It takes about two hours to get to Gotsezhi — a community in the mountainous Sierra Nevada region of Colombia, near the famous Lost City — from Santa Marta, an hour of which takes place on a narrow dirt road. It twists and turns, ascends and descends, and is just wide enough for one vehicle going in one direction, a fact for which your driver will compensate by honking as he turns sharp corners to avoid head-on collisions. There are rivers along the way, and fields dotted with slim white cattle, and breathtaking views of the peaks and valleys that make up the region.
It’s not a long ride, if you’re just a passenger. But it provides a unique appreciation for the journeys taken by the various tradesmen who recently built the community project that’s located at the top of the road, adjacent to (and to be serviced by) a community of Indigenous Wiwa people. These materials included 10-foot (3 m) lengths of Colombian bamboo, driven around the corners, up the hills and down the descents of the road. Perilous stuff, if you’re 10 feet of bamboo. But the buildings they were used to construct are beautiful structures set in a picturesque jungle landscape, and they will provide travellers the invaluable opportunity to interact with the Wiwa people on their own land. The journey, in other words, is well worth it.
The Wiwa people of the Sierra Nevada are descendants of the ancient Tayrona people and — along with the Kogui, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo, Indigenous peoples who also live in the area — remained uncontacted and in isolation until the second half of the 20th century. At that time, illegal activity in the mountainous region threatened their livelihood and deprived them of much of their land, which was seized for the growth of marijuana and cocaine crops.
Lorenzo, a member of the Wiwa community (who was recently awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Bolivia), says that for the specific Wiwa community soon to be visited by G Adventures (as part of a partnership between Planeterra and Wiwa Tours, with support from Live Out There), the introduction of tourism is more than an opportunity to educate travellers about their way of life, or a chance for local artisans to sell handicrafts to visitors.
“This is the first time that we’re opening [this] community to travellers, because we saw the opportunity,” he says. “We hope to make money to recover our ancestral territory and grow as a community.”
Spending time with the Wiwa of the Sierra Nevada, one gets an immediate sense of their bond with the land; a shared, strong sense of environmental stewardship and responsibility is the closest the Wiwa come to religious ideology. The mountains of the Sierra Nevada are dotted with small Wiwa homes and other Indigenous communities and tiny villages, and each has their own social and spiritual leader, called a mamo, who makes decisions on behalf of the community. When G Adventures and Planeterra teamed with the Wiwa to begin bringing tour groups to the area, the mamo’s sign-off was key. He gave it — but also decided which community members could work with G as guides. (Members of the community communicate in the Wiwa language Damana, but most also speak fluent Spanish, which will enable them to interact with G Adventures tour leaders and, in turn, with travellers who pass through the area.)
The mamo also approved certain women from the community to sell their handicrafts — beautiful woven bags with fibres dyed using plants, and intricately hand-beaded jewellery — to G travellers. Among those handicrafts are woven side-satchels just large enough to hold a cellphone, and others the exact size of a reusable water bottle — the latter of which you’ll want to carry with you if you opt for the short hike from the Wiwa dining building to a beautiful, cascading waterfall that feeds into a deep (and surprisingly cold) swimming hole. (Word to the wise: take the hike, the plunge, and the water bottle. It gets hot in the Sierra Nevada.)
The Wiwa community of Gotsezhi will serve as a gathering spot for G Adventures travellers as they enjoy their last lunch together on completion of the Lost City Trek. There, travellers can eat, relax, and take the opportunity to learn about the area’s Indigenous history from members of the community still living it.
There has long been a strong desire within the Wiwa community to bring responsible tourism that upholds their cultural values and enables them along the path to achieving their goals of reclaiming the land. Interacting with the Wiwa people is enjoyable and educational, but it’s also meaningful — particularly since, for both parties in the exchange, the life-changing benefits of travel will extend long past lunch in the Sierra Nevada.
Keen to visit Colombia and get to know the Wiwa people? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Colombia — including our Lost City treks — here.