Exploring Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida, the Unknown Machu Picchu

Written by: Lana Elway

The Long Trek to the Lost City

When I began researching South America, my feelings were a mix of excitement and trepidation. I was a first-time traveller, and was planning a five month journey across the continent.

To calm the nerves, my friend and I put together a watertight itinerary of where we would be going and what we would be doing. So when we reached Santa Marta in northern Colombia, my curiosity was piqued by the mystery of the so-called ‘Lost City,’ ruins which are thought to be older than Peru’s much more famous Machu Picchu.

Fast-forward five days and, recovering from a kidney infection, I waved goodbye to civilisation as we set off on a four day trek to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City of the Tayrona people.

Kidnappings and drug warfare

Armed guards on Ciudad Perdida trail

I was part of an eight-strong team headed up by guide and ex-military man Hernan.  I came to like Hernan soon after he rubbished my feeble attempt to explain in Spanish the dawdling rate of my walking.

‘Soy una Tortuga,’ I told him, after only the first day of the hike. ‘I am a tortoise.’

This route saw tourist kidnappings and drug-related warfare only ten years ago, and so it was quite common for us to see soldiers dotted along the trail. As ominous as this might sound, the soldiers were fresh-faced from training and were there to maintain security of Ciudad Perdida. They were only ever too happy to pose for a photo. Get lucky and you might even be able to buy a bandana or backpack from them – although apparently negotiation is not the done thing!

We moved as a group up and down the ravines that make up the highest coastal mountain range in the world. One of the biggest reasons Ciudad Perdida is still so off the radar is because of its inaccessibility; almost three days of walking for nine hours a day is part and parcel of this adventure but trust me, it’s totally worth the blisters and sore legs!

The Ciudad Perdida trail

During these days, we stopped regularly to enjoy the magnificence of the world around us. A carpet of green extended out in front of us and wrapped around the ‘walls’ of the jungle; vines as big as my waist twisted and entwined each other to the point where the end of one was lost in the beginning of another. Blue Morpho butterflies, one of the biggest in the world, became our travel companions.

Regular stops were taken to plunge into refreshingly cool waterfalls and pools, and at every camp we loaded up on fresh pineapple and oranges to boost our energy. The basic camps along the way appear like a mirage in a desert after a long day’s hike, but a three-course meal is on the menu every night as a team ‘chef’ scrambles on ahead to have it ready for when you arrive.

Meeting the locals

In the evenings, over a few tins of Alguila beer, Hernan told us of the lives of the Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuacos and Cancuamo communities who live on these sloping mountains and maintain their traditional lifestyles.

The Kogis, dressed in white to reflect their purity, see themselves as ‘Elder Brothers,’ with everyone else – including us – considered ‘Younger Brothers.’ This attitude explains their ignorance of our presence, but far from being offended I actually enjoyed this humbling experience. They see themselves as custodians of the planet and take this divine role very seriously. We ‘Younger Brothers’ cannot offer them anything of value.

Children on Ciudad Perdida

That’s not to say the children of these communities aren’t being affected by the drip feed of tourism. Whilst the adults took a dim view of us, the children came bounding over with the ultimate deal: chocolate in exchange for a photo.

Whilst this offer – with my Instagram followers in mind – was too good to refuse, it’s sad to see that tourism is starting to take its toll, even with such a low number of visitors per year. Machu Picchu sees about one million people visit every year.  Ciudad Perdida will have around just 8,000 rambling around the ruins.

When we reached the top of the climb, after one last scramble up a waterfall and then 1,200 vertical steps, the dirt and sweat were instantly forgotten, as we were rewarded with breathtaking views.

It was easy to see how this City was the heart of the Tayrona people. Living quarters, settlements and infrastructure were plain to see across the sprawling site. We were told it’s still almost 90% undiscovered.

At the top of Ciudad Perdida

In the distance, mountains covered in a broccoli-like tree canopy sprawled for miles around, interspersed with the occasional smoke plume showing signs of life buried deep within the jungle.

We had the place to ourselves except for a group of archaeologists, giddily exploring more of the yet undiscovered ruins with an aerial drone. They were happy to have us join them in huddling around the handset to see the views from a tiny portable screen.

Whilst in Colombia, take the time to be rewarded by a challenging hike to the amazingly unknown Lost City, and have the whole site completely to yourself. To be part of this discovery is not something ‘normal’ person has the opportunity to do. But yet, there we were, feeling every inch the explorer as we soaked up the magic of Ciudad Perdida.


– Base yourself in a hostel in Santa Marta, which will help arrange the trip and also let you leave your backpack whilst you’re trekking. I stayed in Dreamer hostel.

– There are only four tour companies authorised to run these trips and all have agreed a set fee of 600,000 COP (£155), which includes transport to and from your hostel to the base point and all food/drinks/accommodation.

– Pack lightly and don’t take anything precious – the humidity will crumble paper to shreds (passport!) and nothing will come back clean!

About the Author

Lana Elway

Never one to take herself too seriously, Lana Elway is not happy with sitting still. From (trying) to learn Spanish to giving opera a go, all while saving for the next Big Adventure, she’s full of useless facts but isn’t too bad at writing an article or two! You can read more of her work on her blog, Yours is the World.

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