Colombia / Latin America / Uncategorized

Colombia: trekking into the heartland of the Muisca

It’s not every day that someone offers to give you a tattoo while 3,000m up a mountain, so when it happened, I had to say yes out of sheer curiosity. My tattooist was a delightful little Colombian named Maruja, and her simple tools were plucked from the Andean mountainside, just as they had been for centuries: a plant, and a pinch of soil. This was no ordinary traveller’s tattoo – no mock Celtic symbol or undetermined Eastern text. This was a Muisca tattoo – the Muisca being the indigenous people that inhabited these rich slopes in pre-Columbian times. Maruja grabbed my hand, pressed a sticky plant bud into my wrist, and held for a few seconds. I looked – but saw no imprint. Then Maruja rubbed the dusty earth onto my wrist, and – like some kind of magical bark rubbing – my tattoo appeared, a perfect pattern left by the sticky plant.

Muisca culture tattoo Colombia

A natural Muisca tattoo in the Andes, Colombia

I had signed up for this full day trek into the heart of the Colombian Andes as I’d heard wonderful things about the páramo – a kind of high altitude tundra that exists between around 3,000 and 4,800 metres above sea level, at latitudes very close to the equator. This exacting definition means it is only found in five countries, a fact that many Colombians are particularly proud of. It’s beautiful, they said – otherworldly, you’ll never see anything else like it. There is little wildlife to be found there, but the landscape, and the views, and the flora would be worth the eight-hour, 18km trek into the alpine world of the Páramo de Oceta.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that this would be not just a physical journey, but a cultural, historical and spiritual one. Maruja met me and my two fellow trekkers in the pretty town of Monguí – and although there are few Muisca remaining in Colombia, Maruja’s striking indigenous features betrayed her Muisca roots. Growing up in Monguí, she had played in the páramo as a child, learned about the plants, and listened to the folklore of the region on grandparents’ knees. She couldn’t speak the Muisca language, Chibcha, but used many Chibcha words to describe the flora in the mountains.

The trek began with a climb up what felt like hundreds of steps. As Monguí sits at an altitude of around 2,900m, this gave us a taste of the lung-busting walk to come. but the higher we climbed, the further we could see across the surrounding Andean landscapes, with scattered farmers’ huts, fields and the town below us. As we walked, Maruja told stories – the same ones she must have listened to as a child. The Muisca inhabited much of Colombia when the Spanish arrived, but unlike the Inca or the Aztecs, they were peaceful – more like the Maya. They were such pacifists, in fact, that they were all vegetarians. When the conquistadores took over the land, the Muisca begged them to leave them the páramo. This brutal terrain would be no use to the Spanish – but for the Muisca is was their spiritual home, a land close to their beloved sun, and created by Pachamama. The páramo became known as the “Tierra Libre” – the Free Land.

Mongui Paramo de Oceta trek Andes Colombia

Climbing the steps from Mongui (L) and reaching the Portal de la Gloria (R)

The Muisca cultivated many crops, which still form the basis of Colombian-Andean food today – maize, pumpkin, potatoes, onions, quinoa – but they flavoured them with the herbs found growing in the wild. Maruja picked leaves for us – aromatic, sweet, to be cooked with or made into infusions. Plants containing vitamin C were particularly prized; there are no citrus fruits in the mountains. She plucked an orchid fruit too – a crunchy bulb that held pure water, a potential lifesaver for a sage mountain wanderer.

We four walked on, through a doorway called the “Portal de la Gloria” – the gateway to glory, and followed the Muisca through their lives. First was a knobbly great rock – fossilised coral, Maruja told us – from when this land was submerged under the sea. A natural pool in the rock would be filled with warm water and herbs which relaxed the muscles, and labouring women would soak here while giving birth. The Muisca babies were born in the midst of beautiful nature. Later in our walk, we passed the adolescent part of the mountain, then moved into adulthood – and finally reached the “comehombres” – the man-eater, steep ravines where nimble wildlife could skip around freely but many men had plunged to their deaths.

My tattoo, it turned out, was not entirely authentic. The women would press the plant across their bodies – but they would then rub themselves with god dust, not dirt, until the patterns across their dark skins shone like the sun. They would then bathe in the sacred lake, as an offering to their goddess, Bachué, the mother of all Muisca.

The higher we walked, the colder it got, and the drizzlier, and the harder to walk and talk at the same time. We paused for barely a few minutes to eat the chicken and quinoa empanadas we’d bought from the Monguí bakery, pleased to have the protein. The walk became a scramble as we clambered over huge rocks, but we were clearly in the midst of the páramo, and otherworldly vegetation sprung up around us. The most characteristic plant is the frailejón. There are many species, but each is superbly adapted to this harsh environment, with thick, spongy leaves covered in downy hair to capture moisture from the air. It felt like stroking a rabbit’s ear, and the hair gave them a silvery appearance that changed prettily with the light. Some nestled close to the ground, little puddles of water pooled in their leaves; other, giant frailejones towered over me despite growing just a centimetre per year.

Frailejones in the Paramo de Oceta, Colombia

The fury leaves of the frailejones trap water in the Colombian paramo

The frailejones and dramatic landscapes were atmospheric in themselves, but the mist that swirled around us as the light drizzle gave the whole scene a particularly magical spark. Up here, I believed anything could happen, and it was no coincidence that this was the land that the Muisca – and their descendants – would walk to for a spiritual retreat, to reconnect with their gods and ancestors. As we climbed, the mist turned to fog, and the tops of the frailejones peeked out. The wind picked up, the rain hammered down, I couldn’t feel my hands and the lack of oxygen was taking its toll on all of us. As we paused for breath, Maruja, who had almost disappeared into her enormous rubber poncho, said “We are at 3,850m – there are just 50m to go. We can do this.” She warned us that we probably wouldn’t see anything from the top now – but we all agreed that having come this far we needed to reach the summit.

As we finally emerged onto the plateau, I was whipped by the strongest wind I’ve ever felt in my life. We yelled and whooped into it, utterly at the mercy of nature. We were tiny, and insignificant, and battered by everything around us. Was Pachamama enjoying a sweet revenge on the Europeans who had stolen this land, killed her children, torn up the mountainside in search of the gold that was never found? It was a powerful reminder of nature’s force.

Paramo de Oceta landscapes, Andes, Colombia

The otherworldly landscapes of the Paramo de Oceta, Colombia

We staggered off the plateau, leaning hard into the wind, but the journey was far from over. Maruja told us that there were three canyons to pass through on the way down – and here her intimate knowledge of this landscape came into its own. Faced with a sheer, towering rock, she would find what seemed to be a crack – but which we could just about pass through. It was as though we were entering a doorway into another world; passing through the crack from one land into another. One canyon was called “Ciudad Perdida” – the Lost City – as the huge, square rocks resembled high buildings. Another crack took us into Pachamama’s belly – and here the trek turned into a kind of pilgrimage of my own. Having followed the folklore of Pachamama across Bolivia and Ecuador, over the waters of Lake Titicaca and onto the Island of the Sun, many years ago – I was now in her depths.

Paramo de Oceta trekking near Mongui, Colombia

Trekking through the rocky landscape of the Paramo de Oceta, Colombia

The walk back down was a painful two hours, with weary muscles and damp clothes, but we warmed up with every step as the wind eased and the rain stopped and temperatures rose. There were hints of civilisation: cattle, shepherd’s huts, fences. Finally, we reached the paved road that took us back into Monguí, and collapsed into a pretty restaurant, ordering canelazos – mugs of hot sugarcane juice spiced up with aguardiente, a dash of lime and a stick of cinnamon.

As we sat, and recovered, and drank, and thawed, and dried, we reflected on how strange it was to literally walk out of another world and back down into this one, where nothing had changed. The sun shone, cars rumbled down the streets, people were buying groceries – the normality was astonishing. It felt as if we’d stepped through the wardrobe, or the looking glass, and no one else had a clue. It seemed strangely appropriate that the mythical páramo was so close – yet so hidden, much like the Muisca themselves. They are barely visible in Colombia, you won’t hear their language or see their traditional dress, but their food, and their folklore, and their land, and their spirits are there still, all around you – you just need to know where to look.

  • I stayed at the gorgeous Finca San Pedro, just outside of Sogamoso. This hostel is set in a beautiful garden and runs yoga retreats; dorms, private rooms and a campsite are available.
  • The owner, Juan Pablo, speaks English and Spanish and can organise the Páramo de Oceta trek including transport to Mongui and a superb local guide. Prices vary depending on the number of  participants, for three people it worked out around £18 each.
  • A guide is essential. There are no trails in the Páramo de Oceta and adverse weather conditions combined with slippery trails can make things very dangerous.
  • There is no charge to enter the Páramo de Oceta. To support the local economy, local guides are used and Juan Pablo recommends buying you lunch and drinks in Monguí before setting off, as well as eating in one of the local restaurants afterwards.

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