Trekking in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

A comfort zone is a beautiful thing, but nothing ever grows there.- Anonymous quote

Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the world’s highest coastal range as it soars over 18k feet in just 26 miles from the Caribbean Coast. A large portion of this mountain range is now a national park and includes a popular, multi-day trek to ruins of an ancient city. Fresh off our fantastic trek to Machu Picchu, we were both looking forward to another outing in the jungle and mountains of Colombia.  However, this trek to La Cuidad Perdida (“The Lost City” en Espanol) was outside of my comfort zone but was, nonetheless, an interesting, learning experience.  Although I would not do this trek again nor would I recommend it to most people, I am grateful we did it.  The views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, learning about the indigenous people of the area, meeting the shaman at the Lost City, visiting the ruins of the Lost City and swimming in the beautiful Buritaca river that runs along most of the trail made the hike well worth it.

The 4 or 5 day trek starts in the small town of El Mamey (also referred to as Machete) which is about a 2 hour drive outside of Santa Marta, Colombia (which happens to be a beautiful, little coastal town on the Caribbean sea).  Here are some facts and things you should know before hiking to La Cuidad Perdida:

  • The hike to the city is about 29 miles round trip trek through the jungle and hills of the Sierra Nevada in Colombia.
  • It may seem short for a multi-day trip, but the trek is constantly going up and down hills with the highest elevation at about 4,000 feet.
  • The average temperature is about 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity is super high. Be prepared to sweat a lot. Make sure to bring many water bottles.
  • In 2003, a group of 8 tourists were kidnapped by the ELN.  However, since then the Colombia Army has had a presence at The Lost City, and the area has been without incident since 2003. Check out the trailer for a  documentary made by one of the victims.
  • Coca farms used to line the hills and jungles outside of Machete, the starting point for the hike, but the coca farms (for the most part) have been extinguished by the Colombian government, and the farms have been turned into camps for those hiking to the Lost City.  We were told that the locals prefer tourism to growing coca because it is safer although less money. (This is Reagan and Bush “War on Drugs” country, and the US spent heavily to eradicate the coca that was grown in this area.).
  • The area is inhabited by indigenous people- Wiwas, Koguis and Arhuacos. They roam the woods and the trail with their all white outfits (celebrating the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevadas) that seem completely out of place in the dusty, dirty, jungle environment.
  • Unlike the Inca Trail, there are no porters, and one must carry their own gear.  The food, however,  is carried on mules to the camps along the trail. We booked the trip with One Seed Expeditions (who uses a local guide company called Expotur) and we had a guide, Wilson, as well as a cook.  The food is carried on mules to the camps along the trail.  It is another trek where logistics and regulations make it virtually impossible to do on your own.

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  • The trek is typically done in 4 or 5 days.  We actually booked the 5 day trek, but after one sleepless night at camp 1 and our above average speed on days 1 and 2, we talked our guide into doing the trek in 4 days. The hike is really meant to be done in 4 days. Three is too short, and five is too long.
  • The word “camping” is used loosely here.  There are a number of camp sites along the trail that, in some cases, house 120 people.  The “camping” involves bunk beds with mosquito nets with one person right next to the other.
  • There is no privacy.  Guests sleep in bunk beds, and the guides, cooks, assistants at the camps sleep in hammocks.  There are bathrooms and showers at the camps, but again, there is no privacy and shared with the other guiding companies and guests. We had anywhere from 15-50+ campers in each of the 3 different camps.

On day 1, the trek begins with a morning pickup from the Santa Marta airport.  (We flew in from Bogota where we had spent a couple days, and the flight was a little over an hour.) From the Santa Marta airport, after dropping our extra luggage off at the hotel in Santa Marta, La Calzado del Santo (where we would be staying after the hike), we had a 2-hour drive (mostly off road) by 4-wheel-drive vehicle to the small town of Machete. Machete got its name because the people in town used to fight with machetes after having some beers – it was a bit of a “wild west” town in its day.

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After lunch, we started the 3 hour hike to camp 1 where we spent the first night. The day 1 hike was along a newly graded path which was more like a road so that motor bikes can take goods to camp 1. The path is dusty with a lot of steep ups and downs.  We also did this section of the hike during the hottest part of the day from 1-4 pm. It was only about 5 miles, but with the steeps and the heat, we were both feeling it.

The one upside to the camps was cold beer at the bottom camp (camp 1) and warm beer at the higher camps (camp 2 & 3) where there was no electricity.

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On day 2, we woke up around 5:30 am and started trekking around 6 am.  (The truth is we were both up every hour during the night because you do not sleep in bunk beds in rows for 20-40 people – someone is always getting up to go to bathroom, decides to have a conversation in the middle of night, switches on a headlamp accidentally shining it in your limited space or something else.)  Today, we hiked about 6 hours with a stop at camp 2 for a leisurely lunch and swim in the Buritaca river. Along the way, we stopped at the native community of Mutanyi, where the Kogi indigenous group live.  Visiting the native community and hiking with the Kogis and Wiwas along the trail is a fascinating experience as we felt like we were stepping back in time.  The indigenous people are living in huts without electricity, running water, bathrooms and practicing ancient rituals- e.g. When a family member dies, they are buried under the floor of the home with some of their artifacts.  The house is abandoned for 1-2 years and then the family returns, exhumes the body and puts the remains in some type of urn.

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Our final destination on day 2 was camp 3, Paraiso Teyuna which was only about 1-2 km to La Cuidad Perdida but is a challenging ascent which includes 1200 steps.

On day 3, it was another early morning for a couple of reasons.  Again, there is no sleep in these camps given the amount of people and lack of privacy, and we wanted to be the first to arrive at La Cuidad Perdida before the other teams of people so we could enjoy the peace and get some photos without people.  We hiked along a ridge above the river and crossed the river before we started climbing 1,200 steps to our main destination to reach the beautiful Lost City.  From camp 3 to the Lost City, it probably took us a little less than 1 hour. We hiked during a very dry time and had no issues with river crossings. However, when hiking in the rainy seasons, the river swells and can present challenges.

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The Lost City was founded about 800 CE, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu. La Ciudad Perdida was later “found” in 1972 when a group of local treasure looters found a series of stone steps rising up the mountainside and followed them to an abandoned city which they named “Green Hell” because of the long, arduous trek through the jungle.

Ciudad Perdida was probably the region’s political and manufacturing center and may have housed 2,000 to 8,000 people. It was apparently abandoned when the Spanish arrived.

There are some interesting artifacts still remaining despite the site being pillaged by treasure hunters.  The photo on the left below shows the mortar used for corn and the photo on the right shows what is believed to be a map of the area carved into a rock.

After visiting the city in the morning, we hiked back to camp 2 for dinner and to spend our last night.

Day 4, we were up early and excited to get back to Santa Marta where a hot shower and a comfortable, private hotel room were waiting for us.  We headed out of camp 2 around 5:45 am.  For some reason our guide, Wilson, started walking super fast.  He was trying to make it to the other camp 2 to catch the mules before they left to see if my backpack could be put on a mule.  The hiking had been strenuous mostly because of the heat, and there were some steep climbs, but I felt good and energized thinking about the hot shower and comfortable, private hotel room at the end of the hike.  Wilson estimated we would get back to Machete around noon (about 6 hours of hiking).  We had a few steep climbs in front of us.

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We arrived at camp 1 around 8:30 am.  We made good time.  We had some passion fruit juice and some watermelon before tackling the last few climbs to the end.  After camp 1, we had just about two more hours of hiking before we got to Machete where lunch, cold beer, and our ride was waiting to take us to Santa Marta.

During the hike on day 4, while it covered the same ground as day 1, there was not as much haze, and we had some great views of the Sierra Nevada mountains which kept our spirits high – despite the grinding ascents and descents.

On the last stretch to Machete, the sun was strong, and the sand was like powder.  We were covered in sand, dust and sweat.  Our guide suggested a short cut to a swimming hole before reaching Machete.  Given the dust, sand and sweat on our bodies, we agreed the swimming hole was a great idea despite the steep 30 minute descent.

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We arrived in Machete around 11/ 11:30 am (we beat our goal).

Some travel articles compare the Lost City to Machu Picchu.  The truth is these treks are totally different- the weather, the culture, the amount of climbing, the ruins, time frame in which the ruins were built, etc.  We are grateful we did this trek, and it was a fascinating learning experience.  We are especially grateful to our guide, Wilson, for his experience, flexibility and getting us to the Lost City before the other teams.  But the probability we will do this trek again is extremely low.

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5 thoughts on “Trekking in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

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  4. Anonymous

    Hola,
    spoken like a tired travel…………. A class room for learning ahead for this week. looks like South America has charm and adventures … keep trekking hugs and much love Mah/Jane

    Liked by 1 person

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