To the Lost City
Photograph by McKay Savage
by Jerry D. Moore
When I rode my mule along a knife-edge ridge in Colombia, I felt self-conscious — as if I had inadvertently wandered into a movie by Werner Herzog. The sun baked green slopes of coffee, cacao and pasturage slipped northwards towards the Caribbean. By two o’clock in the afternoon, sweat-drenched clothes shrink-wrapped my body. I sunk into the dull stupidity of dehydration. My guide swatted the mule’s shanks with a switch, shouting, “Mula! Mula! Mula!” to keep the beast climbing up the deep ruts of the slick grey trail. I held the pommel with both hands as the mule lurched.
I was on my way to the Lost City. I was here to chase a dream. The dream was this: the cosmos is shaped like an egg.
Ciudad Perdida is an archaeological complex of spectacular ridge-top circular plazas and stone faced terraces that cling to hillsides. Known locally as Teyuna (the hummingbird) the site was built around 800 and was associated with the Tairona chiefdom, one of the dozen chiefly societies that flourished in Colombia just as Europe devolved into the Middle Ages.
In the northern Andes, different chiefdoms staked out their territories in the broad river valleys and forested mountain ranges of Colombia. The fertile volcanic soils provided abundant crops of maize. The enormous Magdalena River, which runs for more than 1500 kilometers from Colombia’s southern frontier to the Caribbean Sea, served as a nautical highway connecting the Andes and the coast. Trade enriched these ancient societies, and the native chiefdoms of Colombia had gold.
In ancient Colombia, gold was fashioned into elegant objects imbued with deep meanings. Often small and intimate objects, they were shimmering symbols of personal identity. From northern Colombia came the legend of a great king, whose coronation involved offerings of gold and jewels to the sacred Lake Guatavita. The Spanish chronicler, Juan Rodriquez Frayle, wrote in 1636, “The new king they stripped to his skin, and anointed him with a sticky earth on which they placed gold dust so that he was completely covered with this metal. They placed him on the raft…and at his feet they placed a great heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god. With this ceremony the new ruler was received, and was recognized as lord and king.” Rodriguez Frayle noted that, “From this ceremony came the name of El Dorado, which has cost so many lives.”
The legend of El Dorado was one of the great myths that brought conquistadors across the Andes and Amazonia, a flickering tale that lured explorers from the Orinoco Basin to Tierra del Fuego. Though great treasures were found, many secrets eluded the invaders and looters.
One such region was the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the site of Ciudad Perdida. That is where I went.
The Sierra de Santa Marta is the home of the Kogi, an indigenous society that has fiercely preserved its culture. Ten years ago I read about the Kogi in the writings of the great anthropologist, Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (1912-1994), an Austrian-Czech who sought refuge in Colombia in 1939 as World War II erupted. An energetic and sensitive scholar, Reichel-Dolmatoff was the father of Colombian anthropology, and we know about the Kogi and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta because of Reichel-Dolmatoff’s groundbreaking research. He produced classic ethnographic accounts of Kogi life and culture, particularly of the complex cosmology and religious life of the Kogi.
“The Kogi,” Reichel-Dolmatoff wrote, “are a deeply religious people and they are guided in their faith by a highly formalized priesthood.” These native priests, called mámas, “are sun-priests who, high up in the mountains behind the villages, officiate in ceremonial centers where people gather at certain times of the year.” The mámas “are not simple curers or shamanistic practitioners, but fulfill priestly functions, taught during years of training and exercised in solemn rituals.”
The rigors and complexity of Kogi religious knowledge stunned me. The Mother-Goddess created the universe at the beginning of time, forming a cosmos of nine layered worlds. We humans live on the fifth and middle world. The cosmos is referenced by seven points: North, South, East, West, Zenith, Nadir and Center. The four cardinal directions are linked to totemic pairings of animals in which the males feed on the females: jaguar/peccary (East), puma/deer (South), eagle/snake (West) and marsupial/armadillo (North). Based on such principles, the Kogi spun a complex set of associations and oppositions encoded into a canon of esoteric knowledge known as The Law of the Mother. And a fundamental notion of The Law of the Mother is this: the cosmos is shaped like an egg.
These sophisticated and nuanced ideas deeply moved me, and I resolved to go to visit the land of the Kogi and the site of Ciudad Perdida. Much in the way the legend of El Dorado had led conquistadors to explore this continent, the subtle Kogi concepts surrounding the cosmic egg drew me to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
The jungle reeked of sweetish sweat and fornication.
— Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless
I traveled with my good friend, Doug, who I have known for thirty years. Like me, Doug was trained as an archaeologist, but became a professional photographer with broad experience in Latin America. For months we planned our trip via emails: We would meet in Santa Marta and travel to the Ciudad Perdida with a trekking tour operator, as only organized groups are allowed to visit the site. We would trek for six days, a leisurely pace to cover the 56 kilometer round-trip. A few days of acclimatising before the trek (drinking beers by the Caribbean), and a few days of recuperating afterwards (in other words, drinking beers by the Caribbean), would bracket our trek.
A rebuilt and rattling Toyota Land Cruiser picked us up at our hotel a little before 9 am. Doug and I were joined by one of our guides, Yorman, and three other trekkers: a couple of vacationing economists from Chile and a guy from New York who spoke little Spanish and was principally interested in dope.
We headed east from Santa Marta on the coastal highway. We drove through small villages with roadside stands whose gleaming chrome blenders whirred juices from mangoes, pineapple and passion fruit. Drying laundry hung like Tibetan prayer flags. We stopped for fuel at a small gas station. The owner had decorated the storefront with newspaper images of bathing beauties and hanging mobiles of dead and dried animals. A dusty goshawk twisted in the slight mid-day breeze. A desiccated macaw hung crucified from the wall.
We turned onto a dirt road and headed south into the mountains. The Land Cruiser jolted and shook as we climbed. After thirty years of archaeological expeditions in Peru and Mexico, I felt good to be riding on dirt roads in a shuddering truck. This was my first trip to Colombia, and I was very excited to be on my way to the Ciudad Perdida.
In the early afternoon, we jostled into the village of Machete Pelado (literally “Skinned” or “Naked” Machete), and were met by our principal guide, Juan Carlos, and the mules. Juan Carlos was a taut, muscled man in his late thirties who sported the remnants of a military buzz cut that the Colombian Army gives all its recruits. He wore a tight T-shirt and knee-length shorts, and carried a short machete at his side like most campesino men. Juan Carlos strutted like a platoon sergeant, barking orders at the muleteers and swaggering for the gringas. “Come! Eat!” he commanded, and we sat at long plank tables at in a large restaurant without walls frequented by several trekking operators.
A group of British and Dutch girls had just returned from Ciudad Perdida and waited for transport back to Santa Marta. They were listless and sun-burned, little-interested in their meals of whole fried fish as they compared blisters and insect bites. We newcomers were served cheese and white-bread sandwiches. “Eat,” Juan Carlos barked. “This is your last meal for a long time.”
The mules were white and grey and brown. The muleteer, Don Ricardo, packed the mules, leaving us to carry only very light loads. Doug and I had a large plastic soda bottle filled with good rum, and we handed that and most of our gear to Don Ricardo. We only carried wet weather gear, cameras and water bottles in our packs. Doug’s pack still weighed 30 pounds, as he had several cameras and lenses packed in protective cases. My pack was much lighter, although Juan Carlos looked at me, shook his head, and said, “Too much.”
We left Machete Pelado, hiking along a dirt road that crossed several small farms and followed a river. It was very hot and humid, but the road was flat. Small patches of secondary forest hung with philodendrons. Heliotrope flowers sprouted bright flames.
We walked about a kilometer when we came to a stream-crossing. We knew that the trail to Ciudad Perdida involved numerous fords of streams and rivers: this was the first. It was a simple matter of boulder hopping and the stream was less than knee-deep. The young guide, Yorman, and the other three members of our party quickly crossed and kept going. I was a bit more tentative — I had an arthritic knee and I hiked with a brace on my left leg — but I crossed the stepping stones across the ford, steadying myself with trekking poles.
As Juan Carlos and I watched, Doug began fording the stream. Two-thirds of the way across, he slipped, soaking his boots and legs but not falling down. Doug thrashed to the stream bank, took another five steps, sat down on the edge of the road, and said, “That’s it for me.”
The Kogi survived despite brutal onslaughts of Spanish colonialism and Colombian nationalism. For more than five centuries, there were campaigns to enslave the Kogi and other indigenous peoples and annihilate their culture and religion. A sense of Spanish hatred of the native peoples comes from the 1627 work of one Friar Pedro Simon — whose book, Noticias Historicas de las Conquistas de Tierra Firme en las Indias Occidentales, also contains the story of the traitorous tyrant, Lope de Aguirre, depicted in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Father Pedro Simon repeats the 1525 description of the Indians of Colombia made by a Dominican priest, who called them:
A people who eat human flesh…lacking laws among themselves; and they walk about naked and without shame…they prize drunkenness and wines from various fruits, roots, and grains; they stupefy themselves with smokes and certain herbs from which they extract a juice. They are bestial in their vices…unforgiveable enemies of religion. They are sorcerers, and workers of black magic… They have no arts or crafts….
The Spaniards waged war against the Indians of Colombia, especially in the vicinity of Santa Marta. Hot waves of epidemics swept through native villages. As the Spaniards controlled the coastal plain and the great rivers, native trade networks and political systems were disrupted. Cut off from the coast, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta became a sanctuary, a mountainous asylum for different native groups. Although spared the most direct attacks, the people of the sierra were reduced by disease and proselytized by Catholic priests. Yet, as the Colombian anthropologist Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo has written, “The process of domination was never complete.”
In these mountains — the mountains where I self-consciously rode my mule — the Kogi mámas pursue a profoundly serious task: the search for cosmic balance. Oyuela-Caycedo wrote that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta “is the place where the centers of learning and transmission of the ‘Mother Laws’ occurs, for in the uplands near the snow and the sacred lakes is where the ancestors and masters live. In addition, the uplands are where the most prestigious Mámas live.” These native priests were charged with a heroic task: “to preserve the equilibrium between the different forces of the universe through offerings and rituals associated with each of the masters of the forest, streams and rains, animals, and others. The Máma has to resolve the conflicts between individuals and discover the cause of disease, putting chaos in order.” The mámas’ task is endless, their knowledge profound. And they live in the mountains surrounding the Lost City.
For today the farce has ended.
—Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless.
I urged Doug to change his mind. He didn’t. I offered to go back with him. He insisted that I continue; I wanted this trip more than he did. We decided that if he was going to turn back, this was a good place to do it. Juan Carlos accompanied him back to Machete Pelado where Doug could catch a ride back to Santa Marta.
I went on. The road narrowed to a track as it climbed up slope. The afternoon broiled in the low 90s. The younger trekkers hiked quickly and were soon out of sight. My first water bottle was empty, and the second bottle had a few mouthfuls. As the slope rose, my pace slackened; a few steps, a pause, a few steps.
Returning from Machete Pelado, Juan Carlos caught up with me and asked a passing campesino on a horse to let me ride the saddled mule he led. I do not swing into the saddle like John Wayne. My bad left knee makes it hard to get into the saddle, and we had to maneuver the mule next to a stump or boulder. We found a place where I could clamber onto the mule. Its name was Cinnamon.
After an hour’s ride and we reached the summit. An enterprising campesina had a stand selling soft drinks, water and slices of melon. I drank three bottles of Gatorade and ate two slices of watermelon. I began to feel normal again, what would prove to be an elusive sensation over the next five days.
We traveled on the ridge-crests, so narrow that they are literally called “knife-blades” (cuchillos). We halted to rest at a small store owned by the Don Ricardo and his wife. This entire region of the Sierra Nevada was served only by pack-trains and porters, lacking roads for any wheeled vehicles. Don Ricardo’s mules were the major form of transport. As he rode along, people would shout or whistle, run up to Don Ricardo and entrust him with goods — a bag of pineapples, a stalk of bananas — or messages — “Tell Roberto that I will pay him tomorrow” — to convey along his route. His ridge-top store was a major center, one of the few places where phones could get a cell signal to Santa Marta. He and his wife had several phones — each for the different phone services in Colombia — dangling from loops of fishing line under the eaves of their open-walled store, protected from the rain, but available to receive incoming calls or for use by locals for a small fee. Juan Carlos negotiated that Don Ricardo would send a mule for me tomorrow. We rested for fifteen minutes and then hiked on.
The trail first followed the ridge, but dipped into a river valley. Even going downhill, I walked slowly on slick clay and stones. The sun fell behind the ridge as we crossed a stream, hiked around a hill and arrived at Alfredo’s camp.
Alfredo’s camp consisted of open-walled, corrugated roofed sheds built from posts and rafters. Dozens of hammocks hung in banks, each cocooned in mosquito netting. The camp’s kitchen held a dozen firewood-efficient cooking hearths, half-domes covered with mud and concrete. Stream water piped from an up-slope stream fed the showers, and the grey water flowed into forest green plastic treatment tanks.
Alfredo’s camp was one of the trekking camps funded by the USAID and the Global Heritage Fund. It was also part of a long-term strategy to pry the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta from the control of leftist guerillas, narcotraficantes, and paramilitaries by creating a program of sustainable economic development focused on cultural tourism as an economic alternative. The region had been cleared of guerillas — no tourists had been taken hostage for the last nine years — and the campesinos raised cocoa and coffee instead of coca and marijuana. The string of camps was carefully designed and environmentally sensitive. They formed development corridors where small businesses could develop along the trail to Ciudad Perdida. And the woman who sold us Gatorade and watermelon or Don Ricardo’s store with its dangling cell phones were the results.
But for me on the evening of the first day, Campo Alfredo was simply one of the most welcome sights in my life. I respond to physical misery with conceptual myopia. I pulled off my sweat-streaked shirt and mud-caked boots and washed in cold spring water. I changed into dry clothes and sandals and limped to the long, rough-plank dinner table with a first rum and water in hand. I began to resume human form. I was transformed.
The second part of this essay will be published on Monday, 24th February
About the Author:
Jerry D. Moore is an archaeologist, writer and professor of anthropology at California State University Dominguez Hills in Carson, California. He has conducted archaeological research in Peru, Baja California, the western United States, and southern Mexico where his investigations explored the cultural landscapes and constructed environments of ancient peoples.