Tag Archives: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Learning To Walk Barefoot


With the moon dark and cool, we milled sugar cane. Augustin said he’ll make me a dress if I bring him four heads of cotton. I told him I’d bring the cotton next year. We still have beans hanging, coffee to roast and I need to spin all the wool before it gets hard.

The river runs loud. Steam rises from the forest. A black and white cat takes a break from watching me and licks his fur. I look at the orange in my hand that I found on the ground. No one else is around to speak the languages I hear but yet to understand. Once, I heard a tree break apart and then I watched the branches fall. Trust was the hardest of trials while learning to walk barefoot.

One Tutu At A Time

We all worry about money at some point. The indigenous people of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, known as the Arhuaco, worry as well. Their lives are full of hard work, loving families, fresh food and strong communities. While nearly entirely self-sufficient, male household members work on outside the home to earn extra income and women weave bags for sale. Graceful and incredibly durable, these bags or tutus as they are called by the Arhuaco, are a powerful cultural element. Made by hand from plant or animal fiber, from thread to final loop, one tutu can take months to end up on your shoulders.

Spinning fiber.

By purchasing a tutu, one helps the community and individual families directly. I have created this post to share the crafts of these women. If you or someone you know would like to help by purchasing a tutu, please contact me by e-mail, gouznova @ gmail.com. Please pass this page on to your friends, family and coworkers.

Small tutu, to hold your cell phone and wallet. By Celfida $25 SOLD

Large tutu, that can easily fit all that you need for the day. Four separate designs make it really stand out. By Celfida, $100 SOLD

Extra large tutu. By Claudia, a village school teacher, $120.

Flowing design, large tutu. By Claudia, $100. SOLD

This design is known as caracol, sea shell. Large tutu. Made by Ana, $100.

Large tutu. Made by Francisca $110.

Duni – thank you!

My tutu, made by Yanira.

Waking Up Early and Other Changes

Breakfast is already on its way about an hour before dawn.

Just a few minutes ago, the sky was black. A small slice of it turned bright orange and gracefully transformed into light blue clouds indistinguishable from the mist shrouded mountains. Elsililiana asked, “have you ever seen the range before?” I had but not like this. From here, the newborn light, still gray and cool before my eyes, illuminated thousands of feet of earth known to its indigenous people as Mama.

Elsililiana is the eldest of six brothers and sisters and can still climb trees for guama fruit. The youngest, Isau, is just a year old. All the kids work hard. Neji, Jorlady and Elsililiana are usually the ones to saddle the mula or burro and head off to the farm to dig up yucca, ñame, malanga and to cut down guiniea, green bananas. Meals consist of these vegetables along with some milk from the cow or some meat.

Elsililiana milking the cow.

Neji tutuising.

I am not a fan of malanga as it makes me very nauseous but can always find someone who will help me eat my portion of it. Cooking for at least nine every day is something to get used to, as is washing all those dishes. The water gets trekked up by burro in 20L tanks from a spring about 20 minutes below the farm.

Going down to the spring for water.

All the laundry and bathing get done there as well and unfortunately contaminate the purest of waters right at the source. Other than that, the environmental impacts of this lifestyle and negligent in comparison to your or my own.

When not cooking, washing or caring for the farm, the women weave bags, mochillas or tutus as they are called in Arhuaco. The tutus can be made from plant, alpaca or sheep fiber. All fiber is processed by hand from rearing of the plant or animal to every thread, spinning the fiber and at last, weaving. It takes several months for a woman to weave one tutu of animal fiber.

I spent a week tutuising, weaving, and working on the zamgey, farm, before  Janira and I headed for Savannaculebra, a village about four hours north.

En paseo, in passing.

River crossing.

Tony wasn’t sure which way to go. After some time double guessing, I ushered him to go arriba, up. As I looked back, I could still see the houses below and the grandfather, dressed in all white. With one hundred years of living under his belt, his head was causing him trouble, he said. After a few steps I heard the call I was hoping for, “abajo, abajo,” go down. Tony slowly obliged. For a four year old horse, Tony did most of his walking rather slowly or carefully. Six hours in the saddle of asking him to move along brought us instantly closer. We were headed down to the river and eventually to Claudia’s ranch. We spent the night in her grandfather’s home having left late in the day. Bringing along nine cows, four pack animals and four children did not help to maximize our travel speed.

Steering livestock is one thing, finding it is another. It involves you and hopefully more people raking the forest for signs of cow. Later it involves lots of scrapes, ticks and yelling to get the livestock on trail. Next, eight more hours of sprinting, yelling, scrapes and ticks to move the flock to a new pasture. Through it all, you are draped in wild, rarely seen mountain side where few tourists ever venture. Homes with thatched roofs, smoky kitchen fires, spring water and close knit families become the main navigation points and so one can only navigate the trail with family.

A neighbor’s home.

Gallos and the Mountains of Minca

Everyone told us it was about a six hour hike to Peak Kennedy. From there, one can see the entire mountain range surrounding the snow capped Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. As I was packing up, Ned and Max, two Americans who are teaching English asked if they could join me. Of course, they could!

On the way back, Roman who was also with us, spotted a boa constrictor and proceeded to pick it up.

We took off about 10:30 in the morning hoping to arrive by late night and to see the sunrise the following day from the peak. Counting on two stores to keep the load light, I brought some instant mashed potatoes and a package of instant noodles for dinner along with some tea. It took about three hours just to get to Campano, the first town, which was really just a bar that sold junk food. The mild rain we were hiking in earlier switched to downpour mode. Out of place in some ways, the large screen plasma was broadcasting footage of the national flood disaster raging around the country. After lunch we bought lots of cookies, white bread and bocadillo, guava paste. Three hours later, we were nowhere near Cerro Kennedy. We camped in a bird reserve in an area where some trees had been cleared for what seemed like beehives. Dinner wasn´t much and we shared some of it with the dogs who had been following us all day. In the morning we started our climb and camped in the clouds about a half hour from the peak. We shared the package of noodles between the three of us and a package of cookies for each. Concern for Max and Ned´s tent in the rain led us to devise a tent fortress comprised of two tents and many large leaves.

At about four, we awoke to a clear sky full of bright stars and constellations seemingly within reach. Lights from Cartagena and Barranquila traced the coastline. Cerro Kennedy is also home to an antennae station as we found out, with a nice roof to sit and watch the sun rise.

On the way down, we all suffered a bit from altitude sickness and were giddy overall. It felt exciting to be wrapping up this adventure. As with all adventures, this one wasn´t over yet. We skedaddled down, hence the altitude sickness and I was hanging back, enjoying the change in thermal zones.

While not an experienced birder, the toucans and finches I glimpsed attest to the amazing biodiversity of this place. Coffee is a popular crop here but the soil is rocky and acidic, somewhat because of the Mexican weeping pine that was planted originally for logging but now is spreading.

A pile of coffee beans roasting in the sun caught my eye, I reached for my camera and continued to descend when I heard a voice shouting.

Coming around the bend I found Max and Ned passing a 50,000 bill and several others. An old woman was yelling at them from behind a barbed wire fence. The boys ushered me to keep going. It turned out my comrades paid for a dead rooster, whose body was never seen, by dogs that did not belong to us when the rooster was out on the main road. I was fairly upset that that they were blatantly taken advantage of but there wasn´t much we could do. I suggested we go back and get this 50,000 rooster for a meal.  We didn’t.The rest of the trip down proved murder and rain free.