The wind howls across the pastures of Oicatá, whipping the clumps of grasses, bending branches of dark green trees, painting scrub brush with grey dust, and lashing the slate colored mountains of the Cordillera Oriental.
Colombia’s easternmost mountain range, part of the ancient Andes, is the backdrop of this story, and the homeland of the ancient Muisca people.
Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada founded the tiny village of Oicatá on May 9, 1593. Located in the department of Boyacá, (the equivalent of a state in the U.S.) the area is well known for its history, because the region was the scene of a series of later battles, which led to Colombia’s independence from the Spanish Crown in 1819.
Prior to the arrival of the Conquistadors, however, an ancient, highly developed society inhabited the area, the roots of which have been traced back to almost 10,000 B.C.E. In the early XVI century, Conquistadors encountered the skillful and populous Muisca Confederation — gold workers, emerald miners, agriculturalists and weavers.
The Muiscan Confederation, a loose union of states that each retained sovereignty, was not a kingdom, as there was no absolute monarch, nor was it an empire, because it did not dominate other ethnic groups or peoples. The Muiscan Confederation was one of the biggest and best-organized confederations of tribes on the South American continent.
A short drive from Boyacá’s capital, Tunja, the bucolic landscape is one of sharp contrasts – just as the history and pieces of this ancient civilization are similarly juxtaposed. The ancient, ethereal silhouettes of the past loom over the dusty-lime-colored fields, where massive tan gashes mar the vista with scars of man’s determination to develop roads and harvest materials for bricks and the construction of modern edifices. Mountaintops, hillsides and entire escarpments have been slashed away by bulldozers, and whittled by picks and shovels.
After badly needed rainfall the previous day and night, today’s adventure was to meet a local guide to visit indigenous places– a cemetary or an observatory. Dressed in jeans with wool knee socks, simple walking shoes and far too many layers of sweaters and jackets, little did I know that we were all embarking on a cross-cultural, spiritual journey of discovery – connected by indigenous sacred sites and important celestial observatories – that would join the paths of the ancient Muisca with the Polynesian voyagers of my Hawaiian home.
The day was gorgeous – sporting cerulean blue skies — while cottony clouds scuttled across the sky, buffeted by fresh, post-frontal winds.
The name “Oicatá” is the name of the indigenous chief who ruled the area prior to the Spanish invasion. The Cacique (chief) that governed this prehistoric village was the Zaque Hunza. The indigenous Cacique and his tribes paid homage to their deities and held festivals in her honor in the village.
Driven by my host, Omar Amezquita, whose family has lived in the area for four generations, we dashed across dirt roads to the village of Oicatá. There, we stopped to pick up our guide, Blanca Ocasion, a native of the village.
Ocasion recently won a second term as a representative in local government. She is also an advocate of reforestation efforts, sustainable agriculture and a proponent of the recognition and appreciation of the indigenous culture and their history. Ocasion greeted us with a dazzling smile.
A short distance past the village we pulled to the side of the road, and surrounded by a cloud of white dust, we prepared for the hike. After slipping around a metal fence with Blanca at the lead, we scaled grassy hills, and descended eroded vales. She explained that in times past, the area had an abundance of water – rainfalls, natural springs, rivers, streams – and thickly-wooded forests.
“When the original inhabitants populated the area, there were many more trees on the land. Most of the trees you see now are introduced varieties, such as Eucalyptus and Acacias, which take a lot of water and are bad for the environment. The water system is deficient; we have very few springs and streams.”
While the indigenous population farmed, mined and wove remarkable textiles, they are not responsible for the erosion visible today. Deforestation to exploit wood for construction, cattle and sheep farming, and excavating the earth for construction materials, compounded the problem.
We hiked up into a valley where we found an abundant spring emanating from beneath a large cave. This unique spot was the site of the Muisca’s celestial observatory. In ancient times, the indigenous Colombian tribes observed the heavens to discover the best time for planting crops, harvesting, travel and religious ceremonies. Half way across the planet in Hawaii, the Hawaiian chiefs charted the stars for their celestical navigation routes throughout the Polynesain triangle.
On the way we passed by a sunny hillside where Blanca had been busy planting native shrub and tree species.
Miles from the nearest road, and without a visible source of water in sight, Ocasion is determined to bring the landscape back to its original glory, no matter how long the process might take. As the native plants flourish, endemic birds, reptiles and forest animals, such as native foxes, are making a gradual comeback.
Ducking beneath a patch of non-indigenous trees, Blanca pointed out an emerald green blanket of healthy, native moss, taking advantage of the shade. From this moist ground cover, the possibility of native species taking root will be increased.
A little further along, we stopped to examine some short bushes bearing brilliant bright pink flowers – an example of native species recovery.
While Colombia is witnessing one of the worst El Nino events since 1997, and a state of emergency has been issued by the government for certain areas of the country, Ocasion has reason to hope that one day she and like-minded people witll restore their farms and homelands to thier original forested, stream-crossed glory.
“With new farming techniques, such as using certain types of seeds, composting to enhance soil, water catchment, and drip irrigation, I hope to show others that farming can be profitable,” said Amezquita.