I had a basic knowledge that I was going to encounter indigenous tribes on my trek. But I’ve done the same in Thailand, Guatemala, & the Havasupai tribe in Arizona as well, so my expectations were to see TV’s, a few modern amenities, and maybe an Aeropostale t-shirt while they still may have a sociocultural system that I am intrigued by. But the 5′ tall, long black-haired, barefoot, white tunic wearing people of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Colombia truly felt like I was stumbling upon a long-lost civilization. I started digging around, and there are tons of blog posts about the actual trek, but very few that give any sort of prep for the main course, the people of the ancient civilization you are going to see! Per usual if it’s pertaining to history and ancient worlds, I wanted to know more. Here’s what I’ve learned as well as what I experienced on the Ciudad Perdida trek.
Almost 4000 ft above the Caribbean coast lies an ancient civilization that thrived more than 1000 years ago. They have remained off of the radar, lived off the land, and have descendants practicing the same believes that have been passed down since the city was built around 800 AD. It predates Machu Picchu by 600ish years and yet you probably have never heard of it.
The Tairona civilization is intriguing in that they have, for the most part, remained concealed on purpose. They scattered and left their home at the top of the 1200 steps we had to climb when the Spanish explorers reached the Colombian coast in the 16th century. Even after abandoning their city, new diseases brought by the Spaniards nearly wiped out the Taironas. From the top of the ruins you can see many of the flattened rings that used to have houses. Our guide said there are 260 visible rings, but it’s estimated there are more than 1000 hidden by the jungle.
They lived in peace and seclusion until the 1970s when explorers found the 1200 steps that I mentioned (and will never forget) leading to the ‘green hell’ as it was deemed. But of course, mosquitos, snakes, & jungle conditions couldn’t keep them away once they found the looted ruins and the opportunity to exploit a ‘Lost City’.
Thankfully the 4 different tribes (at some point they split into separate tribes with the same basic belief system) haven’t given in to the money and greed and are standing their ground against developments for more tourist friendly routes and hotels. In fact, our guide pointed out an area that was pitched for development that was denied after the tribes planted a massive grove of whatever food source or reason they needed to reject a building proposal.
Now days, you can visit by going with 1 of 5 tour companies out of Santa Marta. You do a strenuous trek into the Sierra Nevada mountains to reach the ruins and then turn around and exit on the same path. It’s 44km total in pretty much 3 days (1/2 days the first and last day), and you will be going through multiple landscapes and up and down mountains constantly. I found it interesting to learn that the Sierra Nevada mountains contain every type of climate system. I know we didn’t see them all (although you see the snowcapped mountains in the distance) but we hiked through sand covered trails, rocky hillsides, airy green fields, dense jungles, forests, rainforests complete with toucans, and camped every evening by the river (aka the shower).
There have been 2 times that one of the tribes have made themselves known to the world on purpose, and it’s been in the form of environmental documentaries with the Kogi tribe. To understand why they would open their world up to outsiders, you first need to grasp their very basic belief that earth is our mother, the tribes are the ‘elder brother’, and you and I are the ‘younger brother’. They felt that the younger brother is ruining and ultimately going to destroy earth. Their agreement to allow people and cameras into their culture was ultimately done to save us, the younger brother. These beliefs and the higher being/mother earth is called, Aluna.
While on the trek we had a spanish speaking guide who was very animated and spoke extremely fast, and then our English translator who lacked quite a bit of English vocabulary. Still love you Jesus! Soo, I looked to the Internet and to those documentaries as sources. The first was filmed 26 years ago, and called “The Heart of the World”, and the most recent in 2012, “Aluna” (both by Alan Ereira). I just purchased the book, The Elder Brothers by Alan Ereira as well. As I am listening to “Aluna” (on Amazon Prime) while I write, and right now a Mámas (or spiritual leader if you will) is stating that the world is sick and dying and we have to understand that. The 2nd film was requested to be made by the tribe, because the younger brother did not listen to the first one.
The Mámas is supposed to have the role of meditating between the physical world and Aluna trying to ensure dangerous forces are held back. For the first 9 years of their life they only eat white food and almost entirely live in darkness with their teacher in order to learn to communicate to Aluna. Per the Tairona Heritage Trust website, ‘the point being that only the pure, the morally untainted, can acquire the divine wisdom to control the course of the sun … the change of the seasons and the times for planting and harvesting.’ Punishment for any lapse may have been sharp and painful – long periods spent kneeling on broken shells or frantically working a loom with the admonition.’ In relation to the earth, they are taught to de-clutch and transcend time to be able to predict weather changes for harvesting and surviving. There’s a lot of info on their training, and the tribes in general from that website.
My personal reaction with the Wiwa tribe was, ummm, interesting. First off, I’ll say that for thise tribe at least they are not completely removed from interaction. They work in the campsites built for the tourists, help bring all necessities by mule and are not all hidden away from us as I may have made it sound. While the trail leads past a Wiwa village of many huts, and the children kinda look and wait to see if you may have candy to offer them, we were told that this is merely the center of town where meetings are held and a few people live. Majority are scattered in the mountains. Well I noticed a Wiwa man hanging out by the river with a cell phone. What he was doing with it is beyond me as we were wayyyyy in the middle of no where, but it was a strange sight to take in.
On our 3rd night of camping was at the Wiwa campsite (they also are one of the 5 companies who give the guided trek). We were led into a large hut with a thatched roof. There was a fire burning in the center, but the smoke somehow stayed in the peak of the roof without smothering all of us sitting around the fire. One of the elder Wiwa men (not a Mámas) sat and explained a few traditions to us as he chewed his coca leaves and worked on his porpora (I’ll get there).
Everything seemed to revolve around coca leafs and marriage. He explained in detail how the boy and girl are prepared for marriage. An example is the man having the sit completely still with his legs together for 4 days straight before the ceremony. If he moves he gets smacked on the head with the porpora stick.
Our guide had already explained a few things about marriage that were umm shocking. When a girl gets her first period she is then considered a woman and ready for marriage. So she is taken away for a month with a bachelor man (age isn’t taken into account) and taught about sex. At the end of the month she can decide if she is in love and wants to marry the man. There is also a female ‘sex-ed’ teacher for the boys when they are believed to be ready for manhood. There is a sacred ceremony before each, and also before basically everything the tribe does, and I also read that sex is only performed outdoors.
The porpora is representative of a mans marriage as well as a form of meditation (my take on it). The stick represents the man, and the bowl or gourd the stick is repeatedly stuck into represents the woman. Pretty literal, I know. But the bowl is full of burned and then crushed seashells gathered from the coast. The man pretty much sits around all day chewing dried coca leaves, then inserts the stick with the dipped shell powder into his mouth to make a paste. He can’t touch his lips or teeth, only the saliva around the coca leaves. He then removes it and rubs the paste onto the hardened doughnut for lack of a better word that’s he has built up around the cup. While he is doing this he is thinking about his wife and how to be a good husband, supposedly ;). A man goes through many porpora in his lifetime. Women cannot chew the dried coca, but are the only ones who can gather the leaves. If the man touches the leaves the plant will shrivel up and die. We kind of got a really lengthy lecture from a guy who had been chewing on coca leaves all day on the same things repeatedly pertaining to marriage and the porpora. In my non-expert opinion, he may have had a little buzz going on.
But at the end of the day, the Tairona tribes are an inspiration to remember our mother earth and to take care of her. I can relate with their simple rule that they can’t wear shoes because it will disconnect the connection they have with the earth. Who hasn’t walked on soft grass or sand and felt a little more of a pull to nature.
I respect that they believe they are placed in this world to live and care for the earth, and hopefully you took away a little inspiration from learning about these ancient traditions and way of living. I’ll leave you with a quote from a Kogi Mámas,
“Without thought, nothing could exist. This is a problem, because we are not just plundering the world, we are dumbing it down, destroying both the physical structure and thought underpinning existence.”
I think that the more we advance, it’s easy to forget about the simple things and getting back to the basics. Taking a 44km trek through the Sierra Nevada mountains will remind you of that :).
P.s. I think it’s pretty cool that every Colombian president visits the roots of Colombia for their blessing.