A small bonfire flickers a few metres away from us. Our hiking group is sat in a line facing Alejandrino, our guide. He is standing in front of us, dressed in a loose white tunic and white trousers. His long dark hair is covered by a white sombrero and he wears a woven bag, made of plant fibre dyed with natural colours, across his body.
Alejandrino is Wiwa, one of four indigenous peoples who live in the Sierra Nevada, a coastal mountain range in northern Colombia. It is the final evening of our four-day trek through the mountains and we are staying in a Wiwa camp. Behind us, a row of small wooden huts stand perched on a bank of sandy soil. One of these is Alejandrino’s home, which he shares with his wife and two young children.
We are held together in a small circle of light created by the glow of the bonfire. It is a hushed, conspiratorial, atmosphere in which Alejandrino shares with us some of the traditions and beliefs of the Wiwa, beginning with marriage and sex. A Wiwa child is meant to arrive at the age of sixteen without any knowledge of sex, he tells us; if a child is curious about where children come from, they are told ‘You were found by the river’. At the age of sixteen, Wiwa children are encouraged to begin searching for a friend of the opposite sex. If a boy likes a girl he will propose to her. If she agrees, and the shaman of their community blesses the union, they will live together to get to know each other and make sure that they are suited. Once they are eighteen they can marry. On their wedding night, they leave their village and go into the forest with a shaman. The shaman will then ask them what they each know about sex. If one knows more than the other, they will explain to their partner, and if neither know much, the shaman will enlighten them. The shaman then leaves and they make love for the first time. If after that first night they don’t get on, they are free to go their separate ways and search for another partner. If all goes well, they stay together.
Whilst Alejandrino talks, he holds in his hands a gourd with a thick yellow neck. This is his poporo, an object of great importance to all the indigenous groups which live in the Sierra Nevada. It is presented to a Wiwa man on his wedding night, as part of his initiation into manhood (incidentally, this presentation is the part children are told about if they ask why the newly-wed couple has gone off with a shaman into the bush). It contains powdered lime from crushed seashells, which is added to the coca leaves the men chew.
The chewing of coca leaves is a practice I have come across throughout South America; South American Indians have chewed coca leaves for centuries, and in many countries it is considered a sacred act of great importance to their cultural heritage. I have, on previous treks, chewed coca leaves myself, to try out their hunger and tiredness reducing qualities, as well as the energy boost they give. Amongst the people of the Sierra Nevada, the chewing of coca leaves is believed to bring them closer to their ancestors.
But I have never seen a poporo before this trek. We have watched Alejandrino use it many times over the last three days; after putting a wad of coca leaves into one cheek, he pulls a stick out of the neck of the gourd, and uses it to transfer the lime powder to his mouth, wiping it onto the wad of coca in his cheek. The lime activates the properties of the coca leaves more strongly. Then he begins gliding the stick along the neck of the poporo.
This act, the rubbing of the stick onto the neck of the poporo gourd, is one of the most significant in the life of a Wiwa man. None of the indigenous groups have a written language, and so it is a way of committing thoughts to memory, an act of contemplation. The thick yellow neck of the poporo is actually a ring of calcium created by the saliva and lime mix left on the stick, built up over years. The wider the neck of a man’s poporo, therefore, the more mature he is, irrespective of his age. Just this morning, we passed another group and I noticed that the neck of the poporo belonging to their Wiwa guide, who was several years Alejandrino’s senior, was far narrower than that of Alejandrino’s poporo. When I asked about it, Alejandrino explained that he spent a lot of time with shamans, learning from them about the world, his ancestors, farming, and therefore spent more time using the movement to turn over and contemplate all these thoughts.
As we all get into our hammocks that evening, discussing what Alejandrino has told us about the Wiwa, a guy from our group asks, ‘Would you choose to live that way, knowing what you do?’ It is a difficult question. We all grew up in capitalist societies with technology, film, and a completely different attitude to sex; our cognition and understanding of the world were formed in that environment.
The next day, the last of the trek, I spend time in my own contemplation, considering the last few days.
On day one, we began the trek with a steep uphill climb. After a couple of hours we emerged from the undergrowth growing thickly on either side of the path to find we were on a ridge, looking out across the mountains at the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. From this point onwards, all the land we walked through and looked across belonged to the Wiwa and Kogi people, bought for them by the Colombian government to ensure it didn’t become encroached upon by ‘colonisers’, as Alejandrino put it. The path we would walk along over the next few days was created and maintained by the indigenous people, a tiny section of a vast network of routes throughout the mountains of their home.
We only trekked for three hours that first day, but the last section was downhill and after a short amount of time my right knee became excruciating, the reawakening of an injury from a previous trek several months ago which I hadn’t realised was still so bad. The next few days were therefore a great struggle for me. It took a lot of resolve and the pain made me pretty miserable at times, but there was one great silver lining to the situation. Whenever we came to a downhill section, I had to descend incredibly slowly and ended up at the back of the group. Sam often hung back with me for moral support, so the two of us had many extra conversations with Alejandrino, who always brought up the rear. Each day was characterised by up to seven hours of arduous hiking (for me at least), intercut with fruit breaks, so there was plenty of time for chatting. Over the first three days, Alejandrino told us of the role of the shamans in their communities, what a Wiwa man looks for in a Wiwa woman (and conjectured what she might be looking for in return), and the differences and similarities between the Wiwa and Kogi (as two peoples with a very similar cultural background, a major difference is their language, but there are many other fascinating smaller details).
These conversations with Alejandrino wove into our experience of hiking through Wiwa and Kogi land. Each evening, when we reached our camp for the night, we had a dip in a natural swimming pool in the river, which accompanied us for most of our route. These spots were incredibly beautiful: the crystal clear water, the vines, the fading sunlight, the jungle tumbling down to the banks of the river. The camps were always relatively basic: we slept in hammocks and ate food cooked on a fire stove. Slowly, the more we hiked, swam and slept in the mountains, I felt the charm and beauty of the landscape settle over me.
On day three, we were up bright and early. We followed the path down to the river, then climbed along its rocky bank for a while, until Alejandrino indicated the stepping stones to cross. Once on the opposite bank, we found ourselves at the bottom of a steep flight of stone steps, leading up the mountainside and disappearing into the forest.
Twelve hundreds steps later, and now drenched in sweat despite it being early morning, we emerged into a grassy, circular plaza. We had reached la Ciudad Perdida: the Lost City.
The city was ‘lost’ for centuries, between the Spanish Conquest and its rediscovery by looters, and then archaeologists, in the 1970s. As direct descendants of the founders of the city, the Wiwa and Kogi knew both its location and its sacred significance throughout this time, using it as a ceremonial centre. Alejandrino began showing us around. He led us through the stone-edged terraces of the plaza and up a flight of stone steps to another set of terraces. To one side there was a large rock, its surface carved with indistinct lines and shapes. This was a map, Alejandrino explained. It depicted the Sierra Madre, the mother mountain, as well as the other mountains surrounding her, the river that runs through the valley, several lakes in the mountains and, of course, a tiny dot on the side of one mountain that represented the Lost City. Alejandrino then zoomed us back to between 650-800 AD, when the city was founded by the Tairona people, and began explaining various aspects of their way of life. A stone pit close to the rock map was a transport pit, for example. People could enter, sit down and close their eyes, and the shaman would transport them to wherever they needed to go. Close by, Alejandrino showed us another rock map, this one a representation of the universe, with the sun, moon and stars. It was angled to catch the light as the sun rose, so every morning a shaman would walk along the stone pathway leading to it, with his apprentices, and read the message that the sunlight told him: what the harvest would be like, if an illness was coming, what weather they could expect.
Though much smaller and less impressive than Machu Picchu, a comparison often made, the whole complex was nonetheless incredible. Terrace after terrace, made circles up the mountainside, connected by small pathways and flights of stone steps. After taking it in turns to sit on what is believed to have been a shaman’s throne, we ascended to the largest plaza, next to the terraces where the shaman’s house and that of his two wives would have been, and suddenly the vast mountain range unfurled to one side, the dense jungle covering the slopes dotted with palm trees and the further peaks fading into a blue haze. We climbed up to a higher terrace and sat overlooking the incredible view.
After a while, Alejandrino led us away along a small path to a few thatched huts belonging to the Kogi, used by shamans when they perform sacred ceremonies. Each hut was topped with multiple thatched peaks between which three stars dangled; the centre one represented the shaman, and the outer two symbolised his two wives. Recalling details from his vast memory, Alejandrino took the opportunity here to tell us a brief history of the Tairona people. A particularly fascinating detail passed down by word of mouth explained the split of the Wiwa and Kogi: after the Tairona people were destroyed by war and disease following the Spanish conquest, their population dwindled to a mere thirty people. In order to avoid complete extinction, they spilt, and for sixty years had no contact, allowing their different languages to develop as well as other differences in their customs, social organisation and beliefs.
As per usual, Alejandrino stuck with me during the very slow descent down the twelve hundred steps through the jungle, kindly amending my statement that I was climbing down like a child climbs down stairs, suggesting that I was more like a baby who had recently learnt to walk. At the bottom, we rejoined the river and from that moment onwards we began our journey back.
And so my reflection of the last few days brings me full circle, back to the present as I bump along on the back of a mule I have been convinced by Sam to take for the final two hours of the last day (even if it slightly hurts my pride) because the pathway becomes a particularly steep descent. I am thinking about the multiple PhD and postdoc students who have spent years visiting these mountains to learn from the Kogi people because their spiritual beliefs and cosmological knowledge of the world is so advanced and so different from our own, that it takes years to comprehend or gain any kind of access to it. I am thinking about the beauty of the landscape and the difficulty of the terrain we have hiked through over the last four days, now assimilated into my memory along with glimpses into the life of the Wiwa people we shared it with and the Kogi villages we passed. And I am thinking about Alejandrino rubbing the stick along the neck of his poporo again and again, countless times throughout his adult life, as he threads his thoughts and experiences in and out of his mind. With our readier access to more scientifically advanced medicine, innovative technology, and general living appliances our daily lives are less of a struggle to survive, but I cannot honestly answer the question of whether I would choose to live like the Wiwa, knowing what I do, with an outright no. As Sam succinctly put it, in our industrialised, capitalist, democratic societies, the highest status is gained through money. In their societies, which are often viewed as far simpler or even primitive compared to ours, value is placed on thought, reflection and knowledge. I can’t help thinking that, in some ways, they have got it far more worked out.