Buritaca to the Sea


Caño Cristales. Photograph by Mario Carvajal

From Words Without Borders:

The Lost City sits atop the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a spectacular snow-capped mountain at the foot of the Caribbean Sea, and part of the Tayrona National Park known for its incredible biodiversity and the pre-Columbian civilization that still inhabits it with their customs pretty much intact. Like Colombia, the Sierra is now being given a new identity, one that has a lot fewer guns in it. Today, it is no longer known as the stronghold of Hernán Giraldo (aka Lord of the Sierra, The Screw, or El Gordo), the last paramilitary leader to gain control of it.  He’s been sitting in a US jail since 2009, convicted and sentenced to “198 months”— sixteen-and-a-half years—for his involvement in the drug trade. Today, this former haven for warring drug fiefs is labeled by National Geographic as the “most irreplaceable place on earth.” The four tribes that make up the Tayrona family—the Arahuaco, the Kogi, the Wiwa, and the Kankuamo—now face less violence in the large swath demarked by the government as a resguardo, an Indian reservation: We can go up the mountain because they have given us permission.

A Tayrona descendant shows me a list of names. I find mine. “I am Celso and I will be your guide.” Like all his Sierra kin, he is in full native garb. Celso has straight black hair past his shoulders, he wears a white cotton tunic and pants, and he carries the white or cream-colored mochila, a bag woven only by the women—by wives for their husbands—who believe that when they do so they are weaving thoughts. One way to tell the men from different tribes apart is by their hats: Kogis wear white ones that look like the Sierra’s snowy peak and Wiwas wear cowboy hats. From this, I see that Celso is a Wiwa. I also notice his poporo, the gourd that holds the powdered seashells used to mix with the coca leaves adult men chew. Their leaders, known as mamos, hand them these poporos as an initiation into manhood and as a permission to marry. Celso holds his, proudly, in his right hand.

It is comic, arriving at the meeting place dressed as a tourist to find that I’m the only Colombian going on the tour. I buy an empanada with ease but there is something disjointed about being a tourist in a place I had visited as a child. This was where we came as a family for holidays. Parque Tayrona is where I swam in the ocean for the first time in my yellow swimsuit from Miami and played with my pail and plucked chipichipi clams before they disappeared inside the wet silvery sands.

I play the part as I shake hands with a German couple in their late thirties and their best friend who adds that they always travel as a trio; a younger, super fit, super polite Belgian couple; a funny Frenchie traveling around the world; the finicky Swiss-English lady and the Amazonian woman from Alaska who were staying at the same hostel in Santa Marta and decided to venture out together after seeing the brochure about the Lost City at the front desk.

Celso, wearing his two mochilas across his chest like a bandolero wears his bullets, shoves us all in the back of a dusty 4×4. Packed like sardines, but my hiking compañeros keep smiling, happy as clams. As the door closes behind us, a reflex makes me crawl to the front seat, landing between the driver and the Wiwa now holding the mochilas on his lap. He grabs a handful of coca leaves from one and shoves them into his mouth.

“Yo soy de aquí,” I say almost threateningly.

“Living to Tell New Tales”, Silvana Paternostro, Words Without Borders