My last post about Colombia focused on the north-coast city of Santa Marta and adjacent Sierra Nevada:
https://landscapes-revealed.net/sierra-nevada-de-santa-marta-earths-highest-coastal-mountain/. Our principal goal there was a four-day trek to Ciudad Perdida, known as Teyuna by the indigenous people. We completed an additional three-day trek in the Sierra Nevada to further explore this amazing mountainous region with its indigenous villages and rural farms. Four-day trek to Ciudad Perdida, aka Teyuna
The Teyuna Archeological Park is administrated by the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia, in conjunction with the four indigenous groups—Kogui, Arhuaco, Kankuamo and Wiwa—that still inhabit the region. They are descendants of the original Tayrona (or Tairona) people who lived there for thousands of years and built ancient cities such as Teyuna. Access to Teyuna is tightly controlled and visitors must enter with one of the six tour companies that have been granted permission. Nevertheless, 150 visitors/day can enter the reserve, and with the increasing number of tourists to Colombia, this trek is becoming very popular.
We choose to trek with Teyuna Tours ( https://teyunatours.com/tours/ciudad-perdida-4-dias/), a company that works closely with the indigenous people. Maria and I are in front of the profile that illustrates our journey. The four-day trek starts at El Mamey (elevation of 150 m / 500 ft) and ends at Teyuna/Ciudad Perdida (elevation 1200 m / 3940 ft). On Night 1 we stayed at Adan Camp (elevation 450 m / 1475 ft); on Night 2 we stayed at Paraiso Camp (elevation 850 m / 2790 ft); and on Night 3 we stayed at Mumake Camp (elevation 470 m / 1540 ft), after climbing to Teyuna in the morning and then starting our descent back to El Mamey. The out and back distance totals 48 km (29 miles). It’s more difficult than the distance suggests because the trail is steep and the weather hot and humid. We did the trek at the end of February, in the dry season.
The trail to Ciudad Perdida passes through lush tropical vegetation. Left photo: The trail follows the Buritaca River, here shown at the bottom of the valley. Right photo: a ginger plant along the trail.
My last post described the geology of the Sierra Nevada, where rocks up to 1 billion years old have been uplifted to nearly 6 km (19,000 ft) elevation. The exuberant vegetation and humid climate deeply weathers the rocks, which are rarely visible. Here is a high-grade metamorphic rock exposed in a river bed. This rock formed many millions of years ago as sand and mud. Since then, the sediment was deeply buried, minerals recrystallized, and layers became soft and contorted into swirling shapes by high temperatures and pressures.
Adan camp where we stayed the first night. Camps are simple structures without walls next to the Buritaca River where we cooled off at the end of each hot day.
A view inside our Aden camp structure with some of the hikers in our group. Our cook served basic, yet nutritious, food at these tables. We slept in bunk beds surrounded with mosquito netting. Because we were in the dry season, we were not bothered much by insects. These two couples were from France and Germany.
Near the start of Day 2, we entered into land of the indigenous Wiwa people. The houses in this village are made of logs and mud, with palm thatched roofs. The two points on the roof top refer to the two highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The people are semi-nomadic. At this time of year, many were tending their crops at higher elevations, but they will return to their villages after the harvest.
The indigenous people proudly continue the traditions of their ancestors. There are no roads, so supplies must be carried by people or mules. Left photo: A Wiwa man with a mule carrying supplies. Center photo: We commonly saw Wiwa families and sometimes children without adults such as this young child. Right photo: During Day 2 we stopped in a thatched-roof structure to learn about the traditions of the Wiwa people from this man, who welcomed us to take photos and videos. The fiber bag next to him (called a “mochila”) holds coca leaves that the men chew throughout the day. The man is holding a “poporo”—a gourd that is filled with calcium carbonate obtained by pulverizing seashells. The long stick is used to transfer the seashell powder from the poporo into his mouth, where it stimulates the active ingredient in the coca leaves. Each young man is given a poporo at his 18th birthday, to mark the transition into adulthood. We often observed the men methodically rubbing the stick around the poporo, which acts to transfer the calcium carbonate / saliva mixture onto the gourd’s exterior. Over time, what started as a small gourd becomes a large poporo. As this sacred object grows, the Wiwa say, so does the owner’s knowledge of the world. We were told that women have different traditions as they transition to adulthood.
Left photo: In the morning of Day 3, we ascended more than 1000 steep, narrow stairs to Teyuna (Ciudad Perdida—meaning lost city). This, and other city centers, were built in the 8th century, and possibly earlier. Thus, they are at least 700 years older than Machu Picchu in Peru. The cities were abandoned in the 16th century, around the time of the Spanish conquest. Although indigenous groups were at first able to resist the intruders, they ultimately dispersed and left the area. Right photo: The “lost city” was never really lost to the indigenous people, who returned to the area although it was completely overgrown after centuries of vegetation growth in this tropical climate. In 1972, looters “discovered” the site and began to sell items made of gold and semi-precious rock on the black market. Archaeologists then began exploring the region and major excavations continued for six years after Ciudad Perdida was officially recognized in 1976. This photo illustrates some of the excavated platforms in the midst of jungle where more structures remain. The indigenous people do not allow further excavations in the area, an understandable response to the disruption that so many visitors is already causing.
Left photo: The classic view of Ciudad Perdida, with its numerous rock platforms that were the bases for buildings that did not survive because they were made of mud and palm thatch. In its prime, this city would have housed several thousand people; many more thousands would have lived in the surrounding area in other population centers. The structures included houses, paths, staircases, storehouses, canals and communal areas with ceremonial purposes. This advanced society practiced sustainable farming through crop rotation and vertical ecology, built terraced drainage systems that minimized erosion, and produced exceptional gold and pottery work. Right photo: One of the six tour companies is owned by the Wiwa people, who wear white clothing and flat hats. The man with a hat in the shape of a mountain (like a Sierra Nevada peak) is a member of the Arhuaco people, another of the indigenous groups in the Sierra Nevada. It was easy to imagine the conflicts that tourism is bringing—on the one hand, the indigenous people are benefiting financially, but on the other hand, the introduction of so many foreigners brings inevitable challenges to their traditional way of life.
Left photo: Our main guide, Misael, shows us a rock with lines that is thought to be a map of the ancient city. Right photo: Our guide Misael with a Mamo, a spiritual leader. When the indigenous people in the region, who refer to themselves as “Elder Brothers”, received news of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were not surprised because they had already received warnings from their Mamos. Trained to look to nature for guidance, these spiritual leaders have been saying that Earth would be plagued with “unknown illnesses”—along with climate change and water and food shortages—because of the environmentally destructive practices of the “Younger Brothers”, meaning non-indigenous society. They believe that humanity must return to the Law of Origin—the original instructions about how to co-inhabit in a harmonious way with everything on the planet—or be subjected to increasing levels of crisis.
Here is most of our Teyuna Tours group that consisted of 17 clients; Misael, our main guide; Diego, who translated Misael’s Spanish into English; and two additional staff who assisted us, as needed. Although Maria and I speak and understand Spanish, most of the clients did not. All were from Europe, except for one woman from Canada, and Maria and I from the U.S. Three-day trek with Native Expeditions
To learn even more about the Sierra Nevada, its natural features, and its culture, we did another trek with Native Expeditions (
https://www.nativexpeditionscolombia.com/la-expedicion-nativa). This trek, called the Path of Waterfalls, was even more rigorous than the trek to Ciudad Perdida. The total distance was 36 km (22 miles), but the trails were steep, narrow and rocky, and we reached a higher elevation. On Day 1, we hiked 11 km (6.6 miles), with an elevation gain of 1250 m (4100 ft), to reach our highest elevation of 2200 m (7200 ft). But it was worth it!
On Day 1, we passed through the rain forest to reach the cloud forest at higher elevations. This beautiful mountain view above the clouds is from a high point in our trek.
On this trek, we stayed with campesinos (rural farmers), such as Anthony. Anthony’s family moved north to the isolated Sierra Nevada many decades ago to flee the violence that was besieging their community. Anthony’s home, which he named Palacio de los Nubes (Cloud Palace) was a basic but comfortable accommodation. He skillfully prepared delicious food for us on his wood-fired stove. The mountain people were very welcoming and we enjoyed getting to know them. Leo (black shirt) was our guide. He is the very knowledgeable owner of the small tour company.
The morning view, looking out over the clouds, from our Cloud Palace lodging. Anthony is an amazing gardener, and we were treated to freshly-picked tomatoes and herbs, and eggs from his chickens.
The serenity of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is compelling and the area is well worth a visit. The indigenous people have been recovering from their centuries-long exploitation, but problems continue. The mountains contain rich natural resources, with the attendant “development” threats. It remains to be seen if society will listen to the “Elder Brothers” (indigenous people) and decide to leave them in peace to continue their sustainable way of life.
Karen, Very nicely done. Thanks for this. I love to walk, and only wish I had two good legs to trek like you and Jay do. I’ve spent time in S.Am. as you know, and appreciate your sensitivity and respect for the cultures and peoples. Cheers, John
Thanks John. I appreciate your comment. We’ll keep doing it as long as we can!
Very interesting Karen. Love your photos. Thanks for sharing your insights related to the indigenous people.
Thanks for reading Jolene!