San Jacinto is a little town in the Bolivar province in the north of Colombia, just a few hours inland from Cartagena. The town is known for its textiles and more famously for its colorful, hand-woven hammocks, fabricated on vertical looms woven with cotton and natural fibers.
The hammocks of San Jacinto and are considered the best quality hammocks produced in Colombia and most desired along with the hammocks woven in La Guajira peninsula on the northern tip of Colombia The hammocks from both areas are made on vertical looms and are in high demand. Weaving is part of the Wayuu culture, a native American ethnic group, living on the Guajira peninsula, They say the intricate weaving techniques they use came from studying webs of the Waleker spider.
The hammocks of San Jacinto, also considered the best hammocks made in Colombia are still made by hand with seamless construction. They are distinct from other hammocks due to large, lace fringes cascading down the side borders, known as ‘elegancia’ or an elegant touch. While some may find the fringes to be superfluous, they are the trademark of hammocks made here.
In San Jacinto the art of weaving was inherited from the Zenu people and passed down from generation to generation. An ancient tribe, the Zenu dates back to 1,000 BC. Once they were one of the most powerful and organized tribes in the ancient Americas. They were known for their gold ornaments and high quality textiles. Hammocks were not only a home furnishing but also prized possessions. Zenu grooms used to send their brides-to-be a new hammock as a symbol of marriage. And the dead would be laid out in a hammock for last viewings before the burial.
Weakened and exploited by the Spanish conquistadores, the descendants of the Zenu fought to keep their textile skills and culture alive. Today the Zenu language is taught in the local schools and the vertical loom is a staple in every home.
A small town of 30,000 people, most of the young people moved away from San Jacinto in the last few decades looking for opportunities in the cities. The ones who stayed work in the arts and crafts. The town of San Jacinto is a household name in Colombia synonymous with extremely high quality, hand-weaved hammocks. It was recently nominated by one of the 25 most beautiful villages to visit by the Colombian Minister of Commerce and Tourism.
The town is full of arts and craft shops. Most of them are located on highly trafficked highway to the coast on the edge of town where 30-40 arts and craft shops are strung along both sides of the road – lined up back to back.
The women start knitting and weaving when they are 12 years old learning different techniques from their mothers and grandmothers. The men, who were once farmers, hunters and fishermen, came to help the women work with textiles during the violence of the 1900s. They dyed the cotton, mostly with vegetable dyes, and sold the hammocks in towns along the coast and door to door to villages in the Colombian interior. Soon the men were weaving alongside the women. The artisans also weave with palm fibers called cana flecha to produce purses, ponchos and cloth shoes.
In the 20th century, industrial weaving arrived to the textile industry in Colombia. Hammocks made with an industrial weave were soon readily available all over Colombia. They are the most popular hammocks in Colombia due, in grand part, to their affordable price: 30,000 – 50,00 COP ($8-$14).
But the hand-woven hammocks from San Jacinto are still woven by hand – the old fashioned way. They are thicker, stronger, last longer and are more attractive than industrially woven hammocks. Side by side the difference is very clear. But due to the manpower involved, the swings of San Jacinto are also much more expensive than the industrial weaved ones. One hammock can take weeks to make, and can fetch between 130,000 – 170,000 COP ($35-$45) and more depending on the work involved.
Pre-hispanic designs are weaved into the hammocks – canoes, corn, flutes and river symbols. More abstract designs like Christmas trees, vueltiao hats, parrots and other tropical birds came about in the 1970 and 80s when the Peace Corps, working in town, taught the people how to weave what they thought were contemporary designs.
Listed on commercial websites and shipping all over the world, the hammocks of San Jacinto and the Wayuu are both marketed as a luxury, artesian products, some call them glammocks, and they sell between $200-$400. With a hammocks craze in full swing in Europe and the USA, colorful, Colombian hammocks are the upsell, the next step up. They make great souvenirs. Bring one home. Everyone who sees it wants one.
San Jacinto – Gateway to the Cumbia
The musicians and craftsmen of San Jacinto are also known for their production of musical instruments and their contribution to the musical tradition of the Cumbia. It’s a blend of native American and west African traditions, rhythms and dances.
The music has Caribbean rhythms composed of drums, pipes and the accordion. The music is hot and danceable. In San Jacinto, families make drums, marakas, tambourines, flutes and other instruments the traditional way, using dried gourdes, hollowed out trees and skins from deer and lambs to make the drums. With locally grown bamboo they make flutes. It’s an artisanal craft passed down from generation to generation. They can outfit a cumbia music ensemble with all the basic instruments for just 450,000 COP ($120).
The famous cumbia group called Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto recently won in the Latin Grammys and every year, in May, they headline a cumbia festival in their home town.
If you enjoy arts and craft tourism, the town of San Jacinto is one night stop not to be missed. It’s a nice stop in the interior, San Jacinto is only a 5 hour bus trip from Mompox on your way to the coast and 2-3 hours to Barranquilla and Cartagena.
There are lots of small, comfortable hotels in town, several restaurants around the main square and an interesting museum dedicated to the towns history and tradition of weaving. The museum in the plaza is attached to the town hall. Sometimes difficult to find open and it’s best to arrange with the hotel or city hall when you arrive for a visit. With a little notice, they can arrange for someone to open the museum up for you.