You never know what you are going to find in mountains. They are a world apart. Up here, perspectives shift, conventions unravel and the unexpected lurks round every bend. Mountains show us what we have been missing, down there, in the cities of the plains.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia is littered with the weird and the wonderful. There are rafting rivers where gold is still panned, jungles where howler monkeys howl, cloud forests where rare hummingbirds hum and stands of giant bamboo in which conquistadors lost their way. There are hidden valleys where the Spanish first heard tell of the myth of El Dorado, snowy peaks that English pirates used as navigational guides, and a Lost City – the spectacular Ciudad Perdida – supposedly full of buried treasure.
There is also a private lodge where you can laze in a hammock enjoying views over the Caribbean that would have staggered Pizarro. Tom Hollander stayed recently; he said it was as close as he had ever been to heaven – which is exactly the kind of dizzy, exaggerated perspective that you can expect in mountains.
Did I mention the Kogi? An indigenous tribe living a pre-conquest-style existence up here, they refuse almost all intrusions by the modern world. For the Kogi, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta isn’t just the centre of the world, it is the centre of the universe – a universe that they keep in cosmic balance with their ritual practices. I have an appointment with a Kogi shaman. He has promised to cleanse me.
For more than five decades Colombia has not been a destination for the casual traveller. But the past five years or so have seen dramatic changes. A ceasefire between the government and the Marxist Farc rebels was negotiated, a peace treaty has just been passed by Parliament, the country is safer and there is a genuine desire on all sides to lay the past to rest. From all over the world, young expatriates who studied and worked abroad through the bad old days have come home, and the country is buzzing with optimism and entrepreneurial energy.
Among the returnees is the wonderful Cristina Consuegra who, with her French fiancé Alexis Pradié, has created Galavanta, one of the best tour operations in South America, focusing on private tailored itineraries in places that have been off-piste for half a century. Emerging Colombia keeps them busy. It is all of South America in a single country – Andean peaks, pre-Columbian ruins, atmospheric colonial cities, indigenous tribes, laid‑back river towns, friendly, hospitable people, fabulous beaches on two coastlines, a gaucho country of estancias and horses, and an exhausting bar culture of rum and salsa.
New Yorkers now fly into Cartagena for a weekend of hot sun and hot partying. But while the city has become everyone’s favourite Colombian destination – all pastel-coloured villas, flower-draped balconies and languorous Márquezian atmosphere – few visitors seem to get beyond the old city walls, built to keep those pesky English pirates at bay. But to come to Colombia’s Caribbean coast and not visit the spectacular range of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is just plain wrong.
I follow the coast road from Santa Marta, the first Spanish settlement in the New World. On one side a blue Caribbean uncurls onto long, empty beaches, while on the other the forested Sierra Nevada rises to distant snowy peaks. A rough side track leads inland from Palomino to a riverside resort that has been carved out of the edge of the forest. Reserva One Love – don’t let the name put you off – is a spacious compound of thatched cabanas set among glorious gardens and soft lawns. A tall, open lounge offers books and deep sofas and hammocks. From within one, I watch a tropical storm transform the afternoon into Stygian gloom. An hour later, a still and innocent evening dawns, and I sit down to an outdoor candlelit dinner accompanied by gentle choruses of mating frogs.
The next morning I set off on foot to visit the Kogi tribe. Huge trees barnacled with orchids and broad-leafed bromeliads overhang the track. On stepping stones, we skip across streams. Brigades of leafcutter ants march back and forth across the track, each bearing a green shard twice its size, while yellow butterflies swarm about my knees. A couple of hours later we come upon Tungeka – the word implies a boundary in the Kogi language. This collection of huts acts as a kind of border post, a place of transition, between our world and the world of the Kogi. We wait like refugees beneath a rickety lean-to.
After a time a small man in a white tunic appears. He is the mamo, the priest or shaman. Chewing a huge wad of coca leaves that would probably defeat a bull elephant, he examines us in silence. I smile. He frowns. Then he leads us up a rising track to the village, a collection of round adobe houses with thatched conical roofs like witches’ hats.
While empires and cultures were being swept away all across South America by clanking armies of conquistadors, the Kogi retreated into the vastness of the Sierra Nevada. And there they have remained, 20,000 or so people, living in scattered villages, refusing to join in the hilarity, the chaos, the horror and the joy of the modern world. Their world has hardly changed in five centuries – maybe in five millennia. They think the modern world a right mess and don’t want any part of it, except for a few useful inventions such as cardboard boxes and Wellington boots. They guard their privacy fiercely; outsiders are not allowed into Kogi territory except by the kind of prior arrangement that has been made for my brief visit.
The Kogi rejection of the modern world seems to have left them with the one thing we citizens of that world all crave: time. The village is not just slow paced. By mid-morning, it is still largely asleep; most inhabitants apparently aren’t out of their hammocks yet. As for the mama, he seems to have nothing more pressing going on than that mammoth mouthful of coca. He looks like a chipmunk back from a wildly successful nut hunt.
While he chews, he rubs a stick against the outside of a gourd known as a poporo, in which he keeps the powdered lime substance used to activate the mild stimulant in the leaves. This habitual rubbing is a kind of ritual. The Kogi believe that the meditations and divinations of the mamas, who train for years for their role, help to preserve the harmony and fertility of nature. With so much of the cosmos dependent on him, it is hardly surprising that the “cleansing” – meant to rid me of the malign influences of the modern world – seems a trifle peremptory. Or perhaps the mama just recognises me as a lost cause. In a small clearing he ties four white strings round my wrists. Then he waves a clump of cotton over my head and asks me to turn round three times. And that is me cleansed.
Newly pristine, I go for a picnic with the guide. Three Kogi children skip ahead of us, leading us through the long grass to the river bank. While we swim and eat, the children play, chasing one another across the rocks like white-robed nymphs, vanishing with whoops into the reeds only to reappear again, laughing, from behind boulders. They do not really belong to either culture; they live in their own world, one they share with their peers across the globe – the happy kingdom of children.
Later we kayak home, down the Palomino River. The jungle, baroquely complex, presses in on either bank. Toucans flap back and forth, while a tribe of howlers pause in their monkey business to peer down at us from the trees, as perplexed by what they see as the Kogi.
The next morning, like a helpless addict, I am straight back to the modern world. A helicopter arrives for me, settling on a sandbank in the middle of the river. I row across in a kayak and climb aboard. We lift and head towards the ocean, following the shoreline west along a string of empty beaches on the Caribbean coast before cutting inland, over vast stretches of littoral jungle, rising with the foothills to the flanks of the Sierra Nevada. Suddenly the greenery parts, like a curtain opening, and there beneath us are the great terraces of the Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City, built by the Tairona people – ancestors of the Kogi – more than a millennium ago.
Teyuna, as it was known, is one of the largest pre-Columbian cities in the country. Abandoned at the time of the Spanish conquest, it was overwhelmed by jungle, only to be “rediscovered” in the 1970s by treasure hunters. Today the only way to reach it is by foot, an exhilarating six-day round trip. I know my shaman wouldn’t be pleased, but a helicopter is a way to avoid the hike. We hover over the ruins – helicopters are not allowed to land – then turn away beyond Minca towards Casa Galavanta, high in the cloud forests.
Casa Galavanta is not a five-star architect-designed villa. Guests will need to make do without a sauna, an aromatherapy shower, a 30m infinity pool or sliding walls that open to reveal a surround-sound home cinema. Luxury here is about location and privacy. On the front deck in the mornings, the only sounds are birdsong and the murmur of a stream in the forests below.
The house began as a beloved family retreat, and it retains that warmth and sense of welcome. Sergio, the chef, prepares delightful meals. David, the naturalist, takes guests on treks through the cloud forest to waterfalls and swimming holes, while a masseuse and a yoga teacher are on call to exercise or soothe muscles.
But it is the situation that stuns. An eyrie high on the shoulders of the Sierra Nevada, Casa Galavanta enjoys views down to Santa Marta and the Caribbean far below. In the afternoon, clouds roll in until the house seems to be unconnected to the world, afloat in a misty heaven. By the evening the clouds have vanished again, and from the terrace the distant lights of Santa Marta twinkle like a fallen constellation.
It is a place that engenders Kogi-like dreams of simplicity and withdrawal. High in my simple cloud-forest retreat, far from hurly-burly below, I find myself wondering how I might keep the modern world at bay just a little bit longer. Perhaps the shaman’s cleansing has had some effect after all.