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Forget Machu Picchu, The Lost City in Colombia Is the New Backpacker's Dream

National Parks Hiking Backpacking Archaeology
by Cait Sarazin Jun 11, 2018

If you are looking for an epic escape away from mass tourism in the heart of the rainforest, the Lost City in Colombia is your answer. The five-day trek to the Lost City, or La Ciudad Perdida, isn’t for those looking for an easy trip to check off their list. Expect to forge rivers, slog through mud, and battle mosquitos before arriving at the Lost City – where, if you are lucky, you will have the place to yourself without a selfie stick in sight.

While Machu Picchu has been a destination for adventurer-hunters (or wannabe adventurers) for the last several decades, La Ciudad Perdida sees only a fraction of the traffic. The 2017 change by the Peruvian government, making Machu Picchu tickets valid for only a half day entry, actually increased tourism by doubling the number of tickets available per day. Not only that but many tourists who’ve arrived in the morning linger past their appointed time slot. La Ciudad Perdida is the new backpacker’s dream. Take a look at the stats comparing each section of the Lost City versus Machu Picchu so that you can choose which hidden city speaks to you.

Breaking it down: La Ciudad Perdida vs. The Inca Trail.


  • The Inca Trail: 27 miles
  • La Ciudad Perdida: 27 miles


  • The Inca Trail: 12,010 ft at highest point; 2,430 ft at Machu Picchu
  • La Ciudad Perdida: 3,937 ft at Teyuna Ruins


  • The Inca Trail: $500-$1000+
  • La Ciudad Perdida: $300+

Guide Required

  • The Inca Trail: Yes
  • La Ciudad Perdida: Yes

The history behind these South American lost cities.

Inca Pachacutec, the emperor, and statesman of Tahuantinsuyo built Machu Picchu as a refuge for the elite Inca aristocrats after winning the last battle verse the Chanca. The location of Machu Picchu was hidden to the Spanish for years until Hiram Bingham found the remote ruins in 1911. The now popular Inca Trail to Machu Picchu snakes its way through the Andes Mountains, following winding rivers, tiny villages, and ruins that once supported the Machu Picchu site in the 15th century.

La Ciudad Perdida is located along the North Coast of Colombia between the Buritaca River and the Caribbean Sea. Although equally as hard to find as Machu Picchu, La Ciudad Perdida is actually much older, thought to date back to 800 A.D., making it a solid 600 years older than Machu Picchu. Between 4,000-10,000 Tairona people used to live in over 180 houses on the 32 acres of land within the city’s borders. The conquest by the Spanish in the 17th century, as well as the spread of disease and war, wiped out the ancient civilization.

Given its age, it’s no surprise that most of the site’s wooden buildings have disappeared. What does remain are a series of terraces carved into mountains, connected via circular plazas and stone roads. Most of La Ciudad Perdida is still a mystery. It’s believed that only about 10 percent of the city has been discovered. While most of Machu Picchu is still visible and the stone block dwellings and temples are still fully intact, not all of it is original. Currently, 30 percent of Machu Picchu has been reconstructed and restored to recreate the original structure for tourists.

Unlike Machu Picchu, indigenous tribes still live in La Ciudad Perdida, making the site more like Cambodia’s Temples of Angkor in that respect. Descendants of the original Taironas live a nomadic lifestyle, using the city for ceremonies and treating it as a sacred site. The indigenous tribes view the Sierra Nevada region of Santa Marta as the heart and lungs of the world. Therefore, they’ve taken on the responsibility of balancing increased tourism and exploration from Colombian business with preserving their home. One tribe in particular, the Wiwa, strike this balance by running their own tours to the site, focusing on educating their guests about the history and culture of their native lands.

La Ciudad Perdida: Remote by nature.

More than 3,000 tourists reach Machu Picchu every day. The influx of those arriving by train, car, and via the Inca trail has brought a wave of hotels, restaurants, and hawkers selling souvenirs. Conversely, in 2011, only 8,000 people reached La Ciudad Perdida over the course of the entire year. There are no roads or trains making their way to the site. The only way to get there is to do it the old-fashioned way and embark on the four or five-day trek. You’ll join up with a tour in either Santa Marta or Palomino. Before beginning the actual trek, you will spend several hours in a 4WD vehicle on a bumpy jungle road to the starting village, nestled deep within the Colombian forest.

You must carry all your own belongings for the entire trek, with the exception of tents and linens as those are available at the campsites. There is an option to hire a mule to carry you and your belongings for an extra fee, but there is no guarantee that one will be available when you arrive. Since there are no cars or roads, there is no easy way out of the trail to La Ciudad Perdida, so be prepared to commit and make the entire journey.

The Trek to La Ciudad Perdida.

Even though the Inca Trail and the trek to La Ciudad Perdida are the same distance, the journey to the Lost City brings a different set of challenges in terms of terrain and climate. The high point on the Inca Trail is 8,000 feet higher than the highest point on the Lost City Trek, which means budgeting for additional time to adjust to the altitude. Since the Lost City is closer to shore and a more subtle change in altitude, you may need less time to finish the trek. The weather can also change dramatically on the Inca Trail, swinging from 32 degrees Fahrenheit to 77 degrees Fahrenheit within hours, whereas the Colombian counterpart tends to hover around 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The Inca Trail is closed in February for maintenance and is often too rainy to hike in January. The dry season (December through March) is the best time to hike to the Lost City but the trail is still accessible during the wetter months – just expect more downpours and muddier conditions.

Despite the lack of elevation gain, La Ciudad Perdida brings its own set of challenges including heat, humidity, mud, and mosquitoes. Expect to cross rivers via high ropes and climb mud-laden trails in sweltering dry heat interspersed with heavy spouts of rain. As an added perk, however, there are a number of naturally flowing swimming holes located along the trail to relieve you from the heat.

While trekking to La Ciudad Perdida, you will meet the Kogi people who have inhabited the Sierra Nevada region for hundreds of years. You’ll have the opportunity to take pictures with them (always ask first) and visit their villages made of hand-crafted wooden huts. After your journey, it is not uncommon to arrive at the Lost City and have the place to yourself. The relatively unknown ruins of the Incas has only been open to the public for a decade.

There are local vendors scattered throughout the trail selling food and drinks. The campsites have beds equipped with mosquito nets, roofs, sit-down toilets, and tables to use at most sites. All campsites also have cold showers and toilets — a luxurious amenity to the seasoned trekker.

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