Three Frenchman, three Carolina boys, a guy from California and our Colombian guide sit around swatting mosquitos in the middle of the Colombian jungle. We huddle around a picnic table perched at the end of a long line of hammocks wrapped in bug nets and strung up under the thatched roof of an open-air gazebo - our sleeping quarters for the night. A lone candle casts its faint glow across our faces giving the evening an appropriate sense of mystery. We are on our way to the Lost City.
Our guide "Lalo" - 21 years young - recounts stories from his experiences leading the adventurous through the Sierra Nevada mountain range of Northern Colombia in search of the Lost City. His deliberate tone and calm countenance, accentuated by the flickering candle, lend gravity to the mysterious ambience. There is no lack of anecdotes; he has been working the trail since he was 15.
Lalo peppers his stories of adventure with bits of knowledge about the history of the region and our ultimate destination: la Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City). "Finally a history class I won't sleep through," I think to myself.
Founded around 800 AD by the Tayrona tribe (also spelled Tairona), the Lost City is an archaeological site that predates the famous ancient Incan site Machu Picchu in Peru by 650 years. Though the Spanish never discovered the site tucked away deep in the mountainous jungle of the Sierra Nevada, they did indeed discover (and pillage) the coastal tribes that inhabitants of the Lost City traded with, and when that trade was interrupted the city was abandoned. Two more similar sites are rumored to be hidden deeper in the mountains but have not yet been (re)discovered by westerners.
The current native tribes in the region - the Arhuaco, the Kogui and the Arsario - call the Lost City "Teyuna", and they consider the site the inheritance of all natives of the Sierra Nevada. Our campsite for the night is on a Kogui family's land - their round hut rests just a few meters from our hammocks.
Lalo shifts his lesson to focus on the Kogui traditions and beliefs. We sit mesmerized as he describes a spiritual life directed by a shaman (called a mamo) and centered around the mind and its potential rather than the body, intense marriage rites that last 4 days and nights endured by all men who seek a wife, spiritual rituals based around the coca leaf and the organization of community and family life.
I glance at my fellow gringos sitting around the picnic table to see if they are as entranced as I am and detect the amazement gleaming in their awe-struck eyes. We look like little children watching a magic show.
Lalo finishes his presentation and sits quietly looking back at us with a slight grin. The candle sizzles as it reaches the end of its wick. "Buenas noches," he says.
"Buenas noches," we echo. "Y gracias, Lalo." We slowly rise from our seats and head to our hammocks.
In the morning, I look at the round wooden hut with a thatched roof, dirt floor and loosely boarded walls but see it with a new perspective. Where before I saw poverty, I now see beauty in simplicity. While their living conditions are basic, they and their forebears have lived and flourished in this manner for more than a thousand years.
A fire burns inside the hut, visible through the vertical slats of the walls, and children scamper about in bare feet making no sound as they glide across the ground. My watch says 6:00 AM, but I am sure the Kogui do not know what time it is. The sun is up, and day has begun.
The sight of the fire reminds me of something Lalo mentioned before: the top cause of death amongst the Kogui is lung disease caused by smoke inhalation. While the fire is primarily for cooking, it is maintained at all times to also repel insects and provide warmth during the occasional cool night. Exposure to smoke is constant.
As I ponder their condition, a nagging thought pokes at my conscience: Should you attempt to change something that has served the needs of a culture for over a millennium?
While lost in my thoughts, I look to my right and spot one of the little Kogui girls studying me with a skeptical look from a bench a few meters away. "Hola," I say wishing I knew how to say 'Hi' in Kogui. She nods silently and keeps her eyes fixed on me as if trying to decide whether or not I am real. For such a young child, she sure seems rather austere.
I offer up my Recreo cookies, the Colombian version of an Oreo, as a gesture of goodwill - cookies are an intercultural peace offering. She accepts with the hint of a smile and munches happily on her bench, legs swinging with content.
"Te gustan?" I ask. She nods.
"Brilliant question, James," I say to myself. "Of course she likes the cookies." But what else do you ask an 8-year-old Kogui? I wanted to discuss her feelings regarding the influence of tourism on her people and their way of life, but something told me she was not ready for that one.
Tourism is presenting new challenges to this ancient culture. Though the Kogui seem to possess a steadfast adherance to their customs and traditions, the Kogui along the tourist trail to the Lost City are beginning to benefit economically. They own rubber boots, machetes, and saddles for their mules among other useful items. They also now have access to consumer products like the all-pervasive Coca-Cola, which they sell to tourists as well as consume for themselves.
What is the challenge? Well for one, I can imagine a variety of health issues related to the introduction of high sugar content, low nutrition foods. Suddenly I feel a bit guilty for the rush of sugar I just provided this little girl.
In addition, the Kogui and other native tribes in the region that are not along the tourist trail to the Lost City do not receive the same economic benefits. There has been some conflict regarding the fairness of this since the Lost City is considered an inheritance of all natives in the region.
There are also negative ecological impacts from so many tourists visiting the region. This intrusion affects all of the indigenous population since they rely on the land to provide their living. With the rapid growth of Colombia's tourism industry over the past 5 years and the rising popularity of the Lost City as a backpackers destination, this influence is sure to increase.
After experiencing the magic of the Lost City, I hike out of the Sierra Nevada mountains wondering what will become of the descendants of the city's constructors. The indigenous population throughout the Sierra Nevada faces difficult pressures from tourism, government encroachment, drug cartels, military conflicts, ecological changes, and more. It is a delicate balance between the modern and the ancient worlds that unfortunately heavily favors the modern.