Colombia is a country with a rich indigenous history and culture and many of these distinct cultures are represented by what is known in Colombia as artesanias, or artisan crafts. Now there are plenty of great souvenirs you can buy in Colombia, such as coffee, that we have already written posts about (see the link below), so this post is going to focus on the most traditional crafts (mostly of indigenous origin) that you can seek out in Colombia that will make excellent souvenirs for your loved ones back home (especially grandparents and parents, they love a good craft!).
These handicrafts range in price from very cheap to startlingly expensive, and it’s usually always cheaper to seek them out in their place or region of origin (plus it’s generally nicer because your money will be going directly into the hands of the artisan who created them); however, they can all be found in markets in the big cities of Colombia, especially Bogota, if you are especially smitten with a design and don’t have time to visit the region from where it originates (see, we’ve always got you covered at the Colombia Travel Blog!)…
1. Traditional mochilas
The traditional indigenous-made bags or mochilas that you see many Colombians sporting throughout the country are made by a variety of indigenous groups throughout the country, but the most popular and commonly available ones come from groups on or around the Caribbean coast. The most globally recognized are the mochilas made by the Wayuu people of the Guajira region – these Wayuu bags are sold all around the world (often for ludicrously increased prices!), but the best place to buy them is from an artisan directly in La Guajira. You can find out all about the history and cultural significance of the Wayuu mochilas on this blog post.
The other popular Colombian mochilas are those made by the various indigenous groups of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta: the Kogui, Arhuaco, Kankuamo and Wiwa peoples. The best place to buy these mochilas are from towns and cities surrounding the Sierra: Palomino, Santa Marta or Minca for Kogui bags and Valledupar for Arhuaco and Kankuamo mochilas. A traditional Colombia mochila is perhaps the most practical and uniquely Colombian souvenir you can bring home from a trip to Colombia…
2. Sombrero Vueltiao
These traditional Colombian hats originate from the Zenú indigenous people from the region of the Sinu river delta in the modern departments of Cordoba and Sucre, and are currently known as a prominent symbol of Colombia, most commonly being seen worn by cumbia and vallenato artists and groups. They are made from a type of cane that grows in the region, known as caña flecha, and vary in quality and price depending on the number of caña flecha strips used to produce the hat – the cheapest and most common hats are known as quincianos (using 15 strips and taking just 3 days to make), and the most expensive are called veintisientes (27 strips/up to 30 days). A 27-strip hat is a long-term investment as it can be folded up and stored without doing damage to the hat; a 15-strip hat won’t last anything like as long, but is much cheaper. Either way, the distinctive patterns of a sombrero vueltaio make for a great gift from Colombia…
3. ‘Ruana’ poncho
The ruana is a poncho-like garment made of wool that is traditionally made in Boyaca department, just to the north of Bogota. The modern ruana dates back to garments produced by the Muisca indigenous people who used to dominate this area of the eastern range of the Colombian Andes, and the word ruana even comes from a Chibcha word meaning “Land of Blankets.” Whilst many people who haven’t been to Colombia think of it as a uniformly hot tropical country, these Andean towns at high altitude near to the paramo moors can get bitterly cold, making the ruana a convenient and practical item of clothing. Towns such as Raquira, Nobsa and Villa de Leyva are excellent places to purchase an authentic ruana, but be warned: there are much cheaper versions on sale which, although they look similar, are factory made versions of the ruana; if you want a truly authentic handmade ruana you’ll have to pay! Either way, if you’re visiting Colombia from colder climes there’ll be some family members who’ll thank you for the gift of a warming ruana come winter…
4. Crafts from Guacamayas
Most people in Colombia simply refer to these brightly colored bowls and vases as Guacamayas, which is also the name of the little town in Boyaca from where they originate. Made of intricately woven fibres called fique in Spanish, they are iconic thanks to their bright colors and patterns, which generally form a spiral shape originating outwards from the center of the bowl. Solid and durable, and available in a variety of forms, from bowls and vases, to smaller items like coasters and even pen-holders, Guacamayas crafts make lovely home decorations and are perfect souvenirs from Colombia – my Grandma loves her Guacamayas bowl: ask her (don’t, she won’t know who you are)! If you don’t fancy making the journey all the way to the town itself, they are one of the most commonly sold crafts in Bogota’s markets, particularly Usaquen’s Sunday market, and the craft market next door to the Gold Museum.
En el año 2009 la tradicional cestería de #Guacamayas recibe el sello de #DenominacióndeOrigen, un distintivo que garantiza la calidad y originalidad de nuestros productos colombianos. #Boyaca #Artesanías #HechoAmano #Tradición #ColombiaArtesanal #OrgulloArtesanal #SomosColombia #AmorporloNuestro #ArtesaníasdeColombia
5. Ceramics from Guainia department
One of the more off-the-beaten-track Colombian crafts on this list, these stunning vases and bowls made by various indigenous groups in Guainia department (the most readily available to buy around the departmental capital of Inirida are made by the Curripaco people), are rarely seen for sale outside the stunning department of the eastern jungles. However, taking a trip to Guainia should be high on the Colombia travel list of anyone with a thirst for adventure, which will give you the chance to see and purchase some of these ceramics for yourself. During my travels in Guainia I visited the Curripaco village of Coco Viejo, on the banks of the Guaviare river’s confluence with the Inirida River – it’s a gorgeous little community, guarding over rocks covered in ancient indigenous petroglyphs, which does a bustling little trade in these vases and bowls, made from mud from the adjacent rivers, with adorments woven from palm fronds. They vary in size and price, but the money goes directly into the hands of the people making them, and (as my Mum will attest) they make excellent gifts from Colombia!
6. Filigree jewelry from Mompox
The gift for the Garcia Marquez lover in your life (or just someone with a penchant for shiny bejeweled things…), filigree jewelry from the little Magdalena River town of Mompox is some of the most beautiful and intricate jewelry you’re ever likely to see. These delicate items, which take a tremendous amount of dedication and patience to make, are fashioned from silver or gold by experienced jewelers with many years experience in the craft (when in Mompox you can pay a visit to a filigree maker and learn all about the process firsthand) – you can buy a small simple piece of jewelry for just a few dollars, or purchase the most expensive pieces which will set you back many times more! Once again, you can ask my Grandma (I’m starting to think I buy her too much stuff!) about the beauty of Mompox filigree jewelry; but you shouldn’t have to – Mompox is a Colombian highlight, so you really should pay a visit and pick up some filigree jewelry at the same time…Check out the video below for a peek at the art of making filigree jewelry in Mompox:
7. Werregue Baskets
Another craft that is very difficult to seek out in it’s place of origin, these baskets (made from the fibres of the Werregue Palm, and dyed using pigments from local fruits and seeds) are traditionally made by the Wounana (or Waunana) and Embera indigenous peoples of the San Juan River delta in Colombia’s Pacific coast departments of Choco and Valle del Cauca. These areas are hard to visit and not always considered safe (although you can find them for sale in communities around Bahia Malaga and Ladrilleros), so you’re most likely to see and be able to buy a Werregue basket from a market in Bogota, where they are often for sale. As with many artesanias for sale outside their place of origin, more expensive usually indicates better quality and authenticity, but you can always haggle a bit! Either way, a werregue basket (or a plate or dish – the artisans have branched out over the years) makes a great gift from Colombia.
8. Molas made by the Kuna people
Mola is a Kuna word with several meanings – fabric, piece of cloth, shirt or garment – and molas are one of the most colorful and beautiful of all Colombian crafts you can find on a visit here. The Kuna are an indigenous group living in settlements in Panama, a few small villages in Colombia and on the islands lying in the Caribbean sea between the two countries. Whilst not strictly speaking a completely Colombian craft, the mola is a widespread item in markets and commonly available to buy directly from the small Kuna populations in the Colombian border towns of Capurgana and Sapzurro. But what are they? They are colorful patterned pieces of fabric made using a reserve appliqué sewing technique – various colored pieces of cloth are sewn together and then parts are cut off to form a pattern. Traditionally they form the front and back panel of a Kuna woman’s dress (and you can tell the most authentic molas from the fading and fray at the edge of the piece), but the Kuna are increasingly creating molas simply to sell directly as crafts, or affixing them to other items like bags and purses. Much like the sombrero vueltiao, higher numbers indicate quality, and the more layers a mola has the higher quality it is. Molas are commonly seen for sale in markets in all Colombian major cities. My Gran (dammit…no more presents for her!) has two: one she framed and one she sewed to a cushion, so they make really practical and diverse gifts for loved ones.
9. Sombrero Aguadeño from Aguadas, Caldas
Colombia’s version of the iconic Panama hat, the sombrero aguadeño, or Aguadas hat, is produced in the small pueblo patrimonio of Aguadas in Caldas department, worth a visit hats or not for it’s charming cobbled streets and off-the-beaten-track nature. Made of palm fibers known as iraca in Colombia (but more commonly called the Panama Hat plant), these hats, as with the sombrero vueltiao, vary in quality and price based on stitching – a basic hat will cost somewhere in the region of 35-50.000 COP, whilst the finest quality sombrero aguadeño can set you back north of 150.000 COP! Still a drop in the ocean compared to a fancy Panama hat, and the quality of the hats made in Aguadas doesn’t differ all that much from the more iconic versions. These hats can be found on stalls in Usaquen market in Bogota on Sundays, but for a truly authentic off-the-beaten-track travel experience head to Aguadas yourself and pick up at hat that’ll be the envy of all your wannabe-suave mates back home…
10. Pottery from Ráquira
Known as the ceramics capital of Colombia, Ráquira is a pleasant little town in Boyaca department, not too far from Villa de Leyva. The village is absolutely full of pottery workshops and there are a great number of shops, with brighly painted facades to add to the place’s charm, selling pottery in all shapes and sizes. Coming from a Chibcha word meaning ‘City of Pots’ Ráquira is the perfect place to visit in Colombia to pick up some great souvenirs for the gardener in your life (Dad springs to mind…). If the making of the pottery itself is of interest to you then you can take a pottery class or workshop in the town…or you can just let a professional do the work for you and leave Ráquira with as many bowls, vases, flowerpots and piggy banks as you can stuff into your suitcase…your choice really.