Ecotourism preserves not only habitats but communities, a lesson my husband Tom and I learned from the residents of La Boquilla, a Cartagena beach village. This Afro Caribbean community’s cultural identity is deeply intertwined with the surrounding mangrove ecosystem. In the face of sprawling condo and hotel development that began in the 1990s, the La Boquilla community found a way to steward their cultural landscape by sharing it with visitors–and creating much-needed economic opportunities in the process.
La Boquilla Ecotours is a group that uses sustainable tourism practices to take tourists through the winding waterways of a lush mangrove forest. This cooperative offers insights into the lifestyle of pueblo de pescadores, or fishing villages. We spent a day with Rony Monsalve, one of the original founders of La Boquilla Ecotours, who introduced us to the abundant life of the mangrove, considered one of the most complex ecosystems on earth–and one of the most fragile. Rony also shared his personal story of both the frustrations and rewards of being an eco activist.
La Boquilla, with a population of about 15,000, is just 25 minutes northeast of Cartagena, Colombia. The town sits just past the airport on a slender strip of beach that stretches between the Caribbean Sea on one side and Ciénaga de la Virgen, a 4.5 mile long lagoon, on the other. The Ciénaga is part of a vast maze of mangroves on Colombia’s Caribbean coast that span 225, 000 acres, one of the biggest such habitats in the world.
What Is A Mangrove?
Mangroves are a unique plant species–one of the only types of tree that can survive in saltwater, and endure the continual ebb and flow of ocean tides. Because of their resilience, mangroves protect the coast line by providing invaluable structure to areas that would typically erode.
These plants have the flexibility to withstand the daily flooding that the tides bring because of their intricate root systems. One of the distinguishing features are known as “props”, above-ground roots and act like snorkels for accessing air when the tide comes in.
Another feature of many mangrove plants are “knee roots” that grow out and then down, resembling the shape of a bent leg. This formation provides support as well as better access to air.
Mangroves filter carbon four times as quickly as most other trees. In a world of rising carbon emissions, mangroves are incredibly beneficial in countering climate change. Unfortunately, many mangroves have been cut down to make way for development. Rising sea levels and pollution are other huge threats to this environmentally beneficial species; data suggests that up to one-third of the planet’s mangrove may have been wiped out in the 1980s and 1990s.
Mangrove Forest Supports Human and Wildlife Communities
We took seats alongside Rony and his colleague Antonio Pérez in a long canoe and set off to get an up-close and personal look at this extraordinary ecosystem. All of the La Boquilla guides are residents of the community, ensuring all profits go directly to local people.
Rony and Harold used long paddles to navigate the boat by punting–thrusting the paddle into the bottom of the swamp for propulsion. Motors are damaging to the mangroves and so are prohibited.
As we glided through the shallow waters, Rony told us about the flora and fauna of the mangrove.
“The village is bordered by two swamps (cienagas); this ecosystem is surrounded by mangroves and the sea which gives many fish, crabs, oysters, snails and these are all part of the community,” he explained.
“In terms of animal and wildlife, you can find many species of birds, the ones that are endemic and also the birds that migrate depending on the season,” he said. “Every day from 4 to 5 pm all the birds arrive in the area creating a natural spectacle.
As one of the only natural mediators between the ocean and land, mangroves are grand protectors. Two thirds of the populations of fish in the world are reproduced in mangrove ecosystems.
Preserving La Boquilla’s Cultural Heritage
Considered off the beaten path, La Boquilla has a rich cultural heritage that has developed since the ancestors of today’s residents first settled the area more than 250 years ago.
La Boquilla was first settled in the 18th century by runaway slaves who set up camps known as palenques in the swamps. Slavery was a main industry for Cartagena until the 18th century when it began to decline, though it wasn’t abolished until the 19th century. In the year 1620, more than 20% of Cartagena’s population was enslaved people of Africa. From the late 16th century to the mid-17th century, over 125,000 enslaved people were brought from Africa to Cartagena by the Spanish.
“La Boquilla, as it is now known, began with a group of fishermen who came and went in search of fish,” Rony explained. “Because there was nowhere to hide from the sun in this terrain, these people built bahareque (wattle and daub) houses. They spent their days in those houses and returned home after fishing, but after a while they began to settle in this area. They gradually arrived with their families and began erecting houses and streets. This is why this is a fishermen's village.”
“After the settlement of the community, village women began to trade fish for food such as potatoes, manioc, rice, and vegetables,” he said. “ Previously, there was no water or electricity, so fish was preserved in "salmuera," a salty liquid that aids in the preservation of meat. The community maintains this practice today.”
“Originally, they used techniques that featured the use of nets and fishing sticks (canne à peche in french),” Rony told us. “Nowadays, the use of cages has been implemented to catch crabs. We are going to show you how to do both!”
With that Rony and Antonio slowed the boat to a halt and then jumped into the water–I was surprised to see it only came up to their knees! Antonio grabbed a net from the boat and waded out into the lagoon. Reaching the middle of the large waterway, he gathered the net and then very elegantly released it outward, sending it floating up into the air. It unfurled and spread wide before dropping into the brackish water.
Antonio beckoned Tom to help him retrieve the net, which was full of small creatures. Rony dumped them into a bucket and said to Tom, “Now it’s your turn!”
Tom good-naturedly took a spin at net-fishing himself. His toss earned him approving nods from Rony and Antonio. The next step was to chop up the bait fish and put it into cages and set the trap for some unsuspecting crabs that were going to become our dinner.
Meet Culture Creators on Your Next Trip
- G Adventures - If you are looking to be part of a small group tour that explores the sights, sounds, tastes and textures of local cultures, we recommend G Adventures, which puts the interests of local communities and sustainability at the heart of its authentic guided experiences.
- Get Your Guide - Do you have your trip planned and want to build in one or more day trips or cultural experience of a few hours with a local? Then check out Get Your Guide, where it's easy to connect with a local guide who can introduce you to the backstory of unique cultural attractions.
- HotelsCombined - Like people, each hotel is unique. Find the ones that best match your tastes and budget with HotelsCombined!
- Discover Cars - Want to be at the wheel of your trip? Then hire your rental with Discover Cars!
- Novica - Not planning a trip right now but love hand-made folk art and jewelry and want to support artisans around the world? Connect with amazing culture creators with Novica, the ethical marketplace that is improving the lives of communities by making amazing art accessible!
La Boquilla Ecotourism - The Beginning
I asked Rony how the La Boquilla Eco Tours cooperative got started.
“EcoTours Boquilla was founded in 1999 by the community to provide a different way of making money by training people to be tour guides,” he said. “There were 25 founders at the start, but now there are only eight. This is due to the time it took to establish the project, as changing the image of the village was not easy at first.”
“The community held raffles and other fundraising events in order to purchase the canoes, as well as pay teachers and collect garbage,” he explained. “The first tourism agency that helped us was in Bocagrande; they saw all of our efforts and we started our first tours with them.”
Rony explained the enterprise had many challenges in getting off the ground.
“It is extremely difficult to begin when you do not have the support of the government; there is no institution willing to help us,” he said. “Besides, we were–and still are–constantly fighting against people who want to harm the mangroves. It is also difficult to fight against people in the community who are unwilling to change their ways.”
“For example, there were wealthy individuals who paid locals to cause damage to their own territory, by engaging in illegal mangrove cutting. On the other hand, educating the community was also a challenge because most people did not understand the importance of mangroves and kept throwing their garbage into the swamps. People are now more aware of their surroundings, and the entire community of La Boquilla is working toward the same goal of eliminating insecurity and keeping the area clean, although it is a work in progress.”
Rony also took pride in some of the successes of the ecotourism co-operative.
“We were able to demonstrate that it is possible to start your own business with the resources you already have,” he said. “That, combined with quality, can help to raise the standard of living.”
“We have also demonstrated that education is worthwhile, that we can work in and for the community, and that paradigms can be broken,” he explained. “Also, by incorporating our way of life into tourism, we have demonstrated the importance of La Boquilla in the development of Cartagena for the past 14 years. We have created jobs and all of the residents' living conditions have improved. Most importantly, we have changed people's perceptions of La Boquilla. ”
Cartagena Beach Community Under Pressure From Development
Nonetheless, the fishing and handicraft practices that took root in La Boquilla centuries ago and have been handed down for generations have been under pressure. International conglomerates have sought to fill in the wetlands for the construction of high end resorts and apartment buildings. The development has created difficult choices for the community.
Rony told us about how developers built a road that cut off the Ciénaga de la Virgen from the ocean, creating environmental havoc with subsequent contamination and pollution in the surrounding mangrove forest. He said personally was very involved in fighting this “improvement” and that he and his fellow activists were successful in getting the developers to construct bridges where there had been walls, allowing the current and flow of water to resume.
La Boquilla residents, environmental organizations and academics all agree that the majority of the destruction of mangrove forests in Colombia is due to development.
“Because of the waterfront location of La Boquilla, large construction companies have taken advantage of the situation by constructing condominiums and buildings for the wealthy,” Rony told us. “This causes more people to be interested in investing in this area. Unfortunately, the land has become more expensive and the "development" has done nothing to help the community. The developers have no social responsibility.”
“If you look around La Boquilla, you can see all of the condominiums, which have harmed our ecosystem because they provide nothing to the community,” he pointed out. “As the area around La Boquilla has evolved in recent years, it has become prohibitively expensive. Locals have been persuaded to sell their land for a very low price.”
“They don't think of the fishermen in this area,” Rony said. “If a fisherman is doing his job in front of one of those massive hotels, he will be expelled because it doesn’t look good for them. They do not provide employment to the community, and those who do work for them are typically those with the lowest level jobs, like cleaning and being a doorman. As a result, people have been forced to leave.”
The 70 Law - Social Equity and Environmental Awareness
Rony explained that Colombia enacted a legislation called the 70 Law, which officially recognized Afro-Colombians as a distinct ethnicity and provided a legal foundation for the defense of Afro-Colombian territorial rights.
“This law was enacted in 1993 to protect the rights of afro and indigenous communities,” he told us. “It was first put into place in the Pacific area, where there is a predominance of the Afro community, then in all rural areas, and then in the coastal area. This was a debt owed by the government to these people since the 15th century, as a result of the trauma caused by slavery.”
“It is intended to make people feel like they belong to the land and vice versa,” Rony explained. “In this way, if people felt they were connected to the land, they would protect it and consider it part of their identity.”
The 70 Law also seeks to maintain the integrity of communities.
“This law grants the community a collective title in a community assembly that allows only people from this community to benefit from the land,” Rony said. “If someone refuses to accept the collective title, he or she will not benefit from the land. This title specifies the rights and duties that people must follow, where they can build, and what the land restrictions are. If a project is to be undertaken in La Boquilla, the entire community must agree.”
La Boquilla Eco Tours Preserves Origins By Sharing Way of Life
“We created La Boquilla Eco Tours because we were concerned that our community will eventually disappear,” Rony said. “We want to preserve our place and origins.”
With a blend of social equity and environmental awareness, Rony and his colleagues are doing just that.
After our day on the water, we enjoyed cooking and eating our catch along with coconut rice and fried plantains. It was a privilege to be welcomed into the La Boquilla community, and learn about and experience life among the mangroves.
More on Colombia