Arts and Crafts Tourism – Colombia

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Colombia is rich in traditional arts and crafts. Extremely colorful and creative, these handmade crafts are great souvenirs of your Colombian excursions.  Visiting the villages where these crafts are made is a great travel idea. And buying direct from local artisans and village shops offers considerable savings over buying the same crafts in the big city markets.  

The only problem with going to these artisan villages is all the crafts are so beautiful and economical you will never be able to carry home all the crafts you want to buy without arranging shipping.

Over 1 million people in Colombia earn a living from the arts and crafts sector; 60% of the crafts are made in rural regions and 65% of the artisans are women. A main source of income for rural families and indigenous people, their craft making skills have been passed down from one generation to another.

The most important crafts are protected by a Colombian PDO or Protected Designation of Origin. The PDOs are designed to protect unique products which are traditionally created in a unique geographical locations. Currently there are only 25 PDO’s, 11 are crafts and the rest are foods and beverages.

For fellow artisans or merchants truly interested in Colombia’s arts and crafts there is a large, national craft fair, Expoartesanias, held in Bogota every year in December, where 350 Colombian artisans display more than 12,000 creations.

Most of the Colombia’s crafts can be found in the big city markets. But excursions to the villages where the crafts are produced make unique side trips. Here’s a look at the some crafts and destinations:

Wool ponchos, pottery and destinations Boyaca

The pottery of Raquira

Raquira is a village of 3,400 people, in the mountains of Boyaca, a trek of just a few hours from Bogota. The town dates back to Muisca who  lived here long before the Spanish conquest.  Raquira, meaning ‘City of Pots’, has always been famous for its ceramics, pottery and handicrafts. Pottery fragments have been found dating back 8,000 years. Pottery has always been the town’s  bread and butter and remains so today.

More than 80% of the towns people make a living producing traditional Andean pottery with clay from local clay mines. 

The small town is a awash in color. The streets are lined with souvenir shops with hotel rooms and residences on the second and third floors. Several blocks of brightly painted, 3-story buildings, line main street. The families of craftsmen live above their shops. Their workshops are on the main floor at the back of the building while their stores are up front spilling out into the street.

Raquira, one of the most beautiful villages in Boyaca, has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site

The town square is lined with massive clay structures of pottery makers, religious figures and animals.   The majority of stores on the colorful  main street sell everything from hand-painted ceramic bowls to plates and cups, toys  to artwork, vases, hammocks, wood carvings and jewelry. The merchants all compete for the most ambitious store front to better enchant the strolling shoppers. 

The Sunday Market in Raquira

The shops in town are open all week. While it’s pretty quiet during the weekdays, the weekends are a different story. Every Sunday the town’s hosts a main market where farmers and vendors flock to town set up stalls in the central square,  Plaza Raquira  with San Antonio de Padua church. It is a social and commercial event with people from the village and countryside all coming to town to shop and meet. 

For more information see the article: Raquira – the pottery capital of Colombia

The wool ponchos of Nobsa

Nobsa is a village in Boyaca famous for its production of wool ruanas, commonly referred to as ponchos. But there is a distinction between the two: Colombian ponchos are lightweight and made of cotton and used in the warm weather countryside while ruanas are a heavier, cold weather garments, made of wool.

Founded in 1593, Nobsa was a settlement of the Muisca people who specialized in the production of heavy cotton garments long before the Spanish conquest. Upon arrival, the Spaniards, impressed with their weaving skills, taught the locals how to use wool instead of cotton. They taught them how to raise sheep, spin and color the wool. The modern day ruana quickly became a must have garment for the inhabitants of the Andean mountains.

Today wool blankets, hats, gloves, sweaters, hammocks and wood furniture are also produced in town. The 15,000 people who live in Nobsa once all worked in the production and export of wool garments. But today there are 2 factories in town producing cement and steel offering the people an alternative source of income.

Only a 3 hour drive from Bogota, Nobsa gets a lot of tourists on the holidays and weekends- all looking for bargains and cold weather gear necessary for the cool climate of Bogota.

Also in the region of Boyaca visit the town of Paipa where they make the famous semi-aged cheese ‘Queso di Paipa’. Just outside of town there is a wonderful thermal water spa.

For more information see article: The Beautiful Colonial Villages of Boyaca

Tableware and straw hats of Antioquia

El Carmen de Viboral – tableware
El Carmen de Viboral is a tiny city of about 50,000 people an hour east of Medellin. It is known for its colorful, floral ceramic tableware. The town is full of pottery shops and workshops making it a perfect day trip to learn about Colombian ceramics and to pick up some bargain souvenirs.

Founded in 1787, ceramics had been the major industry of the city since 1898. In fact, ceramic plates and broken ceramic pieces are used to decorate the town. At 800 meters above sea level, it’s nice and cool day trip from Medellin with a beautiful main square lined with large, bustling, sidewalk cafes.

The Casa del Cultura hosts an interesting museum which explains the history of the town’s ceramic industry – from the crockery making process to the typical hand painting styles. The ceramic production of El Carmen focuses primarily on plates, cups, kitchen utensils, washbasins, vases and statues. Everything is painted by hand using a bouquet of colors.  No two pieces are exactly the same.

At one time there were 25 factories making ceramics in the town. But in the late 1970s the activity began to decline with the introduction of cheaper products imported from China. Then in the 1990s the tradition and production started recovering. Today there are more than 27 companies producing enameled ceramics.

From the town’s center square take the street next to the hotel and walk five blocks to an area called ‘Zona Rossa’ where the ceramic shops are located. One can tour the ceramic workshops, watch the ladies hand paint the ceramics, take pictures and buy directly at the shops.  Haggling over prices is always o.k. and the ceramics are very inexpensive.

For more information see the article: Travel Around Medellin

Aguadeno hats

Aguadas is a town often covered in morning fog an grows a delicious high-altitude coffee. Nestled in the mountains, just 78 miles north of Manizales, Aguadas, like Jardin, Salamina and Jerico are all one of Colombia’s 14 ‘pueblos patrimonio’ – the country’s most beautiful colonial villages.

Besides coffee, the town is famous for the production of Aguadeno hats. Made with iraca straw fiber, these hats are said to be the best hand-woven straw hats in Colombia. Some say they are better than the Panama hats made in Ecuador. The women in the countryside weave the straw hats using iraca straw fibers peeled from a cactus type plant. They make the rough, unfinished hats and sell them to the artisans in town who fashion the finished product.

For more information see the articles:

Exploring Colombia’s Alternative Coffee Region

Why is the Panama Hat Made In Ecuador?

Jerico – leather goods

Jerico a colorful, colonial town. It’s a place where visitors can experience authentic, traditional culture. Men ride through the streets on magnificent prancing horses, tie them up outside of the stores and sit in the saddles outside of bars sipping cold bottles of beer. Coffee is grown here but beef seems to be king. The village is also a rich center for leather arts and crafts like the typical anitoqueno purses called carriels. There are also lots of wallets, belts and hand-made saddles.

For more information see the article: Exploring Colombia’s Alternative Coffee Region

Hand Bags, Hats and Hammocks on the Caribbean Coast

The sombrero Vueltiao

The sombrero Vueltiao is more than just a hat, it is the traditional straw hat of Colombia and one of the country’s major symbols. It is made with cana flecha, a reed that grows in the Caribbean region along the banks of the Magdelena River. The hat has been made by the Zenu people of the region for over 1,000 years.

The village of San Andres Sotoviento, 110 km. from Monteria, is a village of artisans specialized in the production of quality hats. Here more than 15,000 families work in the production these popular straw hats.

The quality of the hat is determined by the number of fibers braided together to make the hat – the more fibers the higher the quality.

The canes are dried in the sun until they turn from green to white. They are then sorted by their color. The darker fibers are emersed in black mud to color them black. The fibers are then braided into hats using different designs. The more braided strips used in making the hat, the finer the weave, the more time it takes to produce them and the more they cost.

*The Quinciano – is made from 15 strips. It’s the cheapest and takes 3 days to make.

*Diecinueve – is made from 19 strips of cane flecha, a finer weave and takes a week to make.

*Vientiuno – is made from 21 srips of cane and takes 10-15 days to make

*Vientitres – is made from 23 strips, a very fine soft hat taking 12-20 days to make.

*Vientisiete – is the finest hat made and the most expensive costing $200 and up. It uses 27 strips and can take a month to make. It is so fine and soft they say it can be folded up and put in your back pocket.

Mochila bags made by the Wayyu in Guajira

The mochila bags from the Guajira penninsula of northern Colombia are some of the most beautiful and colorful handwoven bags in the country.

One of the strangest and most spectacular spots I’ve ever seen in South American is located at the northern most point of South American in the Guajira peninsula which is a reserve for the Wayuu – a Colombian indigenous tribe, which politically rules the entire peninsula. It’s one of most visually stunning places on earth where bare, desert landscape meets the blue turquoise of the Atlantic.

The crocheted bags are the souvenir of the region. They are all handmade by the Wayuu people. Made of acrylic threads, the artisans use a wide variety of crocheting techniques and and feature unique patterns inspired by Wayuu stories and legends. The best place to buy them in in the city of Riohacha which has a market in town and is the point of departure for travel to the Guijara Peninsula.

For more information see the article: Journey to the Guajira Peninsula in Northern Colombia

Hammocks of San Jacinto

Hammocks are made all over Colombia. But the most famous are those woven in the village of San Jacinto, in the Bolivar Department in Northern Colombia. It is a craft center where the people, mostly women, specialize in weaving colorful hammocks on large, vertical looms with cotton thread and natural dyes. The artisans use different weaving techniques and create various designs using traditional symbols, embroidery and stripes. San Jacinto is less than 100 km. from Cartagena a trip of 2 hours.

Hammocks of San Jacinto

Curiti – is a little gem of a pueblo just 30 minutes bus ride outside of San Gil in the department of Santander. The town is mainly known for its arts and crafts using the local ‘fique‘ fiber. There’s a cooperative factory called Ecofibras, right in town that offers free tours of the fique weaving process. This craft dates back a thousand years to the Guane tribes who extracted the fibers from agave  cactuses and weaved them into clothing.  The locals have taken this ancient art and marketed it as an ecological alternative to plastic.

After stripping the cactus of its fibers, the threads are manually combed to extract the impurities then died with 70 different naturally extracted colors.  Then the fibers are weaved into a course cloth used to make fabrics, bags, rugs, shoes, wall hangings and numerous other products.  The weave can be of pure fique fibers, which tend to be  somewhat course, or mixed with cotton producing a softer material.

The town markets their material as an eco-fiber. For household use they make shopping/tote bags. And for commercial use  gunny sacks for Colombia’s coffee shipments and large fique fiber rugs for export – a hot item in Switzerland. The town hosts numerous arts and crafts shops featuring the finest wares.

For more information see the article: Colonial Towns of Santander

These are many more traditional artisanal products being produced in Colombia.

toy chiva buses – Pitalito

Toy Chiva Buses -if you’re in San Agustin, the archeological village in southern Colombia, stop by the nearby village of Pitalito where they make the painted toy chiva buses.

Colombian emeralds

Emeralds – many tourists want to buy a few emeralds when they come to Colombia. The emerald market in Bogota is the best place to buy them.  Formed over the course of 40 million years these stones  account for 70%-90% of the world’s emerald market and are known for being of the highest quality. The better the quality, the higher the price  These gemstones have a warm and intense, pure green color

Chamba pots and plates

Chamba pots are the most traditional  cookware in Colombia going back over 700 years.  They are made in different places in Colombia, but La Chamba in central Colombia, just south of the city of Giradot is considered the pot capital. These black pots made of a black clay or ‘barra negro’   extracted from the Magdalena River.  One can buy these pots at Williams-Sonoma but the pots sell for a fraction of the price in La Chamba. 

Guacamaya baskets from Guacamaya

Guacamaya baskets are coloful handwoven spiral  basket made by artisans of the community of Guacamayas in the mountains of Boyaca north of El Cocuy. These artisans are descendents of the Laches people in Boyaca. The baskets are also made by the U’wa people scattered along the Colombian/Venezuela border. The baskets are made with the fique fiber from the agave plant which is dyed  and and weaved into baskets, bowls, place mats and more.

Filigree jewelry in Mompox

Filigree jewely  is made of silver in the beautiful town of Mompox on the Magdalena River. The artisans of Mompox have been working in fine precious metalsmithing for centuries. Filigree is a technique where fine gold or  silver strands are stretched, twisted and flattened to produce precious jewelry. And Mompox is one of Colombia’s 14 ‘pueblos patrimonio’ – the country’s most beautiful colonial villages.

For more on Mompox see the article: Travel Mompox

Food and Drink Items

Then there are the food items which are perfect to bring back as souviniers to share with friends and family.

Colombian Rum is a product of fermented and distilled sugar cane juice – an essential ingredient in Mojitos and Cuba Libres. There are an umber of rums in Colombia’s liquor stores and supermarket shelves and different styles like anejos, viejos and reservas. Colombia has a Spanish style rum. They are aged 3 years and 5 years – anejo, 8 and 10 years – extra Anejo, , 12 and 20 years Gran Reservas

Aguardiente is a strong, alcoholic drink. It is the national drink and found everywhere in Colombia. Made with alcohol, water, sugar and anise, Aguardiente, which means burning water, is an inexpensive white spirit, with a distinct taste of anise or licorice. The Italians make a similar spirit called ‘Sambuca’. The Greek version is called ‘Ouzo’.

Coffee – Colombia is famous for growing some the best coffee beans in the world. The plants grow in moist soil under the shade of the banana trees in the tropical heat – a near perfect climate. There are about 600,000 coffee growers in the country. Arabica and Robusta are the two main types of coffee. The Arabica is lighter and sweeter and the Robusta is bolder and denser. Colombian coffee can be purchased unroasted – green beans, roasted whole beans or coffee already toasted and ground.

Bocadillo with fresh cheese

Bocadillos – or guava paste or guava jelly is a Colombian sweet made with guava pulp and panela – pure cane sugar. It can be bought in a jelly form or in blocks of various sizes. It is abundantly consumed throughout Colombia – one of the largest guava producers in the world. It is traditionally accompanied with cheese, bread and hot chocolate.

Author: Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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