Catching Culonas

by Nicolas Johnson

In eastern Colombia, plenty of kilometers off the beaten path, you will find the town of Barichara.  It is a picture-perfect mountain village in Colombia’s easternmost mountain range.  Visitors fall in love with the town’s peaceful ambience, friendly people and surrounding natural beauty.  Luckily, these qualities exist year round.  Intrepid travelers will explore this enchanting town during the most exciting time of year.  Ant season.

Culona
Culona. Photo by medea_material

The daring Spanish settlers of the early 18th century adopted several traditions from the Guanes, the original inhabitants of the territory, including the practice of eating large ants.  These ‘culonas’ as they are locally known today (literally: big-ass ants), are as massive as they are delicious.  In order to truly enjoy their unique flavor (vaguely reminiscent of smoked peanuts), you have to be part of the exhilarating custom of catching them.

It is likely that the first time you see a culona (Atta Laevigata) it will make your palms sweat nervously rather than your tummy rumble hungrily.  They are brown in color, fuzzy to touch and they smell weird.  They are also impossible to ignore since they are about an inch long, winged and have vicious looking mandibles.  And yes, they bite really hard.

Once every year, an Atta Laevigata colony consisting of one queen and many thousands of workers produces reproductive individuals known as alates.  These winged ants of both genders will leave the colonies for a once in a lifetime mating ritual in the sky high above Barichara.  As soon as coupling is complete, the male ants fall to the earth in ecstasy with a satisfied insect’s grin plastered across their satiated faces.  Their function has been achieved and their energies totally consumed: an authentic petite mort.  The new queens return to burrow into the earth and give birth to new colonies.

Beneath Barichara’s historic small town streets is a world crawling with big city excitement.  Millions of hard working leaf-cutter ants busily expand their sprawling megalopolis.   These ants diligently work throughout the year in preparation of one skyrocketing party.  It is not happenstance that this is also the most festive part of the year for the humans who inhabit these crimson-colored lands.  

Usually ant season happens during Semana Santa as the long dry season suddenly gives way to the rain.  When the ants emerge for their annual nuptial dance, the people of Barichara become focused ant hunters.  You will find no students in class, no shopkeepers attending to customers and rows of empty pews inside the cathedral.

Barichara is normally a warm weathered paradise populated by a few thousand exceptionally honest and friendly people.  The sky is a vibrant blue, lavishly adorned with bright fluffy white clouds.  The mountains are verdant and the earth a rich mixture of vividly colored soils: reds, carmines and purples.   The houses are freshly whitewashed, their roofs tiled and their inviting doorways a dazzling array of cheerful colors.  As you explore the area during ant season, you will run into smiling machete-donning campesinos dressed in rubber boots, well-worn hats and shirts unbuttoned down to their sun-tanned navels.

The first sign that the ants are about to launch their annual festivity is a clear sunny day following two consecutive nights of rain.  You will notice the townspeople quietly beginning to disappear into the landscape.  Even the freshest, most scandalous gossip can wait to be disseminated until the end of the day during ant season.   It is time to head out to the countryside to find an anthill. Do not be overly concerned with whose land this anthill happens to be on, for the rules of engagement are simple and indisputable: first come, first serve.

The best time to find an anthill is right before dawn when the cabezonas (large-headed warrior ants), are roaming around ready to attack and devour any intruder such as you.  Once you have located the anthill make sure to stay close enough to see the culonas when they emerge, but far enough to not be bitten by the aggressive warriors.  Sit down, wait, drink your coffee, and wait some more. This is the proverbial calm before the storm.

As the sun heats up the male ants will emerge, they are winged but visibly smaller than the culonas.  Around this time, keen little birds will begin to appear in the trees around the anthill.  They are here for the same reason as you: to catch some delicious ants.  Like you, they are uninterested in the male ants drying their wings and flying off hundreds of feet into the air.  Up in the sky the ants form a giddy buzzing cloud of eager yangs waiting excitedly for their big-assed yins.

Back down at the anthill things are getting tense.  And there you are, the avid ant hunter surrounded by tree branches full of hungry birds, faced with warrior ants dedicated to defending their own and the sound of buzzing wings making the skin on the back of your neck crawl.   The unmistakable smell of culonas is in the air: sweet, musky and dense.  Sweat runs down your back.

Suddenly the culonas begin to emerge.  There they are shaking their large rear ends as they dry their wings in the hot sun.   You must move quickly before they take off.  As you rush into the melee and start picking up the ants one by one by their wings, the warrior ants commence their attack.  They will swarm you and begin climbing up your legs looking for a fleshy spot to bite.  You must sharply swat them away so that they don’t get into your clothes.   They are as vicious as they are quick.

Meanwhile, the most distant culonas will fill the air around you with the loud buzzing of their wings. They are off, hundreds of them, flying upwards all around you as the once calm birds start diving, dipping and swerving to catch the steadily rising ants.  It is a frenzied, spectacular moment of natural ebullience.

If you are lucky, you will manage to come out of this skirmish with a plastic bag full culonas and a few bites.  Not just from the warrior ants, but also from the culonas themselves who put up a good fight: drawing blood when they bite a careless hand.   You can head back into town proudly with your head held high ready to swap combat stories with the locals and to toast your hard-earned meal over a low flame.   Or perhaps you prefer to toast newfound friends over a few beers.  The sky is the limit in Barichara for a person with a pound of culonas.