In my grand trip around South America, I planned to take a photo at an iconic location in every country.
But when it came to Colombia, I couldn’t think of a single iconic location. Colombia is more known for its heart-warming people and, tragically, drug-fuelled past, but these are not tangible monuments or places I could take a photo in.
That is, until I heard of Ciudad Perdida - the Lost City.
I saw photos of the low ring terraces atop a bright green hill and I knew instantly that would be my icon for Colombia.
The Lost City is located in the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges in Northern Colombia and to get there, you’ll have to trek through dense rainforests, cross multiple rivers, and climb up more than 1000 steps.
The Lost City Trek
I started the trek in thin long pants and t-shirt but changed into a singlet halfway. The next day, I wore shorts instead. It was too hot and humid. Mosquitoes wouldn’t attack you if you keep on walking.
The only time you need long clothes are during the night and in the Lost City itself.
There are a few well-placed drink vendors and fruit stops along the way to freshen up and continue the arduous trek. The few rivers available for swimming are always welcome.
On day one, we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the verdant valley and our guide Jhon shared a little about the tenuous history between the government, the paramilitary and the drug-fuelled wars in the area.
The Ciudad Perdida trek was closed in 2003 when the ELN guerrillas kidnapped a group of tourists. It was only re-open in 2005 with fortified military presence, and has no incidents since then.
He also explained why it was not possible to do the trek individually: the tour agencies provide jobs to the native people there. All tour guides are native. There are also local chefs, logistics, auxiliary guides etc. A whole ecosystem of jobs was created for the Ciudad Perdida tourism.
The good thing is that being locals, the guides know the history and area well, although communication could be a problem as they do not speak English. Tagged along the group is a translator.
We entered Camp Adan right before it started raining. The campsite was surprisingly developed. We slept in beds with mosquito nets. There were cold showers and flush toilets.
You can also hang your clothes at the lines strung up, although nothing will fully dry in the damp forest. Even the bed can be a little moist (and disgusting). A sleep sack is recommended if you have OCD.
Dinner was served at a long table shared with your international groupmates. They even sold beer here; which most westerners ended the day with (not me).
“Day 2 was tough.” - That’s what I wrote in my notes.
It was uphill, uphill and lots of uphill. To make matters worse, we walked on muddy, uneven terrain. Effort was spent finding hardened ground for your feet.
And then there were the river crossings.
Even in the dry season, the river was at shin height. We had to remove our shoes and socks, only to put them back on wet feet.
At times, the river current was strong and rocks were slippery. Thankfully, our guides were there to lend a hand.
Other times, the tips of the rocks jutted above water, just enough for us to step across the rocks, only slightly dipping our toes. Crossing the river without removing our shoes gave us a sense of achievement.
Along the trek, we passed by indigenous straw huts, the kind that would be blown off easily by the big bad wolf. It is hard to believe that the indigenous communities still live in these straw houses today.
We stopped for lunch at Camp Mumkae, which is also a campsite on the way back. Our guides suggested that we leave some stuff here to lighten our loads, so fret not if you overpacked. The campsite is right next to a river where we all went for a swim while waiting for lunch to be served.
The next camp, El Paraiso, is also right next to a river and we arrived there few hours later right before the skies opened again.
Day 2 was so tough that a groupmate skipped dinner and went straight to bed. The rest of us had popcorn before dinner and played cards after. There were lots of time to kill.
El Paraiso is just 1km from the Lost City, but the trek is not to be taken lightly. We left camp early on Day 3, hoping to enjoy the coolest air and softest light available, only to be faced with a monumental obstacle before entering the Lost City:
The 1200 steep carved stone steps that stood between us and Ciudad Perdida.
It reminded me of the final climb up the steps to Machu Picchu. Why do ancient people always build cities high up in the mountains?!
(Rhetorical question. It’s a strategic position. That’s why they were never found by the conquistadors.)
Some steps were narrower than the length of our feet, and they can be treacherous when wet. It took all our focus and lots of complaining (not from me) before we finally entered the Lost City.
We congratulated each other and took a break at the lower chambers of the city while our guide dived deep into a history lesson.
Ciudad Perdida, also known as Teyuna, was believed to have been built in 800 AD. Like almost all ruins in South America, it is compared to Machu Picchu and is said to be bigger than her Peruvian counterpart, although the visible part is way smaller.
The Tairona people had many houses (such as the straw houses we saw) throughout the Sierra Nevada, but were politically concentrated in Teyuna. It also acted as a commercial hub for trading crops and animals and probably a religious site due to its location high up (closer to God).
Interestingly, Teyuna was also a cemetery and the people bury artefacts with the bodies in pits inside the house.
When the Spanish conquistadors came to Colombia, the Tairona people chose to abandon the city instead of allowing it to fall into Spanish hands. The area was covered by the jungle for the next few hundred years and the city became… lost.
However, the indigenous descendants of the Tairona people – the Wiwa, Kogi, Kanuamo, Arhuaco – claim to have known about the site all along but kept quiet about it. Their shamans still visit the area regularly for ceremonies.
The Lost City was rediscovered by treasure hunters in 1972, and archaeologists in 1976. Since then, the site attracted the attention of tourists and adventure seekers. Tour agencies popped up, campsites were built, and this blog post is written.
We listened to the history attentively all the while being eaten alive by mosquitoes. This is the warning I heard about. Thankfully, I wore long pants and spammed bug spray.
Inside Ciudad Perdida itself were thousands more stone steps. But they are considerably gentler than the ones leading up to the entrance. Before climbing up to the upper chamber, we stopped by a huge stone with carefully engraved stars and intersecting lines - thought to be a map of the region.
We explored the site, and walked through small plazas, tiled roads and some of the 169 stone terraces carved into the mountains.
Deeper and higher up in the ruins is the vantage point where everyone got their iconic Ciudad Perdida photo. From here, we admired the landscape surrounding us.
However, the beauty and magic of the place is in the details. The colourful butterflies, bizarre fauna, roaring rivers, rushing waterfalls, chirping songbirds, and the lines and lines of tiny ants carrying pieces of leaves above them on the trail.
Adding to the nature is the indigenous people that roam about the area. They wear full white with their hair let down to their waist, walked about bare feet, carrying a poporo and shying away from tourists.
The white symbolizes the purity and integrity of the Sierra Nevada peaks and their long wavy hair represents the wisdom of the sacred mountains flowing through the rivers. The children dress the same – complete with long wavy hair - and it is impossible to distinguish their age or sex.
After touring Teyuna and learning about the indigenous culture, we made our way back to camp. It took significantly more effort to descend the 1200 steps as it was slippery and steep. I fell a couple of times.
The skies blessed us: raining only when we reached camp for lunch, and stopping as we were about to leave.
To be honest, this is an extremely challenging trek. Almost 9 months into my trip, I have done numerous treks, including Torres del Paine in Patagonia and high-altitude treks in the Andean mountain ranges.
Yet, the trek to Ciudad Perdida still ranks as the toughest I have done. On the last day, I lagged behind my group, dragging my feet as I slogged my way up the hill. The sun was relentless and the climate just made the whole situation unbearable. I felt like giving up.
You have been warned.
All tour companies charge the same price; roughly US$300-350 (December 2017). They share the campsites and the food is almost identical, so it comes down to a personal choice. Wiwa tour is the only agency that has an indigenous guide.
I went with Expotur and was satisfied with the service. Even without an indigenous guide, our local guide still taught us about the cultures and even borrowed a poporo from an indigenous man.
A poporo is an object that every indigenous person carries around. I still have no idea what a poporo is exactly, except it is like an identification to them, and something very personal.
We had 12 people in the group but it was a mixture of nationalities and backgrounds, making it a very diverse and fun group.
You can choose to do a 4, 5 or 6-day trek and the price is the same. The longer the trek, the easier it is each day. Though I can’t imagine anyone who wants to stay in a hot and sweaty environment for more days.
And now, it’s your turn.