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The View from Colombia: Made by Hand

by Christopher Burke

28 December 2011. Bogota, Colombia. Listening to the radio just yesterday, I heard a new promotional spot for Colombia.  The gist was Colombia, Hecho a Mano – Colombia, Made by Hand.  And I thought what a wonderfully apt mental association it was for the country and one that is so much more resonant than the recently popular, the Only Danger is Ever Wanting to Leave tourist campaign, which was a play on Colombia’s recent violent history.  Hecho a Mano circumvents recent events and goes back to the essence of Colombian culture, a country of artisans, a country of craft, a country of creators.  Colombia is a country in touch with its humanity, with its essence, with its rich history, and with its unique human resources.  With Hecho a Mano, everyone gets to participate.  


Somewhere I hear a huge sigh of relief that decades of turbulence and violence may be waning in this country.  A Free Trade Agreement with the United States is finally, after years of delay, signed and ready to go.  Change does happen, and change appears to be at hand (pardon the pun) in Colombia these days.  Hecho a Mano echoes straight from the past to a celebratory future.  In Colombia, life is literally crafted by the hands of everyday people and celebrated 24/7 – daily.


Let’s talk craft.  If you need frames for your artwork, as I often do, where to look?  Well, walking to dinner tonight, I passed three framers and glass cutting places within a five minute radius of my apartment.  And the work that is done here is reasonably priced, professional, and attentive.  Or a custom curtain rail for a large expanse of window.  Done, and beautiful!  Or shoes resoled (yes, it still happens!), or fresh baked bread for the morning, or furniture reupholstered, or locally made jams and granolas, or clothing altered, or exquisite Belgian desserts, or …. the list goes on and on – they are all available within blocks of my building.


Or let’s broaden our attention to the pottery, stone and gold work from many centuries past that is Colombia’s gift to humanity.  Even a brief visit to the Museo Nacional or the Museo del Oro in Bogotá will quickly bring into focus the ancient heritage of art made by hand here.  See and be awed by the gold figures that captured the attention of the Spaniards.  This new campaign of Hecho a Mano (Made by Hand) reaches deep into the history of the country and encompasses the great wealth of cultures and history that Colombia encapsulates.


La Pajarera, or the Birdcage, is the name of a cluster of stores and stalls in an ancient wandering hotel building and series of alleyways in downtown Bogotá.   Easily missed, and off (though not very far off) Bogotá’s barely nascent tourist trail, la Pajarera is well worth a detour as this is a step back in time to a bazaar of artisan products, from hand wrought iron rocking chairs to table mats and coasters made from fique (a natural fibre that grows in the leaves of the fique plant) to traditional black earthenware to handmade espadrilles to…. this is another list that goes on and on!  La Pajarera is one of my favorite places in the historic part of Bogotá.  La Candelaria, as the general area east of la Pajarera is known, is home to numerous stores that offer an incredible variety of products made by hand – art T-shirts, artisenal cheeses, religious statues of saints and virgins, unique and sticky Colombian desserts, warm fresh potato chips, handmade jewelry, emeralds, silverware…….a familiar tune, the list goes on!


One of the great pleasures of visiting Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is to wander the streets of the old town after dark when vendors line the sidewalks with their handmade jewelry, beadwork, and basketry.  The evening air has cooled somewhat though the humidity remains high.  There is a warm breeze.  Store owners try to entice you inside to see their emeralds in store after store.  Along the street known as the Portal de los Dulces, exotic hand made candies and cookies are yours for the asking.  Mimes appear, totally blackened, as stilled fishermen on the streets here and there.  And walking along in the semi darkness, you suddenly come across a stunning display of colorful mochilas.  Mochilas are ethnic shoulder bags woven in different regions of Colombia – there are Wayuu, Arhuaca, Guajira, and Guayu mochilas.  Mochilas have become ubiquitous in Colombia, long ago migrating from their hippie and ethnic origins to being a perfectly acceptable accoutrement for many businessmen arriving for their day in the stock market area.  And despite the fact that you are in the center of one of the most expensive tourist destinations in the country in Cartagena, the prices of these exclusive designs are reasonable here.  They are not cheap, but they are beautiful!  Bargain your price, but feel secure in purchasing now.  The evenings in Cartagena are magical, and one of the main reasons is the connection these nights afford the visitor, under a blanket of tropical air, to the craft of the people of Colombia.


The cathedral in the salt mines of Zipiquirá is an amazing feat of engineering, 180 meters underground, hewn out of salt by human hands.  I wish I could represent it more personally, but I can’t.  I bought my ticket to enter the cathedral and proceeded in line until I got to the entrance, where I was told that there was only one way in and the same way out.  And that was it.  I couldn’t do it.  Claustrophobic, I had to leave.  But the cathedral remains available for those braver of heart and spirit than me, just a short drive from Bogotá, a huge achievement of the artesans of Colombia.


Off the beaten track, the small town of Raquirá in Boyacá, is well worth the trip.  Home to the orange earthenware pots and containers seen in gardens and in front of buildings throughout Colombia, Raquirá is colorful, vivacious and special with a small colonial church on the main plaza.  Even if the ceramics are too overwhelming to take home, they photograph beautifully and you will have gotten to see the special mountainous landscape of Colombia on your trip from Bogotá.  Raquirá is also within radius of Villa de Leyva, which is a World Heritage Site and home to artisans of wool, wood, and cloth.  Not to mention exquisite French croissants!


The various foods of Colombia, hecho a mano, in a million sites daily, bring us to a part of the country’s heritage completely undiscovered by the outside world.  In the Americas, the cuisines of Mexico and Peru have begun to make themselves known to the world at large.  Not so with the cuisine of Colombia!  One of the great joys of traveling in this country is to stop along the highway at any number of everyday locations and be surprised by the freshness and quality of the food presented.  Fresh squeezed juices are a given anywhere in Colombia, on any block in any city.  Meat is a staple, but Bogotá also hosts innumerable vegetarian restaurants.  Bakeries with fresh baked bread are literally on every block in every city.  There are whole towns along the highways that specialize in cheese and dairy products.  And arepas, and arequipe, and fresh picked oranges and peaches, and panela.  Another list without seeming end.


Usaquen, which in centuries past was an area of summer homes for prosperous Bogotanos to the north of the city, has for a long time been swallowed up by the ever expanding metropolis that is Bogotá.  But Usaquen still maintains its village aura and separateness with its rich hillside plaza (come at Christmas time for the extraordinary light show!) and colonial infrastructure.  On weekends, Usaquen morphs itself into a center of antesanias with many areas of the village transformed into exhibition space for the display of hand crafted art.  There are stalls of leather makers, silversmiths, earring vendors, hand weavers, naive canvas painters, dessert makers, T-shirt creators, wire artists, wood carvers and so much more.  Outside of the designated exhibition areas, the streets of Usaquen themselves become home to hundreds of vendors who cannot afford the price of the officially sanctioned zones of commerce.   Everything here is hecho a mano, and prices are negotiable!  If you come early on Sundays (before 12.30), be sure to try the brunch at Abasto which is worth the early start and has become a local institution.


If there is a fault in Bogotá, it is that there is no great marketplace for the purchase of local exquisite goods made by hand year round.  There are innumerable desirable products, but they are as often as not well hidden from the everyday visitor.  There is no definitive “Made in Colombia” one stop store where somebody can go and know that they are in the presence of the best that is available in Colombia right now.  There is no Fonart, official government driven artesanias store, as there is in Mexico; there is no Conran’s Colombia for Colombia design, or no Design Within Reach Colombia.  Yet!  There are emeralds and there is gold; there is silver, and there are whole districts of artisan furniture, and jewelry makers to die for, all waiting for some entrepreneurial spirit to gather them up in an extraordinary presentation of what Colombia has to offer. 


In December of every year, however, things change in Bogotá.  If you are lucky enough to be here in the month of December, you will be here when ExpoArtesanias is at the show center known as Colferias.  Here for two weeks in December, is a truly rich display of hecho a mano  Colombian craft.  Colferias is spread out among several buildings in a remarkably successful presentation complex.  In each building is a grouping of crafts from different regions of Colombia, with one building highlighting crafts from other countries.  And the show arrives at the perfect confluence of time and place, right before Christmas.   ExpoArtesanias is reason enough to visit Colombia. And ExpoArtesanias is not unique.  In various cities of Colombia, there are ferias of artesanias, hecho a mano, at different times throughout the year.  Manizales hosts its celebrated artesanias fair in January.  Medellin has its fair in November.  Check for complete information, and perhaps plan a trip accordingly.

Christopher Burke is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, Colombia.

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Posted on: December 29, 2011, 9:36 am Category: The View From Here Tagged with: ,

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