A first-timer’s guide to Ciudad Perdida

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Sweat, some more sweat, and lots of heavy panting. Actually, there’s nothing sexy about hiking to Ciudad Perdida, the “Lost City,” a massive, Machu Picchu-esque archaeological site rediscovered in 1972. Yet, the intrepid set out daily to tackle the four-day journey, eager to photograph themselves atop the virtually unspoiled ruins of its past, ones that have won their rightful spot on the bucket lists of YOLO travelers. The expedition is a rather arduous one. Sort of uphill, both ways, sometimes in downpours, ala grampa storytelling style. But the payoff— Instagram jumping photos GO!— and its accompanying struggle are worthwhile. If only for your ego.

When it comes to the trek, there’s two sides to the story. You’ve got 1). a spectacular hike through the beautiful Sierra Nevadas to one of the most inaccessible and historically-intriguing sites in South America. And 2). a grueling test of will, complete with sweat baths and a pay-off that lasts approximately 1/8 of the trip. So then, is it worth it? Why yes, I believe it is. Ever been to Machu Picchu? I haven’t. But I hear it’s full of tourists. Like swarming with them. Ciudad Perdida is definitely not.

Unlike Machu Picchu, you can’t travel there on a bus or train. Yes, there will be other tour groups milling around but it’s a large complex. We were all able to get pictures, free of bystanders. I assume it’ll be awhile until this changes. But when it does, you can tell your grandkids how you had to transverse mountain peaks and chase turkeys off your bed in order to see a Lost City. Coolest old person ever.

You have your choice of companies, Expotour and Magic Tours being the most popular. Whichever you pick, they will all offer the same thing. You will sleep at the same camps. You will have the same hiking schedule. You will eat the same awesome food. You will see the same people every day. The trek is a well-oiled system that has been perfected in such a way that the poor guides described their sheer boredom with the routine. Pasta for dinner on night three? That is no surprise.

Anyone can do the hike, trust me. Our guide has seen people as young as six and as old as 75 finish it. Plenty of people have dropped out, but as long as you’re in sort of shape, you’ll make it. Needless to say, the struggle is real. There’s a ton of hills. Some rivers to ford. Mud to slip through. It’s tough. Like walking for 8 hours a day toward a mirage that only appears on day three. As for the four, five, or six-day choice? I would have rather thrown myself off the actual ruins than do more than four days. We met some people at camps that were on the five-day plan, which seems to just imply extra rest time. For booze.

Here are some tips so you survive the elements in relative style:

  1. Go early in the year. Yes, I realize you may not have a choice in your travel plans. But the earlier you go, the more likely you’ll have a dry hike. And it’s cooler. Not that I was “cool” any step of the way but I didn’t suffer heatstroke.
  1. Don’t go in September. The whole trek closes for the month to a). let the forest take a breather and regrow; b). let shamans cleanse the woods of their stinky gringo (this was verbatim from our tour guide).
  1. Bring industrial strength earplugs and an eye mask. This is mostly necessary for Paradiso Camp on night two. The floorboards are incredibly squeaky, confused roosters freak out at 3 a.m., and nobody can find the light switch to turn it off.
  1. For malaria’s sake, just wear long tights or light pants. Even during the actual hiking. The only time I got bit by the clouds of mosquitoes was the one night I left my ankles exposed. Of course I doused myself in citronella and Deet in the vulnerable areas— and practically dipped my tights in the over-the-clothing stuff— but that won’t stop them. You need a barrier so they get lost and attack your friend.
  1. Just pack light in general. I managed with a small backpack but still had sore shoulders and back upon return. Dry clothes are worth the weight in gold but only to a certain point.
  1. Look up. Well, stop first —otherwise, risk certain death— and then look up. The actual Ciudad Perdida is beautiful but 95% of your trip will be the journey. The Sierra Nevadas are splendid on their own accord. I watched parakeets squabbling. Red ants deconstructing giant leaves. Vistas and butterflies and mules and turkeys and tadpoles.

And a “lessons learned” packing list:

  • 4 pairs of underwear
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • 3 sports bras (ladies)
  • 1 pair of shorts with tights underneath/ hiking pants
  • PJ pants for nighttime
  • Swimsuit
  • Mini soap and shampoo
  • Quick-dry towel
  • Sunscreen
  • 750% Deet
  • Camera
  • Money for beer/ snacks at camps
  • Hiking shoes
  • Medical tape
  • Earplugs and eye mask
  • Roll of toilet paper
  • Crocs or Croc-like shoes for camp, gross showers, and river crossings
  • Garbage bags for wet, dirty clothing and to cover backpack
  • Booze if you don’t drink beer

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