“You’ll have to move,” the soldier tells me — the helicopter circling above us is about to land. But his warning comes too late. Within seconds it descends onto the grass platform above my head; I’m battered by a blast of air and my hair whips around, temporarily blinding me. All I can think is, ‘I’d better get down or I’ll be blown clean off the mountain into the abyss of jungle below.’
I peer up from the ground at a chain of stone circles ascending before me. A top terrace crowns the ‘Lost City’ — or Teyuna, as the locals call it — a sacred site high in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range near Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Dense green layers form a bowl around us, the horizon punctuated by towering palms and low-hanging wisps of cloud.
The army’s watchful presence has kept the site safe for years — the chopper is delivering supplies to a young group on military service, who seem busier playing football and posing for photos than looking for any trouble.
But it’s a reminder of the turbulence that once shook this forest, when the cocaine boom of the 1980s saw narco traffickers and armed groups vying for the land. At the site’s summit we meet Edwin Rey, a 57-year-old guide who was kidnapped with a group of tourists here in 2003. Far from deterring visitors, he tells us that the hostage-taking had an unexpected effect — everyone wanted to know about the mysteries of Teyuna.
Perched on a hilltop and reached by slogging up 1,200 vertigo-inducing steps, the settlement was built and inhabited by the Tairona people from around the year 800. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the Tairona fled and the once-bustling city was consumed by nature. Grave looters lucked upon it in the 1970s, eager to unearth any precious gold.
But the jungle we’ve hiked through is blissfully calm. And the local indigenous communities — the Wiwa, the Kogi, the Arhuaco and the Kankuamo, direct descendants of the Tairona — are taking back control of its fate.
“It’s the heart of the world, the place from where we look after all living beings,” explains our Wiwa guide José, chewing a mixture of coca leaves and seashell powder from a gourd known as danburro. “In our language we call it anganguasi. It’s something cleansing — to take away negative things from your soul.”
Spending five days immersed in this forest, I learn what José means. We spot vultures and hummingbirds, technicoloured butterflies and gargantuan frogs. Resting from the hike, we plunge into a cool waterfall, one of the 30 rivers that start in the Sierra Nevada — once named the world’s most irreplaceable nature reserve. As the torrent of water pounds my back, the sun hits the cascading spray to form a perfect rainbow halo around me. I take a mental photograph.
On our final day, our route takes us to the Wiwa village of Gotsezhi, which has recently opened its doors to travellers for the first time. It’s a way to secure the community’s future, earning funds to support families and, eventually, contribute to the government’s repurchasing of their ancestral lands.
As we approach, we’re met by the village’s mamo, or spiritual leader, Ade José Miguel, dressed in a white tunic and teardrop-shaped hat.
“We’re going to get rid of negative stains on our souls by doing a very simple ceremony,” he says, inviting us to think of all of the highs and lows of the intense five-day trek.
My mind jumps to the wet boots, steep hills and my impossibly large mosquito bites, then the emerald green vistas and contented evenings laughing over shared stories and cold beer.
We call out our names as the mamo ties a white string around our wrists. My soul must have been grubbier than a Daz advert’s test shirt, because moments later I’m hit by dizziness and a bout of nausea. It’s either a perfect example of anganguasi, or a touch of sunstroke from the hot morning’s hike.
Ade José Miguel calls me back and cleanses me again, pulling invisible threads from my head before motioning me to enter the village. Like this forest, I get the feeling that with the Wiwa, I’m in good hands.