Chirrinchi is a kind of rum that is distilled mainly in the Colombian Caribbean. It is especially famous among the Wayuu. If you keep your eyes open or ask around while in La Guajira you will find small private Chirrinchi distilleries almost everywhere.
The process starts by mixing sugar can sugar, water, and yeast. The fermentation takes about 5-8 days. Afterwards a simple alemic distillery is used to separate the alcohol from the water. The distillation process is usually performed twice and produces an alcoholic drink with 35% alcohol.
Many Wayuu drink the Chirrinchi pure. However, there are different traditional and modern preparation methods. For example, traditionally the indigenous put a piece of “Contramata” (see Figure 2) into their Chirrinchi bottles. An alternative to Contramata is a piece of the bark of a Brazilwood tree. It will give the drink a red color.
More modern preparations include the addition of Anise. Some Wayuu claim that Coquiche has the best taste. Coquiche is prepared by adding Coconuts and leaving it for some days. It is said the Coconut sucks-up the bad tastes of the distillation process.
Humans search for explanations for the world that surrounds them. The Guajira peninsula is rich of tales and mystic places from the Wayuu mythology. The tales are about questions like: Where do the Wayuu come from? How did the Wayuu learn their weaving-technique? Where do the Wayuu clan symbols clan symbols come from? What happens after death?
In this article we want to introduce some of the most important people and places from the Wayuu mythology. For an in-depth introduction we refer to publications of anthropologists who gathered, analyzed and published the tales. Unfortunately, almost all sources are in Spanish or Wayuunaiki. See our bibliography.
It is said that “Maleiwa” (pronounced “Mareiwa”) is the creator of the Wayuu. No one has ever seen her. However, there exist many different tales about her. It is said she lives in the Macuira mountains.
Indigenous all over the Guajira peninsula tell stories about places that are said to have a Pulowi living there. A Pulowi is a female spirit associated with places related to water (e.g. lakes, rivers, or beaches) where somebody died. The Wayuu avoid bathing or spending the night at those places. It is very likely that you get in touch with Pulowi while traveling the Guajira peninsula.
The Wolunka rock is located at the Macuira mountains close to Nazareth and the Alewolou dune. “Wolunka” is the name of a girl who was the daughter of the rain and the earth. She used to bath naked beneath the rock. One day one youngster shot her with a bow and an arrow into her vagina. According to Wayuu mythology this is why women menstruate.
Jepira is a hill located at Cabo de la Vela. The Wayuu believe that Jepira is the place where the souls of the death travel to. The hill is a common destinations for tourists who visit Cabo de la Vela. The hill is also called “sugar loaf” due to its bright color. As of today, there is a Maria statue on top of Jepira which shows how the ancient beliefs get undermined by western missionaries.
Rock of Aalas
It is said that Maileiwa sent the wise man Uutta to gather the Wayuu families at the rock of Aalas. A lightning hit the rock and burned symbols into the rock. From that day on every Wayuu family gets identified by their symbol. The symbols are used to mark animals and also for art.
Piedra del Destino
The “Destiny Rock” is located in the north-east of the Guajira peninsula. It hosts a cave with an entry and an exit hole. Several tales report from people who entered the destiny rock and were not able to leave it through the exit hole. The ones who failed lost their lifes in accidents short after. It is said that it does not matter whether you are fat or thin, tall or short. The rock can become impassable for everyone or widen itself to let you pass.
During my stay in Colombia I did research on the history of the Guajira and the Wayuu indigenous. I encountered a reference to a historic travel report of the French explorer Héliodore Candeliere. He traveled the Guajira peninsula 125 years ago. It took me quiet some effort to get access to a physical copy of the book. On my last day before I returned to Germany I was able to take a copy of it. Since I liked the book so much I thought it would be worth to make this document accessible in English. So, the book got translated from French to English and can now be downloaded as ebook. I payed attention that the historic characteristic is maintained as good as possible in the electronic version. I also improved the quality of the figures.
In his mid-thirties, Héliodore is a successful solicitor, the founder of the national shooting society, and a loving family father. Despite his traditional life style, deep in his heart, he is an explorer who always wanted to travel the world. His family pushed him into a traditional life style and as he got older he gave up on his dreams.
One day, Héliodore meets an old school friend who reports him from his time in Panama and at the Colombian Caribbean coast. This encounter triggers something in Héliodore. He gets obsessed with the idea of organizing an expedition to the Guajira peninsula – the home of the Wayuu indigenous. One day, he and his family decide that he will go on a three year expedition for the Société de Géographie de Paris to South America.
In his travel report, Héliodore describes how it was like to travel from Europe to Colombia at the end of the 19th century. Riohacha was still a small town and the last outpost before the untamed Guajira peninsula. Diseases like paludian fever were a common threat threre. During his stay at the Guajira peninsula, Héliodore studies the customs, language, and laws of the Wayuu indigenous. His book is also a testimony of the conflicts between the “civilized” and “uncivilized” world.
After 125 years, Héliodore’s travel report is available for the first time in English.
The Wayuu culture can be quiet different to the western culture. One example is an incident happened in 2017 where suddenly almost all donkeys of Alta Guajira disappeared.
Beside goats, donkeys are probably the second most important animals for the Wayuu: they are used to carry water. One donkey carries about 60-70kg of water. The Wayuu all over the La Guajira peninsula tell the same story: Suddenly, in 2017 the donkeys disappeared. One after the other. The locals report always the same: somebody came during night and slaughtered the donkeys that were outside the ranch. Only the leather was taken and the meat was left behind. This went on for about six months until almost all donkeys had been killed.
Who was it?
If you ask the locals who killed their donkeys the answers are often very vague. Most say they don’t know. This is hardly imaginable. There are eyes behind every Yosu cactus. Nothing happens without somebody noticing it. Especially, when it goes on over months. It is said the leather got sold on the markets in Uribia and Maicao. But nobody knows where it went to afterwards.
For the victims the loss of the donkeys is very serious. For example, in Nueva York the locals spend about four hours daily for getting water. They have only one donkey left, two got killed. Without the two donkey they have to walk twice instead of once a day. If you ask enough people someone will tell you who it was. In Nueva York they are convinced that the neighbors to the north west committed the crime. However, they don’t do much about it.
In the Wayuu culture, when they catch the suspect while killing the donkey the local “palabrero” (speaker) will tell the attackers to pay a compensation to the victims. For example, a donkey is worth 400.000 COP and this is payed as compensation. But the damage is much bigger than the donkey. It takes years to breed new donkeys that are necessary for carrying water. The suspect has almost nothing to lose. In the worst case he only pays what he earned on the market. There is almost no police in Alta Guajira and the Wayuu prefer the traditional way of handling problems anyway.
If you ask why the neighbors killed the donkeys the victims tell you something like “Well, they needed money”. For many, even the victims, this seems to be a good reason. During my time in Alta Guajira I asked many Wayuu about this problem to better understand their reasoning. They take it like something caused by force of nature. For westerners it is hard to understand why they don’t do more against the suspects. It is one of the things where you notice that they have a completely different mindset and cultural background.
José Prudencio Padilla, better known as Almirante Padilla (Admiral Padilla), is one of those personalities with a unique life history. Born in Riohacha in 1778 as a son of a black constructor of canoes and a Wayuu woman, José Prudencio joined the Spanish Royal Navy with 14 years. He served on the warship San Juan Nepomuceno. In 1805 he participated in the battle of Trafalgar where he was taken prisoner by the English. After his release in 1808, José Prudencio returned to Spain and later to Cartagena, Colombia.
In 1811 he joined the independence movement. Under the command of Simon Bolivar, José Prudencio helps to free Cartagena from a besiege of the Spaniards. He fought several more battles and got promoted. In 1823 he led the navy of Simon Bolivar into the Battle of Lake Maracaibo where he defeated the Spanish Royal Navy. Some say it was the last decisive victory against the Spaniards since it prevented an invasion.
In 1828 Padilla got accused of conspiracy against Simon Bolivar. He got executed at Plaza Bolivar, Bogota. A short time after his death, Admiral Padilla got rehabilitated.
Admiral Padilla is probably the most shiny person in the history of La Guajira. The navy shool of Cartagena Escuela Naval de Cadetes “Almirante Padilla” is named after him. Also the airport the airport of Riohacha is called after the city’s probably most famous son. There is also a Colombian battleship with the name Almirante Padilla. The main square of Riohacha also has a statue of José Prudencio. Outside of La Guajira the history of the Admiral is less remembered.
There is an awesome documentary series about Colombia’s forgotten heroes on Youtube. One episode is about Almirante Padia – unfortunately only in Spanish:
Birds of Passage (Pajaros del Verano) is the name of the new movie of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra. The movie plays on the La Guajira peninsula and tells the story of the so called “Bonanza Marimbera“. The Bonanza Marimbera was a period during the 1960s and 1970s where drug trafficking with marijuana was booming in Colombia. The movie shows the involvement of the Wayuu indigenous in this business. The language of the movie is Wayuunaiki – the language of the Wayuu.
The La Guajira peninsula is a geographically isolated place. At the same time it has always been a gate to the Caribbean Sea. During colonial times the Wayuu used trade with English, Dutch, and French colonists to acquire weapons for the fight against the Spaniards and defend their independence. Until today, the department of La Guajira is a place where smuggling is partially tolerated by the Colombian government and laws are not applied as strict as in other parts of Colombia. During history, the Wayuu have been opportunistic. If there is an opportunity for business they jump on it.
Birds of Passage was the opening film at the Cannes film festival. Ciro Guerra was also the director of another movie called “Embrace of the Serpent” about a different indigenous tribe in Colombia.
I am already looking forward to seeing this movie!
Backpacking to Cabo de la Vela can be easily done on your own. Cabo de la Vela is one of the most spectacular places of Alta Guajira. It offers various accommodations, beautiful beaches, and unique landscapes. You don’t need a travel agency for getting there. Actually, it is very easy and cheap to get from Riohacha to Cabo de la Vela.
The itinerary looks as follows:
Riohacha: Go to Mercado Viejo and take a shared taxi to Uribia. Tell the driver to drop you just outside Uribia at the crossroads called “4 Via de Uribia”.
Uribia: As soon as you hop-off the taxi at 4 Via de Uribia locals will offer you transportation to Cabo de la Vela. Usually, transport is done by pick-up trucks. The driver might try to impress the foreigners with his driving skills.
Cabo de la Vela: Just get off somewhere in the village. There are more than enough accommodations. The village consists of one long road.
Cash: You have to bring all cash that you need for your stay north of Uribia. There are ATMs in Uribia, Maicao, and Riohacha.
4 Via: There are two crossroads called “4 Via”. 4 Via de Uribia is just outside Uribia while 4 Via de Uribia is in between Riohacha and Maicao. Make sure you don’t confuse both crossroads.
Day Time: Traveling with shared taxis after 4pm can be more difficult as the cars might not fill-up. If you want to get around without problems leave early.
Many tourists traveling La Guajira like to buy Wayuu Bags, also called “Mochilas”. You can find many sellers at the seaside of Riohacha and at Cabo de la Vela. However, often the quality is not the best or the Wayuu sell the bags to a discount price that is not adequate to their good work.
The center for high-quality Wayuu bags of Alta Guajira is in Nazareth at a place called “Paraiso” (paradies). You can walk there in about 10-15min from the center of the village. Just ask the locals for “paraiso” and “mochila”. The bags are produced by a cooperative. There is another cooperative in Sipana. It is not uncommon that men also crochet Wayuu bags.
On his first trip to the Americas, Christopher Columbus took some notes where he describes for the first time the use of hammocks by Amerindians on Caribbean islands. As of today, on the entire La Guajira peninsula the use of hammocks is very wide-spread. The Wayuu call their hammocks “chinchorro”. The difference is that chinchorros are usually bigger more comfortable to sleep in as normal hammocks.
Alonso de Ojeda was the first one who sailed along the South American coast. During his expedition he also passed the La Guajira peninsula and Cabo de la Vela. That’s why Cabo de la Vela already appears on the first maps of South America.
During the 16th century, the early colonists discovered pearls along the coast between Cabo de la Vela and today’s Riohacha. In order to exploit those pearls the Spaniards founded a settlement at Cabo de la Vela, called Nuestra Señora Santa María de los Remedios del Cabo de la Vela. Due to continuous conflicts with the local indigenous Santa María got relocated to today’s Riohacha in 1544. As a result, Riohacha developed into a center for pearl trade.
Cabo de la Vela also plays a very important role in the mythology of the Wayuu amerindians. For them the hill Jepira is the place where the souls of the dead travel to after death. Jepira is also called Pan de Azucar in Spanish and is a famous tourist destination.
As of today, Cabo de la Vela is the most touristy place on the La Guajira peninsula. There are plenty of accommodations, you can do Kite surfing, visit the nearby lighthouse, and enjoy the beautiful beaches.
The salt mines of Manaure are located at Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The big basins are operated by a Venezuelan company while the small ones are run by local Wayuu families. The salt water passes a chain of basins. In each basin it stays several months to increase the saturation. Finally, it reaches a basin where the salt crystalizes. The salt crystals grow about 4cm per year. It depends on the owner and the demand when it gets harvested. The size of the salt mine only gets visible from an elevated position.
Close to the salt mines is the protected area where you can see flamingos. The place is similar to Santuario de los Flamencos close to Camarones.