Achagua Tribe: Connecting with Colombia’s Native Peoples

Achagua Tribe: Connecting with Colombia’s Native Peoples

When one thinks about Colombian culture, it is apparent that most attention has been given to the Spanish portion of the nation’s makeup. Little is assigned to the numerous indigenous cultures that were thriving long before the Spanish ever arrived.

This is even though there are close to one and a half million indigenous people, from over ninety tribes, that make up about 3.5% of the total population. To learn more about Colombians from all places and backgrounds, here is a look at some smaller indigenous tribes who call Colombia home.

The Achagua of Colombia are a relatively small tribal group with around six hundred. This was not always the case as they were once one of the most populous tribes in the Orinoco River region. Achagua are people of Venezuela and eastern Colombia, speaking the language of the Maipurean Arawakan group.

The use of their own language takes precedence over Spanish. Their language has been classified among the nineteen languages ​​that are most in danger of extinction. Nowadays they live on the indigenous reservations of Umapo and El Turpial, in the municipality of Puerto López, Meta and some families in La Hermosa, Casanare.

Traditionally, Achagua had typical tropical forest economies, living in large villages and growing bitter cassava, yucca, corn and other similar crops. They practiced inter-tribal commerce and were sought out for their immobilizing poison for hunting, ceramics, honey and oil made from turtles. Trade was conducted using shells called quiripa for currency.

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The Achagua were warlike and were one of the few native South American people to use arrows poisoned with curare. Achagua social organization was distinguished by numerous lineages named after animals such as the serpent, bat, jaguar and fox. Each such unit occupied one communal house in the village. The Achagua were polygynous, each man aiming to have three or four wives. The chiefs also maintained concubines. The wives were equal and each cultivated her own separate field.

Women were excluded though from male houses and several religious ceremonies. The Achagua believed in a supreme being, in a god of the fields, a god of riches and gods of earthquakes and fire. They also worshipped lakes. Achagua is a patriarchal society. Though nuclear families may live together for a time, as the family grows, the sons begin to build houses separate from their parents’ house. Since the 18th century, they have been strongly affected by evangelical missionary activity and by the expansion of colonization.

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The Baniwa live in the tri-border area between Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela in villages that span from the border to Barcelos, in the state of Amazonas.

It is estimated that there are 7,145 Baniwa in Brazil, 7,000 in Colombia, and 3,500 in Venezuela’s Amazonas state, but given the nature of the rainforest, accurate numbers are difficult to obtain. Almost impossible.

In these three countries, their communities are distributed along the Içana River and its tributaries, the upper Negro-Guarnía and its tributaries and the lower Xié and middle Orinoco Rivers.

They are divided into clans and have had contact with non-indigenous peoples since the beginning of the 18th century.

Despite the violence of this encounter, the Baniwa have managed to preserve their rituals, language and culture.

They speak the Baniwa language and belong to the Maypyuan (Arawak) language family.

The Baniwa people make a living mainly by cultivating subsistence crops and fishing. They are also known for their skillfully crafted and elaborate basketry.

Most villages are built near the banks of major rivers and streams; a few are found at the headwaters of small streams and on the banks of lakes and ponds. Seasonally occupied shelters are often built near cultivated lands or fishing lakes. Settlements are widely dispersed, several hours distant from one another by canoe or trail.

Both men and women fish with hook and line, but men fish more frequently using a greater variety of techniques, whereas women mostly process the catch.

Men are responsible for hunting, gathering, building and maintaining houses, manufacturing weapons, making canoes and weaving baskets.

Women are accountable for preparing and cooking animals and forest products, and gathering and making pottery.

Traditional religious beliefs are centered on ancestral spirits and the laws of the ancestors. They have a profound faith in the abilities of shamans to mediate between humans and the deities.

Traditionally, shamans were key figures in Baniwa culture. There is a hierarchy of shamans differentiated by levels of knowledge and capacity.

Ceremonial singing, chanting, the playing of ritual instruments, myth-telling, ornamentation and body painting are among the important art forms.

Traditional medicine is based on herbal remedies and curing rituals by shamans. In general, illness is seen as a process of partial disintegration of the soul and curing as its restoration.

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The Carabayo, who call themselves Yacumo, are an uncontacted people of Colombia who live in at least three villages known as Marrocas along the Rio Puré, now Rio Puré National Park, in the southeast corner of the country. The Carabayo of Colombia, numbering only about two hundred and twenty-five in total, are both unengaged and unreached, meaning they live in isolation from the rest of the country and are only found in Colombia.

They live in this voluntary isolation in the remote upper Puré River region in the Colombian Amazon rainforest. The most recent evidence of the Carabayo’s existence is aerial photographs of their houses, which were published in the book Cariba Malo by the Colombian researcher Roberto Franco.

Although they are the only uncontacted tribe whose presence has so far been confirmed, evidence suggests that as many as seventeen other tribes may be living in isolation elsewhere in the Colombian Amazon.

The people here live in jungle settlements along the river with no running water or electricity. They obtain most of their food through hunting, fishing and the cultivation of traditional crops. There are no roads, just jungle paths and dugout canoe trails.

The tribespeople like to say they are poor in money and material possessions, but rich in land and natural resources. The primary religion practiced by the Carabayo is animism, a religious worldview that natural physical entities, including animals, plants and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence.

The only linguistic data available for Carabayo, the language spoken by this indigenous group that lives so completely in voluntary isolation, is a set of about fifty words. This list was compiled in 1969 during a brief encounter with a member of one Carabayo family.

Sharing a protected national park with the Passe and Jumana tribes, over the past four hundred years, the Caraballo people have had intermittent contact with outsiders, including violent attacks by slave traders and rubber tappers, resulting in their further withdrawal from outside groups and increasing isolation. The Government recently has allowed them to remain isolated and to also keep their traditional lands.

In Colombia, as in the rest of the Amazon, most live in isolation by choice. Many, as just described, originally fled the colonists of the 18th to early 20th centuries, including the rubber barons who brutalized and enslaved indigenous workers. Also, missionaries attempted to civilize and convert natives by forbidding the practice of long-held traditions.

These indigenous people have known for generations the presence of their mysterious brethren of the interior.

From the east, illegal gold-mining barges, crossing over from Brazil, are a constant concern. Drug traffickers and bandits meanwhile, have made intermittent appearances in some areas of the reserve itself and some fear their presence might increase as the insurgent demobilization progresses.

In 2016 members of a dissident faction of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), unhappy with the peace accords, entered the reserve. Toting their weapons and propaganda, they caused havoc and discord.

Even if you could make safe, controlled contact with the tribe, which likely is not possible, then what happens?

When you look at occasions where tribes have been contacted, it has not made their life any better. You could argue it is making it worse. Now they are surrounded, their lands are being invaded and they are much more exposed to disease.

In December 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos issued Statute No. 4633 guaranteeing uncontacted peoples, such as the Caraballos, the right to self-isolation, traditional territory and reparation in the face of violence from outsiders.


The Cofán, named after the Cofa Na’e or Aguarico River, are the last surviving remnants of a once numerous riverine culture that has traditionally occupied what is today the northeastern corner of Ecuador and the corresponding region to the north in Colombia of the Amazon basin.
They live in harmony with the forest, masters and keepers of its secrets.

They have lived for centuries in the forests at the center of the earth, where the Amazon Basin stretches toward the sky across the slopes of the Andes mountains and its multiple volcanoes.

Today, the Cofán keep their traditions alive and live as they have for hundreds of years. They hunt, fish, use the forest for their daily needs and their children grow up speaking the ancestral language, A’Ingae.

After farming one area, the Cofán will move on and only come back once the fertility of the land has naturally regenerated. Their main foods are corn, plantains, manioc, bananas and fish. Cofán ancestral territory is among the most biodiverse in the world.

Traditional Cofán houses are built as one with the forest. With beautifully thatched roofs and stilt foundations, these homes blend in perfectly with the natural surroundings.

The Cofán practice a mixed religion, blending their traditional animist beliefs with the Christianity, brought to them by the colonial conquerors.

Yagé, a hallucinogenic drink, is a key element of Cofán celebrations as well as daily life. The Taita (Shaman) will drink it so that he may have visions and revelations to further healing processes.
As well as their sacred medicine and hallucinogen, yagé is often drunk once or twice per week, even by children.

They are famed for preparing many natural medicines, knowing full well the remedial characteristics of the local flora.

The Cofán tribe had occupied the watersheds of the upper San Miguel and Aguarico rivers for uncounted generations. Spanish explorers tell of encounters with Cofán People in these regions as early as 1536 and early missionaries established posts in the area in the early 1600’s. At the time, the Cofán Tribe was both numerous and politically organized, with well-established towns and a loose city-state system that allowed considerable autonomy among the settlements while ensuring a fast and potent response to any outside threats.

Trade routes extended in all directions, with Cofán traders climbing up into the Andes and exploring as far as the mouth of the Amazon. In the late 16th century, the political hegemony of the Cofán People extended far and wide.

The Cofáns of this time were considered fearsome warriors, wielding slings, bows and arrows, spears, and hardwood swords in pitched battles with neighboring tribes and invaders. Early Spanish accounts speak of the fear in which the Cofáns were held by the Yumbos, Quijos and other nearby tribes.
They roundly defeated three separate Spanish armies sent out to quell them during the middle to late 1500s. Taking the offensive, they burned the colonial town of Mocoa to the ground and chased the Spanish into the mountains, eventually laying siege to Pasto. Only the arrival of an army from Bogotá saved the city.

Since oil and gold were discovered in their lands almost a century ago, the area has been devastated by Western companies and the fragile ecosystem is endangered. Today, the Cofán are fighting for their rights to protect their traditional lands and culture.

Today, the Cofán People represent the last remnants of one of the most exciting, vital, knowledgeable and rich cultures that ever emerged from the Amazon basin. The culture of the Cofán with centuries of slowly developed wisdom, holds the keys to an incredible amount of information concerning the region.
The Cofán are extremely knowledgeable about the secrets of over two hundred medicinal plants and have incalculable knowledge of the birds and mammals in the area. They nurture a deep love and understanding of the everyday rhythms of the Amazonian rainforest.

These are just a few of the important contributions seemingly insignificant communities make to the Amazonas, the country, and the world.

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