We were trundling down Colombia’s main coastal highway in a local bus, fresh from Tayrona Park and on our way to Palomino, when I saw them. Two boys dressed head to toe in white, standing solemnly, their bare feet curling in the dirt. Brothers perhaps; definitely together, members of the same community.
The bus moved on quickly and they were gone again – but their image stuck in my memory for the rest of the journey.
When we reached our hostel, mere steps from the beach, I found out where the boys came from. One of the posters at the entrance, next to the desk where a friendly Colombian checked us into our dorm room, was a poster.
“Visit an indigenous tribe!” a slogan said, jostling for space amongst a montage of photos; empty swathes of sand, palm trees, and the ruins of the Lost City. The hostel organised day long outings to visit a local Kogi community – a group of nomads descended from the Tairona people who had successfully managed to preserve their traditions and culture, remaining outside of the modern Colombia.
The idea of taking a tour to meet these people at once fascinated and repulsed me. On the one hand I was really interested in the Kogi and wanted to learn more about them, but I also didn’t want to be a vulgar spectator, staring at a tribe of people like animals in a zoo.
So despite spending the next four nights on the edge of the Caribbean sea at Palomino beach, I abstained from visiting the Kogi.
What I didn’t know was that, in a rather roundabout way, they’d be visiting me.
Seeing the Kogi people without meaning to
The next time I saw a member of the Kogi, we were wandering up the dirt track from our hostel that led to the main highway. Palomino is a tiny place, marked briefly on the major coastal highway by a stretch of shops and restaurants that take less than ten minutes to walk from end to end.
Off the highway, a few dirt roads lead down to the beach, where the proliferation of hostels and guesthouses exist. But for these, there would barely be a tourist influx in Palomino.
As we stopped at a small tienda to buy a big bottle of water from a teenage girl who looked bored out of her skull, I noticed a man ahead of us, walking slowly through the pink blossom littering the path. He was supported by a younger woman, holding the crook of his arm. They were both wearing white.
We walked past them as she guided him to a red plastic chair outside a small fish shop/pescaderia. I didn’t want to look too long, but my eyes took in details hungrily; the long dark hair they both wore loose, the woven bags slung around their chests, his milky blind eyes, her expression of care.
That lunchtime, as we ate fish soup and drank agua de panela at a Spanish guy’s restaurant, I thought more about those white clad figures, and wondered whether I’d missed out on an opportunity by not visiting the local community.
But I thought back to other “meet the locals” situations I’ve encountered in the past – like visiting members of the Karen Long Necked tribe in northern Thailand, where I felt so ashamed of myself for pandering to such voyeurism – and I was happy with my decision.
Another run in with the Kogi
That evening we walked up to the highway again for a evening snack of arepas con queso at a street stall, when we passed a group of women and children in their white tunics, looking solemn, silent, and a little confused amongst the modern trappings of the coastal Colombians.
A car with a Bogota numberplate pulled up to the side of the road and a man in a crisp grey suit clambered out to grab some food alongside us.
When I looked back, the women and their progeny had melted away.
We spent the rest of the evening spent throwing heavy metal pucks at boxes of sticky grey clay, with two small paper packets of gunpowder propped up against a metal ring in the centre of each box. Playing tejo is a common pastime in Colombia, particularly on the coast – but when it’s set up in a man’s back garden, amongst clucking chickens, tiny kittens, and dogs who seem completely unperturbed by the sound of explosions…
Life is slow in Palomino
Apart from playing with gunpowder, our days in Palomino passed lazily enough.
I lived mostly in my bikini and didn’t stray far from either the sea’s turbulent edges or the calm waters of the hostel swimming pool. Occasionally I checked on a cardboard box in the outdoor kitchen cupboard filled with week-old kittens that the hostel staff were keeping safe.
We walked up to the highway at least once a day, shuffling our feet through the pink blossom littering parts of the path, and picking up small fresh sugar mangos that had fallen from the surrounding trees.
We waved hello to the same sleepy dog that remained unmoving in one specific shadow every time we saw him, and silently rejoiced whenever the driver of a particularly beat up old truck drove past us with his thumb up.
At night, we drank beers, played multiple games of cards, improved on our pool playing techniques and spent one evening on a three hour marathon game of Monopoly, where I realised how brutal a game it can be.
I’d almost forgotten about my fleeting moments with the Kogi until the morning of our last full day in Palomino dawned, when Josh and I went for a walk along the quiet beach.
Meeting the Kogi kids
We strolled through the surf, climbed up the sand banks, marvelled at how empty the beach in front of us was. And then we came across a group of children, eight or nine of them, some sitting in the sand, others floating around in the sea aided by pieces of driftwood and screaming with joy.
There were no adults to be seen; no obvious place they would have come from. Except for the mass of jungle that lay a few metres from the water’s edge.
There were two tiny boys squatting amongst the washed up sea debris, each holding one handle of a blue striped plastic bag filled with shells. They were searching through the debris and picking up various shells; I started doing the same, before giving one of them my handful.
There was no response; just an unblinking gaze for a few seconds, before his eyes snapped back to the bag of shells again.
I found out later that they crush the shells and mix them with coca leaves. I also learnt that the Kogi tribe are apparently not interested in tourists at all.
Lessons learned from not meeting the Kogi
From time to time, you find yourself in places that feel more special than others. Maybe it’s when the tourism hasn’t become too pronounced yet, so there’s an element of “not that many people come here – but I did!” going on.
Other times, it’s when something in that place sparks your imagination in a way you weren’t expecting.I don’t have any pictures of the Kogi people that I encountered, but its strange how much of an impact those few sightings made on me. Agroup of children on the shore, looking at me solemnly while picking up shells, climbing on aged wooden trunks, paddling furiously in the surf on pieces of driftwood. A blind man being led by a young woman to sit down in a red plastic chair outside a small fish shop. A group of women and children standing in stark contrast with present-day Colombians.
And then there are the moments when you realise something about the way you travel. When you notice that a small place like Palomino makes an impact on you that the stunning landscapes of Tayrona failed to do, simply because you travel more for people than for nature.
Would you sign up for a visit to a local tribe? What do you think about the idea?