The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel

Cowboys and Amerindian­s in Colombia

From taciturn llaneros to the ‘exquisitel­y shy’ Kogi people, John Gimlette meets the residents of a land stranded in time


The other day, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a courtroom drama. We were having a picnic at the time, by a little river. But this is what happens in the Sierra Nevada of Colombia. It can be magnificen­t one moment, surreal the next – and often it is both, all at once.

That morning, the river was cool, the jungle a blaze of birds, and the distant mountains were a dusky mauve. The Sierra is famously lovely, and often appears in films (such as The Lost City of Z and The Mission). There were also some tribesmen among the boulders. They were Kogis, with long black hair and stark white outfits. It was all so serene, it felt like a film set.

But things weren’t that simple, said our guide, Edison. The Kogis were here to appease the Earth Goddess because a child had been injured. They would also devise a punishment for the man responsibl­e. Their deliberati­ons could take days. One option was “the stocks”, or he might be hung up by the heels and beaten with an object like a spoon.

“It’s their world,” said Edison, “and these are their laws.”

Colombia is always doing this, throwing out surprises from deep in its past. It isn’t hard to see why. At twice the size of France, things are easily lost. War and drugs have also made for an inaccessib­le century. But in the past 10 years, there has been stability, and, little by little, some magnificen­t landscapes are opening up. Curious about its long-forgotten wild side, we booked ourselves in for a family fortnight. There would be no need to rough it: wherever we went there were smart new hotels, masks and snorkels for hire, or horses to ride.

The Sierra was a formidable place to start. Reaching heights of 5,775m (about 18,950ft), it is like having the Alps right next to the sea. Emerging from the Caribbean, this great, green wall rises through cactus and rainforest, and into the snow. As the highest coastal mountain range in the world, it has also been a beautiful refuge for creatures and people. During our time in the foothills, we would see macaws, vipers and cotton-top tamarinds – a monkey unique to the Sierra, with a fabulous blonde Mohican.

We were soon conscious of the Kogis, in their brilliant whites. They first hid up here in about 1000AD (when the Caribs invaded) and have been here ever since. Their forebears – the Tayrona – were goldsmiths, producing sumptuous pieces that once hung in trees. But in 1600 the conquistad­ors arrived, and, once again, the Kogis vanished. Now, of all Colombia’s tribes, they are probably the least affected by the conquista. They don’t count or tell the time, and they have to wear white by law.

To my relief, there was no welcome dance in Tungueka. Although the Kogis were grateful for Edison’s gifts (dried fish), they were exquisitel­y shy. Everything was just as it was when the Spanish appeared: the thatched huts, the streets of rammed earth, and the little plots of coca. Only the men chewed its leaves, and only the women ever carried loads. Modern times hadn’t even brought chimneys. The bag, or mochilla, I bought smelt as though it was woven from smoke.

Apart from the Kogis, the Sierra’s coast could be wildly exuberant. The sea roared, and the forests whistled, and the beaches were so vast that they seemed to boom. One day, we went tubing down the Don Diego river. It was like sliding through a carnival of animals: enormous silvery-green iguanas, hooting howler monkeys, and then a riotous mob of pelicans. The man who rented out the inner tubes also sold unguents. The cure for broken bones, he said, was pickled snake.

The best beaches were deep in the Tayrona National Park. Some involved a good five-mile hike through the forest. Along the way, there were monkeys and deliciousl­y sour sea-grapes. Also, for about a dollar, a coconut-seller would shin up a palm – in his wellington­s – and unhitch a nut. But, of all the beaches, our favourite needed a boat. Playa Cristal was way out in the jungle, encased in mountains. It is worth the trouble. Out there, the shallows glow like a planet, and are rich in clownfish and angelfish and purple freaks.

We loved this coast, and could have stayed for weeks. There was only one city, Santa Marta (founded in 1525, and the oldest in Colombia). Downtown, everything was either colonial orange or funky green. I’d like to have lingered, picking through the Gold Museum or exploring the haunts of Simon Bolívar and García Márquez. But we had another treat in store: our hotel, an hour to the east. The Casa Tayrona was both thatched and chic, like a Malibu beachhouse with a hint of Kogi.

Before flying off to the plains, we had a few days in Bogotá. Although it is home to more than eight million people, it feels like a village. The centre is sleepily antique, and there are llamas on the main square, Plaza de Bolívar. But Bogotá can also be magnificen­t, gobby and eccentric. I remember soldiers in spiked helmets, graffiti 10 storeys high, and theatres like palaces. And where else sells cans of “good luck spray”?

As in the wilds, there were plenty of surprises. During our stay we came across a stash of impression­ist paintings (the Botero Museum); 55,000 golden treasures (Museo del Oro); Pablo Escobar’s sunglasses, and all his favourite guns (the old police HQ). Despite the gridlocks, Bogatanos seemed to find most things funny. “There is magic here,” they would say. “As soon as you open your eyes, you are already late.”

After this, the plains – or Los Llanos – seemed unfathomab­ly vast. From the air, you see nothing but a great blue lawn filigreed in silver. Together with the Amazonian region, the savannahs make up 60 per cent of the country. This was once home to South America’s largest ranch (Hacienda Caribare) and, even now, there is a sense that – beyond the grass – there is nothing but grass. We were in Casanare, a region on the edge of the Andes. Huge rivers come frothing through it, and during the rainy season it can take no more, and much of the land vanishes underwater.

We perched right on the rim of the Eastern Cordillera. The Hacienda Las Cumbres had huge plate-glass windows and an infinity pool looking out over the plains. Way below was the town of Yopal. Here, a cowboy could buy everything he would ever need, including gorgeous stetsons (from Florentino’s) and a slab of sizzling steak (at La Mamona). Once, cattle had set out from here for Bogotá, a month-and-a-half away through the mountains.

It was always fun at Las Cumbres, and the family ran it like a house party. You never knew who would turn up next. In the morning, it was usually the capuchins, swinging by in search of bananas. These were often followed by hummingbir­ds and parrots, and there was even talk of a puma. Then, one evening, a band appeared, complete with harps and maracas and all their “música llanera”, or cowboy songs. The lead dancer was only 15 and wore a tight blue suit called a liqui-liqui. He danced so fast, I thought he would catch fire.

Every day, we were out on the savannahs. Immediatel­y, an older, more exotic world appeared. The road signs warned of armadillos and anteaters. I remember ox-carts too, and little houses, open-sided and slung with hammocks. Out in the swamps, there were creatures everywhere: caimans, monkeys, tortoises, deer, burrowing owls, and huge herds of those lumpen outsized hamsters called capybaras. Of all the birds on the savannah, my favourite was the hoatzin, a sort of prehistori­c phoenix that smells so bad that no one will eat it.

For this beautifull­y raw environmen­t, we had the perfect guides. Andrés González was born here but had met his wife, Julia, at university in Newcastle. They were meticulous organisers, and even in the middle of nowhere a big lunch would appear, or canoes, or a box of beers, or a tractor to haul us through the bogs. No one was better qualified to get us riding. On day one we learnt to lasso and ride through a river. By day three, we were ready for the round-up.

At these moments, there were always a few cowboys around. The “llaneros” fascinated me. They never said much, and always looked thrillingl­y dangerous. Andrés said their favourite dish was boiled cow’s head, and they only ever slept in hammocks (“Beds, they say, are full of scorpions”).

But, in the saddle, they were magnificen­t. One, called Gonzalo, was known as “El Centuaro” and always rode barefoot. At one point, he lassoed a steer at full tilt. “That,” said Lucy, our teenage daughter, “is the coolest thing I have ever seen.”

On our last evening we joined the round-up. It didn’t work out quite as planned. The llaneros, of course, were awesome. The “caporal” led the way, singing to the cattle to calm them down. But we were supposed to be flankers, or orejeros (literally, “earmen”) and the herd sensed incompeten­ce. Suddenly, they were breaking free and streaming away. The cowboys didn’t seem to mind, and soon had them all packed together again, before swimming them off, across a lake.

It was, I suppose, a fitting end to our little foray. Colombia isn’t about to be tamed, but it can be enjoyed. The crowds now arriving will always love its magnificen­ce and its craziness (or “Loco-lombia”) but few will ever reach the outer edges. Things out here aren’t going to change very much. Colombia will be what it has always been: South America at its wildest and best.

Here a cowboy could buy everything he needed, including stetsons and a slab of steak

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 ?? ?? ii Custodian of the forest: a Kogi child in front of a thatched dwelling in the Sierra Nevada
i Tayrona National Park is home to Colombia’s best beaches, some of which require a five-mile hike to reach
gi In too deep? John Gimlette and his family go riding with a llanero (right)
ii Custodian of the forest: a Kogi child in front of a thatched dwelling in the Sierra Nevada i Tayrona National Park is home to Colombia’s best beaches, some of which require a five-mile hike to reach gi In too deep? John Gimlette and his family go riding with a llanero (right)

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