The Lost City trek is an arduous but rewarding 5-day traverse through the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia.
The trek offers a unique opportunity to connect with nature, to see the ancient Lost City ruins, as well as to cross through the land of the Kogi. These indigenous people live in traditional ways inside the Sierra Nevada reservation.
I’m sure that sounds pretty good, though while exchanging travel tips with other travellers in Colombia, I’m often asked if I’ve done the Lost City trek and whether it was worth it. In fact, this is one of the most common questions I get in Colombia.
This is understandable as the trek does take around 5 days and costs COP 1.400.000 per person (currently about $325 US Dollars). For many, going on the Lost City trek will be a decision worth thinking about.
Are you on the fence? Or just want to know what the experience is really like? Then let me help you decide if the Lost City trek is worth it for you.
How many days do you need?
The Lost City trek can be completed from 4 to 6 days. It seems most commonly done in 4 days, but it’s best to do it in 5 days.
I did it in 5 days myself and thought this was just the perfect pace. I’m a frequent hiker and do enjoy a stiff hike, but this 5-day itinerary also left time for swimming in the river, enjoying the views, and spending time at camp.
On the 5-day trek, you will spend the first three days hiking to the Lost City. On the morning of the third day, you will explore the archaeological ruins. You will trek the same way back on the 4th and 5th days.
You can check the exact trekking itineraries offered by the different tour companies, though they are all roughly the same. If you choose the 4-day option, it will typically be the same for the first three days, but then you’ll trek all the way back in just one day instead of two.
While not difficult in a technical sense, the trail is quite strenuous. By the end of it, I was thoroughly exhausted.
If you loathe hiking, then this is not the experience for you.
But if you are up for a challenge, then stamina is really all you need to do the Lost City trek. I saw hikers of various ages along the trail.
On average you will hike about 5 hours per day if you’re doing the 5-day itinerary.
The path goes up and down in elevation a few times. You’ll be alternating between ascending and descending the whole way, though the general direction to the Lost City is up, and it’s generally down on the way back.
Mules will carry water and food to the camps, so all you have to carry are your personal belongings such as clothes, a towel, sunscreen, a rain jacket, etc. Just a daypack should be enough for this trek.
You will mostly hike on a dirt path. In the dry season, it will be very dusty. In the wet season, you’ll be dealing with a lot of mud.
Expect it to be a tiring trek. When my group reached the minibus back to Santa Marta, everyone was silent and we all fell asleep on the bus. While I have a few done more challenging treks (such as going up steep volcanoes or trekking in the Himalayas), the Lost City trek is definitely a toughie.
Doing it independently
If the price tag of an organized trek seems a bit hefty, you might wonder about doing this trek by yourself. Can’t you just pack a bag with a tent and your own food and do the Lost City trek independently?
I see this question asked constantly on social media groups for Colombia. The answer is that you can’t do the Lost City trek independently. This has nothing to do with your trekking abilities. It’s simply not allowed.
The trail runs through the ancestral lands of the Kogi tribes who have given a few tour companies permission to take guided groups into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta national park. Independent hikers are not permitted under this arrangement.
I love (and usually prefer) hiking independently but I understand why only tours are allowed in this case. It’s a way for the various parties involved to benefit financially but also to properly manage visitor numbers while respecting the people who call these jungled valleys their home.
The experience could easily be ruined by overtourism so we can be thankful that it’s being managed properly.
Booking the guided trek
There are five tour operators authorized to do the La Ciudad Perdida trek:
The prices are standardized so there is no need to shop around. Simply choose a tour operator that you think will give you a good experience. Only Wiwa Tours is slightly different from the others as they employ indigenous guides.
Other international tour companies (such as G Adventures) may also offer the Lost City trek, but they are simply reselling the same tours while adding a profit margin. For the best price, simply book directly with any of the Colombian companies.
If you prefer to book through a platform, you can book the Lost City trek via GetYourGuide. This is the quickest but does come at a premium. But hey, perhaps you don’t want to deal with contacting the local operators in Spanish, or maybe you already have an account with GetYourGuide and want this booked right away.
If you reserve via GetYourGuide, you will be going with Baquianos Tours.
What to expect
Many who’ve done the trek will say the same thing: “it’s not so much about the destination as it is about the journey”.
Don’t expect the ancient ruins to be a Machu Picchu-like revelation. What’s still visibly left of the city are just a few flat terraces where once there were buildings. There are almost no walls or structures left, only foundations. There are said to be 170 stone terraces carved in the mountain, but most are covered in jungle.
Your guide will of course make the place come to life by providing information, but there is not necessarily a whole lot to see. Whoever called it the Lost City did a great job naming it as it sounds so tantalizing and mysterious, though it’s admittedly buried deep in the Colombian jungle and wasn’t rediscovered until 1972.
From an archaeological point of view, the site is clearly significant. The city is estimated to date back to 800 AD and had around 8000 inhabitants. You have to walk up 1200 moss-covered stone steps to reach the top.
However, it’s the trek itself that I enjoyed most.
The trail follows a river for almost the entire length, letting you cool off the water regularly and visit small waterfalls. Hummingbirds, butterflies in both large numbers and sizes, and colourful tropical birds can be spotted all along the trail.
Being far away from any electricity or WiFi enhances the experience. You will sleep at simple camps where dinner is served by candlelight. The shared experience lets you easily get to know many people in your group. I went on the trek during a solo trip and enjoyed chatting with my fellow hikers during the day or playing card games at camp at night.
There’s nothing quite like falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle. Laying in the dark in a hammock covered in a mosquito net will make you feel like you’re in a cosy cocoon, allowing you to fully focus on the orchestra of crickets, frogs, and birds that are out there somewhere. On my first night I even heard distant monkeys whooping into the darkness.
What makes the trek interesting as well is the chance to see or meet members of the Kogi tribes. They can be easily recognised by their white robes and the pointy hats worn by the male priests.
These indigenous people have maintained their traditional way of life, typically living in small thatched huts. Their belief system is centred on living in balance with nature, with their God, Aluna, being a kind of Mother Nature figure. They call outsiders the ‘Younger Brothers’, believing us to have caused Earth’s ecology to become unbalanced. It’s hard to disagree with their assessment.
While the Lost City in itself may not be quite as majestic as you might imagine, the trek is nevertheless very memorable, with the journey making it especially rewarding.
Is it worth the time?
It’s difficult to say if the trek is worth your time without knowing the full details of your Colombia itinerary. Even then it’ll be quite subjective as to whether you should dedicate a full five days to this experience.
I spoke with some travellers in Minca who only had ten days on their Colombia trip and were hotly debating whether to do the Ciudad Perdida trek, hoping I could be their tie-breaker. In their case, I thought it could maybe take up too much time relative to everything else. But it still depends.
If your travel time is limited (e.g. under 2 weeks) then I would lean towards spending those five days on a variety of other experiences in Colombia. You could still scratch your trekking itch with one or two days of hiking in the nearby Tayrona Park. To see a lot of wildlife, you could also spend half a day on a dedicated birdwatching tour in Minca. Then you’d still have plenty of time to spare on other nature, beach, or cultural experiences.
If you are on a longer trip in Colombia (e.g. at least a few weeks), then doing the Lost City trek becomes an easier decision to take.
I did it during a six-week trip in Colombia and loved it. My decision to go wasn’t agonizing in the slightest as I still had plenty of time left for other trips. I felt it was a highly rewarding experience and fully worth the time spent.
I should mention that after 5 days of trekking I was pretty exhausted, so I spent the next two days either inside or beside the pool at my hostel in Santa Marta. I had very little interest in doing anything except sipping cocktails or reading a book. Keep in mind that while the trek takes 5 days you may also need a bit of recovery time afterwards.
Is it worth the money?
I first did this trek back in 2014 when it still cost 600,000 pesos (about $140 USD). At the time it was a no-brainer. Of course, it was worth it.
I travelled in Colombia again in 2022 and by this time the price had more than doubled to COP 1.400.000 per person (approximately $325USD or €319 at current exchange rates).
Depending on your travel budget, that makes it a more difficult decision to make nowadays. If you’re reading older blogs on this topic, keep in mind that the authors may have paid much less for it than you will have to pay today.
I certainly wouldn’t call it cheap. But the price is still understandable given the need to keep tourism at sustainable levels. In a certain sense, you are paying for other people to not be there. By keeping group sizes limited, the feeling of being in a mostly undisturbed and remote location is preserved.
The tour is also all-inclusive. You will be transported to and from the trailhead and will receive a qualified guide, three meals a day (with lots of food) and a place to sleep every night.
The accommodation will be either hammocks or dormitory-style beds in the open air under a corrugated roof, so it’s nothing fancy, but that is also part of the trekking experience.
When you divide the cost by the number of days, the daily expense of the 5-day tour is $72 per day per person. Considering that you won’t have any other expenses during those days may be helpful in deciding if it’s worth it.
For example, while backpacking in Colombia I usually spend about $40 a day on average. That means that on the Lost City trek I will spend $32 more than my usual amount per day. For the entire five days, that’ll be $160 over my normal average budget. Honing in on the extra expense I believe is a useful way to look at it.
If you’re not on a tight budget: yes, it’s worth it. It’s a wonderful experience and you certainly won’t regret doing this trek.
If you are a shoestring traveller or budget backpacker then you may want to weigh your options a bit more. The tour is admittedly pricey and, realistically, for the same cost you may be able to fill twice as many days with other activities. Whether you want to prioritize the Lost City experience or spend the money elsewhere is something only you can judge based on your interest, time available, and budget.
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Posted AUG 08, 2022 (Updated Aug 08, 2022)