The Muiscas of Monguí

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. 

The very knowledgable Maruja




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. 

Maruja and Emigdio taking pictures and GPS location of this destroyed frailejon


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. 

Tombs where Muiscas were buried


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).

Reflections on a Month in Colombia

It’s really hard to believe that I’ve been traveling for a month and that my time in Colombia has come to an end. I can feel myself standing in my parent’s kitchen the night before I left, semi-freaking out about what I was about to do. Now a month into my trip, it feels like no time at all has passed.

Maps.me is a very cool app with downloadable maps that work offline and you can leave pins in all the places you’ve been!

 

One of the most memorable things about my time here is the people. Colombians are some of the most open people I’ve ever met. They’re so excited to know where you’re from and share a part of their culture with you. If you walk into a store, the shopkeeper will happily chat for as long as you want and never once hassle you into buying things. Everyone is so helpful when you stop to ask for directions or recommendations. They only thing that never made sense to me is their sense of time. If you ask 5 people how long it will take to get from A to B, you will receive 5 very different answers. I was once told it would take four and a half hours to go to the same place that someone else told me would take 45 minutes. Among the chaos of traffic patterns and bus stations, every single Colombian is super tranquilo and never seems to be in a rush.

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Learning about the cacao plant

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Maruja teaching me about the Páramo ecosystem

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Chatting with a local butcher in Villa de Leyva about the cow head in the case

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Teaching this sweet girl how to braid her pony’s hair while enjoying some coffee in her mom’s café

I stayed at a place called Macondo Hostel in San Gil, and when it opened in 2006 it was the fifth registered hostel in Colombia. Now just 11 years later, hostels are around every corner in just about every place I visited. That’s some seriously fast paced growth. But despite the ease in finding mochilero-style accommodations, Colombia doesn’t really seem prepared for the amount of tourism it’s getting, especially when it comes to transportation. I mostly traveled by bus around Colombia, and even the long distance buses are more like vans that hold anywhere from 10-18 people. That doesn’t mean that’s how many people actually ride in them. I saw lots of kids sitting on the floor, people standing for long periods of time – all while driving rather quickly around windy bends and crossing the yellow line to pass cars, motorcycles, and massive trucks. These busquetas stop constantly to let people on and off regardless of how long distance the bus is supposed to be. There are no bus stops so people get on and off wherever they want. There doesn’t seem to be a system to distinguish between intracity and intercity buses, which is very frustrating when your 4 hour trip becomes a 6 hour extravaganza. On top of all this, outside of the main cities of Colombia, there aren’t really any major highways. All travel is done along windy mountain roads which further extends travel times. From what I’m told, bus travel throughout the rest of South America is very different, and even sometimes luxurious. I’m interested to see how it compares.

Colombia is a very Catholic country and evidence of this can be seen in the religious symbols on every bus I rode throughout the country. Here are some of the saints that kept me safe around every cuerva peligrosa I passed.


For the last four weeks I’ve been living on a schedule where I didn’t know what day it was and I mostly had no idea as to where I was headed next. In my nervous preparations before leaving the US, I booked a few hostels in advance in various places around Colombia based off some vague ideas of where I thought I would be and when. With the exception of where I stayed my first two nights, any hostel I booked in advance I ended up cancelling for somewhere else on a different day. I’ve learned that I am definitely a planner and that it’s so hard for me to let that go. On the road, it’s cool not to have a plan, and in fact when you have nothing planned, that’s when the best things happen. This was my experience with Minca, which is the highlight of my month in Colombia. It’s also the reason why I had so much extra time to go to Santander and Boyacá, two regions I’d barely heard anything about before coming here. When you let go of planning it allows you to truly live in the moment. You don’t have to worry about what’s coming next, so the only thing to focus on is the here and now. The reality is that you meet cool people and sometimes it works out that you all want to go to the same places around the same time. Other travelers are constantly sharing information about their favorite places and activities, which is how I ended up in Monguí. And occasionally having no plan backfires, and what you thought you could do today (take a bus to somewhere else for example) needs to wait until tomorrow for whatever scheduling reason. In these moments it would be so easy to get frustrated, throw in the towel, and book an all-inclusive resort package where you don’t need to make a single decision. Or you can shrug your shoulders and bask in the moment. This is life, in this moment now. Speaking for myself, I get so lost in thinking about the next thing that I can never fully appreciate what I’m experiencing. I’m very thankful to Colombia and to my friend Adrien whom I traveled with for 3 weeks, both of which taught me on a daily basis the importance of letting that go. This lifestyle is amazing, it’s freeing, and it’s definitely addicting.

Santander- Spontaneity and Scaring Myself!

I stopped planning my every move about a week into my trip and started moving through places faster than I thought I would. This meant I had seen everything I’d wanted to in 2.5 weeks and I suddenly had so much extra time in Colombia. I woke up the morning of Thursday, April 13 having no clue where I was going next. After a few hours of reading blogs and Lonely Planet guides, my friend Adrien and I booked flights to San Gil in the Santander region (known as the adventure capital of Colombia) for the next day. It turned out to be a very long day of traveling, complete with flight delays (boarding and then deplaning to wait for the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen to pass), incredible mountain views from the bus ride on windy roads, and traffic jams for goats crossing. We got there on Friday of Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week), an extremely important holiday for Colombians and a very busy weekend for traveling. For days people had been warning us to book things in advance but it’s hard to do when you don’t know where you’re going to be. Because of that and our last minute planning, the only hostel available was the crappiest place I’ve ever seen. C’est la vie!


The first thing we did when we got off the bus was try hormigas culonas – literally translated to big ass ants! These huge bugs are toasted up and served as a local delicacy. They were surprisingly good!


Our first stop the next day was the local market for some fruit before heading out on some adventures. I’ve never seen larger produce in my life! The green fruit on the right below is called guanabana. The English translation is soursop, so unfortunately I have no idea what it is, but when blended with milk and sugar it makes  for a delicious morning treat, one of my favorites in Colombia!



While Adrien did some extreme white water rafting, I walked a part of the Camino Real, a path connecting a few colonial towns near San Gil. I was the only gringa on the bus to Cabrera where the Camino starts. I was told the bus would leave at 9am and be a quick 45 minute ride. After an hour of multiple stops within a few blocks of the bus station to wait for fellow passengers to buy their groceries from various markets, we finally started down the dirt road to Cabrera. Along the way we dropped off people at their farms, groceries at people’s houses, and even some beers to a farmer at his…roadside bar? We arrived 2 hours after I got on the bus. This is Colombia – where no one has an accurate sense of how long anything is going to take. 




The Camino was so beautiful and I saw almost no one on the path the whole day. It was very similar to El Camino de Santiago, which I walked in Spain during Semana Santa exactly a year before. I hiked up a boulder filled mountain, walked through farms, crossed busy highways, and of course passed through the beautiful towns of Cabrera, Baricharra, and Guane. I stopped for lunch at a cute cafe where the waitress sat me at a table with 3 French girls. They were happy to have me join them but it was certainly bizarre to be sat with them without consulting them first. The hike itself was relatively easy despite the heat and I finished in 5 hours. It was actually nice to spend the day on my own doing something I love so much. On the bus ride back, two young nuns prayed and sang hymns all the way to San Gil which was a nice reminder that it was Easter weekend in a very religious country. 





That night we were headed to The Lost Inn, a hostel up a steep dirt road where no taxis wanted to drive. After multiple failed attempts to convince someone to drive us, a police officer who had been directing traffic left his post to help us (meanwhile traffic continued to move as it had when he was standing in the middle of the intersection, so I’m not sure why he was there in the first place). He helped us call the hostel who sent their friend in his pickup truck to get us, and while we waited we hung out with him and his police friends who were very convinced that I’m more free in Colombia than I am in the US. It’s an interesting point to think about, and I wish I could’ve picked their brains more on the topic. 

The next day we planned to go to a hostel in the mountains that offered rock climbing and yoga but we didn’t realize it would take us 5 hours to get there. We were told we might have to hitchhike some of the way since it was Easter and buses ran less frequently. That wasn’t so appealing but luckily we had only made an email confirmation and were able to cancel it without a penalty. Another instance where having no plan would’ve been better. So at the last minute (literally as we were about to put our bags in a taxi) we decided to go on a day trip with a group leaving less than an hour later for zip lining, canyoning (rappelling down waterfalls), and cliff jumping. I’m quite afraid of heights but since this was so spontaneous I was basically in a harness being told to jump before I had time to think about what I was doing. Like most fear-inducing experiences I was really glad I did it in the end. After all, life inside your comfort zone is way less fun!


Back in San Gil, we tried to get a night bus to Monguí but everything was full of people returning from their holiday weekend. So there we were walking through town at 5pm looking for a hostel. Showing up to a place and asking if they have beds available  is a really cool experience. Of course they did because this is a common backpacker stop and the city had quieted down significantly from the previous days. Our bonus day allowed us to visit some natural pools in Curití. Santander is such a beautiful part of Colombia and I’m so glad I had the time to explore it!

A Finca in Minca

Minca, Colombia is located in the mountains above Santa Marta. It’s another tiny town that has incredible scenery and lots of hostels, fincas (coffee farms), and motorcycle taxis. (Before I continue, I’d like to apologize to my Dad for what he’s about to read and will most certainly not enjoy.) To get to Minca you take a colectivo from Santa Marta which is a small van that charges per seat and leaves for Minca once it’s full. The hostel we chose was about a 40 minute walk from the town up a dirt road where cars can’t drive. Transportation options in Minca are on foot or on motorcycle. I love walking everywhere, but in the endless heat and with our heavy backpacks, it would have been dreadful. So although I wasn’t in love with the idea, I took a deep breath, asked the driver to go slow, and jumped on the back of his bike while he cradled my backpack in front of him and I held on as tight as possible. After about 45 seconds I was loving it, and very thankful for the service. This is Colombia. 


For the next 3 days the only people at our hostel were the 7 of us and the family that lives and works on the coffee farm up the hill from their guest house. They left us alone for the most part except to cook us delicious meals. We spent the majority of our first day hanging by the pool, drinking Argentinian mate, and exploring the coffee fields around us. 







Juan (I suppose he was the owner) gave us some lessons on the process of making cacao beans into chocolate and let us taste cacao from the plant. It’s hard to explain, but basically the bean is surrounded by a bittersweet white gooey substance that you can suck on. It was actually quite nice. I wish I could remember all the details about the drying process and whatever comes after that to make the cacao into chocolate but unfortunately I have a really bad memory for these types of details (and he was speaking rapid-fire Spanish which didn’t help). Juan also explained the process used to harvest coffee beans, and luckily there was plenty of their coffee to be enjoyed during our time there. If you ever go to Minca, stay at La Finca de San Rafael!!



The next day we hiked to el Pozo Azul which was a really nice waterfall (where we randomly ran into Sandro and his family from Taganga) and later we had lunch at a little roadside asador. Noteworthy here was the bizarre old man who owned the place. He was so excited to have us there; he shook all our hands con mucho gusto and when he got to me he shook my hand and very quickly kissed me on the lips! That was definitely an unexpected greeting. After we ate he asked if we would like dessert and held out his hand which had a huge handful of marijuana in it. We politely declined and left giggling about how crazy this guy was. The food was great though!



We also visited La Finca de Victoria, a huge family owned coffee farm. The owner’s wife Claudia gave us a tour and told us a lot more information that I wish I could have retained about how the coffee is harvested, dried, roasted, etc. She was excellent and her coffee was even better. 


After dinner both nights we drank lots of mediocre Colombian beer, listened to music, played cards, and laughed a lot. As I’ve done many times in the past with some French students I’ve taught, I tried my best to learn some French but my goodness that language is impossible to pronounce! It was a really hygge experience all around. 


Minca confirmed something for me that I’ve debated back and forth about for a long time and that is that I love mountains ever so slightly more than I love the ocean (although the ocean reminds me of home and that gives me a different sense of peace). I could stare at mountains for hours wondering what kind of animals are hanging around and just admiring their beauty. We had a great view of the sunset and an even better view of the stars later. 


It’s time now to move away from the oppressive humidity of the Caribbean coast and head down to Medellín where I’m told it is endless spring!!!!!

A Night in a Hammock

I am quickly learning why everyone says not to plan anything when traveling like this. Before last week I had never heard of Taganga, Colombia, but after chatting with a few people in Cartagena, it sounded like a much better place to spend the night than Santa Marta before heading over to Parque de Tayrona. I’m glad I listened. 

Taganga is a tiny, chaotic fishing village that backpackers have discovered and seem to claim as theirs. The locals of course have taken it upon themselves to benefit from this, and the perfect example are the signs outside of people’s homes offering laundry service for 2,000 pesos per pound. After spending a week in the sweltering heat of Cartagena, laundry was seriously necessary. 

Parque de Tayrona is a national park right on the coast. It’s surrounded by the Sierra Nevada de Colombia, which is the highest mountain range with such close proximity to the ocean in the world. It was my main reason for coming to this part of Colombia but I was apprehensive about spending a night in a hammock in the park by myself. So I was relieved to meet two nice French guys while buying my bus ticket for the next day to go to Tayrona. They invited me to tag along with them and we met up with two of their friends in the park along with two Argentinian girls they had met the day before. Since then we’ve spent 5 days traveling together speaking a crazy mixture of English, French, and Spanish. This is how easy it is to make friends as a backpacker!





At the park entrance there was a Yellow Fever vaccine clinic set up because the World Health Organization has been recommending it for park-goers recently. This wasn’t anything like any clinic I’d ever seen. It was more like a foldable barbecue table with some people standing behind it injecting vaccines for free. I couldn’t tell if I was more pleased with the fact that I already had my vaccine, or more frustrated that I paid $200 for mine in Boston. 

We spent two days hiking around this mountainous jungle beach forest and saw some really cool wildlife. I saw a monkey wayyyyyyy up in a tree – too high to get his picture, unfortunately. I also saw an anteater climbing around in the trees. I didn’t even know they could do that! There were tons of lizards, butterflies, and birds – so many singing birds! When we weren’t hiking, we were spending lots of time relaxing on the beach or hanging in a hammock. 



Let me say something about sleeping in a hammock. It sounds like a really comfortable situation, right? Hanging there, gently swaying in the breeze… A friend of mine who spent most of his junior year in college sleeping in one told me the secret is to lay diagonally. I tried every position possible and could never get quite comfy enough to actually sleep. I guess it’s something that takes more than one night to master, but it was still a really cool experience to hang there and listen to the waves all night. 

The next day we spoke to some people who told us about El Pueblito, some ancient Tayronese ruins that could be reached by a two hour walk through the forest. They made it seem like a relaxing, easy jaunt so we jumped at the idea and went for it bringing with us very little food and water. We spent the whole time climbing over boulders all the way to the top. I’ve never sweat so much in my life and all I was wearing was a bathing suit! It was so cool to be surround by palm trees the whole way up as opposed to the evergreens and pine trees I’m used to hiking around in New England. 

Back in Taganga that night, we wanted to use the barbecue to make some fish, so Sandro (the guy who did our laundry earlier) offered to go to the beach with us where all the fishermen sold their daily catches so he could get us el precio del Colombiano instead of el precio del gringo. Colombians are extremely kind and helpful people, and as opposed to some other places I’ve traveled to, they don’t ask for anything in return for their help. We actually ran into him and his family hiking around Minca (more on Minca in another post!) two days later and spent the afternoon at some waterfalls with them. Life is so weird and cool!



We decided Minca was a good place for our next stop so we picked a hostel and made a reservation for the next night. Little did I know how much amazingness we were in for!

Lessons Learned at a Colombian Bus Stop

Not everything about traveling is glamorous and fun. In fact a significant portion of the time is spent being somewhat confused by cultural things that are so normal to locals. There are moments when you just don’t understand what’s going on, no matter how well you speak the language. I don’t mean for these things to sound scary. I haven’t felt nervous or in danger at all in Colombia. I just mean to say that it’s an inevitable part of the experience in a foreign country. For example on the bus ride from Cartagena to Taganga, the driver stopped every hour or so for a police officer to come on the bus (really it was a small van for about 15 people) to peek around a bit from the doorway. It seems that’s their way of being vigilant of…what? I’m not really sure. They don’t ask for identification or really say anything at all. I hear my fellow traveler Ronald’s voice in my head – “This is Colombia.”
Then there are moments of complete shock where you see something you may have imagined possible before but pleasantly lived in denial of its existence in the world. Like today for instance when I met an 8 year old girl in the bathroom at a road side “bus stop.” Her job is to flush the toilets with buckets of water because there was no running water there, and to collect 500 pesos (about $0.17) from every person who stops in. Another girl, maybe 5 years old, passes her buckets full of water from outside every few minutes. Heartbreaking. I got back on the air conditioned bus feeling heavy and confused about how the world can be so cruel to someone so innocent while here I am lucky enough to be gallivanting around this country. 

I apologize to my readers who follow my blog to read about the exciting things I encounter in my travels, but I also believe it is important to acknowledge the realities of traveling in developing countries. I’ve seen some confusing things in my travels, especially in Morocco and Romania, and I’ve observed countless moments and scenes that look very different from my cushy suburban American home, but this girl on the side of the road somewhere near Barranquilla, Colombia has been the most shocking to date. I’m sure something, somewhere, someday will top this one. For now I wish there was something I could do to change her circumstances, like hand her way more than 500 pesos and tell her to run to the nearest school she can find. Since I can’t do that, I’ll silently wish her the best and take it as another gentle sign from the universe that I’m on a journey to make a difference in this world, whatever it may be. 

I’ll end with a quote from the introduction of the safety video on my Delta flight to Cartagena. “The ones who truly change the world are the ones who can’t wait to get out in it.” Despite the confusion and heart wrenching moments, I still feel that way. More and more every day. 

Off to a great start!

As I got into my taxi at 4am outside of my house yesterday, all I felt was nervous excitement. I’d just said a teary-eyed goodbye to my Mom (the worst part about traveling) and I just couldn’t believe I was actually doing this. But as reality set in, I noticed that the cars and roads around me were covered in ice, and then it hit me – “I’m going to the Caribbean!!” 

One of my strongest skills in life is my ability to make friends easily. I love talking to new people! But even knowing that about myself didn’t stop me from feeling very apprehensive about full-time hostel lifestyle and my ability to find people to pass the time with. My favorite activity while traveling is to sit on a terrace with a good beer or good coffee, people watching and chatting with friends. This was going to be hard to do without the last ingredient. And yet there I was in line to go through customs in Cartagena chatting away with two girls who are here for about the same time as I am. We shared a taxi into the city and made vague plans to see each other again (they’re staying at a different pace). Before I had even taken off my backpack I had already overcome a fear.

Once I got settled (meaning I opened my backpack and the contents spilled out from every pocket – I can’t wait to get control over where I actually put things in there) I grabbed a map and set out to explore the walled city of Cartagena. As I was about to walk out the door, I met a guy who was leaving to do the exact same thing. So we wandered around together for a couple hours, ate some delicious ceviche, and chatted about our travels on a terrace with a beer in a busy plaza. Day 1, and I’ve already experienced my favorite activity. What the heck was I so afraid of??


This morning I met a girl from Argentina who is planning to check out Isla Barú tomorrow. 

“What a coincidence, so am I.”

“Do you want to find a place to stay together?”

“Why yes, yes I do.”

All in Spanish of course! Not a bad start to my trip.