How Leafcutter Ants Became Barichara's Local Delicacy

Hormigas culonas are roasted, sprinkled with salt and sold in small plastic bags in markets and small tiendas 
Hormigas culonas are roasted, sprinkled with salt and sold in small plastic bags in markets and small tiendas | © Uli von Oben/ Wiki Commons
Hormigas culonas, a type of large female leafcutter ant, have been a delicacy in Colombia’s Santander region for centuries. High in protein and even thought of as an aphrodisiac, the spring harvest of these “big bottomed ants” is hotly anticipated in Barichara – and they can sell up to US$40 (€33.50) per pound. Read on to find out everything you need to know about northern Colombia’s most sought-after snack.

A pre-Colombian history

Every year between the months of April and May, farmers (and sometimes even whole families) in Barichara abandon their crops and go in frantic search for what, to them, is gold dust. In these two months only, hordes of female leafcutter ants, their “bottoms” full with eggs (hence the name), fly out of their nests to mate, giving farmers the opportunity to catch these juicy-bottomed insects mid-flight. This 2-month mass-hunting of ants has been happening here for hundreds – maybe even thousands – of years.

The tradition is thought to have started in nearby pre-Colombian town, Guane © Jessica Vincent

So where did this tradition come from? It is believed that the locals here inherited the taste for hormigas from their pre-Colombian ancestors. The Guane people saw the female leafcutter ant, particularly her egg-filled bottom, as a symbol of fertility; they believed that by consuming the ants just as they were about to reproduce men would obtain sexual potency, and, consequently, would be able to reproduce more children. To this day, hormigas culonas are a popular wedding gift in the Santander region.

How they’re prepared

On the street or in small corner shops, the ants’ bottoms are usually either fried or roasted (alive, to avoid the ant tasting bitter) in a big aluminium pot with a generous handful of salt. The toasting process gets rid of the legs and wings, leaving only a dark reddish-brown crispy body. These are then sold in small plastic bags. If you can, definitely opt for the roasted ones, as these have a crunchier texture and a slightly smokey taste, whereas the fried ones can be a bit soggy and greasy (not good!). In more upscale restaurants, chefs have given the ants a bit of a gourmet makeover by including them in filet mignon sauces, breads and dips.

Hormigas culonas are roasted, sprinkled with salt and sold in small plastic bags in markets and small tiendas  © Uli von Oben/ Wiki Commons

What do they taste like?

A good hormiga culona should be crunchy on the outside and soft and floury on the inside. If they’ve been fire-roasted, you’ll even get nutty, smokey flavours. Many compare it to eating a bowl of salty popcorn, but this texture and flavour can only be achieved if they’re really fresh. It’s these super fresh, smokey flavours that the Guane people are said to have been hooked on all those years ago – and what locals here try and recreate every year in April and May. Most locals won’t even dream of buying them out of season.

Due to their believed aphrodisiac qualities, Hormigas Culonas are a popular wedding gift in the Santander region © Sascha Grabow / Wiki Commons

Where you can find them

Like most delicacies, hormigas culonas can be hard to come by. During the harvest period, the most common place to find hormigas culonas is in Barichara (the small corner shop on Carrera 5 between Calles 8 & 9 normally has them in season), but you’ll see them in other towns in the Santander region too, such as San Gil, Guane and Bucaramanga. As there is only a limited amount in circulation, expect to pay around 10,000 COP (US$3.55). If you fancy treating yourself (and if it’s open), Color de Hormiga in Barichara does a highly-rated filet mignon with a creamy ant sauce, as well as home-made ant bread and a dip made from cream-cheese and – you guessed it – ants!