Colombia: 24 hours in the land of magic and jaguars

“It is true that the shamans turned into birds and jaguars. Write it down in your notebooks,” Jorge Morales starts his lectures

The first time I had the opportunity to explore South America, I went to Colombia, and the country needed only twenty-four hours to show me centuries of history shared by the original peoples of the South of the continent.

San Agustín's stone figures of magical beings date back to between the first and eighth centuries — Shutterstock Colombia
San Agustín’s stone figures of magical beings date back to between the first and eighth centuries — Shutterstock

I kicked off my journey going by bus to San Agustín, in the Huila region. This small town hides one of the most imposing and seemingly untouched archaeological excavations that I have ever seen: the most extensive necropolis in the world.

Oddly, I’d say that it’s one of the places where, in the most intense way, my body felt completely alive. Strolling through the jungles of San Agustín, barefoot in the mud, and touring the mountains that protect the source of the Macarena River, it all means entering one of the most beautiful landscapes of the country.

Encountering stone figures of magical beings that date back to between the first and eighth centuries was another pleasant experience. No wonder why Colombians call it a place of power.

However, the trip to that magical side of Colombia began in Bogotá, the hostile capital that all tourist guides recommend to ignore.

My friend Lina was waiting for us at the airport late at night. She wanted to come and pick us up because of cold weather, even though she was risking being fined.

Her little SUV had an odd license plate, which meant she couldn’t drive on even-numbered days, like the day of our arrival was – a forceful method to regulate traffic in the capital.

Park of the Journalists is a perfect spot for evening fun and has a great atmosphere — Danaan / Shutterstock
Park of the Journalists is a perfect spot for a Friday night fun and has a great atmosphere — Danaan / Shutterstock

We had a volatile and sleepy feeling. The jet lag coupled with the 2,600 metres of altitude on the plateau in the northern section of the Andes … We were willing to have a few beers to increase it, however. On Fridays, said Lina, there is a great atmosphere in the Park of the Journalists.

When we arrived, a lot of young people were drinking and smoking in the street, standing or sitting in corners, some singing around a guitar. They drank rum or beer. We huddled among the sparsely lit bodies. After a while, four motorcycle policemen arrived at the plaza and expelled us.

We woke up in a good neighbourhood of Bogotá, in the north. We were far from the places that are trampled on in a city of eight million inhabitants. From the road that was rising, we saw the light reverberating in the fog. In the mountains that we left behind, there were shacks, most of them built long ago by families of peasants displaced by violence caused by the guerrilla, drug traffickers or the army.

Few luxuries and ornaments were visible in the clean streets of that neighbourhood. The private security agents guarding some corners implied that all wealth was hidden in homes and garages.

The mountains surrounding Bogota are rarely visible due to air pollution — Shutterstock
The mountains surrounding Bogotá are rarely visible due to air pollution — Shutterstock

Not far away, president Juan Manuel Santos lived.

The next day, Lina prepared orange juice and arepas, complaining about the weather, as if she had not yet acclimatised to the country where she was born. In Bogotá the weather is always unpleasant, there are no seasons and the mountains are difficult to see. 

Before we started sipping our first cups of coffee, we looked as if we were inhaling a genuine aroma, just like in a TV ad. Smoother than I had imagined and very dark, the first Colombian coffee I drank had been picked, dried and roasted by our hostess.

We had to descend again to the centre of the city to approach its greatest treasure. This time, the booty was obvious to everyone. The Gold Museum of Bogotá preserves hundreds of gold pieces from different indigenous pre-Hispanic tribes, and Lina, as a recently graduated anthropologist, recommended it as if it were a ray of sunlight in the furious sky.

The Gold Museum of Bogotá preserves hundreds of gold pieces from different indigenous pre-Hispanic tribes — Free Wind 2014 / Shutterstoc
The Gold Museum of Bogotá preserves hundreds of gold pieces from different indigenous pre-Hispanic tribes — Free Wind 2014 / Shutterstock

It’s difficult to account for the variety of styles of the goldsmiths of quimbaya, calima, tayrona, sinú, muisca, tolima or tumacos, making human figures of gold thread from the size of the iris of an eye, to shields and large crowns. Even more difficult is to imagine those peoples, their concept of wealth and offering. Their terrifying rites, death as the origin of life. 

I read a caption: “According to ancient myths, in the beginning of time, blackbirds, ancestral shamans, brought in their beaks the light to the earth and gave the first clans their territories.”

Flat or elongated beings, with closed eyes or exploding in visions, imperceptible but leonine mouths. Geometric or round beings like vessels. Caciques with open arms, shining before the town with imperishable eyes.

While Lina was drawing shapes in her notebook, I stopped in a didactic section of the exhibition: on a luminous wall were placed a crown, breastplate, belt, bracelets, earrings and a nose of a priest.

The didactic section of the exhibition has breastplates, belts, bracelets, or earrings placed on the walls — Shutterstock
The didactic section of the exhibition offers breastplates, belts, bracelets, or earrings placed on the walls — Shutterstock

The piercing had a gold border that completely hid the space between the two cheekbones and even, if you looked straight, the ears. I imagined the night and the sparks of a bonfire, and an inertia ran through my body in a form of reverence.

At the end of the tour of the exhibition, Lina and I looked over the large stairs of the museum, reclining on the wooden railing. Then she asked me if I wanted to know why she had opted for anthropology.

This discipline, she said, is superficially classed by the institute as mandatory and is always taught by the same professor, Jorge Morales.

“This gentleman starts his classes saying that it is true that the shamans turned into birds and jaguars. Write it down in your notebooks,” she specifies. On that day, Lina only wrote Bird, Jaguar, and she still does not know whether to believe it or not.

It was 1983 when Jorge Morales went to visit the Iguaque lagoon for the first time. There were none of the current roads back then, so he decided to go with a guide, Miguel Sierra, who was well acquainted with the surroundings of Villa de Leyva.

The museum displays human figures of gold thread from the size of the iris of an eye, to shields and large crowns — Laura Secorun Palet
The museum displays human figures of gold thread from the size of the iris of an eye — Laura Secorun Palet

Iguaque is a crater-shaped marsh. All these watery spots in the mountains were the recipients of offerings and human sacrifices of the natives who lived around them. Gold, precious stones, and men transformed into animals by the rite of coca or fire, sailing their waters in rafts driven by other members of the tribe, it all was thrown into the lagoons.

It is also what is known as a place of power. Lina explained to me that in spite of the numerous explorations that have been done, Iguaque’s bottom has not been discovered yet.

“Gold is the remains, the semen of the past. The Indians believed that living beings were gold, and threw everything they were able to find to the lagoon to maintain the circle of life, its cosmic balance. Some people believe that Iguaque links with the sea.” As her teacher did to her, she asks me to write down that magic is true.

When Jorge Morales and Miguel Sierra were at a high point and with good views of the lagoon, the teacher asked him to take a picture, but the guide refused.

Being well acquainted with the surroundings of Villa de Leyva, Miguel Sierra was the right choice for a guide — Shutterstock
Being well acquainted with the surroundings of Villa de Leyva, Miguel Sierra was the right choice for a guide — Shutterstock

This is how Morales recounts what happened later, when he himself took the camera to immortalise the landscape (this article is in the Gold Museum Bulletin, number 50, 2001):

“Amazed by the tranquillity and natural beauty of the site, and by being in a mythological place of the Muisca […] I set my camera to take a photograph of the waterbed. But Miguel warned me not to do it because the lagoon did not like “to be caught” as it was still angry; it needed to be tamed.

“I ignored his warning while trying not to upset his point of view by simply telling him that I would take the risk. Since he had taken a lot of love to this beautiful place, he retired to fifty metres.”

“At the precise moment when I began, rain started to shower my body. Miguel, from his spot, made me see, with a certain amount of wisdom, the error of disobedience and the daring of my ignorance. He was dry, despite being out in the open area, since his place was left out of the rain and the scolding of the lagoon. “

Morales was amazed by the tranquillity and natural beauty of the mythological site — Laura Secorun Palet
Morales was amazed by the tranquillity and natural beauty of the mythological site — Laura Secorun Palet

For Professor Morales it was strange, too, what happened later, when the experienced guide became lost along a path he knew well.

“He blamed me as being responsible for having provoked the fury of Iguaque. The lagoon was taking revenge by hiding the path. The situation became more difficult because after wandering around the same place, we decided to take a downward path. […] For some reason, Miguel wanted to go down a very steep path, even though it was clearly fatally dangerous”. 

Morales thought to dissuade him by showing him that there was a clearing by which one could advance: “I went ahead, considering why an experienced guide risked imminent danger”.

Suddenly, professor heard a blow and a scream. He went on alone, until he reckoned he’d found the base of the path Miguel had taken. 

“I found him inert and with two threads of blood, one through his mouth and another from his nose. I put the edge of my knife in his nose to see if it would cloud up. I checked his pulse and tried to listen to his heartbeat: all negative.”

Iguaque's bottom has not been discovered yet — Shutterstock
Iguaque’s bottom has not been discovered yet — Shutterstock

Morales picked up the guide’s cowhide and machete, ready to inform the police about the accident.

“At that moment, surrounded by despair and anguish, I remembered that Miguel had told me at the lagoon ‘if I do not sate it at the entrance, it would become an exit’.”

“On leaving the lagoon, Miguel was indeed dead in the mountains and I ended up imprisoned for forty-eight hours in the prison of Arcabuco.”

The university eventually managed to get the professor released. Since then, Jorge Morales has taught ethnography and anthropology, flitting between the blackboard and the Gold Museum, between the palpable archaeological remains, and fieldwork in search of stories about these charms.

I imagined Gabriel García Márquez laughing, hiding behind some wall of the museum. Welcome to Colombia, welcome to magical realism.