Journey to the Heart of the World
The Santa Marta expedition
By Peter Chrzanowski
If one looks at the US State Department’s travel warning to Colombia, it becomes very easy to get cold feet about planning a holiday there. The web page insists the country is totally unsafe for visiting US citizens. Headlines on CNN, backed up by newspapers across North America, reinforce the paranoia with stories of kidnappings and military reprisals against a guerrilla force which supposedly controls 40 per cent of the country. And of course there’s the government’s "official war" against the drug cartel.
Nevertheless, I had been dreaming of a visit to a peculiar area of Colombia for years. It all began when I read a 1970 National Geographic article about a mysterious mountain range, the Sierra Nevada De Santa Marta. It was an enchanting region which had snow-capped peaks reaching nearly 6,000 metres, located less than 30 kilometres, as the crow flies, from the Caribbean coast. The region had also been known to harbour some very reclusive native tribes who believed this to be the Heart of the World, or a birthplace of mother earth.
Several times, beginning in the late ’70s through the ’80s and as recently as 1992, I tried mounting expeditions to this secluded land. But being generally understaffed and underfunded, Colombia remained a dream.
In Whistler, Troy Jungen and Ptor Spricenieks had also pondered the Santa Marta region over the last couple of years. A friend of Troy’s and Ptor’s, Frederik Jacobi, a Danish cameraman and adventurer, had been to the town of Santa Marta and had sent me e-mails which only made the region sound more enticing.
And so finally, last year we assembled a core group of friends who shared a keen interest in visiting the remote Sierra. Ptor, Troy, Frederick and I began doing extensive research on the area. Soon, Pawel Boryniec and Derek Lynn were included in the Colombia plans, which were set for Christmas 1998/99. A barrage of faxes and e-mails to potential sponsors, government funding organizations and Colombian ministries went out. RAP (Real Action Pictures) films came on board with added resources in order to utilize film footage in their own action adventure show, The Edge.
With RAP came three more team members, including American action ski model and femme extreme Kristen Ulmer, the show’s host, as well as John Griber and Greg Vondoersten, from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. John is an accomplished North Face athlete/snowboarder while Greg came on as the official still photographer.
Last Dec. 14th, Derek, Troy, Ptor, Frederick and I found ourselves on a flight to Bogota, Colombia via Miami. Pawel, and his friend Maciek from "Team Poland" would arrive right after New Year’s Eve.
Unfortunately, all the groundwork we had attempted to do with the Colombian ministries proved fruitless. No one had responded to our three months of letters, faxes and phone calls. On the plane we were already nervously joking about "going up the river," as in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. We had a few contacts in Bogota, but otherwise we were totally on our own.
One of those Bogota contacts was Adelaida Trujillo from Citurnas Productions, whom I had met at the Banff TV fest. He helped us with an introduction to Jorge, a local climber and cameraman who drove us around the nation’s capital, gathering maps and more beta.
Bogota is generally considered a big, bad city of 8 million inhabitants, so we wanted just to sleep, eat and run into the hills as soon as possible. Even Colombians admit that Bogota is a dangerous place. We were told to always keep the car doors and windows locked as thieves and bandits would descend on us.
In the next days we picked up Kristin, John and Greg. We then flew from Bogota to Valledupar via Baranquilla, a large Colombian port. The flight took us very close to our destined Sierra. I talked my way into the cockpit hoping to get some better footage of the mountains. Unfortunately they were shrouded in cloud, adding to their eternal mystery.
Valledupar is a bustling city of 200,000 inhabitants. It is a well off, middle class Colombian town with the major industries seeming to be cotton, coffee and other Colombian staples (which we chose to ignore for our own safety). We were the only "gringos" or tourists, in virtually the whole town, although we did meet Bjorn, a Swedish UN worker on a human rights assignment. Bjorn also professed to be an "extreme skier," so I sold him a copy of my film The Spirit for some good ol green backs.
We realized in Valledupar we were getting farther "up the river." Nick, the Canadian Ambassador to Colombia and an avid climber spoke of a group of Italians that recently disappeared in the Sierra foothills near Valledupar. To add to this, the headlines in Colombian papers talked of deal making going on between the guerrillas and the government, and President Pastrana had withdrawn all his troops from guerrilla territory as a good will gesture.
But Valledupar was also an introduction to the real Sierra. While shopping for food supplies in Valledupar we had our first encounter with the Arhuaco Indians. I was caught red handed trying to take some footage of them, but they turned out to be a jovial bunch. In return for a filming and photo session we bought them a meal of soup and fish at the local market.
The Sierra is populated by four tribes: the Kogi, Arhuaco, Arzarios and Kankuamo. The four are descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization. They believe that they are the guardians to the Heart of the World, or the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
They also dub us "the little brother" who was banished from their culture a long time ago. The little brother supposedly left the Sierra and developed many advanced technologies. The natives insist that this technology has contributed greatly to the earth’s pollution and environmental problems. Furthermore, the big brother claims, the technology is used far too often to wage wars, instead of advancing humankind.
The Arhuacos, who live on the southern side of the Sierra, have had more contact with the Spanish than the Kogis, who retreated into the jungles of the northern slopes with the arrival of the Conquistadors.
The real odyssey began by a 4x4 access road which seems barely navigable by any vehicle standards. I had seen bad roads in the past but this one took the cake. It was not really a road but a maze of eroded stream beds in between which were mounds wide enough to support some very hardy vehicle traffic.
Reaching Nabusimake, we were confronted with another problem. The word was out that a group of gringos were headed into the Sierra. The locals insisted that we needed a permit from the Casa Indigena or Indigenous House back in Valledupar. Reluctantly, I spent the next two days doing the bumpy odyssey to and from Valledupar again.
Back in Nabusimake, we contracted a native Arhuaco mule driver named Modesto. We set out with his six animals and after several days of cautiously taking back trails, he had guided us to the Sierra’s upper reaches, at 3,600 metres. Although we had the government permit, there was still uncertainty as to the mountain community itself allowing us through.
Two more days of trekking and we had reached Manacana, a village on the other side of the pass. The journey was truly incredible as we passed some magnificent flora.
It was Christmas Eve in Manacana and we made friends with Isaiah, an Arhuaco leader in the community. It seems our vibe was good because we were invited to Isaiah’s hut for a meal. Although the Arhuacos do not celebrate Christmas it was a special meal shared by friends thankful for what they had.
We sat squatting on the hut’s dirt floor, savouring a meal of lamb soup with potatoes. The gringos all agreed it was the best Christmas dinner we have ever experienced. There was an accordion in the hut and Ptor began to play it, fondling the keys clumsily at first to hits of Jingle Bells and Silent Night.
Troy, too, was making friends. The Arhuacos were quite intrigued by this native-looking guy who had the same hairdo and physique but barely spoke clumsy Spanish. Soon they had him drinking the local cherinche, or sugar cane moonshine. Poor Troy was left crawling on all fours trying to find his tent.
We had to give the mules a day’s rest before proceeding to Laguna Naboba and the sacred lakes above. But in the meantime, a mutiny against the gringos had been brewing at Nabusimake. It became apparent Modesto had been guiding us without getting permission from the villagers and sneaking us around possible checkpoints. Now everybody was upset and the Arhuaco community below had sent a letter informing Isaiah and the folks at Manacana not to allow us on the snow. We really had no choice in the matter, as without mules we would not stand a chance getting our gear up to the glaciers.
The Arhuacos have been wronged many times. First it was Spanish Conquistadors stealing their gold. More recently it’s been Colombian invaders of Spanish descent, ranging from coca growers to coffee barons and marijuana cultivators.
That night some drunk and angry Arhuacos danced around our tent all night shouting "Gringos go home" in Spanish, accompanied by the familiar sounds of an off key accordion. We were all trying to keep calm about the incident but it was a very scary scenario.
But the next morning we made friends with those same rowdy locals. Our friend Isaiah seemed embarrassed about the whole ordeal but he had to go along with the decision of his community. We did manage to spend another day taking lots of photos and film footage and realized how lucky we had been just reaching this uppermost village. There had not been any foreigners here in at least three years.
We also learned that in 1994 the natives made a pact not to allow any more little brother visitors. They see their glaciers receding and they wish to have the mountains heal before allowing anyone on their sacred snows. To them it is the Heart of the World, and we had to respect that.
A Mamo, or high priest, from Nabusimake named Manuel Chaparro explains the Arhuacos’ reasoning this way:
"It is to the new settlers you have to address your environmental programs. They were the ones who ravaged the garden we had in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. They were destroyed by the new settlers and not by us natives. When we first settled there, we left those sanctuaries untouched, for we knew that there we had all our riches; the livestock that supported our existence were there, and while we worshipped there, we had no need to chase them because they came up to meet us. But with the destruction of all those mountains, of all those virgin forests by the settlers, everything finished, of course water sources dried up to the lowest point."
We had been to the mountain and had learned a valuable lesson. The next day we negotiated for seven mules to take our gear back to Nabusimake.
Kristen’s time was running out, as she had appointments back home. But the rest of us were still intent on giving it one more try, this time from the north side. Greg and John, the other members of the RAP and North Face crew, decided to stick it out for another week or so, to see if another approach might get us to the snow.
Back in Valledupar we arranged to find another truck, then drove all the way around the Sierra to the Caribbean side of the mountain range. It was certainly an interesting ride, full of military checkpoints. The guerrillas were making headlines again and the government had pulled its military out of one area as a good will gesture.
Despite the threat of civil war we survived the drive, arriving in the oldest city in Colombia, Santa Marta. We decided to spend a few days in nearby Tairona Park, a national park with 30-some kilometres of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It is totally undeveloped.
When the Spanish arrived here in the 15th and 16th centuries they found the Tairona civilization, and of course wanted all their gold. As a result, some natives fled into the jungles and formed what is now the Kogi Tribe. They are the most isolated of the tribes in the Sierra, due to the impenetrable jungle on this side of the range.
We spent several days eating coconuts, resting, and meditating on what our next approach would be. We had no contacts here and the Sierra seemed even more distant to us, separated as we were by a thick and inhospitable jungle.
The optimism of a couple of weeks earlier was dwindling. John and Greg felt that it was time to leave. Troy parted with them but returned the next day, as he was unable to secure a flight out of Colombia.
With Troy’s return some magic seemed to happen. We had met a fellow named William, who was also a volunteer park guide working for the Colombian Ministry of Environment. William had been high in the Sierra on this side and offered his help at no charge. He proposed to have us join him on a visit to some upper Kogi villages. There was no guarantee as to whether we would reach the snow, or get the locals’ permission to even come close, but we felt that at least we had to try.
In the meantime Pawel Boryniec and friend Maciek Swobocha — Team Poland — arrived from Vancouver, bringing a new source of energy to the expedition.
Within two days William had helped us buy the right food, hammocks and gifts, ranging from wool, dried fish, machetes, 30 litres of cherinche (the crucial moonshine) and flashlights, for our encounters with the Kogi. Next, we hired another truck and drove north to the village of Pucala (I am changing the names of villages here as the Kogi Mamos want to keep them unknown).
The Kogi are a more spiritual tribe than the Arhuaco. The Kogi Mamos achieve their divination by spending nine years in a cave beginning at the age of four. This process ensures that they fully develop their extra-sensory powers of meditation and telepathy.
William also introduced us to a jovial man named Monuno, a black descendant from Colombia’s slave trading days. Monuno was in his 50s and had a total of 28 offspring from two wives, the first being an Arhuaco and the second a Kogi. It was agreed that Monuno, accompanied by his Kogi wife, three sons and seven mules, would accompany us village by village and do his utmost to help us reach the sacred snows of the Sierra Nevada.
Next day we began our trek into the mountains and immediately realized the hardships of jungle travel. The temperature was 42 degrees and the humidity at 88 per cent. There were bugs, ticks and every type of creepy crawlers, which kept us constantly moving. Village by village we would have to stop and make peace with each designated local Mamo.
Our first test came right at the outset of the journey. Here, the local Mamo presented us each with a bracelet which would guard us against all snake bites and other poisonous critters we might encounter on the road. He also seemed to catch a good vibe from our presence as he gave us permission to proceed upwards to the next village. We were told that the Mamos en route were actually sending messages ahead telepathically. There must have been some truth to this, as village by village our arrival had been expected and there was no other pedestrian traffic or mule trains on our secluded and secretive route.
And so, upwards we went through the rain forest, up and down over the foothills. Occasionally we would get a glimpse of the actual snow-capped peaks as they revealed themselves to us through the dense foliage. Sometimes we would patiently wait as the Mamo got a feeling for who we were and our true intentions, before blessing us and allowing us to proceed. In one village we spent two days before Mamo Santos gave us the thumbs up to proceed to the uppermost and most sacred village of Trumillo. We were deep into Kogi territory now and learned that very few foreigners or even Colombians had preceded us.
When the jungle finally parted at 3,600 meters and we first saw the hidden valley it really was another planet. We approached Trumillo crossing a unique Kogi gate at a bridge across the river separating us from the village. We entered a village full of at least 100 traditional cone-shaped Kogi huts and were immediately confronted by what seemed the entire population. They were not happy about our presence and a few locals stepped forth yelling for us to go back where we came from.
Monuno’s Kogi wife tried to explain that we were coming with good intentions. While she talked we began giving chocolate out to the kids. The atmosphere seemed to mellow out a touch. The kids began laughing, eating the chocolates and eventually the elder Mamos reluctantly pointed to a spot where we could pitch our camp.
It was interesting that both the Arhuaco and the Kogi speak totally different languages but hold the same universal belief. To them the Sierra Nevada is, after all, the Heart of the World or the "Corazon Díel Mundo." They both see the glaciers retreating, therefore the earth must heal and the Sierra’s slopes must not be walked on, especially by foreigners. Otherwise there will be no water left in the Cordillera. Since it is the Heart of the World, if the glaciers cease to exist there will, in turn, be no water available on the entire earth. Then, the earth will die.
It was certainly a grim premonition for the future and a serious message to us all.
It took us a few days to achieve a trust of sorts with the Kogi. Each morning at dawn we would awake to see at least a half dozen white-robed natives quietly standing and watching us in our tents. They never stayed too long and we soon became a sort of a spectacle, an eye-catching commodity, perched at the edge of their village. We slowly tried befriending the Mamos, explaining the purpose of our visit, and even giving the village a demonstration of our skiing equipment. We heard that they were worried not only about our presence here, but also concerned that we planned to steal their gold.
At night we tried a more light-hearted approach, drinking the local cherinche, dancing and partying with a few of the Mamos, hoping for their acceptance and thus gaining the right of passage to the tantalizing snows only another day and a half walk away. One night, in a kind of ritual, we acted like a tribe of our own, forming a chanting ring of bodies around a post buried in the ground. This seemed to really warm up Mamo Filo, the most respected chieftain. He danced with each of us that night, time and again until the wee hours of the morning.
We eventually realized that although we were making progress with the Kogis, and certainly had amused them with our arcane skiing agenda, the Mamos had made up their mind: we could not pass higher than their village.
Although our skiing plans were thwarted we felt honoured to be there, in such a magical place. The Kogis live a life totally self sufficient, making all their own clothes, growing their own food and living in harmony with their environment. Although they had cleared great expanses of jungle to make room for their crops and pastures, this was done gradually and over hundreds of years. As a result the natural surroundings did not seem to suffer.
We also learned that most of the houses in the village were empty as the Kogi families have two homes. They spend most of their time in their mountainside estates or farms which dot the hillsides surrounding the village. They use their village dwellings mainly for ceremonial gatherings.
To our surprise, we found out that the last German expedition that came near here was immediately chased out of town by an angry mob of machete-wielding Kogi. Somehow, we had been tolerated and allowed to stay, making us the only foreign visitors ever granted that right.
When it was time to go we gave out the last of our gifts of machetes, flashlights and wool, packed up the mules and started back to Pucala. We had to first climb back up to the pass by which we had entered this magical, hidden valley. Taking one last look back we realized what a precious place we were leaving.
Two days later we staggered exhausted into Monuno’s humble home back in civilization and the annoying roar of the nearby coastal highway to the city of Santa Marta. It had been an experience that would stay with us for the rest of our lives and certainly deserved to be termed a journey to the heart of the world.
Check out these related links for info and photos on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta area.