HOW THE PANDEMIC ENDED FOR US – COLOMBIA
(THE SIERRA NEVADA DE SANTA MARTA, THE LOST CITY AND INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES…)
December 2020. New lock down in Europe. The days were shorter, the weather colder, almost depressing… The Northern hemisphere was again struggling more with the Covid 19 than the Southern one – the temperatures being favorable to the spread of the virus I presume… We were living with our parents, between France and Poland, for almost a year. Their love and generosity have been absolutely amazing, we can’t thank them enough… But it was time to leave.
We escaped the European winter for the relatively “free and warm” capital of Bogota.
The first question that probably comes to your mind is “Why Colombia?”. Well, there are several reasons…
My wife and I own a travel agency in South America, based in Peru. We organize trips all around, from the Caribbean coast to Patagonia. Surprisingly, we managed to have a group for a trip in Colombia, at the beginning of January. More than a year has passed since the last time we guided… We were so happy about that perspective to travel and work again ! So we decided to go.
As soon as we arrived in Bogota, some of our Colombian friends came to the airport to pick us up. They immediately took us to their “finca” (farm and countryside house), located 70 km away from Bogota, where they spent the entire year away from the virus – which was pretty virulent in the capital.
One of the brother of these friends is a proud and passionate “Vaquero”, a Colombian Cowboy. We hadn’t met him yet. And immediately, I found his way of life very interesting and fascinating.
His name is Kiko. He was supposed to travel several years with his horses from his country to Ushuaia. What a source of inspiration ! But a dream and a project that had to be postponed due to the current pandemic with the terrestrial borders closed.
We spent our first days going on daily excursions with him and his family… Being in another culture, meeting with “long-time-no-see friends”… What a pleasure and a relief !
I personally loved the reaction of some locals who couldn’t believe their eyes to see foreigners again. We were probably one of the first ones to travel again…
But we couldn’t stay too long. We left Europe earlier than the group because first, we wanted to assess the whole situation in the country, regarding the Covid regulations of course. Second, we needed to be comfortable with the places where we were about to guide. Third, we had some meetings with our working partners. Finally, as we were so happy to travel again, we also wanted to chill, to explore more, and enjoy this indescribable feeling of adventure and discovery, that we were missing so much…
We started our trip in the Tayrona park on the Caribbean Sea, which is known for its pristine white sand beaches, and located at the foot of the mountain range called “Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta”…
This mountain range is unique in the world. It starts from the sea level, where the environment is tropical, and reaches neither more nor less 5775 meters above the sea level. This is the highest coastal mountain range in the world. The eternal snows of the Cristobal Colon and Simon Bolivar peaks are even visible from the sea in a few places on the coast, can you imagine ?…
Unfortunately this year, we couldn’t go to one of the beaches where we can see them. The image above was taken from the top of a mountain called “Cerro Kennedy”. This is one of the best spot that I know in the region to enjoy the stunning panoramas that offers the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta…
This Cerro Kennedy is reachable from the town of Minca, either by 4x4 until a certain point, by “moto-taxi” (popular in the region, but a little bit dangerous giving the road conditions), or on foot. Of course, Izabela and I chose the last option. We reached the summit and its 3,100 meters in one full day trekking, with 2000 meters in elevation gain with our backpacks. The idea was to be able to sleep in our tent on the top, to get this feeling of “deserving it”, and to enjoy the vistas…
The sunrise was particularly impressive ! It felt so special to be there again after such a miserable year…
The views that offers this hike are breathtaking ! I was touched by this amazing contrast between the topical forest and these high mountains in the background.
Where else on Earth can you see palm tree growing up to 3,000 meters, huge snow-capped mountain culminating at almost 6,000 meters, and the Caribbean Sea? This place is absolutely unique, and it’s a real jewel in South America.
After this little soul-resourcing adventure in the highlands of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, we went back to Minca town, where we have, let’s say, our base. There’s a hotel in particular, where we always love to come back. It is pretty remote, high in the mountains, and surrounded by a pristine jungle. Every time we come back to Colombia, we love spending several weeks there…
You can’t find a more quiet and peaceful place in Colombia, in my humble opinion. The weather and the temperatures are just perfect. Situated on 1,000 meters above the sea level, it is just above the “mosquito line”. It is fresh at night, perfect for good rest. Lulled by the sound of all the tropical birds during the day, and by the insects at night… But what we probably love the most about this place, it’s its proximity with a very small indigenous village, that we can even see from the hotel rooms…
How harmonious it looks in this vegetation ! This village seems to come straight from a fairytale or a Disney cartoon. I like to think that there are still people living in such a simple but idyllic way.
These houses are inhabited by one family only. And we literally fell in love with two of the kids from there.
We always spend a lot of time with them, playing around in this amazing jungle. They also like to come every day to the hotel to find some company. They’re very curious, they talk and play with all the travelers, they’re open minded, and they surprisingly know a lot of words in English and French. What’s even nicer, it’s the possibility that we have to visit their village. It’s a very well maintained miniature garden of Eden…
Simigi is particularly a cute and endearing little guy. He must be 5 years old now. He’s a real electric battery. He never stops running around, smiling, and carries all the time with him this small black and white “mochila”, with a few toys in it. To have met them was a real joy, but above all, tickled our curiosity about the indigenous communities that inhabit these stunning mountains and jungle. We said to ourselves that we would come back, make some research and explore in greater depth this region when we’d be free.
But the trip that we were supposed to guide had to start, so we headed to… Cartagena. What a change ! The heat, the noise, being in a city again… Not that I don’t like it, even though I have plenty of things to say about it, it’s just the contrast between this and the peaceful environment in which we evolved a few days ago. That was a big shock ! Besides, seeing all these masked faces again… How sad it was. We had almost forgotten about the pandemic in these mountains. And that was so good for our mental health.
I’ve always wanted to shoot in this city and practice my street photography. It’s colorful, vivid, full of life. However, I’ve rapidly been disappointed with these silly masks.
This isn’t whether masks are good or bad, I myself respected the laws, outside, in crowded places… But photographically, they are horrible to me. I also know that it’s about documenting life, documenting a certain era, an historical moment I could say, but not for me. Although I tried in this city. But this is the last time I’ve done proper street photography since this madness has started.
Even this Botero statue seems to agree with me. She seems to grab her head and tell herself : “What the hell is happening?”.
So, since I was not a big fan of what I was experiencing, and in addition, the streets were really empty compared to the Cartagena I knew before the pandemic, I decided to focus on small details only, or on things that were not wearing masks.
My wife is also a nice model for me, and she’s always sublimed by the heat and the nice colorful walls that one can find in the streets of Getsemani district, so I couldn’t resist a few shots of her…
After a few days in cities like Cartagena or Santa Marta, I was already missing the wilderness, and the stunning nature of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. But what was coming next was really exciting for me. I had the opportunity to accompany the group for a 4-day trek to the “Ciudad Perdida”, known as the “Lost City” in English. A trek that I’d always wanted to do, but couldn’t afford it before. So, we headed towards the lush mountains of the Sierra Nevada on the Caribbean Coast, and stayed one night very close to the entrance of that trek.
How nice it is to be in this kind of bungalows ! There are so many nice little hotels like this one between the Tayrona National Park and Machete Pelao, the beginning of the trek to the Lost City. A trek that starts in the low parts of the Sierra Nevada, at about 300 meters above the sea level if I remember well. It takes two days and a half to reach the ruins, located 1000 meters higher, and the way back must be done the same way, unfortunately. Every day, one has to walk around 6 hours, through a lush tropical forest, as you can see in the photo below.
It is wild. I loved this feeling of going deep into such a mysterious, inaccessible forest. Most of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is indeed protected, and forbidden for tourists. This is one of the only treks that is allowed in this mountain range.
The first day is relatively easy, although it is quite steep, and the temperatures don’t really help. It’s extremely hot and humid, we sweat all the time. One good thing though, there are not so many mosquitoes during the day. They’re more virulent at night.
Mornings, on the other hand, are so fresh and peaceful ! After a good night in a comfortable bed in the camp, well protected by a mosquito net, it feels good to wake up by the sound of the birds, before sunrise. We had to turn on our alarm at five, and start walking at 6. A good thing for me.
A good thing because mornings in the jungle are magical. There’s a strong and special atmosphere, and photographically, this is something that I love capturing. The morning fog participates a lot in that by the way. I wish I could share the sound of the forest in my photos…
While going up, we sometimes had nice views upon the lower valleys. So atmospheric, as I said. I really began to love being here and evolving in an environment that’s quite different from the one I’m used to (high mountains).
And suddenly, I was not expecting that, we came across something on the trail that really amazed me. I couldn’t trust my eyes, since it seemed to be a mirage, or some sort of vision coming straight from a movie or a fairytale again…
To my greatest surprise, the area is inhabited by the local indigenous people of the region. I thought that, since the trek is pretty frequented by travelers, and mainly foreigners, there wouldn’t be any indigenous people living along the trail. I was wrong. I could have known that before, obviously, if I had read about the trek, and seen many photos of it online, but I sometimes like not to be spoiled. The surprise is therefore bigger and it brings so much more joy to me. So you can’t believe how happy and how curious I was about them. This trek was taking another dimension.
Just a quick paragraph now about their history, so that you can also learn a little bit about them too. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is home to four indigenous tribes, who are direct descendants of the Tayronas. This civilization was born around the first century AD, had a significant demographic growth around the 11th century, and slowly disappeared by 1600 AD with the arrival of the Spanish.
Those who survived found shelter in the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada. And today, the four remaining indigenous populations of the region are : the Kogis (like on the photo above), the Arhuacos, the Wiwas (Simigi and his family, living near the hotel, come from this ethnic group) and the Kankuamo people.
The deeper we got into the forest, the more people we could see along the trail. The more enthusiastic I was too. Dressed of white, barefoot, in this tropical and virgin vegetation, they seem to come from another time. For quick moments, I could have a glimpse of what the beginning of civilization was like. This was, to me, mind-blowing. Because that was quite a surprise, as I said earlier, to see such a culture and witness such a lifestyle on this trek.
Above, a boy and a girl, that we can easily recognize from how they carry their mochilas (their bags). Boys have it around the neck, and girls around the head.
Photographically, since we were asked not be get too closed to them because of the Covid virus (even though we all had to be tested before the trek), I decided to go for my zoom lens only. I almost never shoot people with my 55-200mm (80-300mm equivalent on a full frame camera), so I took that as an interesting challenge.
Most of the time, they appeared and disappeared at such speed, that I barely had time to photograph them. They are so at ease and agile in this environment, that it seemed judicious to me to transcribe that in my photos. That’s why I often shot with a slow shutter speed. Above, a family of Wiwa indigenous people, recognizable thanks to their red scarf on the head.
Below, a woman collecting coca leaves with her daughter and her baby in her back. You may be curious to know that only men chew coca leaves, but only women can grow them and collect them. I couldn’t help but see some similarities with the Quechua people that I know particularly well in Peru. These Colombian people do actually quite the same things as everyone does on Earth, but in a culturally and visually more interesting way, for a European eye.
Most of the men we saw were leading mules, which carry the equipment of those who don’t want to walk with their bags, or those who suffer from the demanding trail and environment.
And sometimes, the trail goes through small villages where kids, in particular, are curious and come closer to you. I really found that girl so cute…
It can actually be difficult sometimes to differentiate a boy from a girl for us, foreigners, especially when they’re young. Girls always have a necklace, and boys a mochila (small bag). Girls can also have a mochila, as you saw already, but they will always carry it around their head, not around their neck.
Kids who were, by the way, omnipresent on the trail. And something in particular really saddened me, it’s how many of them were begging for a candy or any other kind of snacks.
I really begun to question myself, to question this type of tourism. To think about the role and the responsibility that we have, as travelers, foreigners, westerners… and about our impact on these communities. Should we be here ? Shouldn’t we leave them in peace ? On the one hand, the fact that there’s only one trek opened to “mass tourism” – even though we were less than 60 people on the trek – is quite reassuring. The Sierra Nevada is big, and they could easily move to another part of it. We saw that many of them were taking advantage of this tourism as well. So I prefer that tourism colonizes just a small part of these mountains, rather than the entire indigenous territory.
But the more we knew about these people and their history, from our guide of course, the more sad and guilty we felt about what they have been through in the past.
First of all, they used to be hundreds of thousands, if not a million, to inhabit these mountains before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. Now, estimates for the total number range between 30,000 to 50,000 people, can you imagine ?
And second, they suffered a lot from the drug traffickers and all the different guerrillas who colonized their land to grow coca leaves in the 20th century…
So, and it is quite understandable in my opinion, many of the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta do not carry us in their hearts, we, the so-called “civilized people”, as we’ve arrogantly thought and claimed for centuries.
Besides, in this context of pandemic, we could honestly feel that we were not necessarily welcome, even if we had a negative test to enter their territory, as I said earlier…
Most of them think that this virus is a sort of punishment, and a message that Mother Earth sent to alert us on our exploitative practices and their effects on the environment and the eco-systems.
They also believe that they have a sacred task : sustaining the balance of the spiritual and ecological world. They call themselves the “Elder Brothers”, and the rest of the modern civilization are the “Younger Brothers”, whose exploitative practices are destroying the eco-systems and the conditions for all life on Earth.
They try their best to alert us about the dangers of our modern way of living.
I highly recommend to watch “Aluna”, a documentary dedicated to them and to their message to us. Everything is well explained and very detailed.
I really felt sometimes, in their looks, in their attitude, that I was responsible in a way for all the bad things that our people have done to them in the past, and for the current pandemic situation. I felt anger, but pity at the same time.
Being a foreigner, and a white man in addition, I know what I represent in their eyes, and what ambassador I am when I travel…
Their eyes, indeed, were telling a lot… And kids seemed to be very mature for their age. Would your 5 or 6-year old child have a machete as a toy at home? Their reality is so far away from ours, their world completely different. A world that I could just witness through a narrow window…
A narrow window, but which nevertheless opened my eyes to a fascinating world, which had the power to make me think, which did not leave me indifferent. A world that stems from many centuries of history, of which a few ruins, otherwise magnificent, remain to bear witness to its past grandeur.
I’ve learnt a lot about a culture that was completely unknown to me, about a territory that is sacred, protected, incredibly beautiful and yet so inaccessible, which makes it even more mysterious, attractive.
The way back was pleasant. I’ve had plenty of time to process this new knowledge, to enjoy hours of internal conversations that I had inside of me, and to put things in perspective.
We kept on seeing a lot of people along the trail. White silhouettes vanishing into the vastness of this forest.
The red of this Wiwa woman carried a lot of symbols for me, more food for thoughts…
End of this trek already. Back to the Tayrona Park. It felt amazing to know a little bit more about what’s hidden in these clouds, much deeper in this tropical jungle. One thing was sure, I would not leave like this and never come back. Something powerful was born in me. My curiosity and my thirst for adventure had awakened again. I would make some research, come back and explore deeper. That was a feeling that had completely disappeared in me during these long months at home in Europe…
I hope you enjoyed the article and the entire story. Every photo has been carefully chosen to tell as well as possible how I experienced this journey… I try my best to improve my story-telling as I find photography the best tool for me to express my feelings. I’d be very curious and grateful to have some feedbacks from you if you took the time to read the full article!
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Wow, such a beautiful tour through your amazing captures and words so picturesque! I felt your emotions and welcomed your visual discoveries. Thank you so much for your heartwarming share of adventure. I pray to my God Jehovah that when he restores the beautiful earth back to perfect health, age will not hold me back from personally enjoying your phenomenal trek. He said it’s a matter of time. And I happily believe Him. Again, thank you and your lovely wife for your enlightenment and inspiration.
J. Hale Turner