A Guide to the Ancestral Hills of Nabusimake And The Native Arhuacos People
Apr 05, 2021
The coffee is good, inevitably enhanced by our location. A small finca deep in the Santa Marta hills with a slatted viewing platform overlooking a town called Minca. The building guards a lush coffee plantation and is encrusted with flaking layers white paint; the doors and window frames a ubiquitous blue, yellow and red Colombian primary palette.
Our surprisingly interesting Cacao Chocolate Tour grinds to a halt with a bitter tasting session and the unmistakable aroma of toasted coffee beans filters through the window. I check my watch to ensure I am within my caffeine window. 2:45pm, just in time.
We are next to a group of tourists from the United States who arrived late to the tour with much joviality and noise; bringing a Super Bowl Sunday atmosphere to a tiny mountain cacao and coffee finca that previously revelled in calm. Their tour guide had peppered with last few minutes of the cacao demonstration with useful insights, so we chat with him, mention a couple of cool indigenous characters we’d seen walking through the village.
I relay their appearance. A focussed, stoic expression. Lone wolves, in loose white robes that fight a battle of cleanliness with a slick layer of red mud covering the trails and roads thanks to rainy season. A strange white ‘plant pot’ hat sitting on thick long black hair; a cut-out in their rigid headwear framing dark faces with whispy facial hair. I trained off, realizing my description is accurate but far from complimentary.
The guide leans in,
“.. If you want to see more of those you should head to Pueblo Bello, there are lots of them; the Arhuaco tribe. They live in a small untouched valley in the hills called Nabusimake. It’s quite cut off from modern society but they head into town for supplies and to hang out..”
I glance at Claire to check that she is paying attention, inevitably her finger has just pecked a pin onto Google Maps.
The highway from Minca to Pueblo Bello is smooth enough to pick up speed but potholed enough to wish you hadn’t. A constant last minute lurch from the truck avoiding yet another jarring thud as the tire disappears into an abyss.
A road sign notes that the next right is for Pueblo Bello. We pull off; climbing into the hills with one eye on the dark clouds overhead. As we gain altitude the the coils in the road tighten. Fast and lazy with the steering, I cause the truck to wallow as I overcorrect. The speedometer fighting 90 thanks to ‘summit fever’ as our long drive draws to a close.
I am done. Fatigued from the drive and not that convinced the town we are pulling into is particularly tribal. At first glance, it does not appear to be. At second glance I notice I am wrong.
Pueblo Bello. A couple of single story ‘main’ streets that arc downhill from a park at the town’s single entrance. Smaller roads interconnecting between. There are stores, there are local restaurants. None of that is out of the ordinary. But the guide at Minca has come up trumps with regard to a tribal population. We try not to stare as the white robes of the Arhuaco wander the street beside us. Chatting in groups, siting around tables having a beer. Buying food from the grocery store and generally just doing the things that people generally do in this kind of town.
They look amazing. Totally spellbinding. The urge to pull out a camera and start shooting is almost unbearable. They are so unique it’s almost impossible to accept they are not there on our behalf. A Disney lost tribe, roaming the streets to entertain; waiting to clock off at the end of their shift and change out of costume.
Unfortunately, they hate cameras, and I don’t even risk a discreet, poorly composed shot. The lack of adult Arhuaco images in this article in deference to their cultural objection to be photographed.
Claire’s natural ability to draw conversation from strangers is uncanny. White and tiny, she’s innocent catnip to locals. We find ourselves talking to a group of three Arhuaco men drinking cola from cans. Humans are humans. They are sitting, humanlike. Leaning to the side of their chairs, relaxed and talkative. In-jokes and quick fire comments causing some of the group to chuckle.
The speed at which people pivot from exotic tribesmen to some guy you are talking to in a bar is extraordinary. Their robes are no less magnetic though. Sandals made from car tires support wide toed feet, un-crippled by modern footwear. The robes are simple, but elegant. White pants and white plant-pot hat a standard. Tunics allow for a minor elements of fashion creativity with potential for a few thin band of pattern to be woven in. They each carry three bags, one for personal belongings, one for travel items and another for their coca leaves and associated utensils.
The conversation flips form us to them and back again. Our tales of Canadian winter temperatures always draw looks of amazement. They flick their long black hair top one side and stare at each other, flattening their wispy moustaches in concern before asking how life is sustainable in such a wasteland. In comparison, their tales of the fabled village further up in the hills a much more enticing prospect.
The chat is punctuated by the Arhuacos moving a stick to their lips. Each male Arhuaco carries a small pot or ‘Poporo’. It carries the remains of burnt and crushed seashell, a lime rich powder that they stir and carry to their mouth with the wet-licked end of a stick to join the coca leaves being chewed there. If you want coca effects, lime is a great addition.
As the stick leaves their mouths, some of the coca and shell mix is wiped around the top end of another, larger, stick. The yellow secretion building up over time. The block size of the solidified juices indicating a certain standing within their community. I marvel at the effort it took to create these pale yellow coca lollipops.
Between the chewing of coca leaves and sips of Coca Cola, the name ‘Nabusimake’ spills from their lips. The mythical village in the mountains. Goosebump inducing. They indicate that recently, thanks to a new tribal leader, the village has been closed to outsiders, but an invite would get you access and you just have to ask the right person. However friendly, that person is not one of them, they are not far enough up the Arhuaco pecking order it seems.
We fail to find a wild camp spot or even a place in town where we wouldn’t be in the way. I take a road to the right and end up at a muddy trail and our 6.5 ton vehicle promptly crushes an underground water pipe, sending a small river of mud down the driveway of the place we intend to stay. A hotel and restaurant mentioned on the iOverlander app.
The guest house does not boast a great deal of flat ground. There is a swimming pool; green and wholly uninviting with the promise of instant dysentery for anyone brave enough. That aside, the place look pretty and the friendly owner shepherds us towards a flat spot under a tree near the pool; the only real possibility for us to camp and remain out of the way.
The owner is telling us a little about his hotel, which is more of a coffee farm and roastery than a hotel. We mention Nabusimake and the issue of restrictions to outsiders. He tells us about his friend. A lady called Gundiwa Isquierdo, whose family is prominent in Arhuaco circles.
We head back into town in search of a coffee shop. Coffee seems a big deal here. Beans drying outside many homes and businesses, often forming a large rectangle outside a house like and unauthorized parking space.
Katakanan Coffee Shop is something of nothing. Not really a cafe, or a shop. It looks nice, but almost nothing to suggest it sells anything at all. The pleasant tables and chairs placed in front of a counter. Seemingly there for no reason. A roof with no walls. But the unmistakable noise and acrid smell of coffee being roasted next door reveals their reason for being.
I order a cappuccino and notice a few unmarked wax bags. Each one containing 500 grams of beans; a window in the bags showcasing darkly roasted nuggets of caffeine. As always, I postpone purchase until I have tried the goods.
The drink arrives and I instantly know this is some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. The usual symptoms play out. I start panic buying more than I think I need, which turns out to be not as much as I should have bought. In this case, three bags of beans and three bags ground fine. Molido fina. Three kilos of coffee, half a kilo of which is destined for Julien and Carole from Kiss My Bay, as we have a rendezvous planned in the coming weeks.
The following days arranged meeting with Gundiwa has arrived. We’ve slept well and Claire mumbles ‘Tea!’ shortly before she opens her eyes. We’ve had the camper tent windows open and have a wide view of the fields and horses. I lean out of the bed and hit the inverter switch, the kettle splutters and begins it’s first shift.
I flick my phone into life and Google Nabusímake. The Colombia government website states:
“.. Few have the privilege of visiting this site, protected by the mamos and indigenous community. Only those who express respect and appreciation have the privilege of entering the Nabusímake community ..”
I make my coffee my way with the beans from the coffee shop. This is always the litmus test. How good is the coffee made my way; the consistency of the inverted Aeropress allowing competition to be fair. It’s even better than I thought. Simply wonderful. The beans likely picked, soaked, washed and dried within the last week. Roasted and ground within the last 16 hours and likely all done within the same square kilometre. Farm to Aeropress, Colombia style.
An open air dining area next to the pool is hosting the hotel owner and a heavy set lady in beautiful white robes. Dark skin and long black hair that shines with the intensity of raven feathers. We say hello, and the welcome is returned. She’s not that friendly to be honest, but this is not that unusual with indigenous people we have met on the trip. Their wariness well founded given the propensity for modern day folk to fuck things up for them.
We sit attentively, answering her questions about our trip. She chews over the answers in the same way she savours each spoonful of her chicken soup. The scenario would be no less interview-like if she we wearing a red power suit and holding a clipboard; and wasn’t eating soup. Each answer to her questions met with a response that indicates and abject and embarrassing failure on our part. I struggle against the urge to apologise for any inconvenience and respectfully leave.
Meeting adjourned. We say our goodbyes, expecting that the process has been a bust. No Nabusimake for us. Gundiwa walks away and turns back for a moment, asking whether we would like a car or cheaper motorbike taxis up to the village. We stare at each other, the breakthrough seeming fragile and wondering whether there is a right or wrong answer to the question. We pick the one that we think is less likely to get us killed.
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The colour and sights of the town melt away as we hit the trail head. The next 45 minutes a blur of near death experience, luck and either remarkably good riding skills or yet more luck.
The trail is unpaved, winding and always uphill. Snaking a path from the town and gaining significant altitude. The surface has suffered the abuse of several rainy seasons since it was last graded. If it has ever been graded. It’s the lumpiest trail I have ever seen. Hard packed and smooth surfaced thanks to repeated raining and sun baking, but the undulations, dips, crevices and lumps are huge; the bikes riding the snake as they steer along the tip edge of each ridge.
The thought of a car driving this route unfathomable, until we see two coming in the other direction. Both Landcruisers. Both with massive amount of lift and mud terrain tires. Even with the huge flex in their suspension, the vehicles are struggling; almost bouncing like a ball as each wheel hits yet another obstacle. The occupants pinballing from side to side, grinning as we pass; because it’s the only facial expression that fits this particular scenario.
My rider is ahead now. The trail screams by as I cling onto the grab rail at the back of the bike. Constantly changing grip. Constantly shifting on the seat. Desperately trying to stay mounted. It feels like we’re being thrown up the mountain and my anxiety is through the roof, aware of a real and present danger of significant injury.
I mentally search for my travel safe-haven. That place in my head that fosters calm pretence. Submissive thoughts based on the fact the current travel predicament is part of the deal and my options are to accept that it’s normal in this country or bail on the adventure.
I relax and enjoy the experience. That decision working for about thirty seconds until I am screaming the word ‘Fuck!’ into my chauffeurs ear again as he deploys another of his last second steering decisions.
Nearing the village, we leave the worst of the road behind. The scenery is beautiful and several round thatched Arhuaco huts appear in the distance, immediately triggering a sense that we are seeing something special.
A large gate with a thatched roof appears. It’s not opened by the Arhuaco guard as I expect. He raises his hand, the riders stop and talk to him. Motioning for us to dismount. It’s clear they do not want to let us in and are wondering how we have even got this far. The riders talk; Claire explains the meeting with Gundiwa. Calls are being made. Permission finally granted.
Back on the bikes we enter the gate and head towards Nabusímake. Passing through stunning countryside before stopping at a river. A small trail leads to our homestay. Gundiwa’s family.
HOMESTAY AND FAMILY
There are basic accommodations and there are basic accommodations. This one is pretty simple but the welcoming host makes us feel at home. It is not a hotel with wifi. It is not a hotel. It does not have wifi. The dinner is not completely edible but I suffer through as much as I can not wishing to appear ungrateful.
Our room looks remarkably like a jail cell. Clean enough, spartan as you’d expect from a location that eschews the trappings of modern life. Home for the night. It’s also cold. The joy ride experienced on the trail gaining enough elevation to drop a number of degrees.
We make a short video on the phone. Two travellers, mildly intoxicated by tiredness of the unknown. Giggling and unable to fully understand where we are or how we ended up here.
The small bed ensures warmth, along with the layer of clothing we keep on. Claire is a veritable furnace anyway. Her small frame giving out heat like a wood burning stove. I soak it up, wondering whether she’ll get some of it back in return.
A HIKE ARRANGED
The owners are family of Gundiwa. Arhuaco tribe but dressed in civilian clothing rather than white robes. The kids stand agape at the whitey’s sitting at their kitchen table, while the Grandmother prepares breakfast.
The Grandfather appears. Strong and dark, like the ‘Tinto’ coffee in my hand. He’s a farmer of some description. A worn white pinstriped shirt on his back, a thick leather belt holding upon his wide legged trousers; and Spanish dripping from his mouth in a dialect so thick that even Claire stares blankly at whatever is said. A throaty chuckle indicates he is aware of we are in ‘no entiendo’ mode. Laughter being the drug of choice that makes social experiences like this flip from awkward to enjoyable.
The grandmother is more intelligible. Likely aware of the limitations of previous guests and applying a gringo filter to her speech. A walk has been arranged. A younger member of the family as a guide. We get ready and head out.
I will make no bones about the next paragraphs. Read it twice, three times maybe. Picture the Goosebumps (or ‘la piel de gallina’ – literally ‘chicken skin’ in Latino Spanish) as I type the words.
If you want the motherlode. A tribal eden. The holy grail of indigenous Andean locations where time has failed to tarnish the purity with its evil commercial patina. Nabusímake is it.
Read it again.
As we hike along the river and cross onto the valley floor, my thoughts darken. Whatever I write about this Eden, should be one of the most incredible things I might ever attempt put into words. But it will fail. The human condition desperately seeks confirmation from others that the experience is real, valuable, and that the full extent of the adventure is appreciated. It will not be. It can’t. I can not write well enough to bring this place to life.
I consider ourselves well travelled. The beaten path a route regularly ignored in search of something extra. But I was ill prepared for the simply astonishing prize that Nabusímake slowly showed herself to be.
CENTRE OF THE WORLD
The Arhuaco believe that nature and society are one. And that their location, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is the centre of the world. In fact, they believe the entire world depends on the areas well being. And they look after it with infinite care.
We walk along the pristine waters of the Fundación river. The realization that their world view actually has basis in modern reality. It’s strikingly free of litter. Not the trash kind; that cancer of consumer society’s plastic and paper scraps. But litter in a much larger sense. The brash stains of artificial colour and design favoured by humans as they construct their clusters of clunky shapes. Rapidly ageing edifices; aesthetically degrading rather than biodegrading. The asphalt and concrete paving and metal, future rust held at bay by garishly coloured paint.
Whatever your design style, however well that is applied, it is a travesty compared to Nabusímake’s natural surroundings and the exquisite way they live and breathe within their surroundings.
The trail twists between trees. The few people we have seen are camera shy; not that I have tried to photograph them but their trail focused gaze and polite but curt nods enforce the fact that we are very much outsiders. Not unwelcome, but certainly not above suspicion.
We hear some high pitched chatter and I take the opportunity to pull my camera out; feigning a landscape shot as the miniature Arhuaco come into view. Perfect replicas of their elders. The sun a spotlight on their white robes with even the youngest shouldering a mochila bag made from wool, agave or cotton fibres.
Shy and curious, they quiet as they pass but are not fearful. Meeting our gaze with fixed curiosity, their snotty faces framed with un-brushed hair. Wild and cute, in contrast to the well kept appearances of the elders.
We cross a small bridge and the valley floor opens up to showcase the buildings that make up the Nabusímake ceremonial area. The expected village does not exist. Not in the sense we expected. There are no streets. Just an enclave of huts surrounded by a low wall sitting on a pristine, animal grazed, green land by a river. Each building is similar. The cobbled pathway extending a few feet up the outside wall of each hut. An upper wall of sun baked mud, followed by thick thatched roofs. A rough hewn wooden door and small windows; all perfectly imperfect.
A small cluster of Arhuaco men are dispersed in front of us, chatting and sucking at their coca leaf and lime mixtures. Deftly flicking the stick between their mouths and their yellow tinged ball of hierarchy residue. Claire and I exchange nervous glances, still not certain how welcome we’ll actually be, given the somewhat awkward nature of our travel arrangements.
I am itching to take photos but the camera remains in my pocket. Our hesitancy met with stares by a few, but a welcoming gesture from one. He speaks reasonable English and explains that there are official meetings taking place and we can not enter the walled area. Our All Access pass finally finding it’s limits.
If there is such a thing as suburbs in a place like this, we are walking towards it now. Hills of lush green carpet, large rocks and stones perfectly positioned by nature. The meticulous trail worn by simple Arhuaco footsteps.
More buildings appear. Simple dwellings that match the design of the ceremonial buildings we’d just left. These are the homes of the Arhuaco.
One of the homes is receiving repairs. A new roof. The tan bushels looking bright and fresh next to the dark older plumage of it’s neighbour.
Either the Arhuaco have a keen eye on creating natural splendor or they dwell within it to such perfection that they become part of their surroundings. All signs point to the latter. Population and society minimalism at its basic level. At one with all. The center of the world.
Two kids appear, peeking out from the mud and stick walls that prop the thatched roof. Their clothing grubbier than we’d seen before but all the more mystical for it.
The landscape is achingly beautiful and we’re unable to establish how much of it is manicured, if any. A natural perfection, impossible to replicate. The lush grass areas covered with either low growth vegetation or chewed into submission by the few cattle, sheep and goats we have seen. The rocks placed ‘just so’. The huts arranged on perfect terraces.
TALKING WITH THE ARHUACO FUTURE
We round a corner into a stunning field of waist high wild flowers and random agave plants. Shocked to see three children hidden within. A mix of tainted Arhuaco robes, disheveled modern t-shirts and pastel beaded jewellery.
A natural tension. The moment a deer senses potential danger, stiffens and waits. The children stare, blending perfectly with the flowers, the plants, the sky, nature itself. Life itself.
We stare back, a modern caricature of fake colour and urban clothing. Disjointed. On the surface. Awkward.
The larger of the three breaks into a big shy smile. Stillness broken. Finally, a breakthrough. Contact. The simple facial gesture sparking a connection. We move towards them they emerge further from the flowers. The older girl now beaming and touching Claire’s clothing, yabbering in soft Spanish. Asking where we were from and how we got there. The story of our travel and lifestyle causing some degree of confusion.
Time stands still as we talk to the future of the Arhuaco tribe. The depth of difference between our lives is startling. Even our English fishing village upbringing is a dystopian metropolis compared to their natural yet basic perfection. How long they will be able to resist the pull of the outside world, and how long will the outside world resist encroachment into theirs.
For now the three children live in Eden. A land untainted, ancient and pure. Sharing a conversation with a fascinated English couple who are traveling the world in a truck camper.
This was originally written by James Young and published on The Big Road Trip.