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When you dream of trekking to an ancient city lost in time, Machu Picchu probably tops your hiking bucket list. But if you’re looking for a true adventure hiking through jungles, fording rivers, and crossing through indigenous villages before arriving in an ancient lost city, then Ciudad Perdida is the trip for you.

Colombia’s “Lost City” was founded in approximately 800 A.D., making it a site even older than Machu Pichu. Though smaller than Machu Pichu, Ciudad Perdida has the added appeal of being a newer discovery, as treasure hunters discovered it in 1972. Be forewarned: This hike is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards — a glimpse into an ancient civilization — are well worth the effort.

The trek to the Lost City

Ciudad Perdida is hidden in the jungle-clad mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and you’ll start your journey in El Mamey, a small village about three hours away from Santa Marta. After a brief walk through town, you’ll hit the trail.

While the trek is rated a “moderately difficult” hike, it’s about 27.3 miles (44 km) of hiking in total, including river crossings and steep climbs and descents. The actual elevation gain from day to day isn’t that extreme, but the trail climbs for long stretches and then descends again through the jungle. The length of the trek varies: If you sign up for the five- or six-day hike, you’re covering the same ground as the four-day version, but you’ll have more down time each day.

It’s hard not to stop for pictures every few feet. From the mist hanging over verdant mountains to the waterfalls crashing into torrents to the dramatic valleys, it’s easy to imagine that you’re actually on the quest for El Dorado, which is what the treasure hunters were searching for when they found Ciudad Perdida. However, this area is actually home to the Kogi, the descendants of the Tayronas who built Ciudad Perdida. You’ll pass their small villages and often will run into the Kogi on the trails. Sometimes, a Kogi mayor will even come and speak to trekking groups.

However, all of the hiking is for one goal: discovering Ciudad Perdida. To get there, you’ll climb up about 1,200 stone steps through the jungle. Covered with moss and with irregular shapes and sizes, these steps are just the first part of the challenge. However, when you reach the first terrace, it’s worth the effort. Ciudad Perdida consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside with tiled roads and several small circular plazas. As you climb, more and more of the structure is revealed but it’s only a small portion of what the city originally looked like — the rest is still held captive by the jungle.

Standing on the summit, taking pictures and reveling in the view, it can be difficult to remember that you’re enjoying a vista that people (including most Colombians) haven’t seen due to the presence of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas. The area was “cleared” in the early 2000s, but the number of people who have trekked here remains a relatively small number, even with the recent popularity of the experience.

The things you carry

When you start your trek, you’ll most likely notice the donkeys. Though donkeys will transport the food and other supplies for the group, you’re responsible for carrying your own clothes and personal gear. Therefore, the less you carry, the easier it will be to hike, so the choice of each item can be the difference between adventure and misery.

The trail is packed earth and clay, which during the rainy season (April to May and October to November) can turn into rivers of mud. The dry season (December to January and July to August) is the best time to visit, but it will still most likely be hot and humid, so lightweight, breathable clothes will make a huge difference. As there are multiple river crossings, the depths of which vary depending on the season and rainfall totals, quick-dry fabrics or a great raincoat are also very helpful. I also found that, after a day of hiking in the humidity, having moisture-wicking fabrics was a miraculous thing, otherwise nothing dried out at night.

The trek is also home to some particularly blood-thirsty mosquitos. Pack a long-sleeve shirt that’ll keep you cool and covered and long pants (in breathable fabrics) and plenty of bug spray to help ward off these hungry pests, especially at Ciudad Perdida itself. Comparing bug bites is a rite of passage for those who have trekked to Ciudad Perdida; the person with the most is the dubious winner.

The end of the trail

I know what it sounds like: mosquitos and mud and plenty of miles — why would you do this? But trekking to the Lost City in Colombia is perhaps one of the unique journeys still available in our modern world, giving you a peek at a thousand-year old city that was lost to the jungle for more than 400 years. So the 4 days, 30 miles (48 km), 7000 feet of elevation gain, nine river crossings, and completely unpredictable weather are worth it. After all, this is certainly an experience where you can say the journey is just as exciting as the destination.

Thinking about hiking to Ciudad Perdida? Make sure to pick a reputable guide and group to travel with: you’re not allowed to try this one on your own. Talk to tour companies in Santa Marta and they’ll be able to hook you up.

Related Links (from Go Everywhere blog):

From Mountains to Sea: Adventures in Colombia

Thermoregulation: Your new core clothing technology

Chile: The Perfect Multi-Climate Adventure Travel Destination