Colombia’s Indigenous Tribe Yarigui & U’wa

The Yarigui were an indigenous people of Colombia who gave their name to the mountainous region of the Andean cloud forest where they once lived. Nowadays they are an extinct tribe, with myth having it that they committed mass suicide rather than submit to Spanish colonial rule.

The Yarigui indigenous people were located in a vast forest area along the Magdalena River Valley in the western part of the present-day Santander Department. The approximate boundaries of their indigenous territory were the Minero River to the south, the Sogamoso River to the north, the Magdalena River to the west, and the Eastern Mountains to the east. At that time, they lived in areas of dense rainforest, a hot and humid land, which made life hard for the inhabitants.

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The reality is that when the Spanish arrived in 1536, the Yarigui population was estimated to have been around 50,000. Three centuries later 15,000 still survived. Up to that point, the rain forests that made up most of their land were largely left untouched and supported by their lifestyle and subsistence.

However, by 1880 the number of Yarigui dwindled to 10,000 and continued on a downward spiral until there were 500 in 1920, and by 1940 were completely disappeared.

The Yarigui, a Caribbean-speaking people, were essentially nomadic hunter-gatherers. They were divided into five independent clans, with each clan governing independently with its own leaders.

From their initial contact with Spanish Conquistadors, the Yarigui were extremely hostile and provided tremendous resistance. Aided by the natural hardships of the rainforest, they prevented an invasion by the invaders. The Yarigui inflicted heavy losses on Conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada‘s army. He arrived with nine hundred men, limping away with just one hundred and sixty remaining.

Influenza, smallpox, measles and other diseases that were imported by the invaders could not be resisted. This led to a significant decline in the indigenous population during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Responsibility for the eventual extinction of the Yarigui community was due to new mestizo settlers encroaching onto their territory in search of pastures new. The construction of a road from Socorro, the capital of Santander at the time, to the Magdalena River brought further encroachment into the area. At times authorized hunting parties against the indigenous people were arranged and destroyed entire villages.

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The U’wa indigenous people represent a distinctive and culturally iconic group with a long history in Colombia. They are believed to be descendants of the Chibcha people, who once had a vast empire that stretched from Colombia to Ecuador and Panama. However, the Chibcha Empire was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, and the U’wa were forced to convert to Christianity.


The U’wa people have a dynamic history that extends back centuries in the highlands of the Andes and cloud forests of northeastern Colombia. Their ancestors built a society characterized by deep connections to the land and the environment.

Traditionally, they were hunters, gatherers, and farmers, cultivating crops like maize, yams, and tobacco. Their communities were organized around extended families and clans.

The arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 16th century brought significant changes to their way of life. The U’wa people faced violence, land dispossession, and forced labor. However, they persisted and today retain many aspects of their culture and spirituality.

After Colombia gained independence from Spain in 1819, the U’wa began to rebuild their lives. In recent years, they have made progress in asserting their rights and reclaiming their cultural heritage.

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Geographical Location:

The U’wa people primarily inhabit the cloud forests and highlands of the northeastern Andes in Colombia, particularly in the departments of Norte de Santander, Arauca, and Boyacá. This region is characterized by its lush and biodiverse environment, which is integral to U’wa culture and spirituality. Their territory is bordered by Venezuela to the east and by the Sierra Nevada de Chita mountains range to the west.

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Interaction with Modern-Day Colombia:

The U’wa people, like many indigenous communities in Colombia, face the challenges of navigating the modern world while preserving their cultural heritage. They interact with contemporary Colombian society through various means, including trade, education and involvement in local and national decision-making processes.

Efforts have been made to secure their land rights and cultural recognition. The Colombian government has recognized the importance of indigenous cultures and works to support the U’wa people and other indigenous groups in their pursuit of self-determination and cultural preservation. However, difficulties persist, especially regarding land and resource rights.

Religious Beliefs:

The U’wa people hold deeply rooted religious beliefs closely tied to their environment. They believe in the spiritual significance of the land, rivers and mountains. These natural features are often considered sacred and the U’wa people accept as true that they are the guardians of this sacred territory.

Central to U’wa spirituality is the concept of Ala Kue, which represents the harmony and balance of the universe. Rituals and ceremonies are vital for maintaining this balance and are led by U’wa spiritual leaders.


Traditionally, the U’wa economy was based on a combination of hunting, gathering, and agriculture. They cultivated crops such as maize, yams and tobacco and their agricultural practices were adapted to suit the challenging mountainous terrain.

In contemporary times, the U’wa people have sought to diversify their economic activities. Some communities have embraced sustainable agriculture and eco-friendly practices to generate income. Additionally, efforts have been made to engage in the tourism industry, sharing their culture and environment with visitors in a way that respects their traditional values and the sanctity of their land.

Language and Cultural Preservation:

The U’wa people have preserved their indigenous language, which is known as Tunebo or U’wa. Their language is fundamental to their cultural identity and is used to pass down traditional knowledge and heritage. Efforts have been made to document the U’wa language and promote its use in daily life and education.

U’wa culture is also preserved through oral traditions, storytelling, music and traditional crafts. Their weaving and artisanal skills have been passed down through generations, contributing to the preservation of their cultural heritage.

The U’wa Indigenous people of the northeastern Andes in Colombia represent a unique and resilient community with a history that spans centuries.
As they navigate the challenges of the modern world while preserving their traditions, the U’wa people contribute to the broader efforts to protect and celebrate Colombia’s indigenous cultures and the unique environment of the Andes Mountains and cloud forests. Efforts to secure land rights, preserve their language, and support their sustainable future are essential for the continued well-being of the U’wa people and the preservation of their remarkable culture.

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