I am standing on the beach in Santa Marta, a small port city on Colombia’s humid Caribbean coast. Around me, brightly dressed families are eating ice cream and grilled meat. Venezuelan refugees beg for coins, and shredded plastic bags are snagged in the cactuses. Offshore, cargo vessels idle on blue-grey waves, perhaps heading east towards the Atlantic, or west to Panama and the Pacific. The industrial port bristles with cranes and gantries. Looking inland, my view is curtailed by palm trees and crumbling apartment blocks. But somewhere beyond the urban sprawl, densely forested foothills rise towards the summits of a mountain range called the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This is the reason I’m here.
I’m not the first foreigner to have stood on this coast and imagined the forests and misty highlands that lie beyond. Near me on the seafront is the statue of Rodrigo de Bastidas, the Spanish explorer who founded this city in 1525, laying claim to the ancestral lands of the Indigenous people who lived here: a civilisation of farmers and goldsmiths known as the Tairona. In the centuries since the arrival of de Bastidas, Santa Marta has been the starting point for explorers, conquistadors, settlers, farmers, miners, loggers, narcotraffickers and, more recently, tourists. In their various ways, all have gazed towards that hinterland and seen the gleam of treasure. Even before my journey starts, I wonder if my presence here is also part of that extractive, questing lineage. I am a travel writer. I have come looking for treasure, too.
I have come to Santa Marta in search of a way into those mountains, to learn about a culture that has remained uncolonised. I have come to encounter the sacred landscape that culture has been protecting. At least, as I sweat here on this beach, that’s what I think I have come here for. In the end, this story isn’t about that journey at all.
The city that de Bastidas founded was one of the first Spanish settlements in what would later be named Colombia, and the second oldest Spanish city in South America. It marks a cultural ground zero. This is where the meteor hit. You can still feel its impact. From this point, the European invasion rolled across the continent, collapsing civilisations as it went and dragging silver and gold from the rubble, a pressure wave of devastation that reached almost everywhere.
Everywhere but the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. [Continue reading…]