The coffee farmers in wide brim sombreros and frayed shoulder towels huddle over a pick-up truck waiting to receive a crate of saplings. The day’s task is to plant 300 guayacán trees donated by the Autonomous Corporation of Santander in Las Gachas, as part of a reforestation project by this mountainous department to protect a stream that collects water in a series of deep stone pools, before reaching the raging waters of the Suaréz.
At the heart of a region that depends on cattle farming and the coffee harvest, Las Gachas’ flow extends for several kilometers, and until as recently as four years ago, the deep wells were only known to exist among locals and a trickle of adventurous weekenders exploring the slopes of the Yariguíes range.
When word got out in travel guides that this granite rock formation used by ranchers as a watering hole for their beasts of burden could be promoted as an attraction, Las Gachas’ reputation went from curiosity to rival of another of Colombia’s most unique natural wonders – Caño Cristales. Even though there are clear similarities between the “River of Five Colors” in the Serranía de la Macarena National Park and Las Gachas, the ecological footprint in the latter has begun to take its toll, destroying the threads of green algae that keep the water moving from one smooth stone terrace to the next.
The planting of the first 500 trees of a total 10,000 marked the start of a grass-roots initiative in Las Gachas to reclaim a bathing spot that receives some 50 visitors every day, including many from overseas. “You are sitting on sacks of gold, but dying of hunger,” remarks Carlos Alberto Duque to a cast of cattle ranchers, coffee growers and small hotel operators, assembled under a rickety tin roof. “You can’t blame the state for losing your tourism revenue, you can only blame your state of mind.”
The tough words from the tourism expert, who designed the Gabriel García Márquez literary route for the Colombian government, weren’t just aimed at those who have a stake every day, picking up discarded beer bottles and tin cans left behind in the reeds by negligent visitors, but also at the highest authority of Guadalupe, the closest town to Las Gachas, Libardo Romero.
“As a small town with 6,700 inhabitants, we are joining forces with the private sector, educators, and our students to instill a sense of environmental responsibility. Our ecosystems are very fragile, and if we don’t become auto-sufficient, we will disappear in a few years from the tourism map,” said the mayor before planting the first guayacán.
The challenges Guadalupe faces with embracing sustainable tourism is replicated across the country, with many other remote communities lacking even the most basic water and sanitation infrastructure. As young people migrate from the countryside to find steady work in large cities, finding skilled and bilingual staff to work in hotels and hostels is another challenge. “Within the next decade, 80% of Colombia’s campesinos will reach the age of 70, and they are a critical population for the promotion of rural destinations”, believes Duque, “as they are the only ones who know the terrain and wildlife better than anyone.”
As a midday sun bears down on the valley, local farmers are busily driving wooden stakes into the ground to loosen the soil for the seedlings. Women and children also participate climbing up and down the steep ravines of Las Gachas with ceramic mugs of agua de panela to quench the villagers who turned out to watch the eco happening. For Jairo Rincón, owner of the region’s largest hotel Las Terrazas Campestre, the reforestation comes down to protecting the one resource on which the entire tourism industry depends – water, and as a vocal representative of the private sector, the garbage problem lies with his fellow Santanderanos.
“Our foreign visitors don’t harm the environment because they invest a lot of money coming here. Not even those who drive the distance from Bogotá, because this also entails a financial cost. But, when day-trippers from Bucaramanga think that this is a backyard, that’s when we start seeing the illegal campfires and quad bike tracks through endangered wetland.”
In a decision to protect the Macarenia clavigera algae that give Caño Cristales its bright colors, the Colombian government closed all access to the park in December 2018, ending a year that witnessed a record 15,000 tourists. The decision, however, was also based on a series of damaging incidents to the eco-system with rally drivers in 4x4s attempting to cross the river.
“It’s not an option for us in Las Gachas to close-off our main attraction,” believes Rincón, “but if conservation isn’t a team effort, then all we’ll have are empty rooms.”
For Duque, sustainable tourism also comes down to understanding how the term “luxury” applies to the industry. “Luxury tourism isn’t that which glitters in a hotel, but that which makes the heart beat faster. Luxury in tourism isn’t a room with a view, but a community that understands the economy of landscapes.”