We were out of breath, having just climbed 1,200 stone steps when Celso, our indigenous guide, called for us to join him around a group of stones arranged in a circle in a clearing. In the middle of the circle stood another square stone on top of which lay a pile of coca leaves placed as an offering. Celso explained with trademark calm in a slow, deliberate voice, “This is a place where we should let go of our impurities, our negative thoughts and emotions.”
We stood in silence, not only to “cleanse” ourselves so that we might better experience this sacred site, but also to enjoy its peace and quiet. To Celso, we were then prepared to further visit Teyuna, otherwise known as the Lost City (La Ciudad Perdida), the ultimate destination to which we’d been trekking in the rainforest for the previous two days.
The Lost City Trek, as it’s called, takes you 46km (28 miles) round trip through the jungles, hills and river valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern Colombia. We’d had our sights set on this trek for years, so expectations had built up. Fortunately, the challenge, landscape, and experience exceeded so many of them.
Here’s why. Here’s also why you might want to consider putting the Lost City Trek on your travel wish list, in case it isn’t there already. We’ve also included all you need to know to plan, prepare for and enjoy this trek.
We have divided this article into different sections based on questions we’ve received. Skip ahead to what interests you most:
- What to Expect, Day by Day
- Conditions and Difficulty Level
- Organizing Your Lost City Trek
- Lost City Trek Packing List
What to Expect on the Lost City Trek: Day by Day
When I researched the Lost City Trek, I found a fair bit of conventional history about the site, often paired with a photo or two of the final destination, including what I refer to as the “golf course” shot.
What I didn’t find much of was the nature of the actual journey there. The trail and landscape is more beautiful and varied than we had expected and the Lost City site itself is far more extensive than most photos indicate. We especially appreciated having an indigenous guide. Celso, a member of the local Wiwa indigenous community, shared his culture with us and linked it to the other indigenous communities, their relationship to nature and their shared connection to the ancient Tayrona civilization.
Our days usually began early, around 5:00 A.M., so we could get on the trail while it was still cool and so that we could complete our day’s journey before the rains of the mid-late afternoon. We appreciated getting up early, and we enjoyed all the benefits of the early morning – light, coolness and silence among them.
Note: The route below is the Lost City four-day route that we took. If you opt for a five-day trek then your second and third days will be shorter, as you’ll have two days to complete the entire route. Your day 4 and 5 will look the same day 3 and 4 below.
Start/Finish: Machete (El Mamey) to Adán Camp (Campsite #1)
All Lost City treks seem to set off from Santa Marta. From there, a jeep or van transfer takes 45 minutes along the highway, during which you’ll still have some cell coverage. You’ll likely stop at a convenience store for last minute snacks and water and the final bit of mobile phone connectivity. From there, you’ll head up a dirt track into the mountains. After you arrive in Machete, you’ll have lunch, then begin the hike. (Note: this is when you should ask the people coming off the trek if they have a walking stick they can give you. It is really helpful for balance and ease on the trail.)
The beginning of the walk eases you into things, with a swimming hole a close 25 minutes from the trailhead. After cooling off in the water, you’ll have a steep uphill for around 45 minutes, then a bit of a break, then a long descent into the valley where Adán, the first campsite, is located.
Start/Finish: Adán Camp (Campsite #1) to El Paraiso Camp (Campsite #3)
This is a long trekking day. The first segment of the day takes you uphill and across some beautiful terrain, including some local farms. After a jump in a swimming hole and lunch at Campsite #2 (Wiwa Camp), you continue all the way to Campsite #3 (El Paraiso), located only 1km downhill from the site of the Lost City. This day takes you through a great deal of varied landscape — deeper into the tropical jungle, across rivers and by a couple of Kogi village communities along the way.
Start/Finish: El Paraiso Camp (Campsite #3) to Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2), via the Lost City
You rise very early on this day (around 4:30A.M.) so that you can set off at dawn and enjoy the Lost City in the softest light and coolest air possible. After a short walk from the campsite, you reach the starting point of the 1,200 stone stairs you’ll need to walk and scramble to reach the terraces of the city above. It’s not an easy climb, and can be a bit treacherous if wet or damp, but if you take care and get into a meditative rhythm, you’ll find it goes very quickly.
After the steps, you’ll have reached the lower chambers of Teyuna, also known as The Lost City. It is believed that this was a capital city built by the Tayrona civilization in 800 A.D., approximately 600 years before the Incas built Machu Picchu in Peru. When Spanish colonialists came close to finding or approaching the in the 16th century, the Tayrona opted to abandon the city instead of allowing it to fall into Spanish hands.
Teyuna was then overtaken by jungle for the next several hundred years, as only the shaman (holy men) of the four indigenous groups who live in the area were aware of its existence and would visit it regularly for ceremonies. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the site was “discovered” by the outside world. Tomb thieves cleared out much of the gold, valuable artifacts and other remains. Due to this misfortune and the fact that no written record of the Tayrona exists, much about the city and civilization remains the subject of speculation.
The Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo indigenous groups are believed to be the descendants of the Tayrona and have carried on their stories and traditions. We noticed when we arrived at the Lost City, Celso let down his hair, the surprising length of which is said to represent the wisdom that flows from the sacred mountains through the rivers to the coast. He was dressed in white, as was his custom, to represent the purity and integrity of the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, out of sight in the distance.
Throughout our journey, he shared stories that had been passed on to him, through generations, from shaman to shaman, from elders to children, about the Lost City. The stories told of its creation, the symbolism of the different terraces, and the Tayrona relationship with nature. The indigenous that inhabit the area believe they are the symbolic “elder brothers,” there to protect both the sacred Sierra Nevada Mountains and their “younger brothers” – meaning the rest of us. The sense of responsibility to the equilibrium and the good and health of others was evident.
After your visit to the Lost City, you return to El Paraiso (Campsite #3) for a quick lunch and begin your return all the way to Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2). For us, we were met with an afternoon downpour that made it feel as though we were skiing through mud crevasses in the rainforest. We were glad for the experience; it was actually more delightful than it sounds.
Start/Finish: Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2) to Machete/El Mamey
This is another early rise since much of the trail is uncovered, and therefore becomes quite hot. You try to make it as far as you’re able before the sun becomes too strong. As you’ll remember from your first day, much of the trail is up or down, without much in between. After a stop for fruit at the first campsite and a jump in the swimming hole, you find yourself back where you began, with a celebratory lunch in Machete.
Lost City Trek Difficulty Level and Conditions
We’d give this trek a medium-high difficulty ranking for all the reasons we’re about to elaborate. This means that you should not require special training to trek the Lost City trail, but you should be relatively active and in good physical shape. You should either be accustomed to or be prepared for day-long treks with steep, slow uphill climbs and very long walks in intense heat and humidity.
Not a Technical Trail
The Lost City Trek is not at all technical, meaning that you will not need any special equipment for it like climbing ropes or other fittings. The trail is well-maintained and for the most part, it’s an easy path to follow, but it’s necessary to have a guide to navigate the rivers and some turns. You’ll have to cross a few streams or rivers — with waterproof shoes on, or with your shoes and socks in your hand — but that is part of the fun.
Altitude, Steep Hills and Valleys
Altitude is not really an issue, as the trek’s highest point is around 1,500 meters/4,920 feet. However, the Lost City trail seems to either be straight up or straight down without much flat. Our advice is to take it slow and steady on the uphill. Keep in mind that it’s not a race. It’s better to proceed deliberately and take fewer breaks than to quickly wear yourself out and have to recuperate with frequent and longer stops.
Heat and Humidity
One of the challenges of this trek is the combination of heat and humidity. I’m not sure we’ve ever poured sweat with such intensity and consistency. It actually felt great, like a cleansing process. Just be sure that you drink plenty of water to replenish. Note that respite from the heat comes a couple of times a day in the form of rivers and swimming holes to jump into.
Another challenge and irritation of this trek: bugs and their bites. There are lots of them, especially mosquitoes at the Lost City itself. We suggest applying plenty of bug repellent (bring on the DEET if you need to). If you are especially susceptible to mosquito bites consider trekking in long trousers. Finally, pick up a pack of generic B-complex tablets (“Compejo-B generico” runs 25 pills for $1.00), as certain B vitamins are said to repel mosquitoes.
Another thing to watch out for are fleas and/or bedbugs in the hammocks and/or blankets at the campsites – this is where we collected most of our bug bites (especially campsite #2). We recommend carrying a sleep sack, so that you have another layer of protection while you are sleeping. Finally, check your body closely for ticks when you emerge from the Lost City Trek. We each had a few on us; they are very tiny and difficult to see, so look closely. (Note: For advice on how to properly remove a tick, check out this article.)
Rain and Mud
We had been warned plenty about rain and mud, but didn’t find wet weather too much of a hindrance. Yes, it rained from time to time (usually mid-afternoon), but we were often so hot anyway that the cool rain was welcome. Be certain any valuable electronic gear is well-protected and any dry sleeping clothes are at least wrapped in plastic (e.g., ziploc or garbage bags). If you fall in the mud, just go with the flow and don’t think about it too much. You can always wash yourself and your clothes later.
You will certainly not go hungry on this trek. Each group is assigned a cook and not only will you be served three large meals a day (e.g., fish and rice, pasta, chicken and potatoes), but you will also enjoy well-placed fruit stops along the trail. These are very welcome for the additional boost of energy and hydration just when you need it. If you are vegetarian or have food restrictions, alert your trekking company and your guide in advance so they can respond accordingly.
Campsites and Sleeping Arrangements
There are a handful of campsites along the way, so we can only speak to the ones that we stayed in — Adán Camp, Wiwa Camp, and El Paraiso. Not always, but often you’ll have an option to sleep in a hammock or on a mattress/bed (both with mosquito nets). There are cold water showers and flush toilets at all the campsites. Clotheslines will be strung around so you’ll be able to hang up your wet clothes from the day. However, the rainforest is so damp, do not expect anything to fully dry overnight, if at all. Evenings also get cool, so keep a long-sleeved shirt or fleece handy at night.
Organizing The Lost City Trek: Your Options
Choosing a trekking operator
You cannot do the Lost City Trek independently (at this time), meaning you must go with one of the four or five authorized operators. We took our Lost City Trek with G Adventures. They work with a local organization that provides indigenous guides so that their travelers are able to learn about the indigenous cultures and communities still living in the Sierra Nevada mountain area.
Regardless of which operator you choose to take you on the Lost City Trek, select one that works with indigenous guides. The cultural and living history background is essential to a full Lost City trekking experience.
How many days do you need for the trek?
Most trekking operators offer four-, five- or six-day trek options. We did the Lost City Trek in four days, but all the standard G Adventures Lost City Trek offerings are five days. As the route is the same, the main difference is that a five-day trek includes a relaxed day #2 with only a few hours of trekking to the second campsite.
As for the six-day option, we can’t really imagine taking that much time to do the trek. But if you are worried about your trekking abilities and stamina then talk with an operator regarding what they suggest.
Lost City Trek Packing List
Much of what we include in our How to Pack for a Trek article holds true here. However, we offer a customized Lost City Trek packing list to ensure you have what you need for the tropical rainforest conditions but don’t overpack.
While there is the option on some of the route to hire a mule to carry belongings, it’s best not to count on it. You should pack and plan as if you will be carrying your pack the entire length of the trail.
Trust us, pack light. You’ll quickly begin to feel the extra weight going up those steep hills.
You will go through several liters of water each day (if not, then you’re not drinking enough) since you’ll be sweating constantly. Bring with you 1-2 refillable water bottles (or buy a 1 or 1.5 liter bottle of water before you go) so that you always have at least one liter of water on you at all times. Each campsite offers clean water, so you can refill your water bottles every couple of hours on the trail. Alternatively, pack a foldable water bladder into your backpack.
Consider bringing Gatorade powder packets or similar electrolyte sports drink mix with you to help you replenish some of the minerals that you’ll sweat out each day. And let’s face it, sometimes drinking liters of water gets boring and you want some flavor.
We highly recommend carrying a walking stick. We were very thankful for ours, especially when things got muddy and slippery. Trekkers just finishing and on their way out of the trail donated their wooden sticks to us. If this doesn’t happen, then ask your guide for one and he will find a walking stick for you, or fashion one for you with his machete.
You really don’t need much in this department. Don’t worry about packing clean clothes for each day, as you will be sweating buckets within minutes every morning of getting out on the trail. Here’s what we suggest:
- 1 set of hiking clothes: T-shirt (preferably quick dry), shorts, hiking socks. This means you will wear the same clothes every day. Don’t worry about it. Everyone does it. And you’ll be thankful not to carry the weight of extra clothes. Note: if mosquitoes love you, consider wearing trousers the whole time. Dan did this and it cut down on his mosquito bites considerably. If you are especially sun-sensitive, consider bringing a very light long-sleeved hiking shirt, but be aware that you may be warm.
- Hiking shoes: We wore low-rise Vasque hiking shoes (his and hers) and were fine. Other people wore light trainers, however some mid-ankle support is useful because of the pitch of the terrain.
- 1 set of evening clothes for post-shower and sleep: T-shirt, long pants (or pajama bottoms), socks. To ensure these remain dry, pack them in a plastic bag or other impermeable container inside your backpack.
- Extra t-shirt: Just in case.
- Underwear for every day of your trek: With an extra pair thrown in for good measure, if you like. Recommended his and hers.
- Extra pair of socks: Just in case your first pair get soaked beyond comfort while rock jumping at the river crossings.
- Bathing suit: Keep near the top of your backpack to have handy for swimming holes.
- Long sleeved shirt: For cool nights or sleeping.
- Fleece jacket: For cool nights or sleeping (can double as a pillow, too).
- Rain jacket(optional): We didn’t use ours due to the heat and humidity. We appreciated the cool rain. Not to mention, a rain jacket in the tropics can feel like a personal sauna.
- Flip-flops or river shoes (e.g., Tevas): To use in river crossings, showers, and evenings when you wish to get out of your hiking shoes.
Other Trekking Gear
- Waterproof backpack cover: You never know when a rainstorm will hit, so it’s essential to keep a rain cover for your backpack close at hand. Your guide will likely also have a supply of plastic garbage bags in case you need extra rain protection.
- Quick-dry travel towel: To dry off after showers, and also after a swim. Hang it on the outside of your backpack in the morning so it dries quickly in the sun and air as you move.
- Sleep sack: To provide an extra layer between you and the hammock (or mattress) and blanket. Fleas and other bugs in the hammocks bit us and other travelers we spoke to.
- Headlamp: Most of the campsites do not have electricity, so be prepared. Carry your own headlamp to find your way to the toilet and to sort through your stuff at night in and around your hammock.
- Earplugs: A precaution in the case your camp has a snorer. We know from our Lost City trail experience that this can demolish a good night’s sleep.
Toiletries and Health Kit
You will have access to a shower every evening, and you will be so thankful for the cold water shower to wash away all the sweat and salt on your body from the day’s efforts.
- Shampoo, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste: The basics.
- Sunscreen: The higher the SPF, the better
- Sunglasses: Of course.
- Bug repellent: You will apply this frequently, especially at the Lost City itself. The mosquitoes there are big, aggressive and plenty.
- Hand sanitizer: To be on the safe side.
- Pack of tissues or toilet paper: The campsites all have toilet paper, but it’s always a good idea to carry a pack of tissues in case of messes, spills or emergencies.
- Vitamin B Complex: Take one pill per day (called Complejo-B in Spanish, available at pharmacies in Colombia). Supposedly, mosquitoes don’t appreciate the smell and taste of your blood when B-1 Thiamine is present. It is debatable whether this really works to repel mosquitoes, but we appreciated using it and felt that it helped.
- Duct tape: Very effective for hot spots and blisters on your feet.
- Medical Kit (for emergencies): Band-Aids, anti-bacterial gel (for cuts), rehydration powders, ciprofloxacin (or another medication against stomach bacteria), Tylenol (anti-headache/aches), Immodium (or some sort of “stopper” if you get diarrhea), tea tree oil (great to apply to mosquito bites) Note: all these are easily and inexpensively purchased at local pharmacies, including in Santa Marta from where you depart for the trek.
Electricity and Charging Batteries
While a couple of the campsites do have electricity, it’s unreliable. Prepare yourself for not having access to electricity during the trek. Some tips to handle this and further your battery power.
- Put your smartphone on airplane mode. There is no connectivity along the trek anyhow, so don’t waste your phone’s battery power trying to find a network.
- Consider buying a phone case that doubles as an extra battery. Here’s an example for our iPhone 6 battery case and iPhone SE battery case. It provides another 1-1.5 charges.
- Take an extra camera battery or two.
- Don’t spent time reviewing your images, as this will eat up your battery power quickly. Unless you are reviewing images to determine whether you’ve captured a specific shot, there will be time enough for photo review when your trek is finished.
Have other questions about the Lost City Trek? Just ask in the comments below and we’ll incorporate the information into the article so others may benefit.
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