Here I leave you my personal experience and all the details, day by day, of the 4-5 day itinerary to Ciudad Perdida in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta.
For those who have never heard of Ciudad Perdida here you have 5 basic facts:
- Ciudad Perdida is one of the 7 wonders of Colombia. The Tayrona culture built the Lost City 600 years before Machu Picchu.
- It was discovered barely 50 years ago, after being buried under the thick jungle for 400 years and it’s only been 10 years since it can be accessed by tourists since the area was controlled by FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia / Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
- It is only accessible by foot and with a tour operator, through a 60 km trek (round trip), with an accumulate incline of 3000 metres, that can be completed in 4, 5 or 6 days.
- The weather conditions are of extreme humidity, torrential downpours, muddy areas and fierce mosquitoes. It requires walking through steep trails and crossing the Buritaca river pretty often, with water flow that can reach up to your chest.
- It is recommended to have the yellow fever vaccination.
Day 1 – Santa Marta – Machete Pelao (El Mamey) – Camp Adán
Approximate distance: ~10km
The first day we showed up at the tour operator office by 8:30am-8:45am, that in our case was Expotur. There, they checked attendance, pending bureaucracy was completed and we left our big bags in a flat adjacent to the office.
Once we got rid of the extra weight, we were assigned a guide, Camacho, who grouped us by language in our case. Each group was assigned 2 guides, a Spanish one and a translator, except for our group in which we were all Spanish and we were assigned only the one guide. It was a group of 11 people: 3 Spanish boys, 3 Colombian couples and the two of us.
With the guide assigned and the group formed, we headed to the parking site where the SUV’s awaited. There, the bags were placed on top of the cars and us by ten’s in the cars.
Ahead of us we had 1 hour by road until reaching La Aguacatera, where the entrance to the Teyuna – Ciudad Perdida Arqueological Park is located. There we made a quick stop to stretch our legs and to get the bracelet that granted us access to the park.
We continued the journey, this time on a forest track that every time it looked less like it. After a long and bumpy hour we reached El Mamey, also known as Machete Pelao, very grateful to our driver for his skills at the wheel.
In Machete Pelao, a tiny town where Camacho is originally from, we were served our very first meal of the trip. Here we met our waiter and backup guide, Duber a.k.a “Pechito” (Spanish for little chest). Here, you will probably see other groups that has just completed the trek and they are on their way back. If you’re feeling curious you can ask them how it was. So, the adventure starts with a full belly and with a 4 hour trek ahead. We daubed ourselves with sunscreen, we sprayed ourselves with insect repellent and there we went.
During this first stage you will cross other groups that are on their way back to complete their adventure, ones more exhausted than others. The journey starts on a quite easy and wide forest track, in which there’s a lot of motorcycle traffic carrying stuff up and down. On the other hand, there’s barely shade over the track, the ground is quite steep and we had to walk under a blazing sun. You have to get your feet wet very soon to cross the Buritaca river for the first time. I had my sandals quite handy, but it felt like a waste of time taking off my boots and putting on the sandals to cross a river with water up to my ankle. So I opted for doing it barefoot, it was faster and my sandals remained dry a bit longer.
At a time, we had been walking uphill for 45 minutes under the sun, when suddenly, like an oasis in the middle of the desert, there was a stand with watermelon cut for us and a man selling beverages from a mini fridge. During the trek you’ll find different spots with provisioning that will give you life, you will rest a little before continuing.
In Sierra Nevada it is usually sunny in the mornings and it starts pouring rain in the afternoons. You’ll find a lot of muddy areas along the way. If you’re lucky enough to cross them without rain, like we did, your boots will bury under the ground just a little and you’ll be fine. If on the contrary you happen to be there while pouring raining, it will be one of those moments when you think: what on earth am I doing here. After and endless downhill with mud, we finally saw an uralite roofs among the green landscape of Sierra Nevada. It looks like we made it to our first camp, Adán.
The facilities were much better than I expected: toilet bowls and showers (of cold water), sinks and mirrors, bunk beds with quite new mosquito nets, pillows and even some sockets to charge the phone. Pechito assigned us a bunk bed and ordered us to go enjoy the natural well of the Buritaca river before dinner. The water was freezing, but it was great to relax our tired legs. Usually the camps are next to the river, so if the water level is safe, you can enjoy and relax a bit after the journey.
Each group has a cook assigned who also walks the trek, only with a few minutes ahead of us, so when the group arrives the meal is almost ready. Our chef, Ismael, cooked a whole fish, served with rice, “patacón” (fried banana) and salad. They always give some treat for dessert, which I liked to save for the next journey. If you are vegetarian or vegan, don’t panic, the tour operators ask this question when you book the tour, and they adapt to your needs.
I recommend long sleeves in the evening after the shower, it gets quite chilly and mosquitoes are hungry too. After dinner, Camacho joined us and gave us a very interesting lesson on Sierra Nevada’s history and armed conflict. At about 20:00h it was already raining cats and dogs, which is the usual, and we went to bed. In Ciudad Perdida everything gets done very early because of the rain, which usually starts around 16:00h or 17:00h and you need to start walking very early in the morning in order to avoid getting wet on the way.
With the river murmur, the rain, and the 10km we had on our legs, I felt asleep within seconds. I highly recommend brining a thin sleeping bag, only to avoid your skin getting in contact with those mattresses and stinky blankets. Also because there were cases of bedbugs.
Day 2 – Camp Adán – Camp El Paraíso Teyuna
Approximate distance: ~20km
So, this is our routine for the next 3 days:
5:00 am wake up.
5:20 am breakfast.
6:00 am walk.
The second day is the longest, distance wise. You will walk about 20 km from Camp Adán to Camp Paraíso Teyuna, in two stages. The first stage will be from Adán to Mumake, where we will stop for lunch (around 11 in the morning) and a quick swim on the river, and the second stage will be from Mumake to Paraíso Teyuna.
It is also the most beautiful journey. The motorcycle traffic becomes horse and mule traffic, you are totally deep into the jungle, everything is green, nature is high and dense and most of the route is under shade. The views with the first rays of light are just amazing.
In this second day we also enter indigenous territory, where Wiwas and Koguis live. We started passing by barefoot children and women, wearing white robes, as well as horse riders also in white. To be honest they were not very kind, they barely answered when we greeted them, not even a smile and they just went their way without caring much about us. It’s true they don’t speak Spanish nor English, but a smile is understood worldwide. I guess they are not very keen on tourists wandering their territory day in and day out, even though we pay for sleeping in their camps.
Still, the best was being able to live all this experience on our own. The tour operators organize the groups in such way that you barely find people from other agencies on the way. Another reason why we were able to enjoy this on our own, was because we went to Ciudad Perdida during low season (rainy season) and it was less crowded than usual. Our own group, which was already small (11 people) was also split because of a pace difference, and since the weather conditions were good, our guides let us walk on our own, stopping at certain points to meet every now and then.
Besides horses, chickens, pigs, huge toads and butterflies, we saw little fauna along the way. I guess I expected something more exotic, buy maybe it was better this way, since in Sierra Nevada there are hundreds of snake species, the Mapaná among them, which is one of the deadliest. Instead, what we found all the time were lines and lines of red ants carrying gigantic pieces of leaves, which were very cute.
For second day in a row, we dodged the rain pours during our walking hours and this was good news for a lot of reasons: because you don’t get wet (besides your own sweat), because crossing muddy areas is more agile and because river flow doesn’t increase suddenly, so crossing rivers is a pleasant experience, like a relaxing massage for your legs.
So, today was meant to be the toughest day of the trek (and it was, physically), but it also turned out to be the most quiet spiritually speaking. We had such a nice weather, the views were amazing and walking on our own through the jungle filled me up with peace. We reached camp Paraíso Teyuna before the rain started pouring down. We took a shower, had dinner and it was then when the sky broke in tears.
After dinner, Camacho joined us on the table. He congratulated us for our effort, gave us lesson two of Sierra Nevada’s history, explained us what to expect on the next day of the trek and encouraged us to keep it up.
After that we went to bed. On this camp there were no pillows on the beds, and it took me a little longer to fall asleep. But I can’t complain, at least we slept on bunk beds every night and not in the hammocks like it happens in high season, when there’s so many people there’s not enough beds for everyone.
Day 3 – Camp El Paraíso Teyuna – Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) – Camp Mumake
Approximate distance: ~10km
5:00am wake up.
Today we “only” need to get to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City. It’s just one hour walking in which you need to cross the most dangerous part of the Buritaca river and climb 1200 thin and slippery rock stairs. The bonus is you get to do that without your bag. You can leave it at the camp because we will be back for lunch.
If the past days had been raining a lot, the water can easily reach up to your chest and the current is very strong. That was the only thing I was afraid about the Lost City trek. Luckily for me, it didn’t rain much the last two days and the water was only up to my thighs. However, the current was still very strong.
If the water level is high, you cross the river tied to the rope with a carabiner and if it’s impossible to do it across the river, you will use a kind of cage / zip line that hangs over the river.
Once you’ve crossed the river, whether by ground or air, you start climbing the stairs after a few more metres. The smaller your feet size is the easier it will be for you to climb them, as some of them are specially thin. It will be almost easier if you go up sideways instead of facing the stairs.
Around 7:00 in the morning we reached the first terraces of the Lost City. We waited for our group to arrive and before starting exploring, Camacho congratulated all of us and gave us the third lesson on Sierra Nevada and the Lost City’s history. Now we had 3 hours ahead of us to enjoy the lost paradise.
The Lost City is much bigger than you can imagine, there are several areas and we still had to climb a lot of stairs to get the famous view. I have to admit that witnessing this moment with the first rays of light it was pretty spectacular.
In this amazing scenery and to celebrate our achievement, our guides brought us a snack: a platter filled with fruit, dried fruit, chocolate, cheese, candy, etc. After the obligatory picture and the little celebration, we passed by Gimena’s shack, the shaman’s wife in the Kogui tribe. We had the chance to be with her and her children for a bit and we bought some bracelets from her.
Once again I was surprised with the operators’ ability of organization, so that all groups could enjoy their own space and get pictures with not many people in them.
Now it was time to undo our steps back to camp Paraíso Teyuna. We had to go down a few more than 1200 stairs, cross the river by ground or air and stop to have lunch and maybe a swim.
Around midday we were back on track, this time with our bags again on our back. We had to walk 10 more km until reaching Mumake Camp, where we would sleep that day.
That same night after dinner we had a visit from Fermín, a personality within the Kogui community, who talked about their culture and they way of living. There was a round of Q&A which solved some of our doubts, although some of the answer didn’t convince us. However, we went to sleep pretty satisfied that we made it to the Lost City.
Day 4 – Camp Mumake – Machete Pelao (El Mamey) – Santa Marta
Approximate distance: ~20km
Last day of routine:
5:00am wake up.
The 40 km accumulated were heavy on our legs. It was pretty hard for me to start this fourth day, everything hurt and I was looking forward getting to our hostel to get a hot shower and eat some Mediterranean food.
As we were walking and the muscles were warmed up, we caught a good pace. Since the scenery wasn’t new (there’s only one way to the Lost City), we stopped less, took less pictures and focused on going uphill, downhill, crossing rivers and muddy areas looking forward getting to Machete Pelao.
We made a brief stop at Camp Adán, where we slept the very first night, to drink a juice that our cook Ismael prepared and to say goodbye to the part of the group that were staying for 5 days. We also took advantage of the sun to try and dry our boots since they were filled with fresh mud.
We arrived surprisingly in good shape to Machete Pelao. I guess all our training going up Montserrate (the one in Barcelona not Bogotá) had paid off. While we waited for the rest of the group to arrive, we took a quick cold shower and then we had lunch with the people that completed the trek in 4 days.
After lunch we got in the SUV’s for a bumpy ride back to La Aguacatera and from there 1 and a half hour on the road to Santa Marta. By 17:00 in the afternoon we were at Expotur offices. We said goodbye to our fellow travellers and tour guides, got our big backpacks and made the last effort walking for 10 minutes to our hostel carrying 10kg.
And there, lying on our bed after a well deserved hot shower, we debated whether on going to Tayrona National Park the next day (to walk for 4 more hours) or staying in and rest.
Day 5 – Optional
Those who chose to do the 5 day itinerary to the Lost City, on day 4, instead of going from Camp Mumake to Machete Pelao directly (~20km), they will stay and sleep in Camp Adán, were we slept our very first night.
This is a good choice for people who don’t want to walk for so many km the last day, or that are not in good shape or just want to take it easy. My advice is, that if you have a limited time in Colombia, complete it in 4 days.
If you’re interested, you can also check these posts about the Lost City: