Colombia part 3: Andean Mountain High

Like much in Colombia, its mountains are deceptive. The country still has six glaciers in three ranges, but they are retreating dramatically and all are predicted to disappear in 20 to 30 years.

The unique aspect of Colombia’s mountains, however, is not the existence of glaciers deep in the tropics or the dozens of Andean peaks soaring between 16,000 and 19,000 feet high, but a strange land form called the páramo. The páramo is a 2-to-3-mile-high, vast, ethereal plain covered with hundreds of lakes and thousands of frailejón, a strange, sparse cactus-like plant that can grow 20 feet high. He paramo is unlike any other environment, a mysterious, even eerie world that can be explored only by horseback or on foot.

Home sweet home: tiny frog living in a frailejón flower on the Colombian paramo. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

One of the most extraordinary sights we saw in Colombia occurred during one of our two daylong hikes across the páramo. It was outside Mongui, the most traditional and beautiful village we visited, where everybody seemed to be wearing Panama hats and woolen ponchos and looked like survivors of an ancient Bolivian tribe. We hiked among a forest of frailejón, a plant that caches water in its open flower. At the bottom of one flower, a tiny green frog had made a luxurious home, sheltered from cold, wind and predators and with all that he needed to preserve life. It was cute; it was cozy; it was downright unbelievable.

Another extraordinary páramo sight was a series of slot canyons called the Labyrinth, where an ancient civilization, probably the Muisca, had carved holes in the sheer rock walls.

The holes were in the shape of a vagina or a womb. Inside the holes the indigenous people had bundled the bodies of their dead.

* * *

The Muisca were the most important indigenous tribe in Colombia before the Spanish conquest. They were unlike any other society I have ever heard of. They never built large cities or powerful armies, let alone extensive empires. They were scattered around the country in four independent groups speaking dialects of the Chibcha language. Yet without benefit of the kind of empires the Mayas, the Aztecs and the Incas built, they constructed an advanced civilization whose art and artifacts today still amaze us with their grace, beauty and strength.

There is only one museum in Colombia dedicated exclusively to the Muisca, in the small city of Sogamosa. Aside from the museum, the town is justifiably described by ‘Lonely Planet” as “a distinctly uninspiring working-class Colombian city.”  But the museum is something else.

It was built in 1945 in a light, airy modern style on the remains of a large Muisca cemetery, which survives only in a commemorative plaque. A replica of a Muisca necropolis called the  Temple of the Sun stands nearby; the Spanish burned down the original in 1537.

* * *

Our guide in the Labyrinth had told us he was descended from the Muisca. But when I asked a museum expert about the culture, she said, “Before the Spanish there were a million plus.” She repeated the word “plus” for emphasis. How many are there today? She made a circle of her thumb and index finger. “Zero.”

In the Muisca museum (formally known as the Museo Arqueológico Eliécer Silva Célis) we saw a number of shrunken heads. On a lighter note, there were fine ceramics, jewelry and sculptures.

In another museum in the remote village of Guane, a long ways from Sogamosa, we saw another Muisca relic which, even in memory, remains profoundly moving. The museum was in the small, remote village of Guane, which we reached by hiking two hours along a prehispanic stone path from the touristy town of Barrichara.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The museum had only one employee who was also the curator. She personally escorted all guests around the exhibits, and while she was wearing her guide hat, the front door was locked with a note asking visitors to just wait and be patient. We did as instructed, and we were happy we had waited.

Most of the Guane museum is devoted to the most impressive collection of fossils I’ve ever seen (the unique local geology favored their preservation). Some of the10,000 fossils are hundreds of millions of years old, when most of Colombia was under water. Many are species that no longer survive, such as giant sea horses.

But between all the rocks and fossils is something even more extraordinary. Inside a rectangular glass case is an intact 700-year-old mummy of a little Muisca girl, perhaps about 10 years old, all scrunched up in a bent pose with her hands over her chest and her legs curled into her doubled-over torso. She could have fit into one of those crevices we saw in the Labyrinth.

The curator wouldn’t allow us to take a photograph of the mummy, but the little girl seemed so lifelike, so sad, so vivid that her image will never fade from my memory.

* * *

The most famous archeological site in Colombia is just outside the small town of San Agustín in southwestern Colombia, an area that until recently was haunted by the FARC guerrilla army. Now it is haunted by something else entirely: hundreds of giant monoliths carved by an unknown civilization, some of them more than 2000 years old.

The most fascinating aspect of the giant sculptures is that although they are highly stylized, each is different, each represents a specific emotion, mood and personality. A woman holds a baby upside down. A kneeling man seems to be pleading for his life. Others express fear, pride, submission, joy, sadness. They are scattered over a large area, some inside a small museum, some relocated to a pathway, others left where they were found.

With great delicacy, precision and intricacy, they are carved from an exceptionally hard volcanic stone thrown out by the five volcanoes in the area, three of which are still active. In 1999,  one of them destroyed an entire town killing its 20,000 residents.

“This was archeology how I selfishly, romantically liked it: out of the way, neglected, in harmony with nature,” wrote Michael Jacobs in his recent description of a Colombian adventure, “The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia.” I couldn’t agree more.

How the ancient peoples of Colombia built high civilizations—artistic, prosperous and enduring—without benefit of great empires, cities and armies, with meager governmental organizations and minus the great public buildings of Mexico or Rome, is a mystery.

But it is also a comfort. They prove people can succeed without the terror and torture and tyranny than has accompanied the construction of most civilizations. The ancients of Colombia did that, and more. After all, they were the only pre-Hispanic people in the New World to have invented money. Not only their sculpture but their artifacts in gold, such as a tiny stylized image of a bird in flight, are the equal of anything mankind has created in the succeeding centuries.