Sunday, April 8, 2012

Cows on Stairs

"Well that's why you never see cows going down stairs; their legs lock up."
"What are you talking about?  Sure they can."
"No, they can't.  Have you ever seen a cow going down stairs? They can only go up them."
"Well then I'll have to check the upper floor of my house to make sure there are no stranded cattle up there to be sure.  Why would a cow even be near stairs?"
Tell me, vaca: how do you feel
about stairs?
Take four college swimming friends going on over ten years of friendship, add in thirty miles of mountain jungle hiking over five days and you're bound to get conversations like this.  We never solved the mystery of bovine agility on terraced surfaces - and frankly I don't care - but we did experience an exhausting and rewarding journey through a beautiful and relatively unknown corner of Colombia.

The week before leaving to hike through the jungle in search of the "lost city" of the Tairona indians in the Sierra Nevada mountains northeast of Santa Marta, I discovered that many of my Colombian colleagues and students had not heard of this "ciudad perdida."

Mike, Peter, and Matt arrived to Cali on Friday.  I showed them around the city and on Sunday we hopped a flight to Santa Marta.  After a great night at the hotel Casa Aluna, we were met Monday morning bright and early by our machete-weilding guide, Juan Carlos.  From there we picked up the rest of our hiking group - two Czech girls and a German girl - and drove three hours into the mountains as far as the bumpy dirt road allowed the Jeep to go.

The first part of the hike is through campesino land; cultivated country-side, sparsely populated by farmers, donkeys, and chickens.  The second half of the hike was through land designated for the Kogi indians, a group of indigenous people who have cautiously embraced tourism while remaining fiercely private and holding to their ancestral way of life.

Some Kogi children in the hills.

The Kogi, dressed in white tunic-like clothing, were present at various turns, either walking the same trails we were - though often barefoot - or hidden in the forest and would whisper a quiet response when greeted.  The children seemed most interested in the hikers, but as a way to barter for sweets, bracelets, or bandanas.  Kogi villages are relatively small, but not terribly far from other settlements.  The grass and sugarcane-constructed circular houses have two points at the peak of the roof, symbolic of the two highest summits in the Sierra Nevadas, both over 5,500 meters.

"Juan Carlos says the 'lost city' is over there."
~Peter on day #1
We took three days getting in to the base of the mountain where the "lost city" was located and two days getting out, including day four when we doubled back and covered around 10 miles.   Juan Carlos was impressed with our drive; I hesitate to use the words "stamina" or "fitness" as some of us are nowhere near the fine physical specimens we were in the pool-days.

Most of the hiking was either up, down, or, as Juan Carlos prepped us, "varied."  Most of our uphill exertions were rewarded with oranges or watermelon wedges and our assents started with a banana and a "good luck."

1,200 steps to the top!
Even to get to the actual "lost city" one has to climb approximately 1,200 ancient stone stairs which begin along the banks of a river and go essentially straight up the mountain-side.  Likened to Peru's Machu Picchu, but older, the "lost city" was originally called Teyuna and was one of the most important settlements for the ancient Tairona indians who were driven out of existence by the year 1600 through a combination of wars with the Spanish conquistadors and retreating into the mountains and beyond.

Also like Machu Picchu, the Spanish never found Teyuna.  However, in the mid-1970's a breed of grave-robber known in Colombia as the guaquero, did.  Archeologists followed, attempting to salvage the damage caused by the guaqueros destructive search for gold.  Add to that the various para-military groups hiding in the area, the Kogi communities, poor campesino farmers, and the secret illegal marijuana and coca plant fields and the Sierra Nevadas are not a place you want to find yourself!

The top foundation belonged to the Shaman's house.  The adjacent one on the same level
is believed to be where his wives lived.  Since he was the most important individual in
the community, his house was at the highest point; only tombs of the ancestors could be
located higher (ie: where this pictures was taken from).

"Ciudad Perdida" far exceeded my expectations.  I had no idea how expansive it was and as Juan Carlos took us to the various sections of the once-spralling mountain town, every painful step along the trail became worth it.

Morning sunrise from hammocks at Camp Alfredo.

Kogi hut used in the processing of sugar cane
at one of the summits along the hike.

Most of the Kogi men carried a poporo with them.
The bottom is a hollow gourd filled with powder made of
ground shells and coca leaf.  They put the stick in through
the hole after applying saliva and then rub in on the
outside, causing it to grow slowly over time.  This is
meant to demonstrate a man's responsibility and his
readiness to "keep" a woman.  It is also a bit sexual.

Taking a break with the guides "Pollito" and Juan Carlos.

Welcome to the "lost city" of Teyuna!

Did I mention three helicopters landed while we were at the "lost city"?
The third one stayed.  Supposedly the President was coming later.  Hmm...
Really happy about that being in my picture.

 Juan Carlos was incredibly knowledgeable, having both grown up on his grandmother's farm in the area and guided tours for close to twenty years, he was always prepared and overflowing with knowledge.  Thankfully I have intelligent and inquisitive friends who were more than happy to sit around after dinner most nights, lit only by candles waxed to the tables and test my translating abilities.

The one question that never got asked concerned those stair-climbing cattle.  However, if we managed to haul our sorry selves all over that terrain, I'm sure a cow can tackle a few steps.  Just let's all agree never to bring this conversation up again.  I beg you.


Sam Heather said...

Sounds amazing, Mochi!! Great pics! :(

Gimpyman said...

You have all the fun... Sounds like a great trip Stetson!!

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Oleg Maximiv said...

Hello! Yes Colombia is very amazing and beautiful country with its own unique attractions , with his way of life , there are a lot of interesting things for tourists who have been there to have something to remember.
And I recommend you to read an interesting article about the mysterious animal.
"Encontraron afuera de su casa una bizarra criatura que parece un alien."
Read on the: