Arhuacos of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta

The Arhuacos are believed to be the direct descendants of the Tairona civilization (known for the discovery of the “ciudad perdida”, lost city in 1972). The Sierra Nevada is located at the Caribbean coast of Colombia and reaches an altitude of 5.700 metres above sea level (it’s the world’s highest coastal range). It has a total surface of approximately 17.000 km² and contains four different indigenous groups; the Kankuamos, the Wiwa’s, the Koguis and the Arhuacos (the Arhuacos being the biggest group, consisting of approximately 14.000 persons).

Although living in the same territory, each indigenous group has its own language, customs and arts. The Arhuacos are nationally known for making their mochilas which can be found in different parts of the country. 


The Mamo is the most important figure in the culture of the Arhuaco people. He can be compared with the priest of the community but he is much more than that. He is the one responsible for the contact between the supernatural world and the world we live in. From the time when he’s born, the elder Mamos see (through adivination ) who is destined to become a Mamo. Once the Mamo is chosen, he’s kept in the highest peaks of the mountains, in a closed surrounding, only perceiving the world as a reflection of what it is. When he’s old enough, he accompanies the elder Mamo, learning the ancestral knowledge about nature and their culture.

The cosmology of the Arhuaco focuses on giving to the earth what she’s given to us. Their philosophy is based on the idea that nature and society are interrelated. They are seen as one. And this thought comes from the sacred law that is immutable, pre-existent and persists in time. It is a law that always has existed and will always exist. It explains the origin of the matter, the evolution, equilibrium, preservation and harmony.


The Arhuaco considers themselves the ones responsible to maintain the world in balance, this is according to the myth of creation where the people of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta are considered to be the Elder Brother (because they were created first) and because the Sierra Nevada is the heart of the world, whereas the rest of the civilization is considered to be the younger brother. The Elder Brother received the task to maintain the balance of the world. In order to hold this balance, the Mamos are the ones making offerings in different sacred places of the Sierra Nevada, this is their main task. Mamos are also consulted for significant events in the community. For instance, when a man wants to marry a woman, he goes to the Mamo to ask him for advice and his approval; when a child is born, the parents bring the baby to the Mamo so that he can give the child the name in Arhuaco (apart from the name in Spanish given by the parents), or when there is a big journey ahead, the person goes to the Mamo to get his blessing. They also give each member of their community the ‘seguranza’, a white bracelet made of wool that serves as protection.This culture is full of meanings. They interpret some rocks as open books, there are sacred waterfalls and lakes in their territory. Therefore, and that's the main problem they are facing, without proper access to their sacred places the Mamo cannot fulfill his task properly, deeply affecting their culture.


Their territory has its boundaries at the 'Black Line'. It is an imaginary boundary until where their sacred places reside. This boundary it not acknowledged by the Colombian State and in several of their sacred places they build dams, hotels or farms, denying their access to these territories.