The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the largest coastal mountain in the world, rising majestically from pristine Caribbean beaches along Colombia’s northern coast through dense tropical forests, and peaking among glacial lagoons and snowcaps at 18,000 feet above sea level. Thanks to the 35 rivers that flow down from its peaks, the massif sustains life over a vast region of South America. The Sierra Nevada (Snowy Mountain) is home to the highly traditional Kogi, Wiwa and Arhuaco native peoples who, along with the now-assimilated Kankuamo, descend from the ancient Tayrona culture that flourished on the mountain until it was attacked by Spanish conquistadores in the 17th century.
Detailed studies by the US Geological Survey show that the glaciers on the Sierra Nevada have shrunk 75% since 1800, just as ice and snow are disappearing from mountain peaks the world over. The traditional peoples of the Sierra Nevada refer to the mountain as the Heart of the World. In their view, when the natural equilibrium of the Sierra Nevada is disrupted, the whole planet suffers. They are deeply alarmed by the melting of the glaciers on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which indeed bodes ill for high-altitude glaciers the world over.
I made these images on assignment for National Geographic Magazine, with the approval of the indigenous authorities of the Kogi, Wiwa and Arhuaco peoples.