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Stepping off the bus at Pueblo Bello in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, there is a distinctive feeling of being in a border town. It is the edge of two worlds, the sewed-up seam of two threads of culture weaving, contrasting and interacting.

Colombia is home to 83 indigenous tribes that survived the Spanish conquest, and one of the most powerful and cohesive is the Arhuac culture of the Tayrona region, located in the far north of the country.

The tribe has survived a difficult history. Conquistadors plundered the Sierra Nevada for gold, extinguishing other tribes in the area and almost decimating the Arhuac. Christian missionaries quashed their faith and language with Spanish and Catholicism. Militant leftists forcibly recruited young Arhuac men to fight their guerrilla battles, and right-wing paramilitary groups massacred the Arhuac, viewing them as leftist sympathisers. Over the years, it is not surprising that the Arhuac have vigorously defended their culture.

You may see the Arhuac in Pueblo Bello, with their white serapes (a long blanket-like shawl), tall coned hats, long black hair and beautifully stitched handbags slung across lean shoulders -- but they will rarely meet your gaze, looking down or off to the side, avoiding attention and gliding past with a cool effortlessness. In order to really get to know the Arhuac people, you will have to hire a car and follow them into the hills, to Nabusimake, the spiritual centre of the Arhuac kingdom and the place where they believe the sun was born.

I was privileged to visit the Arhuac capital and to be given a glimpse into their profoundly spiritual culture and philosophy. The journey included a ritual cleansing by the mamo (spiritual leader) in a botanical garden replete with medicinal herbs, including coca – an unassuming little plant that has been blamed for so much. An offering of leaves from my home town of Tucson, Arizona, was exchanged for corn husk from Nabusimake as a symbol of sharing and goodwill.

The Arhuac refer to themselves as “older brothers” and to all outsiders as “younger brothers”. Their reality is charged with a sense of oneness and harmony with nature. Greed, survival of the fittest, ego and the exploitation of natural resources at the expense of the environment are things that the Arhuac cannot comprehend and suffer with patience. Their intricately stitched handbags represent the weaving of thoughts into reality with each knot, and a balance between the male energy (the bag) and the female (the stitcher). Likewise, when the men take a pinch of coca and ground seashell, which they prepare in a poporo gourd, it represents the balance of female (the gourd) and the male (the chewer). All endeavours strive for balance, harmony and unity with nature and one another.

Although I was granted entrance by the mamo and spent the night as a guest of one of the town’s leaders, I was not permitted to take photographs within Nabusimake. The pueblo of grass roofed buildings, round river-stone plazas and pre-Colombian magic is off limits to camera-clad foreigners.

A trip to the Arhuac high school on the hill brought to life the exuberance and curiosity of youth overcoming Arhuac inhibitions. The most poignant was a conversation with the school principal, a man well-versed in a two-pronged curriculum of firstly Arhuac and secondly Western traditions. “There will always be conflict” he explained, “as long as the Arhuac look, think and live differently to those from the West. Respect and communication are the only possible solutions, all else leads to tension.”

© 2009 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Colombia’s spiritual centre’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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