Before we went to Medellin, we’d spent a lot of time in the cities of Cartaganea and Santa Marta on the Coast. After a couple weeks, we were ready to get out of the city for awhile and see what the land was like.
We decided to trek through the jungle for 5 days to Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City). Prior to the trip, Christina was less confident with our ability to hike for 5 days straight and I was overconfident with our ability. It ended up Christina was correct to be less confident.
On the first day we took a van an hour into the jungle, then another hour on a dirt road until we arrived to Mamey, our starting point. (The town of Mamey was renamed “Machete” – Why would someone rename a town “Machete” you might ask?- Prior to 2004 when the Colombian army took over the region many farmers from surrounding areas would go into Mamey for drinks at night. If one farmer had a daily dispute with another, they would settle it in town that night after a few drinks by way of a machete fight. These fights happened so often during this time period that the locals decided to rename the town Machete.)
The first day of hiking, from Machete to campsite #1, was supposed to be an easy walk through the jungle. After about 30 minutes of leisurely walking, and smiling often, we hit our first set of switch backs, which Christina and I later renamed “Devil’s Backbone”. Devil’s Backbone was approximately 100 switchbacks and about 4,000 ft of an elevation change.
We didn’t know if it was Devil’s Backbone, the 100 degree heat, the humidity (that made us feel like we were breathing into a wet towel), the perpetual sweat (that was blinding our eyesight), the variable terrain, the volatile conditions or the possibility that we were just really out of shape that made this so hard.
After a few days the difficulty continued and we decided that we were just in fact very out of shape. We came to this realization after our guide Jhon asked us if we were ill and that is why we were hiking so slow.
With great challenge comes great reward and we were extremely rewarded by the site of The Lost City, the interaction we had with the indigenous Kogi people, and the spectacular views. Neither of us regret this arduous journey for one second.
After the hike was over we hired a van to take us from Machete back to the city of Santa Marta. The van started at the top of the only road in Machete and slowly drifted down the hill and out of town. As we drifted down the hill people started to run up to the van from their houses and businesses asking the driver for things to bring back/bring to Santa Marta. One guy just yelled from his restaurant “pig and chicken!” and the driver gave him a thumbs up and rolled on out of town. I couldn’t help but think what a vague order that was. If someone asked me to pick up “pig and chicken” I would surely have at least three follow up questions.
At the bottom of the town, a mother quickly kissed her two kids and threw them in the back of the van next to two dirty gringos. We then drove 20 minutes out of town and stopped on the side of the road. The driver turned off the van without saying anything, got out and walked to a roadside store, ordered a milkshake, plopped down in a plastic chair facing the van and proceeded to stare at us locked inside, while he slowly drank his milkshake. Everyone else on board seemed unfazed by this. About 10 minutes passed by before a man inside our van yelled “Vamanos!” and we were soon back on our way to Santa Marta. I can’t help but think what the reaction might have been if this bus ride had happened in the U.S. Probably just a lot of impatient scowls until the people made it home to negatively review this experience on TripAdvisor.
- While in the jungle we passed by Colombian military every 30 minutes or so. At first we thought their presence was a bit intimidating but our guides knew each one of the troops and once we started talking to them we discovered they were their for training. Their presence actually meant the area was very safe. In Colombia, you start to realize the more military that is around you, the more secure the area is.
- Likewise, the younger the active troops are in a specific region the more secure that region is. (The older more experienced troops are usually sent to the areas of conflict while the younger, less experienced troops tend to operate in secure regions).
- The way to tell if a soldier is a member of the National Army of Colombia is by their boots. The National Army are given military issued boots where the other armies will wear regular shoes. So when you see a guy dressed in army fatigues with Air Jordans you should run.
The Kogi People
One of the best parts about the time we spent in this region was being able to meet and learn about the Kogi tribe.
Short History: The Kogi are descendants of the Tairona people of coastal Colombia. They have inhabited Colombia since the 1st century A.D. Around 1,000 A.D. they were forced from the coast by the Carib people and retreated inland to the Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia. When the Spanish arrived 500 years later the Kogi were able to avoid most of the Spanish conquest by living in remote areas of the mountains that the Spanish could not get to. There are approximately 20,000 Kogi people living in Colombia today.
Our interaction: The first meeting we had with the Kogi people was in Minca before the Lost City trek. We were staying at a campsite on top of a mountain and 3 Kogi men were camping right next to us. We came to find out that these men walked 4 days to the top of the mountain to celebrate a Kogi boy becoming a man. What I like to call a Kogi Bar Mitzvah. During the Kogi Bar Mitzvah the men were not allowed to sleep and they spent the nights chewing coca leaves, drinking Aguadente, and praying to their Gods.
I wish I could explain more about the significance of this celebration, but a lot of it is still unknown to people outside the tribe. The Kogi work hard to keep their cultural integrity and they don’t often share information about ceremonies and rituals with others.
After this experience, while on the trek, we were able to speak with two different Kogi men in Parque Tayrona where we asked them questions about their life.
What we do know:
- The Kogi people live off the land and they do not hurt or destroy the land they were given by their Gods. (Taking care of the land is one of the most important aspects of the Kogi culture).
- They’ve built small huts on their land, but often choose to live nomadic lives so they do not acquire possessions and take too much from one piece of land.
- The Kogi dress in all white and do not have a written language. They record all of their history verbally.
- In daily life, some Kogi live among other Colombians but choose sleep outside the towns and cities while others remain completely isolated in the mountains.
- The Kogi believe women are closer to the land so they hold them with a higher regard than men. There is no domestic abuse in the Kogi communities and there is virtually no crime. When I asked the Kogi man, Antonio, what the biggest crime was in the community he thought for awhile and responded that the biggest crime was to have relations with a women before being married (which doesn’t seem like much of a crime to me).
- The Kogi men chew coca leaves all day long. They have been doing this for over 1,000 years and it is an important part of their culture. When the government began cracking down on coca farming, in an effort to stop cocaine production, they allowed the Kogi to continue raising their own plants, since it is considered sacred to them and they never abused the plant. (Also, because its a pretty rude to invade a culture, steal their land, and then tell them they can’t do the one sacred thing they have been doing for thousands of years all because people in a different country are starting to put this plant up their nose.)
- The Kogi pray for humanity. When we asked Antonio if the Kogi liked us foreigners trespassing on their land, he responded as if to say of course we like it, we pray every day that the foreigners we meet traveling on our land have safe passage and a good life.
- The Colombian people and the government treat the Kogi people very well. Not only are the Kogi given free education and healthcare (if they choose), it is easy to see the respect the Colombians have for them in the way they respectfully talk to them and about them. Several times on this trip I have seen Colombians give free meals and tools to Kogi without being asked to do so.
The Kogi people are fascinating to me. Against all odds they’ve managed to maintain a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable livelihood for thousands of years. In today’s world, it seems impossible for a culture to survive on the backbone of peace, compassion, community, and simplicity while detesting violence, pollution, development, and worldly desires. The Kogi live in harmony with the land, their wants don’t extend their needs and their lives appear to be happy and fulfilling. The lessons we learned from the Kogi could be great lessons for all of humanity. Their continued existence gives me hope for the future.
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