Trekking to the lost city of the Tayrona
The Machu Picchu of Colombia, Ciudad Perdida is a series of ruins three days worth of trekking into the jungles of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Discovered only in the 1970’s by illegal grave-robbers (extremely organized, grave-robbers here even have their own union) the ruins are centuries older than the more famous lost city in Peru. After a few years of grave robbers duelling each other on the mountain (an open area among the ruins is named Plaza Muerte after one such event…) word finally got out and proper archeologists could analyze what was left, and eventually the area would also be opened to tourists. Though not without risk…one group of tourists were kidnapped by left-wing guerrillas back in 2003 but nothing has happened since then (…one unconfirmed rumour has it there’s some sort of “protection money” included in the fee we paid to trek there) and the hostages that time were treated fairly well – some Israeli tourists in the group apparently said afterwards that they were happy to get a several month long jungle-trip even though they only paid for six days! Anyhow, for this reason it is not a particularly good idea to trek there independently – everyone has to be part of a group with a guide.
My other interest in trekking this region is to catch a glimpse of the Kogi, the indigenous people of the area. Probably the most fascinating indigenous group I’ve ever read about, the Kogi has been called the only civilization in South America to survive conquest, maintaining most of their traditions and way of life throughout the past centuries. They, together with the Arhuaco or Ika and Wiwa, are direct descendants of the Tayrona who built the lost city, and who retreated higher and higher into the mountains to escape Spanish greed for gold and slaves. To them the Sierra Nevada mountains are the Heart of the World, a place to be guarded and a place essential for keeping the entire world in balance. In the dawn of days all humans lived here, but today only them, the Elder Brothers, have stayed behind to act as guardians of the world while the Younger Brothers (the name for all outsiders) threaten this balance with mining, deforestation and the general wanton destruction we like to get up to in order to further civilization. There is a great documentary called “From The Heart Of The World: The Elder Brothers Warning” about the Kogi (they invited a filming crew in the 90’s after the snow cover on the peaks of their mountain started rapidly disappearing), and a short National Geographic article here (there is a beautifully written book called One River by the same author, about indigenous people in the Amazon).
To the secretive Kogi the lost city, known to them as Teyuna, was never lost, but kept in secret for generations and visited regularly by shamans for ceremonies.
The start of the trip wasn’t very comfortable – a couple hours on a bumpy road in a big truck/jeep leaking exhaust fumes until we reached the trailhead. We were in a group of 13 plus guides, and the walk the first day was quite short – starting near sea level and climbing some 500 meters to the first camp. The coastal hills of the Sierra Nevada are fairly dry and open, some of the area farmed – we will get deeper into the forest as we climb higher. The day was hot, but there was a a nice swimming hole in the river along the way and lots of stops for fresh fruit. Mules were carrying the bulk of our supplies so we had only daypacks with camera and some extra clothes to carry ourselves. The first night we slept in hammocks, open air with corrugated iron roof above and mosquito net over the hammocks. By the river right next to the camp was a lovely swimming hole, under a big waterfall with tall trees full of lianas and epiphytes towering above.
Something else we were a bit less enthusiastic about was that in the morning we were offered the chance to visit a clandestine cocaine-factory a few kilometers deeper into the jungle! It wasn’t an official part of the trek, but for 15$ extra per person some campesinos at the camp could bring us there… I admit I was a bit curious to see this shady operation, but after all the horrible misery brought down on this country by foreign demand for the drug it didn’t feel like something we wanted to contribute to, even just to take photos. Everyone else in the group went though. In addition we were close to the national park now, and national parks are the one place the US war-on-drugs programme aren’t allowed to air-spray extremely toxic leaf defoliants….with the obvious consequence that the coca plantations are now moving in to deforest some of Colombia’s most biodiverse and protected areas.
The second day we met the Kogi. From the first camp we climbed a 700m hill then down again into another valley to enter Kogi territory. The first village we came across was just a couple houses – some made of wood and some clay, all of them round, roofs made of dried palm-fronds. One man, an older woman and a number of children were home, and the guide introduced us and gave the children some sweets. All dressed in pure white, this is the first time we’ve met an indigenous people who still wear their traditional clothes. Beautiful kids with long black hair (both men and women keep it long) – quite reserved and neither shy nor particularly curious, I didn’t get the same mad giggling response that we were used to from remote villages in Asia on showing children their picture in the camera…did find a moment to play peek-a-boo with one of the youngest though which is fun across all cultures! The men all carry a gourd with crushed lime inside (from sea-shells traded from other tribes) and a stick to fish out the lime – it is used when chewing coca to activate the chemicals inside the leaf. The tribes here and all across the Andes have used the properties of the plant for thousands of years, as a mild stimulant, appetite-suppressant or for dealing with altitude, before getting caught up in the guerilla-wars in the last few decades after it got turned into a mindless drug. Kogi men can start to carry the gourd at 16 the guide was telling us, when they are old enough to take a wife. The Kogi villages around here are the ones with the most contact with outsiders – ones higher up in the mountains are still very isolated.
We passed a bigger village not long after the first, some twenty huts including a bigger ceremonial house, though in this village no Kogi were home. The guide still showed us around a little, before we made our way to camp 2. This camp was actually run by some of the Kogi – nice that some of the tourism money reach them also. There was another fantastic swimming spot in the river close-by, a bigger stream with a series of waterfalls a little higher. Kogi children showed up every now and then – on the opposite riverbank washing clothes or running across the river behind us, never taking much notice of the strangers. Usually moving without a sound and fading in and out of the forest so quickly, they were almost like forest spirits from some Japanese animated movie. I might just be getting nostalgic since we’re getting close to the end of our trip, but I think it’s one of my favourite moments from the year, sitting there on the riverside after a swim watching them, the youngest members of an ancient culture, dressed in their traditional white and going about life by the riverside like they always have. Precious and fragile…if you watch for too long they might be gone forever.
As Colombia has gotten safer and safer and there are fewer and fewer left-wing guerilla or right-wing para-militaries on the mountain the biggest threat to the Kogi today is probably from different types of well-meaning idiots… One of the first hits if you google the tribe is from a group of people trying to bring them homeopathy … useless quack medicine which the WHO recently issued a warning against as it contains no active ingredients whatsoever and cost thousands of lives globally every year when used in place of real medicine. Missionaries would be another group…always there to help save another soul by converting them to the one true religion, but in indigenous cultures spiritual beliefs and mythology are usually intertwined with their medicinal knowledge and their history so robbing them of the first takes away much more. A third type of well-meaning idiots could be the one I belong to…tourists. I’m hoping that the Ciudad Perdida trek, bound to increase in numbers as tourism grows in Colombia, will help keep the mountain safe as the government won’t want to loose the income, and it looks promising that the Kogi has some say in how things are run, but you never know how things play out. Independent and self-sufficient they are quite rich since they’re not operating within our economy, but entering the cash economy they might likely end up poor. Their elders are apparently discussing some sort of rotation between the villages as the ones close to the touristed areas are changing faster than the ones higher up in the mountains – a rotation might help the Kogi keep their identity homogeneous.
Day three we started the climb up towards the lost city, first balancing on a narrow path above the river then crossing it before climbing another ridge to enter a new valley. The forest was deeper here, though in a few places we passed small Kogi banana plantations and in one spot, on top of a hill overlooking the valley, a small Kogi hut containing a wooden sugar-cane mill. The guide cut down a cane and gave us a piece each – dripping in sugar as you chew it before spitting out the raw fibers. The forest here is real cloud-forest, trees so heavy in bromeliads and other epiphytes that branches break off and fall to the ground. Some bromeliads were growing mid-air even – attached to thin areal roots certain types of trees send down. We followed the river for an hour, crossing it eight times, before reaching the old Tayrona stone steps leading up from the river to the lost city. Roughly 1200 narrow steps, a 300 meter climb, hidden well behind the jungle and hardly visible from the river if you didn’t know where to look.
The first area we came to contained a number of round stone terraces, still overgrown with moss, trees and roots – very atmospheric. There would have been a house in the center of each terrace; round houses, round plazas, everything round in Tayrona cities, everything square in ours. The entrance area had functioned as a purification place to be visited before going to the temples of the higher ceremonial city. Small paths and narrow stone steps led off in all directions – we followed the one leading higher. After passing a few more terraces still shaded by jungle trees towering above we came to the main stairway – wide and straight unlike the rest – which lead to a long series of terraces culminating in the biggest one in a fully cleared area at the top at roughly 1300 meters altitude (this terrace is now also occasionally used as helipad by those who don’t want to trek for three days to get up here). The group had split up along the climb so we were exploring almost on our own – everyone met up again at the top. There were also a handful of Colombian soldiers stationed there, standing guard at the main terrace with their tents a little further up the hill. The views from the top terrace were terrific – layer after layer of forest-covered mountains in shades of blue towards the horizon, clouds obscuring the peaks.
Our camp was slightly higher, on an opposite hill looking down over the ruins. Apparently we were the last group to spend the night there – the new camp will be down by the river below all the ruins, per Kogi wishes in order to respect their ancestry. This is still early days of tourism to this site, which could in time perhaps rival Machu Picchu, and it is nice to see that the Kogi get to have a hand in shaping the future of tourism at the site already from an early stage.
In the morning we did a three hour walk around the ruins before starting the climb down. The guide pointed out two map-stones, the carvings thought to represent the streets and roads in the old Tayrona city (interesting to have maps but no written language). We visited the lower “residential” areas below the ceremonial city, walking many of the narrow paths and steps through the jungle, and passing two Kogi shaman huts before starting to climb down. It had rained during the night and the steep steps were very slippy, me and Edel fell once each. After all the river crossings on the way back we spent another night at camp 2, the next day walking past the Kogi villages again before the final night in hammocks in camp 1, the next morning arriving back to our home in Taganga.