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Peña de Juaica sacred mountain, Tabio, Colombia

Lost Mountain Gods of Colombia: Ancient Origins Explores the Sacred Mountain of the Muisca

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The Muisca civilization flourished in ancient Colombia between 600 and 1600 BC. Their territory included what is the modern city of Bogotá and its surrounding area and they are renowned for being the origin of El Dorado , a legendary Golden City, that began as a Muisca tradition of ‘The Gilded Man’ or ‘The Golden One’. But maybe El Dorado isn’t what so many people believe it is? Ancient Origins gained a new insight into the legend while exploring a sacred Muisca region. And it wasn’t our only discovery.

The Mythical Draw of the Muisca

Through the whispers of El Dorado, the legend evolved from one that described the existence of the Golden Man ceremony to one of a full-blown Golden City. As such, it attracted the interest first of the Spanish Conquistadors and then a following of treasure hunters, the likes of which still attempt to search the region to this day. Using dynamite or other explosives, these seekers of riches illegally disturb swathes of the countryside that have been selected by gold ‘seers’ or ‘Huacaceros’, people who claim to be able to see the glowing aura of the gold above the fields where it has been buried. As the Muisca were supposed to bury some gold in every crop field each year, this means that there are potentially many ‘fields of gold’ that could fall victim to the unscrupulous searches.

Gold plate displayed at the Gold Museum, Bogota

Gold plate displayed at the Gold Museum, Bogota

Although it is true that the Muisca have left a significant artistic legacy in their sublime and plentiful gold work which is found in abundance in the Gold Museum of Bogotá, the culture that thrived for a millennium is also rich with other cultural and spiritual gifts, which are fast being lost as the numbers of remaining Muisca with knowledge of their history dwindles. With this in mind and a contact in situ at the heart of what was the breadbasket of the Muisca kingdom just north of Bogotá - a region that served as a key food growing area for the ancient Muisca capital of Bacatá (now Bogotá) - the Ancient Origins team set about planning an expedition to investigate this essential area for the Muisca.

A Plan of Investigation and Exploration

The expedition group including police escorts

The expedition group including police escorts

Having gathered a 13 strong team from both the Americas and Europe, including Ancient Origins staff and our very own writer and somewhat of an expert on the area and Muisca culture, Ashley Cowie, plus keen enthusiasts selected from the Ancient Origins members’ site with archaeological, anthropological and historical knowledge, and a film crew - the focus of the expedition was set. The investigation would center on the mountain known as the Peña de Juaica, which towers over the sacred valley across from the megalithic Muisca temple dedicated to Chía - goddess of the Moon.

My experience of The Lost Mountain Gods of Colombia was a pleasure. I was exposed to a culture I never would have been exposed to had I not volunteered for the adventure.

Lydia, Buffalo, New York

Many possible faces are visible in the cliff faces of Peña de Juaica

Many possible faces are visible in the cliff faces of Peña de Juaica

This sacred mountain, overlooking a sacred valley, is said to have contained giant carved heads of gods (akin, perhaps, to those found at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, USA), which would look out over the valley as guardians of the harvests as well as the territory. The mount was of both spiritual and military importance and viewing platforms were created there as part of the defense of the valuable agricultural plain against incoming invaders. The platforms also served to watch for celestial signs and to show reverence to the deities, as well as a place to give offerings to help ensure favorable conditions for a plentiful harvest.

But after centuries and perhaps a millennium of weathering and seismic activity in the region, would the team find any real evidence of these supposed monumental works still extant in the cliff faces? And what other remains of this glorious civilization could be found?

Was this once a carved face?

Was this once a carved face?

The primary mission was to seek out and record any evidence of Muisca activity in the area, including the sculpting of the giant heads into the cliff faces of the Peña de Juaica mountain. Also named La Puerta de los dioses – “the gateway of the gods” the local legend tells of there being a connecting cave network leading from this mount right underneath the valley to the mountain range it faces. Could an entrance to this cave still exist? So a second task was to try to locate cave entry points into the mountain that might still be home to some of the thousands of valuable ritual offerings that were made, or treasures that were thought to have been hidden from the invading Spanish conquistadors in the alleged cave network. The latter tasking was a long shot, as the land has already been searched for decades, but this particular spot has had no known methodical search with the numbers involved in the Ancient Origins expedition.

An early find in a small cave

An early find in a small cave

The valley and the mountains here are also dotted with ‘huaca’, sacred rocks, some of which by chance or design seem to lead in a straight line down the mountainside. The task too would be a preliminary record of the huaca positions, with a search of each for possible offerings.

Start of the Expedition

The team met up in Bogota, landing at the aptly named El Dorado International Airport. Research into the Muisca culture started at the Museum of Gold Bogotá, where the largest collection of gold artifacts in the world are displayed; having been retrieved from locations around Colombia and even specifically from the area the group was headed. Having touched down in a city nestled in the Andean altiplano at an elevation of 2640 meters (8660 ft.) the short stay here would also serve as a time for the group to acclimatize to the elevation that would be a factor for the entire expedition.

Disappointing news was shared here, as it had not been possible to procure the Lidar equipment that is nowadays an invaluable means of stripping back vegetation from an area to reveal what lies beneath. Just last year, 6000 previously undetected structures were revealed by a Lidar scan of the Guatemalan jungle showing just how powerful a tool it can be. On this occasion, the team would have to rely on the (relatively) old-fashioned archaeological approach of ground work  - searching the area on foot and hacking back the forest vegetation to find what is hidden. The missing short-cut offered Lidar was a body-blow, however, they did have a small squadron drones with which to take aerial footage in order to pinpoint areas of interest and map out routes how to get there.

Organismo, the accommodation for the week with Peña de Juaica in the background. (Image: © Organizmo, Bogotá)

Organismo, the accommodation for the week with Peña de Juaica in the background. (Image: © Organizmo, Tabia, Bogotá)

Settling at the Base Camp

From Bogota, the team decamped to their base for the week, Organizmo Foundation , an organization with the aim of keeping alive indigenous traditions, especially construction techniques, by training community members in almost forgotten methods. Every building at this site has been built using a combination of traditional building techniques and recycled and renewable materials.

To the group’s advantage, it also includes a viewing tower from which the group could study the mountain at a distance. Here they could scan the one side of the 800 feet (250 meters) high peak and its surroundings, searching for any evidence of viewing platforms and topographical anomalies to guide where they should focus their efforts. With the top of the peak being 3,170 meters (10,400) feet above sea level, the size of the task was something that could very easily take one’s breath away. However, as the elevation of the site is at around 2,700 meters (8,860 ft) a climb to the top was achievable by the whole group.

I knew physical fitness was going to be a factor after a trial hike halfway up on the first day. Day two was more strenuous but more rewarding as the peak of Peña de Juaica was the destination.  The view at the top was spectacular and numerous natural crevasses were observed and investigated.

Walter. Team B

Reconnaissance of the Research Area

Having arrived at the base site around midday, the team wasted no time in setting about the task at hand. The first task was to arm the team with machetes, the best tool to forge pathways through dense forest/jungle areas. They then headed to the first of several access paths and engaged in an initial approach to the cliff-face. This was as much to assess fitness levels and test equipment, as it was to get a perspective on the terrain and a handle on just how difficult the task ahead might be. Looking up at the tree-line and rock face above, and surrounded by thick foliage as soon as you left the established path, what was being asked of the team now really began to sink in.

Drones were used to scan the cliff and the surrounding forested area

Drones were used to scan the cliff and the surrounding forested area

Having split the groups into three teams based on areas of expertise and capabilities, the following day the group embarked on reaching the top of the mountain in order to take reconnaissance drone footage in order to record any areas of the cliff face and to note any areas which looked likely spots for caves that might lead into the mountain. Including a police escort, the ages ranged between 21 and 69 and there was a great variety in fitness levels, but after around 2 ½ hours, a lot of heavy breathing, and a certain amount of wonder and despair, the whole team had made it to the summit.

I didn't know if I could make it and it seemed like a long way to go but reaching the top was pure joy (and exhaustion). I thought at the time, about half way up, that it was not the most fun I have ever had, but looking back now - it was awesome!

Lydia, 69

The vista was sublime and encompassed the whole valley, with a spine of mountains running along the center of the plain and Bogotá barely visible in the distance to the south east. The first drone footage was taken, and after breaking to rest weary legs, gaining sustenance to continue, and congratulating ourselves on making the trek up the sacred mountain, much of the group headed down the other side of the mountain to see what the lookout point not far below had to offer.

As you move to different vantage points, new faces emerge on the Peña de Juaica

As you move to different vantage points, new faces emerge on the Peña de Juaica

The area explored proved worthwhile as it revealed a crevice cave with another small opening above it. Three of the team investigated the crevice further and in its far recesses, hidden by a barrier of rocks, they found an intriguing offering of a bundle of sticks tied together and a clump of melted wax. It would seem some kind of offering had been made in this spot, albeit of modern origin.

The upper section also provided some confirmation that the traditional Muisca practice of making offerings in caves has been continued. Two more members of the team squeezed through the tight opening and discovered a small offering of a ring and two stone pendants lovingly wrapped in a paper package and bound with purple yarn. After the jewelry was documented on film and determined as modern as well, the person’s belongings were carefully bound up again and placed back inside the cave behind the rubble where the package was found. It was touching to see that some of the old traditions of placing treasured possessions in caves has continued and not too surprising that this relatively well visited spot had little of ancient origin to offer.

The evening was spent reflecting on and examining the footage taken from the first real encounter with Peña de Juaica, and each group identified an area of interest on the slopes of the peak to examine further the next day.

Ground Searches

Each team had three main tasks to cover: 1. Find different viewing points to observe the cliff faces and locate possible faces carved into the rock. 2. Search areas around significant rocks to find possible offerings or archaeological sites of interest. 3. Find cave entrances for further investigation.

Elmore, Ioannis and Ashley struggle through the thick foliage of the forest

Elmar, Ioannis and Ashley struggle through the thick foliage of the forest

Over the following days, the area was searched with these things in mind. As most search areas had not been accessed before, paths had to be hacked through the forest by all the groups, meaning progress was slow. Travelling 100 meters could take more than an hour in these conditions and was dictated by the density of the forest and foliage and the steepness of the incline - which is rarely level on a mountainside. It is also nearly impossible to travel in a straight line for long and so even though the destination might be visible from afar, locating that spot when traveling through the forest was a different matter entirely. Keeping an eye on the GPS to monitor progress was necessary at all times.

Expedition members clamber along an access trail to the mountain

Expedition members clamber along an access trail to the mountain

The weather was another consideration. While it was mostly pleasant, more than once pauses in exploration had to be made when the clouds rolled in and Juaica was drenched. As an interesting side note, some locals have suggested that Juaica has a mysterious energy that has stopped some people from even entering the sacred Muisca space. Stories of torrential rains, cars unable to reach the base of the mountain, and people or pathways seeming to ‘disappear’ have all been told. They said our group was ‘lucky’ and comprised of ‘good people’, which allowed us to have such an extensive exploration of the mountain.

Several Openings and Caves in the Cliffs

Team A explores crevices at the base of the cliff face

Despite these obstacles, some good discoveries were made early in the investigation. Apart from the abovementioned offerings, several cave entrances were found and explored along the base of the cliff face. Disappointingly, none of them offered access into the mountain more than a few meters before coming to an end. One vertical shaft cave looked to go further into the mountain, but was filled with water, allowing no access without diving apparatus. There was another pool of water close to this cave entrance, and upon investigation just above this pool in an alcove that looked to have been carved from the rock, another offering, this time of 3 bowls of food had recently been made (or someone had chosen this odd spot to leave food out for some of the local fauna).

The entrance to the cave had been worked, but past the water line appeared to be a natural cave

The entrance to the cave had been carved, but below the water line was the entrance to a natural subterranean cave

Faces in the Rock

Throughout the expedition, team members were constantly aware of our objectives and gazing up the mountain towards the rock faces. Photographs and drone footage were taken throughout so any possible images of ancient carvings could be examined when the restrictions of time and the environment were less intense. Several faces have been identified as the possible work of ancient hands – or at least faces that may have also been viewed by ancient eyes. The large quantity of facial depictions makes it easy to see yet another reason why the Muisca viewed the Peña de Juiaca as a sacred location.

An opening in the cliff face appears to be hewn

An opening in the cliff face appears to be hewn

Ritual Offering of Snakeskin, Bead, and Metal

Around the base of one of the large rocks or ‘huaca’ another intriguing discovery of what appeared to be a ritual offering was found. It included a bead of unknown origin, a small amount of a metallic mineral, and a surprise for the finder – the skin of a snake. Whether this had been shed by its living owner or placed there as a deliberate offering will remain unknown, but such an offering is typical for the region

A Major Platform

One of the mornings early into the trip, Elmar was found with an intriguing idea. He’d been examining Juaica’s geography and noted what appeared to be two old ravines that ran down the side of the mountain, which could be seen from the base camp. Even more exciting, was that once the area was examined through binoculars, we could see what appeared to be four monoliths placed at significant compass locations. And the best part was, one of the groups decided to venture out and try to reach a clearing that was located at the base off one of the ravines, near one of the large stones.

The first day towards this goal was arduous trekking through brush and disheartening when the group couldn’t reach their goal. But they learned a lesson and, after sending a drone up, discovered an alternative route the next morning. That day was mostly clear trekking with lots of visibility and chances to explore as they wound the way up the meadow and towards what was soon discovered as a site of deep interest. It appears the old ravine had a two or three step earthen platform built at the base. The site provided an excellent view over the valley and across facing mountain ranges.

3D reconstruction image of the area of the platforms from drone footage data

3D reconstruction image of the area of the platforms from drone footage data

Celestial Alignment

A series of monoliths were traced up the hill to the platform. You can imagine the excitement building as the team trekked up the hill, getting ever closer to the goal that was so near, but that seemed so impossible to reach the day before. Then finally reaching that goal and finding themselves on a platform where they could gaze across the valley and imagine how the local ancestors may have used the site. Was it a temple? A guardhouse? A place for a rest while working in the fields or watching over livestock? Maybe a combination of purposes over the ages? Later examinations with Ashley and his grasp on alignments with other Muisca sites and their architecture suggests that the proposed platform, previously undetected by archaeologists in the area, may have even been used as a temple or worshipping site itself. Wow!

This stone was identified by Ashley as aligned to the Moon temple across the valley

After basking in satisfaction at having reached one of the goals, curiosity set in and exploration around the site continued. Behind the platform the team found what appears to have been a large well or small pond. Like caves, wells and ponds were significant ritual and offering sites for the ancient Muisca. Was this one equivalent to a sanctum sanctorum, the Holy of Holies, for the ancient Muisca people? The peacefulness emanating from the stillness of this location certainly seemed ideal for a sacred ceremony.

These features, were without a doubt, manmade though their age is unknown. This was such a find that the team thought it prudent to request the presence of Ashley Cowie at the site to provide context of what we discovered.  Ashley accompanied us to the site the following day and surveyed the area.  His assessment was that this was a platform which Muisca shaman would meditate upon.

Walter, Team B

Part of the cliff face where the position of a cave was identified, but was found to be unreachable with the equipment the group had with them

Part of the cliff face where the position of a cave was identified, but was found to be unreachable with the equipment the group had with them

The Real El Dorado?

As for the true nature of El Dorado, the revelation, whether true or false, was provided by some descendants of the Muisca in a ritual conducted to see the expedition participants safely home. During the ceremony, we were invited to ask questions in order for some of the culture and beliefs of the Muisca to be passed on and shared. Stories of their deities were recounted across the smoke filled ceremonial hut.

Unreachable exposed cliff face that seemed to have an anomaly in the center

During this time these descendants stated that the gold of legend actually referred to ‘knowledge’ that was passed from generation to generation. And that knowledge was so valued that their legends tell of people coming from all areas of the world to learn and share with one another. Much like we all had on this expedition.

What seemed in the relaxed circumstance to be perhaps an awkward question was posed by one of the expedition members. But the answer was very telling in some key aspects of the Muisca beliefs.

“Is it better that people like us find the secrets of the mountain of should it be Muisca people?”

“Muisca means ‘people’. We are all Muisca. But you will only find what the mountain wants you to find.”

Participants’ Reflections on the Experience

Lydia Romer – Team C

In order to experience what the Muisca people did to honor their Gods, we climbed to the top of the Peña de Juiaca.  Some of us (not me in particular) climbed the rock face which highlighted the dangers encountered by the Muisca warriors who carved the faces. I did think that if I was a Muisca woman, my Muisca man would do without lunch if he forgot it and thought I was going to walk it up......it is a long hard way to the top as I found out. I didn't know if I could make it and it seemed like a long way to go but reaching the top was pure joy (and exhaustion). I thought at the time, about half way up, that it was not the most fun I have ever had, but looking back now - it was awesome!

All and all, the experienced enriched my own life and I arrived home feeling "happy" and wanting to learn to speak Spanish. I cannot thank Ancient-Origins enough for allowing me to be part of the exploration.

Overall, my experience of The Lost Mountain Gods of Colombia was a pleasure. I was exposed to a culture I never would have been exposed to had I not volunteered for the adventure.

Walter Payne – Team B

I knew physical fitness was going to be a factor after a trial hike halfway up on the first day. 

Day two was more strenuous but more rewarding as the peak of Peña de Juaica was the destination.  The view at the top was spectacular and numerous natural crevasses were observed and investigated. 

Day three lead to explorations off the trail.  A couple of members identified curious features at the base of a gully on the side of the mountain.  These locations were made by Elmar and Alicia using a combination of old school observations, i.e. binoculars, and digital maps.  The initial trek was very rough and progress excruciatingly slow – machete in Ben’s hand, the forest was simply too thick to venture off the beaten trail for any respectable distance. 

Day four (or five) began with drone reconnaissance of the suspected area.  After reviewing the video, a more sensible route was ascertained and embarked upon.  However, after several conversations with locals, Natalia negotiated yet a quicker route to get to the location.  It was obvious, after arriving at the target location that this place was special, or at least something we had not yet encountered.  Upon initial inspection there appeared to be two leveled areas at the base of a gully.  Further inspection of the area revealed a large ‘basin’ type structure at the foot of the gully, uphill from the leveled platforms. 

These features, were without a doubt, manmade though their age is unknown. This was such a find that the team thought it prudent to request the presence of Ashley Cowie at the site to provide context of what we discovered.  Ashley accompanied us to the site the following day and surveyed the area.  His assessment was that this was a platform which Muisca shaman would meditate upon. Additional research needs to be conducted of the site to identify whether or not the site was a recently known/recorded site or an undocumented ancient site.

I always embark on adventure with abundant energy, moderate suspicion and limited preconceived notions. I say limited preconceived notions because I do not want to enter the adventure blindly yet I do not want to let expectations influence a scientific and methodical approach to discovery.  I feel experiences are very personal so it's rare that I recommend such an event like this to anyone because their expectations are likely different than mine. However, this is one of those occasions. 

The Lost Mountain Gods of Colombia hosted by Ancient Origins and Ashley Cowie was by far an experience drenched in history, adventure, intrigue, and ultimately discovery. I will forever be changed and indebted to the team for further investigations as time permits.

Wendi Newell – Team C

Every morning for seven days we wake to the sight of the mountain across the valley to the west. We learn to take in this view with excitement and dread. Can we endure one more day? We are there on a hopeful mission of discovery and learning and each day becomes a challenge and an adventure. The mountain at 10,500 feet will test our mettle and for many of us our endurance.

Day one on the mountain, Pena de Juaica . We climb the road to the start of the mountain trail. Already at 8,500 feet, our lungs are feeling the lack of oxygen in the air. We climb the trail halfway up just to get a taste of what is to come. Our first challenge.

Day two- Today we go to the top. This time we skip the road hike and are driven to the trail head. The hike up is slow but at the top, we are rewarded with a view of the valley and the now not so distant city of Bogota. We explore the rocky crevices around the look- out point and observe some evidence of modern day offerings. We leave them in place knowing this is a sacred place with spiritual meaning for many people.

Day three- Time to explore. We are looking for entrances to caves, and any evidence of the ancient Muisca people who once lived here.

Day four- Off the trail. Our goal is to make our way up to the side of the mountain through the bush. We hack our way through thickets of bamboo and climb on hands and knees to finally reach the rock face where we look for the caves said to be hidden in the mountain.

Day five- Off the trail again and then a night on the sacred mountain. We pitch our tents and ward off the swarms of mosquitoes anxious for a taste of our blood.

Day six – More exploring, still looking for the elusive cave.   That night we are privileged to witness a solemn Muisca prayer ritual and are given a blessing for a safe journey home.

Day seven- One more climb and one more search on the side of the mountain, then back to Bogota.

As we leave, we take a last look at the mountain we have come to think of as both a friend and a foe. It is a mountain of beauty and challenges and the story of the Muisca people.

Top image: Peña de Juaica sacred mountain, Tabio, Colombia      Image: Ioannis Syrigos

All images are copyright of Ioannis Syrigos/ Ancient Origins

By Ancient Origins

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