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Colombian Chicha’s Hidden Cultural History and Meaning

Chicha Colombian traditional drink

Updated on 02/19/2024

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Did you know that chicha was a sacred beverage for the Muisca indigenous people, used in ceremonies and religious rituals? Discover how this ancestral tradition has evolved and become a symbol of resistance and unity in Colombia.

What is Colombian Chicha?

Colombian chicha is a beverage made from the fermentation of various cereals and fruits, especially corn and yuca. It has a long history, being an integral part of the culture and identity of Colombia’s indigenous peoples and peasants. 

In this blog, you’ll delve into its cultural significance and other important aspects of this beverage.

History and Origins of Chicha

Chicha is a beverage that originated in the pre-Columbian cultures of South America, especially in the Andes. The earliest records of its consumption date back to around 5000 B.C. in Colombia. 

The chicha drink was used for religious ceremonies, offering gifts to the gods or conducting initiation rites. It was also shared during community celebrations and gatherings.

Evolution of Chicha

As you can see, chicha underwent several transformations throughout history. With the arrival of the Spanish, chicha blended with other products they brought, such as:

  • Wheat.
  • Sugarcane.
  • Rice.
  • Panela.

Chicha became very popular among criollos, the children of Spaniards born in Latin America.

In the 20th century, chicha lost prestige and consumption as the Colombian government prohibited it, claiming it was an unhealthy and brutish drink.

Other more popular beverages like beer, aguardiente, or rum began to emerge. Despite this, chicha continued to be consumed by indigenous people and peasants.

Cultural Meanings and Symbolism of Chicha

Colombian chicha holds great cultural significance for some of the country’s most important indigenous peoples, such as:

  • The Chibchas, who prevailed in the central Andean zone of Colombia in the region of the Cundinamarca-Cundinamarca altiplano (Boyacá – Cundinamarca).
  • The Muiscas, who also inhabited the region of the Cundinamarca-Boyacá highlands and the southern part of the department of Santander.
  • The Pijaos, a tribe that prevailed in the central mountain range of the Andes between the snow-capped mountains of Huila, Quindio and Tolima.

It represents identity, resistance, and the memory of these communities, who have tried to preserve their ancestral beverage despite historical and social adversities.

Festivals and Rituals

Chicha is associated with traditional festivals and indigenous rituals. It is offered as a tribute to Pachamama or Mother Earth to express gratitude for the abundance of fruits and harvests.

For tribes like the Chibchas and Muiscas, it is a significant ceremonial beverage in rites of initiation, marriage, or death. It is used to bid farewell to loved ones. Additionally, in these cultures, chicha is employed to strengthen bonds of friendship and solidarity.

Ingredients and Brewing Process of Chicha

How was chicha traditionally prepared?

Indigenous tribes like the Muiscas and Chibchas prepared chicha in a unique way, being unfamiliar with honey and sugarcane. In the preparation process, indigenous women soaked and chewed corn for several minutes, fermenting it with saliva. Later, it was cooked for four hours, strained, and left to rest for fermentation.

How is chicha prepared today?

Chicha is made from corn or yuca, although other cereals like wheat, rice, or barley can also be used. In some regions, it is prepared with fruits like pineapple, lulo, or passion fruit. 

The preparation process is straightforward:

  • Cook the main ingredient with water until softened.
  • Grind or blend to obtain a thick mass or juice.
  • Add grated panela or panela dissolved in water.
  • Package in a covered clay container for 8 days or more.

Note that the crucial aspect of this beverage is the natural fermentation process, converting natural sugars into alcohol. The longer the chicha ferments, the stronger its alcoholic content.

Variations of Chicha

Chicha has many regional variations, depending on the type of ingredient, preparation method, and added spices. For example:

  • Some areas add cinnamon, cloves, or anise (for a more aromatic touch).
  • Non-alcoholic versions also exist (consumed quickly without fermentation).

Here are some common variations prepared in Colombia:

  • Corn Chicha: The most common, made with cooked corn, panela, and water, fermented in clay containers. Consumed, especially in the Cundiboyacense highlands.
  • Yuca Chicha: Prepared with cooked yuca, panela, and water, fermented in ceramic vessels. Consumed in rural and jungle areas like the Amazon.
  • Pineapple Chicha: Prepared with pineapple peels, panela, and water, fermented in bottles or jars. Mainly consumed in coastal and tropical areas like the Caribbean, offering a more refreshing version of chicha.
  • Rice Chicha: Made from cooked rice, panela, and water, fermented in pots or buckets. Especially consumed in the Andean and coffee-growing regions of the country.

Chicha in Colombian Cuisine

Chicha plays a significant role in Colombian cuisine, particularly in rural areas. It is consumed as a refreshing and nutritious beverage. Most Colombians tend to accompany their typical meals like:

  • Sancochos
  • Empanadas
  • Tamales
  • Arepas

As you travel through Colombia’s roads, it’s common to see stalls with brown clay jars storing chicha with lots of ice, sold in cups or bottles.

Challenges and Changes in Tradition

One challenge has been the loss of traditional flavors in chicha production, passed down through generations.

For instance, with the migration from rural to urban areas, land abandonment, and forced displacement due to armed conflict affecting the country, many indigenous and farming communities have stopped producing and consuming, albeit not completely severing their cultural ties.

Globalization has also led many people to prefer foreign or more commercial beverages.

Cultural Preservation of Chicha

In response to these challenges, various initiatives have emerged to promote and preserve Colombian chicha as cultural heritage. For example:

Festival de la chicha, el maíz, la vida y la dicha.

The Festival de la chicha, el maíz, la vida y la dicha (or Chicha, Corn, Life, and Bliss Festival in English) is an annual event held since 1995 in Bogotá, attracting thousands of tourists each year. The event aims to rescue the culture and gastronomy associated with chicha while highlighting traditional products made with corn.

  • Location: La Perseverancia neighborhood in the Santa Fe locality, Bogotá.
  • Date: Annually in October or November, for 2 days. Dates may vary each year.
  • Entrance: Free to the public.
  • Attendees: Between 5,000 to 6,000 attendees per edition.

For more information, you can also check the Chicha, Corn, Life, and Bliss Festival

Festival de la chicha y la cultura

The Festival de la chicha y la cultura (or Chicha and Culture Festival in English) has been celebrated since 2016 in Antioquia, aiming to promote and disseminate traditions, focusing on the worship of Nencatacoa, a Muisca deity, and the main beverage of the Muisca people. 

Enjoy traditional dances, music, crafts, and everything related to chicha and corn.

  • Location: Municipality of Santuario, 1 hour (62 kilometers) from Medellín in the Antioquia department.
  • Date: Usually in June, for 2 days.
  • Entrance: Free.

For more information, you can visit the Festival de la chicha y la cultura

Chicha in Modern Culture

Colombian chicha has integrated into modern culture, giving rise to new forms of production and consumption:

  • Chicha has become a trendy beverage among young people, especially university students, consumed in bars, parties, or cultural events.
  • Chicha serves as a tourist resource and cultural attraction for visitors from around the world.

A historic fountain in the neighborhood La Candelaria in Bogotá, Chorro de Quevedo, marks the city’s founding in 1538. Now an iconic cultural site, it’s renowned for colonial architecture and history. The spot offers a diverse range of chichas—pineapple, blackberry, panela, and more. Visitors can sample various flavors for free or purchase larger bottles at reasonable prices.

For a deeper dive into the world of chicha, explore the adjacent El Museo de la Chicha (or Chicha Museum in English). Here, you can witness the traditional corn grinding process and gain insights into the complete production of this ancestral elixir.

  • Location: Carrera 1st with Calle 12B bis, in the La Candelaria neighborhood, tucked in a corner of Chorro de Quevedo.
  • Hours: Tuesday to Friday from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
  • Entrance: Free.

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About Author

Frank

Frank

Hello! I'm Frank Spitzer, the founder and the heart behind Pelecanus, a specialized tour operator for Colombia travel. My journey in travel is vast and rich – I've explored over 60 countries, absorbing cultures, experiences, and stories along the way. Since 2017, I've been channeling this wealth of global experience into creating unforgettable travel experiences in Colombia.I'm recognized as a leading authority in Colombian tourism, with a deep-seated passion for sharing this beautiful country with the world. You can catch glimpses of my travel adventures and insights around Colombia on my YouTube channel. I'm also active on social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, where I share the vibrant culture and stunning landscapes of Colombia.For professional networking, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. Join me on this incredible journey, and let's explore the wonders of Colombia together!

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