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Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta: Land of Snow and Indigenous Peoples

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Click on image to enlarge Ecohabs, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Ecohabs, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a magical destination where the wisdom of nature and the indigenous people are joined. Every step taken into its depth is an encounter with truly unique beauty and exuberance. It is the tallest seaside elevation independent of the Andes mountain chain.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the tallest seaside elevation independent of the Andes mountain chain.

It possesses all the thermal floors, from the hot and dry to the perpetual snows whose melt-water creeks feed lakes and rivers 3,000 meters above sea level. Countless birds and howling monkeys live along the Sierra’s 29 main rivers.

On account of the network of ecosystems that are home to countless life forms and several indigenous communities, in 1979, Unesco declared the Sierra a Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. This imposing mountain range is located in northern Colombia and occupies parts of the departments of Magdalena, La Guajira, and Cesar.

Snow on the Caribbean Coast

Click on image to enlarge Snow Peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Snow Peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta / Photo by Flickr user jennimarcela.

Just 42 kilometers away from the warm beaches of the Colombian Caribbean, there is a marvelous, icy landscape for ascending to perpetual snow. The two highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are Colón and Bolívar, at 5,775 meters above sea level, although some say the former is one meter taller than the latter.

The adventure starts by car in the city of Valledupar and goes on to San Sebastián, an Arhuaco settlement. From there, a journey along paths and trails leads to lakes and glaciers located at 3,000 meters above sea level. When the mountain gets very steep, excellent mountain climbing equipment and experience are necessary for the ascent.

Ciudad Perdida – The Lost City

Click on image to enlarge Ecohabs view from Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta beaches.

Ecohabs view from Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta beaches.

In the midst of the dense flora of the Sierra and its natural park, lies Ciudad Perdida, or Teyuna Archaeological Park, the birthplace of the Tayrona indigenous people, an advanced pre-Hispanic culture. A team of researchers discovered it in 1976, although a year before, a treasure hunter had found it. Its extension is roughly 13 hectares.

Ciudad Perdida – Lost City – amazes for the complexity of its architecture and canal system, and the terraces built for conserving soil fertility.

When the Tayrona indigenous people lived there, their settlements were connected by stone paths. They lived in window-less, thatched circular cabins erected on stone terraces.

What is surprising about Ciudad Perdida is the complexity of its architecture, which included a canal system to carry rain water to the villages and terraces and conserve the fertility of the soil. There are also rock paintings and petro-glyphs. The Donama rock stands out for the multiple interpretations given to its carvings.

The Indigenous people of the Sierra

The Sierra Nevada “is the umbilical cord that joins the origin and the present, the spiritual and the material, it is the union with the Mother”.

The Tayrona culture inhabited the Sierra Nevada prior to the Spanish Conquest. Following the conquest, its population of around one million inhabitants began to decrease to the point that it almost disappeared. At present, four indigenous communities that preserve their ancient traditions amount to about 30,000 people. They are the Kogis, Arhuacos, Wiwas, and Kankuamos.





For the indigenous people, “The Sierra Nevada is like a ceremonial house (…), it is the site where all the responsibility to the universe is concentrated, the place from which everything that is sacred and vital to the universe is watched over and guarded, it is the foundation and the union with the spiritual. “It is the umbilical cord that joins the origin and the present, the spiritual and the material, it is the union with the Mother.Organización Gonawindúa Tayrona.

The Kogis

Click on image to enlarge Kogi children in their cabin.

Kogi children in their cabin / Photo by Flickr user Sailing Nomad.

The Kogi community occupies the northern area of the Sierra, among the valleys of the Don Diego, Palomino, San Miguel, and Ancho rivers.  Its members live in circular dwellings called “bohíos” and are under the authority of the Mamo, an elder that embodies ancestral wisdom and is the bridge between the spiritual and the terrestrial.

The Wiwas

The meaning of “Wiwa” is “warm”, possibly reflecting the fact that they inhabit a lower region of the Sierra, where temperatures are quite high. Other meanings of the name are “give origin”, “propitiate”, and “engender”. And another way of calling them is by the name “Sanjá”, which means “native” or “Indigenous”. Their settlements are situated on the Sierra, in the department of Cesar, close to the border with the department of La Guajira.

The Arhuacos

Click on image to enlarge Arhuaco family.

Arhuaco family / Photo by Flickr user ca.millionaire.

Also known as “Ika” or “Ijka”, they live in the upper valleys of the Piedras, San Sebastián, Chichicua, Ariguaní, and Guatapurí rivers, south of the Sierra Nevada. The capital is Nabusimake and is located in the central area. They speak a language that belongs to the Chibcha family.

The Kankuamos

They are known as “Kankuaka”, “Kankui”, or “Kankuané”. Their traditions, language, and culture are undergoing a process of recovery, since most of their ancient memory was lost. The live on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, in the department of Cesar.

Another Sierra Nevada community is the Wayúu, originnaly from La Guajira and smaller in size than the four groups that descend from the Tayronas.

Nature handicrafts for today

Click on image to enlarge Kogi indigenous woman with artisan necklaces made from colored stones / Photo by Flickr user.

Kogi indigenous woman with artisan necklaces made from colored stones / Photo by Flickr user Sailing Nomad.

The wealth of the Sierra Nevada provides Indigenous people and artisans with the materials necessary for creating objects of great beauty. The tutus, or Tayona shoulder bags, stand out. The indigenous women weave them using wool, sisal, and cotton. The bags symbolize the creation of life.

The wealth of the Sierra Nevada provides indigenous people and artisans with the materials necessary for creating objects of great beauty.

Materials such as shell, coconut, seeds, tree bark, tagua (the so-called “vegetable ivory”, bone, and snail shell are several of the materials used for making necklaces, earrings, rings, watches, and bracelets. Other easily obtainable handicrafts are the sombrero vueltiao, the typical hat of the Colombian Caribbean region), sandals, key chains, and belts.

Additionally, they make decorative accessories such as ceramic pots, vessels, and plates and spoons from stone (especially piedra jabón), totumo (a relatively large gourd-like fruit with a shell that becomes very hard when dry), and clay.

Before going to the Sierra

  • Yellow fever and tetanus vaccinations are necessary.
  • A complete first aid kit, include anti-venom serum, and anti-diarrheal.
  • The Tayrona Park authorities must be informed of all visit. It is necessary to hire a guide capable of supporting the ascent to the snow peaks, as well as to take complete mountaineering equipment.
  • If spending the night in Ciudad Perdida, a sleeping bag or a hammock and blankets are also necessary.
  • During some seasons, Ciudad Perdida is closed, so it is important to check with the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología and the Ministerio del Medio Ambiente Bogotá offices and request the licenses required for mountain climbing and visiting indigenous communities
  • If a visit to an indigenous community is intended, it is indispensable to obtain their authorization and consent, even for taking photographs. Their preferences in this matter should be respected.
  • At the time of paying the guide for his services, a per-person toll is charged to access to the area, for the purpose of trail maintenance.
  • In Colombia, it is unlawful to dig and remove pieces of any historical or archaeological value.

Other sites worth knowing on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Click on image to enlarge Valencia freshwater stream.

Valencia freshwater stream.

  • Quebrada Valencia (a stream)
  • Pueblito Chairama (a pre-Hispanic settlement)
  • Chairama Archaeological Museum
  • Los Naranjos Trail
  • Castilletes Beach
  • Arrecifes Beach
  • La Piscina Natural (a natural pool at Tayrona Park)
  • The Piedras Riverbed
  • Cabo de San Juan de Guía (a cape)

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