The sombrero Vueltiao of Tuchin
The sombrero Vueltiao is more than just a hat, it is the traditional straw hat of Colombia and one of the country’s major fashion symbols. It is so popular that in 2004 the government declared this sombrero a national symbol. It is an emblematic piece of fashion. It’s sold all over Colombia, in shops and markets, and by vendors on the beaches and streets.
The village of Tuchin in Cordoba is known as the capital of the Vueltiao hat. It is a village of where artisans turn out more than 1,000 vueltiao hats a day. There are only 40,000 people in town and 90% of them work in this specialized production.
Weaving craft part of Zenu culture
The art of weaving was inherited from the Zenu people and passed down from generation to generation. The hat has been made by the Zenu people of the region for over 1,000 years. An ancient tribe, the Zenus date back to 1,000 BC. and lived along the Sinu river in the Magdalena river region. 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. Weakened and exploited by the Spanish conquistadores, the descendants of the Zenu fought to keep their textile skills and culture alive.
Today Tuchin is a small village in northern Colombia about a one hour trip outside of Lorica. It’s a hot, dusty town and not much to look at. The car leaves you in the center of town. Walk through the outdoor market and you will come to a long street heading uphill where you will find one art and craft shop after another selling textiles. Here one can talk to the artisans, watch them work. Buy one hat or buy 100. They give great discounts for volume purchases and even provide free shipping within the country.
Since pre-hispanic times, the indigenous tribes used the hat for sun protection. It was also a symbol of the tribe hierarchy. Today the vueltiao hats are a must have fashion accessory for every Colombian both men and women.
Counterfeit hats from China are on the market and are cheaper. But this commerce behind the vueltiao is so important to the people of Tuchin that back in 2013 the Colombian government levied steep fines on the sale of vueltiao straw hat knock offs to discourage vendors from selling counterfeit versions.
The town of Tuchin also produces colorful straw purses, wallets, placemats and other decorative pieces. Everything is made with cana flecha (arrow grass), a native grass which grows in the Caribbean region mostly along the banks of the Sinu River – the seat of the Zenu people. This braiding technique dates back centuries.
Cana flecha is actually three different grasses that they use for weaving the hats: creole, martini and coastal. 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.
Making a sombrero vueltiao is a lengthy process. First 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 immersed 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 olma, or top of the hat is woven first, later the crown of the hat and then the wings are made.
*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 strips 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.
The popularity of the sombrero vueltiao continues to grow as a work of art appreciated by foreigners and Colombians alike. The higher quality hats, always in demand, are becoming even more popular.
Personally I prefer the white Colombian Aguadenio straw hats made in Aguadas, Antioquia, or the Panamian hats made in Montecristi, Ecuador. Especially the mid-priced or higher priced qualities. But the vueltiaos are not only made extremely well, they have a very distinct, tropical identity. The prices range from 80,000-150,000 cop ($20-$40) and much more depending on the materials and work involved.
To visit Tuchin, it is best to stay at Santa Cruz de Lorica. It’s a 4 hour bus trip from Cartagena through Tolu. Lorica is a beautiful colonial town that sits on the Sinu River. It is one of Colombia’s 17 Heritage Villages. In Lorica go to the bus station and ask for the cars going to Tuchin. Colloctivos, cars and jeeps (offering a fixed fare but won’t leave until the car is full) are usually located on the side of the building. It’s an hour drive to the down a rough, dusty dirt road to the center of Tuchin.