Territory and Population

The Arhuacos, also referred to less commonly as Ijku, have a substantial and beautiful territory of nearly 500,000 acres (around 200,000 hectares, 2,000 square kilometers or 770 square miles) in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Their territory borders the Colombian departments of Cesar, Magdalena and La Guajira, and they share the Sierra Nevada with three other “brother” tribes descended from the ancient Tayrona culture; the Kankuamo, Kogui and Wiwa tribes.

Estimates of the Arhuaco population range between 14,000 and 30,000.


Since the incursions of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Arhuaco have stood strong to maintain their territory, heritage, dress, language, cosmovision and traditional governmental structure. At the center of this structure are the Mamos, the spiritual leaders of the tribe. Each Arhuaco village has a hierarchy of Mamos, and they come together multiple times per year for a tribal council in the Arhuaco capital, Nabusimake.

Epochs of extreme conflict and indoctrination, such as with the Capuchin missionaries in the early 20th century, have led many Arhuaco to abandon their traditional dress, cosmovision and inward-looking and protectionist existence of subsistence agriculture, to some degree, but many Arhuaco still maintain fully traditional lifestyles. Most Arhuaco, justifiably, remain very skeptical of their “little brothers,” meaning anyone non-indigenous, or non-Arhuaco.

Commodity crops for export, especially coffee, are what many Arhuaco families depend upon for income, and many other crops, such as sugarcane, potatoes and many medicinal herbs, are grown for subsistence or for regional markets. While the cultivation of high quality coffee in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is currently the number one source of income for the Arhuaco, crafts, and especially handmade wool Mochilas, are an essential part of their subsistence throughout the year, and a major link to their rich heritage.


The traditional and sustainable way of life for the Arhuacos has been under constant threat since the arrival of the Spanish, and especially since the forced religious and cultural conversions of the Capuchin monks in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Nowadays, in addition to the continued presence of missionaries, the Arhuaco face a range of environmental and socio-economic threats. An enhanced reliance on global commodity crops, especially coffee, as well as illicit crops and mining, has impacted their traditional agricultural and internal economic systems that were based on trade between Arhuaco villages and with neighboring tribes.

Climate change also poses a significant threat to the unique Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta ecosystems that the Arhuaco (and many other “little brothers” downstream) depend upon. The melting of the tropical glaciers of the Sierra, prolonged droughts and the loss of endemic species and pollinators, will pose increased pressures and challenges for the Arhuacos in the coming decades.

Traditions, Language and Symbolic Products

The Arhuacos are an extremely proud, traditional and spiritual people. Most of the remaining Arhuacos have resisted forced attempts to change their language, beliefs and dress, holding firmly to their ancient Worldviews (“Cosmovision”), Arhuaco language (called “Ika”), and traditional attire, including their incredible Mochilas.

The mother-earth is of profound importance to the Arhuacos, and they consider the towering mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which are the highest coastal mountains in the world, to be the center of the Universe. They call their belief system, and the unity of the Arhuacos with their divine surroundings, “Kunsamu,” and traditional laws and decisions within the community are administered by spiritual leaders, known as Mamos.

While outstanding high-altitude coffee is the number one source of income for the Arhuaco communities, crafts, and especially Mochilas, are an essential part of their subsistence throughout the year, and a major link to their rich heritage.

A single Arhuaco woman will spend days to weeks crafting a single Mochila, depending on size, using natural wool and coloring obtained from sheep within the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. These bags are traditionally used by both men and women, and each design holds deep spiritual meaning for the Arhuacos.