Valledupar and on to Pueblo Bello and finally Nabusimake was very much an unplanned part of our tour through Colombia. It wasn’t until we heard from Barbara, our new travel planner, about not missing out on the indigenous area in the south of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that we found it hard to skip this unique place. It would delay our travel to Medellin but fortunately we were able to squeeze a week in before the new year. A short four hour bur ride from Santa Marta took us to Valledupar, the capital of the Cesar department and birthplace of Vallenato music, something which we would hear coming from every nook and cranny during our time there, mainly due to the death of Diomedes Diaz, an idolized local hero and the number one performer of this accordion heavy music.
Valledupar was also where we spent a very uneventful Christmas, which judging by how many supermarkets and stores were open in the city was very much the way Christmas is spent here in the tropics. Fortunately we met Joel at Provincia Hostel, initially from Bogota but living in Texas, and visiting here for a few months to discover his country. The day was spent with Joel walking around the city from monument to monument, and finally on to the extremely popular Guatapurí River for a swim with every other local from Valledupar, or at least the ones that weren’t at the funeral of the cities favorite singer. It had been a great day until dinner, when we cooked up probably the worst steak any of us had ever had the privilege of eating, including our dinner guest!
With Christmas over, at least for Andrea who was now back at work, I headed off to La Mina in what I hoped would be a village with local indigenous people selling bags, hats and other artisanal gifts, along with some interesting rock formations that were carved out by the flowing river Badillo. I got the latter but that was it! After taking an hour long shared taxi I arrived in the dusty center of pretty much nothing, with hardly any signs of life and certainly no obvious places to buy locally produced goods. Fortunately I did find the river with its pretty cool rocks and diving platforms. With no other way of getting out of here I again had to wait for a shared taxi, which seem the norm when heading to these indigenous pueblos, where usually you have to wait until they are full before they leave – this can often take some time! These taxis also have no decals indicating they are legitimate so you never really know what you’re getting in to, or who with.
Nabusimake and the Arhuaco Indigenous Indians
Nabusimake, the home of the Arhuaco indigenous Indians, is thankfully way off the Gringo trail, even though it’s only around four hours off extremely rough road from Valledupar. First off we had to take a shared taxi to Pueblo Bello, around an hour from Valledupar, which again leave when they are full – must be a common place to go to as this did not take long at all. Our transportation was a regular car so it was safe to assume that the road there must be in half decent shape. We arrived in a little over an hour, thankfully to an actual town with life, tuk-tuks and indigenous galore. I was expecting another La Mina with nothing going on! It was mid afternoon on Friday and we already knew that the 4WD’s that continue on to Nabusimake only leave in the mornings, giving us time to explore and find a place to rest our heads for the night. We went back to basics with accommodation after finding Residencias el Carmen, consisting of many small, in fact very small rooms built around a courtyard – we both wished we had bought our silk liners with us as the bed looked well slept in, but for only $12 we were content!
We spent the rest of the day people watching, mostly the Indians with their unusual traits, with one being the exchange of coca leaves – they all carry hand sewn bags over their shoulders and upon crossing paths with another Indian they dip into their bags of coca, get a few leaves and drop them into the bag of the other Indian and vice versa. They were probably handing back some of the leaves they just received, and this would continue each time they came into contact with other Indians. The other unusual thing we had already seen from the Lost City tour, where although in that area the Indians are of the Kogi ethnic group, was the use of the Poporo, a gourd containing lime which gets extracted with a stick and added to the coca leaves in the mouth. A mix of saliva and lime then gets wiped on the neck of the Poporo and builds a yellow ring of lime deposit. The act of chewing coca, licking the stick and rubbing it on the Poporo is a way of meditating for the indigenous of the Sierra Nevada region, including the Arhuaco’s and Kogi’s.
We had been told that departure to Nabusimake would be around 6.30-7am so arose at the crack of dawn and headed to the transportation co-operative. After going out of our way to visit this area we did not want to miss what we had heard was the only vehicle to head to Nabusimake, potentially jam packed with people. After a three hour wait we eventually left at 9am with nine other passengers, and at least one referring to Andrea as La Gringa, squeezed into a Toyota Landcruiser, and immediately hit what was to become the worst dirt road that either of us had ever travelled on! Reports of a three hour journey were not uncommon, something which we were dreading, where in hindsight it was closer to two hours, but still on the most broken up and rutted dirt road imaginable. Our arrival in the Arhuaco indigenous village of Nabusimake more than made up for the discomfort of getting there.
The closest resemblance of any place we could think of would be Hobbiton in Lord of the Rings, where we expected Gandalf to come down the trail with his fireworks and horse drawn cart at any moment. It really was an oasis with no trash, friendly people, well kept houses and a river that meandered through. We had heard and read many reports of the Arhuaco people being very shy, not wanting to speak or acknowledge the presence of outsiders, and their general dislike of having visitors. In our twenty four hours we didn’t experience this attitude, in fact the children came and sat with us or followed us on the trails, and the adults always replied to a hola or du, with the latter being hello in their native tongue.
We had left Pueblo Bello with no place to stay in Nabusimake, giving our fellow passengers something to laugh at when asked by the driver which hotel we wanted! The only accommodation we had read about was called Milas, which fortunately the driver knew of and dropped us at. $30 each for room and all meals seemed liked a good deal, really our only option with no other places to eat. Whilst waiting for lunch we walked back to the river where we immediately attracted the attention of a group of playful young girls, with one hopping from stone to stone across the river with me and the others sitting with Andrea, staring at her blue eyes and blond hair. Fair skinned outsiders were obviously a rarity!
After discovering that we needed to find and register with Alberto to pay the 10.000 COP entry, around $5, for access to the Nabusimake land we headed to the pueblito, always chaperoned by our nine year old girl assistant. We soon came across a walled area boldly promoted by a huge billboard stuck right out in front, and located behind were many traditional huts of the Arhuaco people. We couldn’t fathom for the life of us why the shy, profoundly spiritual Arhuacas either wanted or allowed such a huge banner promoting their off-limits pueblito. Our limited Spanish and Gringo appearance could not gain us access into the walled area, at least not on this occasion. We instead visited the local school and church, in which both were empty, with no restrictions on where we could or could not go.
Without electricity a quiet evening passed, with the mornings mission being to attempt access to the pueblito once again. We sat on the grass outside of the main archway, just waiting, not sure what for but hoping that something would happen – it wasn’t long before a group of Colombian tourists who were also on our agenda came along, only they had a young guide and spoke the language! Off ran their guide into the walkways between the houses to consult with a higher authority, and no sooner had he left than he was back with a more senior power who granted us all access. Photographs are usually a big no-no, except today we had a negotiator who pleaded for just a couple – this again seemed to be granted, and very discreetly Andrea and I snapped just a handful. Our visit was short, mainly due to the distance from one entrance to another being little more than a couple hundred yards. I think we lost photograph rights by the midway point!
We saw many locked doors in the pueblito, apparently due to very few people actually living there, with its main purpose being a place where people of the community come to make decisions, similar to that of a townhall. The rest of the morning was spent with the guide and our Colombian friends, bathing in the river, and learning a little about Nabusimake, the capital of the Arhuaco nation.
Some of our best moments of the mere twenty four hours we spent in the community were of the children, their mischievous and inquisitive faces, and the way they would just stop and stare, probably more so at my newly formed beard than anything else! To get a look into what they were thinking when they saw us would have been amazing. We struggled to find anyone that turned away when they saw us or when we spoke to them, something we expected from what others had said. Maybe greeting them with du, instead of hello or hola worked for us, although that still didn’t work for photo opportunities – the times that I asked always came with a negative reply, and on the occasions that I did take photographs they are either in the distance, of them walking away, or when they were looking away.
I think it is inevitable that someday the road between Pueblo Bello and Nabusimake will be paved, leading to an influx of visitors and the loss of their privacy and way of life as they enjoy today – we are both so lucky to be able to experience locations such as this, especially without seeing any other backpackers or non-Colombian tourists, which were also very few and far between.
A special muchas gracias to Barbara for making sure that if we visited any one place in Northern Colombia that it was Nabusimake.
December 27th – December 29th 2013