Leave Machu Picchu to the Tourists. Go See Colombia’s Pristine Lost Cities.
Colombia’s Lost Cities have low profiles, small crowds, and loads of history.
When you think of epic ancient ruins in South America, what comes to mind? Let me guess: Machu Picchu. You didn’t even need to answer that because I already know that’s what you’re thinking. Peru’s claim to fame is, indeed, epic, but the famously crowded Incan masterpiece is far from the only ancient ruins on the continent. Colombia, which tends to be more often associated with sand, cycling, and salsa music, is home to, not one, but two ancient lost cities, both of which have very low profiles and virtually no crowds.
About four hours northwest of the capital city, Bogotá, gold mine ruins in the town of Falán offer a not-too-strenuous option that can be explored in an afternoon. Near the northern coastal city of Santa Marta, the more substantial Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) is about a two-hour drive and four-day in-and-out hike to reach the ruins. Both archeological sites are stunning and worth exploring but depending on your level of fitness and how much time you can spend in the country (I spent three weeks on my most recent trip and that was nowhere near long enough), you may have to choose between the two.
Ciudad Perdida – Santa Marta
Nestled among the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, near(ish) the northern coastal town of Santa Marta, is the archeological site that most Colombians associate with the phrase Ciudad Perdida. Founded around 800 CE, the ruins predate Machu Picchu by some 650 years and the site’s relatively low profile – and extreme remoteness – means that it attracts far fewer visitors than Peru’s most famous attraction. Instead of the thousands of daily visitors Machu Picchu receives, this Ciudad Perdida receives a maximum of 250 visitors per day. When I visited in April of this year, only 51 others joined me in exploring the ruins (about seven groups of seven), though I was told there would be 120 the following day.
On our third day of hiking, about four miles into what would become a 10-mile day, we reached the foot of the 1200-step staircase that leads to the entrance of Ciudad Perdida. When we eventually reached the top of the staircase - sweaty and completely out of breath - we took a seat on the crumbling, 1200-year-old stone buildings that now made very suitable benches. From the entrance, very little of the site is actually visible so plan to walk another two miles through an Avatar-like junglescape that includes even more stairs. Cats roamed the ruins, resting in watermelon-sized stone metate basins that were used to grind seashells or make corn tortillas.
We sat atop stone structures, now filled in with dirt and covered with grass, peering out onto some of the 246 terraces that occupy the site. In the past, there were 360 terraces but due to limited funding and workers, vegetation has since overtaken many of them. Our guide pointed to a huge, coffin-shaped slab of stone that looked like what I imagine ancient people would have rolled in front of tombs (or am I just thinking of the Resurrection story?). The smoothed-down rock face had lines running across it, having been carved into what served as a map of the region at the time. We were taken to meet the local shaman and highest authority in Ciudad Perdida, who explained how his tribe’s story has never been written down, only passed down orally.
The only way to reach the site is through an arduous 4-day jungle hike that averages about 10 miles (and 2,400 feet of elevation!) per day. There are no boutique hotels along the route and no bus to ferry you to the top terrace (yes, that was a jab at Machu Picchu, forgive me!) Accommodations are reminiscent of summer camp; think rows of dozens of bunk beds, cafeteria-style meal service, and a handful of ice-cold showers shared by the masses. The beds are surprisingly comfortable (just be sure to tuck the mosquito net under the mattress before you fall asleep) but ear plugs and sleeping masks are essential if you want to get any rest.
Wake-up call is at 5am, breakfast is at 5:30am, and you’re out the door by 6am to cover a few miles before the sun gets too intense. Sometimes there’s shade, sometimes there isn’t. Do yourself a favor and claim a bunk that is as far from the kitchen and dining area as possible since it’s noisy long before wakeup call and well into the night.
Regardless of how experienced a hiker you are, all visitors are required to do the trek with one of the six certified groups operating in the region. I went with Magic Tour and was led by Rodrigo, a guia antiguo (old, “antique” guide) who estimates having led 1,500 trips to the Lost City. His explanations about the ruins and the customs of the local indigenous tribes that still live in the region were interspersed with the sort of stories that could only be told by someone who’s been leading tours there for 36 years. After showing us the scar he got after “a crazy Venezuelan” pushed him down the 1,200 steps at the entrance of Ciudad Perdida, he told us about the time he was flown out of the paramilitary-occupied region in the 80s by curling up in a cloth sack that hung from the foot rail of a helicopter.
Recent improvements to the trail mean that you now only have to cross one river (a few of us did it barefoot but most people wore sturdy hiking sandals) and there are snacks and rustic bathrooms available every couple of hours. Many tour companies will tell you (correctly) that there are stops along the route each day where you can fill up your bottles with filtered water. What they don’t mention is that some of these stops are several miles apart. I don’t know about you, but I go through a LOT of water during a three-mile, uphill climb in 85-degree humidity so those stops weren’t always sufficient for me.
On one occasion, when we finally reached the famed orange juice stop, after a two-hour uphill hike along a very sunny, unshaded stretch, we found the orange juice lady hadn’t set up that day. I was shocked to be the only one in my group that brought a water filter (shout out to Grayl water filter!) so I filled up at a tiny waterfall while others nursed their last few drops of sustenance for another mile.
Each day, we made stops to learn about native species, how the area has transformed from a former drug trafficking corridor to a safe tourist destination, and about the indigenous tribes that still make their homes in the jungle. We passed some of their villages, interacted with a handful of along the trail (some tribes prefer not to engage with travelers), and attended Indigenous-led workshops to learn about centuries-old customs that still continue today. Francisca, of the Wiwa tribe, for instance, gave a presentation on how her tribe extracts fibers from plants and dyes them with natural colors. Note that because these Indigenous tribes have little to no interaction with the outside world, proof of a negative COVID-19 test is required within 72 hours of the trip for unvaccinated travelers. Vaccinated travelers can skip the test if they show proof of vaccination.
This hike was one of the best of my life – challenging, gorgeous, remote, fulfilling – and every single person on the trip was interesting and adventurous and I’ve stayed in touch with many of them. That said, it was also one of the most difficult hikes I’ve ever done so unless you’re in very good shape and a regular hiker, you’ll want to work yourself up to the feat. I saw at least half a dozen people finish the hike on a donkey or motorcycle and quite a few people were walking funny because their leg muscles were so sore and cramped.
It should be obvious that it’s always a good idea to bring extra money but I’m stating it here because, unfortunately, it wasn’t so obvious to me. This hike was my last activity before leaving Colombia and I didn’t want to take out a bunch of pesos that I wouldn’t need. The tour operator assured me that everything was included unless I wanted to buy a beer but I don’t drink so I didn’t think I’d need the cash. I had the equivalent of about $10 USD when we started the hike, only to learn then that there was a luggage carrying service available throughout the hike but I couldn’t afford it. The service was very reasonable (about $5-30/day, depending if your luggage would be carried by motorcycle, donkey, or porter) but I simply didn’t have the money. I learned then that Colombians don’t use Venmo or PayPal so, without a way to pay my trip mates back, I carried my backpack the entire 40-mile route. Do not underestimate the additional level of difficulty that a backpack adds to an already strenuous hike. Pack as little and as light as possible.
Something else that I didn’t have money for during the hike was Internet access. Somehow, there is Internet access at several of the overnight jungle camps, though it’s sometimes only offered during certain hours and reliability isn’t guaranteed. I saved a few dollars to check my email on the last night to update my family (who live in a constant state of panic given my propensity toward multi-day, off-the-grid jungle, desert, and mountain hikes), only for the power to go out as soon as we arrived at camp. All the lights were out so I was glad to have brought my small power bank and my favorite headlamp, which I always travel with, just in case.
Ciudad Perdida – Falán
Falán’s ruins, officially known as las Reales Minas de Santa Ana (the former name of the area), are truly a lost city. They are so lost, in fact, that even some Colombians are completely unaware of them or have only the vaguest notion of where and what they are. Constructed in the 1600s, this Ciudad Perdida has an even lower profile than its northern counterpart and the country is only just now beginning to promote tourism there.
Though the site is relatively small compared to the other Lost City, several hiking route options do exist depending on how long you’d like to be out there. My guide told us that most Colombians just do a short trek to get to the natural swimming pools and to go canyoning, rappelling down a waterfall with the help of a harness and several support guides. My group wanted to hike so we trekked along a 6-mile loop that had about 1,200 feet of elevation. Actual hiking time was about three hours but we made lots of stops to take pictures, swim, and to dine riverside on rice, beans, and chicken (or veggies!) wrapped in a plantain leaf.
As we toured the ruins, our guides (who spoke limited English) told us how the brick walls we saw were held together with a mixture of tree ash, feces, and both animal and Native slave blood. The Spanish, who built the gold mines, also relied on the labor of enslaved Africans, whose lives were valued more because they had to be purchased from England. This is not at all to say that the Africans were well-treated by any means, but the lives of Indigenous people, whom the Spanish could acquire without paying a third party, were valued much less and many died from exhaustion or from drowning while carrying gold.
The main tunnel at the mine was made to extract gold to safe locations like the nearby town of Mariquita, where the gold was melted and then taken to nearby Honda to be shipped to Cartagena. All of this was done by Spaniards. Some of the tunnels still standing were made to transport water and other materials needed for gold extraction and exploitation while other tunnels may have simply been decoys to mislead invaders (like the British); archeologists aren’t sure. It’s believed that some 2,000 people – Spanish, Indigenous, and African – worked on the site, which was later given to the British by Colombia, as a thank you for helping Colombia obtain its independence. The site was returned to Colombia some time in the 18th century.
The ruins were visited by famed German naturalist, Alexander Von Humboldt in 1801 and by the Liberator of America, Simón Bolivar, in 1830 but they weren’t discovered again until 1987 by the Colombian reporter, Roberto Tovar Gaitán.
Given its recent discovery, tourism to the ruins is still in its infancy. Most guides speak little or no English and very few tour operators lead trips to the site. Though you could rent a car and drive to Falán, expect winding, bumpy mountain roads and very poor cellular reception. Your best bet is arranging your trip with a tour operator like Impulse Travel, Colombian Journeys, or Pure Colombia. Even if you don’t see Falán trips listed on their websites, you can reach out to plan a custom adventure.
Both Falán and Santa Marta are in regions that experience regular rain much of the year so regardless of when you’ll be doing your hikes, be sure to pack a good, lightweight rain jacket and sturdy, waterproof hiking boots. I was shocked by how many people I saw beginning the Santa Marta hike in sneakers but not at all surprised to see many of them finishing the hike on a donkey and/or motorcycle. Several sections of the trek were extremely slippery when it rained but even when it didn’t rain, it’s very rough terrain and your hike will be safer and far more enjoyable in proper boots like these.
No matter what, bring a water filter. Not only is purifying your own water cheaper and better for the environment than buying bottled water, but it also ensures you’ll always have water. On the Falán hike, our guides carried extra filtered water to refill our bottles but in Santa Marta, that wasn’t the case.
As mentioned previously, ear plugs and a sleeping mask are helpful for the dorm-style sleeping arrangements and a headlamp, sunscreen and bug spray are absolutely essential. I don’t really feel like repeatedly applying sunscreen all over my body (I’m not Irish but I’m just about as pasty as Conan O’Brian) so I usually wear long sleeve tops and pants that protect against both sun and bugs. For this hike, I opted for short sleeve shirts, which I paired with my favorite detachable arm sleeves.
Planning Your Trip
Note that while both Lost City hikes are in warm, humid regions (the Santa Marta hike is especially steamy), Colombia is not just one big, gigantic sauna. Bogotá, where most international flights arrive, is at a much higher elevation so the weather can be 10-20 degrees cooler during the day and even cooler at night. If you tend to be sensitive to elevation changes, you may want to allow for an extra day to rest before heading out on the hike.
Though Falán is at a lower elevation than Bogotá, the capital city will likely be your base and you don’t want to start the hike with a headache. Bogotá is also a really fun, culture-rich city with lots to see so it’s worth budgeting in a couple extra days to explore its museums, street art, and culinary scene. For more detailed info on what to do in Bogotá and across Colombia, check out the piece I wrote about What It’s Like Visiting Colombia Right Now.
In general, Colombia feels like a safe country to visit right now, particularly if you’ve been vaccinated. The country experienced infection spikes early on in the pandemic and briefly this spring as a result of political protests and indoor gatherings around Easter but infection rates have since plummeted and nearly 30 million people have been vaccinated (41% of the population).