Ghosts from the lost city

A four-day trail climbing the hillsides of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the north of Colombia. Four days of struggling with the heat and the mosquitos, with the weight of the backpack and the dust of the steep goats’ paths where any kind of transport besides your own legs or those of a mule was not possible. And still we were so excited about it. Not every day you have the opportunity of climbing to a city where a lost civilisation had lived centuries ago. The Taironas are believed to have inhabited this area since the 5th century AD. until some time after the Spanish arrived. The Taironas were the first advanced indigenous culture that the Spanish found in the New World in 1499, it was here that the Spaniards were bewildered by the amount of gold this people had and it was here where the myth of El Dorado was born.

Only possible transport, a mule

As we have learnt in school the Indigenas fell like flies due to the unknown illnesses that the Spaniards brought from the Old continent, and this was what also happened to the Taironas. They were retreating from the villages to find shelter in the mountains hiding from the Spaniards. But they were dying rapidly due to the contagious illnesses that the invaders brought with them and that their plants could not cure. Many of them disappeared and the few survivors flew the place forever.

Arriving to one of the camp sites

This city was forgotten for many centuries until a group of grave assaulters discovered it in the 1970’s. They could not believe their luck when they found all those sculptures, eagles, bears, human figures made of gold and precious stones scattered through the numerous graves. They were trying to be discreet, they didn’t want other people to discover their secret treasure. So they sold quietly the gorgeous sculptures to some landowners that had recently made small fortunes cultivating marijuana in the surroundings of Santa Marta. They bought the pieces of gold to display them proudly in their living rooms. They never melted the gold to make jewellery or other kind of objects. This was just a smart decision because thanks to them we can see the sculptures in their original form in some museums of Bogotá.

It was obviously a matter of time until the crooks who had discovered the city began to talk too much.

They were making so much money that people started to suspect. They spent it all in alcohol and prostitutes and in one of those drunk evenings one of them talked more than desired. Some people decided then to follow them through the mountains without getting noticed and finally arrived in la Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City. Then the fights broke, the first ones obviously didn’t want to share their treasure with the intruders and the blood began to spill everywhere. Soon the place was known as the Green Hell by the locals. The government intervened soon after and decided to declare the place of national interest. They defended the city and recovered all the sculptures from the new owners. Most of the archaeological site is still buried, the current groups of Indigenas living in the area don’t allow any more digging. So probably hundreds of objects are still beneath the city, we are talking about a city of between 2,000 and 4,000 inhabitants.

Indigenas’ village surrounded by coca plants

There are still groups of Indigenas living in the mountains, we can find small villages on the verges of the paths. Four groups are known, Arhuacos, Koguis, Wiwas and Kanhuamos. Most of them still preserve their ancient rituals and marry only among them. They accept tourists and sometimes make money with the affluence of people wanting to explore the area, but in general they don’t like to mix with the civilians, as they call us. It was common to see suddenly one or two of them observing us from the distance in silence, until they would become bored and would just pass us at incredible speed and dexterity.

Indigena saliendo con Cola
One of the guides

Children looked serious and mature, it was usual to see them pulling the rope of a mule heavily charged with food for the camp sites or carrying small siblings. They only approached us to ask for dulces (candy) and normally did not like to play with us. Sometimes, though we were able to get a smile from them.

Ninyo tirando bolsa
Children playing with us

The groups’ guides like to amuse themselves telling us the weirdest tales about some of the Indigenas’ customs. Like for example the story about their sexual initiation. They marry at a very young age, normally at 14 or 15, the guides told us. The boy would live with a widow for two years before the wedding, in order to learn how to treat his future wife in bed. It was not clear what was the costume for the bride, some of them said she would also live for a while with an older man but others said that that was not true, they had to be a virgin before getting married. The truth was unclear.

Young girl, she was about 15 and had already two children

But the most horrible of those stories, which we were not sure to believe or not, was the following. The Indigenas believed having twins was some kind of sacrilege or evil thing. So they would not feed one of the babies until the poor angel would die of starvation or cold.

Ninyo pequenyo
The shaman’s youngest child, from his second wife. First and second wife lived together in the women’ hut. The shaman lived alone in the men’s hut

Truth or not, what for me was quite incredible was to see how those people were able to cohabit with Colombian civilians and lots of tourists and still preserve their idiosyncrasy and beliefs. Dressing with their white tunics, barefoot or with wellington boots, would suddenly appear behind a curve or a tree like some kind of ghost. Their huts were always closed for us and the shaman would only talk to civilians if he would feel like it. Unfortunately he didn’t want to approach us when our guide called him.

Ninyo gracioso
He smiled at us, even if we didn’t have any candy to give him

The Lost City is closed once a year for two weeks. The shamans from different locations gather in there to celebrate their rituals and no civilian is allowed to be present. They want to clean the place from the bad energy that us tourists, are believed to bring there. They believe that when we climb to the top of those mountains we leave behind our sadness and weakness.

Photos: Miki Peraleda Fabian