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Kogi family in Colombia

A DAY WITH THE KOGI – SIERRA NEVADA DE SANTA MARTA, COLOMBIA

by Petra Shepherd

Colombia is possibly Latin America’s most beautiful country. The capital Bogota, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast and the coffee region have long been on the radar and lived up to all my expectations on a visit in February this year, they were as dynamic, romantic and gorgeous as I had imagined. However, it was a full day tour through Journey Latin America to visit the Kogi, an indigenous group that lives in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in Northern Colombia that was the undoubted highlight of my stay.

I based myself for two nights at Playa La Roca Ecohotel, bang on the beach, 30 minutes from Tayrona National Park and ten minutes from the small, relaxed beach town of Palomino. The latter is already an established traveller destination, a little scruffy and busy with the back packer crowd. Playa La Roca on the other hand is blissfully quiet and a place to enjoy the natural way of life. Rustic and romantic are two words that instantly spring to mind when staying here, my room was metres from the sea and I was lulled to sleep to the sound of breaking waves. The beach is beautiful and secluded, although sadly the sea too rough to swim in, but instead it’s a place to switch of from the world whilst relaxing on a wayu hammock or on one of the beachfront daybeds or swing seats. Meals are also simple using fresh local food with the seafood (an obvious choice) being both tasty and healthy.

playa la roca Colombia

However, I hadn’t come to Colombia to purely chill on the beach, I was itching to meet some of the local Kogi people and hear more about their way of life. As a single traveller the easiest and most convenient option was to be driven high into the nearby mountains as a passenger on the back of a sturdy motorbike, expertly and safely driven by my English-speaking local guide. The journey starts easily enough on the main tarmacked highway heading north, admiring the natural beauty of the Palomino River and smiling at the yellow road signs warning of anteaters crossing. We then headed onto a bumpy dirt road, bouncing along for several miles when I first spot some of the Kogi.

The Tayrona culture inhabited the Sierra Nevada prior to the Spanish Conquest. Following the conquest, its population of around one million inhabitants began to decrease to the point that it almost disappeared. At present, four indigenous communities that preserve their ancient traditions amount to about 30,000 people. They are the Kogis, Arhuacos, Wiwas, and Kankuamos. The Kogi community occupies the northern area of the Sierra, among the valleys of the Don Diego, Palomino, San Miguel, and Ancho rivers. Its members live in circular dwellings called “bohíos” and are under the authority of the Mamo, an elder that embodies ancestral wisdom and is the bridge between the spiritual and the terrestrial.

Our final destination was a traditional Kogi village, where with my guide I was able to wander freely, meeting mainly the mothers who were happy to welcome me into their bohios and proudly present their shy and lovable babies. I visited the school, just as the beautifully behaved children were lining up for a healthy lunch of chicken and rice. A plate balanced in one hand, a plastic mug of water in the other, before taking their place at plastic tables and chairs in the shade.

Kogi children queuingfor lunch

The Kogi all wear only pure white clothing. They say that white represents the Great Mother and therefore the purity of nature.

A Kogi Farmer

The Kogi all wear only pure white clothing. They say that white represents the Great Mother and therefore the purity of nature.

The tutus, or Tayona shoulder bags, stood out. The indigenous women weave them using wool, sisal, and cotton. The bags symbolize the creation of life. It was all totally authentic and utterly fascinating. It was just me, my guide and the Kogi all day. I loved it. Just as we were leaving, my guide asked if I wanted to swim (I never go anywhere without my swimming costume and a travel towel) just in case the opportunity arises – I’m an avid swimmer. The perfect day was therefore made complete by the opportunity to cool down in a crystal-clear river, deep enough to properly swim, complete with boulders to jump off from and again not a sole in sight.

Meeting the Kogi people was just one of many new discoveries on my visit to this fascinating country but it was the one that left the most unforgettable impression.

Kogi Village

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    After graduating in Computer Science, Paul spent seven months travelling from Colombia to Argentina and came home hooked on Latin America.

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