The Rama are said to be the Guardians of the Forest. These indigenous people of Nicaragua live in one of the most remote corners of the country, in the Reserva Biológica Indio Maíz. This beautiful, untouched land and its interesting people are hard to reach, but the journey will be worth the effort.
There are few Native Indians left in the world, who are still living in their ancestral environment and who try to protect their lands as powerfully as the Rama. So strong is the love of the Rama for their native rainforests that without a second thought they can reject millions of dollars and big, multinational corporates as well as international scientists. All without a blink of an eye, if they think the people would hurt their lifestyle or the surroundings. In the ideology of the Rama the rainforests are not made for humans to only benefit from – instead, we should live in the forests, in harmony.
The Communities and the life of the Rama
Today about 50 families are living in the area of Greytown and Rio Indio in the Indio Maíz. Canta Gallo is a relatively new settlement concentration. It can be reached by a small motor boat in approximately 8 hours from San Juan de Nicaragua/Greytown. It’s so deep in the jungle that no cell phone will work since the last mobile network tower is located in San Juan de Nicaragua. You will be completely disconnected.
Moreover, the biggest Rama community is in Bluefields, where’s also located the world’s only Rama University. There was also Makenge – a town, which used to be the biggest Rama habitat center in Indio Maíz. Our guide, Salomon, was originally from Makenge, too. Until the early 21st century there was also a first-grade school in Makenge for the children of the Rama, but the Nicaraguan government shut it down.
This brought many problems to the Rama community. Since then the parents have been struggling to get at least some education for their children because it’s very expensive to send children to school a long way away and the Rama are generally penniless. The government pays petite attention to the Rama issues, although nowadays the situation may have improved a bit. But still a new school hasn’t been built, for example.
After the school had been suppressed, Makenge started to die. Until 2003 there were still 5-10 families living in Makenge, our guide Salomon being one of them. But eventually, they all moved to Greytown/San Juan de Nicaragua, because it was too expensive to live so aloof. However, some Rama has always lived in the Indio Maíz, scattered around, and they have just refused to move into the town.
Life really isn’t easy in the jungle – many of the Rama still use the traditional canoe, carved out from a single log of a tree. With such canoe, it takes 12 hours to paddle from the area of the old Makenge to Greytown via the Rio Indio. This is a long journey to take every time they’ll need some food and other equipment from Greytown, and many of the people live much further away than Makenge. We actually saw few of these canoes making the journey while we were visiting in the Indio Maíz and you couldn’t but admire the people. Not only for their exceptional persistence, but also for their determination for preserving their unique culture.
In addition to the community in Canta Gallo, the Rama have also started to build a new settlement called the “Holy Land.” This little village is presumably in the same area where the old Makenge was, even though the actual location of Makenge was left a bit undefined in our guide’s stories. There’s a small concentration of families living around, and they’ve even built a new Communal House. So maybe that community area is slowly starting to thrive again. A good sign for the revival of the Rama habitat in Indio Maíz.
Life really isn’t easy in the jungle – many of the Rama still use the traditional canoe, carved out from a single log of a tree. It takes 12 hours to paddle from the area of the old Makenge to Greytown.
Life of Tradition of the Rama
The tradition lives firmly among these indigenous people. For example, most of the Rama live in traditional houses, built from wood and other materials got solely from the forest. The houses are also very primitive, consisting of just the essential parts. There’s an open communal area with hammocks, a covered sleeping area, and an open kitchen. Below the floor is where the animals are kept – mostly chickens. The only toilet is the nature behind the house, and if you want to shower – well, there is the river. But you have to be very careful because there are crocodiles in the river!
Some modern things the Rama have adopted, though. They have solar panels to produce the little electricity they need for the lights and maybe for a radio or a TV. Even though they don’t have much, these people were some of the most friendly I’ve ever met. It was an honor to have the privilege to spend a night in an original Rama house. Sleeping in the hammock on the open porch, in the middle of the jungle, was an experience you just cannot forget. Pitch black darkness of the night and all the sounds of the vast jungle around you. It was a bit scary, but soothing at the same time.
As mentioned before, the Rama are “the Guardians of the Forest” and they know a great deal about the rainforest. Even today, Shamanism has a lot of footing in the Rama communities. When it’s at least a half day’s journey to the nearest doctor, sometimes the knowledge of which plant may save you – or at least give you some first aid – may turn out to be invaluable.
Salomon showed us a mushroom, which can ease snakebites, as an example. We asked him that if something severe happens, like a crocodile bites you, do you have a chance to survive? He was quiet for a while, then looked at us with a troubled face and said: “If you are lucky.”
The jungle hides many other things besides dangers and medicinal plants. We visited the sacred Rama pyramids of Canta Gallo, and they’re not the only secrets of the Indio Maíz. Many stories are told about the spirits of the jungle, who protect certain areas.
Commonly known is a story of one army group who were supposed to clear off a part of the jungle for a government project, but ended up shooting each others to death when trying to evict the attacking jungle spirits who protected their forest.
“There are areas where only the Rama can enter,” our other guide to the pyramids, Margarito, told us. These areas are a significant part of their culture, and maybe they are guarded not only by the Rama but the fierce jungle spirits as well.
The Dying Rama Language
The original Rama language has almost died away. Only 1% of the Rama can speak it. Some say that there are only 24 elderly people left who can speak it fluently. It’s a verdict of disappearance, despite some recent language revitalization efforts in the last few years. Even our Rama guide Salomon admitted that he couldn’t have a fluent conversation in Rama anymore, despite him being a bit elderly already. A language is a big part of cultural identity, and therefore, I wish that despite all the odds, they would succeed in preserving the Rama language – a part of the Chibchan languages. Maybe this Rama language project will help, at least a bit.
Nowadays most of the Rama speak “Rama Cay Creole,” a strange English mixed with some words of Spanish and Rama into it. It sounds peculiar, and your ears have to get used to it first, but since it’s mostly English based, you can get along just fine.
We asked our guide, Salomon, that if something really serious happens deep in the jungle, like a crocodile bites you, do you have a chance to survive? He was quiet for a while, then looked at us with a troubled face and said: “If you are lucky”.
How to Arrange a Visit to the Indio Maíz and the Rama Indians?
The best option to organize a visit to the dense jungles of Indio Maíz and to meet the Rama is when you’re already in San Juan de Nicaragua. We couldn’t find any websites from where you could book a tour beforehand, at least not any reliable or convincing ones. I also strongly recommend booking your visit from San Juan de Nicaragua/Greytown for a reason.
There were lots of companies offering an Indio Maíz tour in El Castillo, but if you want to have a genuine, authentic and truly individual experience, along with supporting the Rama community directly without any intermediates, you shouldn’t book your tour from El Castillo. Also, the journey to the heartlands of Indio Maíz from El Castillo is really long, to the extent that it can be quite exhausting. Make the effort, travel all the way along the Rio San Juan to Greytown/San Juan de Nicaragua. Trust me; it will be worth it!
When in Greytown, ask for your accommodation to arrange you a tour to Indio Maíz or ask around the village for Rama guides. If you speak at least a little bit of Spanish, it’ll help you a long way. Note that only Rama Indians are allowed to take visitors into the Indio Maíz! Our Hospedaje arranged us to meet our guide; the Rama Indian called Salomon, with whom we visited the Reserva Biológica Indio Maíz. We spent a homestay with a true Rama family and had a hiking tour to see some thousands of years old pyramids, deep in the jungle.
We had a one night’s trip, including everything (the tour, transportation, guides, accommodation, food, some drinking water). We paid 200$ for the two of us. The price can vary between 200-400$ (for 2 persons) depending on how many nights you’ll be staying and with what kind of boat you’ll be traveling.
Gas is expensive in Nicaragua, and you’ll have at least 6-8 hours’ boat ride into the jungle Reserve, so there actually won’t be much profit left for your guide(s) and the Rama community. Just in case if you think that the tour is expensive – it’s not! Salomon was a great and professional guide. I can warmly recommend to take him as your guide if you’re able to. He can take you further into the jungle than the other well-known guide, Alicia McRea, who usually makes her tours only as far as the old Makenge. And somehow, after meeting Alicia in person, I also believe that Salomon and his son, Norvin, will give you a more thoroughly, deeper and personal experience of the magical Reserva Biológia Indio Maíz.
(text: Piritta / photos: Niina / photo edits: Piritta)