You would be hard-pressed to try to find a traveler's bucket list that doesn't contain Machu Picchu. This ancient Incan citadel hidden in the Andes mountains is one of the most recognizable places on the planet, and tourism to this remote spot has surged year over year for decades. It's an expensive and hard-to-reach dream destination for many.
But Machu Picchu isn't South America's only lost city. Hidden deep within the jungle along Colombia's Caribbean coast is the famous Ciudad Perdida, a lost city only rediscovered by the outside world in the 1970s.
Ciudad Perdida gets far fewer visitors, which gives travelers who go there much more freedom to explore the site properly. People are raving about this lost city, saying it far exceeds expectations and even puts Machu Picchu to shame. But should it replace Machu Picchu on your bucket list?
Visiting Machu Picchu
The mysterious and impressive Incan city of Machu Picchu, rediscovered by outsiders in 1911, welcomes over 1.5 million visitors annually. Getting to Machu Picchu can be challenging. Still, the tourist infrastructure has grown massively to support the throngs of tourists that go there each year.
First, travelers much reach Cusco, the former capital of the Incan empire and the largest city nearest Machu Picchu. From there, visitors travel by bus or car to the small town of Ollantaytambo, another vital Incan stronghold that has its own impressive complex of temples and fortresses to see. Ollantaytambo is the start of the journey by train – this is the only way to reach Machu Picchu other than hiking in!
Trains make their final stop at Aguas Calientes, the tiny town directly below the ruins. A last short bus ride up the mountainside to the ruins completes the journey. After the long trip, visitors are rewarded with the jaw-dropping scenery Machu Picchu is famous for.
Machu Picchu Travel Restrictions
Despite Machu Pichu's popularity, visitor numbers are being deliberately curbed. For years, archeologists and historians have sounded the alarm over the damage and degradation of this historic monument caused by over-tourism. The Peruvian government has struggled to balance much-needed tourism dollars with preserving their most important historical landmark.
New rules instituted after the pandemic might be here to stay. This means booking pre-approved Machu Picchu tours to visit the site and are limited in the time you can spend among the ruins. Daily ticket numbers are more limited than ever as prices continue to rise.
Is Machu Picchu Overrated?
Machu Picchu is one of those destinations where even the most beautiful photograph cannot do justice to its beauty. You'll be in awe of the Andes Mountains' natural beauty alongside the Incas' incredible archeological achievements as you explore this one-of-a-kind spot.
In this regard, Machu Picchu as a travel destination is undoubtedly not overrated! However, it is both expensive and difficult to travel to Machu Picchu – meaning it might not be the best travel destination for every type of traveler.
Machu Picchu Travel Expenses
Tickets to Machu Picchu should be booked months in advance or more, especially if you're planning to travel during the high season. One of the most expensive individual costs is the train to Machu Picchu – the only way to arrive. On the low end of the spectrum, the one-and-a-half-hour journey costs almost $200 round trip.
Special excursions and hikes around Machu Picchu – including the Inca Trail and popular Huayna Picchu hike – allow just a few hundred visitors daily. Visitors wake before sunrise to snap up day tickets, which are gone almost instantly.
Tickets to everything are costly, including flights into Cusco. Accommodation is also pricey with few budget-friendly alternatives available in this hard-to-reach spot. While most of Peru is a relatively affordable destination – even one of the cheaper countries to visit in South America – the cost of visiting Machu Picchu is sky high.
It's certainly an unforgettable experience, but potential travelers should carefully consider the realities of traveling to Machu Picchu. Travelers who want to stay longer elsewhere and keep their budgets down can consider Colombia's Ciudad Perdida instead.
What is Colombia's Lost City?
South America's other lost city, known simply as Ciudad Perdida – Lost City, in Spanish – or by its original name of Teyuna, remained hidden for hundreds of years by the dense jungle. While this city is more than half a century older than Machu Picchu, it only became a significant destination in Colombia in the last two decades, when more frequent, organized treks to the site began in earnest.
Visitors to Ciudad Perdida explore the massive archeological site, with about 30,000 square feet of intricate stonework terraces, steps, buildings, and additional structures accessible to visitors. Archeological discoveries at the site continue, with some speculating that the surrounding jungle still hides over 100,000 square feet of buildings, terraces, and temples.
How Was the Lost City Rediscovered?
Ciudad Perdida was never truly lost to the indigenous group whose ancestors constructed this marvel. The Wiwa, Arhuaco, and Kogui groups are direct descendants of the Tairona people who created the city. These indigenous groups still inhabit the area today, maintaining much of their traditional way of life.
Outsiders didn't rediscover Ciudad Perdida until the 1970s when looters exploring the mountain range stumbled upon the ancient city's terraces in the jungle depths. They quickly began removing artifacts from the site until the Colombian government learned of their discovery and took hold of the area.
Today, indigenous groups keep a special relationship with the city of their ancestors and play a unique role in maintaining and administering the site. Tour groups and guides are subject to approval and the express permission of indigenous groups. A unique aspect of a visit includes meeting with community members and learning about the history of Ciudad Perdida and indigenous culture firsthand.
Traveling to the Lost City
Reaching the Lost City requires some time and effort. The journey requires a multi-day trek through the dense jungle along the course of the Buritaca River. Most visitors opt for the standard four-day guided excursion, which includes spending three nights at rustic jungle camps with hammocks and bunk beds.
The trip is no walk in the park: the distance of the trek is about 28 miles (44 kilometers) in total, and trekkers should expect to cross the river several times a day while constantly climbing and descending hills through the jungle. Traveling is much easier during the dry season in the winter months when the path isn't muddy, and the river level is lower.
However, the route does not require special gear like crampons, ropes, or other equipment for more technical climbs. Older children and middle-aged trekkers regularly complete the journey without a hitch.
Along the way, travelers can expect to enjoy delicious, fresh Colombian meals prepared by cooks at the jungle camps along the way and farm stands selling fresh fruit, juice, and other provisions. Another highlight of the journey is swimming in the river along the campsite after a long day of hiking.
While seeing the Lost City on the third day is undoubtedly a major highlight, most trekkers say the journey to get there is even more memorable. The hard work and energy expended to reach this awe-inspiring destination make marveling in its beauty, among so few other travelers so deep in the jungle, an unforgettable experience.
An Alternative to Machu Picchu?
If you're looking for an alternative to Machu Picchu, Ciudad Perdida might be just the destination for you. With its combination of stunning natural beauty in the surrounding countryside, and the unique, ancient architectural elements, it's very similar to Machu Picchu.
You can also count on significant savings when visiting Ciudad Perdida over Machu Picchu. For comparison, the standard four-day all-inclusive Ciudad Perdida trek costs around US$350-450, about the same cost as train tickets and entry passes for just one day at Machu Picchu.
The multi-day trek to Ciudad Perdida means the site isn't accessible for everyone. While this might be a deal breaker for some visitors, it has its benefits: Ciudad Perdida isn't overrun with visitors – only around 200 trekkers per day access the site. In contrast, Machu Picchu often feels crowded, even when access is limited to just a few thousand visitors daily.
A visit to the Lost City guarantees an unforgettable travel adventure in which the journey to get there is just as thrilling as visiting the final destination itself. No wonder this trek is quickly becoming one of the most popular bucket list experiences for in-the-know adventurous travelers.
While Machu Picchu might not be overrated, visiting this destination comes with various challenges and costs that travelers must consider carefully. For most travelers, choosing a similar destination like Ciudad Perdida will stretch your travel budget further and provide an equally unforgettable experience.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Carley Rojas Avila is an avid traveler, writer, and creator behind Home to Havana. Having traveled to twenty-five countries and spent years living abroad, she shares destination guides, travel tips, and hacks to help travelers and digital nomads feel at home when traveling off the beaten path, whether their travels take them to Havana or beyond.