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Elder brothers from the jungle

Miha Zupan | 25.9.2009 | Comments 5

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on the northern coast of Colombia is home to Kogi Indians, one of the few native ethnic groups in South America that have managed to keep their culture relatively untouched until present day. Kogis are descendants of highly cultivated Tayrona nation that lived in this area until the Spanish arrival in numerous coastal towns. They put up fierce resistance against the Conquistadores and were finally subjugated only at the end of the 16th Century. At that time the surviving inhabitants withdrew from the coastal area high into the mountains, where their descendants still live today.


There are approximately 6000 Kogis living in the high Sierra. They speak one of the dialects of the Chibcha language group. They have a highly developed cosmology, mythology and a highly developed ecological awareness. Situated in the mountainous ecosystem their land is not ideally suited for farming, therefore they use it very moderately and with great prudence. They claim to be descendants of the Great Mother –her oldest children – and that the white people are their younger brothers, who still have much to learn. Considering the ecological disaster threatening the Western World, that claim is not so far-fetched.


Kogi country can only be visited on a six day trek organized by a private company in the coastal city of Santa Marta, which has a special permit from the Colombian government. The ultimate destination of the trek are the legendary ruins of the last Tayrona city, the Ciudad Perdida, deep in the jungle of Sierra Nevada. The price is 200 USD per person and includes a guide, porters, food, a lift from Santa Marta to the foothills of the Sierra as well as lodging in makeshift camps along the way. The road leads past numerous Indian villages, where you can stop for a short time and observe their everyday life. However, you mostly meet women and children, as men are away in their fields for most of the day.


The trek is physically demanding as you have to walk from eight to ten hours a day through a difficult, wooded terrain. You also have to climb over slippery rocks and cross fast flowing mountain rivers. But the satisfaction as you reach the ruins of the Lost City after three days of hard trekking is immense. You have a feeling that you have achieved something special. The city in the jungle has a special aura of mystery, a certain kind of mystique. It is not surprising that the Kogis consider it a sacred place and are not thrilled by the presence of strangers. The agency that organizes the trek pays them a certain compensation for trespassing on their land, but in comparison to the profit it makes, this compensation is probably much too low.


Considering the destiny of most of the other Indian groups in the Americas that have lost their identity and national pride in the 500 years of European colonization, the case of the Kogis is a great example how a small, but proud nation can keep their social structure and aboriginal culture largely intact despite outside pressures.


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