Monguí is the smallest pueblo I visited in Colombia and it came on my radar as a recomendación from a French guy that my friend and I met in San Gil. Accommodations are relatively expensive there but he gave us the name of a guy we could stay with who rents out a room in his house for very cheap while his son is away in the military. It was essentially like staying in an AirBNB except that the host didn’t advertise anywhere online. This French guy (I apologize for my inability to remember names) also told us about Maruja, a woman who leads guided hikes through the Páramo around Monguí. That was about all the information we had about this place before arriving at 1am after a very long bus ride from San Gil. It’s also yet another reason why having no plan is the only way to travel like this. I learned more in Monguí about Colombia’s indigenous history than I had in any other place I visited, and I decided on going there about 24 hours before showing up.
Maruja and Emigdio, our guides for the 8 hour hike, are brother and sister who dedicate their work to teaching people about the Muiscas, an indigenous civilization who lived in the Páramo in the Boyacá region of Colombia. After the Spanish invasion of Colombia in the 1500’s the Muiscas slowly started disappearing and are now completely gone, with no trace of their language and little knowledge about their customs and traditions. Maruja and Emigdio work to teach people about this culture in hopes of keeping the memory alive.
The Páramo is an ecosystem around the equator with a specific vegetation and it’s unlike any kind of nature I’ve seen before. Colombia’s Páramo is 36,000 hectares. We started our hike at 2,900 meters (8,700 feet) above sea level and reached the highest point at 4,000 meters (12,000 feet). My lungs could seriously feel the altitude as we went up. We spent the day steadily inclining while learning lots about this beautiful environment and how the Muiscas lived. The main plant here is called frailejon amarillo. This fuzzy plant grows one centimeter per year, and most of the ones I saw were taller than me. I’m about 164 centimeters tall, meaning some of these plants were close to 200 years old! The punishment for killing a frailejon is 15 years in prison (and just as a reference point for how important this is, killing one person in Colombia is punishable by 4 years in prison!). These plants capture the moisture in the air and prevent the water from being evaporated back into the air. Seventy percent of the rivers in colombia come from the Páramo and 30% comes from jungles and glaciers. We were even able to drink a little of the water out of one of the plants using a small piece of straw that Maruja found. Like so many others, this ecosystem is in danger of becoming extinct because of global warming. Unfortunately some of this explanation got lost in translation while I was listening in Spanish and taking notes in English, but Maruja was extremely knowledgeable about the topic so I trust her expertise.
Frailejones are also in danger because of farming on these lands. Cows are not native to Colombia, but they’ve been brought here for agricultural and economic purposes. We passed many frailejones that have either been trampled by cows or torn down by farmers because of their inconvenient location. Maruja was almost in tears when she saw these, and she does this tour everyday! Her passion for the Páramo was palpable. She is working hard to get UNESCO’s attention to protect the Páramo before it is lost forever.
Muisca culture was very linked to nature. Their Gods were Luna (Moon) and Sol (Sun). Every Muisca was equal, there were no hierarchies within their tribes. The matriarchy were the only people who had a bit of authority in the tribes in order to keep things organized. They generally lived to be between 100-108 years old because they lived very healthy lifestyles. They didn’t eat meat, they walked the mountains all the time, and most importantly they didn’t fight wars.
Muiscas had a very sacred tradition for burying the dead. They were brought to the highest part of the Páramo (4,000 meters) and mummified and covered in gold dust before being buried in a hole that represented the womb. Death for them meant a trip back to the sun and to their mother’s womb. They were adorned with a lot of gold because they needed to go well presented on their trip to the sun in order to arrive and be received well. This went along with their belief that everything must go back to the Earth. It’s for this reason there aren’t any Muisca ruins, similar to what has been discovered from other indigenous cultures around the world. They only used natural materials in their buildings and it all got decomposed back into the Earth.
Muiscas referred to Spanish invaders as their “little brothers.” Maruja painted the picture for us as to why. Imagine when you were young and doing something really cool and then suddenly your little sibling comes in and messes things up. That’s more or less what happened to the Muiscas. They were enslaved for no reason other than they were believed to be inferior, and if they didn’t speak Spanish they were killed. Exceptions were made for those who agreed to be baptized by the Catholic Church, and as time went on this baptism also came with a mandatory tax. Like many indigenous cultures, after years and years of death and destruction, the Muisca people along with their language and culture, disappeared.
It’s challenging to articulate the sadness I felt when learning about the Muiscas. They seemed to live such peaceful, beautiful lives alongside nature – a true harmony. How is it possible that another culture can think themselves superior enough to barge in and destroy the other entirely? If we look at history, this has happened all over the world, and continues to happen today. Maybe not with such widespread killing but for sure there are still cultures that believe they are superior to others and they make life very difficult for those trying to live their lives through their own customs and traditions. It’s terribly sad to me that humans can’t seem to learn from their mistakes, and they continue paying the ultimate price.
There are people who believe that while I’m traveling I am always on vacation. Of course there are days when I sit back and relax on the beach or visit some cool tourist attraction, but that is not my main goal in my travels. I travel to understand the world, to get to know cultures (current and extinct) and I try to learn something everywhere I go. I believe it makes me a more understanding, patient, and dynamic individual. Thank you to Maruja and Emigdio for contributing to my never ending education!
If you ever visit Monguí, be sure to contact Maruja at Turismongui-ocetour for an unforgettable experience (+57 313 479 8492).