The Getaway
Escape the Crowds on a Trek to Colombia’s Lost City

If Machu Picchu is on your bucket list, why not tread the road less traveled? Consider a multi-day hike to the under-the-radar but no less incredible remains of a long-ago capital. Deep in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia lies Ciudad Perdida (the "Lost City"). It is older than Machu Picchu, covers around 80 acres, and receives a fraction of the tourists seen by its Incan counterpart. The Lost City trail combines nature and culture in an unforgettable journey filled with refreshing dips in crystal clear water, sightings of hummingbirds and gorgeous monarch butterflies at risk of extinction, interactions with indigenous communities, and downtime in open-air hammocks.

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01 The ancient roots of Ciudad Perdida

Panoramic view on the terraces of the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) in the Sierra Nevada de Sante Marta- Santa Marta/ Magdalena/ Colombia

Teyuna sprung up around 700 C.E., which makes its oldest ruins over 1,300 years old. The Tayrona continued to build here until the 14th century. The city was abandoned by the 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish. Teyuna was the capital of a once-powerful empire, with structures for religious celebrations, work, and the accommodation of approximately 4,000 Tayrona people. Today, visitors can see hundreds of circular terraces that used to be the foundations of these homes. Steep stone steps, which some have suggested were built as deterrents to the Spanish colonizers, descend to the Buritaca River valley.

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02 Rediscovery and restoration

Colomian's Lost City

While indigenous groups like the Kogis long knew about the ruins, they were only officially discovered in the 1970s when Santa Marta tomb raiders stumbled across the ancient city. Over the years, organizations like the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History and the Global Heritage Fund have worked with locals to preserve the archaeological treasures here and conserve the environment. Repairs took place, and amenities were built for the safety of visitors and the site.

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03 Choosing your trek: Options and duration

Ciudad Perdida is only accessible by foot, and you can't do a hike here without using a trekking agency—currently there are about five authorized operators. The good news is the trail is open to all ages, and you don't need to book months in advance to secure a spot on a trek. You can book online or go to Santa Marta and begin the process. Colombia's "Lost City" trek is around 27 miles long from start to finish and lasts between 4 and 6 days, depending on your selected option. If you choose a 4-day option, then instead of a 5-mile hike, you'll have a 9-mile hike on one or two of the days, so the route you take depends mainly on how fit you are.

04 Preparing for the journey

Stone stairs in the jungle at Ciudad Perdida, the lost city of Colombia

The hike usually begins and ends at El Mamey village, which is a 45-minute drive away from Santa Marta. The "Lost City" sits 3,772 feet above sea level, so there's some uphill walking, which you may want to prepare for in the weeks preceding your trip. The hike requires a moderate skill level, so you don't need special training or equipment, and the tricky bit is when you have to ascend 1,200 steps to reach the lower chambers of Teyuna. It's all about mind over matter, and you'll get to the top sooner than you anticipate.

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05 The trek itinerary: A day-by-day guide

The standard trek takes five days and stops at three campsites. Early starts help beat the heat and the afternoon downpours, and long makeshift walking sticks make it easier to balance and navigate the varied terrain. Horses organized by the company carry food and other provisions, leaving trekkers to enjoy the scenery unburdened. Travelers have to cross rivers, but bridges and secure cages assist with crossings when water levels are too high. The trail is well-maintained with few flat sections, and you'll generally see the Lost City early on Day 4 for about three hours.

06 Embracing the wilderness

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve. It is home to one of the planet's most ecologically diverse coastal mountain ranges, and with 630 bird species, birdwatchers are in for a treat. The region has enormous toads, colorful lizards, tapirs, peccaries, howler monkeys, and yes, snakes, spiders, and jaguars. While the trail is not without risk, it's a valued tourism asset largely deemed safe.

07 The cultural tapestry of Sierra Nevada

Village of the Kogi Indians in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada - Santa Marta/ Magdalena/ Colombia

As you approach Ciudad Perdida, you'll encounter Kogi villages and may bump into members of the Wiwa, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo indigenous groups who have lived in the area for generations. Many honor their Tayrona roots through storytelling and traditional practices and are employed in the local tourism industry. Their Ancestral System of Knowledge has, since 2022, been recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Baptism rituals, marriage rites, offerings, the caretaking of sacred sites, and song and dance combine to create a rich and unique tapestry.

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08 The architectural marvels of Teyuna

Hiking Tour to the Lost City in Colombia

Ciudad Perdida reflects engineering prowess. Residential spaces made of stone were constructed in a circle with a diameter of about 27 feet. Roads and cobbled paths joined different sections of Teyuna, and ensured access to the fields, plazas, and storehouses. The architecture is noteworthy for how it prevented rainfall from causing erosion. Urban planning enabled rainwater collection and control, and tall retaining walls made the land more stable. Experts predict that only a fraction of the ruins have been unearthed, and time may reveal even more architectural marvels.

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09 Navigating the challenges of the trek

Hiking Tour to the Lost City in Colombia

You can walk the trail throughout the year, but maintenance occurs during September and the dry season between December and March is probably your best bet if you're not keen on getting too wet. Still, Ciudad Perdida is in a tropical jungle, so this hike is hot and humid, and there's always a chance of rain. The drizzles are cooling, but mentally prepare for muddy conditions, and stay hydrated because you'll be sweating a lot. The mosquito bites can be a nuisance, but long pants and vitamin B supplements can make a difference, and a sleep sack is necessary to protect against bugs.

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10 The role of local guides

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia - March 8, 2014: Kogi Mamas (shaman) chewing coca leaves in front of a hut in the forest in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia TLF Images / Shutterstock.com

Indigenous guides truly enhance Lost City treks, so look for an operator that partners with locals. These guides can produce walking sticks with machetes, provide much-needed cultural and historical context, and give you a further appreciation of the surrounding landscape. You'll be intrigued by the coca leaf chewing and thankful for the navigation tips and assurance that the creature you've just encountered is harmless (probably).

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11 Sustainable trekking practices

Young female hiker with a backpack collecting plastic waste in green forest

Ciudad Perdida is a good example of sustainable tourism. Self-guided hikes are impermissible for oversight. The campsites are locally owned, and the cooks and porters tend to be local, so money from trekkers goes to about 600 families from surrounding communities. Operators facilitate meaningful exchanges between outsiders and indigenous people and ensure that treks are profitable and environmentally sound. Visitors can do their part by minimizing waste, carrying eco-friendly toiletries such as sunblock and insect repellent, and resisting the urge to leave with souvenirs plucked from nature.

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12 Beyond the trek: Exploring Santa Marta

Santa Marta lighthouse and Municipal museum, Cascais, Lisbon, Portugal. Lighthouse Museum of Santa Marta in Cascais Portugal, as seen from Santa Marta Beach on a beautiful day. Cascais, Portugal.

Most treks embark from and return to Santa Marta, Colombia's oldest colonial town, so schedule a few days to take in this Caribbean city's attractions. After slogging through the rainforest, you might be in the mood for a relaxed day trip. Check out Ciénaga Grande's water villages, chill underwater at Playa Cristal, or surf at Costeño Beach. Fans of Gabriel García Márquez's magical realism can spend time in Aracataca.

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13 Capturing memories: Photography tips

Unrecognizable man taking picture of tall trees with his smart phone in the forest or park. Selective focus.

When it comes to taking photos, always be respectful of peoples' privacy and preferences and the sanctity of sacred sites. Ask folks for permission directly before taking their picture, or ask the guide if there's a language barrier. Never engage in documentation that is exploitative instead of empowering. From a practical perspective, you may want to leave the tripod at home, but pack a dry sack to protect your photography gear when the heavens open.

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14 Reflections: The trek as a transformative experience

A woman with a daypack and walking sticks is hiking through the dense rainforest of the Sierra Nevada to the pre-Columbian city Ciudad Perdida

Your Ciudad Perdida trek will open you up to a whole new way of living—one that's intimately connected with nature, and perhaps less fearful. Reflect on the slower pace of life that produces intricate crafts and pastimes, and prioritize the blessing of screen-free time moving forward. Consider your ancestors and their stories, and have the conversations with elders you've long had on your to-do list.

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15 Planning your return: Next steps

Volcano Tolima in Los Nevados National Park with beatyful vegetation frailejones (Espeletia), Colombia

A holiday in Santa Marta and The Lost City may make you want to return to Colombia. Make a list of the places you want to see or things you want to do during a future trip while they're fresh on your mind. Maybe the trek itself was a revelation, and you'd like to participate in something similar. Look into these famous Colombia hikes: Nevado del Tolima, Cocora Valley, Cueva del Esplendor, and El Pulpito Del Diablo. These are primarily long day hikes with magnificent views. Or trek overnight to Mirador in Guatemala to see one of the world's largest pyramids.

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