The Lost City trek in Colombia is a relatively well-kept secret. To give some idea, Peru’s Inca Trail attracts almost 20 times more visitors a year (and the ruins themselves well over a hundred times more). While you do meet other hikers on the Lost City trek, it lacks the continuous conga line of backpackers found on some other trails in South America.

The five-day trek leads to the ruins of an ancient pre-Colombian mountain-top city known as Teyuna (or more commonly Ciudad Perdida), still considered hallowed ground by the indigenous tribes nearby. It’s no Machu Picchu in terms of size and scale, though I was told it’s the journey and not just the destination that makes this trek special. This turned out to be true, though the destination was certainly worth it as well.

The trek is rated moderate to difficult, and some fitness is definitely required. In the wet season the mud and humidity can apparently be a nightmare, but all I have to worry about in this time of year was a crazy amount of sand and dust in some places.

The trail runs almost continuously along a river, and when you’re all sweaty and hot it’s a joy to jump into the cold mountain water.

The trek runs through beautiful lush jungles.

The river provides frequent relief from the heat. We went for a dip multiple times a day.

Going back to basics

It’s nice having to go back to basics for a while. We washed our clothes and ourselves in the river, and slept in hammocks or basic bunks underneath only a corrugated roof. There’s no electricity so dinner is served by candlelight, and my sleeping cycle quickly synced up with the natural light (I usually went to bed around 9 and woke up at 5).

There’s nothing like falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle. On the first night we slept along a little creek, cocooned in hammocks with mosquito-net covering. Laying in the dark in this enclosed bed is like being in some kind of sensory-deprivation chamber, turning your focus entirely to the orchestra of insects, birds and other animals that are out there somewhere. A distant monkey provides a base layer to the jungle soundtrack with a consistent ‘WOOP, WOOP’ that goes on for a good twenty minutes. There’s the sound of hundreds of crickets and frogs–and occasionally, I hear a tucan or woodpecker.

This bridge was recently built by antropologists working in the area. Before, you had to take a dangerous little lift (below) to cross the river.

During the day, nature manages to leave its mark as well. The trail leads through some dense jungles along green hills and waterfalls. I saw many brightly coloured tropical birds along the way, and sometimes a hummingbird zipped past. Whenever we took a dip in the river, we were surrounded by butterflies.

The final ascent on the 4th day has you climb over 1200 moss-covered steps, leading to a series of mountain terraces surrounded by jungle. This is where the old ruins are. The lost city is believed to have been founded about 800 AD, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu, and it was not discovered until 1972.

A hummingbird rears its head just as I try to take a picture of this giant flower

In the evening, card games and dinner by candle light.

Land of the Kogi tribe

Perhaps more interesting than the city itself is that in the valleys and mountains here still live the Kogi, an indigenous people who have maintained their traditional way of life. Occasionally we meet a Kogi on our path, or pass some of their tiny thatched huts.

The Kogi wear colourful handwoven shoulder bags and long white robes–a colour they chose after the colour of the clouds. Some wear a special pointed hat; these are the Mamas (priests) who hold special status in their society. The Kogi belief system is based on Aluna, a Mother Nature creator figure. They call outsiders like us Younger Brothers, who they believe are hurting the balance of the Earth’s ecology. (I’m afraid they might be right…)

Two Kogis; the man on the right is a Mama priest

 

The Kogi are quite solemn and often don’t like to be photographed. While hikers are permitted thanks to an agreement with the tribes, I still felt like I was somewhat intruding. There is already some tension between the Kogi tribes due to the money one of the tribes receives. For instance, the more remote tribes never wear shoes as they believe the soles step on the face of Mother Nature, whereas the central tribe now uses the money from hiking permits to buy rubber boots.

On the one hand, it feels like their traditional way of life might become spoiled by tourism, especially if it’s developed unsustainably. On the other hand, maybe it’s arrogant to think that the Kogi don’t deserve modern conveniences. Some of the children now receive education, and when someone falls sick the tribal elders can bring them to nearby Santa Marta for treatment. There’s no arguing that’s not a good thing.

You have to climb 1200 steps to reach the Lost City

The Lost City manages to impress, in part thanks to its remoteness

The trees around the Lost City are full of hanging bird nests made by Crested Oronpendolas

Return to civilization

The last day of the trek is the most intense, as we go all the way back to our starting point. It’s the longest day of trekking, but finally we reach the small town at the edge of the national park. Exhausted but satisfied, I plop down in a little restaurant, not long after gorging on a big meal and drinking that cold beer I’ve been craving all day.

As much as I like to be in nature for five days, and seeing how the Kogi people can live off the land and be entirely self-sustaining, it’s also good to be back. My phone beeps – it’s receiving signal again. I can’t wait to have my shower and put on some clean clothes.

On the jeep back to Santa Marta, we all fall asleep.

Mules deliver supplies to some of the camps

Read more in my budget travel guide to Colombia.