Territory and Population

The Wayúu are the largest Indigenous tribe in Colombia, and one of the most impoverished and exploited. They live in the harsh climate of the La Guajira desert in the Northeast of Colombia, and several tens of thousands live over the border in the Northwestern desert of Venezuela as well. Estimates of the total ethnic Wayúu population range between 250,000 and 300,000.


The Wayuu live in small dispersed communities called “Rancherias,” where families of upwards of twenty people live inside one hut. The Wayúu are a traditionally semi-nomadic tribe that is organized into clans. They are also a matriarchal society, meaning women often take on leadership roles for both families and entire clans.

Goat-herding, cultivation of cotton, fishing, seasonal travel for labor (mostly the Wayúu men traveling to other more agriculturally fertile regions for work), and sales of extraordinarily detailed cotton products made by Wayúu women, have for many generations supported the Wayúu economy.

The Wayúu are also famous for being a warrior tribe and putting up intensive resistance both to Spanish conquistadors and further attempted entries into their territories by “arijonas.”


While La Guajira is already a naturally hot and dry world, years of drought and the diversion of the waters of the Rancheria River to the massive internationally-run coal mine, Cerrejon, have left the Wayuu dying of thirst and malnutrition.

Agriculture is all but impossible at this point, so the only options are to either leave their native territories or to struggle for survival. The men often have no option but to work in the mines, while the women make beautiful cotton Mochilas for subsistence. Normally though, these vulnerable women are forced to sell their beautiful and highly-skilled work for a pittance to local opportunists that are well aware of their desperation. With increased international exposure to Wayúu mochilas in recent years, many lower-quality copies of their products, both from within Colombia and in places like China, have been hitting the market and decreasing oppportunities for traditional Wayúu artisans.

Tourism also poses a threat to traditional ways of life for the Wayúu, as Colombia has both become more popular with international tourists and with the growing middle class within Colombia. Many venture to places like Cabo de la Vela in Northern La Guajira, leave a lot of trash, use a lot of scarce water, give coins to begging little children who should be going to school, and leave without considering the consequences of their imprudent actions.

Traditions, Language and Symbolic Products

Many Wayúu still strongly adhere to their traditions, and speak the native wayuu language, Wayuunaiki. Myths, philosophies and traditional symbolism is passed down through the generations, especially by the strong female leaders of the clans.

Women are taught to weave when still young children, and they become extremely skilled artisans. The Mochilas that the grown women craft are high quality cotton bags that take upwards of one month to complete, using a single thread technique. The intricate designs on each bag hold specific spiritual meaning to the Wayúu, derived from ancient beliefs and ceremonial traditions. Typically only one Wayuu woman works on the single bag within her Rancheria, and when a fair price is paid, this skilled and traditional artisan work represents a major source of income for these highly impoverished communities where few other opportunities exist.