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Person standing at the edge of a foggy forest valley, with dense green trees and mist enveloping the background. They are wearing a shawl and bag.

In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Photo by Fausto Giaccone/Anzenberger/Redux

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A glimpse of the world’s heart

I wanted to visit Colombia’s sacred mountains. But there are some places we cannot go – and some things we cannot know

by Nick Hunt + BIO

In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Photo by Fausto Giaccone/Anzenberger/Redux

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.

At first, the Tairona of the coast resisted the seizure of their lands, with a major uprising taking place in 1599. But by the mid-17th century, they had been overwhelmed. In the face of slavery, genocidal violence and disease, the survivors of the invasion fled to mountain settlements, protected by dense tropical jungle and precipitous terrain. The Spanish saw no need to pursue them, as riches could be found more easily elsewhere. Stripped of its coastal territories, the Indigenous civilisation collapsed but, in the fastness of the mountains, descendants of the Tairona survived.

Over the centuries, those descendants separated into four tribes. The Wiwa, the Kangwama and the Arhuaco each found their niches in the range, living at different altitudes with varying degrees of acculturation to the settlers around them. The Kogi, meanwhile, living nearest to the tops of the mountains, cut themselves off from the world below and maintained almost total isolation. Incredibly, that isolation endures today. An uncolonised Indigenous culture has thrived less than 50 kilometres from one of South America’s first colonial Spanish settlements, literally within the invaders’ sight. For all that time, two separate worlds have existed side by side.

Its foothills touch the Caribbean Sea and its peaks are crowned year round with snow

On maps, the mountains bear their Spanish name, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. But in the language of the Kogi they are called Gonawindúa. Colloquially, they are also known to the Indigenous people who live there as El Corazon del Mundo, which means ‘the Heart of the World’.

Rising like a pyramid to a height of more than 5,700 metres, the Heart of the World is the tallest coastal mountain range on Earth. It stretches 160 kilometres across the north of Colombia, with foothills that touch the Caribbean Sea and peaks crowned year round with snow. Between those two extremes exist vastly different ecosystems, ranging from glaciers and misty highlands to steamy tropical jungle. It is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Because of its extreme elevation and changes in topography, the range is a haven for more than 600 species of birds, including 36 found nowhere else, and 189 species of mammals. In 2013, the International Union for Conservation of Nature named the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park the most ‘irreplaceable’ site in the world for endangered species.

The mountains are geographically and ecologically important but, for the Kogi, the Heart of the World must also be understood cosmologically. According to their traditions, this is where all life began. They regard themselves as the ‘Elder Brothers’, protecting the Heart’s vitality by tending its sacred sites with rituals, prayers and offerings to maintain the wider ecological and spiritual balance of the planet. This balance is threatened by the actions of the ‘Younger Brothers’, the name that the Kogi, and others in the sierra, call us, the foreigners who invaded their land. Given the damage of colonisation, it is a generous description. It paints us not as monstrous or malevolent, but as toddlers wrecking unfathomable destruction, unable to comprehend the consequences of what we do – poisoning rivers, burning down forests, pillaging precious metals and coal. For centuries, the Kogi have gazed at their violent siblings below with a mixture of alarm, bewilderment and dismay.

Like many people, I first encountered the Kogi in a documentary. In the late 1980s, the tribal priests, or Mamos, made the difficult decision to end their centuries of isolation – the only thing that had saved their culture from destruction – and invited a journalist into the sierra. Alan Ereira, a British filmmaker, collaborated with the tribe over the next two decades to produce From the Heart of the World (1990) and Aluna (2012). In these documentaries, the Kogi delivered a message to the Younger Brothers, warning us in simple terms what our plundering ways were leading to. The sacred rivers were drying up. The glaciers were melting on the peaks. The Heart of the World was growing sick. Perhaps it was even dying.

In Ereira’s book The Heart of the World (1990), he describes how his first experience with the Kogi ended. After work on the documentary was finished, the camera crew crossed a small bridge and:

[The Mamos] symbolically closed the bridge behind us. The Younger Brother should not return, we were told. The message had been given, no one else should come. Only I was to come back, with the finished film, so that they could see that I had done what I had promised.

Ereira did what he promised, but ecological breakdown has only accelerated in the years since. The warning, in the Elder Brothers’ eyes, has been ignored.

The films have a complex legacy. They have made the Kogi iconic among ecologically minded Westerners and, through increased visibility and an international profile, have given the tribe a measure of unofficial protection against further encroachment from those who might seek the Heart’s resources. The Colombian government, mindful of its image, now has more stake in their survival. But inevitably this new-found fame has attracted tourists, as well as anthropologists and spiritual seekers of all kinds, who venture to the mountains in the hope of meeting an ‘untouched’ Indigenous culture and being enlightened by its wisdom – or at least taking some photographs. Of course, this threatens the very isolation on which the Kogi have depended.

This is not a travel story – or, rather, it’s a different type of travel story

As a travel writer, I have long been fascinated by stories of the Heart of the World. But I know this fascination presents a deep dilemma: the prohibition against outsiders visiting could not be clearer. This is spelled out by one of the Mamos in Ereira’s first documentary:

[W]e want Younger Brother to know that he can’t come here again, he can’t come back. We are putting a barrier here so that he respects us. Understand, we don’t want him coming up here and interfering with us. He has destroyed so much.

But, as it turns out, the Mamos did not close that barrier completely.

Since Ereira first visited in the late 1980s, a small number of outsiders have been admitted to the sierra as guests rather than gatecrashers: academics, linguists and ecologists whose motives the tribe can trust. Official permission must be gained through the Gonawindúa Tayrona Organisation (OGT), which acts as the representative body of the Indigenous government. Its offices are in the Casa Indígena (‘Indigenous House’) in a suburb of Santa Marta.

That is why I am here: to ask for the OGT’s permission to enter the sierra; to encounter that sacred landscape for myself; to tell a story about a different way of being in the world.

But the story I end up telling will be different. I do not get to the Heart of the World. I do not climb the mountain. I do not hack my way through impenetrable jungle with a machete, or hike up steep hillsides, to reach its unspoiled villages, or its places of spiritual power, or the springs where its sacred rivers start, hidden high above the clouds in a land few Westerners have seen. This is not a travel story – or, rather, it’s a different type of travel story. Rather than being about my journey into a sacred landscape, it’s about a sacred landscape expanding beyond me.

The Casa Indígena is situated in a district called Los Naranjos, ‘The Oranges’, but there are no orange trees to be seen. My mototaxi drops me off in front of a compound with high walls. Standing outside is a group of men, women and children all dressed in white. The men wear loose cotton tunics and trousers, and the women wear cotton shifts. All have woven bags made of cactus fibre slung around their chests. One of the men wears a conical white hat like a helmet. He is a Mamo, a Kogi priest. His hat represents the snow-capped peaks of the sierra.

Inside the compound, I sit across from the OGT spokesman Jose Manuel, a softly spoken man also dressed in white cotton with two white bags around his chest. Fluent in Spanish and well travelled, he is an ambassador, an intermediary between the spheres of the Elder and Younger Brothers.

He begins by explaining why his people first chose to make contact. By the 1960s, the long-delayed tide of colonisation was finally lapping at the foothills of the sierra. Colombian farmers had flocked to the region, burning back forests to create grazing land. Once the soil was depleted, many of them turned to more lucrative cash crops: marijuana and, later, cocaine. In the subsequent decades, narcotrafficking fuelled both sides of a brutal civil war between communist guerrillas and Right-wing paramilitaries, both of whom had established bases in the surrounding jungle.

As the Younger Brothers spread further and further up the mountains, burning things and fighting each other, the Kogi saw that their continued isolation was threatened as never before. ‘Maltreatment. Murder. Enslavement. Sexual violence. Dispossession. Banishment.’ These are Jose Manuel’s words for what the tribe feared was coming. Without some form of representation, his people would have no voice with which to advocate for their rights and legal protection. ‘The Kogi were in danger of disappearing,’ he says.

If the body of the world grows sick, the Heart of the World grows sick

The first step was to learn the language of the invaders. The neighbouring Wiwa spoke Spanish, so already had a foot in both worlds. Now some Kogi stepped across the linguistic divide. Early contact was fraught with difficulty, not least among the Kogi themselves, as different communities scattered across a wide area of mountainous terrain were now presented with the challenge of speaking in a united voice. The OGT was founded in 1987 as their mouthpiece. It is the channel through which communication flows – as well as requests to visit the sierra, such as mine.

When I ask Jose Manuel to describe the Heart of the World, he answers with a picture.

On a sheet of paper, he draws a wobbly pyramid divided into four quarters labelled ‘Kogi’, ‘Arhuaco’, ‘Kangwama’ and ‘Wiwa’. This is a map of the sierra, but it is more cosmological than cartographic. Near the summit he draws four dots, connected by meandering lines to four different dots at the range’s base, along the Caribbean coast. He labels these dots ezuamas.

Ezuamas, he says, are sacred sites such as springs and river mouths, connected by a spiritual current that flows invisibly through, and beyond, the sierra. The Spanish word he uses to describe this current – Mother Earth’s life-energy – is intocable, ‘untouchable’, but its existence is completely real to the Kogi. The role of the Mamos is to guard the ezuamas and ensure that they stay healthy, that the life-energy flows. But increasingly, as shown in Ereira’s films, the Mamos are concerned that the sites are growing sick. The reason is environmental devastation, from the pollution of rivers to the extraction of metals and coal. These are not ‘resources’ in the Kogi’s eyes, but the living organs of Mother Earth’s body.

If the body of the world grows sick, the Heart of the World grows sick. Each localised point of damage affects the system as a whole. In a feedback system that is intricately connected, nothing is divisible from or independent of anything else. Despite their apparent segregation, ensconced in a land above the clouds, the Kogi have never been isolated but rather connected to everything in subtle, intocable ways that outsiders cannot see.

‘Now the ezuamas are disappearing, the knowledge is disappearing,’ Jose Manuel says simply. ‘We are very sad about this.’

Despite these disappearances, the region is more stable today than it was when Ereira first visited. Most of the guerrillas, paramilitaries and narcotraffickers have moved on. The Indigenous peoples of the sierra have jurisdiction over their land, and officials like Jose Manuel – in his traditional white clothes, but with a smartphone in his hand – act as two-way transmitters, conversant with both cultures.

We pause while an assistant brings us both a cup of Kogi coffee, harvested from wild plants in the tropical forests of the foothills. We sip in silence for a while. Then at last Jose Manuel comes to the subject of my visit.

Patiently, he explains that I have come at a sensitive time. Growing numbers of Younger Brothers have been finding their way to Kogi land, and the OGT has decided that restrictions should be tightened. In the past, outsiders have come to the mountains to extract Indigenous knowledge, removing it from its legitimate owners without permission. This is a type of theft, he says, like extracting precious metals or coal. In order to receive permission, I would need to write a proposal explaining what knowledge I am seeking to gain, what I intend to do with that knowledge, and who I plan to share it with. A decision would then be made in the mountains; the answer could take months.

Unfortunately, I don’t have months, only weeks here in Colombia. My request to visit the Heart of the World is gently but firmly declined.

Back in my hostel in Santa Marta, in the wet heat of a Colombian spring, I ask myself why I came, what I wanted to find in the Heart of the World.

Like others who came before me, I wanted to learn more about the Kogi, how they have survived for all this time. In crude terms, I suppose I wanted to understand their secret. Perhaps I also wanted to assuage my ecological grief and fear. In a damaged world that is spiralling ever deeper into catastrophe, who wouldn’t desperately want to learn – from some of the few people who never forgot – how to stay more connected to the earth, how to live without destroying it? Who wouldn’t want to be admitted to the world’s heart?

But I also came as a travel writer, looking for a story. I came in search of observations, descriptions and local colour. I came looking for material, and to take that material home with me, to be refined into a product that other people would consume.

The Kogi are taking the steps that are needed to safeguard their culture

When foreigners first came to these lands to extract material wealth, the knowledge of those they invaded was rejected and discarded. At best, that knowledge was seen as useless; at worst, it was evil. Now that the easily extractable resources have been taken, another market is booming in Indigenous wisdom. Academics and researchers need data. Others seek spiritual salvation. They come to find knowledge of medicinal plants and routes to a higher consciousness; to learn techniques for reconnecting with nature; to understand different forms of healing and transformation. Given the depth of our appetites, no wonder the Kogi are wary of anyone coming to take something away – even an idea.

In this context, I am somewhat relieved that my access has been refused. Clearly the Kogi are taking the steps that are needed to safeguard their culture. But before I left the Casa Indígena, clutching my map with its scribbled ezuamas, Jose Manuel tells me I am welcome to talk with his brother, Simigui, who also works with the OGT. He does not live here in Santa Marta but 80 kilometres further up the coast, in the mountains near Palomino, on the outskirts of Kogi territory.

The following day, I am headed east to meet Simigui.

For the next week, I stay in a village called Rio Ancho, a short mototaxi ride from Palomino, situated on a rocky river that flows from the mountains to the sea. Greenery surrounds it, and its roads are made of mud. Its houses have breezeblock walls, and their windows contain no glass – partly because glass is expensive, and partly because it never gets cold here, only a few degrees north of the equator. My first impressions are of brightly painted walls, amplified music, motorbikes, dogs, many children, and the ever-present crash of the river.

This is a settlement of colonos, literally ‘colonists’, Colombian farmers who have moved to the region in the past few decades. Much of the original forest has been cleared for crops and grazing land. But a few Wiwa families live here, too – the people who first found a footing in both worlds – and 15 kilometres up the road is the Kogi village of Tungueka. Rio Ancho is also home to several foreigners, including gringas like Nina Dahlgreen.

Dahlgreen is a Dane who has lived here for a decade, having fallen for a Colombian man when she was travelling. Her house is airy, with a wide veranda and a garden containing tropical flowers, banana trees and coca plants whose leaves, when chewed or steeped in tea, are a medicine and stimulant. Next door is a family of Evangelical Christians who sing joyous hymns, and a parrot that shouts ‘Hola!’ in a cracked voice. Dahlgreen rents me two adjoining rooms with a mosquito-netted bed and a tin roof that thunders when it rains.

From her, I learn that Rio Ancho is safe because ‘only one paramilitary group is active in this region now.’ They have a base somewhere in the hills but also live openly in the village, and every mototaxi driver, hotel owner or property developer must pay them protection money.

They are moving back down the mountains to resettle ancestral lands

‘Safe’ in Colombia is very much a relative term. On the highway that runs to Palomino, she points to a spot where a body was dumped just a couple of months ago – someone who didn’t pay his dues. Sometimes, there are irregular targeted killings by vigilante groups. Two friends of hers, a husband and wife who were campaigning for land reform, were shot dead several years ago as payback for their activism. In Colombia, environmental defenders, and land activists, many of whom are Indigenous, are murdered at one of the highest rates in the world.

Tungueka, the Indigenous village on the periphery of the Heart, is a two-hour walk away. Kogi people from the village are often seen, distinctive in their white clothes, buying supplies in Rio Ancho’s bodegas, leading mules back up the mountain or taking rides on mototaxis, their long hair flying behind them. Dahlgreen says in the past few years some have bought their own motorbikes. Living in close proximity to the Younger Brothers, unlike their cousins higher up the mountains, these Kogi are becoming ‘civilised’ – at least, that is the term that the local colonos use. When I arrived in Rio Ancho, I assumed that the incomers, whether peasant farmers or foreigners, were encroaching on Tungueka, and eroding the boundaries of Kogi land. But the truth is more surprising.

Far from being an ancient settlement whose long isolation is under threat, Tungueka is only 15 years old. Another Kogi village nearby was established only in the past five years. During the past decade, the area around both villages has been reallocated as Indigenous land but, like everything in Colombia, the situation is complicated. Land in this region was originally granted by the state to poor farmers, many of whom then sold it on to foreigners for a higher price, which means that the reallocation of land back to its traditional owners is not without dispute. But the result is that, seemingly against all odds, the Kogi are moving back down the mountains to resettle ancestral lands, effectively expanding their territory for the first time in five centuries.

Tungueka consists of 100 conical huts, with mud walls and thatched roofs, clustered around a larger construction called a nuhue, a sacred ritual gathering place only for Kogi men. (Women, understood as being intrinsically closer to Mother Earth, are considered already sacred.) Tungueka, I have learned, is an ‘open’ village that accepts visitors, and which seems to function as a cultural interzone. Just as the Kogi visit Rio Ancho to buy products that are useful to them, Colombian and foreign tourists are allowed into Tungueka. There is a small entrance fee, and a Kogi guide gives a tour. Toddlers reach out pudgy hands for biscuits, and women accept bags of rice, both of which visitors are advised to bring as offerings.

In The Elder Brothers’ Warning (2009), Ereira describes Kogi culture as one of silence and secrecy. ‘Communication with the outside world is taboo,’ he writes, ‘children are taught to hide from strangers, and adults regard all outsiders as dangerous.’ Clearly things have changed in the 14 years since the book was published – or at least they have here, on the outskirts of the sierra. The Kogi adults who visit Rio Ancho seem to be on friendly or neutral terms with the local colonos, whom children see as a source of biscuits.

Many aspects of my visit make me uncomfortable, especially the distribution of gifts, with the colonial power dynamic implicit in this exchange. It turns me into another tourist, gawking at the life of an ‘authentic’ Indigenous village, at people going about their day, washing clothes, and preparing food.

But the Kogi of this region, on the border of a re-expanding domain, also seem to exercise a high degree of control. Entrance is at their discretion. Going further up the mountain is banned. Behind the huts, the foothills rise abruptly in an imposing wall, dense with jungle and veiled by cloud – the beginning of the guarded sierra that is firmly closed to me. Against that backdrop, Tungueka appears less like a village under siege and more like an outpost in decolonised land.

A hair-raising mototaxi ride brings me to Palomino, 12 kilometres to the west, for my appointment with Jose Manuel’s brother Simigui. Palomino, like Rio Ancho, takes its name from a river. The river takes its name from Rodrigo Álvarez Palomino, a Spanish explorer who drowned in its rapids in the early 16th century, after helping de Bastidas establish Santa Marta. To the Kogi, this river – called Wazenkaka – is sacred. Palomino, the colono village that grew up at its mouth, had until recently a violent, sleazy reputation as a battleground for armed groups. Though the violence has diminished, the sleaziness remains.

Today, the village has been reinvented as a backpacker tourist resort, squeezed between a highway and a white-sand beach. There are hostels and thatched beach bars, ambient techno music thumping from behind bamboo walls, and the tropical air smells of sewerage and marijuana. Posters advertise full moon parties, DJ sets and magic mushrooms, as well as ‘Indigenous tours’ to Tungueka: ‘Experience the Untouched Culture of the Kogi’ says one. Pierced and tattooed foreigners browse shops that sell ethnic souvenirs, and the whole place has an atmosphere of lazy indulgence.

I meet Simigui in a café garden shaded by banana trees. He has travelled down the sierra for a couple of hours to be here. In his bright white clothes and tall straw hat, he is instantly recognisable. His lips are green from chewing coca leaves, and in his hand is the poporo used by all Kogi men: a sacred gourd containing burnt seashells, the lime of which combines with the coca to amplify its narcotic effect. Its application is believed to foster harmony with Mother Earth. Using a stick, he brings the powder to his mouth and wipes the excess on the gourd, which is coated with residue from many years of use. Like the white hats worn by the Mamos, and the conical roofs of the huts, this thick pale-yellow crust represents the sierra’s snows. Throughout our conversation, he chews the small, bitter leaves as naturally as he blinks and breathes.

While his brother spoke of how the Heart of the World is being constricted, Simigui speaks of the ways in which it is also expanding.

He conjures the mountains as a node in a web of connections that stretches between distant ecosystems

‘Recovery comes from the sea,’ he says. Ever since the Spanish invasion severed access to the coast, the Kogi have been cut off from some of their most sacred places. They have kept a connection to the sea by ingesting the lime of shells, but sourcing these shells and transporting them back to the mountains was often dangerous. In 2013, with the backing of the Colombian government and international charities, the tribe raised enough money to buy back a sliver of coastline. The sacred site of Jaba Tañiwashkaka, 32 kilometres east of Palomino, was formerly a degraded wasteland covered in tonnes of plastic trash; after a decade of restoration, mangrove forests have been replanted, and fish, caiman, crabs and capybara have returned. The ezuama at the mouth of the Jerez River is under a Mamo’s protection again. After 500 years, the Kogi have regained the sea.

Simigui tells me of the linea negra that is central to Kogi thought. Like many things in the Kogi world, this ‘black line’ can be understood both physically and intangibly. In one sense, it is a line on a map, a border that skirts the base of the sierra, demarcating the traditional boundary of Indigenous lands. In 2018, this was used as the basis for the Black Line Decree, in which the Colombian government gave formal recognition to the ancestral territories of the Kogi, the Wiwa, the Arhuaco and the Kangwama. But in another, intocable sense, the black line is spiritual. It binds together sacred sites on the periphery of the Heart – ezuamas, such as the one at Jaba Tañiwashkaka – to ensure the continued flow of life-energy between them.

To these explanations, Simigui adds a further layer of meaning. The black line, he says, can be understood not only as a border, and a link between local sacred sites, but metaphorically as a connective thread reaching beyond the sierra to other points in the world – Europe, Africa, Asia. He conjures an image of the mountains as a node in a web of connections that stretches between distant ecosystems, and places of spiritual energy, across the planet. ‘The sierra is the Heart of the World,’ he says, ‘but she has arms.’

In this sense, the violence of colonialism did not just break the line around Kogi territory, but a more fundamental connection that once joined all things to all things. By reconnecting the mountains with the sea to maintain contiguous ecosystems between glaciers, highlands, montane forest, jungle and tropical coastline, the Kogi have taken on the task of weaving the threads back together.

That task, clearly, is immense. The damage is still being done. Perhaps the most urgent signs of this are the glaciers on the mountaintops – the eternal snows that are represented everywhere in Kogi culture, from hats to huts to the yellow-encrusted gourd in Simigui’s hand. Today, they are rapidly melting, causing landslides, droughts and vanishing rivers. The scientific view attributes this to climate change, reducible to the parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but Simigui’s explanation turns this framing on its head. The sacred places are not sick because of distant climate change; rather, climate change is occurring because the sacred places are sick, the ezuamas having been neglected and abused for too many years.

This explains the deeper importance of reclaiming ancestral lands. The damage is physical, but the restoration must be spiritual. To the Kogi, saving the world begins exactly here.

But, Simigui says, the Mamos can’t help Mother Earth recover on their own. There must be dialogue between the Elder and Younger Brothers. ‘Reciprocity. Understanding. Balance. Harmony.’ These are the words he uses.

After we shake hands at the end, he takes one of the cactus-fibre bags from around his neck. A few stray coca leaves flutter down as he empties it out. ‘Un regalo,’ he says. A gift. Then we walk back to the street and go our separate ways.

After our meeting, I follow a winding path away from the tourist town. I have no destination in mind, no mountain to ascend. Soon the jungle envelops me: a living mass of fern-covered trunks, palms, vines and leaves, labyrinths of entangled roots, things growing on other things. The canopy whoops, whirrs and wails. Leafcutter ants march everywhere. At every turn, I scatter clouds of iridescent blue butterflies. I have never been anywhere so astonishingly alive.

In the jungle, the path traces the contours of steep slopes, drops down to the wide green river and steeply climbs up again. I pass a Mamo with his poporo, a barefoot woman with a wrinkled face, and a young girl who is weaving a bag with white thread as she walks. I also pass a party of tourists carrying giant inflatable tubes. They’ll use them to drift down the green river in a leisurely flotilla, pumping out music and drinking beer as they float toward the sacred ezuama at its mouth.

To the Kogi, Ereira writes, the end of the world will come when ‘Columbus reaches his final goal’, penetrating the Heart of the World and plunging the environment into chaos: ‘The snow will melt on the peaks, the waters will dry up. The balance of nature will be overthrown.’ For the first time, I have a glimpse of what the Kogi are protecting.

There are some places we cannot go; some things are not ours to know

After an hour comes a break in the canopy ahead. There are distant plots of maize, cooking smoke rising from conical roofs. Above soar the summits of the sierra, so close yet unreachable. At first, I think I am seeing cloud in the whiteness of their peaks; in this dripping heat, it takes some time to recognise it as snow.

This is as close as I will come to the Heart of the World.

There are some places we cannot go; some things are not ours to know. After centuries of exploration, colonisation and exploitation, perhaps we are entering a time when travellers (and travel writers) must recognise the extractive impulses that drive us forwards.

But as I leave, retracing the path through the jungle back towards Palomino – and from there to Santa Marta, and my flight home to England – it seems that something else is travelling with me as I walk. I am struck by an image of the sacred landscape behind me expanding, its threads being rewoven by Kogi hands, refilling the space that was left when the meteor hit.