The Lost City Trek, Colombia – The Best Trek in South America?
During our 5 months of travelling through South America, my fiancé and I have done 3 multi-day treks; the Lost City Trek, the Inca Trail Trek, and the W Trek in Torres del Paine. While they are all vastly different, the Inca Trail and the W Trek are two of the most popular treks in the world. The Lost City Trek in Colombia often gets overlooked, but from our experience we think it might be the best trek in South America.
What is the Lost City Trek?
The Lost City trek is typically a 4-day / 3-night walk to the Lost City or “Teyuna” on an up and back trail. The city is composed of well-preserved archaeological remains of the Tayrona people who built the site around 800 AD, close to 600 years before Machu Picchu was built. The terraces that once were the foundation for residents’ houses are visually stunning and have led to the growing popularity of the site.
Located high up in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia, the trek is still relatively untouched by the effects of tourism; to arrive at the Lost City, you must walk on the trail. At time of writing there is no other way to get there. You can’t just take a bus straight to the ruins. This maintains the magic and historical value of the place and also gives you a great sense of accomplishment after trekking to the site on foot.
The Lost City was only discovered by the outside world in the 1970s. Unfortunately, looters ravaged the site before the government could step in to stop the historical and cultural loss of well-preserved items. The trek didn’t start surging in popularity until around 2010 because the area was very dangerous due to guerrilla groups like FARC who were notorious for violence and kidnappings. However, today the area is patrolled by Colombian military to ensure safe passage for tourists.
The Lost City Trek Experience
You have to have a licensed guide to walk to the Lost City and for our tour company we went with Expotur. They were excellent and provided us with a local guide and an English translator, all of our meals were taken care of, and we were given bunk beds at the camps along the way. The guides had an intimate knowledge of the area and gave us great historical background on the region as we walked along.
We came across a few of the indigenous groups living in the region including the Koguis and the Wiwas. We even sat down with a member of the Wiwas people and listened to them describe their way of life and traditions that they have passed down through generations dating back to the Tayrona people. It was a unique, authentic cultural experience that we felt lucky to have had.
The trek itself was humid, hot and challenging. You are trekking through the Colombian jungle where the humidity is always 100%. Once something is wet, it’s impossible for it to dry. There are two river crossings where you have to take off your socks and boots and walk barefoot through them, the last one being knee to thigh deep at parts.
After an already difficult trek, once you arrive to the Lost City there are 1,200 original, uneven stone steps leading you up to the city. The city is just spectacular; the Tayrona felt there was spiritual significance to the site, and I completely understand why. It’s truly a treasure to behold and easily coined a “once in a lifetime experience”.
Why the Lost City Trek Might be the Best in South America
The Lost City Trek is an authentic trekking experience through the mountains with immense cultural and historical value. The trek is challenging but not impossible; it’s hard enough to give you a sense of accomplishment but not hard enough to stop you from trying. The city is stunning and most importantly only accessible by trekking to the city with a licensed guide. Therefore, when you arrive at the Lost City, there is only a couple of tour groups who all walked through the jungle to arrive at the city – no bus tourists.
The Lost City Trek is growing in popularity, but a site like Machu Picchu is known all over the world and is on just about every person’s bucket list that I’ve ever met. Why? It’s very accessible – you can access it by bus or train and do a day trip to visit the city. It’s absolutely stunning, but when you’re visiting the site after trekking for 4 days on the Inca Trail and then you are jammed between what feels like 3,000 bus tourists in Machu Picchu some of the magic is lost.
The W Trek in Torres del Paine is also internationally famous primarily for its natural beauty and the iconic jagged peaks. You can do the trek by yourself or with a tour group and there is a range of accommodation options, from backpacking with tents to staying in nice bed bunk domes with breakfast, lunch, and dinner cooked for you. This trek is exceptional but what it’s missing is the cultural and historic value present on the Lost City Trek. The beauty in the Colombian Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains is undeniable, but secondary to the amazing cultural and historical significance of the region.
Which Trek is the Best?
All the treks we have done have been wonderful in their own ways – the Inca Trail, the W Trek, and the Lost City Trek. The least popular of the three was well and above our most favourite – the Lost City Trek. It’s a great lesson in travel to realise that the most popular destinations aren’t always the most incredible experiences.
It depends on what you want in a trek – if you only want stunning natural beauty, the W Trek is your go to. Take the Inca Trail if you want to take the most unbelievable trek to one of the most iconic sites in the world and be treated to incredible Inca ruins accessible only by hikers on the trail. Just expect to be shell shocked on arrival to Machu Picchu – the crowds of tourists can be disorienting after all that time on the trail.
If you want an authentic, slightly off-the-beaten-path experience with great history and close cultural interaction with an indigenous group topped off with an almost private tour of 1200 year old ruins, the Lost City trek is your best bet. The best part is that as of writing, tours to the Lost City are less than half the cost of the Inca Trail so if you’re looking for a great experience at a lower price point, book your flight to Colombia – you won’t regret it!
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