So it’s not a fair comparison. However, it’s one that’s made by most people who do this trek, and several of the Colombian tourist sites I’ve been on like to make the comparison, so what the heck, I thought I’d weigh in.
I’ll be looking at the traditional 4 Day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu vs the Ciudad Perdida route. While there are plenty of differences between the two routes, the one thing that might be comparable is the difficulty level. However, even that is for different reasons.
Machu Picchu = More Difficult because..
– Altitude: You can’t underestimate the fact that, at its highest, the Inca Trail is about 4000 m higher than the highest point on the Ciudad Perdida trek. Even giving yourself time to acclimatize in doesn’t quite prepare you for that altitude. The Sierra Nevada is high, but Ciudad Perdida doesn’t exist that far off of the coast, so it makes life a bit easier.
– Weather Swings: We went from near 0 to 25 within the space of hours on the Inca Trail. The Ciudad Perdida trek stays a consistent 25+ and humid most of the time.
Ciudad Perdida = More Difficult because…
– No Porter: The porter and campsite system on the Inca Trail is much more developed than that of Ciudad Perdida, due mostly to the fact that there are so many more camp options and tourists. Whereas you could carry a small daypack on the Inca trail, you’re carrying all of your own stuff on the trek to Ciudad Perdida. You don’t have to worry about a tent or things like that, but the option of paying a porter to take half of your clothes and a sleeping back doesn’t exist.
– Bugs: I got lucky, but having seen pictures and heard stories from friends, my experience was not the norm. The bugs can be ROUGH on the trail, and anybody who’s been consistently bitten on a hike knows the little guys can take it right out of you. I mean energy, not blood, though really, both.
– No Easy Out: There appeared to be several “extraction points” on the Inca Trail if you broke a leg or got really sick. Ciudad Perdida has one way in and one way out, unless you happen to be the Colombian military. So this is a worst case scenario point, but it bears noting.
Basically, if you’re a fit person (even moderately so), neither hike is inaccessible. Both are rewarding. Here is where I feel each set of ruins and their hike “wins.”
Campsites – The Inca Trail works on a “First Come, First Serve” basis, so if you and your group are on the road early and hike at a good speed, you can grab a campsite closer to the ruins. The campsites are generally a bit more beautiful and, because you’re sleeping in tents, less cramped than the bunkhouse lodging of Ciudad Perdida.
Other Ruins – Machu Picchu is not the only set of ruins you can see and explore on the Inca Trail. The whole trek was designed by the Inca as a spiritual journey and, while they save the best for last, the ruins along the way are spectacular enough on their own.
The Main Site – Ciudad Perdida is gorgeous, but you can’t compare it to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is bigger, better laid out, retains more of its original structure, and even contains a “Bonus Hike” with Huayna Picchu in the background.
Food – Peru has been working the tourist route longer than anybody else. Our Machu Picchu group had a vegetarian, somebody with lactose intolerance, and a person who had a whole host of allergies. Everybody worked around the issues and we ended up with delicious meals. Our Ciudad Perdida group had one vegetarian. He accidentally got meat one day and, other days, he got more potatoes.
Amenities – Yes, the Inca Trail campsites are less crowded. However, the Ciudad Perdida campsites have beds, roofs, mosquito nets, sit-down toilets, tables… With an infrastructure that’s a bit less portable, it does lend some comfort, even if it’s logging-camp type comfort.
Swimming – You can’t beat jumping in a clear, natural swimming pool after sweating your brains out all day.
Undiscovered – Pretty much everybody knows about Machu Picchu, while “Lost City” sounds like it’s being made up. As such, you don’t have a packed train arriving to the site just as you’re finishing your grueling hike. Those who want to be in Ciudad Perdida aren’t there because it’s easy to tick off a list.
Final verdict is that there is no final verdict. I wouldn’t pass up seeing Ciudad Perdida for Machu Picchu in the same way I wouldn’t not see Olympos to see Ephesus. The local indy band isn’t U2, but that doesn’t mean they’re not awesome in their own way.
So go see them both!