After six hours of trekking through downpours and slick, muddy trails in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range of Colombia, we were tired but alert with anticipation. We had just arrived at a small village of Kogi people. The Kogi are protectors of scared lands within this mountain range. As we arrived a group of Kogi watched us from above, they were wearing all white and framed by plantain trees and the traditional houses where they lived. We were led to a place to rest, while the stacked faces of giggling children peeked from the doors of nearby huts, retreating once eye contact was made.
The Kogi are a group of indigenous people believed to be direct descendants of the Tairona, a native South American civilization. During the Spanish conquest, the Tairona retreated into the mountains to escape colonization. As the story goes, they were not heard from and practically forgotten until they made contact with a British journalist in the 1970’s to warn the Western world about how our actions were ruining the planet. They’ve had minimal contact since and are very particular about who knows their whereabouts and who is allowed to visit them. When they do allow visitors, they continue to pass on their message about the importance of caring for the environment.
Our invitation went as far as the village, and for us to be granted permission to travel further into the mountains to visit the sacred lakes, we had to wait for a meeting with El Mamo, one of the community leaders. We sat waiting for him beneath the thatched roof of a traditional Kogi round hut.
Once El Mamo arrived and our intentions were translated from English to Spanish to Kogi, we were invited to stay in the hut for the night and told that in the morning we would meet for a ceremony before heading further into the mountains. After the ceremony, we were granted permission to continue our journey to the sacred lakes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
While I’m still processing what it meant to be able to visit such an incredible place and people, there are certain lessons I took with me that I wanted to share.
Be clear about your intentions.
During our morning ceremony with El Mamo, each member of our group was asked to meditate on and then share aloud our reasons for being there. While on the surface we were there on a gear testing mission, each of us reflected on our relationship with the mountains, our desire to learn from the world around us, and what it meant to be visiting the village. Hearing each perspective set a humbling tone and increased our sense of unity as a group. I think it’s powerful to investigate our deeper motivations for our outdoor adventures and a good conversation to have with travel companions.
Communication is more than words.
I met three people in a village of thirty families who spoke Spanish, but most of our group’s communication with the Kogi was a series of translations or, more often, sounds, smiles, gestures and laughs. Our group fell in love with some of the very specific sighs and sounds of the Kogi. On one of our last mornings in the village I sat against a hut and watched as some of the Kogi men and our crew shared sighs. I made eye contact with one of our guides, Francisco, who stopped short when he heard one of our group make the familiar sound, and we cracked up as we watched the wordless conversation take place.
Similarly, while in the village I took a series of polaroid portraits and we spent a lot of time passing them around and laughing with each other about how we looked. It was fun to see how universal it is to laugh at yourself in photos and even though we didn’t speak the same language we made some wonderful connections. This trip has encouraged me to seek out travel in places where I don’t speak a word of the local language.
Give yourself the chance to start anew.
As we traveled higher and higher into the mountains and the vegetation around us changed, our Kogi guides brought us through a series of cleansing ceremonies, inviting us to leave all negative energy and thoughts behind. The Kogi believe that the trees help purify the air and that as we travel higher into the mountains we can leave any baggage or negative energy behind and that this is part of the gift of being in the mountains. It was empowering to be continuously invited to start fresh and every time I started feeling down on myself throughout the difficult trek, I would catch myself and just take a deep breath and breathe out the negativity. Based on the constant reminders to be positive, it felt disrespectful to be negative.
When we reached the sacred lakes, it was explained that here we could start “un camino nuevo,” or a “new path in life”. I took the opportunity to dip in the lake and came out feeling ready to start fresh with a newfound energy for whatever was to come next.