairona civilization

Ciudad Perdida was called Teyuan by the Tairona people, meaning mother nature. The city covered more than 400 ha, was built between 500-700 AD and was an important political and trading post.  It’s speculated the Tairona’s abandoned the city in fear of Spanish invasion. Ironically the conquistadores never knew about the city.

Ciudad Perdida was first discovered by the modern world in 1965 by tomb looters who were uncovering the ancient graves of the Tairona people in the search of gold and other precious metals. The Lost city only came to the attention of the authorities in 1975 because of in fighting between the tomb looters. Afterwards armed forces were sent into it to protect the area; then anthropologists’ and archaeologist commenced the long arduous task of rebuilding  what was left of the ruined city, as the tomb raiders had disrupted many of the ruins in their desperation to find gold.  The city consists of a complex system of paved footpaths, flights of steps and walls which link a series of terraces and platforms on which houses would have been built.

More than 200 similar lost city’s exist in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta jungle, but the cost to excavate all these sites and give access to tourists is just too high. So for now Ciudad Perdida acts as show case for them all.

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Recreate this trip

The trek is not for everybody. It isn’t a leisurely walk and a times can be very challenging: cold nights sleeping in hammocks, walking in the ferocious heat and humidity of the day, constant mosquito’s and other insects as well as mud and rain are some of things you must be prepared to endure. The challenge and reward of the 6 days trek is enormous and does far out weigh the negative factors.

It’s impossible to do trek on your own because of the military control over the area. So it’s compulsory for visitors to buy a tour from one the four authorized tour operators. We did the trek with Guias Y Baquianos Tours booked through Miramar Hotel in Santa Marta.

Personally I would recommend Turcol Tours as they seemed to have better camps and smaller groups. The price is standard for all the tour companies: 500,000 pesos approximately $250.

The camps are basic shelters without electricity but all of which have running water, and are set amid spectacular jungle scenery. Hammocks, blankets and mosquito nets are provided and all meals. Also the guide provides purified water for you to fill your water bottle. There are simple toilets and showers at every camp.

What to bring –  Recommended items are:

– sleeping bag
– trainers or hiking boots
– shoes/sandals for resting
– 1 pair of trousers and 2 pair of shorts
– 4 t-shirts
– 4 pairs of socks
– fleece or jumper
– waterproof jacket
– towel and wash bag
– torch or head lamp
– water bottle
– insect repellent
– sun screen
– first aid kit

Keep all your clothes in plastic bags so they stay dry when it rains.

5 thoughts on “Jungle trek to find a Lost City”

  1. Ok so on day 3 was there 5 cans of beer to split amongst everyone, or 5 each? Important stuff :)This sounds like a fantastic week in the jungle! I'm definitely saving this info so I can do the same trek if/when I'm in Colombia. Plus your recount was a lot of fun to read, thanks!

  2. 5 cans split between nine of us, our guide made us appreciate everyone, as they were obtained from the soldiers at the last camp (at great expense I think!). Glad you liked the post. Our video diary of the trek is coming soon, we've just got to finish editing it!

  3. We actually didn't have sleeping bags either. Your guide will provide blankets though, no need to worry. It was an amazing experience we would really recommend it.

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