What to know before buying Colombia’s iconic mochila

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A Wayúu mochilas along the broadwalk in Riohacha. Photo: Lex Treinen.

In almost every corner of Colombia, from urban centers to remote villages, you’ll find some version of the Colombian mochila, the hand-stitched shoulder bag that is as practical as it is stylish.

They come in a dazzling array of forms and colors, from earthy ochres and browns to bright artificially dyed yarns with eye-catching designs.

If you’ve had the urge to take home one of these quintessential Colombian handicrafts, either at a boutique shop in Bogotá, or from an artisan on the Caribbean coast, it’s worth knowing a few things about where they come from and what they mean.

Here are some tips based on advice from anthropologists who have studied mochila-making and women who have dedicated most of their lives counting stitches as they create one-of-a-kind accessories.

Know the style

There are three Indigenous groups whose mochilas have become the most ubiquitous in the past few decades: the Kogui, Arhuaco and Wayúu. All three groups inhabit the area around the Caribbean Coast and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the northern part of Colombia, but each has preserved distinct styles and meanings.

Wayúu mochilas are characteristic for their bright colors and sharp designs that often draw from images found around La Guajira peninsula. “Our mochilas are based on what we see in our culture – the plants, the animals, the traditional medicines,” said Mariela Sijona, a Wayúu artist in Uribia, La Guajira.

Arhuaco mochilas are more subtle in their coloring, though just as impressive in their craft. Usually they’re made from sheep’s wool, with the distinct colors originating from different types of sheep. According to Cesar Carmenado Martín, a Spanish anthropologist working on a book about Arhuaco mochilas, they can have as many as 150,000 stitches. A well-crafted one is said to be tight enough to hold water, and they can last for decades.

Kogui mochilas are delicately stitched from the fibers known as fique, taken from a maguey plant. They are similarly colored but dyed with natural materials, and usually with simpler, horizontal-striped designs. They tend to be more affordable as they are the lightest of the three types – and the hardest to find based on Kogui peoples’ relative isolation in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. A small indigenous tribe that inhabits the southeastern foothills of the Sierra, in the department of César, are the Kankuamo, and their tightly-woven mochilas from dried cactus fibres are coveted by collectors.

Know the meanings

An Arhuaco woman demonstrates the traditional method for spinning wool at a market in Santa Marta. Photo: Lex Treinen

Mochilas are more than utilitarian bags to carry objects, they also are imbued with symbolic meaning, anthropologists say, which something that is worth appreciating if you want one for yourself, or if you want to give one to a friend.

While these days, many Wayúu mochilas might have symbols like sombreros or wind turbines, there are also traditional patterns, said Fanny Montes, an anthropologist from Bogotá who spent a year living among the Wayúu in the Alta Guajira.

She said that a few decades ago, the Colombian government sent researchers to study the style of Wayúu mochilas to standardize them for shops around the country. But the Wayúu peoples continue to innovate, meaning you can find unique designs handed-down from family-to-family. “Making a mochila is very hard, but when a woman creates a new design, that becomes capital because you can keep reproducing it,” she said. “Usually it’s only shared within the family.”

For the Arhuaco, mochilas have a symbolic meaning tied to the origin of the universe. The bags represent the uterus of the earth based on their shape. “Through the mochila, you can see all the cosmogony of the Sierra,” said Martin. The spiral design represents the way time spirals outwards from its creation, he said. Arhuaco mochilas are also intimately tied with romance, according to Martin. Mochilas are a way for a woman to express interest in a man.

“A woman might say, ‘I want to make you a mochila’ to show that she’s interested in him,” said Martin, “It’s a way to be indirect.”

Arhuaco mochilas also have more specific meanings that are woven into the bags with sheeps wool of different colors. The designs can represent abstract concepts like the creation of the universe, or things like the trails that lead up to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Kogui mochilas likewise symbolically represent the origin of the universe through the spiraling thread of the bag, and also are tied to birth rituals. In Kogui culture, men made mochilas for their babies and used them to carry newborns to the river for washing.

Buy from the source, if possible

Buying directly from artisans is the best way to ensure that they are getting a fair price for their goods, say anthropologists and mochila makers.

Usually, buyers from larger businesses in the cities, or even in different countries, pay a lower price for mochilas than what artisans get selling directly, said Martin. He said poor artisans sometimes have no choice but to sell for too little.

“Necessity can lead to a vicious cycle of selling mochilas for less than they’re worth,” he said.

Of course, you can buy mochilas from other shops in Bogotá, but it’s hard to know whether craftspeople are getting fair prices. “Sometimes buyers get confused because one mochila is more expensive than one that looks similar right next to it,” said Jenny Mercede Ipuana, a Wayúu mochila maker in Riohacha. “The differences are in the quality of the thread.

An artisan displays one of the designs on his mochilas en Riohacha: a sombrero. Photo: Lex Treinen

Ipuana said that another significant difference is the number of threads used. While two threads of yarn wound together is a faster way to stitch a mochila. They are also cheaper, less durable, heavier, and less profitable for makers, says Montes. She always recommends a single thread mochila. “The one thread also makes them more money, and generally they’re done exclusively by Wayúu women,” she said. “I’ve never met a westerner capable of making one with a single thread.”  The single-thread also ensures that a genuine mochilas cannot be machine manufactured and sold in the country as a knock-off; a Made in China counterfeit that threatens the preservation of ancestral knowledge.

Mariela Sijona, a mochila maker in Uribia, La Guajira. Photo: Lex Treinen