A trek back in time: staying with the native American Kogi

Kogi girls and their teacher walking back home from school. (Author: Magdalena Vaculciakova, @magdalena)

Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine an opportunity to observe so close the lives of the native American Kogi. They invited us to immerse into the wilderness of the jungle that they have been protecting since before the Spanish came to Colombia. We saw them fragile, yet strong. Pure, yet challenged by sordid interests. Inspirative, yet not trying to inspire. So protective of “The Great Mother”, Aluna.

Our backpacks are ready for a five days adventure in the Colombian jungle of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. We carry hammocks and a sleeping bag, repellent, spare clothes, swimming suits as we will take baths in the waterfalls, some cans with sardines, rice. We also bought and packed some batteries and files to exchange them for food with the Kogi. Our guide Joshua told us that they do not use money. A stinky dried fish is usually a well appreciated gift for El Mamo. As we strive to meet this spiritual leader up in the mountains, we packed the fish too.

Unexpected beginning

Thinking we are prepared, we start trekking from sea level in the village of Palomino in northern Colombia. We have not even reached the first, yet very low peak, when Noel starts vomiting the breakfast he ate an hour ago. As if it was a sign that you can only enter these sacred mountains clean.

Beach in Palomino, northern Colombia (Author: Noel Rojo, @rojonoel)

Despite the harsh beginning and his upset stomach, Noel wants to continue trekking.

We met each other two weeks ago. After a short chat in a jazz bar in northern Thailand and seven months of talking online, we decided to travel together. We wanted to get to know each other in the conditions that only the day-to-day life of travellers create.

I came to Colombia with an idea of visiting a Kogi tribe. I know there are easier ways to get to their villages. There are some which are adjusted for tourists who pass by on the way to the ancient city of Ciudad Perdida. This famous Colombian tourist attraction was not what a journalist is searching for.

From the moment we got off the bus in Palomino, Noel was asking around to see how we could arrange the trekking off the beaten path. The slopes and peaks of the Sierra Nevada are not a place where you go on your own. It was not an easy task but he managed to find us a guide who invited us to the mountains, to visit his family.

Coming from Mexico, Noel himself has native American blood. We both were curious about how the Kogi people live in connection with nature. I am not sure, though, if we knew how much effort and suffering this experience would cost us. Looking back, recalling all the memories from Sierra Nevada, we have not once regretted this decision. It made us stronger — I would say, more mentally than physically, and it helped us build a good base for our relationship.

Who is El Mamo?

A Mamo paying an offering to the sea. (Author: Noel Rojo, @rojonoel)

The goal I had on my mind was clear: I wanted to meet El Mamo.

“El Mamo knows how to keep the world in balance, he knows what nature and people who live there need. He is not a shaman, who heals individuals,” Joshua explains as we are slowly putting one step in front of another.

The Kogi gave their name to everything around us. Aluna. El Mamo understands Aluna.

Spiritual leaders of the Kogi people are selected for this important role right after their birth. They have to undergo a strict training that starts from the moment they are born. Older Mamos and the mother take the baby to a dark cave where they take care of him for up to nine years . They teach him how to attune to Aluna. Being in a dark place or eating food that has no taste will teach the future Mamo to refine his senses. Only when he is prepared, he leaves the cave and enters the outside world.

“This idealistic idea of ​​the dedication of El Mamo is currently disappearing. Some of the spiritual leaders remain in the dark for only a year,” an American anthropologist Lucas says. He has been living with the Kogi for five years. El Mamo’s position and the respect the tribe has for him does not change despite the easier training.

The spiritual leaders give offerings to natural spirits and perform different rituals to connect with Aluna. They listen to what it needs and ask for permission to intervene in nature. Harvesting or building new huts are usually accompanied by special ceremonies.

El Mamo gives a blessing to couples to marry, in some cases the Kogi people approach the leader to ask who they should marry. They also request protection or possible solutions when facing problems.

El Mamo is the one to decide the disputes among the Kogi. When someone steals a chicken from a neighbor, El Mamo gives the punishment. The punishment sometimes is a lesson learned at the end. El Mamo, for example, can send a thief to pay offerings to the spirits up in the mountains. The person charged for the crime has the whole journey, which can take up weeks — to realise what he has done. He also talks to other Mamos up in the mountains. After returning, the perpetrator is not looked down on by the community but respected for having gone through such an ordeal.

Message from the Kogi

I am carrying a bigger backpack as Noel has very little energy. Not that I would be in the best shape, last time I was trekking for five days in a row was… well, never. Hard to say who is more worried about the other one making this till the end.

Yet, the Colombian jungle makes up for all the sweat dripping down from our foreheads and backs. We hike up and go down very steep slopes. Some trees are so high that my view cannot reach the top of their crowns. Here we have to jump over a snake, it seems like a miracle that Noel saw it with his peripheral vision; there we spot a lizard. Real wildlife starts where the bumpy road ends. No motorbikes, no cars, only a narrow path to walk. No signal. If Joshua wants to send a message to his wife, he will have to climb up a tree at a spot he already knows works. You could probably count these spots on one hand.

Joshua is catching the signal to call his wife. In the middle of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the only connection is that with nature. (Author: Noel Rojo, @rojonoel)

These are the woods where the Kogi people escaped from the Spanish. They were never conquered by the Europeans during colonisation. They never let them in to the Sierra Nevada. Yet, after living in isolation for hundreds of years, there came a moment when they could not be looking at the destruction of the planet anymore. They decided to come down from the mountains and talk to us.

In the nineties, the Kogi asked a documentary film maker from BBC Alan Ereira to create a movie with them, as they wanted to send us a message. They consider themselves the Elder Brothers and in their eyes, we are the Younger ones. The Kogi wanted to tell us we were not treating Aluna like it deserves. On the contrary, we were destroying it. In the documentary they talked about global warming too, and the film had an enormous success. Yet, another one, called Aluna had to be made, as we did not understand the message in the first movie.

Big was my curiosity that was driving me to find El Mamo, to ask him how he sees climate change and our effort to fight it nowadays.

Poporo

After about three hours of immersing ourselves deep into the jungle, we stop by a river to have lunch. A young Kogi couple joins us with a tiny child wrapped in a white shawl tightened around the forehead of the mother.

Once considered an adult, every man has his own poporo. (Author: Noel Rojo, @rojonoel)

As it is a courtesy here, Joshua and the man exchange coca leaves they have hidden in their traditional bags. The exchange is inconspicuous, as if it never happened.

Coca is a key plant for the Kogi. Every adult man has his own poporo. A gourd, filled with lime powder which is used to extract the alkaloids in coca leaves.

Chewing coca leaves is a form of meditation for Kogi men, it is their way to connect to nature. They wet the wooden stick with their saliva, put it inside the gourd to extract the powder and then mix it with coca leaves in their mouths.

They rub the mixture created in their mouths around the poporo, as if they were writing the thoughts that come to their mind when chewing. With every layer of the mixture, the poporo grows. Every poporo has a different shape because of this.

The gourd has a sexual symbolism too, the Kogi explain. The gourd represents the female body, and the wooden stick is the symbol of masculinity.

When using coca leaves, the Kogi people need very little sleep and they work very hard all days long.

No entry!

Chewing coca leaves throughout the day and being trained better, Joshua walks a lot faster than us. No matter how much we try to keep up with him, we are only able to reach our first stop right before the sunset.

The first thing we do is to find a place by a river to clean ourselves from all the sweat. Finding a place to pee is a challenge though. When I finally feel I am alone, there is a Kogi who comes out from behind the trees. In these kind of moments, I always envy men.

Inhabitants of Kasa Kumake and our shelter for the first night in the Colombian jungle (on the right). (Author: Magdalena Vaculciakova, @magdalena)

The village of Kasa Kumake seems almost empty. We are not allowed to enter though. There is a wooden house with no walls, where we set up our hammocks and a fire to make dinner and to be warm at night.

The Kogi are semi-nomads. They have various settlements in different parts of the mountain range. The highest peaks reach up to around 6000 meters above sea level. Only Mamos can enter these heights. Sierra Nevada contains three different levels according to the Kogi. Each of them requires a different condition to fulfil if one wants to enter. Some places in the jungle are only to make offerings.

The Kogi move from one settlement to another. They grow different crops around them, and usually plan their moves according to the harvest. It can take a few days to reach another of their settlements. Villages are rarely inhabited unless there is some sort of gathering.

The Kogi and time

After the night on a wooden floor and hours of a long and tedious trek, we sit down by a creek. Joshua was again walking ahead of us, and while waiting for us, he found out El Mamo was around. “We are lucky,” he says.

Joshua talks to him to see if we can meet him and he comes back with an invitation: “He will talk to you, if we stay here.” It is a dream come true, I think to myself. Yet, I have no idea at that moment what we are about to experience!

A machete is a tool that every Kogi man carries with him. (Author: Noel Rojo, @rojonoel)

“You cannot refuse this,” Joshua says like if that would even cross our minds. No way!

“Damian will offer you food and water with panela — sweetener made of sugar cane,” he warns us. We have been filtering water from the river for the last two days, now we will drink the unfiltered sugary drink. This is not going to stop us from a lifetime encounter.

When tourists meet El Mamo, they are usually interested in their future. Joshua tells us a story of an American tourist who asked El Mamo when she would die. “Soon,” he replied. However, time in these mountains is not the way we perceive it. What does it mean, “soon”?

The Kogi people do not wear watches. Their lives are guided by the sun and the moon. They get up when the sun rises and prepare themselves for sleep when the sun sets. They plan according to the phases of the moon.

They cut wood for construction only before a full moon. That way, it heals faster. When we ask for food, we wait until the next day to eat. Time has its own pace here, and it is completely following the pace of nature. Hard to understand for us.

Live film

Damian and his family are currently building a new settlement. They live in a temporary tent made with four wooden posts and a tarp for a roof. No walls.

The second night in the wilderness. Our “beds” made of banana leaves. (Author: Magdalena Vaculciakova, @magdalena)

Joshua pulls out his machete and cuts off some shrubs to make space for us to sleep. Later on, Noel will cut some banana leaves, they will serve as our bed for the night.

There is wilderness everywhere around us. Monkeys jumping above our heads, huge rats hiding in the bushes. I forbid myself to think of all the animals in the woods. If the Kogi people live here, they know what to do in case some animal attacks us, I am thinking to myself. I put my life into the hands of nature’s guardians — the Kogi.

We pick a wooden log to sit on and all of a sudden we become an audience in an open air cinema. A live film takes place right in front of our eyes, we observe them, living the same way they had lived before the Spanish came. Well, perhaps they did not have solar torches nor shampoo in a plastic bottle back then.

A few men came from the village of Seviaca, a good five hours’ walk away, to pick up root vegetables from El Mamo. They carry bags on their shoulders full of veggies to the tent, creating a large pile. The men cannot weigh more than 50 kg, their bags on the other hand cannot weigh less. Tomorrow they will mount their vegetables on a mule and take them to a school in their village.

Meanwhile, Damian’s wife is cooking dinner and cleaning their children. The youngest one cries, he does not like water. Then, she serves us water with panela, in a plastic plate. She sits by the fire and starts to knit the bottom of a new bag. Every Kogi has their own bag, women are those who make them, usually made from the fiber of agave plants. The content inside their bags is kept a secret.

As the sun is setting down, we can now only follow the color of their white linen clothes, and the faces of those who stop by the fire. Like those of a couple, looking at each other full of love. She is hugging him firmly, he is caressing her neck in a very intimate way. No Kogi is watching them in the open space.

Their feet are huge like those of Hobbits, as they walk barefoot most of the time. Their faces remind us of Elfs, sharp and thin, long hair, we search for movie characters to compare them with as the moment seems so surreal to us.

Dried meat and root vegetables. (Author: Magdalena Vaculciakova, @magdalena)

Cooked green bananas, sweet potatoes and beans with dry meat is our dinner today. They bring it to us in one bowl, there are four of sharing it.

Quiet music is coming from a transistor hanged on the branch of a tree. Every family has one. “They need the batteries you carry to listen to the radio,” Joshua explains. “Money is of no value here,” he explains. And then Damian approaches us with a question: “So, what do you want to know?”

The Kogi also need money

A short man with long hair and a white cap of a circular shape comes to us and sits us on the ground in front of him. He sits on a tree trunk, Joshua sits next to him in order to translate for us.

Damian pulls coca leaves from his bag and starts the poporo ritual to connect with Aluna. The fire illuminates his face. “Do you have some wool?” he asks. Surprised, we say “no”. He sifts through another of his bags, after a while he finds rolls of black and white wool. Even scissors. He cuts six equally long laces of both colors. He takes two of them and makes a knot approximately in the middle. It takes him about five minutes to make simple, yet important bracelets. We observe his action, as the fire is becoming smaller and smaller, now there is only the full moon illuminating the moment.

El Mamo Damian is building his new settlement. In the meantime, his family stays in a temporary tent. (Author: Magdalena Vaculciakova, @magdalena)

El Mamo asks for my passport and wants to know when I was born. After that, he starts to say something in the Kogi language. The language does not sound like any other I know, even though some words they use are in Spanish. He says some prayers, even sings in some moments. His hands executing movements, as if he was capturing the energy in the air. He asks me to stand up and turn around counterclockwise. He looks towards the sky as if looking for answers, still chewing his coca leaves. At the end, he tights the bracelets around my wrists; one on my left hand, another on the right one. “If they fall, you should keep them anyways,” he gives me instructions.

“The black color on the bracelet symbolizes the earth, the white is for the universe — the sky. They help you connect with both. You will have good dreams and pure thinking throughout the day to care for nature,” he explains. “It is important to thank Aluna for giving us food,” Damian adds.

Here it is, the moment I was searching for!

When I ask El Mamo about climate change, he claims he does not see the future of the world as black as his predecessors. And he goes back to the ritual, this time with Noel.

At the end, he gives advice to Joshua who has some problems in his relationship. He tells him to find a certain kind of stone and to do a ritual with it. It will change everything. For the next few days, Joshua will be searching for the stone.

Files and batteries that we carried to exchange for food. (Author: Magdalena Vaculciakova, @magdalena)

El Mamo asks for 20,000 pesos (about 7 euros) from each of us. So the money has already arrived here. The dried fish that we brought, or the batteries and files, are not enough anymore.

We pay and prepare ourselves for sleep. We are surprised, perhaps even disappointed by what just happened. These kind of situations when traveling usually need more time and contemplation to understand.

We enjoy the moon slowly moving from one side of the sky to another. Laying on the banana leaves in the middle of the jungle, under a sky full of stars, this is my first time sleeping in the open air. The Kogi fall asleep for an hour or two, not more.

The right to protect their environment

We take off to Joshua’s family settlement at six in the morning. Following a natural path in the forest, Joshua explains that he was surprised we received protection bracelets from Damian. “He does not give them to everybody,” he says. Also, people always bring presents to El Mamo for his services, may it be animals or new machetes. One cannot survive without a machete in this wild jungle. “He will use the money to buy one,” Joshua states.

We are trekking for three more days. Our knees hurt like never before, our ankles and backs too. Who carries the heavier backpack when none of us has a power to do so? I ate almost nothing the last two days, my stomach is upset. Noel “wins” the bigger backpack.

When staying with Joshua’s family for one night, Noel tastes meat from a freshly killed animal that we have never seen before. The only shot in the dark by a ten-year-old child killed what looks like a huge rat. Such is the life in the wilderness. And it will remain if we do not intervene. Unless the Kogi people want us to.

One settlement usually consists of more houses: one is for men, one is for women, then there is a kitchen and a house for sleeping. (Author: Noel Rojo, @rojonoel)

Joshua is married to a daughter of a hippie Kogi. In the sixties, during the hippie era, many people, not only Colombians, entered Sierra Nevada and adopted the Kogi lifestyle. For those searching for the most natural way of life, the Kogi offer an alternative.

This alternative, however, faces various challenges. National and multinational companies are trying to grab their land in the mountains for mining purposes. The Kogi have been loosing resources due to climate change and outside interventions, yet they have no source of income. Not using money in nowadays capitalist society makes it hard for them (and everybody else who tries).

Tourists coming to their woods do not always leave a positive impact. Especially when they try to enter without asking if they can.

If you want to enter the Sierra Nevada, it is not recommended to do so by yourself. You should have permission from a commissioner or one of the Mamos, or an invitation. Otherwise, the Kogi people can chase you out. And we cannot blame them.

The fact that we have the means and desires to go anywhere and everywhere in the world does not mean we should.

What happens to the magic?

The morning mist on the last day of trekking. (Author: Noel Rojo, @rojonoel)

The last morning we have most scenic views we could wish for. We wake up around five. The valleys we pass by are full of mist. Little circular houses are only visible if we get close enough. This is the hardest day of trekking. Yet, we refuse to get on a motorbike of a stranger who offers to drive us through the last twenty minutes of our trip. We want to overcome our physical limits, relying on one another’s support.

Thinking about refreshing ice cream helps Noel to make it. To be honest, I have been trekking with a fever for already two days, I have no clue how I am making it back. Except for everything that we have learnt about the Kogi, I also now know that I can go far beyond of what I think I am capable of. Especially when Noel is my partner in crime.

As a proper choleric though, I am swearing with every step that I would never repeat this. The pain in some moments might have been more overwhelming than the surreal surroundings. I might need a few days, perhaps weeks to fully process these past few days.

Joshua, again, walking in ahead of us, getting lost in the mist. (Author: Noel Rojo, @rojonoel)

The Kogi have always been trying to preserve Aluna, and they are doing it for us all. Having had an opportunity to watch their life made me realise that there is something magical happening in those mountains. That “magic” is life connected to nature. The magic that nowadays society is trying to reencounter. The magic that can very easily be gone, if not respected.

Text: Magdalena Vaculciakova (Slovak freelance journalist, currently working on the long-term project Women Who Stay)

Photo: Noel Rojo (Mexican-American freelance photographer, currently working on the long-term project Women Who Stay)