Journey into Colombia Guambiano indigenous traditions

Journey into Colombia Guambiano indigenous traditions

 

One of Colombia’s greatest appeals is its diversity of indigenous peoples. From the Arhuaco of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to the Zenú of the Golfo de Morrosquillo, Colombia’s 87 native tribes represent an indigenous heritage as rich as anywhere in the Americas. While some groups are not receptive to outsiders, others welcome visitors.

Approximately 20,000 Guambiano Indigenous still live in Colombia, most of them living within a short distance from Silvia. The name of  Guambiano comes from a bag called a guambia, the traditional bag used by Guambiano women to carry around weaving supplies. These women are renowned for their weaving skills and their woven wares are a principal source of income for the community.

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Guambianos live mostly in the townships of Silvia and Jambaló. Others are to be found in Totoro, Caldono, and Toribio in the department of Cauca, in the southwestern part of Colombia on the mountainous foothills of the Cordillera Central.

One of the most colorfully garbed and readily identifiable of Colombia’s indigenous groups, Guambianos live in these cold Andean highlands. The average elevation of the area varies between 2,000m/6,561’ and 3,000m/9,843’, making it extremely cold and wet with a mean temperature of 12c/54f and high annual precipitation. The vegetation of the region was once richer and more diverse; nowadays it is scant. Over-exploitation of the land and the agricultural techniques employed have resulted in the exhaustion of the primary vegetation. Destruction of the woodlands on the mountain ranges has caused the disappearance not only of traditional vegetation but also many of the animal species.

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Guambiano community is easily identified by the costumes that the people still choose to wear.  The Guambiano dress is identical. The females accessorize with chaquiras, necklaces, and wristbands made out of small colorful beads.

The males were in pink-fringed indigo-blue skirts and black ruanas (shawls); the women, with page-boy hairstyles, were in black skirts and blue shawls. Both sexes wear bowler hats or pork-pie trilbys. Although almost all speak Spanish, many also proudly speak Coconuco (or Wampi-misamera-wam), their traditional Chibcha-derived language, which they consider an essential source of cultural and ethnic identity.

Once reserved and suspicious of outsiders, they are now beginning to appreciate the benefits of inviting visitors into their homes and craft workshops, offering a friendly welcome.

Guambianos have a dispersed settlement pattern; their dwellings are located along the trails and in the open spaces that traverse their terrain. Their ancient rectangular huts of plaited cane and wood, with straw roofs, are slowly disappearing from the landscape. Guadua (bamboo) and eucalyptus timber are used in the construction of dwellings.

The kitchen is the most important place in Guambianos homesteads since it is the social space par excellence. Not only is food kept, prepared and dispersed in it, but it is also where visitors are received and where on cold Andean nights, the family converses by the heat of the hearth, the fire of which is kept permanently burning.


Guambianos are traditionally an agricultural people. The main source of their subsistence comes from working their land and its development. For Guambianos, the land represents a generous and benevolent reality. Mother Earth must be respected, cared for, and looked after. Cultivating the land is the ideal way of accomplishing this. The earth must be helped to be able to produce, so it is necessary to feed, maintain, and warm her, to dance, to sing, and above all, to chaperon her. Land and collective labor are two realities closely associated in Guambian thought, neither part of which can survive independently.

The potato is perhaps the basic staple of the Guambian economy. Cultivation is rudimentary with plows and rakes used to break up the soil and during weeding and harvesting, the traditional hoe is used. More than eight kinds of potatoes are cultivated, typically grown in association with other root vegetables of secondary importance. Thus, potatoes may be grown together with onions and garlic. Maize is cultivated in lower-lying and warmer terrain. It is highly valued culturally and prepared in an array of ways, as it is never absent from the Guambiano diet. Two or three varieties of maize are also cultivated. Whereas potatoes and wheat are grown for market, maize is essentially cultivated for consumption.

Cattle are seen as an important investment and generally, every family raises one animal. Sheep, which belong to the women, are also important in the domestic economy; their wool, carefully shorn, washed, and spun, is the prime material that Guambian women transform into stunning clothing. Trout farming and fishing are also important to the Guambianos community, both as a food source and as an income.

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The town of Silvia on Tuesdays has a renowned market brimming with fruit, vegetables, and household goods. This is not a tourist affair, but rather a shopping opportunity for Guambianos. The market has grown in popularity recently and Otavalo Indigenous have joined in with their distinctive artesania, but it is still Guambiano territory.

The male of the Guambiano is associated with what is public and external to the community, whereas the female world is related to domestic life. This strict division of labor between men and women has been losing ground, however, thanks to transformations that have taken place within the community. As a result of this process, women have widened the radius of their activities, participating in the very core of production in farming and animal husbandry and sharing all activities with men.

Many of the sacred places of  Guambianos are natural mise en scéne. Legend has it that El Abejorro lagoon was a place that allowed them to escape from the Spaniards. It is said that when the invaders tried to steal their gold,  Guambianos rushed to this lagoon where they threw all valuables into the water and performed rituals so that the conquistadors could not find them 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 visitors to this place, but accompanied by a Guambiano guide.


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