The Ultimate Guide to the Lost City Trek in Colombia

In Colombia, Destinations, Traveling Atlas by Brandon Copeland1 Comment

The Lost City Trek in Colombia is around 500 years older than Machu Picchu, steeped in culture, and is still relatively untouched by the effects of tourism. The reason for this is simple; Colombia was an incredibly dangerous place for many years, especially in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada.

The Lost City or “Teyuna” is now the archaeological remains of the sacred city of the Tayrona people who built the site in 800 AD. The design and location of the city high up in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta makes it one of the most unique ancient cities in the Americas. The terraces that once were the foundation for the Tayrona’s houses have made the site internationally famous.

Brandon and Erin from Traveling Atlas in the Lost City.

Tourism to La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) only began to start ramping up in the last 7 or so years, but thankfully it is not oversaturated with hikers yet. The oversaturation hasn’t occurred because there is only one way to get to the Lost City; on foot. You can’t take a bus to the top, you can’t start at a closer destination on the trail, you have to walk the same distance as everyone else, no matter how much you pay.

The walk is quite difficult and it’s not for the faint of heart. However, along the way you are met with the most spectacular jungle views and cultural interactions that the journey is just as rewarding as the destination.

If you’re trying to decide on an epic hike in South America and are on a budget, the Lost City Trek is the way to go. The tour, for practically the same amenities, is at least half as expensive as treks to Machu Picchu. 

Getting to Santa Marta, Colombia from Cartagena

Most of the companies offering a guided Lost City Trek tour departs from the closest major city of Santa Marta. If you’re flying internationally, this may be a difficult spot to fly to and at the moment, while Santa Marta has an international airport, there are no regularly scheduled international flights.

The next closest city with an international airport is Barranquilla, the home of Shakira. Similar to Santa Marta, the flights at Barranquilla are limited – from the U.S. only flights from Miami are direct through American Airlines. You could fly into Bogóta and have a layover before flying to Barranquilla.

The option we chose, is to fly into Cartagena. Cartagena is a decent international hub with different options for direct flights from the U.S. and around the world. We ended up having a layover in Bogóta overnight and then continued to Cartagena the next morning. This was a great excuse to explore Cartagena, a beautiful oceanside city with a rich historical district.

Brandon and Erin at Castillo de San Felipe in Cartagena, Colombia.

If you want an affordable, comfortable place to stay in Cartagena check out Maloka Boutique Hostel. The room was simple but nice, with a great rooftop and exceptional complimentary breakfast. Also, it is very centrally located in the historic district so most sites are walking distance. If you want more information, check out our post on how to spend on day in Cartagena.

From Cartagena, there are no direct flights to Santa Marta but it’s only a four hour drive by bus. There are public buses that make the journey but we decided to go with a tourist bus arranged by our hostel. We booked the ride through MarSol which provided a private bus with A/C that took us directly to our hotel in Santa Marta. If you don’t have cell phone service or don’t speak Spanish, have your hostel/hotel call them and book the reservation for you. A day in advance worked just fine for us. As of July 2019, the ride cost 52,000 COP (~$15) per person each way.

Santa Marta – Preparing for the Lost City Trek

Santa Marta is the pickup location for most of the tour companies and therefore you’ll likely have to spend at minimum a night there before and after the Lost City Trek. We splurged a little and stayed at Casa Mia Boutique Hotel and we would highly recommend it!  The rooms are spacious and well decorated, and they even have a small rooftop pool which we took full advantage of. 

If you’re spending a day or two in Santa Marta, check out our guide for spending one day in Santa Marta.

Rooftop pool at Casa Mia in Santa Marta, Colombia.

The most popular tour companies for the Lost City Trek are Expotur and Magic Tour. We went with Expotur and thoroughly enjoyed our 4-Day Lost City Trek. If you book with Expotur, you will need to stop by the office the day before to handle final payment and passport info. This will save you the headache of trying to pay in the morning while there are 50 people with large bags crowding up their small office.

Also, Expotur offers to store your bags in their office while you took a backpack out on the Lost City Trek. While plenty of people chose this option, we decided to leave our bags under lock and key at Casa Mia. However, this was just personal preference. Regardless, make sure to bring a daypack to carry extra clothes and water bottles; keep reading for our packing resource suggestions. 

Expotur offers tours that are 4, 5 or 6 days in length – it seems like it would be easier to take a tour that is 6 days as opposed to 4, but that is the furthest thing from the case. The hardest part about the trek is the mental fortitude to live with just a small amount of clothes on your back while you sweat through everything you own. The shorter the trek, the easier… by the 4th day we were so happy to come back to Casa Mia, take a shower, and clean our disgusting clothes.

Packing Resources for the Lost City Trek

We put very little preparation into what we should bring for the trek and while we made it out just fine, if we had the chance to prepare again we would have done a much better job. Below is a list of items we would highly recommend bringing.

Please note that the links below are affiliate links and if you use our links we will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. However, all of these items we use regularly for hikes and treks and we highly recommend them.

Hiking Clothing

Columbia Hiking BootsVessi Waterproof Sneakers
Quick Dry Hiking ShortsColorful Packable Rain Jacket
Hiking SocksTeva Hiking Sandals
Adidas Sport Boxer Briefs Sun Hat
Bluffworks T-ShirtsColumbia Rain Jacket

Hiking Accessories

Packable Hiking BackpackPocket Knife
Microfiber TowelQue Collapsible Water Bottle
LED HeadlampGRAYL Water Bottle Filter
Camelback Insulated Water BottleLongchamp Le Pliage Backpack
Backpack Waterproof CoverEarth Pak Dry Bag
Phone Waterproof PouchTravel First Aid Kit

What to Expect on the Lost City Trek

Brandon and Erin during the Lost City Trek in Colombia.

If you choose the 4 day trek, each day has it’s significant challenges. You will be hiking around 7 hours each day through the Colombian jungle in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. The heat and humidity of the region will have you sweating like crazy within a few minutes of hiking. To make matters more difficult, due to the humidity, nothing dries even if it’s hanging out overnight.

The Lost City Trek is “way harder than we expected” – if you don’t get the reference, watch the video we made about the experience below.

The hiking is either uphill or downhill, both presenting steep, difficult grades to tackle. There is very little flat ground that you’ll be traversing. If you like using hiking poles, they could be helpful with the constant changes in elevation.

You will be doing 2 serious river crossings in each direction (for a total of 4 crossings) that require you to take your socks and shoes off, carry your belongings above your head, and cross as carefully as possible. Take a lesson from Erin – it’s not fun to fall in and get all of your belongings wet, especially when nothing will dry.

The camps are surprisingly nice, each with spacious bunk beds that come with pillows and effective mosquito nets. The showers are cold, but hey, at least they have showers! At the camps they make you delicious food and offer purified water so you can fill up for the next day.

The Lost City itself is incredible, but you’ll have to climb 1200 uneven rock steps to arrive in the city. This city, while lost, is home to a population of mosquitoes that is unimaginably large. I recommend bringing bug spray, the vile stuff that is without a doubt toxic, or prepare to be eaten alive.

However, all of the challenges aside, the Lost City Trek is just one incredibly beautiful view after another. You come into contact with indigenous communities all throughout the hike and learn about their cultures that are still very much alive. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I’m glad that it was difficult; nothing easy yields that high of a reward.

Conclusion: Take a Leap and Do the Lost City Trek!

Brandon, Erin, and friends from the Lost City Trek with Expotur in Colombia.

The Lost City Trek is a challenge but if you are physically able, I would highly recommend you take the leap and book a tour! Not only was it an amazing cultural experience, it’s not over touristed (as of writing in 2019) and you will feel like you are apart of something special. We made great friends on the trek who we have met up with afterward and continue to keep in contact with. Do something different, get out into nature, explore, and learn more about the world – you won’t regret it!

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