Our recent Lost City Trek in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern Colombia took us through tropical forests, across rivers, up hills, down into valleys, and ultimately to a starting point: 1,200 stone stairs that led us to Teyuna, the capital of the ancient Tayrona civilization from AD 800 that is now known as the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida). While this 46km (28 mi) round-trip trek is physically challenging and takes you through beautiful and diverse landscapes, it was our indigenous guide, Celso, who helped connect us to the nature around us, the Tayrona people who built the Lost City, and to the lives of their descendants today.
Celso is Wiwa, one of the four indigenous groups in the Sierra Nevada Mountains who are believed to be descendants of the Tayrona civilization that once lived and ruled the area from the second to 16th centuries. Celso, in the Wiwa language means “to make disorder from order.” After witnessing him in action for four days as he led our group, his name seems a perfect fit.
Celso possessed a presence that was easier felt rather than described – calm, peaceful, wise, and respectful. He had an ability to slow things down on the path so that we might better take in and appreciate the moment before us, including the sounds of the river, the birds, the cicadas, and even the light peddling of footsteps around us. He carried himself with a humble grace, deliberate, somehow always moving faster than those of us with longer legs and better equipment. We always knew that no matter how far a head start we might have on Celso, he would always appear, often with impeccable timing to help and answer questions.
Some people possess this sort of flow.
He shared with us what he knew about the nature around us, information about the Wiwa culture and how the community lives, and stories and beliefs of the Tayrona civilization that had been passed on to him by mamus (local shamans or holy men) and community elders.
Here’s just a taste of what he told us about the indigenous Wiwa culture, Tayrona civilization and the context of the climb to the Lost City.
The four indigenous groups of the Sierra Nevada mountains
Today, the four indigenous groups who call the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range their home – the Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo – are believed to be descendants of the Tayrona civilization. They call themselves “elder brothers” as protectors of this land and the rest of us in the world, whom they refer to as “younger brothers.”
As there are no written records from the time of the Tayrona civilization and as thieves looted much of Teyuna, there remains a great deal of speculation among archaeologists about this civilization. However, an oral tradition passed from generation to generation – often through shamans and elders – has kept the Tayrona culture alive and connected the ancients to the indigenous cultures of today.
In all of these indigenous groups, the two highest glacier-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains – Cristóbal Colón and Simón Bolívar, both at around 5,700m (18,700 ft) – are considered sacred. Only shamans are allowed to pass above a certain elevation of the mountains. In service to their communities, shamans will make the journey to deliver offerings and perform ceremonies in an effort to maintain equilibrium in the world and with nature.
Learning about the Wiwa Culture along the Lost City Trek
Many of the traditions of the Wiwa culture are tied back to nature and their spiritual relationship with Pachamama, or Mother Earth. For example, people dress in white as a symbolic representation of the purity and integrity of the white snow of the mountain peaks. They keep their hair long – especially the men – to represent the wisdom that flows from the sacred mountain peaks through rivers all the way to the coast.
Wiwa (and the other indigenous) cultures consider the coca leaf sacred and attach a great deal of their identity to it. The leaves of the coca bush have been grown, chewed, and used in ceremonies by indigenous populations throughout South America for millennia. Indigenous communities have been granted government permission to grow coca for their personal use. (Please note that although cocaine contains coca leaves as one of its many ingredients, the two substances remain quite different in appearance and effect.)
Wiwa men always carry a woven bag intended to hold their dried coca leaves and something called a poporo, a vessel made from a hollowed-out gourd. The poporo is filled with crushed seashells (lime) that blends with dried coca leaves, while the stick poporo is used to transfer the powder to the mouth. The stick, moistened by saliva, is then used to rub the outside of the poporo to turn it a sort of gold colour. This is meant to represent the golden poporo used by the Tayrona people.
When a Wiwa male comes of age at 17 and is ready to marry, he undergoes four days of ceremonies with the shaman (called Mamu in Wiwa) as a rite of passage, and upon completion, is given a poporo to signify that he is now a Wiwa man with all the responsibilities that entails. When Celso would meet other man on the trail – whether from the Wiwa community or another indigenous community – they would greet each other by exchanging coca leaves and spending a moment together using the poporo. This ritual is something that not only bonds them with one another, but also connects them to their ancestors.
(It’s important to note that in Wiwa culture women do not chew coca leaves. If your indigenous guide shares his coca leaves only with the men in your group, you’ll understand why.)
After climbing the 1,200 stone steps to reach the Lost City, Celso gathered us around a patch of green outlined by a circle of stones, in which he offered some coca leaves. We noticed, too, that he let his hair down, and its flow and length recalled the river of wisdom he described to us earlier.
In a moment of silence under the canopy, Celso explained that this was a sacred spot, one where we should let go of our impurities, our negative thoughts and emotions. We stood quietly to do just this, to cleanse ourselves and to prepare, as others had done for centuries, to visit the upper chambers of this sacred place.
Celso also told us the story of the great city Teyuna that has been passed on to him through the shamans. It is believed that Tewimaco, the god that built Teyuna, also built Machu Picchu and the Mayan cities in Mexico and Guatemala. At the Lost City site, there stands a carved stone that archeologists believe is a map of Teyuna, but that the indigenous believe is a map of all of the known sacred places in the northern part of South America, whose chiseled starbursts indicate a network of connected civilizations – places like Teyuna, Tierradentro, and Machu Picchu.
When the Spanish colonists arrived, the Tayrona people began to see them as they went down to the coast to collect their seashells for the poporo. They didn’t have a good feeling about them (history would prove them right). Legend says that they abandoned Teyuna at the end of the 16th century in order to prevent the Spanish from discovering it. Today, the story is told that the Tayrona people departed for another planet or other world. (Note: There are documented battles between the Spanish and Tayrona in other locations. Archaeologists believe that the Tayrona scattered into the mountains to escape from them, while many also succumbed to diseases brought by the Spanish.)
For centuries, Teyuna’s stone steps, 192 terraces, and gold lay under the tropical forest that had re-grown to envelop it. The indigenous believe that their shamans knew it existed and continued to visit it for holy ceremonies right up until its “discovery” in 1972 by local farmers.
Unfortunately, the first group that arrived were tomb raiders looking for gold. After which, the hunt grew violent with tomb thieves killing each other until in one of them opted to inform the government in 1976. This allowed the site to be protected so archeologists could research and uncover its remains. Although the Lost City has been open to trekkers since 1981, it’s only in the last ten years that the area has been deemed safe, after guerrilla and narco-trafficking groups had been driven from the area.
The site remains a sacred place for the local people, with four of the terraces representing the four indigenous groups today. There are two terraces further up on top of these, one a ceremonial area for men and the other women. For several weeks in September each year, the Lost City is closed to outsiders so that the shamans and indigenous communities may undertake their spiritual ceremonies and offerings. It is believed that these ceremonies are needed to keep equilibrium, not only in their communities and the nature around them, but also in the world at large.
It may come as little surprise, but there was something palpable at Teyuna; something we could feel that transcended the beautiful photos of the rainforest climb, the canopy and the Lost City terraces. Perhaps it’s the connection we felt, something cultivated over the centuries by local people who allowed themselves to be imbued with a purpose, the purpose of the bonding with nature and through time, to bring peace and balance to themselves and others.
Maybe there’s something we can all take away from this, whether or not we choose to carry ourselves 1,200 steps up to the Lost City.
This is what Celso brought to life for us.
Want to find the Lost City yourself? G Adventures runs a number of departures encompassing a wide range of departure dates. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.