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.”


Zócalo – Why Houses Are Two Colors

If you’ve traveled throughout Colombia, you’ve surely come across the typical streets lined with houses which have a tendency to be painted two colors. This has a name (the lower section, at least) and it is called a zócalo and is probably an old custom imported from Spain as one can see the same style in the old houses there.

As to why it is done, the point behind it is to protect the houses from erosion in the case of the passage of rainwater through the streets. Up to 80 centimeters from the ground, the a coat of cement is used in order to do the job. Perhaps the paint, then, signifies the point to which the house is protected from being eroded.

In Guatapé, near the city of Medellín, the residents have made the zócalos into an art form by embedding designs in them. One could say that these designs tell a story of sorts, about the town and those who live in it. The zócalero profession has even emerged to meet the demand for such a service and they even compete amongst themselves to see who can design the best zócalo. No longer using only cement, there are those who make frescos (paintings set in plaster) to create more elaborate works.

Bambuco – An Andean Waltz

Since I really enjoy music from other cultures, I thought I’d introduce a traditional Colombian style called Bambuco, which hails from the Andes, but carries influences from Europe and Africa. The style is renowned throughout Colombia for being an authentic part of the national folklore, which includes its own festival. The “Festival Folclórico, Reinado Nacional Del Bambuco y Muestra Internacional de Folclor” (or, “Folkloric Festival, National Crowning of Bambuco and International Exhibition of Folklore”): Celebrated in Neiva, between the last two weeks of June and the first days of July.

It has a beat structure similar to the European waltz or polska (not polka). Typically a bambuco piece is a folk music song accompanied by a stylized group dance. Here’s some lyrics from the second song below, called “Soy Colombiano”.

“Lo demás será bonito,
pero el corazón no salta,
como cuando a mi me cantan
una canción colombiana.”
“The rest will be pretty
but the heart does not jump
like when they sing to me
a Colombian song.”

You can read more about it here.

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.

The Silletero of Old & New

The annual Medellín Feria de las Flores (Flower Fair) is almost upon us and so I thought I’d share the story behind an integral part of the fair, the silletero.

The Old Silletero

The silleteros, or seat carriers (a.k.a. cargueros, or carriers) were, around the turn of the 19th century, the only way to be transported or to have something transported over the Colombian mountains. Once the road conditions improved, though, mules began to be used and thus put an end to the need for silleteros.

A famous foreign scientist traveled throughout the region at the time and recounted his experience.

“Since there are those who regularly walk on foot at this altitude and on such difficult paths for 19 or 20 days at a time, they started to carry seats on their backs and charge for the comfort to sit on them, because the mountains of Quindío don’t allow for the use of mules. They say in this country “andar en carguero” like one would say “ir a caballo” and those that dedicate themselves to this are not indians, but rather mestizos and sometimes whites…the passage from Quindío isn’t the only way one can travel like this here; in the province of Antioquia, surrounded by terrible mountains, there isn’t any other way except to go on foot, when permited, otherwise the silletero is needed.”

The Modern Silletero 

“Silleteros is the term used for the farmers who make beautiful flower arrangements on a silleta (a chair-like contraption for carrying flowers on a person’s back). The silletas are made from wood and have a back plate and two handles for hanging the silleta on a person’s back.

The most emblematic figure of this tradition is the legendary María La Larga, a silletera who carried children on her back. María and her novel way of transportation convinced many of the region’s farmers that silletas were the easiest, fastest way for carrying flowers from the farm to the city.

The use of the word silleta became generalized and since the beginning of the twentieth century, the term silletero began to be applied to the people who sold flowers on Medellín’s cobble-stoned streets. – Colombia Travel

More Info

Flower Fair – Official Site

Carnival of Blacks & Whites – In Pasto

“Considered the single most significant event in the country for cultural expression of different races, the Blacks and Whites Carnival is an unforgettable experience.”

El Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (The Carnival of Blacks and Whites) of Pasto, Colombia, was declared National Cultural Heritage by the congress of the Republic of Colombia in April 2002. The carnival is celebrated every year from January 4 to January 6 and it attracts a considerable number of tourists from around the world. The carnival consists of four well defined phases which include the pre-carnival, the arrival of the Castaneda Family, the day of the blacks and the day of the whites. It is the most ancient carnival in South America, its origins date back to the times of Spanish rule.

The Blacks and Whites Carnival is one of the most ancient carnivals in the Americas. It commemorates the day in which the African slaves had a free day when they unleashed all their happiness.

Some historians refer that in 1607, there was a slave rebellion in the town of Remedios, Antioquia, that made the authorities panic. The event was remembered by the black population of Popayán, Cauca, who demanded a day off, in which they were really free. The king of Spain conceded January 5. It is said that when the news reached home the African population flock to the streets and danced at the rhythm of African music and started to blacken with coal all the white walls of the city.

The enthusiastic celebration was brought to Pasto by the Ayerbe family around 1854. By 1887, the celebration had reached to certain social spheres and acquired a high level of refinement, and people started using costumes and masks. The Castaneda family recreated by the January 4 krewes could be a characterization of the Ayerbe Family.

Day of the Blacks

On January 5 is the Day of the Blacks, followed by the Day of the Whites on January 6. During the day of the blacks, which is believed commemorates the day in which the African slaves had a free day in which they unleashed all their happiness, people play on the streets to paint each other in black with colors and cosmetics created for this special purpose.

Day of the Whites

On January 6 is the Day of the Whites. During this day, the people of Pasto paint each other in white using white colors and cosmetics as well as throwing each other white powder and talcum powder. On the day of the whites, the final parade takes place with the presentation of floats, krewes, musical and dances groups, and people in costumes, all of them competing for the prizes. The carnival floats are works of high quality and originality elaborated by local artisans who spend the entire year preparing their carriages for this occasion.

The official site.

Chivas & The Yipao – Traditional transport


(tourist chiva)

Chiva Buses (also known as escaleras) are old artisan modified buses used in rural Colombia for public transport and more recently used as party buses. These are varied but characterized for being painted colorfully (usually with the colors of the flag of Colombia) with local arabesques and figures. Most of the Chivas have an incorporated ladder for the rack on the roof which is also used for carrying people, livestock and merchandise.

La Chiva is built over a bus chassis with a modified body made out either metal or wood. Seats are bench alike, made out of wood and with doors instead of windows. The owner or driver usually give their Chiva a unique nickname.

(rural chiva)

The Yipao

The Yipao or Jeep parade is a folkloric celebration in the Colombian department of Quindío, specially during the anniversary parties of the departmental capital Armenia. The event has several categories separated according to the products carried in the vehicles:

  • Agricultural products
  • Coffee
  • Furniture
  • People
  • Institutional advertisement

The vehicles are driven by the main streets of the city and the Jeeps with the largest amount of objects carried and the most harmonious arrangements earn prizes.

The first Jeeps arrived to Colombia in 1946 for military purposes. They were imported by the Colombian Ministry of Defense and soon became very popular among Colombian coffee farmers who saw in this vehicle the needed qualities for the difficult roads in the mountainous region of the country. Besides the transportation of coffee, Jeeps are used for transport many other agricultural products, as well as country workers to places previously accessible only to pack animals. Due to this quality, the Jeeps are also known locally in Spanish: “mulitas mecánicas” (or mechanical mules).

Many families in the Paisa region and Colombian Coffee-Growers Axis own Jeep vehicles, which have become a beloved symbol of the coffee culture. Often the Jeeps have many ornaments, icons, and flashy accessories, in a kitsch style.

Sanjuanero & Guabina folk dances

The department of Huila has two regionally famous folk dances, one called the Sanjuanero and the other, the Guabina. The former can also be seen in the department of Tulima (which borders Huila) and the latter, in most Andean departments. To give an idea of where I am talking about, here’s Huila on a map (the little dot in the middle is its capital, Nieva).

Picture 1


The Sanjuanero is a type of Bambuco dance, which according to the site Magdalena Rafting is the basic tune and the most important and representative musical and choreographic expression of the Andean region, for its wide dispersion, covering 13 territories. Its origin is hybrid, as it conjugates Indian tradition melodies with various rhythms. It is vocally interpreted by two voices. There are six varieties of bambuco: Sanjuanero (also known as bambuco fiestero del San Juan), Rajaleña (bambuco sung in roguish couplets), Fandanguillo y Capitusez (bambucos in duel of couplets), Vueltas Antioqueñas, and Guaneña.

The bambuco is as a sentimental expression, “a country idyl”, that marks shy stammering of love in the steps of a candid dance. The man pursues delicately; the woman consists shyly.

The Sanjuanero was born from the indigenous tribe Los Bombuca from which the term Bambuco originates. The name San Juan comes from the 24th of June which is San Juan day (right after St. John’s Eve), although the 29th of June (San Pedro) is a big larger and contains more celebrations. For some pictures of dancers in typical dress and some information and history (in SP), go here.


(although this example is from the department of Boyaca)

The Guabina, according to Magdalena Rafting, is a sung tune, rather than danced; it is exclusively vocal (singing with no music), and in the interludes, the torbellino is danced. The danced guabina has a single sample called the guabina chiquinquireña; the instruments used to accompany the guabinas keeps its traditional richness, and is supported in the part of the melody by the fife and small guitar (tiple), some times aided by the coarse cane flute, and always by the chucho, carraca, quiribillo and cane rasp, as by the tambourine and the puerca or zambumbia, in the rhythmic part.

As a Spanish word, guabina can refer to the song/dance, to a simple person, a type of fish or a tool used to control domestic animals.

X-mas in Colombia


(thanks to Lcacique from PBH)

Christmas in Colombia is primarily a religious holiday. Presents are brought by El Niño Dios (Baby Jesus) instead of Papá Noél (Santa Claus), whose gift giving role has been downplayed some by the Church. However, Santa Claus is still an important Christmas figure, as Santa decorations are common, and Santa can be seen posing for pictures at shopping malls.

While Christmas decorations may be put up as early as the beginning of November, the unofficial start of Colombian Christmas festivities takes place on December 7, Día de las Velitas, or “Day of the Candles.” At night, the streets, sidewalks, balconies, porches, and driveways are decorated with candles and paper lanterns, which illuminate cities and towns in a yellow glow to honor the Immaculate Conception on the following day, December 8. Activities such as musical events and firework displays are planned by cities and held during this time.

In many cities, and even in small rural towns, neighborhoods get together and decorate their whole neighborhood or street, turning streets into virtual “tunnels of light.” Many radio stations and local organizations hold contests for the best display of lights, making the competition for the best light show a serious event.

Fireworks were a common item during the holiday season in Colombia, often going on at any time of the day everyday in many cities, but a recent ban of fireworks has decreased the use of fireworks, and now only cities or towns are able to hold firework displays.

December 16 is the first day of the Christmas Novena, a devotion consisting of prayer said on nine successive days, the last one held on Christmas Eve. The Novena is promoted by the Church as a staple of Christmas, and is very similar to the posadas celebrated in Mexico. It is a call for an understanding of the religious meaning of Christmas, and a way to counter the commercialism of the Christmas season. Individual traditions concerning the Novena may vary, but most families set up a pesebre (manger scene), sing religious Christmas carols called villancicos accompanied by tambourines, bells, and other simple percussion instruments, and read verses from the Bible as well as an interpretation which may change from year to year. From December 16 to 18, some people play games called aguinaldos. The games include Hablar y no contestarDar y no recibirSi y noTres piesBeso robado, and Pajita en boca.

Churches offer nightly masses during the nine days of the novena, culminating with the Misa de Gallo (Rooster’s Mass) on Christmas Eve at midnight.

Christmas Eve is the most important day of Christmas in Colombia. Families and friends get together to pray the last Novena and wait until midnight to open the presents, parties are held until sunrise on Christmas Day, kids stay up late playing with their new presents, and fireworks fill the skies. Because Christmas eve is the most important day, little goes on on December 25.