The Lost City in La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

Posted by Jacqui De Klerk on 2 April 2012

In 1976 a boy and his father discovered a lost city, hidden away for hundreds of years and tucked deep in the jungle of La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. They found gold, and soon after many people came digging. The Colombian government stepped in and turned the area into a protected area. But then a rebel group, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) took control of the area and nobody could enter or else they would be kidnapped or killed. 

In 2003 a group of tourists trekking to the Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida in Spanish, were attacked by the FARC. They only took the tourists from reputable countries (Germany, USA, Spain, UK) and left the Colombians and Belgians. The hostages were released about 102 days later. But this incident placed an even further stigma on Colombia and its tourism. Today is it totally and completely safe to trek in La Sierra Nevada. The FARC have been pushed further south in Colombia and the Colombian army has a base just above the Lost City. The paramilitary do operate in this area as well, but they aren’t a risk to tourists – so far, so good! (The paramilitary started out as an organization to fight against leftist political activists and guerilla groups. Later they were formed to protect rich politicians and businessmen).

History of Ciudad Perdida

The Lost City was built around 800 AD (650 years earlier than Machu Picchu) by the Tairona people. It was 11,700 square meters in size and was home to around 2400 people.  All that remains today are grassy terraces, neatly tiled roads and several circular plazas. The Tairona’s lived in La Sierra Nevada from at least 1st century AD. When the Spanish arrived in the 1600’s, some Tairona tribes stayed where they were and as a result got involved with the Spanish’s colonization. However, a small population of Tairona’s fled to even higher altitudes, completely abandoning their homes. The Kogi’s, who still exist, are believed to be direct descendents of the tribe that moved to deeper and higher areas when the Spanish arrived.

There are four indigenous tribes living in La Sierra Nevada- the Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo. They believe that La Sierra Nevada is the heart of the world: whatever happens here happens everywhere. Maintaining and sustaining the balance of the ecological and spiritual world is their sacred task. Through daily rituals, meditations and mental discipline they try to preserve their mission, despite the modern intrusion of logging, mining and drug cultivation.

They call themselves the Elder brothers (the guardians of the planet) and rest of us, the Younger brothers. They believe in ‘The Great Mother’, who provides guidance and is the force behind everything. When she created the world, she spun a spindle and four threads unreeled to form the four Tairona people and La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. They live by the ‘Law of Origin’ which is an ecological philosophy that governs their relationship to animals, nature, water, weather and astronomy. Their values and spiritual practices are based on ‘aluna’ which is the belief that reality is created by thought and that everything (objects and people) has both a physical reality and spiritual core – all deriving from thought. The mamas (the highest priests) communicate through meditation and rituals with the aluna world, and try to uphold the equilibrium of the mountain.

Hiking to Ciudad Perdida

Booking the trek was really simple since there are many agencies providing this service. There is actually only one company (Turcol) who has the authority to bring people up to the Lost City, so all the smaller agencies get a commission.

It costs about R2300. A percentage goes to the Kogi tribe since we are walking on their land, and another percentage goes to the paramilitary (which is kind of saying ‘here’s some money, please don’t hurt us’). All meals, transport and any extras are included in the price. It is quite expensive, but the trek is providing jobs for the locals who used to work in the cocaine factories.

Coca leaves grow naturally in La Sierra Nevada and in the 90’s FARC got involved with cocaine production. The cocaine factories provided jobs and income for the people in the area. A few years ago the Colombian army, together with the USA, carried out a secret operation to fumigate all coca plantations. They flew planes over the fields releasing chemicals to destroy any plant life. Yes, it wiped out the coca plants, but it also killed any future possibility of growing anything! So these people were left with no jobs, no money and no food. Hence the fact of why tourism is such an essential part of income here.

Let me introduce the lovely group of people that I had the pleasure of walking with. There is the friendly and jolly Cam from Canada, who had so much camera equipment I’m surprised he didn’t fall off the mountain. Also from North America is the blunt, loud ‘where’s my coffee?’ Paula from New York City. She is a writer for Playboy and was on the trek for a story she was writing about the cocaine factories in this area. From Belgium we had an adventurous couple, Veerle and Thijs. They had been traveling in South America for 6 months and had some great and interesting stories to tell. Then there’s Andries, who is living and breathing a real German life (no offence). From complaining about how the long the breaks were; to rushing ahead so he could get the best bed. On the first night, I kid you not, he went around feeling all the hammocks to find the best one. Also joining us were Patricio and Francisca, a recently married couple from Chile, who were on their honeymoon. Finally we have chain-smoking-alcoholic-Dave and his wife Fran, an elderly couple from England. Having Dave around felt like I was on the set of a British comedy-the way he spoke and what he said had us all in stitches anytime he opened his mouth.  ‘Bloody hell, do I really have to  walk up ther’ ?’

After leaving Santa Marta we arrive three hours later at the start of the trek. The road to the start includes some serious 4X4-ing, but the skilled driver knows every bump, hole and ditch. Before we set off we enjoy a rather nice lunch of cheese and salad sandwiches and coke. The first day is absolute hell! Up, up and when you can’t up anymore, we go down! Then up once more, just for fun. We have some fruit stops along the way and enjoy the beautiful scenery around us.

The great thing about the trek is that there is no rush and people that speed walk up it are completely missing the point. There is enough time to stop, take a rest, take a photo or just take in the fresh mountain air. I am a slow hiker, so it was great to have people to walk and chat with.

The first camp sat on a hill overlooking the green hills of the jungle and some coffee farms. We choose a hammock (Andries obviously had the best one) and then just relaxed until suppertime. When I booked my trip the guy in the office asked me something I am rarely asked in a country like Colombia- ‘are you vegetarian?’ I replied ‘thank you so much for caring!’ Instead of chicken/meat I got cheese, eggs or beans. So I didn’t starve or get kwashiorkor. That night we played some dice games and then fell asleep to the hum of the jungle at night.

The trek over the next days was beautiful! We walked past huge banana trees, butterflies, a red ant’s parade and flowers of all colours. Nature is one place where all my problems, negative thoughts and worries simply get pushed back into my mind. And I almost forget that I have anything else to do, to go back for. Nature is my amnesia! I had some real ‘Oprah-a-ha-moments’ while trekking through the jungle.

A bit more about the Kogi’s. When a boy enters manhood he is allowed to chew coca leaves (this is strictly only for men). The coca leaves are used in conjunction with powdered lime, which turns the coca into a mild narcotic. The lime is made from burnt seashells and is kept in a vegetable calabash (called a poporo).  The lime is extracted from the poporo with a wooden stick which is used to spread the lime onto the coca leaves in his mouth. He then rubs the stick on the surface of the poporo, which eventually, after many repetitions forms a layer. This action represents the spiritual union (of mind and body) between a man and a woman. It also keeps him in balance with The Mother Earth. A man is never seen without his poporo. They chew coca leaves to numb the lining of the stomach and to suppress hunger. They say they need to be in this state in order to communicate with the ancestors.

The women collect coca leaves for their husbands and bear as many children as possible (by the time a girl is 26 she could have about 12 kids! I have some catching up to do!). The Kogi that we saw aren’t as pure compared to the Kogi higher up in the mountains. I saw one shaman talking on a walkie-talkie and his wife eating chips and drinking a coke! The supreme leader of the Kogi has never met with a non-Kogi; the lower level leaders deal with the outside world. This tribe knows about the world, but wants nothing to do with it.

On the third day we arrive at the third and final camp, which is located just below the Lost City. Getting here was quite tough! I left earlier with the slow people, and struggled a bit in the slippery, wet, muddy and steep terrain. It started to rain, but knowing that I didn’t need to put up a tent or cook food made it all that much easier. We crossed 2 rivers and again were spoilt with magnificent misty, lush landscapes and sounds! After six hours we arrived, had lunch and coffee and then just played games until bedtime.

There are 1200 steps from camp three to The Lost City (which sits at about 1300 metres above sea level). I don’t know what’s worse: going up slippery steps or going down slippery steps. The day wasn’t so great, but the mist added so much magic and mystery that I almost felt like a fairy would pop out. It is a small city, but impressive nonetheless. Only the rock foundations remain, but you can try to imagine how it was back then. After making our way slowly back down to camp three, we had a quick lunch, and then proceeded to trek back to camp two. The next day those that were doing five days, had to leave super early, whereas the rest of us, who only had to walk to camp one, could sleep in.

Our guide, Luis, lives really close to camp one, so we (Cam, the Belgians, the British and me) had the rare opportunity to be taken to a waterfall from his childhood days. Luis had spent all his childhood playing here, so he knows the area well. The way down to the top of the waterfall is super steep- there is a rope to help you. A French tourist a few years ago thought he was too good for the rope, and ended up fatally falling. To get to the bottom of the falls, you scramble down and across huge rocks. Luis, being born and bred here, raced up and climbed up some rocks and stood slap bang in the waterfall! With a bit of help, we all managed to get ourselves in it as well. I have never been right inside a waterfall, and I enjoyed all the rushing and gushing and gulping of water. A real face-water-whipping!

The last day of hiking was not varied at all: first up, up and up. And then down, down and down. By the end we were all running down the mountain- the momentum too strong to resist. We stopped to cool off at a beautiful little rock pool, and then ended the hike with lunch back at the small village. I was tired beyond tired and the shower that night was fantastic.

I recommend this trek to anyone who wants a challenge, who wants to learn about another way of life and who wants to just be in a place where technology and the fast-paced-living of modern life is strange.

What you need to hike Ciudad Perdida

Since you need to carry all your personal belongings, I would suggest bringing the absolute minimal.

What’s essential:

–       Insect repellent (very important!)

–       Plastic bags (to protect against possible rain)

–       Minimal toiletries

–       Headlamp/torch

–       Change of clothing for the evening (long- sleeved top and long pants)

–       Extra socks

–       Camera (plus extra batteries)

–       Towel (preferably a quick-drying one)

–       Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses

–       Good walking shoes, with a good grip

–       Swimming costume

–       Book, games (cards, dice), journal

–       Water bottle (you can refill at every camp)

–       Money to buy beer/coke at the camps

Who to contact

There are numerous tour agencies that you can book the trek with and treks go out every day. It is unwise to book from any other city other than Santa Marta or Taganga.

Magic Tour

Clle 14 No. 1B-50


Clle 16 No. 4-41
Santa Marta

Tel 3176792441, email [email protected]


Street 13 #3-13 Centro Comercial San Francisco Plaza Local 115
Santa Marta

Tel 54212256, email [email protected]


Combine your Ciudad Perdida hiking experience with one of these awesome adventures in Argentina from Getaway Adventures.

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