The Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek is one of Colombia's not-so-hidden secrets. Since its fairly recent revelation (1975) the ancient city has attracted international attention, in no small part due to the brutal story of its discovery. But only recently has it really opened up to tourism.
The Sierra Nevada used to be prime real estate for coca cultivation and the stage for constant clashes between guerrillas and paramilitaries. It was a dangerous trek up to the mountaintop, deep into rebel territory. However the 2003 kidnapping of eight tourists by ELN guerrillas led the Colombian army to clamp down on the area. They spent two years scouring the surrounding mountains for guerrillas and in 2005 the track was reopened to tourists.
With soldiers permanently stationed at the Lost City and patrolling the trail, there hasn't been a major incident since.
Firstly you need to find a tour group to take you up the mountain. There's no need to pre-book trips at the moment, although that could change as more tourists flock north. Scope out all the tour companies in Santa Marta and Taganga and find one that's right for you. The government owned TurCol was the only operator for quite a while but there are now several different companies running trips. Magic Tour, Sierra Tours and TurCol all have glowing reports.
They all share campsites and the food is practically identical so it will really come down to your taste and situation. Whether you want a big group or small; whether you want to meander or tear down the trail; whether you speak Spanish or not.
The guides are all locals and while they're well versed in the history of the city and the civilisation that built it, they don't often speak a lot of English.
If you don't speak Spanish it would a good idea to try and tag along with someone who can translate. You'll get a lot more out of the trip this way.
You're spending the entire trip with these guys as well (length depends on what tour format you chose) so it's worth being picky with your companions if you have the time and energy.
There has been mention of setting a standard rate between tour companies but last we heard competition was still strong so try bargaining a little.
You'll probably have to pay a deposit on booking and the rest before setting off. Remember, the ATM in Taganga is a little unreliable so you might have to make a quick trip to Santa Marta the day before you depart.
Your chosen tour company should provide a list with things you need to take. You'll be carrying all your personal gear so you don't want to be weighed down but it's also quite a tough trek so you want to make sure you're properly equipped.
This really just means a good torch, some extra clothes (it's the jungle, you'll get wet), a medical kit and some strong insect repellent.
Good shoes are essential. You'll be scaling some pretty sheer slopes along the way and once you arrive at the city there's about a million slippery stone stairs to deal with. You don't want to bust an ankle three days walk from civilisation.
You'll be spending a lot of time crisscrossing rivers on this trek. In fact on one day you'll ford the Rio Buritaca nine times!
Aside from the frustration of having to stop and take your shoes off every time, struggling across the river can be a pain in bare feet. The current gets quite strong and debris and sharp stones can make things difficult, if not dangerous. You can get your boots wet and squish around for the rest of the trek, but many travellers say water sandals save a lot of bother. They're not heavy and you can switch back to boots once the river section's done.
Some big water bottles are a must. The heat and humidity of the jungle mean you'll dehydrate quickly and battling up a mountain doesn't help.
You'll be able to fill up on boiled water at each campsite but if you want to be extra careful, take some purification tablets or drops as well.
A good book or some playing cards could be a good inclusion. There are no lights at the campsites so once the sun's down there's not a lot to do but jump into a hammock.
You'll be sleeping in sheds slung with rows of hammocks, each with it's own mosquito net. They're very comfy and blankets are provided as well but we've heard from a few hayfever sufferers that the whole setup can be a bit dusty, making it very difficult to sleep. If you have hay fever or allergies it's probably a good idea to slip in some antihistamines.
You're obviously not going to take your entire luggage with you so you'll have to find somewhere secure to leave it. Most tour companies offer to lock up your stuff in their offices until you get back. Or, if you ask at your hostel, they can usually keep your things in a storage room for a few days.
It comes down to what you're more comfortable with. Both are reliant on good reports from tourists to boost their business and they're unlikely to risk that for a couple of old socks. Either way you should lock your bags or seal the zippers, just to make sure.
If you're really concerned, take a photo of all your valuables before you bag them up. This way, if they go missing, you'll have proof they did exist.
The food on the treks is great quality. You'll have a cook travelling with you who'll prepare a whole of traditional mountain food, as well as some modern stuff. Unfortunately, the food needs to be transported out to the middle of the jungle as well and rarely, something goes wrong and someone gets sick.
Whether it's just travellers diarrhoea or something more serious, being crook out in the mountains is no fun and you want to avoid it.
It can get a little moist and gross in the jungle so a little hand sanitiser can come in handy.
Only drink from the boiled water sources in the camps and definitely don't drink from the river if you go swimming. Horses, donkeys, pigs and tourists plod through the water every day and it's most likely crawling with parasites.
Make sure your cutlery is clean before you eat and tell someone if you don't think you're food is properly cooked. Don't feel bad about making a fuss. You'll be much more annoying as a heaving burden draped over your tour guide's shoulder.
Make sure you have a supply of medication in case of emergencies. Rehydrating is the biggest issue; you can go for a day or so without eating but you need to replace the fluids and salts you lose. Drink as much water as you can, preferably mixed with some electrolyte replacement powders.
Immodium or some other loperamide can be helpful in warding off a simple case of the runs until you get back to civilisation. It's not the best treatment for more serious illness though.
Travel doctors can provide special medication packs before you go away that contain a couple of different antibiotics, usually norfloxacin and tinidazole, and a rundown on when and how to use them.
On the whole these treatments work very quickly, even on serious upsets and should have you on your feet and up the mountain in no time.
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