The Colombian coast is sweltering as we slowly make our way. It’s not raining, which is what it usually does here from April to November, so thankfully we only have to deal with the heat, not the mud (though a light sprinkle to cool things off wouldn’t be too bad right about now). The landscape is as beautiful as it is unforgiving. Broad swaths of Crayola-green jungle pepper the surrounding hillsides in all directions, leaving no doubt that we are ascending a nearly impenetrable thicket of cloud forest rarely visited by foreigners (compared with Machu Picchu, anyway).
Though we spend two nights sleeping in hammocks at makeshift refugios along the way, plumbing is of the modern, flushing-toilet, ceramic-seat variety (a nice surprise) and the food — whipped out nightly by our excellent guide and his jungle sous chef — is pretty darn tasty given the circumstances. Strong, thick cowboy-style coffee is available with Starbucks-like frequency. A shockingly blue-beaked toucan, domesticated and somewhat ornery, stands guard at the beer counter on our first and fifth nights. I’m beginning to think that jungle living ain’t so bad.
We trek between three and five miles per day — admittedly not much, but brutal in this heat and at these angles. The elevation change is just under 4,000 feet over the 12 miles it takes to reach the ruins, but steep climbs knock the wind out of us on a regular basis. Along the way, Kogi Indians, the main indigenous group living in the Sierra today and descendants of the Tayrona, sell water, Gatorade, Snickers bars and lovely little hand-woven man-purses. As we pass, we can’t help but notice that the Kogi men also carry around little unidentified vessels of varying sizes that they rub on habitually with a further unidentifiable stick. These vessels are most definitely not for sale, but I’m intrigued.
Earlier, on my bus ride from Cartagena to Santa Marta, where the trek began, I saw flocks of Indian families dressed in traditional white robes hopping on the coastal bus with bags of seashells. Finding it odd that these fiercely traditional, nonintegrated, mountain-dwelling Indians would be avid shell collectors, I asked around. Come to find out the shells are for a sacred ritual known as the Poporo. Seashells called caracucha are gathered from the seashore, heated over fire, and pulverized into a very thin powder by men in the tribe. The powder eventually finds its way into the totuma — the aforementioned vessel that the Kogi men are carrying around — and is casually extracted by the stick and placed in their mouths along with dried coca leaves. The Kogi men suck on the secretions throughout the day, believing the mixture instills knowledge. The leftover spittle from the stick is then rubbed on the outside of the totuma, causing it to bell-bottom out over time (which explains the various sizes) — an ever growing spitwad, if you will. The bigger the vessel becomes, the wiser its owner is said to be. And here I was thinking it’s just where they kept their Gatorade.