The most essential working day of the yr in Barichara, a colonial city in the Colombian Andes, is not Christmas, New Year or Easter, but what locals excitedly call La Salida, or “The Exit”.
When that working day comes, a palpable sense of anticipation surges by Barichara’s cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings. Road sweepers and domestic cleaners throw down their resources mid-get the job done, kids sneak out of college and shopkeepers vanish with no a trace.
Colonial Barichara is regarded a person of Colombia’s most interesting cities. Just about every calendar year throughout La Salida, people listed here vanish to hunt for ants (Credit score: Ostill/Getty Photographs)
They are all in look for of the precious hormigas culonas, or “big-butt” ants, that are regarded the caviar of Colombia’s north-central Santander area. Every single spring as millions of these ample-bottomed insects hatch in the bordering countryside, the annual harvest frenzy ensues.
“It’s initially-occur, first-provide,” explained Margarita Higuera, a psychologist-turned-chef who moved to Barichara in 2000. “If you can get a bucket on best of an ant nest, then it is yours to hold no subject if you have the land or not.”
Using position all around March or April each individual year, when the sunlight shines brightly subsequent days of heavy rainfall and the moon is complete, La Salida marks the starting of the ants’ annual mating period, which can very last for up to two months, in the course of which time locals scramble to obtain as lots of queen ants as they can. Bloated with eggs and prepared to reproduce, the brown, cockroach-sized queens are prized for their rotund, pea-shaped bottoms, which can style like peanuts, popcorn or even crispy bacon when roasted and salted.
Following the harvest, locals peel the queen’s wings from its shapely human body in preparing for cooking (Credit score: Peter Yeung)
“For me, the flavour is unique,” mentioned Higuera, when plucking the papery wings off ants that crammed a modest pot on her kitchen table. “It reminds me of my earlier. I try to remember one time when my grandfather bought a barrel whole of them and you could listen to them all crawling within. The whole family members sat about it preparing them 1 by just one.”
“It can be tough function. The colonies really don’t let you choose their queens away easily”
The queen ants are savoured as a delicacy and munched by the handful on road corners, fried on the stoves of doing work-class residences and highlighted on tasting menus of superior-stop dining places across Colombia. In reality, 1kg of these insects can fetch as much as 300,000 pesos (£65), earning them quite a few moments extra important than Colombia’s environment-renowned espresso. As a result, they’re also a healthy source of cash flow for locals.
“I can earn a week’s wages in a single working day through collecting hormigas,” mentioned Federico Pedraza, who functions as a street cleaner in Barichara. “But it can be hard do the job. The colonies never let you acquire their queens away effortlessly.”
With their pea-formed bottoms, these roasted, fried or salted queen ants are regarded the caviar of Colombia’s north-central Santander area (Credit history: Peter Yeung)
Putting on ankle-significant rubber boots and long sleeves for security, collectors ought to get the job done promptly due to the fact the soldier ants of the colony, who are tasked with guarding the queens from predators, can inflict painful bites that attract blood. Villagers scattered in the fields deposit the mouth-watering queens into nearly anything at purses, jugs, pots, sacks – performing frantically as a result of the daylight hrs. But the benefits are appreciable, particularly for diners.
As very well as currently being an outstanding resource of protein, the atta laevigata species, also identified as the South American leafcutter ant, is a loaded supply of unsaturated fatty acids, which protect against substantial cholesterol. Other research published in the journal Frontiers in Nourishment has revealed that ants contain superior levels of anti-oxidants and that regular intake of them could assistance avert most cancers.
“That’s the cause why us baricharas (locals) ordinarily live long, healthier life,” stated Cecilia González-Quintero, a shopkeeper who has been preserving and promoting the ants in glass jars for 20 years. “The ants give us a exclusive energy – [especially] the types with the juicy culonas (large butts).”
Ants are abundant in anti-oxidants and analysis has shown that consuming them can support stop most cancers (Credit rating: Peter Yeung)
Hormigas culones have been eaten in and around Santander for about 1,400 decades. In accordance to historical data, the native Guane people of central Colombia 1st began cultivating and cooking the insects in the 7th Century, and they made use of the ants’ sharp pincers as stitches to mend wounds. Afterwards the marauding Spanish conquistadors adopted the behavior.
“That’s the rationale why us baricharas (locals) usually live very long, healthful lives,” she reported.
Most likely owing to the situations in which they are caught – on the amorous cusp of copy – the ants are also viewed as an aphrodisiac and are often gifted in ceramic pots as a wedding day present. This custom made is significantly typical between indigenous Andean communities identified as pati amarillos, or “yellow feet” folks, so named right after the orange-yellow earth on which they wander and with which they construct their classic adobe houses.
In the close by town of Bucaramanga, monumental steel sculptures have been erected in homage to the insects. Colourful murals depicting them can be observed on partitions all all-around city. Taxi drivers halt to snack on handfuls of crunchy, roasted hormigas, and little ones play with compact, furry ant toys.
In recent years, a rising urge for food for this crawling culinary specialty has witnessed the ants spread from a regional snack to a thing of a gourmand ingredient. Every spring, harvesters send truckloads of the queens to hungry prospective buyers throughout Colombia. Even experimental, large-finish dining establishments in the country’s capital, Bogotá, function them seasonally – this kind of as at Mini-Mal, wherever the ants are served alongside smoked Amazonian pirarucu fish or as section of an ant-infused black pepper sauce with roast beef to a daring clientele.
“Hormigas are an critical portion of Colombian delicacies,” explained the restaurant’s chef Eduardo Martínez, who initial tasted them on a spouse and children journey to Santander as a nine-calendar year-outdated. “I want to encourage their use and assure that this tradition survives.”
But in modern generations, a combination of deforestation and urbanisation has led to difficulties between the ants and folks in Santander. Populace advancement has found the bugs dig into the foundations of properties and clash with farmers, whose crops are currently being eaten by ravenous leafcutters.
In addition, weather transform has influenced the reproductive cycle of the ants, as extreme, erratic weather has knocked the colonies’ necessary equilibrium of humidity, sun and rainfall out of kilter. For the reason that their mating season relies on extremely precise weather conditions situations, if the ground isn’t smooth ample, the queens could not be equipped to emerge from their underground tunnels conveniently. And in the same way, deforestation and urbanisation is impacting the organic habitats of the ants, restricting where by the nests can spread.
“If the proper conditions aren’t present, the ants may well not be born or they may not be in a position to escape from the floor.”
“The ecosystem is changing,” stated Aura Judit Cuadros, a unbiased researcher in Bucaramanga who is finding out techniques to breed the ants sustainably for huge-scale use. “If the correct problems are not current, the ants could not be born or they may possibly not be equipped to escape from the ground.”
From the rolling foothills of Barichara to the valleys that encircle the towns of San Gil, Curití, Villanueva, and Guane, nevertheless, the enduring ubiquity of these treasured insects usually means that their disappearance is not but a critical problem.
When I frequented, Alex Jiménez, a tutorial and ant qualified from the space, prodded the entrance to a hormiguero, or ant nest, with a extensive tree branch. Quickly several irritated soldier ants emerged to investigate the disturbance, marching close to in lookup of the perpetrator. In accordance to Jiménez, each nest incorporates several thousands of ants and can lengthen 5m underground in a vast labyrinth of tunnels that would extend for miles if laid straight. Curiously, the queen of the nest can reside for up to 15 years, but when she dies, the colony need to go and build a new just one.
“These ants have a specified intelligence, a purely natural a single,” stated Jiménez, peering at the line of leafcutters carrying cuts of foliage previously mentioned their very small abdomens. “They function as a single to ensure the survival of the full. They’ve been gathered and eaten for hundreds of years. They will not die out.”
As if to prove the issue, the Santander native recounted a memorable 6km bike ride with buddies for the duration of the peak of mating year very last 12 months. Jiménez reported the cycle via the countryside need to have taken 30 minutes, but it finished up long lasting just about 4 hours as the group, confused by the sight of ants, could not help but cease each and every few minutes to obtain additional and much more. They have been seemingly joined on the hillsides by full villages, eager to choose component in this centuries-aged Colombian and pre-Columbian custom.
“The complete town smelt of hormigas that night,” he exclaimed. “Hormigas! Hormigas! Hormigas!”