The Lost City trek is an arduous but rewarding 4 to 5-day traverse through the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia.
The trek offers a unique opportunity to connect with nature, to see the ancient ruins of a Pre-Columbian society, as well as to cross through the land of the Kogi tribes. These indigenous people live in traditional ways inside the Sierra Nevada reservation.
While exchanging travel tips with other travellers in Colombia, I’ve often been asked if I’ve done the Lost City trek and whether it was worth it. It’s actually one of the most common questions I get about Colombia.
This is understandable as the trek does take around 5 days and costs COP 1.400.000 per person (currently about $306 US Dollars).
If you’re wondering about the cost or time needed, or just what the experience will be like, then let me share everything here so that you can make up your own mind.
Plan your Santa Marta & Lost City trip
How many days do you need?
The Lost City trek can be completed from 4 to 6 days. It seems most commonly done in 4 days, but I think it’s best to do it in 5 days.
I did it in 5 days myself and thought this was just the perfect pace.
I’m a frequent hiker and do enjoy a stiff hike, but I liked that this 5-day itinerary also left a bit more time for swimming in the river, properly enjoying the views, and spending some time at camp.
On the 5-day trek, you will spend the first three days hiking to the Lost City. On the morning of the third day, you will explore the archaeological ruins. You will trek the same way back on the 4th and 5th days.
You can check the exact trekking itineraries offered by the different tour companies, though they are all roughly the same. If you choose the 4-day option, it will typically be the same for the first three days, but then you’ll trek all the way back in just one day instead of two.
While not difficult in a technical sense, the trail is quite strenuous. By the end of it, I was thoroughly exhausted.
If you absolutely loathe hiking, then this is not the experience for you.
But if you are up for a challenge, then stamina is really all you need to do the Lost City trek. I saw hikers of various ages along the trail. If you can put one foot in front of the other repeatedly for 4 to 5 days, then you can do it.
On average you will hike about 5 hours per day if you’re doing the 5-day itinerary.
The path goes up and down in elevation a lot. You’ll be alternating between ascending and descending the whole way, though the general direction to the Lost City is up, and it’s generally down on the way back.
Mules will carry water and food to the camps, so all you have to carry are your personal belongings such as clothes, a towel, sunscreen, a rain jacket, etc. Just a daypack should be enough for this trek.
You will mostly hike on a dirt path. Depending on the season, you’ll be dealing either with quite a lot of dust or a lot of mud, and potentially a lot of mosquitos.
Expect it to be quite a tiring trek. When my group reached the minibus back to Santa Marta, everyone was silent and we all fell asleep on the bus.
While I have done much more challenging treks (such as going up steep volcanoes or trekking in the Himalayas), the Lost City trek is still a somewhat tough one, so you need a basic fitness level to do it.
Doing it independently
If the price tag of an organized trek seems a bit hefty, you might wonder about doing this trek by yourself. Can’t you just pack a bag with a tent and your own food and do the Lost City trek independently?
I see this question asked constantly on social media groups for Colombia. The answer is that you can’t do the Lost City trek independently. This has nothing to do with your trekking abilities. It’s simply not allowed.
The trail runs through the ancestral lands of the Kogi tribes who have given a few tour companies permission to take guided groups into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta national park. Independent hikers are not permitted under this arrangement.
I love (and usually prefer) hiking independently but I understand why only tours are allowed in this case. It’s a way for the various parties involved to benefit financially but also to properly manage visitor numbers.
The people who call these jungled valleys their home only gave permission to several tour companies to do this trek. There are also some Kogi tribes away from the trail that want to stay isolated. That’s why signing up with a guided group tour is the only way.
Booking the guided trek
There are five tour operators authorized to do the La Ciudad Perdida trek:
The prices are standardized so there is no need to shop around. Simply choose a tour operator that you think will give you a good experience.
Only Wiwa Tours is slightly different from the others as they employ indigenous guides, though they are (as the name implies) from the Wiwa tribe rather than Kogi. They’re using this as a selling point though the tours are essentially the same with every company.
Other international tour companies (such as G Adventures) may also offer the Lost City trek, but they are simply reselling the same tours while adding a profit margin for themselves. For the best price, simply book directly with any of the Colombian companies.
If you prefer to book through a platform, you can book the Lost City trek via GetYourGuide. This is the quickest way but they charge a bit more. Still, maybe you don’t want to deal with contacting the local operators in Spanish, or perhaps you just want this booked right away.
If you reserve via GetYourGuide, you will be going with Baquianos Tours.
What to expect
Many who’ve done the trek will say the same thing: “it’s less about the destination and more about the journey”.
Don’t expect the ancient ruins to be a Machu Picchu-like revelation. What’s still visibly left of the city are just a few flat terraces where once there were buildings.
There are said to be 170 stone terraces carved in the mountain, but most are covered in jungle. There are almost no walls or structures left, only foundations.
Your guide will make the place come to life by providing context, but there is not necessarily a whole lot to see.
Whoever called it the Lost City certainly did a great job naming it as it sounds so tantalizing and mysterious. Admittedly it is buried deep in the Colombian jungle and wasn’t rediscovered by outsiders until 1972.
From an archaeological point of view, the site is clearly significant. The city is estimated to date back to 800 AD and to have had around 8000 inhabitants. You have to walk up 1200 moss-covered stone steps to reach the top.
However, it’s the trek itself that I enjoyed most.
The trail follows a river for almost the entire length, letting you cool off the water regularly and visit small waterfalls. Hummingbirds, butterflies in large numbers and sizes, and colourful tropical birds can be spotted all along the trail.
Being far away from any electricity or WiFi enhances the experience. You will sleep at simple camps where dinner is served by candlelight.
The shared experience lets you easily get to know many people in your group. I went on the trek during a solo trip and enjoyed chatting with my fellow hikers during the day or playing card games at camp at night.
There’s nothing quite like falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle. Laying in the dark in a hammock covered in a mosquito net will make you feel like you’re in a cozy cocoon, letting you focus on the orchestra of crickets, frogs, and birds that are out there somewhere. On my first night, I even heard monkeys whooping in the distance.
What makes the trek interesting as well is the chance to see or meet members of the Kogi tribes. They can be easily recognised by their white robes and the pointy hats worn by the male priests.
These indigenous people have maintained their traditional way of life, typically living in small thatched huts. Their belief system is centred on living in balance with nature, with their God, Aluna, being a kind of Mother Nature figure.
They call outsiders the ‘Younger Brothers’ believing us to have caused Earth’s ecology to become unbalanced, while they call themselves the ‘Elder Brothers’ and see themselves as caretakers of the Earth. Learning about their simple and nature-focused lives is quite fascinating.
While the Lost City in itself may not be quite as majestic as you might imagine, the trek is nevertheless highly memorable, with the journey itself making it especially rewarding.
Is it worth the time?
It’s difficult to say if the trek is worth your time without knowing your Colombia itinerary. 5 days could be a long time or not depending on how much time you have.
I spoke with some travellers in Minca who only had ten days on their Colombia trip. They were hotly debating whether to do the Ciudad Perdida trek and asked me for advice, hoping I could be their tie-breaker. In their case, I thought maybe it would take up too many days. But it still depends.
If your travel time is limited (e.g. under 2 weeks) then you could also choose to spend 4 or 5 days on a variety of other experiences in Colombia. You could still scratch your trekking itch with one or two days of hiking in the nearby Tayrona Park. To see a lot of wildlife, you could go on a birdwatching tour in Minca. Perhaps you’ll get more variety in your Colombia itinerary that way.
If you are on a longer trip in Colombia (e.g. at least a few weeks), then doing the Lost City trek becomes an easier decision to take. I did it during a six-week trip in Colombia and loved it. The decision was less agonizing as I had plenty of time left for other activities.
I should mention that after 5 days of trekking I was pretty exhausted, so I spent the next two days either inside or beside the pool at my hostel in Santa Marta. While the trek takes 4 of 5 days you may also need a bit of recovery time afterwards.
Is it worth the money?
I first did this trek back in 2014 when it still cost 600,000 pesos (about $140 USD). At the time it was a no-brainer.
I travelled in Colombia again in 2022 and by this time the price had more than doubled to COP 1.400.000 per person (approximately $306USD or €282 at current exchange rates). So it’s no longer as cheap as it once was.
The price is still understandable given the need to keep tourism at sustainable levels. In a certain sense, you are paying for other people not to be there. There are limits to how many people can do the trek, so it makes sense the price has risen along with demand.
The tour is also all-inclusive. You will be transported to and from the trailhead and will receive a qualified guide, three meals a day (with lots of food) and a place to sleep every night.
The accommodation will be either hammocks or dormitory-style beds in the open air under a corrugated roof, so it’s nothing fancy, but that is also part of the trekking experience.
You won’t have any other expenses during the tour, which may help to justify the overall expense. While backpacking in Colombia I usually spend about $40 a day on average, so on the Lost City trek I would spend $32 above my usual amount per day. Thinking about what you’ll be spending above your regular costs might be a useful way to look at it.
If you’re not on a tight budget, then I think it’s definitely worth it. The trek itself is a wonderful experience and despite the ruins not being that big, it’s about more than just the ruins.
If you are a budget backpacker and if the tour seems too pricey to you, then you can also use the money saved to have other experiences in Colombia. The trek is very cool, but there are a lot of very cool things you can do in Colombia, so don’t have to feel pressured to include it at all costs. It’s all up to you whether you think it’s worth it.