Galeano’s Sea of Little Fires

I’ve always loved this tale, ever since I first heard it on a Brazilian series called Sangue Latino.


“Un hombre del pueblo de Neguá, en la costa de Colombia, pudo subir al alto cielo.
A la vuelta, contó. Dijo que había contemplado, desde allá arriba, la vida humana. Y dijo que somos un mar de fueguitos.

 – El mundo es eso — reveló —. Un montón de gente, un mar de fueguitos.
Cada persona brilla con luz propia entre todas las demás. No hay dos fuegos iguales. Hay fuegos grandes y fuegos chicos y fuegos de todos los colores. Hay gente de fuego sereno, que ni se entera del viento, y gente de fuego loco, que llena el aire de chispas. Algunos fuegos, fuegos bobos, no alumbran ni queman; pero arden la vida con tantas ganas que no se puede mirarlos sin parpadear, y quien se acerca, se enciende.”


“A man of the town of Neguá, on the coast of Colombia, was able to climb to the high heaven. On his return, he told a story. He said he had contemplated, from above, human life. And said that we are a sea of little fires.

The world is that—he revealed—A cluster of people, a sea of little fires. Each person shines with their own light among all others. No two fires are alike. There are large fires and small fires and fires of all kinds and colors. There are people of serene fire, unaware of the existence of wind, and people of crazy fire, who fill the air with sparks. Some fires, foolish fires, do not shine or burn; but others burn life so heartily you cannot observe them without stopping to blink, and whoever gets close, flares up.”


A visual tour of the Lost City


Occassional guides for Wiwa Tours, the only indigenous owned tour company operating in the Lost City.


“In the early 1970s, a group of looters searching for Pre-Columbian artifacts in the jungles of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta stumbled upon a set of worn stone steps leading up a ridge from the shore of the Buritaca river. At the end of more than 1,200 stairs, they found the ruins of an ancient, silent, abandoned city.

Shortly afterwards, a slew of exquisite artifacts began to flood Colombia’s black market, leaving archaeologists of the era puzzled as to the origins of such intricate golden figurines, urns, beads and statues.

Investigators soon caught on to the trail left by grave robbers. The region, which had been dubbed “Green Hell” by the looters, seemed impossibly difficult. Between the impenetrable tropical forest, the steep, treacherous gradations slicked by constant downpours, and clouds of disease-bearing mosquitoes, progress was slow. But by 1975, excavations were underway, and the site was shortly thereafter revealed to the world as Ciudad Perdida, or the “Lost City”.

What the archaeologists had uncovered was incredible, one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the century—a massive city, once home to some 2,000-8,000 inhabitants.” – Read More

Law 70 and the Pacifico

Skimming a recent Economist article on how change comes slowly for the people of the Pacifico, I saw the following quote:

“…as 84% of land in the Pacific region is subject to collective-title rights granted to black and indigenous groups. The introduction of such rights in 1993.” [1]

Having read several Colombian history books, I didn’t recall reading about this before so I looked it up and found out more.


From “The territorial turn: Making black territories in Pacific Colombia” [2]

As “ethnic communities” distinct from the national culture, many rural blacks who are able to demonstrate a history of customary tenure arrangements often emulate indigenous strategies for land recognition (Thorne 2001). The Pacific region of Colombia provides a case in point. In order to address calls for democratic reforms in a country torn apart by 40 years of civil war, Colombia elected a constituent assembly and changed its constitution in 1991.

Although the constitution did not set out to address ethnic issues per se, it redefined the country as multiethnic and pluricultural. Backing up rhetoric with deeds, the new constitution’s Transitory Article 55 (AT-55) required Congress to pass a law granting “black communities” (comunidades negras) of the “Pacific watershed” collective property titles to the rural and riparian areas that they occupy “in conformity with their traditional systems of production.

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 2.56.01 PM Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 2.54.58 PM

As a result of AT55, Law 70 (PDF) was passed two years later. Law 70 guarantees black communities of the Pacific “territorial rights.” By 1995, procedural Decree 1745 required a multitude of governmental institutions and agencies to work together to demarcate and title black territories to representative community councils (consejos comunitarios). Required by law to receive a title, the councils were newly created ethno-territorial and political entities required to solicit and administer the new territories.

Between 1996 and May of 2003, the Colombian government demarcated and titled 122 black territories. These territories enclose over 4.5 million hectares, contain 1,250 black communities, and represent 270,000 people (Figure 1). Size and population vary dramatically; one territory contains as few as 30 people living in a single community, while the largest territory contains 30,000 people in 90 different communities and encompasses more than a half million hectares. Not yet complete, the project is already among the most ambitious and radical territorial reorderings ever attempted in Latin America (Table 1).

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 2.51.35 PM

Trail-Marriage Among the Páez

The largest indigenous group in Colombia is the Páez (or Nasa) people of southwestern Colombia (present-day region of Cauca). They not only resisted the Spanish conquerors of the sixteenth century but they resist certain practices of the Roman Catholic church to which many were converted, such as marriage as a life-long pursuit. Ok, so that is not entirely true because they do marry for life, but first they engage in a trial marriage, called an amaño, or adaptation period. This period takes the place of dating and lasts one year, during which the man will observe the woman and vice-versa, to see if they suit one another.

The way the amaño comes about happens when either the boy or his parents choose a possible wife at which point the girl’s parents, upon consent, will each be offered one half of a bottle of aguardiente, or sugar-cane rum. This is when the trail-marriage begins. They make it sound so simple, although I would think they’d offer up some locally-made and bottled Coca Sek, rather than rum.

While I do think the dating process has its pluses, I also think the idea of the adaptation period could be employed successfully in Western culture. Although there’s always the chance we may just follow the wild animals one day and do a mating dance for our would-be partner in order to ‘conquer’ them.

Colombia Viva & Colombia Indígena – Documentaries

I found two Colombian documentaries (in SP) yesterday, one by El Tiempo called Colombia Viva and features information on Colombia’s biodiversity, population, cities, and culture. The other is on indigenous resistance and is called Colombia Indígena (with English subtitles).

Colombia Viva

Colombia Indígena

Part 2 and Part 3

La Chamba Pottery – The oldest of the Americas


The ceramic work carried out in the township of La Chamba in the department of Tolima rescues traditional Indian pottery making and is one of the most famous in Colombia for its quality, technique, design, style, and excellent finishing.

The Manufacturing Process

The everyday life of the residents of La Chamba revolves around ceramics. Children gather the clay and let it dry in sacks. Once dry, they beat it with sticks until it pulverizes. The men are in charge of lighting a fire and the women prepare the clay mass and shape it in molds.

After 30 days of drying, the pieces are fired in a dome oven, the use of which was introduced by the Spanish during the conquest. The work of polishing and finishing then begins, with techniques used by Indian communities for several centuries.

This enormous ceramic wealth includes: bowls, vessels, plates, cups, serving dishes, flower vases and various representations of peasant life (piglets, donkeys, hens) and dish sets that imitate pre-Columbian shapes. The two traditional colors are red and black.

Three types of La Chamba ceramics

The community of La Chamba produces three kinds of ceramics:

  • rustic, which lacks the red clay covering, is more economical and supplies the local market;
  • bright red or Indian red, which has not been smoked and owes its color to the iron oxide in the clay;
  • black, which is the result of a smoking process during which the pieces comes in contact with the hydrochloric acid present in donkey manure.

Types of Clay

Potmakers gather three types of clay from various sites around the township:

  • thick or greasy;
  • sandy or non-greasy;
  • fine and red.


If you are interested in buying some, go here or here (where you can see a video on it)

Tejo & Sapo – Juegos Colombianos

I’d like to talk about two Colombian games, the first of which is unique to Colombia and finds its roots in an ancient culture while the second is popular in Colombia and perhaps sprung from the former.

Tejo – “Horseshoes” with a bang

Tejo is a traditional sport in Colombia. If it were Americanized, it would simply be called explosive horseshoes. It is played by throwing a metal plate or disc weighing about 4 pounds at a target so as to make it strike the “mechas” (gunpowder) in the middle of the target. Whoever makes the most “mechas” explode wins.

The target is a clay-filled box with gunpowder in its center, such that an explosion is produced when the disc strikes the center. In June 2000, tejo, the modern version of the indigenous “Turmequé“, was declared a national sport of Colombia by the Congress of the Republic. The ancient sport was played over 500 years ago by the indigenous groups that lived in the regions of Cundinamarca and Boyacá.

The ancient sport called “Turmeque” involved the throwing of a golden disc, which evolved into a stone disk and eventually into the metal disc with which the game is played today. In Colombia, it is very common to find professional tejo chaccarron teams around the major cities and smaller towns. Most of these teams are sponsored by beer companies, which causes the teams to profit greatly because of the strong bond between the team and company. In the past, the playing of tejo was fuelled by “Chicha” (an indigenous maize-based alcoholic beverage), but nowadays the players refresh themselves with beer.


In this game, the metal toad sits on top of a box that has holes cut into it. Each hole has a point value assigned to it. Players throw metal disks at the sapo and try to get them into his mouth to earn the most points or into one of the holes for a lesser number of points. The player with the most points wins. It was a popular game in Colombia in the 1960s and ’70s and can still be found being played today throughout Colombia and in neighboring countries.

More on the Legend of El Dorado

One of my first posts here was on the Muisca indians and the origin of the legend of El Dorado. The purpose was to explain that El Dorado was not a place, but a person. What follows is a video (in SP) on the legend as well as an excerpt from the book History of Colombia, written in 1938, which I am reading.

“Belalcázar could not bear the thought of being a subaltern, and, his chief Pizarro having failed to make him the governor of Quito, he conceived the idea of pushing northward beyond the frontiers of Peru to discover new lands which he could govern with royal license. In Latacunga, Ecuador, Luis de Daza met an Indian who was not a native of that region and who spoke of his country as a land filled with gold and emeralds. He also referred to a peculiar ceremony in which the chief of one of the villages would cover his body with gold dust and then bathe himself in a small lake into which the jewels offered to the gods were thrown. When Belalcázar heard this tale, he exclaimed: “Let’s go and see that Gilded Man;” hence the name El Dorado given to the region in search of which so many hardships were suffered by the Spaniards. The chroniclers say this Indian called his country Cundinamarca…”

Here’s a link to the English-language version of the Museo del Oro in Bogotá. The actual lake referenced in the tale is called the Laguna de Guatavita (pictured below) and it lies 35 miles north-east of Bogotá in the department of Cundinamarca.

Kogi Indians – The keepers of the world

The Kogi are a Native American ethnic group that lives in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. They are one of the few surviving indigenous peoples of Pre-Columbian South America. The Kogui language belongs to the Chibcha family.

The Kogui are descendants of the Tairona culture, which flourished at the time of the Spanish conquest, and have been living in isolation for generations.

Their mythology teaches that they are “Elder Brothers” of humanity, living in the “Center of the World” (the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta). Those not living in the Center of the World (generally people from the west) are called “Younger Brothers.” Their mythology suggests that these Younger Brothers were sent away from the center of the world long ago. In response to infringements on their homeland by westerners, a legend arose claiming the Younger Brothers had now found their way back, and were reaping their destruction on the land.

Part 1

Part 2

If you are interested in learning more about the organization and helping the Indians of the Sierra Nevada, contact

Gonawindúa Tayrona
c/o Margarita Villafañe at:
Carrera 19A No. 23-05
Santa Marta, Colombia

The Indians have also created a website, and can be reached by e-mail: