Wayuu People: An Overview Through Dream-Weaved Masterpieces

Drawing from my three visits to their lands, I invite you to embark on an immersive journey into the life and traditions of the Wayuu people, Colombia’s largest indigenous group. 

Living in autonomous territories, their vibrant culture, age-old customs, and compelling resilience tell a story unlike any other. Intricate weavings, unique laws, and captivating folklore await you in the heartland of the Wayuu.

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Since 2015, Adrien, Alejandra, and I (Tom) have been helping travelers explore Colombia. Here, you will find everything you need to fall in love with this beautiful country easily.

Immersing in Wayuu Culture: Autonomy, Laws, and Customs in Colombia

Colombia is a melting pot of cultures, and the most prominent and populous indigenous group is the Wayuu. With a population of around 400,000, the Wayuu culture is rich in customs and traditions. The Colombian government, recognizing the importance of preserving indigenous cultures, grants them significant autonomy. This means that when you find yourself in Wayuu territory, you’re subject to their laws and customs, making it feel like you’re in a different country even though you haven’t left Colombia.

If you plan to visit La Guajira, it’s essential to understand that you’re legally subject to their laws and customs when you’re among the Wayuu. Plus, getting to know their way of life can be a fascinating and enriching experience.

👉 Want to know everything about La Guajira? To learn where are the best places, and avoid tourist traps and beginner’s mistakes? Nothing could be easier. I put it all together in our guide to La Guajira.

Where do the Wayuu People live?

The Wayuu people are masters of the desert, having inhabited their ancestral lands for thousands of years. Their territory spans the department of La Guajira in northern Colombia. It extends into parts of Zulia, Mérida, and Trujillo in northwest Venezuela, although most of the Wayuu population resides in Colombia.

Here, their lands stretch from Lake Maracaibo in the east to the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta in the west. The Serranía del Perijá, near Codazzi in César, Colombia, marks the southernmost point of Wayuu territory.

While the Wayuu people used to be nomadic, modern life has led them to settle in specific areas more permanently. 

The northernmost points of their lands hold special significance in Wayuu culture. For instance, a hill in Cabo de la Vela is known as “Jepira” in their native language, Wayuunaiki. This sacred site is believed to contain portals to other worlds and serves as a gathering place for the spirits of the deceased Wayuu. Locals say that visiting Jepira allows one to commune with their ancestors.

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Living the Wayuu Life: Understanding Colombia’s Indigenous Clan Culture

Wayuu people organize their lives around clans. For them, the clan is the heart and soul of their society, and this unique way of living sets them apart from many other cultures. Let’s dive into the fascinating world of Wayuu people and their customs.

Rancherías: Home Sweet Home

Wayuu Rancheria

A ranchería, or “pilchipala” in Wayuunaiki, is a single-story ranch dwelling that serves as the center of Wayuu family life. Typically, a ranchería consists of sleeping spaces, a corral, a garden, and a cemetery, with modern additions like water tanks now becoming more common.

These settlements are often small, with just five or six houses clustered together. Unfortunately, this means that healthcare or medical attention is usually far away for the Wayuu people.

Matrilocal Marriages and Female Leadership

Rancheria Wayuu Punta gallinas, La Guajira

Wayuu society is matrilocal, meaning that when a man marries a woman, he moves into her pilchipala, leaving his own family behind. Women are in charge of the pilchipalas and make all the decisions related to household matters. This female-centric way of living adds a unique twist to Wayuu’s life.

But this doesn’t mean life is a breeze for these women; in fact, they face numerous pressures and responsibilities, from upholding their family’s honor to mastering traditional skills.

In 2023, arranged marriages are still common among the Wayuu people. To win the hand of a Wayuu girl, a suitor must offer a dowry of goats to her family – these animals serve as a de facto currency in Wayuu society. This tradition often sees young girls getting married before they’ve even reached child-bearing age, with some as young as 11 years old.

A Coming-of-Age Journey for Wayuu Girls

Wayuu girl

When a Wayuu girl reaches puberty, she embarks on a unique coming-of-age journey. The women of her clan whisk her away into seclusion, where she’ll stay for anywhere from two months to a staggering two years or more! During this time, she learns everything necessary to become a full-fledged Wayuu woman.

Her education includes mastering cooking, cropping Wayuu bags (a crucial part of the artisan weaving industry), and other essential skills needed to become a good wife and mother. This period represents a significant transition from girlhood to womanhood, and the skills she learns will play an essential role in her life.

Dreams and Stories: The Heart of Wayuu Culture

Wayuu Rancheria (2)

Similar to Australian aborigines, the Wayuu hold dreams and their interpretations in high esteem. Their culture is steeped in rich symbolism, and they believe dreams often carry prophetic messages, guiding or warning them about future events.

Wayuu women weave their famous “mochilas” (bags) based on their dreams. According to their ancient traditions, Walekerü, the spider-god, appeared to them and taught Wayuu women how to weave their dreams into these bags. This divine spider figure bears striking similarities to Anansi, a West African spider deity.

As you might expect from a culture so focused on dreams and symbols, the Wayuu are master storytellers. Their traditions are filled with elaborate storytelling rituals, songs, and dances that capture the essence of their unique way of life.

Clans, Conflicts, and the Role of the Palabrero

Wayuu (4)

The Wayuu people have long organized themselves at the clan level, historically leading to frequent conflicts and blood feuds. To resolve these disputes and end bloodshed, the Wayuu instituted the system of palabreros.” These wise individuals are trusted advisors who help settle disagreements and can be recognized by their signature walking sticks, the symbol of their office.

Currently, about 70 palabreros serve the greater Wayuu society, acting as repositories of Wayuu culture and wisdom. Their role is vital in maintaining peace and harmony among the clans.

Feasting on Simplicity: The Wayuu Diet

The Wayuu people embrace a simple Spartan diet. Relying predominantly on local ingredients, they consume few imported staples, with rice being a notable exception. Due to the harsh soil and climate, vegetables are rare in traditional Wayuu cuisine. However, you might stumble upon beans mixed with rice, adding a touch of green to their plates.

During special occasions, the Wayuu indulge in a feast of rice and shrimp accompanied by chicha, a fermented local beverage. But the pièce de résistance of their culinary repertoire is “friche,” a distinctive dish featuring goat meat cooked in goat blood, combined with rice and a medley of herbs and spices native to the region.

Wayuu Music and Dance: a beautiful art

Wayuu traditional music plays a vital role in their social life and is performed using various instruments. Expect to hear the beats of both stick and hand drums, the melodious tunes of different horn and tubular flute instruments, and the distinctive sound of the Sawawa, a type of clarinet.

Dance is equally important in Wayuu culture, with various forms showcased on different occasions, each carrying its own level of solemnity. 

The Yonna is the most significant dance, performed to honor a visitor or during clan meetings and celebrations like weddings. In this captivating performance, the male dancer dons a loincloth and feathered hat while displaying acrobatic moves such as jumping and spinning. Adorned with a scarf and brightly-colored dress, the female counterpart exhibits more feminine movements like bending and swaying. The Yonna resembles a battle, with the ultimate goal being for the female to cause the male to stumble, symbolizing her leadership within the family.

Other noteworthy Wayuu dances include the “pájaro” (Spanish for “bird”), where dancers imitate the various avian species found in the desert. The Chichamaya, a festive dance performed to the rhythm of drums and flutes, and the “anasü,” a somber dance typically reserved for mourning rituals and funeral processions, also hold significant cultural importance.

Colorful Wayúu Handicrafts

Wayuu artisans are renowned for their top-notch handicrafts. Here’s why you should get your hands on one or more of these items when you find yourself in Wayuu territory: 

  • They’re genuine masterpieces.
  • Each piece is lovingly handcrafted.
  • They boast excellent quality and longevity.
  • By visiting the Wayuu area, you can cut out the middleman and snag the best-quality Wayuu mochila bags at fantastic prices.
  • You support their artisan weaving industry and the local economy during challenging times. 

Weaving

Mochilas Wayuu Punta Gallinas La Guajira

The Wayuu’s famous mochilas are celebrated throughout Colombia for their beauty and durability. The rest of the world is gradually discovering them, too. 

They’re a vital part of the economy for these people. 

As mentioned earlier, these bags are more than just souvenirs. Each one is individually crafted and brimming with symbols and meaning. Wayuu weaving is vibrant and steeped in time-honored traditions. Sometimes, they still use locally-sourced fibers and dyes. However, nowadays, acrylic thread from Riohacha or other city centers is often used. 

The images contained in Wayuu’s “mochilas” and other weaving products are incredibly symbolic. Known in the Wayúu language as “kanás,” each “kaná” can represent an environmental element, a person, a clan, or an animal, among many other things. 

Hammocks and Chinchorros

Rancheria Punta gallinas La Guajira  chinchorro

Everyone’s heard of hammocks originating from indigenous people like the Wayuu and the Arawaks. 

The chinchorro is a larger version of the more familiar hammock. They’re amazing and much comfier than a regular hammock. I’m a huge fan of them.

One key difference is that the chinchorro has fringes on both ends rather than the strings of a hammock. You can use them as a blanket to shield you from the nighttime breeze. 

If you venture to the La Guajira peninsula, there’s an excellent chance you’ll sleep at least one night in one of these chinchorros. 

Variety of Wayuu bags and Woven Objects

Wayuu women create many types of “mochilas.” Some are for everyday use, while others are reserved strictly for ceremonies. 

  • The Susu is the most common type of “mochila” and can be spotted all over Colombian cities and used by locals. It’s designed to be worn around the shoulder and has a round bottom. 
  • Another type is the “Katsü,” which has a flatter bottom and a drawstring at the top. 
  • They also craft something called the “Maikira,” a small pouch used for storing items like coca leaves. 

The Wayuu employ two weaving methods: the one-thread and two-thread weaves. The one-thread weave is more labor-intensive and challenging to make, resulting in superior quality. Still, there are plenty of high-quality items made with the two-thread weave that are definitely worth purchasing! 

👉 The best places to buy your Wayuu bag are Riohacha, Punta Gallinas, and Nazareth (Macuira Park).

Men’s Craftsmanship

Wayuu (5)

In Wayuu society, while weaving is strictly a women’s domain, men create other types of crafts according to tradition. 

For example, you’ll find hats made from palm leaves, blankets, and traditional Wayuu footwear. The footwear is called “guaireñas” or “espadrilles.” 

Life isn’t easy in La Guajira

La Guajira Desert

The Wayuu people, inhabitants of the harsh desert environment of La Guajira, Colombia, have been resiliently surviving for millennia. 

Their conditions are challenging, yet they have adapted and maintained their unique way of life. However, the Wayuu have been experiencing an almost unprecedented humanitarian crisis in recent years. This crisis is so severe that it threatens their very existence, making their story all the more compelling for travelers to the region.

Water & food scarcity: the bane of desert life

Water has always been scarce in La Guajira’s arid landscape, but climate change and other factors are making it even scarcer. The lack of water affects the Wayuu’s daily lives and their ability to grow food and sustain their communities. With each passing year, the struggle for this essential resource becomes more desperate, forcing the Wayuu to adapt in new and creative ways.

As if water scarcity wasn’t enough, the Wayuu’s access to food is becoming increasingly difficult. This has been especially true over the past decade, as the situation in neighboring Venezuela has deteriorated. The influx of Venezuelans fleeing their own crisis has increased competition for already scarce resources, creating additional challenges for the Wayuu people.

The indomitable spirit of the Wayuu people

Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges, the Wayuu people remain incredibly resilient. They have a long history of successfully pushing back against invaders, demonstrating their strength and determination. As travelers to Colombia, we have an opportunity to learn from their tenacity and support them in their struggles.

So, when are you coming to Wayuu’s kingdom?

Traveling to La Guajira and engaging with the Wayuu people enriches our travel experiences and promotes cultural integration and good relations between the Wayuu and those they interact with. By connecting with these extraordinary people, we can contribute to their communities’ long-term well-being while broadening our perspectives.

Book with locals
Easily Join The Best Tours in La Guajira with Paola
4.8

Over 100 of our readers explore La Guajira with Paola every month. This is the best-organized agency in the area, with consistent departures, excellent responsiveness, and great flexibility.

Pros:
  • Excellent multi-day tours to Cabo de la Vela, Punta Gallinas and Macuira Park.
  • Pay local prices at no extra cost.
See her profile How to pick your tour
Easy, quick and risk-free (Talk first. Book later)

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I have been traveling around Colombia and Mexico since 2015 to discover new experiences and help travelers make the right choices.

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