Experience the Cultural Heritage of the Kogi People in Colombia’s Most Important Ecological Reserve
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After trekking through the steamy jungle of Tayrona National Park for a couple of hours along a rutted, muddy trail, my hair was damp and sweat streamed down my face. As I plodded along, suddenly a barefoot young girl on horseback crested the hill ahead and cantered by, her long black hair streaming behind her. I envied her agility and resigned myself to the fact that my middle-aged gait better resembled the pokey packhorses we had passed earlier, laden down with supplies for the village of Arrecife to which we were making our way. Tayrona National Park is Colombia’s most important ecological reserve; this route through lush tropical greenery is the equivalent of a highway for the locals whose presence here pre-dates the park’s creation in 1964.
Suddenly our guide Harold paused and pointed off to the left – barely visible amidst the dense vegetation was a clearing on which sat two round thatched structures–Kogi ceremonial huts. My sticky discomfort was forgotten in the excitement of coming face-to-face with the presence of a mystical people who refer to themselves as humanity’s “Elder Brothers.”
The Kogi are a Native American group indigeous to Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Reaching an altitude of 5700 meters above sea level just 42 km from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world’s highest coastal range. The Kogi civilization has existed since the Pre-Columbian era and today they have a population of approximately 12,000 people. The Kogi have long avoided contact with other people but concerns about dramatic, negative changes in their beloved mountain landscape have prompted a new approach. Kogi representatives recently begun to emerge from their self-imposed isolation high in the Sierra Nevada to share their message to respect the earth.
Making our way toward the huts, Harold stepped off the narrow, overgrown path toward a tree and pointed out a huge spider resting in its web in the branches; I was amazed that he had somehow spotted the creature from several feet away.
Kogi Consider Themselves World’s “Elder Brothers”; Rituals & Lifestyle Are Based on Keeping the World Harmonious and in Balance
“Wild life has meaning to the Kogis,” Harold said. “Everything has a meaning–the prints of the crabs on the land, the paws of jaguars on the trees, the sound of a woodpecker in the trees. Kogis think there are secret codes that Mother Nature sends; it is how they communicate with the surroundings.”
Harold showed us around the patch of land and educated us on the Kogi’s lifestyle.
He explained that the Kogi live on small farms in the mountains—villages exist only as a meeting place for people. Men and women live separately. Daughters live with mothers and sons live with fathers. The average family might have ten children.
The Kogi homes are circular, symbolizing the womb and Mother Earth. The roofs are made of palm wood and lianas–a long-stemmed vine–and the walls are made of mud and wood. The house the men live in has two peaks and the female’s house has one peak. Kogi’s spiritual leaders are known as Mamos and the people learn and share the tribe’s traditions in the ceremonial houses, which have two or more peaks and are called cansamaria or nunjue.
Harold explained that the Kogi girls wear clothing that has collars and boys typically carry bags. Children wear tunics, and when it comes time to marry, women change their attire to a dress with one bare shoulder and men wear dress pants and a shirt. Mamos can be identified by the peaked hat they wear.
Children who are chosen to become Mamos stay confined inside a hut for nine years, and are taught to sleep during the day and stay awake at night by the fireside. The buildings are kept dark to replicate the uterus. This lifestyle during their education is akin to being in the womb before birth.
Every living creature has meaning to the Kogi. Photo: Meg Pier
Harold told us that one of the Mamos’ responsibilities is making ritual offerings known as pagamentos in places connected with protective spirits. The Kogi believe it is necessary to do pagamentos to the spirits in order to keep the world harmonious and in balance. During the months of May and June the Mamos take pagamentos to beaches from their home in the mountains. One of the pagamentos is made with a piece of quartz crystal, which the mamo imbues with an intention through prayer and moves in a circular motion in his mouth, then places it in a container in the spring of the small river. This pagamento is called Java Nui or “mother river” and is known as “water seeding.”
The Kogis believe at the beginning everything was dark, there was no sun, no people, no animals, nor plants, there was only the sea. The sea was Aluna, the mother, and she was everywhere. She was part of the spirit world, she was the spirit of what was about to come, the beginning of all, she was thinking and memory.
Harold explained that Aluna created man and taught him about nature and how to speak to the nature, how to make predictions, and do offerings. He said the Kogi’s mythology teaches that they are “Elder Brothers” of humanity and living in the “Heart of the World,” the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. Those not living in the Heart of the World are called “Younger Brothers,” who were sent away long ago.
As we left the clearing, Harold pointed out some cocoa bushes, saying that the leaves are sacred to the Kogi and used only by the men. Chewing the leaves is done for medicinal purposes—it can cure an upset stomach. When ingested with lime a cocaine-like effect is produced. The Kogi will do that for a long walk, believing it stimulates their thinking on the journey. It is used for the same effect at the ceremonial house, where the shamans may use it to stay up all night for several days of prayer.
I asked Harold how he knew so much about the Kogi’s cultural traditions.
“When I was a guard in the Tayrona National Park, I knew a family who lived in the mountains, the kids used to come down to the beach,” Harold told us. “One day they came and said a woman was sick and so we went to help. They were very traditional and spoke very little Spanish and the woman didn’t want us to touch her, so we left. The next morning some of her kids brought her down the mountain, and there was a female doctor who tried to help her but when she was taken to Santa Marta, she died. Her family brought her body to the beach, where they wanted to bury her. I asked the park authorities for permission on their behalf, and from that moment we began to be close and start a strong friendship.”
“In the Sierra there are four different groups, Arhuacos, Wiwas, Kogi and Kancuamos,” he continued. “The Kancuamos were the first ones to go school and then to the university. Kogis are the most traditional, they didn’t want to go, but they realized a lack of education affected their ability to defend their rights and obtain necessities like healthcare. They prefer to receive classes from someone who knows the community but they accept that they need to know about the laws and the Colombian constitution to be able to participate in politics.”
“There is a political system among the tribes and 2.5 years ago there was a bunkua, or meeting, between the Kogi, Arhuacos, Wiwa and Kaukuamo to discuss a problem among the communities,” Harold explained. “A corrupt leader had taken money intended for conservation and didn’t distribute it properly among the community but gave more to friends and family. Mamo Ramon Gil of the Wiwa was an important leader in the Sierra who stopped the corruption. He was chosen by the ancestors, trust was given to him and he has been a great leader, able to manage conflicts well, together with other leaders.”
Back on the trail, we continued our walk toward Arrecifes at the eastern end of Tayrona National Park. Arriving at a huge clearing, we were met with the hustle bustle of a community centered around a cluster of buildings that catered to campers. Men with high rubber boots unloaded pack mules, Wiwa women squatted near displays of colorful woven bags they had made, backpackers with dreadlocks and tie-dyed t-shirts lounged and smoked cigarettes, and a young pair of twin girls played hide-and-seek from their mother. The walls of a concrete building with a thatched roof featured a mural depicting the Kogi in their flowing white tunics and pointed hats next to a scene of the arrival of the European conquistadors.
The scent of grilled meat and pungent spices wafted by and I realized I was starving. Tom and Harold had the same idea and soon we were seated in the cool shade of a cavernous open-air restaurant. Happy to be off my feet and getting rehydrated with a tall glass of cold water, I asked Harold how he came to become a guide.
He told us he was born in Puerto Nuevo, a little settlement in Guachaca. His family’s farm was a three-hour walk from the village. Harold has two brothers and one sister. When he was a kid his parents divorced, and he lived with his grandmother Beatriz who taught him many good values and beliefs. When he was nine years old, Harold’s grandmother died and his grandfather sold the family farm. Harold moved down from the mountain to Santa Marta where he lived with his mother.
“I lived for a while with my mother but it was difficult,” he said. “I began to work at the age of 10 years. I used to go to school in the afternoon, then I moved to a neighborhood that was home of many paramilitary. During the 90’s it was common to see kids as young as 12 years old carrying guns. The culture of violence began to rise and when visiting my town I could see nothing but violence and good people I knew became bad, the economy was around cocaine.”
“In 1998 and 1999 there were no tourists because the situation in the country was difficult, guerrillas stopped the cars and kidnapped people,” Harold said. “People didn’t go out and nobody took the risk to come. Sometimes guerillas tried to take the region but the paramilitary fought against them. However in 2002, the paramilitary of Cordoba and Uraba, two other regions near the coast, began a war that lasted for a few months.”
“When I was 14, I worked in a restaurant owned by my uncle at the entrance of Tayrona National Park, then at 18 I worked in the restaurants inside the park,” he explained. “In 1996, my uncle took a restaurant in Arrecifes, I went to work with him for three months, and built an oven to cook bread, which we sold to the tourists. The next year, I began to take courses to be a guide and began working as a guard in the park in 2005.”
“My certification as professional guide was given by the SENA,” he explained. “We studied guiding for two years, and we have workshops that allow us to continue studying and develop new workshops with the aid of the Red Cross, University of Magdalena, Defensa Civil, National Parks, etc. With this training, we have people competent to serve in tourism.”
“In 2006, I quit my work with Tayrona National Park, and I began speaking with the leaders of communities, explaining the importance of our natural resources and community-based tourism,” he said. “I talked to many people but only one, Don Pedro followed my idea. We began teaching farm men about tourism, nature and adventure with the help of different associations of the state: SENA (Sistema Nacional de Aprendizaje), which is an educational institution that benefits people who can’t afford university, ACCION and USAID. This has been a nice experience because the farmers have changed their thinking that cocaine was the only way to have a salary.”
Harold explained that now the farmers plant both cocoa and coffee, creating a touristic path, demonstrating to visitors the agricultural process from “plantation to cup,” as well as how to make chocolate. The idea is that farmers can be a part of tourism without leaving aside their work.
“Thanks to God and the state, in 2005 there was a peace process and the paramilitary turned in their weapons and cocaine was eradicated,” Harold said. “That’s when I began to teach. I have been always part of the community so I am able to talk to the people and make them see my situation as another way of life. I have taught them that you can reach your dreams without being a delinquent, or using drugs. They say often ‘If Harold did it, we can do it as well.’
“Now the government has many good projects teaching people how to work with tourism,” he continued. “They give us tools, for example kayaks, and different things to offer to people when they visit. We need to teach visitors that our traditions are very important and they are part of our identity as Colombians. This is part of the new ideas that need to be applied, but we have to be willing to learn and change our lifestyle and change our thinking and see that there is another way to accomplish things.”
“Now, we have 13 guides with professional credentials and 10 in the process of becoming professional,” Harold said. “Right now, we are working on the creation of a new route with the indigenous and farm men.”
Harold told us that before 2006, there were only 1.2 million visitors to Colombia; now there are three million. Before 2005, there were only backpackers who slept in hammocks and never worked with the guides, many of whom were young Israeli people who came after serving in the army. Now, there are increasing numbers of families, mostly French and German. Harold said four years ago he never saw Americans but beginning about two years ago, more began visiting Colombia.
Harold said the most important thing is that people now believe they can have a better life.
“I don’t have a lot of money, but I can be happy,” Harold said. “In 2003, people were paid with barrels of money. Cash was weighed rather than counted. The drug chief now is in a U.S. jail and he has nothing, not even liberty. Having peace is more important than having money. In the last years tourism has been growing and we are working hard to offer our visitors unforgettable experiences.”
Indeed, the afternoon offered an experience that was both peaceful and unforgettable. From the Arrecifes restaurant, within minutes we were walking on a strand of fine white sand, with a swath of lime green mango grove to our left and the lapping turquoise waves of the Caribbean to our right. Ahead, a steep mountain peak rose on the horizon line.
We approached a tidal pool where a blue heron and an egret stood side-by-side, an odd couple surveying the scene together. Along the shoreline were random groupings of two or three large boulders that resembled beached whales, their slick smooth surfaces glistening in the sun. We came to the mouth of a river emptying into the sea, wading through waist-deep water with a surprisingly strong current.
Eventually we reached a rocky outcropping and had to zigzag up and down steep hills on a winding path between massive scree, squeezing single-file past hippie chicks, backpackers, and Colombian families out for a day of fun. Harold pointed down toward our feet—right in our path a blue crab tentatively peeked out of his hole in the ground. Dusty and perspiring, we descended to the smooth sand of another gorgeous beach, where Tom and I made a beeline for the water. We luxuriated in the warm aquamarine sea while Harold sat with friends in the shade of palm trees.
Later, after the long hike back to the Eco Habs resort where we were staying, we said our good-byes to Harold. Tom and I reflected on the day and what an impression Harold had made on us. He seemed to exemplify the spirit of the Colombians we had met throughout our journey, people who had a special combination of hope and willingness to work hard, and were so quick with a welcoming smile. We felt uplifted by their collective energy and inspired by witnessing first-hand people engaged in transforming their lives and their country.
The next morning at breakfast, our waitress introduced herself—she was Harold’s wife. Lucy and Harold have been together since 2000 and have a nine year-old daughter, who has a Kogi name: Seinake, which means “Fertile Lands.” Her name was inspired by a good friend of Harold’s who is a Mamo and told him about a Kogi myth.
In the legend, Seinake was the last daughter of mother Aluna. Seinake had an admirer named Serankua who brought her music at night. Seinake wanted to marry Serankua but her mother opposed it. One day when Seinake’s mother was busy, she left with Serankua. The land on which they walked became blacker and fertile and flowers and fruits were born.
Lucy told us that Harold wants to build rafts of empty plastic bottles, working with the farmers in the mountains. She proudly added “Harold hopes to be a 21st century entrepreneur.”
He is on his way, Lucy. With that Colombian spirit, there will be no stopping him!
“The two important things I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be and that the most difficult part of any endeavour is taking the first step, making the first decision.”
– Robyn Davidson, 1950
Publisher and editor of www.BestCulturalDestinations.com (BCD), which profiles people engaged in creating & preserving culture, and celebrates our unique differences and shared human condition. BCD defines “Best Cultural Destinations” as those that teach us, and help us grow in understanding, compassion, and capacity for connection.