Indigenous People of Colombia: Sierra Nevada & Guajira

Indigenous People of the Sierra Nevada
While on our trek to Ciudad Perdida, our guide Archie explained to us about the beliefs of the indigenous tribes of the area. In the Sierra Nevada there are different groups, different tribes and each have slightly different beliefs and practices, but they also have many things in common. I am by no means an expert, and all the information I relay here is second hand from our tour guide.

The groups in the Sierra Nevada chew on coca leaves. This helps alleviate the effects of the high altitude, and also gives them many of the effects associated with cocaine. At the age of 18, each boy receives his own instrument to grind the leaves, and this is symbolic of his becoming a man. At 18 he is also found a wife, and married off to her. The wife usually won’t be 18- as soon as girls begin their periods, they get married and start to have children. This is due to a belief they have about menstruation; that the blood attracts evil bats, and in order to keep them away it is necessary for women to be eternally pregnant. This shocked us a lot, and it was something that truth be told we were not completely comfortable with- and it caused quite a debate in our group about what point something changes from an aspect of culture that needs to be respected, into an issue of human rights. When a couple get married, the family of the groom offer something to the bride’s family. This is usually composed of land and livestock. If the woman is unfaithful, her family must pay back 3 times what they were given- despite the fact that the men have several wives and can do as they please. They have Shaman chiefs, who lead and rule on religious, health and economic grounds. Shamans perform marriages and funerals, and lead the communities in other religious events- such as calling for good harvests or rainfall.

Indigenous People of La Guajira

The main group of indigenous people in La Guajira are the wayuu, and our guide Maikel on that trip explained to us several aspects of their culture. When they marry, the groom’s family makes an offering to the bride’s family. This is normally made up of goats- which will come to no surprise to anyone who has visited La Guajira as there are goats everywhere. The indigenous people in La Guajira are more integrated with the Colombians. They have married amongst each other, they do normal jobs and they lead normal Colombian lives- and although many of them retain indigenous practices and beliefs, many others have converted to Christianity. To the wayuu people, anyone born with a disability is highly cherished in the community, and are never discriminated against. They believe that those with disabilities are blessed with other talents and skills, and should be loved entirely.

La Guajira: Cactus, Goats and Lots of Sand


The morning after our farewell night out together in Santa Marta, the remaining group of Kirsty, Jay, Alex, Heather and I were up bright and early to set off on our desert adventure in La Guajira. Our morning bus to Riohacha was uneventful and we mainly dozed, only to wake up in a biosphere completely different from the one we set out from. In hot and sandy Riohacha we found a man to take us to Uribia in his car. Great- way better than a stinky crowded bus. It was nice to get in among the air conditioning… Until we noticed the headline on the newspaper on the back seat. Emblazoned on the front page was a picture of a crashed car, under a title about two dead. It was the same model of car we were in. Travelling along the same road. Fun times.

Once in Uribia we were shuffled over to another car and our driver Maikel (Michael… Don’t ask; Colombians have weird spelling rules) took us along the windy path to Cabo de la Vela. Once there we were mesmerised. Shanty huts, some small brick buildings and little tiendas lined the single road of this small coastal town. Maikel found us a place to stay, with his wife- and they offered us the small brick room they had constructed to accommodate for tourists. It had light until 9pm, 2 beds and 2 extra mattresses- and we were welcome to use the toilet out the back too (using a bucket of water to flush of course). Maria even offered to get us a pail of agua dulce (fresh water) so we could have a wash. Delightful! It wasn’t exactly luxury, but we were here for the adventure and this was a part of it.


We went and got some lunch. Fish and rice, with salad and patacon. Standard Colombian food really. Afterwards, Maikel drove us up to El Faro (the lighthouse) to watch sunset. Kirsty and I lagged behind a bit as Jay, Alex and Heather sprinted to the top of the hill to watch the sun say goodbye. Kirsty and I got their kind of just on time. We maybe missed it a wee bit, but we still had fun and got some nice photos.

That night we snacked on fruit salad and natural fruit juices, and got back to our bedroom to hit the hay.
The next morning we went off to the beach, and to see La Virgen with all the kids in the family and a lovely couple (a German man and his beautiful Colombian girlfriend). La Virgen was nice- a large rocky hill that was an important wayuu (indigenous peoples) site, with a statue of the Virgin Mary on top. There were great views of the coast; the rugged rocks and sandy beaches and we could see across most of the sandy and cactusy landscape of Cabo de la Vela. Down at the beach the three boys got straight in the ocean… Well two of the boys got straight in as I slowly meandered deeper into the water. These waves were bloody massive. Dozens of Colombians were laughing and screaming as they crashed through the waves, ducking and diving over and under the water. Anytime I tried it, I got a firm smash of my face into the sand, and was then dragged across the sandy bottom of the ocean. A few of the times I actually thought I might drown. Exciting stuff.

We had a little lunch. The options available were fish, fish or fish. We all plumped for fish, most of us getting the fried option but Kirsty and Jay went for something else. “It tastes like tuna doesn’t it? What type of fish is it?”. Maria had delight in telling us it was tiburon, or shark as we might call it. Wow. (Everyone knows I am bloody afraid of sharks…)

All together that afternoon we packed our stuff up onto the jeep, as our group along with the couple… And the entire family headed off to see Punta Gallina, the most northern part of Colombia and South America. Initially a bit annoyed by the whole family cramming into the jeep, we were quickly in good spirits as reggae started blasting from the radio and a mini choir (Alex and me) was formed. Colombians love listening to me sing for some reason. They even played a few Shaggy songs too- at which point Heather had her hands in the air, rapping along to every word. “I wanna show da nation my appreciation.”


The desert was different from what I had imagined. The road was windy and long… And calling it a road is a bit of a stretch- it was a dirt trail. Most of it was heavily covered in cactus and other arid trees, until we reached large flat sandy plains, which were partly covered in salt. Apparently these plains were used by drug traffickers to land their planes and load up on all sorts of illegal stuff. We had no idea how Maikel knew the way… Everywhere looked the same. There were goats everywhere- hundreds just running about among the cactus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many.
Across the path there were many children and even some families with ropes stretched across the road, blocking our way. They were looking money or sweets, some were trying to sell things. We must have passed about a hundred or so. That evening we arrived in pitch darkness. In the hostel we all grabbed a hammock, had a bite to eat and set off to sleep.

In the morning we set off to see the sights. First was Punta Gallina, the most northern part of Colombia and South America. There was a small brick building to mark the point, and we all got our pictures taken at the top of this crazy country and continent. We then went along to some nice beaches. I helped Maikel and Maria’s daughter collect shells. Little did I know that she was going to bury some in a grave, and release others out to sea. Interesting. We even had time to take another pyramid photo- this is becoming the staple pose of the British Council assistants group.

20130131-151356.jpgOur next stop was spectacular- the spot where the ocean meets the desert and all vegetation stops. It was like scenery from Aladdin. Pure golden sand, with pure blue sky. Not a cloud or cactus in sight. We ran about, rolled in the sand- ran in the water and took awesome jumping photographs. This was probably the most stunning part of the desert yet. A piece of earth so different to anything I’d ever been on before, and exactly like the desert I had imagined.

We made the long journey back, stopping for lunch. To our surprise the menu had changed- and we all tucked into goat instead of fish. To my surprise it was delicious. I will certainly be eating it again. That night we once again stayed in Maria’s room. We played with the kids a bit before getting some shut eye. In the morning we made the journey backwards and in Riohacha killed some time at the beach and getting food. We failed in our quest to haggle with street vendors of souvenirs, and said our final goodbyes as we all went our separate ways at the end of a wonderful trip.


Our guide, Maikel, told us many stories about the indigenous people of La Guajira. I have written about this here


Ciudad Perdida / The Lost City

Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) is like the Machu Picchu of Colombia: located deep in the Sierra Nevada it is an old city built by indigenous people where their Shaymans (religious leaders) lived with their wives and families. It is still occasionally used today by the indigenous people when they hold special ceremonies and events- such as calling for good harvests, important funerals and weddings and religious festivals.

On our first day our guide (Archie) picked us up and with 11 of us cramped into the back of a 4×4 we set off on thumpy, bumpy and definitely not comfy drive to the start of the Sierra Nevada. After a quick lunch we set off on the trail. The path was a sandy, clay-like road carved through the ground that twisted up through the mountains. There was little cover from above and the sun beat down on us strongly. It was a tough walk that seemed never ending. Halfway along Kelli spotted an orange tree, so we spent about 20 minutes throwing rocks and branches at it until we managed to procure a little snack. The oranges were super bitter and hard to suck on- but they gave us some good hydration and a bit of a boost to keep us going. We quickly got into the jungle and had our first break- at a small pool in the river where we all jumped off the rocks and swam for a while. It was here we saw some humongous spiders that ran across water. I made a hasty exit from the pool on seeing those.

We arrived at our next break stop, Watermelon Mountain as we dubbed it, and had a good big piece of sandia, while chatting to a 4 year old girl who was hilarious and avoiding the huge pack of chickens and roosters that occupied the tiny village.
We marched on and finally got to our camp for the night- we all showered, got a great big dinner and spent the night playing cards with some Colombian kids (who I taught to say “You are boring” to the others, hahahaha) before going to sleep in our hammocks.

After night one the pace picked up and we walked for several hours each day. Some of us bitched about the ones marching on ahead to the front, others bitched about those coming up too slowly behind- and everyone bitched about bloody Mosquitos. After spending 6 months trying to dodge slow walking Colombians, we were amazed to be overtaken by a family from sasa-city Cali, and other groups of Colombian tourists. We couldn’t believe it; fast Colombians? Surely not.

The terrain ranged from the clay sandy trails, to riverside walks and treks into deep jungle. Colourful butterflies seemed to constantly encircle us, we spotted a (dead) snake, and lots of tropical birds.
After night 2 the novelty of sleeping in a hammock had disappeared, and the reality of an uncomfortable nights sleep in the cold was hard to deal with. The food was great- our chef Yorman made great meals and often surprised us with treats of chocolate bars and lollipops. Everyone’s dietary needs were taken into account as I was always given an alternative when eggs or cheese were on the menu, there was a veggie option every day and Alex was delighted that he never had to eat the soup (much to Rob’s disappointment, who thought putting soup on a food no-list was a bit silly).

On Day 3 we arrived at the camp outside the city, and began the long staircase of rocks up to the lost city. The steps were slim, slippery and steep and it was quite a challenge. Boy in blue shorts, a Colombian who only wore blue shorts (much to the girls’, and some boys’, delight) was putting us all to shame as he marched past us. “He’s well fitter than us” was Heather’s response… To which he confidently replied, “That’s not true”… We really should stop presuming that people don’t speak English!
20130123-163446.jpgWe finally reached the bottom of the city, and had a quick rest before heading in. Due to some bowel problems a certain member of our group (Whose dignity I will spare) had to run off to do a No.2 in the woods surrounding this UNESCO World Heritage Site- to be fair to him, he wasn’t the only person with toilet troubles, as we nearly all had some kind of poo problem along the trek (including one of us who nearly shit themselves in the shower… Again I won’t mention names!)

At the top Archie explained what each bit was, explaining to us about the Shaymans and the rituals they carried out. The site was impressive- it was easy to imagine the buildings that would have existed and the small community of leaders who lived in this mountaintop town. It had spectacular views across the mountains and we got some pretty swell photos. My red vest had been ideal for hiking in hot, sticky conditions- but unfortunately wasn’t the most flattering piece of clothing to wear in so many photos!

The walk back was a long one, but we strived on to complete it in just two days of hiking and managed to pull it off. We had a big celebratory lunch when we got back to our starting point, and then endured what was the hardest bit of the whole 5 days… The cramped, shakey jeep ride back into Santa Marta.
Our guide, Archie, told us many stories about the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada, which I have written about here.


Carnaval is coming!

Last night Carnaval was officially opened, as the mayoress of Barranquilla handed over the key of the city to La Reina De Carnaval (Queen of Carnaval). There was a big ceremony in the Romelil Martinez football stadium, and wonderful fireworks that could be seen across the city. The night before I went to a parade … Continue reading