I lean against a palm tree and try to even out my breathing. This mountain hike is a little more difficult than I planned. Not sure why. I knew hiking to visit with the Indigenous of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park wasn’t going to be easy. Beyond the small fence, a three young children play with each other. Two women supervise in the shade of their hut. I bring up my camera and take a few pictures from where I stand. I haven’t been granted permission to enter their homestead. My guide, Carlos, is talking to an older Mamo, leader. He has stopped into chat and see if there is any news from the nearby village.
The Indigenous of Santa Marta are leery of outsiders. There are three tribes in Santa Marta. They each have a different level of tolerance for tourists. They are Kogi, Arhuaco, and Wiwa. I was going to a Kogi village; they are the friendliest, but that isn’t saying much. My guide is a friend of the tribe’s medical doctor. They have an arrangement that allows for tourists to visit the village and school. Carlos charges 80,000 pesos and of that, 40,000 pesos are donated to the village. I was there in late November and school wasn’t in session. So most of the villagers were in one of the higher altitude villages.
Carlos leads me further into the mountains. As we gain altitudes, I kept stopping and examining the ground. Carlos walk back to see why I keep stopping. “Ah, hormiga.” He laughs at my excitement over the leaf cutter ants. I can’t help it. It’s like watching the Animal Planet’s jungle show but in real life. The leafcutter ants form lines that lead from their home to a tree. They carry their bounties across the optical course that is the hiking trail.
After about another hour, we arrive at a stone wall. Carlos tells me to take a seat. He needed to see if his friend is in and get permission for me to enter. It takes him a few minutes. Carlos come back with the village Mamo. The doctor isn’t in the village, but the chief has granted me entrance. He does have a few requests. I am not allowed to enter the village dwellings or take photos of him or his family. I am welcome to eat any ripe fruit growing in the area. I agree to his requests and thank him for welcoming me to his home.
The Indigenous live a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Their main food sources is bananas and plantains. They grow other tropical fruits and sugar cane. They hunt for local animals from fresh meat. As they use the banana and plantain trees, they plant new trees. When they have used all the trees in a village, they move to the next village where their banana and plantain trees are ripe. They have between 7 and 11 homes in different villages. They do not have a formal planting method. They toss out the leftovers and let the plants grow.
Carlos leads me into the village and school. We stop in near a star fruit tree and pick some ripe star fruit. The school was set-up by the government of Colombia as part of outreach to the Indigenous. The school has a set of solar panels and running water. Some of the children live in the village while other from higher altitudes villages sleep in the dorms. The school teaches the children basic classes like math, history, and science. They also have classes in Spanish and the Indigenous language. Most of the teachers are Indigenous. They work hard at maintain their culture and pass it down their children. As we walk through the schoolyard, I notice a papaya tree. Carlos picks up a near buy stick. He carefully uses it to knock one the papaya off the tree. As it falls off the tree, he catches it before it hits the ground.
I bite into my juicy half a papaya. It is ripe and perfectly sweetness that is only obtained by tree ripening. We leave the school area and head towards the main village. A young man greets Carlos and walks over to us. I ask permission to take his photo. As I take his photo, I notice he keeps reaching into his woven red and white huallqui and eating something.
He holds the bag out to Carlos and Carlos pull out a hand full of leaves. It’s Coca Leaves. This is the plant that causes Colombia so many issues. For the Indigenous, coca leaves play an important role it their culture. It is used to stem fatigue, hunger, and thirst. It is used to as an anesthetic and as a treatment for bleeding. They gather the leaves and add some ilucta (ash of the quinoa plant). It helps with the flavor of the leaves. After adding the ilucta, the leaves are chewed. I tried chewing on some coca leaves. It tasted like bitter leaves. I didn’t notice any of the anesthetic effects. Coca leaves are not illegal to consume and will not cause a positive drug test. They are not addictive as well and hence will not require you to visit a drug rehab as well. Coca leaves go through several chemical processes before it becomes cocaine.
I chew on my coca leaves as we wander around the village. The Mamo’s wife is supervisor their 3 children while mending some clothing. The kid are like any other young children. They play with their puppies and chase each other around the hunts. One of the children’s puppies notice us and decide to investigate. He follows us around the village and barks to let them know where the intruders are. Like his owner, the puppy didn’t want his picture taken. He kept coming around one of the huts to bark at us. I set up with my camera and waited.
We left the village and started the long hike back down mountain. The hike felt easier since it was mostly downhill. About half way back, we meet a pair of Indigenous girls returning to their village. One of them agreed to let me take her picture. These girls will walk 20+ miles just to get supplies from the nearby town of Palomino.
I made it back to my hostel. I kicked by boots off a laid in the hammock. After almost 9 miles of hiking and exploring a village, it had been a long and trying day. I was ready for dinner and a nap.