In Colombia’s coffee region, people get around by bus, motorcycle, and private vehicles, but one mode of transportation sticks out above the rest – the jeep. It’s not just a loud vehicle rumbling down the road, it’s an important Colombian cultural icon.
The first Jeep Willys were introduced to Colombia in 1946 for military purposes. Cafeteros (coffee farmers) living in rugged mountainous terrain quickly noticed the advantage that possessing a jeep could give them over mules and horses. The durable machines quickly became a necessity. They have been used ever since to transport goods, people, and just about anything that can fit on them. There is no object more connected to the livelihood of a Colombian coffee farmer than the jeep.
How they work…
Since jeeps can go places many normal vehicles cannot, they are very important in keeping people from the rural areas connected to the towns. Many jeep drivers offer scheduled service from town to town through undeveloped rural routes, especially on weekends when farmers travel into town to replenish supplies and food. People will stand on the side of the road, flag down a jeep, and hop on. If they have anything to carry, they throw it on top of the jeep. If there’s no room inside, they find somewhere to stand outside and hang on for dear life. When they’ve reached their destination, they’ll yell for the driver to stop and pay a set fare based on distance traveled.
How many people can fit on a jeep? Use your imagination! It can range anywhere from “get to know your neighbor” to “death wish”. Typically six to eight adults can fit snugly in the back with two more next to the driver. The rest is up to the driver. People can stand on a platform on the back, hang off the sides, stand on the spare tire, or ride on top. The most people I’ve ever traveled with on a jeep was 26 but it can be as many as 35!
Jeeps even dominate the moving industry. In many countries, people will make several trips to move things between their old and new homes. In some others, they’ll use professional moving companies that will pack everything, load it safely into a big fancy truck, and carefully unload at the new house. But in the coffee region of Colombia, when people change homes, especially in rural areas, it’s become a tradition to load every earthly possession onto a jeep and move it to the new house – all in one trip!
The jeep has become ingrained as an important icon of the cafetero culture. Many jeep owners take great care and pride in the look and style of their jeeps, often decorating them with religious items and keeping them shiny and clean. Jeeps have also made it big in the souvenir market. Colorful and kitschy jeep items, such as ceramics and keychains, can be found at just about any souvenir shop.
Then there’s the Yipao (jeep parade), which is held annually in the town of Calarcá and the city of Armenia. This takes the Colombian love of the jeep to a whole new level. Jeeps are loaded up with as many objects possible and parade through the streets. There are different categories during the parade – coffee and agricultural products, furniture, people, and a free category for local businesses. Jeeps with the most objects carried and the nicest arrangements are given prizes. There’s even another category for jeeps that are loaded at the rear and drive while leaning on the back two wheels!
Riding on a Jeep
I’ll leave you with part of a ride I took through Belén de Umbría hanging off the back of a jeep: