Traveling during the holiday season has become a tradition for my partner and me. There was Villa de Leyva, Colombia two Christmases in a row, followed by a New Year’s jaunt to Mexico City. But in recent years, we’ve taken a quick flight to Santa Marta, Colombia, where we stay at Casa Baloo, a delightful family-owned B&B that overlooks the bay in the seaside village of Taganga. During our first visit, we sat up most of the night drinking wine with the hotel’s owners. The next morning, their young son knocked on our door—wearing a Spiderman costume—and invited us to play ball with him on the terrace.
As Caribbean towns go, Taganga is an unusual place—seesawing between generations-old history and a newfound tourism identity. It lies just minutes away from downtown Santa Marta, yet retains its quaint simplicity. Taganga isn’t a destination for your typical tourist, the type who lounges around a lavish Cancun resort. Dusty dirt roads divide Taganga into unequal oblong shapes, occupied by old cinder block homes and new hostels and restaurants. While tourists lounge on a rooftop terrace, a fisherman mends a net on the front porch of his house across the street. At the end of the day, Taganga’s main beach, which runs the length of a football field, paints the perfect picture of the village’s past, present, and future. At one end of the beach, tourists soak in the last rays of sunlight during happy hour, while at the other end fishermen sell their catches to townsfolk.
On Christmas Day, we departed Taganga for a smaller seaside village, Palomino, which has an even bigger tourist footprint. Situated in the La Guajira department on the border of Tayrona National Natural Park, Palomino is the type of place the traveler in me loathes, but the photographer in me loves. Locals, many of whom haven’t found much benefit from the tourism trade, mill about in their routine lives, while outsiders frolic about as if the town is their personal playground. The mix of personalities and agendas creates a somewhat surreal scene, but one conducive to extraordinary photos.
As the bus deposited us on the side of the highway, I looked around to examine the few hundred meters of buildings that define Palomino’s spot on the map. There were auto repair shops, a couple of restaurants, a hardware store, an internet café, and a collection of mini-markets that sold everything from beer to handcrafts.
Palomino’s main tourist promenade is a dirt road that runs one kilometer, from the highway all the way to the beach. Hostels, restaurants, and bars line the road, with sandwich boards and hawkers announcing daily specials. Motorcycles kick up dust as they zip down the road, moving serpentine around tourists, street dogs, and a large population of seemingly feral chickens.
The structures along the road tell the story of Palomino’s fledgling tourism industry. Some businesses operate from buildings constructed with bamboo, others in cinder block houses with tin roofs, while newer, properly financed ventures peddle goods and services in modern structures. Missing from the mix—mercifully—is the presence of multinational corporations that envelop the tourism industry in most Caribbean locales. Individuals and families run Palomino, and it remains a destination for Colombians and backpackers—at least for now.
Luckily, we found a hotel off the main road—Casa Juana, named after a cat—situated five minutes from the beach in a new but traditionally-built home of wood, bamboo, and palm fronds. We settled into a routine of doing as little as possible, spending time on the beach in the morning and late afternoon and enjoying the hammocks of the hotel’s community area during midday.
During the second evening, we met Julio, a friend of the hotel staff, who offered to take us to a Kogi village. The Kogi, who live traditionally in isolated villages in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, are one of more than 80 indigenous societies that have inhabited Colombia for centuries.
We awoke early the next morning and met Julio at a store along the highway. There, we bought gifts for our Kogi hosts—a common custom when visiting indigenous societies—including rice, lentils, and coconut candies for the children. We hitched a ride in a dilapidated taxi to Rio Ancho, a small village a few kilometers down the road. From Rio Ancho, we could walk to the Kogi village—about two hours—or take motorcycles most of the way. We decided to go there by motorcycle and return on foot.
I hopped on the back of the lead motorcycle. Within a few hundred meters, the pavement ended and the road became increasingly rocky and rutty. My driver was a pro—perhaps the best I’ve ever seen—skillfully dodging boulders and deep holes with such skill that I never felt a bump the entire journey. Our transport ended when we reached a rapidly flowing stream. As the others arrived, I took off my shoes and stood in the cold water, a welcome relief for my hot feet and itchy ankles, which had suffered dozens of mosquito bites on the beach in Palomino.
As we continued on foot along a dirt path, I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen a few tribesmen in Palomino and we had passed a few Kogi children walking on the rocky road toward Rio Ancho. I didn’t know if the community had regular visitors, or the extent to which the tribe still live traditionally. But as the village came into view, I knew we were in for a truly authentic experience.
Rows of coca plants bordered the village. The coca plant plays an important spiritual and cultural role in the lives of the Kogi, as it does in many native Andean societies. Indigenous communities often use coca for medicinal purposes such as to relieve altitude sickness or stave off hunger pains. When I lived in Peru, I crossed paths with a native fortuneteller, who chewed coca to connect with the spirit world. Kogi men chew coca as a way to connect with Aluna—Mother Earth—and trade coca leaves as a form of greeting.
Free-roaming chickens scattered as we walked through the seemingly deserted village. The round huts, made with tree branches, stones, mud, and palm fronds, appeared perfectly shaped and equally sized. In the center of the village, a large rectangular community building rose above the houses. The door was open, so we went inside to see long rows of benches—formed from tree trunks—and a fire pit in the center. Julio explained that the villagers spent much of their time indoors and many suffered respiratory problems from inhaling the smoke of their fire pits.
As we stepped back outside, we saw women and children peering out of distant huts. After greeting a few of the residents, we walked to the other side of a village, where we found a beautiful stream. After crossing the stream, we followed a path, where we came upon the isolated hut of one of Julio’s friends, who was sitting on the threshold of his home looking at a cellphone. He wore the traditional Kogi outfit—a white cotton tunic and white pants. The man’s three curious children met us on the path. All had shoulder length hair and the two girls wore beaded necklaces. The father barely noticed our presence, as he blankly stared at the cellphone, but the children seemed overjoyed by our visit. The father was the only man in the village, we would later learn, as the other men had traveled up the mountain to hunt wild boar.
I realized that outsiders were an oddity in the village. I felt privileged to be in their private world, if only for a couple of hours. Although the Kogi are a peaceful people, they’ve suffered greatly from the modern world. For decades, foreign and domestic corporations have exploited their lands for resources, and guerillas, drug traffickers, and paramilitaries have threatened their lives and properties. The Kogi see themselves as the stewards of the earth and refer to the rest of us as “little brothers” because we no longer understand the natural world. For decades, the Kogi have made prophecies about an impending global catastrophe brought on by climate change, exploitation of natural resources, and world conflict.
Heading back to the village, Julio and my partner decided to take a swim in the stream. As I climbed the hill to take a few shots of them, a group of children wandered down the path. Without prompting them, the children began to posture for my camera. We moved from setting to setting, without saying a word, as the children marveled at the spectacle of the outsiders and while I quietly snapped away with my camera.
Julio distributed the lentils and rice among the mothers, while my partner and I explored the community. One of the women showed us a traditional mochila—a small bag carried by men and women—which she’d just finished making. Its craftsmanship was exquisite, woven so tightly that it could hold water. Mochilas–sold in shops and roadside stands in the area–provide cash for the tribe, enabling them to buy goods they can’t produce from the land. For instance, the village used money to buy materials for a pavilion—the only modern building in the community—constructed with metal supports and a tin roof.
As we stood at the edge of the village, two small boys appeared out of nowhere. Like the others, they seemed to almost pose for my camera. The older boy held his younger companion’s hand, as I had seen the other children doing, likely a societal custom. After I took a few shots, the older boy asked us if we had any bonbons—candies. We didn’t. Julio had given all of the candies to the children at the stream. I offered them what was left of a bag of peanuts and raisins, but before they would accept the gift, the older boy said, “There are other children inside.” Soon, we found ourselves surrounded by a small army of Kogi children.
As we slowly walked back to the modern world, I knew I had captured a series of images I would treasure for the rest of my life. It was as if the Kogi children had put a spell on me and my camera—a spell of good fortune, at least photographically. Throughout the day, other children I encountered seemed drawn to my camera. A group of kids playing beside a river delighted in my desire to photograph them. And when we went to the beach at sunset, a young boy selling homemade coconut treats befriended me and let me take his picture. He even took a portrait of me. By the end of the day, I had netted a collection of photographs, but none more cherished than the ones of the Kogi children.
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