5 Incredible Indigenous Cultures in Colombia

Wayuu family from Northern Colombia

Last updated on August 2nd, 2021 at 12:42 pm

Dear Reader
My name is Frank and I run a travel agency in Bogota, Colombia. Have fun while reading!

Historical context of the indigenous peoples in Colombia

Colombia is an indigenous country par excellence. This country is characterized by its pluralism and multiculturalism. A visit to this nation guarantees you the opportunity to immerse yourself in completely different worlds.

The pre-Columbian era refers to the time preceding the arrival of the Spaniards in 1492. It was shaped by various indigenous groups who had their own political and economic organization as well as their own beliefs and rituals. The oldest evidence suggests that the first settlers appeared on Colombian territory more than 15,000 years ago. Over time, groups such as the Muisca, the Tairona, the San Agustin culture, and other indigenous cultures emerged.

For the most part, these pre-Columbian Indians carried what is known as the oral tradition. Their beliefs, their cosmology, and their way of life were passed on through spoken language. In many cases, these indigenous groups did not use any form of written language. Therefore almost nothing is known about cultures like San Agustin, not even the real name of this group.

When the Spanish arrived in 1492, it is estimated that between 3 and 7 million indigenous people lived on Colombian territory. The arrival of the conquistadors brought a variety of diseases from the ancient world with them, as well as various armed conflicts and the forced labor that was imposed on the indigenous people. All of this resulted in them being reduced to a fraction in less than 100 years.

The Spaniards were given the task of conquering the area and subjugating the indigenous people so that they would pay taxes and convert to Christianity. This, and the violence against these communities, resulted in a process of ethnocide across American territory. Many indigenous groups disappeared, taking their language and beliefs with them. Others were forced to convert to Christianity (a process that was practiced even decades after Colombian independence), causing many indigenous people to gradually forget their roots.

But despite all the difficulties, many groups managed to survive and still live on Colombian territory today. The 2005 national census found that there were around 87 indigenous peoples and at least 65 Indian languages.

The indigenous people of this country have faced innumerable challenges. When the Spaniards came, these communities were forced to pay taxes and were tortured. They have also been branded savages and heretics. Many communities disappeared, others fought valiantly, and in recent years they have bowed to other threats such as the FARC guerrillas and paramilitaries who forced these people to leave their territories for years.

Despite all the problems, many communities continue to try to lead a peaceful life, reclaim their territory and honor their beliefs. That’s why we want to tell you about some of the most incredible indigenous communities still living on Colombian territory.

Native Laws

Indigenous communities were among the most vulnerable groups in Colombian history. After independence, the situation of these cultures did not improve, as the special interest in land, armed conflict, and the hegemonic Christian-Catholic thinking in this country threatened their way of life and their beliefs.

For this reason, the indigenous population was an important issue when drafting the new constitution of Colombia in 1991. In this Magna Carta, these groups were granted autonomy and various advantages, such as:

  • The so-called indigenous areas were created. These are spaces in which these groups can live, with their own social system, and also have access to the resources of the area.
  • Autonomy in their education. The government recognizes that the beliefs and language of these communities are a heritage and must be protected. Indigenous languages ​​are declared official in these groups’ territories.
  • The indigenous justice system was introduced. This means that they can create their own rules and impose punishments according to their traditions, but it is important to say that these laws must not violate human rights. In the case of crimes such as drug trafficking or other crimes of a certain gravity, the Colombian state can bring an indigenous person to an ordinary court.

In addition, the Colombian government guarantees the indigenous communities political participation in various state institutions. Regulations have also been put in place to ensure that indigenous people have access to quality health care. Despite all of this, it is a sad fact that many of these regulations have only stayed on paper.

In the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, thanks to violence and special interests, many indigenous peoples were expelled from their areas and forced to live in very poor conditions. Many were also killed during this time. Now that you know a little about the context of these communities, let’s learn about some of them.

Indigenous people in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

One of the natural wonders of Colombia is located in the departments of Magdalena, La Guajira, and Cesar: the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Thanks to its highest peaks, Bolivar and Colón, which reach a height of 5,775 meters (18,946 feet), the Sierra Nevada is considered to be the highest coastal mountain range in the world.

This marvel boasts a wide variety of climates because while its highest peaks are characterized by a temperature that can drop below freezing, in its lower part we find tropical environments and temperatures as high as 27 °C (80 °F).

The Sierra was declared a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. It stands out by its beautiful surroundings, its incredible biodiversity and, of course, the indigenous cultures that live there. The indigenous cultures present in and around the Sierra Nevada are the Kogui, Arhuaco, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. It is said that these groups descended from the Tairona, the first community to exist in the area.

The Tairona

Before we talk about the indigenous groups that live in the Sierra Nevada today, let’s talk about the Tairona, who were the ancestors of these groups. It is incorrect to say that the Tairona were the first inhabitants of the Sierra, as records have been found that indicate inhabitants more than 1,800 years ago.

We can begin to apply the definition of society between the 11th and 12th centuries. At that time, the Tairona group began building various settlements, such as Pueblito or Ciudad Perdida (which we will talk about later), and cobbled roads. It is also known that this indigenous group specializes in agriculture and goldsmithing.

Okay, let’s talk about the time of conquest now. It is important to note that when the Spanish Crown arrived in America, it considered the practices of the continent’s various ethnic groups to be pagan. This thought led to conflict, various fights, and eventually the submission of most of the indigenous communities.

The conquistadors first came to the Tayrona area in 1498. In the beginning, they had a trading relationship, but with the establishment of Santa Marta in 1525, the Spanish wanted total control of the land in which the indigenous group lived.

The Tairona fought well, and for 75 years the Spaniards could not take away their land or their faith. Unfortunately, around 1600, the group eventually abandoned their settlements due to diseases brought in from Spain and the persecution of their caciques (leaders of the indigenous community). Some of the native people who fled formed the group known today as the Kogui.

Cultures currently living in the Sierra Nevada

The groups living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta today are:

The Kogui

Indigenous tribes of Colombia
Dwayne Reilander, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as the Kággabba people, this indigenous group is located in the La Guajira, Cesar, and Magdalena departments. In 2005 there were at least 9,173 people who identified themselves as Koguis.

As for language, they speak a dialect known as Kogui or Kouguian. And the same study reported above mentions that in 2005, 84% of the indigenous population mastered this language.

Although during the colonization they were forced to submit to a certain degree to Catholicism and the organization of that time, the fact is that even today, more than 400 years after colonization, they still maintain many of their beliefs and theirs worship holy places. The Kogui believe that in the beginning of the world there was only darkness and the sea, but a deity known as Mother Aluna and her children began to gradually populate the earth.

As for their clothing, they wear robes known as yakna, a thick robe. They also use the mulla, a long shirt. The pant is a kalasuna. All clothing is woven by the Kogui women.

Settlements are called Kuibuldu. If you travel to Colombia, you may have the opportunity to visit a collection of beautiful huts. These are mostly made of stone, mud, and palm leaves.

Is it possible to interact with the Koguis?

Yes, there are some settlements that accept visits from tourists. For example, in Seydukwa, which is about 2 hours’ walk from Palomino, it is common to receive tours. As a curiosity, there are special places, such as Tayronaka Park, where the Mamos Kogui (the spiritual leaders of the community) marry people. It has its own traditional ritual. If you are interested, you can visit their website.

The Arhuaco

Arhuacos, indigenous people of Northern Colombia
Kelly Tatiana Paloma, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Another indigenous community that inhabits the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the Arhuaco, who call themselves Ika, which means “people” in their language. It is one of the communities with the largest number of members. In 2005 a census reported that this group had 22,134 members.

Their language is called Ika and in 2005, 73.18% of the population spoke this language. Something I didn’t mention about the Koguis is that all of the communities here have a very strong ideology about how they see themselves.

All the indigenous people present in the Sierra consider themselves “the older brothers” as they are supposedly the children of the first parents. This implies that they think that it is their responsibility to maintain the balance of the world, prevent diseases from inundating humanity, etc. To achieve this, they make various offerings in their sacred places. They mention that people who come from other places are “the younger brothers”.

As for their history, the Arhuaco managed to partially escape Spanish indoctrination because their settlements were deep in the Sierra. But throughout history, various religious groups have tried to evangelize these people. An example of this was when the Capuchin religious order invaded the Arhuaco area in 1916, but they were eventually evicted in the 1980s.

These people are known for making backpacks, ruanas, clothes, and other woven items. They consider weaving an excellent way to preserve and share their thoughts and traditions.

Is it possible to interact with the Arhuaco?

Yes, there are some settlements that allow foreigners to visit. The most incredible place to visit is Nabusimake. This settlement is located in the depths of the Sierra Nevada and translated in its language means “land where the sun is born” and is considered the spiritual capital of the indigenous group.

There are around 60 thatched houses with stone walls on this site. The settlement is guarded by the Mamos of the Arhuaco. Although it is possible to visit Nabusimake, the indigenous communities do not accept mass tourism and only let in those who show respect for the place.

The Wiwa

Four Wiwa people, indigenous tribe of Colombia
Roderick Eime, CC BY-ND 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/>, via Flickr

The third group I’ll talk about that is located in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the Wiwa. Its name means “native from warm countries” in their language. Their language is Damana and it belongs to the Chibcha language family. In 2005 it was found that 65.1% of the Wiwa population are fluent in this language.

In 2005, 10,703 people called themselves Wiwa. This group is represented in the La Guajira, Cesar, and Magdalena departments. As for their beliefs, they claim that there were only bubbles of water before life in the world. At some point, darkness came and the Creator Fathers, named Sealukukuiy and Serankua, turned the Wiwas into humans. From that moment on, it is said, the Wiwas were given the responsibility to be the guardians of the territory.

As for the Arhuaco, weaving is an activity of great importance for the Wiwas, because it allows them to keep and pass on their faith. They make hats (kazurru), a special belt for women called dzhina, a traditional dress of the tribe called mujka, and also weave many other items.

Is it possible to interact with the Wiwa?

Yes, some settlements allow outsiders to visit. Some members of this community have even started a tour company called Wiwa Tour where you can have local guides.

One of the places to visit is the settlement called Gotsezhy, which is located in the depths of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The settlement is inhabited by about 50 families and is surrounded by the Encanto River and a beautiful waterfall. Currently (in 2021) a visit with Wiwa Tour costs $ 250,000. The tour lasts 1 day.

The Kankuamo

The last culture to inhabit the Sierra is the Kankuamo. This group lives in the departments of Cesar and La Guajira. In 2005 there were 12,714 people in that community who identified themselves as Kankuamo. Their language was spoken by only 5.46% of the population at the time.

The Kankuamo are the indigenous community in the Sierra most at risk of ethnocide. Many of their traditions have been lost and there was a time when their language almost disappeared.

Only since the 1980s, with the expulsion of the Capuchin monks, have attempts been made to re-establish the culture of this community. This is why documentary filmmaker, journalist, and director Margarita Martinez mentioned that “while the world is becoming homogenized and westernized, this group of descendants of the Kankuamos wants to return to indigenous existence”.

Sacred sites of the indigenous communities in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Some of the sites where the Tairona indigenous once lived are now worth seeing tourist spots. Some examples are:

Tayrona Park

Many people know Tayrona Park as a paradisiacal place full of beaches and nature, but apart from that, it was also a place where the Tairona people lived. This incredible park covers an area of ​​15,000 hectares and is home to animals such as sloths, jaguars, anteaters, caimans, and birds such as the yellow-headed caracara.

Inside is one of Colombia’s most incredible indigenous constructions: Pueblito Chairama, a sacred place full of ancient constructions erected by the Tairona. Unfortunately, Pueblito can no longer be visited as the increasing tourism severely restricted the local groups. The 4 tribes of the Sierra asked at one point to close Pueblito to the public.

If you want to know a little more about this place, you can check out our Tayrona Park travel guide.

Lost City

Ciudad Perdida is considered by many to be one of the most important and oldest structures in all of Latin America. It is located in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and was once one of the most important settlements of the Tairona people. It is estimated that the site was founded around 700 AD, making it at least 600 years older than Machu Picchu.

Ciudad Perdida has a multitude of cobblestone streets, buildings that are almost as intact as the huts in which the natives once lived. You can visit this attraction, there are several companies that do tours there. Wiwa Tour also offers a plan to Ciudad Perdida.

Tayronaka

Website: https://www.taironaka.com/

About 20 minutes from Palomino, on the banks of the Don Diego River, we find Tayronaka Park, another place where the Tairona people lived.

It is also an ecological hotel, so you can stay in rooms or in bungalows, which is a typical hut for the region. During a visit, you can take a tour to learn more about the Tairona people. You can also visit the Francisco Ospina Navia Museum, which exhibits many archaeological objects that belonged to this indigenous community.

As we have already mentioned, you can get married in this place, because in the Tayronaka there is an indigenous “Cansamaría” and there will also be a Mamo Kogui who performs the ceremony. Other activities are also offered in Tayronaka, such as bird watching or tubing (floating down a river with a tire) or paddle surfing.

Problems of the indigenous communities in the Sierra Nevada

Violence

Unfortunately, the situation for indigenous communities in Colombia has always been difficult. Paramilitary groups and guerrillas were and are present in the areas where the indigenous population lives. A census was carried out in 2005 and found that 2% of all people displaced by violence belonged to indigenous peoples (Colombia now speaks of over 5 million displaced people).

As a result, many members of these groups were forced to move to cities such as Valledupar, Bogotá, Santa Marta, Riohacha, and Cartagena. They were also victims of massacres, for example, in 2002 a paramilitary group murdered 16 people, most of whom belonged to the Wiwa community. This event is known as the El Limón massacre.

While violence has decreased in recent years, various paramilitary groups have resurfaced in the country recently. For this reason, communities including the Kankuamo have denounced that at least 450 members of their community have been killed. Unfortunately, these groups still face many disadvantages.

Lack of access to education

In addition to the violence that indigenous communities have historically suffered, in many cases some members of these groups are unable to read or write. In 2005, for example, 49% of the Wiwa population was illiterate. This meant that when they were evicted and moved to cities like Bogotá, they would have low-skilled jobs and live in conditions of poverty.

Tourism

It is true that tourism can have positive effects, but in the case of these indigenous communities, there have been major negative effects. These groups have seen their various sacred territories visited by thousands of people each year. These flows of people were unsustainable. For this reason, the 4 groups have quarreled with the government on different occasions.

After several discussions, it was agreed that Tayrona Park is closed several days a year for regeneration. This campaign is called #RespiraTayrona. Visits to Pueblito were also restricted.

On my travels and discussions with indigenous groups, I found time and again that the general public, tourism companies, or government representatives show little respect for indigenous groups and their territories. So far, they haven’t seen anything objectionable in mass tourism, which is littering everything.

The Nasa

musicians from the indigenous tribe Nasa, southern Colombia
Fabiammoreno, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

This group, also known as the Paez people, is recognized as one of the largest indigenous communities in Colombia. In the early 1990s, Nasa counted at least 100,000 people and in 2005, 186,178 people who identify themselves as part of this group were counted. They are mainly located in the department of Cauca but are also represented in Valle del Cauca and Putumayo.

Their language is known as Yuwe. The word “Nasa” translated from this language means “the people of the water”. Their mythology assures that the first grandparents and parents once lived in another land that was a single home. What we know today as the earth was formed later, and these first humans became the guardians and protectors of the world.

This group bravely withstood the Spanish conquest. When the Europeans came to these lands, they began to take tribute for the crown and even dared to murder the son of one of the most important leaders of the time: the Cacica la Gaitana. This woman managed to organize an army of thousands of natives to keep the Spaniards under control. It is even said that after the capture of the Spanish captain responsible for her son’s death, she had his eyes gouged out and tortured him.

Nasa resisted for years, but disease and constant fighting eventually weakened them. In 1700, the Nasa reserves were created, spaces where they could live in exchange for a tribute. The Spaniards took away part of their territory and later it was taken over by large landowners, which is why Nasa’s main conflict was the struggle for land.

This situation led some indigenous people to found the Quintín Lame armed movement in 1984, which is considered the first Latin American guerrilla (I will tell more about this organization later).

Nasa landmarks

Nasa people are deeply connected to nature, next some of their sacred sites:

National Natural Park Nevado del Huila

This park is located in the departments of Huila, Tolima, and Cauca and is known for its imposing and beautiful Nevado del Huila. This mountain reaches an altitude of 5,364 meters (17,598 feet) above sea level and is considered to be one of the largest mountains in Colombia.

There are several Paez settlements in this protected area and for them this place is sacred. They go there to perform rituals of cleansing, purification and harmonization. To enter this park, there are many tours that take visitors to the highlights of this beautiful ecosystem boasting unique flora and fauna.

Juan Tama Lagoon

One of the most important and mythological places for the Nasa people is the Juan Tama lagoon. This natural wonder is located in the Páramo de Moras, which is in the department of Cauca.

The lagoon impresses not only with its beauty but also with its history. It is said that Juan Tama de la Estrella, one of the most important Nasa leaders in history, was born there. He was the one who got the Spanish crown to recognize four territories, which were then called Cacicazgos.

Tierradentro Archaeological Park

Opening times: Monday to Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Prices 2021: Colombian citizens $ 35,000, Students $ 15,000, Foreigners $ 50,000
Children under 12 years and adults over 62 years do not have to pay admission. The same goes for indigenous communities and people from the region.

To be fair, this place doesn’t necessarily belong to the Páez (although they have lived nearby for centuries), but for years this park has been guarded by the community.

Tierradentro is located in the Huila department and is considered one of the largest necropolises in all of Latin America. Inside there are about 162 tombs and it is also possible to see statues and funerary monoliths (a type of monument).

It is said that this necropolis belonged to a culture even older than Nasa. There are not many records of this group, but they were called the San Agustin culture. They disappeared before the arrival of the Spaniards. Since then, the Paeces have been the ones who occupied and honored the area.

Problems of the NASA indigenous

Violence

Like many other indigenous communities, this group is also affected by the armed conflict in Colombia. For years, the Paez have been involved in the constant clashes between the “extinct” FARC guerrillas and the army.

In addition, under pressure from FARC and other armed groups, Nasa is one of the indigenous communities most affected by displacement. For example, in 2005, during the most violent period in Colombia (2002 to 2010), more than 7,000 indigenous people were displaced from their territory.

Loss of territory and lack of guarantees

As mentioned earlier, the Nasa were a people who managed to withstand the imperial power of the Spaniards. And they continued their resistance even after the arrival of the various guerrillas and the army, which also had a negative effect on this group (in many cases).

Therefore, in 1984 a group of members of Nasa founded the armed movement Quintín Lame at the suggestion of the indigenous leader Manuel Quintín Lame. He was one of the most important indigenous leaders of the 20th century and devoted his life to defending the Páez territory.

This group was considered the first Latin American guerrilla group and was active until 1991 when it was demobilized. Its aim was to protect the indigenous territories and to fight against the landowners who had taken over the areas that once belonged to the Nasa people.

The Guambianos

Guambinos couple of southern Colombia
Alexander Schimmeck, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/>, via Flickr

The Guambianos are the other indigenous culture that lives in the department of Cauca. They also call themselves the Misak people, this word translated in their language means “mother of the forests”. In 2005, 21,085 people identified themselves as part of this group. Although mainly concentrated in Cauca, there are also groups of this ethnic group in the departments of Valle del Cauca and Huila.

Their language is called Wampi-misamerawam and in 2005 more than 50% of the population of this group spoke this dialect. Their culture speaks of the fact that the most important thing is the earth and that they consider it “mother”. In their cosmology, they see themselves as the first settlers and therefore it is their job to protect and preserve the land.

The Misak people were one of the hardest hit by the arrival of the Spaniards. According to a report by the Centro de Memoria Histórica, presented by Mama (indigenous leader) Liliana Pechene Muelas, about 179,982 people lived in this community in 1573, but by 1700 there were only 100 Guambianos left.

Is it possible to interact with the Guambianos?

Yes, it is possible to meet members of this community. For example, if you visit the municipality of Silvia, located in the department of Cauca, you will have the opportunity to meet several Guambianos. Silvia Market is one of the best places to get in touch with the Guambianos.

On my last visit to Silvia, however, local residents told me that the tourists arrive in large buses, take photos of everyone and everything without asking and leave without any consumption. A perfect example of ugly tourism.

Landmarks of the Guambianos

El Abejorro lagoon

Many of the sacred places of these natives are natural sites. Legend has it that this lagoon was a point that allowed them to escape from the Spaniards.

It is said that when the Spaniards tried to steal all the gold from the Guambianos, some of them escaped and came to this lagoon. The indigenous people threw away all valuables and performed rituals so that the soldiers could not find them. Eventually, it is said, the soldiers could no longer find this place and it has been a holy site ever since.

The lagoon is located in the municipality of Silvia, in the department of Cauca. Since 2015, the natives have been accepting visits to this place, but you must always be accompanied by a Guambiano guide.

Problems of the Guambianos

Loss of territory and lack of guarantees

As with Nasa, one of the Guambiano people’s biggest problems is the loss of territory. The National Center for Historical Remembrance report cited above shows that they owned approximately 657,830 hectares of territory in 1535, but only 33,316 hectares in 2012.

In addition, they also have conflicts with other communities, for example with Nasa, over certain areas that both groups claim as their own. This led to various conflicts, in which there were even injured so that the government had to intervene. At that time, then-President Juan Manuel Santos undertook to the Misak people to formally declare this area their property. It was the government that had previously given this land to the indigenous community.

Violence

As I mentioned earlier, violence against indigenous communities dates back to colonial times. This particular community and many of its leaders, such as the aforementioned Liliana Pechené, have researched and tried to tell the world about all of the problems their community has been through.

After gaining independence, Simón Bolívar, who is considered the liberator of several Latin American nations and the first President of Colombia, ordered the elimination of the indigenous reserves. The native reserves were special places where these communities could live. This led to increasing discrimination as the criollos (as the American-born Spaniards were called) did not particularly value them.

Later, the arrival of the guerrillas, paramilitaries and the government itself, which throughout history have been indifferent to the problems of indigenous peoples, meant that this community was always in the crossfire.

When former President Juan Manuel Santos, the architect of the peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, received the Nobel Peace Prize, Liliana Pechené was one of the invited guests in Oslo, Norway. This was done to pay tribute to the victims.

The Wayúu

Wayuu family from Northern Colombia

This is possibly one of the most famous and most numerous cultures in all of Colombia. The Wayúu are mainly native to the La Guajira department and extend into neighboring Venezuela. They are excellent artisans. This people is one of the largest indigenous communities in Colombia. In 2005 they had about 270,413 members.

Wayuunaiki is their ancestral language. The word “Wayúu” translates as “person” and is used to refer to the members of the community and their allies. As for her story, there isn’t much information about them. During the time of the conquest and later in the colony, the Spanish chroniclers began to write about what they saw in Colombian territory, and so they began to document facts about this group. These chronicles recorded that the Wayúu were an organized group and that they practiced hunting and fishing.

Over the years, this community has gained fame as excellent traders. They are experts in weaving and sell backpacks, chinchorros (the best hammocks in the world!), bracelets, etc. The clothing of the men is characterized by the guayuco, a loincloth held by a belt called the siira and woven by Wayuu men. The older ones usually wear a long blanket. As for women, they usually wear long blankets or dresses and necklaces. They make their own clothes.

As for their diet, one has to take into account that the Guajira is an area with little rainfall, so agriculture is not the best option. Even so, they have been growing foods like melons, beans, pumpkins, and corn for years. Another way they feed is through ranching. They raise sheep, goats (the latter is a traditional Wayúu dish) and often fish.

As a curiosity, they raise pigs, chickens, and cattle, but they do not consume these types of animals because they believe that many diseases emanate from these species. In their culture, elements like dreams are very important because they are said to have prophetic powers and they usually pay a lot of attention.

Another interesting aspect of their beliefs is burials. The Wayúu die twice, it is said. Tradition has it that when someone dies, only the body dies and the children can see the spirit of the dead while everyone else can feel it. So that the spirit can rest, a second burial takes place after 12 to 15 years, during which the remains are exhumed.

Is it possible to interact with the Wayúu?

Yes, the settlements they live in are called Rancherías, and some of them offer accommodation and restaurant services. There are several companies that offer tours to these locations. On the tours, you can learn about the Wayúu culture and you also have the opportunity to buy some of their handicrafts, such as their backpacks or their chinchorros.

Wayúu sights

Uribia

This town is known as the indigenous capital of Colombia as more than 90% of the population are members of the Wayúu culture. In the center of the city is Plaza Colombia, where of course you have the opportunity to buy some of the famous Wayúu woven crafts, such as their backpacks.

Alta Guajira

This region is considered to be the origin of the Wayúu. Here you can find their cemeteries and several holy places. There are several tours there currently but keep in mind that the conditions are harsh as the temperature is very high and it is mostly a desert area.

Some representative Wayúu sites that can be found here are:

Macuira Mountains

Legend has it that a Cacique lived with his three sons in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, but suddenly the father began to have nightmares. He dreamed that his sons would move to the north. One night the Cacique woke up worried and went to look for his family. To his surprise, his children weren’t there. So the Cacique went out to look for them, and when he turned north he saw three gigantic and imposing peaks, it was his children who had become the Serranía de la Macuira.

The Serrania is located in the Macuira National Park, where you can also admire the cloud forest ecosystem, which is unique in the country. This area has 25,000 hectares and entry is free.

As a curiosity, this mountain range is the northernmost in South America. It is considered a special place because between so much drought and desert in La Guajira, the Serrania de la Macuira is characterized by a large variety of fauna and flora that have adapted to local conditions.

Cabo de la Vela “Jepira”

One of Colombia’s most beautiful and paradisiacal places (and also difficult to access) is Cabo de la Vela. Here you will find various beaches where you can practice water sports such as kite surfing, there are lookout points and pristine natural spots. The Wayúu call this place Jepira and they say that after the first death, the souls of the people live there until the second burial takes place. It is one of the most sacred places for the indigenous people.

Problems of the Wayúu people

Poverty and Government neglect

La Guajira is a department known for its high temperatures and long periods of drought that can come at any time. Life is not easy for these communities because just getting water can be a challenge. Between 2010 and 2018, 4,770 children died as a result of malnutrition.

In addition, the Colombian state has been distinguished for decades by leaving various territories unattended (the problem was exacerbated by the Colombian armed conflict). In 2015, the BBC made a report on the area as a British NGO wanted to donate some water supply systems. The first thing residents asked visitors was “which number to tick on the election ballot paper”. In Colombia, this department, along with the Chocó department, is by far the most corrupt.

The Emberá

Embera girls walking with their typical clothing
Ayaita, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Before and during the time of the conquest, the Emberá were a large and united group whose name was Indígenas Chocó. Unfortunately, due to Spanish interference, armed conflict, and internal disputes, this community split into several groups that came to be known as the Emberá.

There are currently 4 large Emberá communities that still share cultural characteristics such as their language, also called Emberá, and religious beliefs. It should be made clear that although the basics of the language are the same, the 4 cultures have certain variations when it comes to speaking, making it difficult to understand each other when two Emberá groups meet.

These groups claim that there are several worlds. In the first, which is above men, live Karagabí (the creator of man), the souls of the dead, and also the beings they consider to be original. In the world below lives Trutruika, which they define as the opposite of Karagabi. Finally, there is the human world in which the Emberá live.

The Emberá groups can be classified as Óibida and Eyadiba. The first group is those who base their lives on water activities so that their livelihood depends on fishing. As for the Eyadiba, they are the groups called “mountain people” who usually work in the field of agriculture.

The Emberá groups that currently exist are:

Emberá-Dóbida

In their language, Dóbida means river people. This group is located on the banks of the Chocó River. In 2005, 37,327 people identified themselves as part of this community. For their livelihood, they mainly fish, which is why most of their settlements are on the banks of the river. They use the same language and customs as the other cultures.

Emberá-Katío

This group is one of the most numerous in the Emberá. They are located in the departments of Chocó, Antioquia, and Córdoba. The 2005 census found that there were approximately 38,259 indigenous people in this community. They usually farm for a living. Like the other Emberá, they consider rivers and water sources sacred. They are part of the Emberá Eyadiba.

Emberá Chami

They are mainly located in the departments of Risaralda, Caldas, and Antioquia and are the third group that belongs to the Emberá. The Chami have their settlements near rivers such as the San Juan, Garrapatas, and Sanquinini. That means that one of their survival methods is fishing. This community is part of the Oibida. In 2005, 29,094 people identified themselves as part of this community.

Emberá Eperara Síapidara

The last Emberá group is located in the departments of Cauca and Nariño. This community is the smallest of all Emberá. In 2005 there were only 3,853 people who said they belonged to this community. They use agriculture for their livelihood, hence they are called Eyadiba.

Places of interest to Emberá

For many of these communities, the rivers are sacred and life-sustaining, some examples include:

San Juan river

A beautiful river that is bursting with nature. It lies between the departments of Risaralda, Chocó, and Valle del Cauca. There are several Embera settlements along the San Juan and this is an important point as several communities fish for a living. Here they also perform cleansing and purification rituals.

San Jorge river

This beautiful river has its source in the department of Antioquia and flows into the Río Magdalena in Bolivar. This place is also a livelihood for the Emberá óibida, and they also practice rituals here.

Baudó river

Located in the Chocó department, this is another river that allows the Emberá Óibida to survive. As with the other rivers, purification and cleansing rituals are also carried out here.

Problems of the Emberá people

Violence and forced displacement

Like other indigenous communities, these groups are severely affected by violence. Due to the various armed groups in the country, forced evictions are commonplace among the Emberá. Sadly, although the peace deal has improved the situation in several places in Colombia, FARC dissidents and new paramilitary groups have formed over the past year. For this reason, more than 300 Embera Indians came to Bogota a few months ago to escape the violence.

In addition, the state often ignores these communities because it promises economic aid, but in many cases, it arrives too late and only very little.

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