Photo: Celso, a Wiwa Indian who leads tour groups up to Colombia's Lost City, stares out at the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Courtesy of Silvana Paternostro.
Memoirist and journalist Silvana Paternostro takes us back to Colombia on her trip to climb up to the Lost City that sits amid the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The difficulties she encounters there and the unfamiliar terrain mirror the current moment in Colombian literature, defined by a new reality where Colombian writers will have to grapple with the fact that "the old story is changing."
For the next few days, I will be doing something I’ve never done in the country where I was born. I am going on one of those tours for foreigners when they come here, now that Colombia is a hotspot. I have signed up to go on a four-day hike, and for the record, overnight hiking is also brand new to me. I am on my way to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City, a pre-Columbian site dubbed a sort of unspoiled Machu Picchu by travel guides.
I am a bit wary of it all as I get in the cab that will take me to the meeting place designated on the tour agency flyer. It doesn’t help when the driver asks what country am I from. Unknowingly, he hits at my Achilles’ heel when it comes to my identity, especially when it comes to being a writer. Am I a Colombian writer like Hector Abad or Juan Gabriel Vásquez or Jorge Franco, to name a few writers of my generation whom I admire? For the last two decades, I’ve written about Colombia from abroad and mostly in English, and I’ve always wondered how the stories I tell would change if my point of view was like theirs, from inside the womb, from inside the dense and dangerous forest.
That, however, was a question of the past. Colombia is in flux. For the first time in fifty years, we storytellers will have to take into account that there is no longer the same old, stale war to write about; Colombia has begun to create a new narrative, one without the daily intrusion of two terrifying and horrific rogue armies. As of now Colombian writers will have a new opportunity—like the kind the hike into the Sierra represents. We Colombians can go explore with backpacks and hiking boots territories that were once controlled by men and women with guns and ideology—and a knack for drug trafficking. In this new Colombia, we can leave behind the memoirs about presidential candidates, senators, and soldiers who wasted year after year as hostages in places just like the one I’m about to visit.
In fact, according to the tourism operator’s literature, the only thing to fear is the strong sun and the mosquitoes: Make sure to bring sunglasses, sunscreen, and repellent. They also advise bringing rain gear, but I pay no attention to that advice. I don’t remember much rain from the time I spent weekends in nearby Minca, a mountain hamlet, as a teenager. I remember how going to the Sierra was like going to a theme park that came to life as we swung on vines from one side of a creek to another, where the girls would pick raspberries and orchids while the boys would set out to find tarantulas to frighten us. Then again, memory is selective and stories are made only of those things the storyteller reveals in the perpetual dilemma of choice in words and tone. Not my thing, hiking, but I’m excited to be here looking like I’ve never set foot in these lands, a borrowed blue bag on my back and, on my feet, boots I rescued from the back of my closet that I last used to walk Utah’s red rock arches more than a decade ago.
I am dropped off in a place that looks just like the Colombia of my childhood memories with the music from the tiendas strident and distorted regardless of the time. It reminds me of the same way we would enter the Sierra from Minca, except now it has a lot of backpack-wielding people of all ages that don’t look Colombian struggling to make themselves understood with First World smiles and gadgets—and paltry Spanish. A handful of jeeps start showing up, all with friendly logos announcing Lost City excursions. “From narco to eco,” I joke.
The Lost City sits atop the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a spectacular snow-capped mountain at the foot of the Caribbean Sea, and part of the Tayrona National Park known for its incredible biodiversity and the pre-Columbian civilization that still inhabits it with their customs pretty much intact. Like Colombia, the Sierra is now being given a new identity, one that has a lot fewer guns in it. Today, it is no longer known as the stronghold of Hernán Giraldo (aka Lord of the Sierra, The Screw, or El Gordo), the last paramilitary leader to gain control of it. He’s been sitting in a US jail since 2009, convicted and sentenced to “198 months”— sixteen-and-a-half years—for his involvement in the drug trade. Today, this former haven for warring drug fiefs is labeled by National Geographic as the “most irreplaceable place on earth.” The four tribes that make up the Tayrona family—the Arahuaco, the Kogi, the Wiwa, and the Kankuamo—now face less violence in the large swath demarked by the government as a resguardo, an Indian reservation: We can go up the mountain because they have given us permission.
A Tayrona descendant shows me a list of names. I find mine. “I am Celso and I will be your guide.” Like all his Sierra kin, he is in full native garb. Celso has straight black hair past his shoulders, he wears a white cotton tunic and pants, and he carries the white or cream-colored mochila, a bag woven only by the women—by wives for their husbands—who believe that when they do so they are weaving thoughts. One way to tell the men from different tribes apart is by their hats: Kogis wear white ones that look like the Sierra’s snowy peak and Wiwas wear cowboy hats. From this, I see that Celso is a Wiwa. I also notice his poporo, the gourd that holds the powdered seashells used to mix with the coca leaves adult men chew. Their leaders, known as mamos, hand them these poporos as an initiation into manhood and as a permission to marry. Celso holds his, proudly, in his right hand.
It is comic, arriving at the meeting place dressed as a tourist to find that I’m the only Colombian going on the tour. I buy an empanada with ease but there is something disjointed about being a tourist in a place I had visited as a child. This was where we came as a family for holidays. Parque Tayrona is where I swam in the ocean for the first time in my yellow swimsuit from Miami and played with my pail and plucked chipichipi clams before they disappeared inside the wet silvery sands.
I play the part as I shake hands with a German couple in their late thirties and their best friend who adds that they always travel as a trio; a younger, super fit, super polite Belgian couple; a funny Frenchie traveling around the world; the finicky Swiss-English lady and the Amazonian woman from Alaska who were staying at the same hostel in Santa Marta and decided to venture out together after seeing the brochure about the Lost City at the front desk.
Celso, wearing his two mochilas across his chest like a bandolero wears his bullets, shoves us all in the back of a dusty 4x4. Packed like sardines, but my hiking compañeros keep smiling, happy as clams. As the door closes behind us, a reflex makes me crawl to the front seat, landing between the driver and the Wiwa now holding the mochilas on his lap. He grabs a handful of coca leaves from one and shoves them into his mouth.
“Yo soy de aquí,” I say almost threateningly.
After almost three hours of a bumpy ride uphill on a dirt road, we are dropped off at Machete Pelao, the last place reachable by car. At lunch, we are presented with heaping individual platters of fried fish and coconut rice. Celso instructs us to eat well. We will be walking about seven miles and we are to arrive at our first campsite, Adán’s Cabin, before dark. There, we can go bathe in a “purifying natural pool.”
The first two hours go by fast as we walk through bucolic pastures with clay-colored paths. Everyone is in a state of euphoria at the passing of blue-winged mariposas the size of birds, at the sounds of nature, all enveloped in mist. A Nordic hiker in another one of the groups sticks her tongue out to receive the first drops of rain. “Nectar,” she says as she exhales in ecstasy. “Each one. Pure nectar.” Once in a while Celso’s compatriots appear out of the bountiful greenery like friendly ghosts. They are very quiet, these men, women, and children dressed in white, but we all are enchanted every time we see them.
We are also delighted when we stop at a wooden stall. As part of the tour package, we are given a rest and some fresh fruit for continued energy and hydration. The pineapple is free; the bottled water is not. The storeowner is friendly and chatty. Next to the house where he lives with his wife and newborn, he has built a well-stocked bodega with all the things this new Sierra clientele might need: bottled water and all sorts of sugary drinks, chips, nachos, nuts, chocolate, cigarettes—“and you can buy only one.” He will start selling fresh orange juice: “The juicer arrives tomorrow.” He has lived here all his life and this is where he wants his newborn to grow up—“especially now that things are different.” A French volunteer is helping him reforest his plot of land and he is building a bench at the edge of the mountain. He points to the valley. “The best vista of all the Sierra.” Everyone rushes over to take pictures. I coyly stay behind.
There is no way in hell I should have embarked on this journey.
The raindrops we first welcomed to hydrate us from the sun turn into an unpleasant deluge that soaks our clothes and sends us sliding through rivers of red, soaplike mud. Another group of white-clad children whiz by; their white tunics not so white. The mud sticks to my boots—of course not waterproof; the Belgians were perhaps the only ones with proper footwear; another English member of the group came wearing Timberland moccasins. Celso has tucked his pants inside knee-high rubber rain boots.
The flyer had suggested sunblock, mosquito repellent, and light packing but not a word about the difficulty of the hike—and this, for an inexperienced hiker with a fear of falling, has me fuming. As if it weren’t enough to have my T-shirt wet, submerged-in-the-sea wet, and my mud-covered boots as if they were made of cement, in front of me is a steep path that I clumsily tackle only to see that it is followed by a slope that resembles a black-diamond ski run, great for shooting an Indiana Jones or a James Bond scene but petrifying to me. I am feeling divided from my group. Where they see gorgeousness, I see danger. Where they see Arcadia, I only see rain, rain, damn rain, and then free-falling heights.
I overhear a hiker from Ohio saying, “This would never fly in the United States. But I’m glad it does, here.” For her, like most of the hundreds of people that come here—now that the word is out, the tourists are coming, and tour operators are packing them in—this feels like heaven despite the discomfort and the constant rain. Unlike the woman from Ohio, there is no way in hell I should have embarked on this journey. I wouldn’t have signed up for it if I had known—or would I?
By the time I arrive at this realization, it is way too late to turn around. I kind of had an inkling there would be dicey parts—obviously not like this, especially now that there seems to be a hurricane coming in from the north. I look around me and no one else seems to be so wound up about it.
The second stop—this time for watermelon—is manned by a black man from Barranquilla, the city where I’m from, and just knowing that, I feel recharged. If he can survive the Sierra, so can I. He tells me that he only leaves it to go dance during Carnaval and so he has just returned. I’d like to know how he first got here, but the German lady who is always making jokes says something risqué and he cracks up. I leave them to their flirting and turn my focus to the walking stick that’s resting against the stall. “Ese está bueno,” I hear Celso tell me. “Take it. Better you have one.” Celso is keeping an eye on me. I wonder if it’s because I’m the slowest in the group or because I’m Colombian.
He calls our group together and we huddle around him like a football team around their coach. “The rain is slowing us down,” he says in a Spanish that is devoid of intonations and has somewhat of an accent because it is not, after all, his mother tongue. “And we need to make it to Adán’s before nightfall. We cannot walk in this agua in the dark. We must pick up our pace and get to the river fast because each drop is just making it grow faster. We still have a ways to go. Those of you who want to go ahead, that’s fine, but don’t cross the river on your own. No matter what, you wait for me.”
He takes a box out of one of his mochilas and a handful of coca from the other, which he proceeds to shove in his mouth. Some leaves still hang from his mouth as he continues. “You won’t know where and how to cross it. Buritaca es rio bravo. Only those of us from here understand it.” With that, he produces a black garbage bag from the box and hands one to those of us who didn’t have appropriate rain gear. Of course, the Belgians did. “Make a hole and stick it over your head and over your backpack,” he instructs me.
"I’m now starting to feel like Ingrid Betancourt,” I joke as I feel myself turn into a plastic forest gnome with a hunchback. “I feel like I've been kidnapped by the FARC.” I pick up my walking stick to continue the march, reminded of those endless marches that Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician who spent six years in the hands of the guerrillas, writes about in her memoir. No one gets my joke. But then again, they didn't grow up with FARC fear. I am really trying to be a happy traveler like them, but it has proven a challenge. The story I see is so different from the story they see (or want to see). I noticed—they don't—that the town from where we set out for the hike goes by the telling and terrorizing name of Machete Pelao, or Bare Machete. Now that Colombia is turning a corner, it goes by the name of El Mamey, after a delicious tropical fruit. Someone in the tourism industry must have realized this new name made for better marketing, but to the locals traveling with us—Enrique, the cook, and his four kitchen assistants, who live there—it is still Machete Pelao, an appropriate name that speaks of the horrors committed inside today’s exotic park for foreigners. The cook and his staff wave good-bye. They have to be ready with our dinner when we arrive at the camp. Behind them are four mules laden with all they need to feed us in the upcoming days.
The trek gets harder and harder and the rain keeps falling and falling. My fellow travelers continue to revel in the surroundings, standing on ledges, pointing out into the green valleys and at peaks enveloped in clouds. I fight the vertigo of the precipice, a metaphor, perhaps, of how in my birthplace I’m always feeling like I’m one step from falling into the void. Celso stays by my side, whispering at times, “This is your beautiful Colombia; you can do it.”
We make it to Adán’s Cabin in the nick of time, minutes before the green roller-coaster paradise turns pitch dark. We rush like children at summer camp, exhausted and ravenous to choose the best bunk bed, to get out of our horribly wet clothes, to stand in line for showers—it’s too late to go to the river pool—where for a moment I’m a tenth of myself again as I feel a dribble of hot water and the dry mud starts to leave my body.
I never much liked summer camps as a child and here I am sitting with a bunch of adults in my PJs waiting for my food to arrive. We commiserate about the inclemency of the weather, which has caught us off guard since it is the middle of the dry season. First World-ers are so good at levity that they just joke about how we will be wearing moldy, smelly clothes for the entire trip. “We are going to know each other very intimately,” the German adds in her usual cheeky way. We move into dinner chitchat: The German gentleman works in the IT department of a big bank. The Belgian couple is ready for a big change—he will resign from his corporate job to become an artisanal baker. Being here has made that much clearer. The whiny Englishwoman is in the same boat; the French one just caresses a stray cat; the American is an “adrenaline junkie” and her next stop is bungee jumping in San Gil. She read in Lonely Planet that it's "a mecca for extreme-sports enthusiasts." I notice the lanky Dutch guy from one of the other groups who keeps scribbling in his notebooks in the oddest places. Here he is again after this excruciating day, writing while we eat.
We all have our stories and a reason for telling them.
I left Colombia in 1977 and never went back up to the Sierra Nevada for the make-believe Swiss-style weekends. Until now, that is my old story about this place. The next day, as I wake up deep inside this mountain, I start to make a brief timeline of what I had heard Enrique the Cook say. “Here, we go from bonanza to bonanza and this one, ecotourism, is the latest.”
Spanish conquistadors, of course, barged in and these incursions haven’t stopped since. Outsiders still feel the need to colonize the land of Celso’s ancestors. First, it was the bonanza of the tomb-raiders. In the fifties and sixties, a few daring rogue men from the country’s interior, fleeing the political violence of those days, entered the Sierra looking for huacas, the pre-Columbian artifacts found in Tayrona tombs. It was such hard work finding the treasures in the impenetrable forest that these huaqueros referred to the Sierra as “the green hell.” It was one of these looters who in 1972 bumped into the steps to the Lost City that we are determined to go see. Today, the grave-looters are gone. The government cracked down on them by making it illegal to trade in stolen huacas.
The seventies brought in the marijuana bonanza. American hippies, some claim they were Peace Corps volunteers, discovered the Sierra was ideal for growing a delicious cannabis, and campesinos from the area, like Enrique’s dad, settled in Machete ready to work in whatever the marijuana planters needed. By the early eighties that boom was over, killed off by American provisions of DDT.
By then, guerrilla groups had turned the prefabricated chalets of my childhood, with their fireplaces and tended gardens, into a FARC command fortress. Chasing after them came the armies of the AUC, the paramilitary forces that had vowed to exterminate the guerrilla forces. They also brought cocaine laboratories to the mountain. Again, Machete’s work force was lured by easy money, until another US-sponsored eradication program ended the bonanza de la coca.
All the while, Celso’s community has watched it all play out in their ancestral home. These four tribes believe that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the heart of Mother Earth—Aluna to them. And that they were chosen to protect it. That’s why they are The Elders and everyone who is not a Tayrona is a “Little Brother.” This might sound like a Steven Spielberg screenplay but it’s real: In 1990, the mamos, mostly unknown to the world, summoned a BBC reporter into their territory. They had a message to the world: Mother Earth is unhappy. Little Brother is not treating her right. The snow is melting faster than it should. Little Brother must take better care of our planet. When the BBC aired the documentary, activists and anthropologists around the world embraced the unknown planet-protectors who seemed to have literally fallen from another world.
Still, the FARC and the AUC continued their fighting and their slashing and burning across their magic mountain. By the late nineties, Hernán Giraldo sent the FARC packing, becoming the Lord of the Sierra until the AUC and the government negotiated a demobilization process in 2002 and he was extradited to the United States.
We arrive at the next fruit stand. It’s surrounded by young men in camouflage. Now what? I thought this area was safe.
The backpackers had discovered Parque Tayrona and had turned Taganga, one of the coastal towns, into a beach bum’s mess when Giraldo was still there. Some would hire a local to venture into the mountain looking for the Lost City on their own and some would pay extra if someone would take them to visit a working cocaine farm. But that was all very underground. “Before, a few a year,” Celso tells me. “Now, a bonanza. Hundreds of foreigners every day.”
Celso is not exaggerating. We are at least sixty altogether at breakfast and they want us to hurry because the next groups are due soon. There is everything one could want: coffee, hot chocolate, tea, fresh fruit, toast, butter, jam and heaps of scrambled eggs. A miracle that the mules delivered all these eggs unbroken.
I set out, all ready in my plastic uniform, my walking stick, and a smile. I’m feeling more upbeat—do I have a choice?—even if I’m wearing the same socks, now soggy and orange, and my boots are so wet they spew water with every step. When my tour-mates complain and agree that it’s a difficult hike, I feel reassured. I see an Argentine woman take off her pair of Converse and go barefoot. A Colombian doctor whose Adidas gave in cries in despair: “Please, please, just tell me, how much more is a little more,” he pleads as he sits on a hill after the sole of his sneaker broke loose.
Celso asks the guides coming with the groups on the way down for reports on the terrain, especially the rivers. I hear a loud voice in an American accent: “Don’t look up and don’t look down.” The voice belongs to an exhausted young man with an athletic build wearing a T-shirt and cargo shorts covered in wet clay. His words resonate and I follow his tip until we get to the next fruit stall. It’s surrounded by young men in camouflage. Now what? I thought this area was safe. The soldiers keep to themselves as we chomp the refreshing fruit and they don’t.
We climb up side by side for a stretch of the path, but there is no interaction between us. I had found a way to keep moving when the path becomes difficult: I get on all fours and crawl from one stone to the next. As I bend down to do so, a soldier jumps to my side and offers a hand.
“Gracias,” I say.
“What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Alexander.”
With Alexander’s offer of a hand, I open my mental notebook.
Alexander and his tropa are going up to Ciudad Perdida, too. They haven’t paid three hundred dollars to do this. That is about a month’s salary here. The government has a military base nearby and they are on their way to guard it. They look twelve years old but are probably eighteen and fulfilling their military service. I can tell by their accent that they are not from the area. They’ve just arrived by bus and had started walking like us from Machete Pelao—no guide, no mules, no overnight camps with beds and showers and cooks with staff for them. On their backs they carry everything they will need for their three-month stay.
I stop complaining, no matter how much I hurt.
Photo: Colombian troops hiking up to a military base atop the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Courtesy of Silvana Paternostro.
El Paraiso, the camp where we will spend the night before going up to the Lost City (Teyuna to the Tayronas), is as ramshackle and dirty as the last one. The Buritaca roars louder tonight than yesterday. As he did the night before at the end of our meal, Enrique brings over dessert, a Colombian brand of mini-brownies, and Celso, as always chewing on leaves, addresses the group, poporo in hand. “Tomorrow, when we go up to the Lost City,” he begins, “the river is very high and it’s going to be better to leave before it starts to rain again. We’ll wake up at five so we can be ready to start the climb up at six. We have two hours to get there and back. Leave everything packed because we need to leave right away. We are behind schedule. We have to make up for lost time. We have at least eight hours of walking after we come down from Teyuna.”
The English lady tries to change the schedule, but Celso just shrugs his shoulders. Instead, he says, “You all know that to get to Teyuna, there are twelve hundred steps. And we need to do them in less than an hour. The good news is that the mamo is there tomorrow and if we are lucky he will come out to speak to us.”
Twelve hundred steps in my New York City math is forty floors with no guardrails. “Celso,” I say quietly as he is about to leave. “I am not going up tomorrow. I will wait for all of you here.”
“Bien,” he says. "I’ve arranged for a mule to take you down tomorrow.”
The next morning, I have the camp staff all to myself. The adventuring lot has just left, some with nothing more than swim trunks and their walking sticks, to see the Great Place with the Many and Uneven Slippery Steps. I am happy to stay behind and listen to the roaring river. I ask for another cup of coffee and take a head count. In the kitchen, there’s Enrique, who sings while he works. I’m assuming that he has this job because there is no difference between preparing decent-tasting food in the middle of the rainforest for ravenous and exhausted tourists and feeding high-ranking paramilitary holdouts on the mountain. He has a team of four assistants, two men and two women, all in their twenties and good-looking. Up in the sleeping barracks, two more women, one of whom is more beautiful and younger than the other. At the sales stall, a handsome young man stands by in case anyone wants to buy a bottle of water, a bag of chips, a cigarette or two, or a rather hideous Lost City cap or T-shirt.
I ask if I can help them with their daily chores.
I start by making beds. I learn that the younger girl has only been here a week. Her boyfriend, the young man who keeps the store, asked her to come live with him. It was the only way they could be together. She lived in Bogotá and he only has one day off every fifteen. The other woman is her boyfriend’s older sister, and she has already been here a few years. Her husband works with the mamos in the keeping of the camps. I ask them if they have been to the Lost City and they both say no. I asked if they like being here and they both say no. I ask if the pay is good and they both say no. I ask if they wash the sheets every day and they both say no. They have washing and drying machines, but these aren’t very good and they wouldn’t be able to wash all the linens by the time the next group arrives. I ask if they were getting more tourists every day and they both nod yes. More than they could handle, yes. I ask if they would wash and dry my clothes for a tip—also yes.
The kitchen staff isn’t as friendly or as talkative, but I’m allowed to help. The assistant with deep blue eyes and a knife wound on his left cheek teaches me how to dry the plastic dishes and roll the knife and fork in white single-sheet paper napkins. I can’t understand why they roll them so tight that the napkin breaks and becomes useless. I ask but he says that’s just how it has to be. Sounds to me like a paramilitary rule, and I wonder about the cutlery at the infamous paramilitary bacchanals. I recall the story about the paramilitary with Italian blood who liked Brunello di Montalcino so much that he bought the entire vintage one year and how beautiful girls from the surrounding areas were helicoptered in. Perhaps an exaggeration, but I get nowhere trying to confirm it. All the kitchen assistant tells me about himself is that he is the son of a very abusive father. It was clear he preferred watching the just released video of "Despacito" on his smartphone than answering my questions.
I go sit next to one of the female assistants who stood out from day one. I've noticed the good looks of most of the work force, but she is a beauty with almond-shaped green eyes and the haughtiness of an empress, if one who dons cheap athletic leisurewear and a small diamond solitaire ring. She isn’t even pretending to work. She surfs the Internet for reggaeton videos as she tells me a little about herself. She is in her mid-twenties and a single mom of two—different fathers. The most recent one “now works in tourism” and she doesn’t like running into him. They are not on good terms. She likes talking to the father of her eldest, but he lives in the United States. “He’s in jail there,” she says as casually as if she were saying he works for a multinational and adds that he is accused of being a narcotraficante. “But he is a good man. He still takes care of us. He calls us on Skype whenever he can and he tells me how much he loves her. I think he has about seven years left there, but he might get out earlier for good behavior.”
These snippets make it clear that the Sierra has been carrying stories over a very long and complicated pregnancy and is now ready to give birth to them. Unlike Ali Baba, there is no need for magic words to open the treasure-filled trove of the Sierra’s untold stories. Story-raiders, like me, just need to ask.
It is time to return to the bottom of the mountain. My mule is waiting for me at the river crossing. Holding her is a tiny and agile Kogi, I can tell because of his hat. Next to him are two children—dirtier, hatless, and barefooted—and a dog. Celso introduces me. I mount the mule; we cross the Buritaca, and I wave back to my group who regaled me over lunch about the magic of Teyuna. They all came back sporting satisfied grins and mamo-blessed strings around their wrists. I note the size of my own smile as I lean forward and give the mule a few vigorous, circular strokes and a pat. “Muuuuuu-laaaaa,” my muleteer calls out, and I laugh out loud because this is a sound of my childhood. I repeat after him, as if blowing the mule a loud kiss. I’d ridden mules as a child, and like riding a bicycle one never forgets. I enjoy watching the experienced hikers with their fast-dry clothes, their mountain backpacks, and their trekking poles stand aside, eyes wide with fear. Mules scare them as much as precipices without guardrails make me quiver. My body sinks into the beast’s, and for the first time I wonder at the landscape around me. I feel the flutter of the blue butterflies and the immensity of the treetops and the open sky. I see the blue-winged and the scarlet-winged tanager, found nowhere else. My guide skips from rock to rock, while on the mule my body finds its balance as we move along. It’s almost a syncopated dance. I can see how someone would think twice about letting the mule chart its own path, but in my mind they know better than I do. I trust this mule more than my mangled feet.
My Kogi muleteer doesn’t want to strike up a conversation with a Little Brother. He has a small transistor radio wrapped in a plastic bag that he holds close to his ear, listening to scratchy vallenatos. He stops at his hut to drop off the children, and when a tinier woman comes out, I see between them that universal glance of husband and wife. She hands him some coca leaves from their garden and he gives her a handful of candy in silver-colored wrappers, like the ones we’d been given for dessert, and she smiles as if he’d given her precious stones. I am grateful to witness this moment.
I feel less so when he tells me that he will be dropping me off shortly, at the next stall, the one with the jokey compatriot from Barranquilla. I worry because he doesn’t seem to care that I’ve left my walking stick with Celso and that I don’t know when I will be reunited with them. The muleteer points to the sky and tells me that he needs to get home before it gets dark; his job is complete.
I have to figure out something quickly but then I hear, “Have you seen any of the cows around?” I turn to see a young handsome man so buffed up that his abs and biceps bulge through his mountain gear. “You know these gringos, always in search of some magic mushrooms.” Two thoughts cross my mind: How can anyone think about tripping right now, and two, I need to keep this guide on my side.
His name is Relámpago—Lightning—and between his alias and the way he unsheathes his machete when I ask him if he has an extra walking stick for me, I knew he was a Mowgli with a past. He bats away tree branches with the ease of a city brat brushing away shirts in a store rack. “A good one.” In a matter of seconds I have a stick.
“Can I join your group?” I ask. He doesn’t hesitate to help me and he doesn’t hesitate to share his story. He starts with a blanket statement: “My life has been awful.” He knows this mountain like the back of his hand, he says as he grabs a leaf and shows me how to make a white tattoo with its sap. At twelve, he ran away from his family in Machete to become a raspador in a cocaine laboratory around here. They paid him with food. Then he joined the paras.
“And now I have a new chance in life. I am a tourist guide,” he says.
Lightning has four children—“I started way too young”—that live with his mother because he has to spend so many nights away working “for the first time in my life, doing something that is good. The children sometimes don’t understand how good they have it.” They can now go to school, something that was never an option for him. “They even have a bus that picks them up every day.” He tells me he cries sometimes. I tell him that it might help him to write down his story. He says he’d rather tell it to someone else.
He drops me at the camp where his group and my group will spend the night. I go off to choose my bed thinking that Relámpago, like Colombia, has a chance to start again, that Relámpago is lucky that foreigners love skipping around the mountain and that he has had the chance to turn over the page of his “awful” past.
I greet my group as they arrive, aware now that I could never be like them. They have come here in wanderlust. I had tried to do the same but got toes that turned black and blue—and something else. The birds and the butterflies are amazing, but the most striking part of this journey has been seeing the faces that inhabit the stories of this place. How many more stories will I uncover if I keep asking each guide, each cook, each soldier, each Kogi, each Wiwa to tell me a little about themselves?
That night we share one last dinner filled with laughter and conversation. Everyone gulps down plate after plate of Enrique’s pasta special, spaghetti loaded with Colombian cheese, while we share our different stories about the Sierra. Beers in hand, we toast and clap. Trek to the Lost City, check. In the end, we all got what we came looking for.
Now that I’ve found my comfort zone, I’m in no hurry to depart. I’ve decided to stay an extra day, so Celso has arranged for me to continue my descent with Enrique and his fleet of mules. The Europeans and I say good-bye with insincere hugs. I jump up onto one mule and behind are the other three, now laden with garbage bags full of trash. “We recycle,” Enrique tells me and breaks into song.
Keen to get his story as well, I ask him where he learned to cook. “My mother,” he says. Enrique is eager to tell me more, to tell me pretty much anything I will want to know. For him, like for Relámpago, the Sierra has been his livelihood and his home. He ran away from home because his father made a little marijuana money, enough to buy too much alcohol and become an abusive drunk. Enrique has been able to survive thanks to his cooking skills, although sometimes he looks for gold in the river and lately he has started to grow cacao. “That is the next boom,” he tells me. “Marijuana, cocaine, and now cacao, organic. Maybe this one sticks.”
I ask him if he was around during the days of the paramilitary. “Let me show you one of Hernán Giraldo’s fincas,” he says and points to a house across the valley, a tiny white dot surrounded by clouds in a sea of many greens. It is not the outlandish palace one expects from a man in the drug trade. “He was feared but he was quite beloved. He cared for us. In fact, he appreciated good work and he was accessible to us mortals. He was there to listen to our daily challenges and was always willing to put his hand in his pockets and hand out a few bills if he thought you were worthy of his help.”
Enrique goes further. “I can also tell you that I saw many, many girls being brought to him there.” In fact, Giraldo might prefer serving time in jail in the United States in order to avoid a more serious charge in Colombia where he was convicted of raping dozens of under-aged girls. Many gave birth.
“I saw it with my own eyes. But I’m going to tell you one thing. I don’t blame him as much as I blame the girls' mothers. I saw how they would bring their own daughters and present them to Don Hernán. In return they would be taken care of, they would be sent groceries every week. They all prayed that he would get them pregnant because then he would really take care of the family.” I put two and two together and ask him if one of his assistants—the beautiful one—is one of those girls. “She was one of his favorites.”
Not wanting to dwell on the devastating details, I ask if he has made new friends in this new iteration for the inhabitants of Machete. He laughs out loud: He liked meeting the gay African-American New Yorkers who own a gym and had a hard time with the climb and the Puerto Rican couple that tried to help him get a passport so that he could go visit them and how he learned from that how difficult it is for Colombians to travel.
They all prayed that he would get them pregnant because then he would really take care of the family.
“We’ve arrived at Adán’s,” he says. It’s the same place where we had camped the first night, where we had arrived late and blinded by exhaustion, where we had not experienced the natural pool known for its shallow depth. Celso had told me the foreigners —especially the very tall ones—don't listen to the warning and get hurt when they jump from the rocks above. I cross the drawbridge with missing wooden slabs, the engorged river growling below. I notice that I feel fine. It stopped raining this morning and it’s already three in the afternoon. A dry trek on a mule is another story, I tell Enrique who walks away and breaks into song.
Adán is a legend on the Sierra. He is one of the original huaqueros who came during that bonanza and has lived here ever since. He looted their ancestors’ tombs and yet he is friends with the mamos. That’s why they have chosen his house as a mountain hostel. The moment I set foot inside the camp installations, I walk over to the pretty teenager behind the stall and ask after him.
“He is not available,” I am told as she turns around to run after a boy pedaling a plastic purple tricycle in the form of a truck.
I ask her for directions to the pool. She says we can find it behind the camp and points to a separate house where we enter an adobe room. It’s like walking into one of the thousands of pages that Gabriel García Márquez wrote about places like this. In the center of the room sits a faded billiard table with a mosquito net. In the center of the table, a small human figure rolled up in a ball is sound asleep. Don Adán, I guess out loud. So many questions, so many thoughts keep blurting out: If he runs this place, why is he asleep in the middle of the day? How does one get a billiard table all the way up here? I use a cliché I always try to avoid. If this isn’t magical realism I don’t know what is. And they say Gabo made up stuff. Gabo just recorded the absurdities that we have to live with; like this fucking tour, his books are like this trek, an adventure for gringos, they love them but once read they can go back to their lives. But we, we live with this.
As we are about to jump in, the sky rumbles. My mood darkens with the sky. The thought of waiting around another night on the bad mattress, the smelly sheets, the acrylic blanket weighs heavily. Immediately, instead of enjoying the “magical purifying water,” I see the spelling mistake on the sign announcing the fee for jumping in.
Back at the cabin, I sit down, like Isabel watching the rain in Macondo for eleven straight days. I watch the rain and I watch the rain, and we eat dinner and I watch the rain, and the boy keeps riding his plastic toy and I watch the rain and everyone sits in front of the plasma television and listens to news and telenovelas and I watch the rain until the little man who was sleeping comes out of his quarters. I jump up.
Don Adán is my height, not very tall; he wears three Tayrona necklaces and his pinky nails filed long. He has an Andean face, angular and weathered. His speech is still a bit slurred, but he, too, is happy to talk. He tells me he has been living in this same place since the day he arrived, several decades ago, and his business has been so prosperous that he was able to send all his children to live in the big cities. His sons were no good; they turned out like all men, they drank and spent his money, which was never enough for them. The “females” married badly, mostly to men who hit them. “It’s what happens,” he says, an undeniable fact of life like the fact that he knows he is getting old.
He explains the logic behind Adán’s Cabin. Because he has been here forever and he has a good relationship with the mamos, the tour companies pay him per bed and also compensate him for the use of his kitchen. It is a growing business, he says, but never as good as the price of a huaca. “I wear them now,” he says holding on to the necklaces made of white and rose-colored quartz, jade and gold. “Or I sell them to the mamos. They are my biggest customers now, they are trying to recuperate what is theirs.”
There is something more about him, something solemn. I learn it is intense grief: His youngest daughter was a determined woman who said she wouldn’t marry before she finished her studies. Don Adán told her that once she finished veterinary school she wouldn’t have to go work at a finca, like veterinarians here usually do. Her father would set her up with her own vet office. “That way the rich ranchers would have to hire her and she wouldn’t have to have a boss. She was the only one who made me proud. But the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
He gestures toward the sales stall, the tiny room where the same young beauty with tight jeans who has been running after the boy in the tricycle hands a bottle of water to the lanky Dutch guy who has lingered behind too, still scribbling away in his black notebook. I think Don Adán is pointing at the pre-Columbian items for sale in the shelf near the stall because he is trying to sell me one. “I sat in that place for four hours that day, waiting for her to arrive. My daughter was coming for the weekend. When she arrived, I told her to take my place because I had to go check the level of the river. That’s when it happened. The grace of God is too much. The snake must have been waiting for her because it got her the very moment she stepped inside. It should have been me.”
That is another surprise about the power of stories: Adán, the pioneer who opened the mountain paths we’ve been walking on, who dug for graves with his bare hands is, ultimately, a grieving father. I see his pain through his eyes and understand his sleeping pattern: What I had belittled as magical realism has turned into the universal story of loss. Nothing strikes at the core of tragedy like the death of a child, no matter where it happens—be it in the City of Lights or deep inside a Colombian mountain.
My heart heavier, I bid good-bye to Adán and later, in Machete, to Celso, who has brought a gift: a lemon-sized ball of pure chocolate from Enrique’s garden. We sit down at the same restaurant where we had started. I ask him what he wants now that Colombia is changing. He has clear plans: he wants to build a center where the tourists can learn more about his culture. He feels that the story of the Tayrona, if not told, will be lost to all the new visitors. I tell him I agree and reinforce this by adding that I am a writer.
“What is that?” he asks.
I try to explain and fail, so I say, “You know, writer, escritor, Gabriel García Márquez.”
“Who?” The stories never cease: I just found a Colombian who has never heard of Gabo.
As Colombian storytellers, we are living in unprecedented times. Just as I have done for four days, we have a chance to listen to stories that have been hidden in mountains and jungles for decades. Incredible stories because they come out of a place so wounded, where the human condition is always at test. Throughout all of Colombia as in the Sierra, stories are flowing out, like the Buritaca to the sea. This is where the latest challenge lies: to embrace that the old story is changing, to move forward in our narratives. Maybe we will start to incorporate bird-watching and bungee jumping, and we will begin telling stories of adventure and romance set in the places where guerrillas and paramilitary forces once pillaged, drug-trafficked, massacred, and raped. May the stories we tell for the next one hundred years not be of the same kind of solitude.
© Silvana Paternostro. All rights reserved.