Identification. The Páez live in southwestern highland Colombia and speak the Páez language. They call themselves "Nasa" to distinguish themselves from neighboring ethnic groups, including the Guambiano, the Guanacas, and the townspeople of mixed Spanish and indigenous or African descent.
Location. The Páez heartland of Tierradentro in Colombia is comprised of some 1,300 square kilometers, located on the eastern slopes of Cordillera Central, at 2°30′ N and 76° W. Páez settlements can also be found on the western slopes of the cordillera, and some Páez colonists have recently settled in the Caquetá lowlands to the southeast. Over 80 percent of Tierradentro lies above 2,000 meters in elevation, with one-third of the territory in the páramo, the high northern Andean swampy plateau that begins at 3,000 meters. This cold, mountainous country is crosscut by deep valleys, most notably those of the Páez, Moras, and Ullucos rivers, confining settlements to the mountain slopes overlooking these waterways. In Tierradentro, the rainy season extends from May to November, with the heaviest rains in May to June and October to November; on the western slopes of the Cordillera seasons are reversed.
Demography. The 1972 census calculates a Páez population of only 35,724 persons, with 40 percent living in Tierradentro. Nevertheless, most experts estimate that there are between 60,000 and 80,000 Páez. An excessively high rate of infant mortality on the western slopes of the Cordillera has resulted in a negative rate of population growth in some communities.
Linguistic Affiliation. There is no agreement among scholars on the affiliation of the Páez language. Although it has been traditionally associated with the Chibchan Family, some linguists hesitate to classify Páez as a Chibchan language; it has been suggested that it is a linguistic isolate, together with neighboring Guambiano. According to some estimates, 75 percent of the Páez are bilingual in Páez and in Spanish, and 25 percent are monolingual Páez speakers. But in many communities more than half the population is composed of monolingual Spanish speakers. Páez is an unwritten language, and native linguists are beginning to develop an alphabet for purposes of bilingual education.