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Colombia opens Santa Marta to tourists

Colombia opens Santa Marta to tourists
By Michael Jacobs Financial Times
Published: September 17 2010 22:20

A soldier in a helicopter patrols the slopes of the Sierra Nevada

The military helicopter takes off at dawn. A soldier in camouflage gear sits at its open door, directing a machine gun at the tropical scene below. We are travelling from the Colombian Caribbean resort of Santa Marta to an indigenous village in the jungle-covered mountains behind. For a while we hover over a stretch of hazy, palm-lined coast before turning towards a landscape of dark-green folds. Then suddenly we glimpse a line of snowy crags that floats like an apparition above a bank of clouds.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the world’s highest coastal range, with peaks rising to 5,775 metres and an exceptionally varied climate, flora and fauna. It also has the appeal of a self-contained land, cut off by a broad valley from the Andes and protected over the centuries by a reputation for inaccessibility, danger and mystery. To its 56,000 indigenous inhabitants, successors to the ancient Tayronas, the sierra is known as “the heart of the world”.
Now, though, things are changing, and the government has a new tourism slogan, “The only risk is wanting to stay.” Colombia is certainly far safer, but its image as a land of kidnappers, terrorists and drug dealers persists. In an attempt to counter this, the new campaign focuses on what is perhaps Colombia’s greatest attraction: its near-unrivalled biodiversity. And nowhere is this so apparent as in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where the government is trying to encourage tourism that respects both the environment and the indigenous peoples.Although the Spanish conquistadors defeated the Tayronas by the end of the 16th century, the latter’s jungle kingdom was left virtually undisturbed until modern times – their largest known settlement remained a “Lost City” until as late as 1975. In the course of the 20th century, however, the indigenous communities who had hidden here from the Spaniards came increasingly under threat. Sugar cane and coffee growers began moving in along the river valleys, followed by refugees from the escalating violence that afflicted Colombia from 1949 onwards. Tomb robbers desecrated sacred sites, while huge swathes of jungle were felled to make way for pine, poppy and coca plantations. Guerrillas and paramilitaries fought for control of the area, reducing tourism almost exclusively to organised six-day treks to the Lost City, one of which was intercepted by rebels in 2003 (and the trekkers held hostage for three months).

The indigenous Kogui tribesmen

It’s July 22 this year, and together with a group of invited foreign journalists, I’m being taken into the mountains to cover a visit by outgoing president Álvaro Uribe to the isolated village of Seywiuku, populated by Kogui tribesmen. Two weeks before handing over power toJuan Manuel Santos, he’s keen to show how Colombia has radically changed in his eight years of presidency. This area’s transformation from drugs and paramilitaries to nascent eco-tourism makes the perfect case study.
The presence of the helicopter’s machine-gun-wielding soldier is at first alarming. But the man soon adapts a more relaxed stance, getting up to pose for photographs before returning to his seat as we descend into what could have been a museum of anthropology. The jungle clearing where we land is filled with round huts in stone, adobe and thatch. Standing out front is a line of intensely staring men and women with long, jet-black hair, and white tunics patterned with black and brown stripes. I feel like a western explorer making his first contact with an undiscovered tribe.
The village’s prehistoric feel is deceptive, though. Seywiuku is one of several communities built in recent years as part of a scheme to assist the sierra’s indigenous peoples, to buy back for them large tracts of jungle, and to create (with the aid of materials flown in by helicopter) villages combining traditional appearance with up-to-date facilities, such as health centres.
The tribesmen, too, are not all they seem. A powerfully built man wearing a conical white cap hands me a card identifying himself as the district governor. A wizened village elder with a bulbous nose turns out to have been on a recent lobbying trip to New York, where he had been driven around in a stretch limousine.
My most revealing encounter is with indigenous leader Danilo Villafañe. Villafañe is dressed in immaculate tribal wear and, like the other men, spends much of his time poking a stick inside a narrow-necked gourd called a totuma. “It aids concentration,” he says with a cheeky smile, before explaining that the vessel contains a powder ground from sea shells that, when combined with coca leaves, produces a meditative high. I am also curious about two woven pouches attached to his waist. One of them, I discover, hides a mobile phone, the other a BlackBerry.
As we wait for the presidential helicopter to arrive, Villafañe talks to me about his life. His family is from a village about an hour’s walk away. He had his first contact with the outside world at the age of eight after being sent to school at Santa Marta. The noises of modern life had made him ill for months. Later, after his father had been assassinated by paramilitaries, he began travelling the world as a spokesman for the four main tribes of the sierra (he recently met Bill Clinton). I am impressed by his ability to switch between radically different lifestyles. He tells me he is aware of the potential dangers of implementing some of the government’s plans for “improving” the lives of his people. There are many tribal elders who believe that the introduction of electricity, good roads and widespread tourism could lead to the death of the sierra.
As Villafañe is joined by a US documentary crew making a film about him, I find myself becoming increasingly distracted by the Eden-like beauty of the landscape, with the seductive emerald greens of the jungle highlighted against a distant backcloth of pinkish snows.
The rumble of an approaching helicopter interrupts my reverie. Soldiers and security guards run around barking orders, tribesmen take up their appointed positions, and all eyes turn to the sky. Uribe, draped in the Colombian colours, emerges from his helicopter with all the confident poise of a film star, a speech already on his lips.
Afterwards, there is time for journalists to ask a few questions, though Uribe, a consummate politician, is well known for not answering anything too controversial. I wonder (but don’t ask) how his government, with its policy of zero tolerance towards coca, intends to deal with the coca-loving tastes of the sierra’s tribesmen. I cannot help watching the men as they chew the leaves, fiddling all the time with their totumas, and stopping every now and then to spit out great pools of murky green liquid.
Once the official ceremonies are over, the Colombian authorities are keen to give some of the journalists a taste of the area’s enormous tourism potential, to which Uribe had repeatedly referred. In the early afternoon we embark on what I imagine will be an effortless two-hour descent on foot from the village to the coast. It ends up, instead, as a military-style ordeal in debilitating sauna-like conditions. The hardships of the trek only enhance the pleasure of reaching, towards sunset, the near-deserted palm beach of Palomino. I could have happily rested for hours in one of the beach-side hammocks there, taking in the idyllic scene, but we have to move on to the nearby village of San Rafael before nightfall to sleep at one of the area’s several farms. Previously heavily dependent on coca, they have been turned into “eco-lodges” offering nature walks and visits to indigenous villages.
The next morning we are climbing again, this time by Land Rover, up a road so rutted, pitted and steep that it takes three hours to cover a distance of about 14km. Our destination is the bird reserve of El Dorado, situated at a height of 3,500 metres. This is where I am going to spend my last two nights in the sierra, staying in an “ecologically sustainable” complex.
The views of the interior prove even more spectacular. Shortly before dawn I wander along a jungle trail that leads to a lookout tower perched at the edge of a deep valley. The other journalists have already returned to Santa Marta, leaving me to enjoy on my own the sun rising over a succession of forested ridges, culminating in the pale, snowy profile of Colombia’s highest peaks. After all the recent talk about politics and Colombia’s violent past, I succumb more readily still to an overwhelming sense of peace.By the time we get there, the temperature has plummeted and we are shrouded in dense clouds. A torrential storm lasting several hours keeps us indoors, listening to the reserve’s enthusiastic young director talk about the Santa Marta parakeets, the newly discovered Megascops owl, and other endangered and endemic species that enhance Colombia’s reputation as a paradise for naturalists. When the clouds eventually disperse, the only wildlife I manage to see are the hummingbirds drawn to the reserve’s plastic feeders. Yet, as the sky clears and the colours take on an unreal luminosity, a sensational panorama is revealed of a vast stretch of coastline extending all the way to the distant glow of Barranquilla.
Michael Jacobs is the author of ‘Andes’ (Granta)