While the ruins of La Ciudad Perdida may not be as spectacular as some of it more famous cousins of South America, the steps that you climb to get there are very atmospheric as they cut through a dense jungle and in a very steep fashion. There are around 1200 of them and they are very well-preserved as are the terraces to which you will emerge upon after the climb. Actually, everything that is made of stone is in amazing shape. Obviously, the structures the Tayronas lived in were not made of very durable materials and are no longer in place but current indigenous residents in the area have huts fashioned in the same form as their ancestors. The steps up for us were really the highlight of the ruins though one in our party fell down quite a few of them on his way down so not sure he feels the same about them. People, including us, curse them on the way up but there is something about steps that make your effort more obvious and appreciative of your end reward: La Ciudad Perdida!
If you come to La Ciudad Perdida expecting “the Machu Picchu of Colombia” you are likely in for a bit of a disappointment especially if you have been to Peru's famed ruins. No, it is not an intricate fortress of a city and in fact all the rains are some 170 “stone terraces” on which the indigenous Tayrona people built their thatched huts. The terraces were built to make a flat area on which to live as the natural terrain of the area was not exactly conducive to a “normal” existence. So, it takes a bit of imagination to envision the “Lost City” as it looked back when the Tayronas roamed proud and strong. But with this added effort, the ruins can be greatly appreciated and though you might not be in the same awe, it is a wonderful and interesting archeological site. The hike to get there makes it more special and anyone that has done it and the Inca Trail will tell you far less spoiled.
One of the common things you will hear about the trek to La Ciudad Perdida is that it's more about getting there than the actual ruins. It is true that the ruins can be seen as a bit anti-climatic if you have been to Machu Pichu. It's just not as dramatic or visually stunning though certainly interesting. The trek is quite beautiful and much less spoiled than the Inca Trail though that will likely change as it gets more popular in the next few years. The terrain is quite lush and perhaps the greatest joy of the whole time spent in the area is swimming in the countless ponds that dot the countryside. All of the camps are conveniently located next to one and there are many just off the trail if you are feeling a bit hot and in need of a dip. Some involve a bit of rock scampering to get into so be careful of slippery spots en route. Not only are these nice spots to cool off but they are incredibly scenic and lush. I think for many they were the highlight of the whole trip.
Though the trek to La Ciudad is very straight forward and with a few cursory signs, it would be pretty hard to get lost heading to the “Lost City,” it is forbidden to do the trek independently. You must do it with in a group with one of the official guiding companies. It was not long ago when only one company existed but today there are a few choices. That said, it seems there is some collusion when it comes to pricing as it seems they all charge the same amount and offer pretty much the same tour. So much for choice, right? We wound up going with the original guiding company, TURCOL, which is Colombia's official tourist company. Our group size was 11 which seemed like a fair size and we never felt too crowded. I would not want a group bigger than that though. They all seemed to offer pretty much the same stuff but the two things we liked about TURCOL were they had beds rather than hammocks on three of the five nights and supplied water purification tablets. The latter point turned out to be less than 100% true. You had to ask for them and were told to not worry about the water, that everyone drank it. Of course, all the others in the group were doing just that and when they cooked, the water was not necessarily boiled the requisite amount either. The biggest thing was the beverages you got with your meals were made with river water and that was definitely not purified either. So, you either had to bypass it as well or you might as well just drink the water too. No one got sick but that doesn't mean the water was totally safe for consumption, it could just be a matter of luck. There were lots of animals in the area so giardia seemed a definite possibility. In the end, we were glad we went with them for the bed factor as neither of us liked sleeping in the hammocks. The beds on nights 2 and 4 were excellent but at the ruins on night 3, it was just a few grotty mattresses on the floor. Still, the two nights that were good were very much so and happy to sleep in a real bed on those nights.
The prices were pretty standard. We paid 1,000,000 COP ($500) for the trek. This included our transportation to and from the start of the trek, our guide, a cook and some porters, accommodation in the huts, food along with its preparation and cleanup as well as the entrance fee into the park/ruins. The guide was excellent and we were treated very well by all staff. The food was nothing spectacular but certainly tasty enough and generally enough to keep you going. The girls were always stuffed but there were some guys that could have possibly eaten more. We got snacks while walking but you could certainly bring some of your own and be glad you did. That said, you didn't go hungry and though the food was not gourmet fare, it was tasty enough for a short trip like this. The camps were a mixed bag. The nights in the nicest camp were quite good while the hammock camps were not great. The camp at the ruins was the worst and my understanding is it was being torn down and future trekkers will have to hike up from a lower camp to see the ruins and then back out. This seems unfortunate and it seems a nicer camp could be put in as it was not that close to the ruins to have a big effect on them.
The trek to La Ciudad Perdida is a mere 50 kilometers round trip but as with all walks Colombian, you cannot really measure distances and locals never give you such information. They talk in terms of how long it takes to walk there and of course this is how long it takes THEM to walk there, not you, you silly gringo. By nature, Colombia is not a flat terrain. It is anything but flat and if you set off in just about any direction, expect to be going up and down many hills. This is particularly true along the coast oddly enough. Aside from the actual beaches which even have headlands you have to climb over, there are gorgeous but very steep mountains along the part of Colombia that meets the Caribbean. So, the trek is set up to take six days and five nights to cover the distance, and though it can and is done in shorter amounts of time, it is a fair amount of time to do it without taxing yourself too much, and getting to enjoy the scenery and culture along the way.
Turcol is the only company organising treks to Ciudad Perdida (but I have heard there might be other tour companies soon). I went to Turcol’s office in Santa Marta to hear which days they would have a trek. I wanted to go in two days, but they just had a trek the day after or in four days. I decided to take the trek in four days. I went to an ATM to withdraw money and went back to Turcol to pay. For the six-day trek I paid 460 000 pesos (July 2007). In Taganga later that day I heard they now had a trek in two days (other people had signed up after I had been to the office), so I changed day as it suited my schedule better.
The trek to Ciudad Perdida is a six day trek, but many groups also do it in five days (I’m glad we didn’t). It takes three days to arrive to Ciudad Perdida and then there is one day for exploring Ciudad Perdida, and then two days for walking back. It is the forth day that many people skip. They see Ciudad Perdida in the afternoon they arrive and then leave early the morning after. But why rush when you have come all the way.
If you are lucky enough to have Edwin as a guide, he will give you a very thorough tour around the ruins, explaining the history and the culture of the Tayrona people who built it. Of course, he will also tell you the story of his capture by guerrillas, which is the story everyone really wants to hear. Be sure to ask him about the burras too!
What is perhaps even more impressive than the ruins themselves is the amazing landscape that surrounds them. The city lies on top of a peak in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and while there are plenty of beautiful views along the trail on the way there, only when you stand on the terraces and look around you do the jungle-covered mountains fully reveal themselves. Thundering waterfalls, pristine mountains, everywhere you look the view is breathtaking. It's impossible to capture that feeling in a photo; you just have to go there to experience it.
The vast ruins, built at least 1300 years ago but perhaps nearly twice that old, consist of 169 stone terraces, and may once have housed up to 8000 people. The houses and buildings, apparently built with wood, are no longer there, leaving just the terraces. This makes it hard to visualise what it would have looked like, but if you have a good guide (I highly recommend Edwin) he will tell you the history of the city and really make it come alive.
After trekking through the jungle for three days, you will finally come to the bottom of a steep staircase that leads to the Lost City. There are about 1200 steps to climb, and they can be quite slippery as they are covered in moss and are often wet from the frequent rain (this is the rainforest, after all). The climb can be quite tiring, but once you reach the top you will never question whether or not it was worth it.
The Tayrona Indians, who today number about 45,000, have lived in this area for centuries and many continue to maintain a traditional, and very spiritual, way of life in the mountains. It was the ancestors of the present-day Tayrona who founded the great city in the jungle and used it as their political and manufacturing centre.
On the course of the trek there will be more than one opportunity to visit a Tayrona village, and you will also come across the Tayrona people on the trail. While they were not very happy about Ciudad Perdida being opened up for tourism, they have now developed a reciprocal relationship with the guides, who buy fruit from them and also pay them to allow the tourists to visit the villages and take pictures. The village might not be inhabited when you visit, as families often live isolated in the jungle for months at a time and only gather in the village at certain times of year.
There is a point where the river is too strong to cross, so to solve this problem a makeshift cable car has been erected. It's a bit scary at first, but then it's alot of fun. You just have to trust that the cable won't break!
There are plenty of opportunities to bathe in the river and in the small waterfalls that you will pass along the way. This is the best way to wash yourself and your clothes, and is very refreshing after a long slog of trekking.
Eighty percent of the world's cocaine is produced in Colombia, and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range is one of the most prosperous areas for growing coca leaves. Your guide will be able to point out the coca plants along the route, and he will also probably offer you an opportunity to visit a so-called factory to see how the leaves are turned into cocaine. This is not something that is advertised by Turcol, the travel agency that operates the tours, but it has become known by travellers through word of mouth and is for some people the most interesting aspect of the trip. If you want to see it, be sure to bring an extra 20,000 pesos (about US$8 to pay for the tour).
The factory is really nothing more than a taurpalin held up by four tree trunks to cover the large bed of coca leaves and other chemicals used in the process. The factory is owned by the man in photo 1, and we also met four boys between the ages of 13 and 20 (the oldest was his son) who worked for him. The leaves are thrown into a large pit (photo 2) where they are trimmed with a weedwacker and then stomped on (danced on as the owner described it). Lots of unappetising incredients such as petrol and sulphuric acid are added (photo 3), and after lots of mixing and filtering (photo 4) eventually a paste is created known as cocaine base (photo 5).
This is not pure cocaine; it cannot be sniffed but can be smoked or rubbed on your gums. The factory owner does not perform the final step to convert the base to cocaine hydrochloride. He said this was because he did not have the electricity and thus the equipment (such as a fan) to perform the task, though our guide Edwin said it was because he did not rank high enough in the mafia hierarchy and thus was prohibited from doing it.