How I Explored Colombia’s Jungle Ruins for under $1,000 (flight included)

Ever heard of the Lost City Trek in Colombia?  It’s an intense 4 day, 30 mile hike to visit these ancient ruins that were only discovered about 40 years ago.  Experts say about 40% of the ruins are still lost to the jungle, with treasures still buried in them.  Sounds freaking awesome right?  Well we just did it.  If you wanna watch about it, scroll down.  If you wanna read, here’s what we have to report:

First of all, I’m super glad I did this trek.  When I heard lost city, mega jungle trek, sleeping in the rainforest, I for some reason envisioned an adrenaline rush adventure, swinging on jungle vines to escape almost certain death.  It was much more mellow than that, but it wasn’t full of fanny packs and white sun block noses either.  It’s a harsh environment. The hike is not paved, it doesn’t have railings to protect you from falling.  It’s an intense hike, wrought with mosquitoes, steep climbs through mud, across rivers, in humidity and rain.  The Lost City Trek is not an adrenaline rush, but it has real world consequences–if you get all the way back in there and get bit by a snake or break your leg, or fall off the broken bridge we hiked across, you have up to a 2 day ride by mule to get out, so when you go, be careful.  But you should definitely go!

It’s a beautiful ancient city, built in 800 BCE, that’s 650 years before Machu Picchu!  It’s a huge city on top of a steep hillside.  Every terrace, every trail, every piece of the city is accessible by stone walkways.  Before the days of semi-trucks and tractors, I’m not sure who’s brilliant idea it was to build a stone city on the top of a mountain, but boy, you can’t bea that view up there.  Sitting on top of a 2,500 year old city that towers above the canopies of the jungle, that was a view I won’t soon forget.

The beauty of this trip, is that any one that is willing to walk 45 kilometers through really crappy conditions, can do it.  I literally bought my flight less than a week before I left.  I got off the plane, walked right into a travel agency and booked my Lost City Trek for the next day.  It was so painless.  They provide everything so that all you have to do is focus on the hike.  They provide beds with mosquito nets, blankets, food, water, shelter, guides.  

The trek leaves from a town called Santa Marta, so if you’re interested in doing this trek, all you need to do is get to Santa Marta and buy your tour.  It’s about $300 for the trek with everything included and about $450 for the roundtrip flight from SFO to Santa Marta.  So if all you do is the Lost City Trek, you could do this whole trip for under $1,000 door to door.  For cheap flights, check out: one travel, fareboom, and skyscanner.  

If you don’t think you’ll be doing the Lost City Trek, your reading is done!  If you do see yourself doing this trek, here’s some advice to consider on this trip:

  • You must use real mosquito repellent; it’s not negotiable.  No all natural with organic sage and free trade rosemary crap.  Mosquitos aren’t hippies.  Go with some stuff that has lots of DEET.  I used a 100% deet spray that I bought cheap at Target and a waterproof DEET cream from Australia that is phenomenal.  If it rains or you walk through a river, traditional DEET sprays must be reapplied.  This area has Malaria and Zika.  (I forgot to mention this in the video.  So that’s the reward you get for reading.)  I took anti-malaria drugs (though most of the travelers I met, did not).  I took Malarone, which must be started 2 days prior to entry into the at-risk area.  Talk to your doctor though and see what the current recommendations are.  The best defense though is still preventing bites in the first place with stuff like DEET.
  • We went in the low tourist season (October).  The weather forecast was pretty awful to look at and the reviews online scared of unbearable mosquitoes.  But when we got to Colombia, the 10 day torrential rains forecast, was garbage.  It rained in the late afternoons and the days were hot and beautiful.  Mosquitoes were totally manageable especially with the multiple coats of DEET.  
  • Fresh off season 2 of Narcos, I definitely had my guard up when I got out of the airport in Bogota, but time and time again, the Colombian people proved honest, hospitable, and warm towards foreigners.  Colombia as a whole was easy and cheap to navigate.  I was nervous to travel by myself before I left, but of all the countries I’ve visited, I’ve hardly felt safer traveling than I did in Colombia.  
  • Speaking Spanish is a huge plus.  The Lost City Trek has the option of hiring a translator.  Expotur provides free translators with their trips.  
  • We went with Expotur because talking around town, they were said to be the most organized and they offer free translators.  The other company I’d strongly consider is Wiwa Tours because they are the only company with indigenous guides and learning about the indigenous culture and way of life was one of my favorite parts of the whole experience.

Packing List Considerations:
The best packing advice I’ve ever come across was, pack your whole bag.  Now take out half of what you packed.  Now zip up your bag again and now you’re packed.  Don’t overthink your packing list.  The beauty is, if you literally brought just the clothes on your back, shoes on your feet, and a water bottle, you would survive the trek because everything is provided at each stop point.  So the select things you choose to bring, only make the experience more comfortable.  Here’s some advice on packing:

  • pack light- I read online that it was a difficult hike and blah, blah, blah.  My “I’m A Man” side said, “I’m not worried about that.”  So with 40 pounds of crap I didn’t need on my back, I had some pretty sore shoulders by the end of 45 kilometers.
  • Bring empty trash bags if you go during rainy season to be able to protect your backpack from getting wet.  
  • Pack only two shirts.  I wore the same disgusting, stinky, DEET covered, sweat drenched shirt every day (and so did most of the other hikers) because anything you put on will be disgusting within 20 minutes of starting the day’s hike.  Pack an extra shirt to change into for when you get back from the trek and that’s enough.  
  • Bring toilet paper.  Your guide has toilet paper if you forget (which I did forget, so my guide got to know my bowl schedule intimately)

Just make sure you’re in reasonable physical condition, pack plenty of mosquito repellent, sun block, a water bottle, pepto bismol (just in case) and comfortable shoes.  If you’re looking for an adventure that you can just show up, pay up and go and do it, this is it.  The Lost City Trek was a once in a lifetime trip, cheap, painless, and well organized.  If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a quick video.  Click below to watch!