Colombian Travel Part 1: Indigenous Experiences

While in Colombia, I also took some time for personal travel aside from my aforementioned travel as part of my work with the YMCA.  Aside from small day trips here and there, I took three main trips.  I’ll just give a very brief description of the first two trips to give you an idea of them. I want this post to be mostly about the third, because that trip had more of the social focus that is the point of my travels and of writing this blog.

Party in the camarote for Carnival

My first trip was a bucket-list item: I went to Brazil for Carnival.  It also happened to be the most I ever invested in a Tinder date.  I had matched with a girl on Tinder last year who was living in Los Angeles then, but I was travelling at the time.  By the time I returned to LA, she had left to move home to Salvador, Brazil.  We stayed in contact and I often joked about visiting Brazil.  Since I was in South America, I decided to make good on the promise, and what better time than Carnival?  It truly was an amazing experience to see a celebration on such a grand scale.  I do not believe I have ever seen that many people in one place.  The night we went to the parade and partied in an amazing camarote overlooking the festivities, the parade went by for about 6 hours, with the streets packed the entire time.  And that was one of 3 parade circuits! And the camarote had its own amazing party going on inside and on the beach behind it.  There was much more I was able to see as well during my long weekend in Salvador, including the colorful and festive daytime Carnival celebrations. Even though nothing really romantic ever happened with my Tinder date, it still was an incredible event to behold and completely worth the trip.

A break during mountain biking to admire the view with Angus (from England) & John (from Canada)

The second trip was during Semana Santa, the week before Easter, which is basically a week-long holiday for Colombia (and most of South America).  That week, I went to San Gil in the Santander department, northeast of Bogotá.  This area is known as the adventure sports capital of Colombia, and did not disappoint in that regards.  My activities during that week consisted of rappelling down a waterfall; white-water rafting; mountain biking; hiking along the Camino Real (an originally indigenous road) from the colonial town of Barichara to the small village of Guane (where I tried chicha, a fermented corn drink for the first time); playing tejo (a Colombian game similar to cornhole or bags, but with gunpowder!) paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon; following along a Good Friday procession; and generally enjoying the small town environment in contrast to the sprawling metropolis of Bogotá.

My big trip, though, was visiting the Caribbean coast of Colombia for about two weeks after school went on vacation.  This area had been a travel goal since arriving in Colombia.  On my itinerary were the colonial highlight of Cartagena, the arduous Ciudad Perdida trek, the secluded beaches of Tayrona National Park, and the stark landscape of La Guajira.  The landscapes and adventures were incredible, but more important, especially in the context of this blog, were the learning experiences, especially in regards the struggles of the indigenous peoples (this post) and the sex and drug tourism industry (next post).

After a frustrating day in Bogotá, (I was pickpocketed the day before leaving on my vacation.  Luckily, I had a spare phone and credit/debit cards) I arrived in Santa Marta on the northern coast.  After getting checked into the hostel, I went to the store to pick up a few items as I was going to be leaving the next day on my Ciudad Perdida trek, and then walked around the city to get a feel for it.  It was relatively easy to walk around the small city and enjoyed seeing the beach for the first time in months.  (Yes, I actually have gotten used to being near a beach after 10 years in LA.)

The next morning, I walked to Magic Tours, one of only four companies allowed to operate tours to Ciudad Perdida.  Soon, I was in the back of a 4WD transport with the rest of the crew, about to spend 4 days hiking through the heat and humidity of the Colombian jungle.  Over those 4 days, the group got along extremely well, and our guide, Jose, was incredible.  In addition to his wealth of knowledge, he spoke his Spanish slowly and clearly, which helped my learning immensely, and I often understood prior to the translation.

On the way to Ciudad Perdida (just a little hot & humid…)

As sweat poured off us while hiking through the lush hills with overpacked backpacks (or perhaps that was just me), Jose would stop us on occasion to point out the variety of flora, and explain what they were as well as how they could be and have been used for generations by the local peoples.  At one point, one of the girls in the group had a slight stomach ache, and he made a concoction for her from one of the plants.

At night, after dinner, Jose would explain more about the region, and its tumultuous history: people fleeing the violence in Bogotá for a simpler life, then the influx of farmers and crops driving down prices, which then opened the door for coca and marijuana cultivation along with the drug cartels, followed shortly by the paramilitary groups.  His own father, who was a leader of local farmers, was kidnapped for a time by a paramilitary group while they were trying to gain control of territory.

Kogi dwellings

He also told of the native people and their customs.  He was part indigenous, on his mother’s side, but from a community further north.  However, he had been accepted into the local Kogi community, who were the main indigenous group in the area.  The Tayrona people, who had controlled the area before the Spanish Conquest, and who had built Ciudad Perdida, had been eliminated during their war of resistance against the Spanish.  Along the trek, we saw many Kogi people, in their simple white clothing and colorful bags, set against their dark skin, eyes, and hair.  Often, the men would be using their poporos, made from a gourd and received upon completion of their transition to manhood, and used to contain a seashell concoction that is part of their ritualistic method for chewing coca leaves.  The Kogi helped to support the trekkers, often acting as porters for supplies using burros and horses, as well as sometimes running refreshment stands along the way.  We also would see the simple round thatched dwellings of the Kogi, sometimes in a small settlement of a few dwellings; other times, there would only be one or two, and perhaps built a little more solidly with wood.

Ciudad Perdida

The morning of the third day, after climbing hundreds of ancient, narrow, stone steps, we arrived at our destination: the terraced complex of Ciudad Perdida. Surrounded by jungle and mountains, it is easy to understand why this place laid hidden for hundreds of years.

After a couple of hours of exploring the complex and listening to more of the history of the Tayrona people from Jose, we then went slightly down the hill away from the trail we came up, to another small thatched Cogi dwelling.

Kogi Shaman

There were a group of about 5 children sitting outside, with what looked to be the oldest taking care of the baby.  This was the home of the local Cogi shaman.  He was just finishing speaking with another group also led by an indigenous guide.  After which, he spoke to us in the Cogi language, with Jose translating into Spanish.  He was a middle aged man, with flowing long jet-black hair and a weathered face that looked as it had never once had a smile on it in his entire life.  He wore the traditional all-white clothing, except for black boots, and had a peaked cap that signified his esteemed position in the community.  The peak symbolizes the surrounding mountains.  He told us a little bit about his life; his studies to become a shaman; times he would go off into the mountain jungle by himself for a month or so at a time in order to commune with the spirits of nature; and other glimpses into his way of life.  After about 10 or 15 minutes, he then made his way off down a path leading into the jungle, disappearing as if making a dramatic cinematic exit.

A day and a half later, I was recovering from my exhaustion and insect bites back in a hostel in Santa Marta, waiting for my next excursion which would happen in only a couple of days: a tour of the remote and poor department of La Guajira, the northern most region of Colombia (and South America).

The trip to La Guajira was like visiting a whole different world, even from the rest of Colombia.  I was actually supposed to have gone to La Guajira a couple of months earlier as part of a program with the YMCA.  They were going to be supporting a medical mission in the area for the local Wayuu . However, for a variety of reasons, that opportunity fell through.  So now, I was doing a regular tour of the area.

Deserts of La Guajira

Although only a few hours away from the coastal jungle area of Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park, La Guajira is coastal desert, almost completely barren except for scrub.  There were areas of salt flats, and giant windswept sand dunes, and rocky outcroppings overlooking the ocean.  Ferocious winds often would pound at our different stops along the way.  When we stopped at one of the giant sand dunes, which sloped directly into the ocean, making for one incredibly large beach, the wind pelted us with the sand, feeling almost as if we were being aggressively exfoliated.   The community of Cabo de la Vela was a one road desert/beach town, with almost all of the buildings seemingly made of gathered sticks and limbs.  The threat of a mass fire destroying everything struck me almost immediately.

Throughout the three days of driving through the desert, our guide, Snyder, discussed the variety of difficulties facing the local people here.  A general lack of consideration from the government often means these people are forgotten, along with rampant corruption that often robs them of much of the miniscule funds that ever are targeted for development of the area.  The only industries that I could see were salt collection, fishing, goat herding, and the just beginning tourism industry.

Wayuu child waiting while his siblings begged along the side of the road

Along the desert “roads” were shelters of sticks that looked as if they would topple in a strong wind. In these shelters were often many children, who at the sight of an on-coming vehicle, would run towards the road with their arms outstretched, hoping for some treat: candy, fruit, crackers, even water was welcome.  Some of these shelters were set up as vendors, selling cactus fruits or homemade items such as bracelets or mochilas (colorful bags).  At other points, children had tied rags together, or used rope and string, and then tied one end to a shrub.  They would then be on the other side of the road holding up their corded gate to serve as a makeshift toll booth.  Sometimes drivers would stop and give a treat, other times they would simply honk and drive through, the children holding on to the sting until the last possible moment before letting go.  Government posters were displayed in restaurants and other stopping points to discourage this behavior, imploring tourists not to encourage it, as it is obviously dangerous.  Snyder pointed out the frustrating hypocrisy since the government hardly does anything to alleviate the underlying situation.

“School bus” in La Guajira

Our last night in La Guajira, we stayed near Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point of Colombia, and South America.  That next morning, at the little complex where we had slept, a group of about 7 or 8 children were gathering, wearing royal blue polo shirts as they were meeting there to ride together to school.  One of my co-tourists, Alex, and I tried to speak a little with the kids, but they were rather shy, and also preoccupied with a puppy.  After a bit, the children made their way to an old transport truck with a wooden gated enclosure on the back.  The children climbed over the wooden gates and into the bed of the truck, helping the smaller ones up and over the gates.  This decades-old transport truck served as their school bus, taking these indigenous students to receive the most basic of education.

By the end of the day, I was out of the impoverished desert of La Guajira and in a luxury cabana in the coastal jungle, outside of Tayrona National Park, enjoying a “jungle bird” cocktail, as the Rio Piedras flowed below my room and joined the crashing waves of the Caribbean.  The contrast of lifestyles did not escape me.

More info and how you can help:

Without going into complicated and heated discussions about the history of colonialism or current political situations involving indigenous peoples in the Americas (North and South) as well as other parts of the world, it is not a controversial statement to point out that indigenous populations have some of the highest rates of poverty and some of the highest rates of drug and alcohol abuse.  Even in my recent travels in the Amazon and Peru, it has been so informative to be able to have interacted with indigenous peoples here and learn about their histories and their current struggles (I will write about those interactions in later posts).  Indigenous groups back home in the United States have many of the same difficulties in their communities.

While I haven’t done any direct volunteer work with any of the indigenous communities in my travels, I did some research and here are some organizations working to help indigenous communities if you would like to learn more.  And, when you hear about issues involving indigenous communities, please try to take into consideration their perspectives and current struggles, and view the issues through empathetic eyes if nothing else.

International Indian Treaty Council: The first Indigenous organization to receive Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs:  One of the earliest international groups supporting indigenous peoples

Cultural Survival: Another large international group supporting indigenous peoples

Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia: The National Organization of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia (website in Spanish)

Top Native American Organizations to Know: An article listing many Native American organizations in the United States so you can find one that best fits your concerns and philosophies (education, economic development, women’s issues, etc.)