After surviving and enjoying the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu we were inspired and on the hunt for our next adventure hike.
As we travelled further north in South America, other travellers we met began to tell us about a 46km route in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia – the Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida trek.
Some people marvelled that it was even better than the Inca Trail in Peru and there were whispers that it was much tougher.
The more we heard about the Lost City Colombia, the more we knew we’d have to discover what it was all about for ourselves.
Santa Marta to the Start of the Ciudad Perdida Trek
A mafia enforced transport strike meant that rather than getting picked up from Santa Marta where the majority of tour companies operate from, we had to arrange for them to pick us up from our beach hostel where we’d been stranded – fortunately it was en route.
As a result we had our full backpacks with us which we had arranged with the tour company to leave at our guide’s house.
As we clambered onto the minibus, Juan our translator asked “don’t you think those bags are a little heavy to take with you?”.
We immediately began to worry that the message hadn’t been relayed and we’d be carrying our 16kg bags through the jungle!
It was a violently bumpy ride up to the start of the trail in Machete with us both nearly being injured from being flung around the minivan before even starting to walk anywhere!
Once we arrived we were introduced to our small group of six as well as our guide, Argenith. He explained to us that we would be having lunch in a restaurant before setting off and also thankfully took our backpacks to store in his house. Phew.
As we were settling down to lunch a group of people arrived at the restaurant who had just finished the trek. They all looked absolutely shattered and started to tell us horror stories of how difficult it was and how they’d all got sick, making us start to question what we’d signed up for.
Despite the discouragement they were kind enough to hand over a wooden stick to each of our group to aid with the climb.
Freshwater Pools of the Lost City Colombia
It was a half hour walk to our first break and a real baptism of fire as we immediately began hauling ourselves up a dusty, crumbling and what seemed like vertical path in the blazing midday heat.
We arrived sweating and panting at what was the first of many beautiful freshwater pools that turned out to be some of the real highlights of the Ciudad Perdida trek.
With the temperatures reaching 35°C+, these pool stops that happened every couple of hours were both welcome breaks and sources of encouragement when the going got tough.
Some of the pools were like mini lagoons, secluded and largely covered by the rain forest canopy, with rushing waterfalls forming natural jacuzzis. Others were shallow sections of river, calmed by natural damns of huge rocks that doubled as sun beds and diving boards alike.
Taking the plunge off a 6 metre drop was scary and exhilarating in equal measure, particularly when curious fish started to nibble at our limbs.
The Luscious Landscape
The landscape on the Ciudad Perdida trek was constantly evolving throughout our 4 day journey, we’d expected jungle but what we got was much richer and more diverse than we could have imagined.
In what at times seemed like a matter of minutes, paths turned from being covered in hot white dust that came up to your ankles to muddy brick red clay.
Then over the summit of another hill and we were immersed into the greenest of green jungle with leaves bigger than our entire bodies providing much needed shade from the sun.
Climbing up the mountainous riverside rock faces was in stark contrast to the flat plantations created by local tribes to grow crops.
The route to The Lost City constantly criss-crosses the Buritaca river and in the rainy season the crossings are ordinarily more than waist deep and often treacherous. However, due to a long and intense drought caused by El Niño, they were nothing more than ankle high.
Wildlife on the Ciudad Perdida Trek
We didn’t see as much wildlife as we had hoped but what we did encounter was pretty spectacular.
Electric blue lizards scurried off the path into the undergrowth as we approached.
Majestic toucans perched silhouetted against the jungle canopy. Where the trees parted, unseen crickets’ deafening chirps pierced the silent grasslands.
A black and yellow snake retreated into its hole having been disturbed into releasing its intended prey, the terrified mouse jumping off into the brush whilst squeaking its thanks.
At regular intervals humongous red ants streamed across the paths in their thousands hurriedly carrying leaves back to their nests. Vulture like birds cast giant black shadows as they effortlessly circled overhead whilst darting hummingbirds flitted in and out of our peripheral vision.
A Civilisation Preserved
Much of the trail on the Ciudad Perdida trek passes through native territories inhabited by four indigenous tribes called the Kogis, Wiwas, Kankuamo and Arhuaco who are all descendants of Tayrona civilisation.
It was a privilege to walk through their villages and learn about their traditions, but at the same time felt like an intrusion on their way of life as the effects of the growing tourist trade were clear to see, with young children asking for sweets and candy and items of clothing as we passed by.
We visited a graveyard where tribes people had been buried for centuries with their most treasured possessions, often including gold.
These resting places were later looted in the 1970’s by peasants escaping from political violence in the cities.
Our path to The Lost City took us alongside a ceremonial village where we were lucky enough to see local tribes people preparing for an upcoming ceremony.
It is strictly forbidden to take any photographs of the tribes without first seeking permission as it’s a long held belief that taking a photo captures a part of your soul.
The Kogi Way of Life
We learnt about some of the Kogi traditions including what happens when they pass into adulthood.
The tribes have a very spiritual relationship with Mother Earth and call themselves ‘elder brothers’ and believe their role is to protect the balance of the earth. They refer to us in the rest of the world as their ‘younger brothers’.
Upon reaching puberty for girls and when turning 17 for boys the young people are segregated into houses based on gender to see out the rights of passage that usher them into adulthood.
For girls, once their first period is complete a ceremony announces to the community she is ready to be married.
For boys the process is a far lengthier one including a four day ceremony with the shaman where an instrument called a ‘poporo’* is gifted and no sleeping is allowed.
The process cumulates in the young man being required to balance his poporo on the palm of his hand for a whole 24 hours without wavering which is hard to believe possible.
He is then taken under the wing of an elder woman in the tribe to be taught how to take care of a wife and family before being allowed to marry. For this reason men are usually a few years older than the women they marry.
*A poporo is a vessel made from the shell of a fruit which is filled with ground sea shells. A stick placed in the poporo is used to transfer the powder to the mouth where dried coca leaves are placed to chew on from a woven bag carried over the shoulder. Saliva on the stick is then used to rub the outside of the poporo to turn it golden in colour. This takes many years of work. Only women are allowed to harvest coca leaves as they are pure and chewing coca leaves is reserved for men only.
Reaching the Lost City
Arriving at the ancient Lost City itself is a truly magical climax to the Ciudad Perdida trek and takes an hour to reach from the final camp.
The route includes a relentless ascent up 1200 sheer stone stairs that meander back and forth up the mountainside.
Despite being over 1000 years old and having been pillaged by tomb raiders, the ruins have survived remarkably well.
Special permission is required from the shaman to see parts of The lost City and because of a ceremony that was taking place that day our guide, Argenith, was explicitly told if he asked one more time to access the particular area he wanted to take us into he would get a slap!
An army post at the very top guards the area following the infamous kidnapping of a group of tourists from the area in 2003 by a left wing paramilitary group.
The Trek Back
The journey back was equally as grueling and beautiful as the journey there.
Some members of our group were so sick they had to hire mules to carry them part of the way, hindered by a rogue tribesman who had decided to make the hike more difficult by placing large branches and in some cases trees over the path to block the way.
We couldn’t work it out at first and assumed it had been a huge windstorm, but Argenith told us what had actually happened and that when they found the culprit he was going to be in serious trouble.
The last day was the longest day, we retraced the majority of the 20+ kilometre route we’d taken there (you can do the trek in 5 days if you so wish, but we opted for the hardcore version). Recognising milestones that we had seen on the way there kept us going.
Back at the start for a late lunch it was a relief to sit down. Everything ached and for some reason our hands had swollen! Argenith instructed us to make sure we had a thorough check for any ticks – J had one buried in his thigh.
We piled onto the minibus feeling a huge sense of accomplishment and eager to get back to our hostel to take a well earned hot shower.
So if you go to Colombia (and you absolutely should) find time to visit the Lost City and complete the Ciudad Perdida trek, you won’t regret it!
Sarah & James