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Pacific Culture in Colombia – All you need to know about it

The pacific region

Updated on 03/15/2024

Dear reader,
I would also like to recommend our Colombia travel guide, which provides a perfect overview of the tourist attractions in Colombia. Enjoy reading it!

All about the Pacific region

  • Geography: The Pacific Coast of Colombia stretches approximately 1,300 kilometers along the Pacific Ocean. It stretches from the border with Ecuador in the south to the border with Panama in the north. To the east, the region is bounded by the western Andes chain, which rises to 4,200 meters above sea level. The Pacific coast of Colombia is home to the following departments:
    • Cauca
    • Valle del Cauca
    • Choco
    • Narino
  • Population: The region has an estimated population of over 1.5 million people. The majority of residents are from Afro-Colombian communities, as well as indigenous groups such as the Emberá and the Wounaan.
  • Biodiversity: The Pacific coast of Colombia hosts an exceptional biodiversity. The offshore waters are an important site for mating and birthing of humpback whales, which arrive between June and November. The region is also home to rare species such as the Pacific manatee, sea turtles and a variety of exotic birds.
  • Natural Reserves: The region includes several natural reserves, including the Uramba -Bahía-Málaga National Park, the Sanquianga National Park and the Gorgona National Park. These protected areas are crucial to the preservation of the region’s unique flora and fauna.
  • Cultural Diversity: The Afro-Colombian culture has a significant impact on the Pacific coast. Here you will find traditions such as “currulao” music and “chirimía” music, as well as various culinary specialties. Indigenous communities such as the Emberá and Wounaan also have their own rich cultural expressions.
  • Challenges: The Pacific Coast of Colombia faces social and economic challenges. Poverty, limited access to education and healthcare, and environmental issues such as illegal mining and deforestation pose serious problems.
  • Economy: The economy of the Pacific Coast is primarily based on fishing, agriculture, and handicrafts. However, tourism, especially ecotourism, is becoming increasingly important.
  • Climate: The climate on the Pacific coast of Colombia is tropical and humid, resulting in lush vegetation and high rainfall. The temperatures range between 24° and 28° Celsius.

Pacific culture

Pacific culture has its roots in pre-Columbian times, before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Various indigenous ethnic groups lived in this region, mainly the Emberá and the Awá. However, the culture of the Pacific developed and consolidated in Colombia primarily during the colonial period. With the arrival of African slaves, a new course in cultural traditions was established, bringing with it music, dances, religions, gastronomy and traditions that soon mixed with those of the native peoples and Spanish settlers. Since then, this cultural mix has resulted in a unique and diverse culture, characterized primarily by a tradition with African-American nuances. However, it was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that the region began to develop economically thanks to the exploitation of sugar cane and other crops, which enabled the emergence of the new Pacific culture.

Natural environment in the Pacific

The natural environment of this region is vital not only for the country but also for the planet as this region hosts about 10% of the total biodiversity of the entire planet. The Pacific region is surrounded by a chain of ecosystems that includes tropical forests, estuaries, rivers, streams, wetlands, forests and the largest mangrove swamps on the South American continent. The region is home to more than 5,400 species of plants, about 20% of the total plant species in the entire country, as well as 192 species of mammals, 778 birds, 188 reptiles and more than 200 species of marine life.

This has served as an inspiration for many pre-Columbian and post-colonial tribes to create and adapt to lifestyles in harmony with ecosystems.

Innovation in Pacific Agriculture

The Pacific region is known for its agricultural activity and has been an important source of income and livelihood for indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in the region. Major plantations include rice, cassava, corn, sugarcane, bananas, cocoa, coffee and a variety of fruits. The origin of agriculture in the region dates back to the pre-Columbian indigenous cultures that inhabited the area. These communities developed agricultural techniques such as:

  • Slash-and-burn: This involved cutting down and burning plants to allow for natural regeneration in cycles and to fertilize the soil.
  • Floating Platforms: They built platforms in the wetlands on which various species adapted to the aquatic environment were cultivated.
  • Polycultures: It was a combination of different plants to exploit synergies between them, such as the “milpa” where corn, beans, pineapple, cocoa and pumpkin were grown.

During the colonial era, agriculture in the Pacific Rim underwent a series of changes with the introduction of new crop species and new animals such as pigs, along with the introduction of new, more advanced agricultural techniques and tools. Currently, this type of farming is evolving through sustainable practices and the use of modern technologies, thus reducing the environmental impact.

Spirituality in the Pacific Region

The traditional spirituality of the Pacific tribes attracted little interest from seafarers and colonists in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it was not until the 20th century that studies of their religious world were undertaken. The religions in the cultures in their purest state disappeared with the arrival of the colonizers when they established Christianity and turned it into a syncretic religion (mixed or with many multicultural nuances). These include the cult and respect for ancestors, the cult of birds, the concepts of manna and taboo, initiation ceremonies. In other words, the belief in “animism” and “totemism”. Ancestor worship includes headhunting and cannibalism. It is believed that one gains one’s essence by killing someone, then eating their body or capturing their skull. Therefore, it should be noted that traditional spirituality in the culture of the Pacific Rim in Colombia is a sensitive issue and must be treated with great respect.

The typical cultural craft in the Pacific

Crafts are an integral part of the culture of this region, representing the identity and traditions of the communities that lived in the region. Creations from organic materials such as masks, fabrics, jewelry, sculptures. The main goal was the preservation of ancestral knowledge and the cultural representation of a particular community through art.

Most commonly used materials

  • Fish Scales: Fish scales like the bocachico are collected and used to create brightly colored, shiny finishes on decorative items and clothing.
  • Seeds: The use of various seeds such as balsa, achiote , yachico or marble seeds to create necklaces, bracelets and ornaments.
  • Tagua: Tagua , also called vegetable ivory, comes from a tropical palm tree and is used for carving figures, making buttons, necklaces and earrings.
  • Palm and Werregue fibers: They are used to make baskets, bags, hats, and hammocks.

Sea materials

  • Shells: Necklaces, bracelets and decorations are made.
  • Shark vertebrae: Shark vertebrae are used for carving small figurines and accessories for everyday use.
  • Coconut Shells: These shells are carved and polished to later become ornaments.

Forest materials

  • Wood: They use various types of local woods such as chonta or mahogany to carve figurines, masks, buttons and decorative items.
  • Lianas: They are a type of lianas or vines of the jungle and are used to weave baskets and other objects of daily use.

In other words, the handicrafts of this region represent a cultural identity that has been passed down through generations and establishes a mutual relationship with the environment that has surrounded it for thousands of years.

Customs and traditions of Pacific culture

The traditions and customs of this culture pursued several goals: preserving cultural identity, strengthening social ties between communities, maintaining harmony with nature and preserving ecosystems. Spiritual practices, art, music, medicine and seafood fishing were a cultural part of the daily life of the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities. Ancient practices such as mining (the extraction of gold, diamonds, platinum, silver and other metals) for trade and community subsistence. The main goal was to maintain a close connection to its history through cultural transmission through generations.

The most popular festivals in the Pacific

San Pacho Festival

  • Frequency: Annual
  • Duration: 10 days, from September 20th to 30th
  • Features: Religious and cultural celebration in honor of San Francisco de Asís, patron saint of Quibdó. It includes parades, music, dances and processions with the image of the saint.
  • Origin: Based on colonial roots and blended with the Indigenous and African American traditions of the region.

Black and White Festival

  • Frequency: Annual
  • Duration: From January 2nd to 7th
  • Characteristics: Festival of pre-Hispanic and colonial origin that celebrates the ethnic and cultural diversity of Pasto. Events such as parades with comparsas, floats, the body is painted with black and white paint, costumes are also used.
  • Origin: It has ancient roots mixed with the influence of Spanish colonization.

Currulao Festival

  • Frequency: Annual
  • Duration: Varies as there are many events throughout the year.
  • Features: Cultural celebration featuring traditional music and dances with Pacific Afro-Caribbean nuances. The costumes and clothing are in the typical colors of the Afro-Caribbean communities.
  • Origin: Roots in the Afro-colonial communities that immigrated during colonization.

Fire carnival

  • Frequency: Annual
  • Duration: From December 26th to 30th
  • Features: This festival combines elements of African American tradition and indigenous culture. The parades with comparsas, music, dances and fire shows stand out.
  • Origin: Its origin lies in the festivals celebrated by African slaves and the influence of local indigenous peoples.

Community and Family of Pacific Culture

The community and family are governed by a comprehensive structure. The term family goes beyond the nuclear family and includes uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. It is a collective structure based on the welfare and care of children. In other words: the preservation of the next generations. In this culture, age also represents “wisdom”, grandparents are held in high esteem and given values such as wisdom and respect. They are primarily responsible for the historical preservation of the community’s traditions and values. Their knowledge is passed on to the next generations, so the legacy will live on for many years to come . In other words, grandparents are the core, they are the cornerstones for maintaining a community identity, and they play the most important figure within the structure of society.

Pacific Oral Traditions

Traditions primarily have an educational function. The aim is to convey wisdom and stories through myth, legend and song. This is a way of preserving traditions to keep alive the customs and beliefs of their ancestors.

La Sierpe de Bete

This mythical snake had three heads and roamed the towns of the region during the celebrations of the patron saint, terrifying residents and fishermen.

Meaning

It represents the ancestral fear of mythological creatures that embody natural forces and symbolize mystery and the unknown.

La Yesca

La Yesca describes the depiction of an evil sorcerer who manifests himself with leaves, vines and branches with which he embraces his victims and drowns them to death.

Meaning

This legend warns of the danger of evil people or sorcerers using supernatural powers to harm others in the community.

El Indio del Agua

A being with supernatural powers, the Water Indian sits on a rock in the region’s rivers in the early hours of the morning, waiting for humans to harm and torment him.

Meaning

Reflecting the deep connection of Pacific culture to water and nature, this mythological figure can symbolize both protection and warning of water hazards.

The Rival

It is a burst of incandescent light that comes from the ocean horizon, turns into a wave after a few minutes and then arrives where all members of the community wreak havoc.

Meaning

This myth could represent the perception of unknown natural or supernatural phenomena in the marine environment that could easily be related to the spiritual connection of Pacific culture with the ocean.

How did music originate in the Pacific Rim?

Music in the Pacific Rim has its origins in the blending of African, Indigenous, and Spanish cultures that arose during the 16th-century colonization of America. According to historians, the music of the Pacific developed from the musical traditions of African slaves brought by the Spanish colonizers to work on the Pacific Coast grain plantations. Despite oppression and discrimination, these slaves managed to maintain their cultural practices, including music, only to later adapt them to the new conditions. She is characterized above all by her African rhythms and the use of her traditional instruments. Over time, the music of the Pacific has become a fundamental element of the region’s identity and culture, and has been recognized and appreciated both nationally and around the world.

The most popular instruments of the Pacific region

La Guasa

It is a percussion instrument made of hollow reeds joined together to form a cylinder. It is notable for producing a variety of rhythmic sounds.

Application

To play the guasa, it is held with both hands and shaken or struck against the palm or leg, creating percussive sounds and distinctive rhythms.

The Chonta Marimba

It is a musical instrument with percussion and idiophone tuning. It is made up of chonta (a type of palm tree) tubes of different lengths, each producing a different musical note. It is used in genres such as currulao and bambuco.

Application

To play the marimba, the chonta tubes are struck with wooden or reed mallets, which can produce different tones and melodies.

The female Cununo

The female cununo is a small cylindrical drum, also known as the “female drum” because of its high register. Made of leather and wood, it is used in folk music of the Colombian Pacific, particularly in genres such as currulao.

Application

It is played with the hands, hitting the hardened leather to create fast and energetic rhythms. These are combined with other instruments for musical interpretations.

La Chirimia

It is a typical wind instrument of the traditional folk music of the Colombian Pacific. It consists of a reed flute and a mouthpiece that looks like a resonator. Originally it was made of wood and reeds.

Application

You have to blow hard into the mouthpiece while covering or uncovering the holes with your fingers to create different tones. The metal mouthpiece amplifies and projects the sound, creating a powerful tone that can be clearly heard during musical performances.

Rhythms and musical genres of the Pacific region

The Currulao

Music genre and folk-dance originating in the Pacific region of Colombia. Fast rhythm characterized by the presence of three instruments: marimba, cununo and guasa. The dancers move with undulating forms and very sensually, representing the movement of the waves, the sea and nature. It is an expression of the spiritual and cultural connection of Afro-Colombian communities.

Origin

Originating from the Afro-Colombian communities of the Pacific Coast, it is a cultural expression that reflects the identity and heritage of their African ancestors.

Local Artists: Grupo Bahía, Grupo Naidy , Grupo Socavon.

El Bunde

The musical genre is an “intimate and melodic” dance in which the main instrument is the guitar, accompanied by voices and sometimes the chonta marimba. The lyrics typically convey themes of love and heartbreak, as well as everyday aspects of the lives of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities.

Origin

The origin is of Afro-Colombian descent and has been passed down for generations in the Afro-Colombian communities of the Pacific ( Chocó).

Artists: Petronio Álvarez, Martina Camargo, Marcial Isturiz.

La Chirimia

It is a type of music of a festive, cheerful nature, which invites you to celebrate the dance. It is mainly interpreted by wind instruments such as flutes, but also percussion instruments such as drums, marimba phones and clarinets.

Origin

Born out of a blend of indigenous, African and Spanish traditions, it represents the cultural richness of the region. Musical techniques create a characteristic rhythm of this genre.

Artist: Grupo Chirimia, La chirimia contundencia

La Juga

La juga is a rhythmic and energetic musical genre typical of the Pacific that combines drums and other types of percussion such as the bass drum and the use of guasas (maracas). The dancers perform synchronized and complex movements.

Origin

A cultural expression that strengthens social ties in the Afro-Colombian communities of the Pacific, it has been passed down through generations and used in the celebration of festivals and traditions.

Artist: Yuga Juga Group, Juga Sonora

La contradanza

This genre of music mixes indigenous and Spanish influences. Although it shares similarities with the European contradanza. It is characterized by its happy rhythm accompanied by instruments such as marimba, drums and guasas.

Origin

It has roots in the colonial era and is a representation of the cultural diversity in the Pacific region of Colombia. The mixture of European and indigenous music elements gave birth to this genre.

Artist: Group Contradanza , traditional contradanza of Buenaventura.

Pacific culinary delights

The cuisine of this region has a rich history dating back to the days of colonization. During this time, African slaves came to the Pacific coast to work on the plantations.

This culinary tradition of Afro-descended flavors has been blended with that of the locals and Spaniards, blending the variety of spices, tropical fruits and seafood, resulting in a cuisine with many flavors traditional and representative of the region. Many stories, ancestral knowledge and the community values of each ethnic group are found in the dishes.

·      Bocachico (fish) in coconut juice

·      Catfish Casserole

·      Chautiza ( fried freshwater prawns , coconut milk)

·      Shrimp Head Cream

·      Crab soup

·      Chancacas (Coconut with Panela or Honey)

·      Piangua (mussels)

The typical dances in the Pacific

The origin of the dances in the Pacific region goes back to the 17th and 18th centuries, during the colonial period. Back then, African and indigenous slaves used the dance as a demonstration against slavery and oppression. It was a traditional way of keeping their identity alive.

The Abozao

  • Characteristics: Afro-Colombian dance with indigenous and Spanish influences. Energetic and festive rhythm.
  • How to Dance: Dancers form a circle and perform vigorous movements while jumping to the beat of drums and maracas.
  • Costumes: Men dress in white shirts and trousers, women wear colorful skirts and dresses with typical Afro-Colombian ornaments.
  • Meaning: It represents happiness and the connection between the community. It is a celebratory cultural expression and reflects the resistance of Afro-Colombian communities in the face of adversity.

The Alabao

  • Characteristics: Folk dance with religious influence. It is associated with funerals and honors the deceased.
  • How to Dance: Dancers perform circles while participants sing hymns of praise, movements conveyed fluidly and formally.
  • Costumes: They dress simply, with tunics and garments of white or neutral colors.
  • Meaning: Conveys emotional and spiritual charge, represents respect and devotion to people who are no longer present. It is a way of expressing comfort, pain and hope.

The Currulao

  • Characteristics: It is a dance with a complex rhythm and structure, characteristic of the Afro-Colombian community.
  • How to dance: The dancers move in pairs to the beat of the drums and marimbas, there is a lot of hip movement with gentle steps, very synchronous.
  • Costumes: The men wear white shirts and pants, the women colorful dresses with typical handmade embroidery.
  • Meaning: It represents the connection with nature and ancestral roots. It is a legacy given the honor of communicating with its ancestors and the environment around them.

El Arrullo

  • Characteristics: It is a romantic dance style , danced by couples, with Afro-Colombian and Mestizo influences.
  • How to dance: It is danced in pairs, the movements are “sensual” and very gentle in the rhythm of his slow beat.
  • Costumes: Women wear long skirts and blouses of dark colors and shades, men wear white shirts or tunics with dark trousers.
  • Meaning: It is a loving dance that represents the love and passion between two beings who love each other. It reflects the beauty of human relationships and the emotional connection between people.

La Mazurca

  • Characteristics: Dance of European origin, adapted from the cultures and ethnic groups of the Pacific region.
  • How to dance: The dancers hold hands and take turns moving from front to back, it is an energetic dance.
  • Costumes: Costumes vary with European influence. Usually the dancers dress elegantly and formally and represent Spanish culture.
  • Meaning: It represents the European influence in the Pacific Rim. Although fused with local elements, it has Spanish roots and expresses cultural diversity and the mix of influences in music and dance.

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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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