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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
The article 'Colombia’s spiritual centre' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.