I am in the back seat of a car, listening to Argentinian rock and reggae, on the way from Chile to Argentina, watching breath-taking landscapes pass by. In part, they are breath-taking because we are at 4,200 meters above sea level. But the beauty is what is really awe inspiring. I am surprised by the variety, and especially the colors, of the desert landscapes.
Flat plains extend for miles, with just a few random large rocks scattered here and there, making the landscape feel like a photo of the moon or mars.
The seemingly deserted and very flat plains extend to the horizon where they turn red and strangely tilt diagonally upwards to the base of a majestic snow-capped volcano and its neighboring hills on the horizon. (I tried to capture this with the camera and couldn’t).
A few miles later massive sand dunes emerge and later dunes of black lava rock. Then, the hills begin to be dotted with green spots – “pasta brava”, a little bush that can withstand harsh environments like the altitude, cold, strong sun, and droughts here, and the primary food for the vicuñas that live here.
We pass lake after lake, none of them just a normal lake – all salt lakes, covered in or surrounded by white. In one lake I saw flamingos feasting on crustaceans- (they eat for 18 hours per day to be able to get enough food since the crustaceans they feed on are so small.)*
Another laguna with a salt flat behind it, “Laguna calientes I”, near the border, lives up to its name as we can just make out vapor rising out of the lake. The lake is fed by an underground aquifer, which sits on top of a layer of magma making the water hot.*
And then we had to slow down for the llama to cross the road, taking his time, making sure we know we are guests in his territory.
No one has eaten breakfast, but luckily I have 2 bananas and a huge empanada (literally a foot-long empanada!) that I bought for the journey the night before, so we share them.
The driver is around my age, a Peruvian from Trujillo living in Buenos Aires, and his best friend and brother-in-law is from Argentina. They are heading back to Buenos Aires after a road trip to Peru to visit family and, well to road trip and see the sites along the way. The other passenger is an older man, a Venezuelan who lives in Bogotá, Colombia and is traveling to Uruguay. His wife was in an accident and needs an expensive operation and he heard that in Uruguay he could get good work without papers. He has no money and has been traveling from Colombia – a couple of days walking all day, and other days with the help of good samaritans that give him rides.
The driver, one of those good samaritans, buys us all a coffee and croissants in the gas station after we all successfully cross the border, and I am taken aback by his natural generosity. This is one of those life-changing moments where I am so grateful that I live in a world where people are still generous, treating each other like one human family, and I hope I can be as naturally generous in my daily interactions.
The brother-in-laws are actually a little behind schedule because the car had broken down in Nazca, Peru and they had to wait a week to get it repaired. Because Nazca is such a touristy place, they said they spent a lot on accommodations, in addition to paying for repairs. But they took everything in stride and noted that, on the other hand, Nazca was a really beautiful place and they got a chance to see a lot there.
Because they’re a little behind, we don’t stop a lot, but we do take a few minutes at some great overlook points, and we also stopped to see the salt flats in Argentina.
Sharing stories, crossing the Chile-Argentina border together, stopping to see a few incredible views of nature along the way, sharing breakfast together, putting all our heads together to fix the radiator cap when it had problems – all these shared experiences within just 9 hours one day makes us feel like friends rather than strangers. When we arrive to Jujuy where I will be staying as they continue their journey, I realize I’m actually kind of nostalgic as I say bye and we all wish each other luck on our respective journeys.
The Atacama desert in northern Chile is known for the best stargazing in the world – and that’s why I HAD to come here. Ironically, I came during the two weeks of the year when it was cloudy and I didn’t get to do proper stargazing (other than a few minutes before the sunrise one morning.)
But, the sunsets!!! Even if I didn’t get to see the other suns of the universe, I got to see OUR sun in all its glory!
The dry desert air makes the incredible landscapes look exceptionally majestic and brilliant, and with a setting sun sending gold in all directions and casting deep blue shadows while tinting the clouds in pink, one will stop whatever she or he’s doing and run to catch the sunset every evening.
All the sunsets were awesome, but the most incredible was definitely in Laguna Tebinquinche*, where the sun set over the white, salt-covered lake and a rainbow emerged in the dark blue rainclouds opposite the sun.
Like many lakes here, the water appears to be covered in a layer of ice but is actually encrusted with a layer of white salt. The lakeshore is filled with “living rocks,” which are salty rocks made up of minerals and microorganisms that can survive some of the harshest environments on the planet. These microorganisms are some of the first living things that came into existence on Earth!
Contemplating the first life on earth, a flamingo flies across the sunset. And with friends made along the journey, we marvel at the beauty of life, the richness of the moment. We all just met each other, and yet we’re all family, born from Mother Earth, who is amazing us with her beauty.
But I digress. Being immersed in this vast desert, looking out across immense spaces and also out into the vast sky, makes one reflect on the grandness of the Earth, the universe, and the beauty of life.
While access to sensitive spots is limited to protect them, there was one salt lake that people can swim in. If you have never swam in a salt lake before, it’s definitely worth adding to the bucket list. Because salt water is more dense than fresh water, the saltier the water the more we float. I noticed the difference swimming in the Pacific Ocean in Lima, but it still didn’t compare to the unique sensation of floating in the salt lake in Atacama!
When a large moist area of salty land has dried up, a salt flat (“salar”) is left behind. I saw many salt flats, with the the Salar de Atacama being the 3rd largest salt flat in the world (after those in Uyuni and Argentina). It is so large it can be seen from space.
I was lucky enough to see a few other marvels of the desert during my stay in Atacama, the most grandiose being the National Reserve of the Flamingos (Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos). At 4,200 meters (13,800 ft) above sea level, we saw two beautiful mountain lakes that used to be one great lake until seismic activity of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates created some hills that divided the lake in two.
Another breath-taking desert lake is the laguna aguas calientes. Here, the diversity of the landscapes was overwhelming. There were huge dune-like mountains of black lava rock, a lake of hot water fed by an aquifer that sits on top of a volcanic magma layer, and red hills rich in iron minerals. All accented by the pink flamingos looking for food in the lake below.
Finally, the bike ride through the Valle de la Luna was a challenging adventure through the desert heat, where we met friends along the way, saw incredible rock formations, and watched rain develop across the flat desert plains – the same rain that cooled us off a few hours later.
One final fun fact. The Atacama desert is located on the tropic of capricorn. I’m pretty sure I learned about the tropic of Capricorn at some point in my life, but I didn’t really remember what it was. The tropic lines are the points where the sun shines directly overhead, due to the tilt in the Earth. The regions of land between the two tropic lines are considered “tropical” areas since they receive the most direct sun, typically creating warmer year-round climates than the rest of the globe.
Unless you rent (or have) a car to go see the sites (which would be a great way to explore Atacama), the way to see things is through the tours offered by the various tour companies in San Pedro de Atacama. The tours I took were:
-Tour 1: Laguna Cejar, Laguna Piedra (the salt lake where you can swim and float), Ojos del Salar, and Laguna Tebinquinche (the salt lake with the amazing sunset).*If you take the tour of Laguna Cejar in the afternoon, it usually ends at Laguna Tebinquinche so you can see the incredible sunset here.
-Tour 2: Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos (Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques), Laguna Talar, and Salar and Laguna Aguas Calientes with overlook to Piedras Rojas
-Observatory ALMA tour (free but you have to get to the meeting point early to get on the list, as I described in my blog post.)
-I rented a bike and rode through “Valle de la Luna” all day (about 6 hours), and another afternoon I rode through “Valle de Marte” and watched the sunset from an overlook point nearby.
**I didn’t get to do a stargazing tour because of weather, but would definitely recommend one!
**I didn’t get to do the geyser tour because rain had washed out the road, but would also recommend that!
The Atacama desert is the driest and highest in the world, and that’s one of the main reasons that we built “ALMA,”* the largest radio telescope in the world here! I say “we” because it was an international collaboration – an example of us humans working together to better understand the universe in which we live.
“The purpose of ALMA is to study star formation, molecular clouds and the early Universe, closing in on its main objective: discovering our cosmic origins.”
To most of us, a telescope is an apparatus of lenses pointed at the sky to see stars, (or far away visible light in the sky). But the ALMA telescope is not one, but 66 antenas pointed at the sky! Just like we have 2 eyes that give us a single image of the world, the telescope has 66 eyes to give us a single image – it’s like a mom that has eyes in the back of its head. Or like a fisheye camera.
The other unique thing about the ALMA telescope is that it isn’t viewing light in space like an optical telescope, it’s looking at the dark and cold part of space, capturing radio waves* emitted by stars and planets.
That doesn’t mean that stars and planets are broadcasting songs. Radio waves are emitted by the cold and cool matter in the universe that doesn’t give off light and so can’t be seen with our eyes (or with optical telescopes). But the ALMA telescope can receive these signals and tell us about that matter out there in space.
For example, the ALMA telescope was able to detect sugar molecules around a young sun, indicating a good possibility for a life-supporting planet to develop in that solar system.**
In some cases, scientists can combine the information from an optical telescope and ALMA (and x-ray and infrared telescopes)* to give a fuller picture of a solar system or galaxy, and to “see” what’s happening in the dark spots of the sky.
Also, since it’s not optic, ALMA can point at the sun and study the sun’s atmosphere without burning.
For me, one of the most interesting abilities it has is to study the early universe – it has found evidence of the earliest known solar system – suns that formed just 250 million years after the Big Bang. (Sounds like a long time, but it’s only 2% of the universe’s current age, which is about 13.8 billion years.)
I know, this is a lot of high tech modern science stuff. But according to our guide, the basic principle behind the antena design is actually something that was used hundreds of years ago by the pre-Incan culture, the Tihuanacu.
Just outside of La Paz, you can visit an archeological site of the Tijuanacu. Then you can head a thousand miles south to the ALMA observatory in northern Chile to see the modern day use of this technology studying the origins of the universe!
While the tour to the observatory is free, it takes a bit of luck to get there. To be on the official list you have to reserve online, usually 6 months to a year in advance. If you don’t make the official list, you might be able to get on the online waitlist. But since the list fills up so far in advance, a lot of people on the list end up not making it on the dates they reserved. So you still have a chance to get on the “hope list” the day of the tour. The bus leaves at 9am, but people show up sometimes 2 hours early to wait in line to be on the “hope list”. If there are any empty spaces from people who didn’t show up from online reservations, next priority goes to the wait list and then to the hope list, in order of arrival. It makes it that much more exciting to get chosen from the hope list! It’s like winning the lottery!
*The ALMA – Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array – captures electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the range of milimeter wavelenths in the electromagnetic spectrum.
(There are also other non optical telescopes that exist- infrared and X-ray telescopes that capture information from other non visible light parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.)
The diversity of landscapes in Colombia is amazing, and one of those unique gems is the Tatacoa Desert, not too far from Bogotá, in Huila.
All within 32,000 hectares, the desert-like landscapes are filled with more than 100 varieties of cactus, petrified wood, and other-worldly rock formations.
While the majority of the area is dominated by grey-ish colored rock formations, the Tatacoa makes a sudden drastic change to red rock formations, and so is referred to by its two parts – the red desert and the grey desert.
The intense sun and extreme heat is something that the locals try to avoid by relaxing in the shade at mid day, and with long sleeves and brimmed hats the rest of the day.
Fun fact: Despite it’s heat, sand, and cactus, the Tatacoa Desert isn’t actually categorized as a desert; it’s technically a “dry forest” climate zone. (Though it’s what a lay person would call a “desert”.)
It was here in the Tatacoa desert that I discovered my favorite berry in the world – the Chichatop. I have never tasted a more delicious fruit (and I LOVE strawberries and blueberries… but this one topped them all!) Sorry, I didn’t get a photo of my favorite berry, but I did get a photo of this edible fruit that grows in a cactus.
The desert is just a few minutes drive from the nice little town of Villavieja.* You can stay in the town and do a day trip to the desert, or you can spend the night at one of the hospedajes in the desert.
Many of them have pools (and even if you don’t stay in the desert, you an always pay to enter one of the pools for a much-needed cool-off).
On clear days you can see the faraway snow-capped mountains near Manizales, but these days you can’t see the white peaks. Due to global warming, the size of the snow caps has been diminishing over the years and they are too small to see now.
While a guide isn’t necessary to appreciate the desert, it is quite helpful to not get lost in the heat and to maximize your time seeing some of the highlights. I would recommend it especially in support of eco-tourism…it supports the local economy in a positive way, giving value to the preservation of the land and creating green jobs for the locals. Our guide specifically mentioned that he really loved the training he received to be a guide, learning about the landscapes and the history, and he hoped that he could continue to learn more to continue getting better at his job.
The Tatacoa is home to two observatories and they give viewing sessions every night where you can learn a few night sky fun facts and see a few highlights through a telescope and binoculars. I was super impressed to learn that the half moon is a C or a D shape in the US, but it’s more like a smile or frown shape here. (In other words, the we see the lit-up side from different angles so it seems to be rotated between the two hemispheres). Similarly, Casiopia is a “W” in the US but an “M” here (something I had noticed but just thought it was related to the time of the year I was looking at it!)
We looked at stars being born (in the Orion Nebula). And looking at the cloud of the andromeda galaxy, we saw more stars at one time than one sees in the entire sky. With a basic high powered telescope, binoculars, and a really knowledgeable star guide, it was interesting and entertaining, and I loved it! It was a perfect way to appreciate the desert night.
Famous Footnotes/Bonus Content:
*On the way back to Neiva, the largest city near Villavieja, I took a colectivo, which is like a taxi van that waits until all the seats are filled to leave. (I got lucky and was the last one so didn’t have to wait.) In the colectivo there was a couple from Bogotá, another backpacker from Europe, and two women from Villavieja. The women were quiet at first, but as we started chatting, they each had a fun sense of humor, and were very chill and friendly. They confirmed that the town is a pretty quiet and relaxed town, that lives off tourism and some farming and raising animals. That weekend was going to be less quiet than usual – the town was going to have a big celebration all weekend with a concert sponsored by the mayor.
I fell in love with Colombia – with the warm, friendly people, the neat and colorful little towns, and with the diversity of landscapes, climates and cultures. Across the country, in every place I stayed, I quickly felt at home.
(Podrías leer este publicación en español haciendo click aquí.)
The friendly and hospitable people and incredible diversity of landscapes wasn’t exactly new for me, because I have found it in abundance in every country in South America.
But each country has something special and its own unique flavor. Each country has those unique things that make it different from its neighbors, like an accent, certain words or phrases, customs, or trends. Colombia has its fair share, and I’m sure I only picked up on not even 10% of them, but here I’ll share a few that I noticed that made Colombia unique from the other South American countries I’ve visited. With these, you can start practicing so you can blend in as if you were from there!
In the streets…
Being a cyclist, I was fascinated by the number of people that ride bikes – both for daily commute and for exercise! I loved that in three of the cities that I visited, they opened “ciclovia” on Sunday mornings, where they closed of major streets to vehicle traffic, for cyclists, runners, or families that wanted to enjoy the morning walking in the fresh air.
Another two-wheeled novelty… I found that I could get around easily thanks to motorcycle taxis! I’m not talking about moto-taxis or “tuk-tuks” where they put a type of carriage for you to sit on the back of a motorcycle. Rather, you can flag down a motorcycle, just like you would a taxi, hop on the back, and get where you were going quickly and easily. (A few even insisted they had no problem taking me and my huge hiking backpack – and they really did carry me and my backpack just fine. Though I only rode with my big backpack in smaller cities at lower speeds!)
They even have an app like Uber or Lyft, called “Picap” where you can call the motorcycle taxi to come get you. (Everyone uses these apps (Uber, Beat, Picap), even though they are technically illegal.)
You can also see Chiva buses in many cities in Colombia. You’ll recognize them when you’re walking down the street and you suddenly hear the party coming down the road towards you. That’s right, they’re party buses that either go through the street picking people up (you can just hop on!) or some are contracted and you can rent the whole bus for your party.
I loved that there were a ton of outdoor parks, green spaces, and public parks throughout the cities I visited. There was usually outdoor exercise equipment, basketball and football (soccer) courts, playgrounds, and trails to walk or run. Especially in a big city like Bogota, it made it a lot more welcoming and livable, in my opinion.
I noticed graffiti art adding color to most cities, mostly with clear neighborhood or political themes (though also a few instances of gang-like tagging.)
Finally, I loved that there were water fountains in the airport, a sign that the country had advanced in providing potable water to taps for people. It turned out to be true that most of the places I visited did have potable water delivered to their taps!
There were also many different phrases, words and expressions that I noticed were different from the other countries I visited. One example was that after saying “thank you” for something, the common response not the “no problem” that I was used to, but rather “with pleasure”, which made one feel much more welcome. For more examples, read the Spanish version of this blog entry.
Finally, I was lucky enough to be in Colombia on December 7th when they celebrate “la noche de las velitas” or the night of candles. This is when families gather on their front porch or in the street outside their house to light candles. Each candle represents good wishes for a special person in their life. In Bogotá, many families or groups of friends gathered in public parks to sit in a circle and light their candles. It was a really lovely atmosphere where one felt a sense of community with others from the neighborhood, while enjoying a special moment with friends and family closest to you.
Me enamoré de Colombia, con su gente cálida, sus pueblos coloridos y ordenados y su diversidad de paisajes, climas y culturas. En varios lugares a través del país me sentí en casa y me acostumbré rápido al sitio nuevo y su gente.
En muchos sentidos, la gente acogedor y amable y la increíble diversidad geográfica no me fue nuevo, ya que son placeres que una encuentra en todos los países de Sudamérica. Cada país tiene su encanto y su sazón único.
Además, cada país tiene sus características únicas que lo distingue de los otros, que sea un dejo, palabras únicas, costumbres o tendencias. Colombia tiene suyos y seguro que yo solo capté ni siquiera un 10 por ciento de ellos, pero aquí te dejo un trocito de observaciones y diferencias que me sobresalieron de Colombia. Con esto, puedes comenzar a asimilarte al idioma y costumbres colombianos para que parezcas de allí al llegar.
Empezando en la calle…
Siendo una ciclista, me fasciné con la cantidad de gente que vi andando en bicicleta a diario. Además, en tres de las ciudades que conocí hacen “ciclovia” los domingos en la mañana (y posiblemente lo hacen en otras ciudades también). Tuve la suerte de estar en Bogotá, Medellín y Manizales cuando cerraron varias calles principales para los ciclistas, corredores, patinadores y familias que salen para caminar juntos para divertirse en el aire libre.
Otra novedad de dos llantas, es que en todos lados pude movilizarme fácilmente con taxi de moto linear. (No hablo de la moto taxi que tiene asiento con techo atrás del conductor, sino la motocicleta linear sola. Mi mochila grande de mochilera no los intimidó y con ella también nos llevaron varias motos lineares taxistas! Incluso, igual como se usa Uber o Beat para un taxi de auto, se puede contractar una moto linear taxista con el aplicativo “Picap” en varias ciudades. (Se usan los aplicativos de taxi a pesar de que son ilegales en Colombia.)
En todos lados también verás los Chiva Bus. Los reconocerás cuando escuchas la fiesta pasando por tu lado en la calle. Son buses que tocan la música, sirven bebidas alcohólicas y pasan por las calles de la ciudad. Hay unos en que podrías abordar en cualquier momento y otros podrías contractar para realizar tu fiesta con familia y amigos mientras que vayan pasando por la ciudad.
En varias ciudades vi una cantidad de parques, espacios verdes y espacios públicos en el aire libre, con equipos para hacer ejercicios, con canchas de futbol y básquet, pistas para caminar y correr y columpios para niños.
En todas partes observé el arte de grafiti que suele ser arte público con temas comunitarios, históricos o políticos (aunque también había instancias de lo que parecía de pertenecer a pandillas).
Además me impresionó que había bebederos – fuentes de agua potable – en el aeropuerto. Varias ciudades han logrado de abastecer agua potable a sus poblaciones y yo podía tomar agua del caño (“del grifo”, “de la llave”) sin preocupación.
Hablando de diferentes palabras y expresiones, me encontré con unas pequeñas diferencias del castellano peruano con que ya tengo costumbre.
Dos de mis favoritas son unas frases cotidianas que tienen un poquito más de calidez y que me hizo sentir bienvenida. Cuando dije “gracias!”, no solo fue “de nada” que alguien me sirvió o me ayudó, sino “con mucho gusto”! No solo se me despidieron con “chau,” sino “que este bien!”
Al contrario a la calidez que me sentí por escuchar siempre que me ayudaban “con gusto” y me deseaban “que este bien”, me sentí rara al escuchar “que pena” cuando alguien se me chocó conmigo en la calle o cuando algo se cayó de mis manos sin querer. En estas situaciones, tengo costumbre de escuchar “lo siento”, “disculpa”, o “perdón”. En mi experiencia previa, “qué pena” se usa para expresar sarcasmo, para darme la culpa a mi o cuando una persona culpable no acepta culpabilidad. Pero no suele ser así in Colombia, sino es costumbre decir “que pena” en lugar de “lo siento” cuando algo mal pasa sin querer, aunque sea una falla pequeña de alguien. Mi ejemplo favorito es cuando mis amigos pidieron unas bebidas en el restaurante y el mesero se equivocó. Al explicarlo que no eran las bebidas que habían pedido, les respondió, “que pena”.
Asimismo, en Colombia no solo te piden que “te colabores” con el sorteo del colegio, la pollada o para ayudar a la persona en la calle. También te piden que “colabores” cuando quieren que sigas las normativas de la empresa o las normas sociales. En una lancha en el rio amazonas nos regó el capitán, “Colabórenme y pónganse el chaleco de seguridad, por favor”.
En la mayoría de los países Latinoamérica que conozco, “tomamos fotitos” y “llegamos en un ratito”, pero en Colombia y Venezuela, “tomamos foticos” y “llegamos en un ratico”.
En Colombia, se dice a su amigo o conocido “marica”… “Oye marica! Vienes? Vamos a la playa! Salimos en un ratico!”
Una frase que es útil en el negocio, desde el principio hasta al final, es el clásico: “A la orden”. “A la orden!” te gritan los vendedores para llamar atención a sus productos. Incluso al cerrar la venta, les dices “gracias” y te responden “a la orden,” (siempre están a tu servicio).
Tengo que clarificar tambien, que hay unas palabras y frases que se usa en Colombia y Venezuela y unas que se usa en Venezuela que han llegado a Colombia debido a la llegado de muchos inmigrantes refugiados. La verdad es que a veces yo no me fije en cuales son de Venezuela originalmente; sigo aprendiendo.
Me hace recordar de las arepas, que encuentras en Colombia y en Venezuela, pero son diferentes en cada país. A mi me gustó mucho la version Venezolana. Mi amiga venezolana en Bogotá me enseño que se puede preparar arepas con casi cualquiera combinación de comida (si lo sabes bien).
De comida colombiana, me gustó mucho la sopa “ajiaco” y el postre “obleas”.
Al final, les cuento que tuve la suerte de estar en Colombia el 7 de diciembre cuando celebran “la noche de las velitas” (o “el día de las velitas”). En la tarde, con toda la familia prenden velas en la barrera o patio fuera de la casa. Cada vela representa buenos deseos para una persona querida.
En Bogotá, familias y amigos se reunieron en parques y espacios públicos para prender las velas con sus queridos, en compañía de vecinos de la zona. Fue un ambiente muy bonito en donde uno siente en comunidad y rodeada por la buena vibra de los buenos deseos.
If there was one thing I wanted to see in Colombia, (besides my good friends Adam and Adrienne), it was la Ciudad Perdida (“the lost city”). To describe the impact and significance of this archaeological site, many call it the Machu Picchu of Colombia. But unlike Machu Picchu, the only way to arrive to la Ciudad Perdida is a multi-day (4-7 days) hike through the hot, humid jungle of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia.
Translated as “The Lost City”, it was found overgrown by the jungle and being looted for precious stones (like most archeological sites in the world). In the 1970s, the Colombian government and archeologists were able to protect it and begin “recovering” it, (cutting the jungle back). This revealed the historic city – neighborhoods (terraces where houses once stood and walking paths that connected the at least 500 houses of the city) and ceremonial areas overlooking the surrounding mountainside.
In the 1980’s it was opened for visitors, and now you can access this unique site by trekking through the jungle with one of the 7 authorized tour companies. (And you can ONLY access it by trekking with one of these authorized companies). During the trek, you pass through two national park reserves (parques nacionales naturales), which are protected areas.
Since all the companies by law have to charge the same price, I chose to go with Wiwa Tours, which hires guides from the four native communities whose ancestors founded Ciudad Perdida and who still live there and in the surrounding lands, still practicing many of their traditional customs.
Our guide explained that the site of Ciudad Perdida was home to the Tayrona (also “Tairuna” or “Teyuna”) culture, the ancestral culture of the four present-day, distinct but connected communities of the Sierra Nevada – the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. Each has their own language, customs and leaders, but they share this sacred site.
Ciudad Perdida was as interesting and mystical as Machu Picchu was for me, though in different ways. One of the most fascinating aspects was its connection to the present – the “mamo” and “saga”, or male and female community leaders from one of the four communities still lives on the grounds of Ciudad Perdida.
The communities still live in and around the surrounding lands and are involved in management of the tourism that comes through, receiving some of the financial benefits from it.* Each September, the four communities still gather at the sacred site of Ciudad Perdida to perform ceremonies (and clean the site of any bad juju that tourists might have brought to the sacred site in their visit). (Yes, I said “juju”. Don’t hate.)
The vistas are also breath-taking. The site is on a high point in the hills, surrounded by 180 degrees of beautiful green mountains and valleys, and even a waterfall cascading down a mountain in the distance.
To arrive at this amazing site, we hiked for about a day and a half up and down through the hills of the jungle, crossing streams and the river. The jungle humidity kept me drenched in sweat the entire day, every day of hiking, and we got rained on twice – which was actually quiet refreshing! (Having done my research I knew to prepare my bag as light as possible and to water-proof it to be able to hike in the rain and cross rivers, and still have dry clothes to wear in the night and the next days.)**
I was surprised to find that these tours and their accommodations are actually a pretty well-functioning machine – they get hundreds of tourists to and from Ciudad Perdida every day of the year! First, the accommodations were surprising. There were well-equipped camp sites along the way, prepared to accommodate multiple groups at a time, some seeming to accommodate up to a hundred through-hikers each day. They had bunk beds with mosquito nets, showers, and flush toilets in every camp where we stayed. There was also a huge kitchen area where the different guide companies prepared meals for their groups – and the meals were delicious and nutritious! Since they provided all the lodging and meals, we only had to carry clothes and a few basic personal items.**
I was impressed by how they’ve scaled up a multi-day trek through the jungle, making it accessible for a wide range of ages and fitness types (there was an 80-year-old man in one of the groups) and also making it accessible for a lot of people at once. On the other hand, I might have been slightly disappointed that the crowds and accommodations did make it less exotic, mystical, and hard-core. But I was also happy to have a shower and delicious meal each night and to meet people from all over the world.
This was actually one of the first guided hikes that I’ve done in South America where there was a good percentage of locals on the tour – nearly half of the group were Colombians, with a group of 3 Chilean women (a few years older than me), and the rest Europeans.
Almost as if to prove our worthiness, the morning of the third day we had to cross a rushing river and then climb a few hundred meters to arrive at the Ciudad Perdida.
There, we learned about some of the current and ancient customs of the Tayrona culture and the current-day communities. Interestingly, there is still disagreement between some archeologists and the current-day communities about the meaning of some of the ruins and artifacts.
One of my favorites of the artifacts were the maps etched in stone – always with the 2 snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada as a reference. (These two peaks of the Sierra Nevada are very important in the culture and show up in many artifacts, artwork, and architecture of the Tayrona culture.)
While a little more “touristy” and expensive than I typically go for, I wouldn’t have missed this grand adventure. An incredible mix of history, culture, adventure, nature, and incredible landscapes, it embodied what I am seeking in my travels – an opportunity to invest in cultural and natural conservation, while learning and experiencing a great adventure!
A peek into some traditions of the modern-day indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada:
Throughout the 4-day hike, our guides constantly chewed coca leaves and carried a gourd-like thing, always “painting” it with a stick.
Finally, after arriving to the Ciudad Perdida, our guides (one Wiwa and one Kogui) explained that gourd for them was a kind of journal or a work of art. They chew the coca leaf and then spit it into the gourd “popora” where they mix it with crushed seashells. They then paint the outside of the popora with this mixture of calcium, coca leaf, and saliva, building up layers of a coating on the outside of the gourd. This coating carries all their thoughts, hopes and ponderings, and so functions as a kind of journal for them.
A tradition that probably dates back centuries before the Spanish arrived (according to archeological evidence of poporas), when men become of age, they go through a ceremony to become official members of the community, and this includes receiving their first “poporo”. When it reaches a certain size, they take it to the mamo (leader) for consultation and then receive another to start on.
The women have a similar tradition in which they weave circular bags using the fibers of the fique plant. (The fique plant is the same plant used to make the coffee sacks I mentioned in a previous blog about a coffee farm in Salento.) The bag contains all of their thoughts and stories and ponderings while making the bag, so that when the gift the bag to someone, they are also gifting them all of their thoughts during the creation of the bag. The circular design is to keep the positive energy in the bag because the energy “runs into the corners and escapes”. This circular style of bag is typically referred to as a “mochila”, or backpack, and is actually fashionable all through Colombia, used by men and women alike throughout the country.
The coca leaf is, and has been, an important part of the indigenous cultures of South America for centuries. One of the most interesting uses I saw was in the greeting. When one person (male) of the Tayrona culture greets another person, each offers the other a handful of coca leaves.
*A person that grows up in an indigenous community in the “modern age” inevitably experiences an identity conflict. The person has to reconcile adapting to the modern world without losing key aspects of their cultural identity. That means defining what parts of each world define them – which customs from each culture (traditional and modern) they will adhere to and maintain in their daily life. With the “modern” culture dominating in cultural and economic power, many traditional customs are abandoned in order to be able to survive or to gain more opportunities in the modern world. In my opinion, the “cultural tourism” aspect of visiting Ciudad Perdida was a way to invest in promoting cultural conservation of these traditions. By sharing their traditions with us, the guides were able to keep their cultural memories alive, and they could be inspired to do so both by the interest we have in learning as well as the financial incentive – the fact that they can earn a living through keeping their culture alive.
**Packing for Ciudad Perdida, I recommend: quick-dry towel, flip flops for the evenings, newspapers to stuff in shoes so they will dry at night, carabiners to hang things from your backpack to dry during the day, water-proof backpack cover, multiple plastic bags to store everything you want to keep dry and to line the inside of your backpack, a ziplock to keep your phone dry, just enough shampoo and soap, 1L water bottle, money to buy gatorade or snacks along the way.
At about the same time that the Greeks were building the Parthenon, here in hills of present-day Colombia (where all 5 of the country’s major rivers begin), the San Agustín culture emerged, evolved, developed over the centuries, and then disappeared. While we have hardly any evidence of the inner workings of their societies, hundreds of statues, some basic metal works, and tombs have been discovered and give us a tiny peek into their culture, leaving the rest up to our imagination.
Some of the personified animals and figures depicted in their statues are similar to aspects of the cultures of many of the indigenous communities that still maintain their traditions today in Colombia. As such, many of the depictions are interpreted through the lens of the modern day indigenous communities’ beliefs and traditions.
Many of these statues were found next to tombs, suggesting that just like we put gravestones at burial sites today, statues marked or guarded these burial sites, or maybe guided the deceased into the next life.
Seeing signs of creativity and human works from so long ago made me feel tiny and at the same time great – as I peeked into tombs from 1,100 BC and marveled at statues carved 2000 years ago (around 9-20 AD)., I could feel a tiny connection a with this far away past, with our American ancestors, little talked about in history class.
These archeological sites are located in and around a small, rural farming town of about 11,000 people, called San Agustin. People come from all over the world to see the statues, which are located in many different sites dispersed throughout the region. You can see many statues and archaeological sites in the archaeological park just outside the city center, but many more sites are farther from the urban center, and are more commonly accessed by rides in van, jeep, or on horseback.
When I was there, the majority of tourists were actually Colombians, (a change in the norm due to the holiday season when people have vacations). It was especially cool to hear so many different people excited to learn about the history and geography of their country. (And I was really impressed with the couple from Cúcuta,* who were there with their three year-old, doing the day tour to see the statues, tombs, and waterfalls.)
For me, San Agustín was a magical place. (I was even hesitant to write this blog because I don’t think I can convey in words how special of a place it was for me.) I fell in love with it, not only for its connection with its ancient past, but also because of its current vibe – the friendly and down-to-earth people and the familiar rural Latin American small-town feel.
It resembles my Peace Corps Peru home of Oxapampa in many ways. It has a temperate climate and is surrounded by beautiful green hills, rivers, and waterfalls. A town of agriculture (mostly sugar cane, coffee, bananas) and tourism, the conversations between strangers in the car ride there were about the going prices of different crops and gossip about people they knew in common. The guy who took me to my hospedaje (lodging) just happened to be cousins with the owner and helped me negotiate a price within my budget for a very nice room.
I happened to arrive just when the family was preparing to host the novena that night. And that is how I learned what a novena was.
I arrived at the same time that extended family members were arriving and gathering on the patio outside the kitchen. While cooking my dinner, I listened as they took turns reading passages and later singing along to (religious) Christmas songs from the stereo while adding some spice with maracas and shakers. After the extended family left, they invited me to eat my dinner at the table with them, and I learned that they celebrate novenas for the nine days leading up to Christmas, alternating houses that host it each night.
Over the few days that I was there, the family became like my Colombian family. They invited me to one of the novenas, let me help milk a cow, and drove me around town to see the Christmas lights and the town’s annual nativity scene. (San Agustin boasts to have the largest pesibre, or nativity scene, in all of Colombia. (They say it used to be the biggest in the world.) It includes 20-50 different outdoor “rooms”, each with different scenes made of life-size mannequins. Some are a depiction of a part of the Christmas story from the bible, while others depict historic life in San Agustin, but most are a mixture of the two, sponsored by a local business promoting its products or services.)
This was one of those really special places where I felt a real connection with the place and the people, so much so that it was kind of hard to leave. I had similar feelings about my experience in Amantaní, the island on Lake Titicaca, and coincidentally I had a similar mystical “despedida” (farewell) with nature. My last morning in Amantaní, a hummingbird came and hovered close my face looking at me for a few seconds, while here in San Agustin, just before I left, a butterfly landed on my face and remained for nearly a minute, giving me a goodbye hug and kiss.
*Cuceta is a border town with Venezuela, located on the other side of country. This family of three (a lawyer and an engineer) had literally traveled across the country to visit San Agustin.
**Fun fact: In San Agustin, I saw many guys sporting Mohawk-like haircuts- something I haven’t seen anywhere else in my South American travels so far.
Sometimes it helps to close the door on the past so that we can start fresh and fully immerse ourselves in the future. Or at least that’s the idea behind the New Years Eve (NYE) tradition in Ecuador (and many other Latin American countries).
Welcoming the new year is done by first burning the “año viejo” or old year – a symbol of burning away all the bad that happened in the previous year, and also scaring away the bad so it won’t come in the new year.
“Año viejo” is often represented by life-size dolls or dummies, often dressed in old clothes or adorned with symbols of bad things from the year before.
In some cases, “año viejo” is dressed as people, political figures, or even family members, in an attempt to burn the bad they caused the previous year.
It is a moment to combine art and self expression with hopes for better future. Some people go to great lengths and create entire displays. For example, this one depicts the 12-day strikes (“huelgas”) and protests that occurred in Ecuador in October of 2019, spurred by the government’s announcement that they would eliminate fuel subsidies.
In most cases, people create their own smaller, personal dolls or creations with items of personal significance and burn them bonfire-style in the street outside their house just before midnight. Sometimes a creative person will create a humorous testament, recounting things that happened to their friends or family members before lighting “año viejo” on fire.
From the “año viejo” tradition, grew the “viuda” (widow) tradition, which explained why I saw a bunch of guys dressed in drag when I crossed the border into Ecuador.
As a humorous take on the tradition, some men dress as widows mourning the loss of their husband/boyfriend (themselves) who would be “burned” as part of the “año viejo” tradition.* They dress in drag and often ask for coins in the streets, usually while goofing off and having a good time.
Walking through the street after midnight, all the neighbors had fires smoldering in the streets, many playing music and celebrating with family members. I joined a couple of people dancing outside and made some new friends – an extended family that owned the restaurant where they were dancing, and lived in the same building.
I am happy to have started my new year off dancing and meeting new people, leaving behind fears, inhibitions, and self-consciousness smoldering in the past.
*If you didn’t follow the “viuda” tradition it’s because it is kind of confusing and takes some imagination. The men are assuming their partner will burn a figure of them (because they were the cause of problems during the previous year), so the men, pretending that they are actually dead from this symbolic burning and have therefore left their partners widowed, then dress as their partners and beg for coins in the streets.
**One source said the “año viejo” tradition came from the colonial times when many people died from yellow fever and their clothes would be burned at the end of the year for sanitary and spiritual purposes, to ward off the disease.
Besides the Cocora Valley, the thing to do in Salento is a Coffee tour. There are all kinds of coffee tours, including where you help harvest the coffee and/or you can stay in a guesthouse on some coffee “fincas” (farms). I just chose to do a quick tour during the day, and I happened upon one of the few coffee fincas trying to promote biodiversity and move away from the pure “monoculture” model.
The owner of the finca “The Recuerdo”, Carlos, grew up in the city of Armenia (the other major city in the “eje cefetero”, nearest to Salento). He got his bachelor’s degree in agriculture, and worked with a coffee company for years. He then went back to school to get a post-graduate degree in environmental studies, where he decided that merging some of the practices of his ancestors with modern technology was the way of the future, stressing the importance of thinking about environmental sustainability along with economic sustainability, and social impacts.*
The result of these ideas was the coffee finca (farm) in Salento where I was standing 24 years later: an agro-forest, or coffee plantation mixed in with native and endangered species of trees and bushes. The leaves of the trees provide natural compost to the soil. Thanks to the plant biodiversity (over 1000 different species including weeds), the animal biodiversity also much higher than in a monoculture setting. The trees provide homes for natural predators to pests, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.
We specifically saw a woodpecker, (other birds whose names I don’t remember), two humming bird nests, and many bumble bees buzzing around.
Our guide was a biology student at the university in the nearby city of Armenia (the southernmost major city in the eje cafetero). He had grown up working on his parents’ coffee farm and really enjoyed the chance to unite his childhood experiences with his current studies.**
We learned that the variety of coffee produced in Colombia originated from Ethiopia and came to South America with the Spanish colonists. It has evolved over time, and hybrid, fungus-resistant plants are now commonly used, especially as a key strategy in reducing chemical use. (The plant used on this farm is a hybrid with a Sri Lankan plant.)
The guide showed us some native plants and birds, including the coca plant, which has a really bad reputation in Colombia and in the world because of its use in making cocaine, but as he pointed out, the plant itself before being processed, does not have the drug-like effects and has been used for centuries for multiple purposes (including preventing altitude sickness).
The finca bags the coffee using bags made of fique, which is the fiber of a plant common throughout Colombia, used for centuries by the land’s inhabitants. The guide explained that it has been scientifically proven that bags made from fique have a natural insecticide property that helps preserve the coffee without the addition of synthetic chemicals.
The finca I visited is not a fully organic operation but it is also not the conventional monoculture that requires more synthetic chemical inputs, like the majority of coffee produced in Colombia and in the world. I was really happy to have a peek into the steps people in Colombia are taking towards more sustainable land management!
After leaving the coffee finca, I headed off on my bike to explore the valley. And I got rained on. While taking cover under a porch, another cyclist pulled up and we chatted while the rain died down. I have seen quite a few cyclists in Colombia, and as a cyclist, it warms my heart to see so many fellow bicycle-lovers. This guy was in his late 40s and was training to do a bike trip with a group of 5 friends (4 men and 1 woman), to bike from Armenia to Quito!
This was actually the second time that day that I found myself scurrying to a porch to wait for rain to pass. The first time, I was waiting on a porch and a man on a motorcycle pulled up and began to put on rain suit while we chatted. Before he left, I said I hoped it wouldn’t rain again, and he responded saying that he didn’t think it would keep raining (as he finished putting on his rain suit and climbing back on his motorcycle!)
I have met many Latin Americans who have said to me that “they don’t think “x” (something bad) will happen”, and it turns out that it was their way of saying that they really hope it won’t happen. This is a cultural translation that I’ve taken a while to learn. By saying they don’t think it will happen, it is as if they are willing it not to happen by thinking positively. While sometimes frustrating for a foreigner who wants a real assessment of the probability that something will/will not happen, it is actually meant to be a nice gesture that they wish from the bottom of their heart that things will turn out well for you!
*Without using the term “triple bottom line”, Carlos explained his adoption of the model.
**Our guide noted that while he grew up helping on his family’s coffee farm, he didn’t still work on the farm when he visited because now they hired people to work on the farm.