It’s where the sun was born, the heart of the world, the most sacred of places for the Arhuaco people. Of course I wanted to visit! The place is a remote, traditional village in the Sierra Nevada mountains called Nabusimake.
The Arhuaco are some of the most traditional people I’ve seen in all of my travels and this, despite being regularly exposed to the modern world. They’ve made a conscious decision to separate themselves from that modern world for most part. Preserving their culture is of utmost importance to them. The material world takes second place to spiritual development and love for nature. Ancestral law presides over anything else. I was told that if an Arhuaco commits a crime in the city, he/she is judged by the traditional law system, rather than the Colombian one.
Visually, the Arhuaco are distinct because they wear entirely (or almost entirely) traditional clothes.
Traditionally, boys have long hair and with the loose clothes it's almost impossible to tell apart girls from boys before a certain age, at least for someone relatively clueless like me. I didn't even realise that the child in the image above was a boy until I got his name.
The Arhuaco instantly stand out when you walk down the streets of the small mountain town Pueblo Bello – the nearest infrastructurally developed place to Nabusimake. Their presence gives the town a very particular vibe. You feel like you're somewhere remote, somewhere unusual and different to the rest of Colombia.
The stereotypical view of the Arhuaco is that they’re reserved and not talkative. From my experience they certainly won’t stop you in the street to chat, but, the folks I met were friendly and happy to converse. I, of course asked about their culture and about Nabusimake. That seemed to be their preferred topic.
Various people told me that Nabusimake was not a place that just anyone could enter. Depending on who I’d talk to I was told that: You need a permit. Just turn up! You need a permit, but you can get it there. Just talk to the guy at the gate and he’ll let you through.
I became convinced to simply drive up to Nabusimake and to see what happens after a chat with an Arhuaco man I met while eating in a restaurant. He said that if he hadn't just come back he’d love to accompany me, but “It shouldn’t be a problem to enter in any case."
Local advice always worked best in the past, so I was ready to go. Just before leaving the restaurant I talked to the friendly young owner, to see if he knew anything. He told me that I was crazy to drive my car up there, as the road was too difficult, but apart from that there shouldn't be a problem. I was already used to these warnings and told him to give me a free chicken if I come back, unscratched and in once piece.
The road from Pueblo Bello is only about 19km (12 miles). It's meant to take 2-3 hours. Definitely not easy, but not the impossible road that the restaurant owner and some other people made it out to be. There was a river crossing very near the beginning of the way. That's me crossing it above.
This little bit of info is for any adventurous souls reading. No matter how bad the road is supposed to be, if it's regularly driven by people – it is not impassable. There were plenty of cars driving to and from Nabusimake. This gave me a piece of mind, if I were to get stuck or to damage my car, I'd probably be able to get help, or at worst, I could get a lift to town.
Though there are at least a couple of rivers and plenty of sheer cliff drops along the way, the biggest realistic danger is damaging a critical component below the car. Virtually none of the way is flat, most of it is rocky and the trick is to drive very, very slowly, only with a capable 4X4 and on low gear.
Driving so slowly and having to concentrate so much is surprisingly tiring. Thankfully, there are places to pull over and the scenery is beautiful. I made sure to stop a few times.
As I got a few kilometres away from Pueblo Bello, I realised that there were almost no signs of the modern world around here. The occasional motorbike would pass by, and the cars, but even those were mostly 30-40 years old.
The people I'd come across were usually traditionally dressed Arhuacos. Seeing them against the backdrop of the unadulterated landscape was somewhat surreal. It really felt like I was in a different time. The last occasion I can remember feeling like this was in the tribal area of Ethiopia.
With all the stops and photos, the trip to the gate of Nabusimake took me a bit more than 4 hours. And so came the moment of truth. Would I be allowed in? The gate was well guarded by one man. He immediately asked if I was there for something specific.
"No. Just want to visit." I replied. "Do you have a permit?" I didn't of course "I was told it might be possible to just get one here." The man looked at me expressionless and said "You can't enter. I don't know why they didn't tell you. Everyone knows, we're not letting anyone in without a permit."
I felt deflated "Can't I just get one here? What's the big deal? Isn't there a way? I drove all the way here." The man, still emotionless replied "They aren't giving permits to anyone without a purpose here now. No one can enter Nabusimake if they don't have a purpose."
I was surprised that this man was so inflexible. "Can't I just spend the night and go tomorrow, it's almost dark, it's such a long drive, I've got all this way to go back." He had no sympathy. "Come on, you have rules in your world and we have rules here. It's nothing personal, these are the rules, to respect them."
The man had a point. Though I hate rules even in my world, it's not often that we get a chance to bend them or to even discuss them with authorities. Judging by the man's lack of sympathy or any visible emotions, this was a pointless case to argue. I got into my car and hurried down the rocky road. I needed to make it back before sunset. It would have been suicidal to drive here in the dark.
I got back to Pueblo Bello, disappointed that I couldn't enter Nabusimake, but satisfied that I made the journey there and back and at least got a taste for the area. Sometimes, just knowing that something like this exists is exciting.
The young restaurant owner was surprised to see me back so quickly. I told him the story, but I couldn't claim my free chicken, as I technically didn't come back unscratched. One careless manoeuvre left a big scratch on my bumper.
I decided to stick around Pueblo Bello for a couple of days, to enjoy the nature and to take some photos around the area.
The two photos above are from the same river I crossed with my car. I came back here because I knew that every now and the Arhuaco people and their mules would cross it.
I hung around for more than an hour, constantly being bitten by pesky mosquitoes . There were very few people going by, but, I did manage a few images.
Along the road to Nabusimake I met three Arhuaco children with their mules. The scene of them against the rough mountain backdrop was very dramatic. I asked if I could take their photo, to which the more talkative child, a boy of no more than 8 replied "What good is your photo going to serve me?" I was surprised and somewhat impressed by the kid's comment. Before I moved on I smiled and said, "Ok, you're right. It won't serve you any good."
The next time I wanted to photograph children I was expecting a similar, protesting answer, but the brother and sister above, were much more curious in the foreigner with the camera. They stuck around, not caring about me taking photos.
I walked along with the sister up the road for a few meters, took a few more photos, waved good bye and went back to Pueblo Bello. Despite my relatively bad luck I was starting to like the place. In the few days that I'd spent there people started to recognise my face, they were friendly and after they found out that I wasn't allowed into Nabusimake, they wanted to help.
Most of the help offers were useless, as I didn't simply want to see Nabusimake, I wanted to stay and to photograph there for a few days. For that, I'd need full cooperation from the Arhuaco people.
That last evening, on the way back from photographing the kids with the mules I did have a breakthrough. I was stopped in the street by a quiet, young Arhuaco man who I was introduced to days earlier. He knew about my desire and failure to visit Nabusimake. "There's someone you should meet. There's a man who's one of the traditional land owners. He's a respected person. Talk to him."
I had nothing to lose, so I chatted with the man. I learned why no outsiders were allowed into Nabusimake. It was because of an internal dispute. The villagers were arguing over who should profit from tourism, whose guesthouse tourists should go to and so on. The man said "Community harmony is much more important than money. We're arguing there because of an external thing. Until we have a system in place to deal with the matter, we won't have any more visitors."
I was impressed that these folks really did prioritise the important things in life over money, and I wanted to know even more if there is a way to photograph in Nabusimake. It turns out there is, but, that might be a story for another time, when I return to Colombia.
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