So You Want a Colombian Mochila? A How-To Guide

Welcome to Colombia, where the ever present music seems to emanate from the rhythms of people's hips, and the mangos practically fall off the trees into your hands. It's a beautiful and incredibly unique country whose borders span two seas that have given it a distinct mixture of sexiness and vibrancy that together make it one of the most culturally dynamic places in the world.

Walking around, you've probably already noticed one such colorful Colombian trend. What you probably didn't know is how its helped shape the identity and culture of its indigenous and local populations. Mochilas, as they're called, are hand woven (or really knitted) bags that you'll see everyone toting around. These unisex patterned bags are perhaps the best and most affordable way of not only buying a Colombian fashion accessory, but a way of learning about the indigenous culture that is built into each and every handmade piece.

The two main indigenous groups of Colombia, known as the Arhuaca and Wayuu, both descend from the northern region of Colombia, particularly from Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and La Guajira, respectively. 

The Arhuaca people come primarily from this region of Colombia, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

The Arhuaca people come primarily from this region of Colombia, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

The Wayuu people come primarily from this region called La Guajira, which reaches into Northwest Venezuela too. 

The Wayuu people come primarily from this region called La Guajira, which reaches into Northwest Venezuela too. 

These cultures are distinctly identifiable in the difference of the bags that they produce. Below I'll explain a bit more about the materials, design, and cultural importance. 

Material and Color

Traditionally, the Arhuaca people produced earth toned bags that were either brown and tan, or black and grey. They used locally sourced fibers, such as agave and cotton, but upon arrival of the Spaniards, wool and more industrial fibers were introduced.

Wayuu bags are distinct in that with the introduction of such industrial fibers, more vibrant and colorful bags became popular. 

Flats, neons, and earth-tones all represent regional and cultural influences. Can you guess which one is which?

Flats, neons, and earth-tones all represent regional and cultural influences. Can you guess which one is which?

Another thing you'll notice as you pass your hand over a few of these is that some are tougher and more rigid than others. While most are handmade, the more tightly woven the bag the better quality you can expect it to be. Softer and more flexible bags aren't bad either. They may simply be made of a softer material, so take a look at the stitching for gaps or spacing in each row. 

Choosing a pattern

Once you've found a local vendor selling these beauties, you'll likely become overwhelmed by the options available to you. Should you choose bright and flashy? Maybe one that's solid and classic? Well, there's more to it than what meets the eye. According to the people who produce these Mochilas, these patterns and colors represent a sort of family crest or way of describing one's soul. Below are some examples of how unique these patterns can be. 

This design, according to my vendor, represented his mother's side of the family, symbolizing level-headedness balanced by chaos. His father's symbol, the tiger, represented wit and appreciation of flavor but a desire for money. 

This design, according to my vendor, represented his mother's side of the family, symbolizing level-headedness balanced by chaos. His father's symbol, the tiger, represented wit and appreciation of flavor but a desire for money. 

The best way of deciding which kind of bag you'd like is to follow your instinct. These things have a way of picking their owners, so if you've connected with one, ask what the pattern represents. Chances are it'll describe you in some way, adding a deeper connection beyond material beauty. 

"Although the whole Arhuaco community is involved in production, according to custom, only Wati (Arhuaco women) can weave the bags together."

 

patterns and meaning

  • Gamako (the frog), the symbol of fertility
  • Zikamu (the centipede)
  • Aku (the rattlesnake), symbolizes time and space
  • Peynu (the comb)
  • Kutia (ribs)
  • Kaku serankua (the creator of the Sierra father) 
  • Makuru (the vulture)
  • Gwirkunu (the hills and lakes)
  • Urumu (the snail)
  • Sariwuwu (the months of pregnancy)
  • Kunsamunu a'mia (the thought of women)
  • Kunsamunu cheyrua (human thought)
  • Kanzachu (tree leaf)
  • Chinuzatu (the four corners of the world)
  • Kambiru (scorpion tail or scribble)
  • Phundwas (the snowy peaks of the Sierra) 
  • Garwa (the father of the roads)

Options

These woven goods today come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the classic medium/large barrel bag, down to phone cases, wallets, and smaller mini barrels. 

Today we can find all types of shapes and sizes!

Today we can find all types of shapes and sizes!

Pricing

Generally, there are three price points for the classic barrel bags:

  • Price Point 1: 100,000-160,000 COP ($33-$54 USD) - The Tourist/Brick & Mortar Price
  • Price Point 2: 55,000-75,000 COP ($19-$25 USD) - The Direct-to-Buyer street price
  • Price Point 3: 40,000-50,000 COP ($13-$17 USD) - The D-to-B negotiated street price

If you're patient and confident, you'll have no problem getting your very own bag for under $15, assuming you've found a vendor who isn't a middleman or selling out of a storefront where they'll have to pay rent. 

I have the navy version of this model!

I have the navy version of this model!

Generally speaking, hand-made artisan crafts are worth paying the extra couple dollars in the asking price. Considering how time consuming many of these products can be, the couple bucks we pay in excess of what we can negotiate down to simply represents the appreciation of the art, and therefore a respect to the makers of these crafts. If you're considering buying a mochila, remember that they're handmade and took hours of attention to craft. 

Where to Buy

You'll find these bags in much of Colombia, as they represent the cultural and traditional importance nationwide. However, the closer you get to the source of production, the cheaper these goods tend to be. Focus your efforts near Santa Marta, La Guajira, and Barranquilla for the biggest selection and best prices. Also, avoid brick and mortar storefronts, and head straight for the street vendors of these products. Chances are, that'll cut out the middleman from the equation, and get you not only a better price, but a conversation with the family who crafted it for you. 

4 vendors sell side-by-side in this street market. Don't like what you see? On to the next one!

4 vendors sell side-by-side in this street market. Don't like what you see? On to the next one!

Final Thoughts

I was introduced to these bags one day when leaving my hostel with a DSLR camera in hand. The owner asked if I had a bag to keep it in, and before I could respond, handed me his mochila. This bag immediately put me at ease heading out the door with my equipment, and allowed me to walk the (somewhat) dangerous streets of Bogotá without attracting a lot of attention. I ended up deciding to buy my own that very day, and waited until Santa Marta to pick out the right one. Besides the practical aspect of this new purchase, I love the quality and material of this thing. It's the best kind of souvenir I could hope to find; one that serves a practical purpose, and tells a story of where it's from and where I've been.