A coming-of-age hike into Colombia’s Sierra Nevada

Ciudad Perdida/Creative Commons

To celebrate my 18th Birthday, my parents organized a trip for me to visit my native Colombia, and a long overdue opportunity to reunite with family and friends after travel restrictions were lifted with the coronavirus pandemic. After a few days in Bogotá, I officially embarked on my first trip as an adult with a trek to the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Having seen all the Indiana Jones movies and well-supplied, we said our “goodbyes” in Santa Marta, the closest city to the highest coastal mountain range in the world. Joined by my younger sister, we took a cab for a two-hour long ride along Colombia’s Caribbean coast to meet up with our trekking partners. Eduardo was our guide, and we were introduced to a group of Spaniards. As the son of a guide who was part of the first expedition to Ciudad Perdida, Eduardo reassured us that the hike to reach one of Colombia’s archaeological wonders required physical stamina, but would be accomplished within the five-day itinerary.

On the first day, we walked for four hours through tropical shrub, surrounded by towering ferns and trees that provided us with plenty of shade. Lunch consisted of fried fish, beans, rice, and a chocolate bar, and a platter that would become a variation of a theme in the days ahead. The walks depended on the distance to reach the camps that connect the coastline of Tayrona National Park with Ciudad Perdida and the trail following a sparking clear river that flows between the two peaks of the Sierra Nevada, Pico Colón and Pico Bolívar.

Surprisingly, going down is harder than going up, and at night the temperature can drop so best bring a jumper and rain jacket. On our arrival at a camp in the foothills of the Sierra, we are greeted by storm clouds, a swarm of blue butterflies, a stray piglet, and at least five curious dogs. After the variation-theme dinner, our cooks prepare hot chocolate and Eduardo appears with a pack of newspaper clippings. It’s time for our history lesson.

The indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada have seen a lot of change since their ‘lost’ city was ‘discovered’ in 1972, among them, climate change, deforestation, and tourism. The remnants of the Native American Tairona who built and lived in this terraced city are the four tribes that now inhabit the Sierra Nevada: Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa, and Kankuamo.

The Government took control of the Lost City in 1975 after its terraces and burial sites were pillaged for gold artifacts and ancient relics. Most of the gold is now protected by the Central Bank which operates the world-renowned Gold Museum in Bogotá. The area was then controlled by both the ELN guerrilla and paramilitaries, resulting in the area being off-limits to tourists. On September 12, 2003, British and Israeli backpackers were taken hostage by the ELN and Eduardo shows us the photos of the hostages standing after their release in front of a helicopter. The acronym of the largest paramilitary group is still etched in treesthat line the trail we walk each day, the AUC standing for Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia.

Drug traffickers have also encroached on ancestral land to clear forests for growing illegal coca and marijuana crops. The next morning Eduardo points out in the distance a red speck in a sea of green. We reach a red tin-roofed shack later in the afternoon – an abandoned cocaine processing laboratory. Even the physical landscape is still scarred by the drug trade. Entire hillsides are burnt by the pesticides used in anti-narcotics aerial spraying. The hillocks are treeless and barren. Then, there are the indigenous peoples who lived through all of this, though many moved further up the mountain to flee the internal conflict. They don’t like to talk about the past.

On the first night at the camp a group of Kogi children group around a TV showing a true American crime show. There’s no volume or subtitles, but they’re still transfixed. They wear their traditional white dress which represents the purity of nature and long hair but some also wear wellies or have headphones jammed in their ears. The men sit around and chew on a paste of coca leaves and limestone which they then wipe onto the side of a stick, which after years of coca chewing forms a hardened collar of limestone.

The Kogi cosmology is centered around Aluma, the ‘Great Mother’ and a holy mountain called Gonawindua. Gonawindua is today’s Pico Colón, rising 5,700 meters above sea level. This snowcapped mountain is also “The Heart of the World” and those who inhabit the Sierra are “Elder Brothers”. We, therefore, are the younger brothers and must learn how to care for the Earth, seeing that we have devastated her resources. The Kogi have predicted many imminent catastrophes as the younger brothers have not heeded their warnings. The spiritual leader in each community is called a Mamo, and speaking to them is difficult as they do not impart their ancestral knowledge easily.

On the second day of the walk, we pass a family of eight with a pig and their mule which occasionally squarks with its cargo of live turkeys. We also pass an old man with stomach cancer being carried in a hammock from the hospital in Santa Marta to die in his mountain village. We do get to speak to two Kogi later on in after an especially arranged meeting between mouthfuls of coca paste. “The laws of the world have become unbalanced,” they say with a look of deep concern. I dread what they would think if they saw the world beyond the Sierra.

The last camp we stay in, the one closest to the Lost City is called Paraíso – or the paradise camp. The forest surrounding the camp could indeed be described as a paradise. The trees hum with birds and rivers gush and tumble over smooth, round stones. However, the camps themselves are cramped and overcrowded and have become increasingly unsustainable. When my mother made the same trip two decades ago she told me they slept in hammocks under the stars. We sleep in bunk beds with a hundred other people in the dormitory cabin.

It was still romantic, but not quite as romantic as my mother had described. It was obvious the camps were no longer suitable for the growing number of tourists marching up and down the mountains. The toilet situation involved digging big holes in the ground. This works if only a few people are using them, but with the hundreds of people that were using them daily, they were starting to leak into and contaminate the nearby rivers and water systems.

The money that tourists bring into the Sierra also brings problems. The administration behind the management of the Sierra Nevada is complex. It is made up of three departments (Cesar, Guajira, Magdalena), two national parks (Tayrona and Sierra Nevada), and three indigenous reserves (Arhuaco, Kogui-Malayo, and Kankuamo).

This means there are often money disputes about how exactly the money the tourists bring should be divided between the parks, guides, and indigenous people. While I was there, I observed a group of mediators who were keeping the peace between two indigenous groups who wanted a bigger cut in the rent from the cabins we slept in at night. The climate crisis has also led to changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, leading to more frequent forest fires and land erosion.

Eduardo shows us the remnants of a cabin that had been crushed by a landslide a month earlier, “Thanks to God, nobody died,” he said waving his hand at the mountainside. The landslide had happened in the afternoon, not at night, so no one had been there. The cabin had been completely flattened by the rocks. Not all was well in paradise, but whether it becomes a “paradise lost” remains to be seen.

We reach the Lost City on the morning of the fourth day. We woke up pre-dawn to beat the heat. The last part of the trail has been preserved so there were thousands of small stone steps to climb. The view was breathtaking. We were above the forest for the first time, and we could see the valleys and mountain ridges we had walked the previous days stretching out before us. The city was made up of hundreds of circular stone terraces, which were the foundations of the city’s houses. We sit happily in the sun and Eduardo brings us a tray of mango and watermelon.

Even in the early morning, the city hums with activity, there are the other guides with their groups, some archaeologists commencing a dig, and lots of cats for some reason. The shaman also lived up there, but he had gone away because he was tired of the tourists, so we met his granddaughter instead. We took some videos of ourselves dancing with the Spaniards at the top of the Lost City, and then, we started the long descent downwards to our earthly realms.