As a college student some 15 years ago, I backpacked from Bogota to Buenos Aires, largely by land. One of the most memorable legs of this trip was a bus ride from Bogota to the northern coast of Colombia. I eventually landed in the coastal city of Santa Marta, the site where Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Latin America, drew his last breath.
Santa Marta is the most logical point of departure for travelers looking to explore "La Ciudad Perdida" (The Lost City), a pre-Columbian city that was built in 800 AD then abandoned some 400 years ago. The city, originally called Teyuna, today consists of the ruins of over 200 structures spread out over approximately 75 acres of land. It is reached by walking 2 to 3 days into the jungle and culminates in an ascent of 1,200 mossy stairs built into the side of a mountain.
Unfortunately, when I was in Santa Marta in 1997, Colombia was fighting a bruising internal battle that made visiting La Ciudad Perdida quite perilous. The situation continued to deteriorate and in 2003, a group of tourists hiking to the city were kidnapped for over three months. Visits were then suspended and were only reinstated in 2005.
When I left Santa Marta, I made a mental note that I needed to return one day to see the Ciudad Perdida with my own eyes. Given Colombia's tremendous strides with respect to the security situation, I once again found myself in Santa Marta in early 2013. Things had changed substantially in the intervening years. Referring to the "Lost City" these days is a bit of a misnomer, as the attraction is quickly becoming a "must-see" attraction for adventure travelers. Apparently, the December holiday season of 2012 was the busiest period in memory (and perhaps ever) with as many as 30 hikers leaving Santa Marta a day to ascend into the mountains. Tour operators don't expect this trend to subside, so if you want to see the Ciudad Perdida before it turns into Machu Picchu Norte, pack your gear.
Despite the growing crowds, the experience remains quite memorable and worthwhile. Before lacing up your boots and heading to Colombia, however, it's worth keeping a few things in mind.
1. The Hike to La Ciudad Perdida is tough
While the trail is not particularly technical, a series of steep ascents, river crossings and generally rough terrain make the trek strenuous. If you're not in shape you will suffer. In my group of about 25 hikers, I observed legions of blisters and bug bites. We also had a few casualties, with one person falling into a ditch, another barely avoiding attack by a poisonous snake, and one injured hiker requiring transportation off the mountain on the back of a mule. We even had a fistfight between two hikers over a girl. Needless to say, my LL Bean emergency medical kit made me exceeding popular around camp.
2. Be Prepared
To my bemusement, a few fellow travelers were dressed more for the country club than a 5-day hike. I would encourage, at minimum, good hiking shoes, water shoes, a headlamp, copious supplies of insect and sun protection, rain gear, emergency medical supplies, and long sleeved pants and shirts. Also, bring extra shirts. Once something gets wet in the jungle, it generally stays wet .
3. It's Hot
Even though most of the hikes begin early in the morning, the heat of the jungle is intense. Well-located swimming holes near the campsites provide relief from the sweltering and humid days. Bring water purification tablets so you don't have to rely on the guides for potable water.
4. The Ciudad Perdida Is Not Lost Anymore
While the number of travelers hiking to the city is swelling, especially in the December high season, it doesn't feel particularly touristy and the sheer number of visitors is limited by the small size of the camp sites. Some local Kogi Indians do sell imitation Gatorade (Sporade, anyone?), but thankfully there are no hawkers selling T-Shirts that say "I made it to the Ciudad Perdida." I was also surprised to discover that I was the only American in my camp, with most travelers coming from Oceania, Europe, and Colombia. Still, as more and more travelers find their way into the jungle, the inevitable crowds and commerce will surely follow.
5. It's Not Just About the Journey
As I read up on the Ciudad Perdida, I found that a number of guides suggested that travelers should remember that the journey, rather than the city itself, is the real highlight of the trek. In short, they suggested that the city is a bit....underwhelming. I strongly disagree. Sure, it's not as grand as Machu Picchu, but the sheer beauty of the site, nestled in the mountains, makes the destination well worth the effort. Plus, the journey itself -- which will provide you with 4 to 6 days free of cell phones, Internet, and television - will put you in the kind of headspace that will allow you to actually enjoy the city that you find at the top of those 1,200 steps. You can always tweet about it when you get home.