Lost City | The Indigenous Tribes in Colombia Using Tourism to Buy Back Their Land
We went on the five day Ciudad Perdida trek that's helping the "guardians of the heart of the world" to reclaim their ancestral home in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains
I am waist deep in a river in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta jungle; the fifth member of a ramshackle team attempting to pull two struggling mules across an overflowing river.
The mules are carrying bin bags, within which sit our last few dry possessions on the continent of South America. We’re just as concerned with the mules safety as the mules are.
The animals would normally need no assistance crossing the river, but after a torrential downpour foretold by our indigenous guide Jose (he knew by looking at the pattern of ants on the jungle floor), the waters have risen and the mules are in quite the spot of bother.
“This is why they want their land back… To bring the life back, where marijuana farmers and cocaine plantations have taken it away”
There are few problems Jose has not seen before though, and getting a couple of mules across an overflowing river in the rainforest, during rainy season, is not one of them.
Jose bounds from one riverside boulder to the next, tying ropes around trees before heading into the water himself to tie the rope onto the mules’ harnesses, while three budding hikers, including myself, and a fast-talking Colombian guide from another tour operator, prepare to do… well, something or other to help the mules get safely to the other side.
Mule one begins happily enough. Then the rapids hit. The mule slows down. His eyes widen, like he’s just noticed the setting on the treadmill is too high and he doesn’t know how to turn it down.
“Jalar!” shouts Jose, clad in all white. ‘Pull’.
We oblige. The mule lurches forward. And after a moment of panic, he’s safe. And distinctively unphased. The second mule follows, and after being reloaded with our bin bags, the two mules set off to our next camp, two hours further into the Colombian jungle.
Jose crosses the river himself with all the energy of a kid in a candy store and re-takes his place at the front of our pack. He is a member of the Wiwa tribe, one of the four indigenous tribes within the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains.
“Everything in nature is part of our spirit. When we cut nature we cut our own spirit”
The Wiwa tribe also run Wiwa Tourism, which is one of the world’s first adventure tourism companies founded by an indigenous tribe, and who, in partnership with G-Adventures, a leading sustainable travel company, have organised our five day trek to the Lost City.
Jose leads the way. Along with him is Javier, another indigenous guide from the local Kogi tribe, and completing our guide team is Juan Diego, a Colombian guide from G-Adventures, who translates Jose and Javier’s Spanish throughout the tour and who is an ever-present source of optimism and encouragement.
They are leading us to Teyuna, in Tayrona National Park, or as the Colombian government have named it “Ciudad Perdida” – the Lost City – for the purposes of tourism. It is an ancient sacred settlement of the local indigenous peoples dating back to 800AD, layered with stone circles, and which rises layer by layer up to the place where the mamos – the spiritual leaders of the indigenous people, charged with choosing each decision of their tribe – come to use yatkua, a special code which allows them to communicate with the chief spirits of the forest and jungle, while looking out on the endless green that surrounds Teyuna on all sides.
The immediate elephant in the room when tourism meets an indigenous people is the concern over exploitation, of course.
The first mainland Colombians to discover Teyuna were graverobbers in 1973, heading into la Sierra Nevada to try and find gold. Shockingly, what they were doing was actually legal. The government eventually intervened, but for a long time, if the military or police saw a graverobber heading up the mountains, we’re told, they’d just laugh and say “remember us when you get rich.”
“This is a football pitch. Thousands of metres high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, far from the 22ft bronze statue of Carlos Valderrama”
After golden relics began to turn up on the black market following the diggers discovery of the site, archaeologists finally went up in 1976 and reconstructed Teyuna. Tourism began in 1982.
The Colombian government have a troubling history with their indigenous people, as do many states with their native residents. Before 1991, the indigenous tribes weren’t recognised as part of the Colombian State. To be Colombian, at that point in time, was to be Catholic. And so the indigenous were treated as savages.
There are four indigenous tribes in la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – the Kogi, Arhuaro, Wiwa and the Kankuamo. While the others number in the thousands, the Kankuamo are down to approximately their final 300, we are told, because they were tortured, made to feel “unpure” and convinced their practices were devil-like by Catholic missionaries.
In 1991, there was a new political constitution. The tribes were recognised as indigenous people, and given autonomy over their land – though tellingly, anything beneath 30m of soil on the land still belongs to the state. The government gave the tribes back some of the land that had been taken from them, and since the formation of Wiwa Tourism in 2008, the tribes have been using adventure tourism to buy back even more of that land.
The closest translation of how the tribes view themselves is “guardians of the heart of the world”, Jose tells us. And it is immediately clear to see the connection they have to nature. Their purpose on Earth, we are told, is to uphold, revive and protect nature. This is why they want their land back. To rejuvenate the forests. To bring the life back, where marijuana farmers and cocaine plantations have taken it away.
“We are not in charge of nature,” Jose says. “We are part of nature. We are here to obey”
I would perhaps have been more reluctant to clamber into the water and help those mules had it not been for the torrential downpour on day one that had left us soaked through.
Juan Diego’s prediction that we would be “breathing vapours” in the mountains had proved correct. We had sweated on exposed uphill, under baking heat, for about two hours. Then by the time the rain had come we were in the jungle, and it came hard.
A downhill essentially made from solidified mud became a waterslide of a descent.
“There are some tourists and guides who think these people are zoo attractions”
I slipped first. My makeshift jungle walking stick snapping on impact but saving my fall. Then the rest went down. Jon hit the deck, engulfing himself in reddish clay. Laura took her time, but was brought down by Tom, whizzing down on his backside, while the well-meaning Juan Diego puzzled over who to try and help first like a slapstick comedy sketch.
We learned that when it rains in the rainforest, it rains suddenly and relentlessly. Following Javier’s footsteps on day one of the downpour felt like trying to trace the dance moves of a trained ballerina. He skipped across wet slabs and stones while we skidded behind, like newborn ducklings precariously but loyally following their mama duck without question.
We wrung our stuff out when we got to the Wiwa Camp, but nothing dries in the humid night. Wading across an overflowing river had been the final hurdle of the day, and hadn’t helped. Still, that’s where the sun comes in handy the morning after. A good night’s sleep on a surprisingly decent bunk bed, clothes on backpack, wet boots on and off we go.
When tourism to the Lost City began in the 80s, it was exploitative. The indigenous people did not benefit from the tourism to their own sacred place. When they gained autonomy of their lands however, they were able to regain some control over this.
These days, only 160 people are allowed up to the Lost City in one day. There are only five companies authorised to give tours. They also close the tours for the month of September, during which they use the temple for meetings between mamos from the tribe.
We’re later told by Joel, the man who first approached the tribe on behalf of G-Adventures and Planeterra Foundation in 2015, with the proposal of helping Wiwa Tourism establish a community enterprise on the trek route and developing a training and capacity-building programme, that “if they wanted to close, it’s their autonomy, so they could close, but they don’t want that. They just want more policies on how other travel companies can work.”
“Kidnapping, taking away your money, extortion. 15 years ago… this was normal”
What’s the problem with the way other companies work, I ask.
“These companies come here and they misinform the travellers,” Juan Diego says, who previously worked for other tour operators in the area before leaving to join G-Adventures.
“I had to translate for local guides and they would all tell a different story. Their own lies.
“The companies in mainland Colombia wouldn’t want to work with indigenous because the misconception is that they are not prepared to receive travellers, or tourism and they basically don’t know how to run any sort of business. It’s lack of knowledge in general.”
G Adventures are the only operator who provide a local, indigenous guide from Wiwa Tourism, and they are currently the only operator working with the indigenous people to ensure that they are able to sustain their culture and traditions through tourism.
Even before embarking on the hike, we had received information from the operator on how to properly respect the indigenous people while in the jungle, and along the way from Jose and Javier we learn about their culture, traditions and beliefs.
“There are some tourists and guides who think these people are zoo attractions,” says Juan Diego.
The idea, of course, is that the more Wiwa Tourism establish themselves, and the more tourists they can accurately inform about their culture, the more this will change.
We soon hit the top of the mountain and find ourselves at an army barracks called Kuskunguena. There are a few huts and houses, and a little dirt clearing in the barracks, with two sticks about a metre apart at either end. This is a football pitch. Thousands of metres high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, far from the 22ft bronze statue of Carlos Valderrama that stands outside the football stadium in Santa Marta.
There’s a sheer drop down the mountain on one side of the pitch, and the military village on the other. Soon a couple of soldiers came out with a ball and begin to play. I’m welcomed in. We play three on three for half an hour, extra care taken not to miss high on the right, before we set back off for our next camp.
“We all have the same blood”
The morning comes for the final climb to Ciudad Perdida. We find ourselves at the bottom of 1200 stone steps to the top of Teyuna about six in the morning. Blink and you’d miss them.
They weave and wind, and you have to take care not to slip, but when you do arrive at the top, you arrive at a truly humbling site.
Javier gets there first, and welcomes us in.
Surrounded by trees on every side, Teyuna is formed by various platforms of ringed stone circles. Behind these, a staircase leads up to an even higher level, where the platforms continue to rise, but with views looking out over stunning, remote forest-covered mountains.
We perform a cleansing ritual at the first circle “to leave our negative spirits behind”.
Each of the circles in the Lost City represents a moment of creation, whether for the creation of the trees, the water or otherwise, they were built so the people could keep these moments in mind, and remember to take care of each.
A circle has no beginning or end. What care or pain we cause to the Earth, they tell us, we also cause to ourselves.
“Everything in nature is part of our spirit,” says Javier. “When we cut nature we cut our own spirit.”
It was a dark day in 2003 that put Ciudad Perdida on the map. On the 12th of September 2003, eight tourists, a combination of British, Spanish, German and Israeli, were kidnapped at gunpoint by leftist guerrillas from the Ejército de Liberación Nacional, a Marxist group aiming to put pressure on the government to bring the paramilitary to justice for human rights violations.
It happened at 4.30am at the site in the Lost City where tourists used to sleep.
After days of marching with little to no food, the hostages were all released.
While visiting the Lost City, we meet Edwin Ray, the guide of the group who got kidnapped. Edwin was tied up by the guerillas but not taken. He’s been a guide on the site for 25 years.
“It was horrible,” he tells us, through Juan Diego’s translation. “I was investigated. It took 101 days to clear my name. You cannot imagine the pressure from my own relatives, from the relatives of the kidnapped people, the pressure from the embassies, from the Colombian government. I just kept telling the truth, and that was how I cleared my name.
“The bad thing about this kidnapping was that the Lost City became known across the world for such a violent event. Not for its beauty… but it helped us. It helped raise the profile of this place and it helped and encouraged people to come back somehow.
“This was the way they used to protest against our system; kidnapping, taking away your money, extortion. 15 years ago, somehow this was normal. This was our daily news, our daily bread. Today it’s the opposite. Today it wouldn’t be normal for us at all.”
Edwin is interrupted by the sound of an army helicopter, which soars over the jungle mass and touches down on one of the wider planes of Teyuna. It is greeted by a platoon of soldiers, who live on site at the Lost City now, and who run in single file to unload the cargo.
“The government… used helicopters to fumigate the coca and marijuana plantations, killing many civilians who lost their farms”
Edwin points to the helicopter.
“After this kidnapping, as one of the requirements from the paramilitary, in order for them to turn themselves in and give up their weapons, they demanded security from the state. So after the kidnapping we raised awareness of how important this place was and the government built a high mountain battalion, and they have convoys all around the Sierra, taking care of this beautiful place, of the ancient heritage, and taking care of us.”
Javier and Jose tell us there are many temples like Teyuna in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada that their people will never reveal to the public. The government have asked them. But there are also many, they say, that not even they know about, that only the mamos are aware of, and if you follow a mamo without permission, we are told, you will become ill.
The indigenous people did not come to their initial decision regarding tourism lightly.
Several mamos went up to Teyuna and held a spiritual ceremony to consult the spirits on tourism in 1982. Even as recently as 2015, mamos reconvened and used yatkua for almost a week to consider whether or not they should work with G Adventures and Planeterra.
I ask Jose, simply, if he is happy to have tourists here.
“We all have the same blood,” he says. “We are all brothers. Earth has plans, and if you came here, you are here to listen to your mother. When you hear our message, and you see our nature, and you spread our message, you are doing what your mother has asked.”
After five days trekking through the jungle, we finish our hike, our final day passing through contrastingly low farmland, with hills that roll like Tuscany. Our ultimate destination is Gotsezhi, the relatively new indigenous village built by the local tribe.
We sit down with Lorenzo and Eduardo, two brothers leading Wiwa Tourism. They are in their early 20s and Lorenzo is attending university in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, to learn the laws of the land, so the tribe can use them to help in their bid to reclaim land.
It is explained that the tribes work with only select institutions rather than the government, who don’t invest here, and who in the 80s, in a bid to get rid of the farmers growing marijuana and drug trafficking in the hills, used helicopters to fumigate the coca and marijuana plantations, killing many civilians who lost their farms or got sick in the process.
“We hope to make money to recover our ancestral territory and grow as a community”
“This is the first time that we’re opening [this] community to travellers, because we saw the opportunity,” says Lorenzo. “We hope to make money to recover our ancestral territory and grow as a community.
“Through tourism we are seeing an opportunity to not only recover the land but the forests. We are buying back lands taken over by farmers that came here to grow illegal things. Our main aim is to recover these lands, to recover the nature and make nature reborn again.”
Lorenzo is remarkably savvy. He wears the traditional white of the tribe, but with Nike trainers. He seems smart, switched on and confident in the future of his community.
We are encouraged to buy handicrafts from the local women, to purchase coffee, bowls and bags before we drive back to Santa Marta, from where we’ll fly to Bogota the next day, and then on home, safe in the knowledge that the guardians of the heart of the world will continue their mission to preserve la Sierra Nevada, and indeed, their own way of life.
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