La Boquilla: ecotours of life at the edge

by | Feb 26, 2017

One of our days in Cartagena was spent in La Boquilla, a fisherman’s town, though really now a marginal neighborhood in the outskirts of Cartagena. Before heading to Colombia Laura did some research and found an eco-tour of La Boquilla’s mangroves offered by a local company called Ecotours Boquilla. The tour was billed as an opportunity to support local fishermen, who would guide tourists through the mangroves and show them how to fish. The fishing session was to be followed up by lunch at the fisherman’s home. It sounded like a great opportunity to support a local community and to get to know its people, culture, and way of life.

We arrived at a small dock on the far northern edge of the town, where a narrow waterway breaks up the land, connecting the sea to the ciénaga. Here we met the tour organizer and our host, a woman whose friendly demeanor was nonetheless a bit too contrived. She introduced us to the fisherman who was to lead us through a morning of fishing, whom we will call Manrique.

Manrique was a weathered fisherman nearing his sixtieth birthday. Unlike the tour organizer he lacked the pretense of contrived conviviality. Manrique led us into his boat and began rowing us out into the mangroves that stretch between the sea and the ciénaga, and where we later found he has been fishing since he was a child.

It must be said that despite the closeness of the city, and the fact that a highway has been built astride over the waterways where the mangroves lie—it can be seen in the distance, breaking up the natural habitat—the mangroves of La Boquilla are beautiful.

The water is turbid, the mangroves themselves are in bad health, as Manrique pointed out to us; mussel colonies at the base of the mangroves feature a color that signals that they lack oxygen, because the water is polluted; and nonetheless the mangroves are full of fauna and wildlife, perhaps struggling to survive, perhaps gasping for air. We saw beautiful birds with long legs and long necks, posing on the shallow water along the mangroves. Manrique periodically stopped the boat, walked out into the narrow water with his hand-woven net, and caught small fish for our lunch, pointing out to us the different types of fish he caught as we went along. He laid traps along our path, to which we returned to find trapped little blue colored crabs.

Laura and I were not just there to watch, we were also involved in the operations, laying down traps and then picking them up, scooping the angry crabs into buckets. Manrique tried to show us how to fish. Watching him made the whole process seem effortless. Manrique would walk out in the shallow water, the net in his hands, then with a graceful half turn would release the net, which opened up like a butterfly and came down gracefully on the water, covering a maximum surface. Manrique would reel the net back in as a few lucky fish just managed to jump out of the net. He always managed to catch two to three fish. When it was out turn, we realized how much more difficult this was than it looked. We struggled to extend the net as we released it. Our half turns and our hand movements were stilted and comical, our net barely traveled a few feet away from our bodies, and the shape of our net as it flopped into the water was such that its cannon-ball action probably did more to alert fish to our intentions than anything else. Manrique patiently persisted in showing us the ropes, while another fisherman passing by chuckled at our cosmopolitan uselessness. The fishermen exchanged spirited calls in their localized Afro-Colombian dialect as they crossed each other on the waters.

Making our way through the mangrove forest

There is one sense in which this tour was exactly as advertised: it was an ecological tour in that its main theme was the loss of an ecological system. Manrique, who has traversed these waters for four decades, fishing the waters to feed and clothe his family, pointed out to us all the traces of decay and disappearance. The sick mussel colonies and the unhealthy roots of the mangroves; the sparse quantity of fish. Pointing to the bridge in the distance, he talked about its detrimental effect on the fish stock. He spoke to us of the days when he could fish just a couple of hours a day and catch enough fish to feed his family and have enough to sell at market. As he got more comfortable with us, as he gleaned from my questions that we were interested in his conditions of life, Manrique described the slow death of his way of life. One could no longer make a living from his form of sustainable and traditional fishing. Manrique’s main source of income was now tied to tourism. Proudly touting his heritage as an Afro-Colombian, he also uttered stories and rumors of violence against his people tied to hotel and land development interests. To say that these fishermen are settled in and depend on potentially lucrative tracts of waterfront property, and to recall the long history of private business affiliation with paramilitary death squads in Colombia, is to get a sense of their precarious situation.

Lunch was held at a home along the water. It was cooked by a young woman on an open-air stove: fish, crab, coconut rice, fried plantain. A radio played excellent local champeta music. We were asked to sit with another group of tourists while Manrique and another fisherman sat at a separate table. I did not appreciate this segregation, so I made my way over to the fishermen’s table to chat with them. I noticed that they had not been offered beers, as we had, and offered to buy a drink for them.

They seemed disgruntled, muttering under their breath about how the tour organizer used their labor and fishing knowledge to make money from tourism, while barely sharing any of the profits with them. One could have interpreted these complaints as designed to maximize their tip (a tip which they asked me to give them when the tour organizer was not looking); yet one does not disparage a partner in whom one has trust, and who treats one fairly. More probably, their words reflected a link between a need to ask for a tip in order to make ends and a willingness to disparage one’s employers, which perhaps speaks to a set of relations in which a local business owner is seen as exploiting the labor of those who are unable to access the tourist market: if Manrique could read the waters of the mangroves in order to know where to most efficiently throw his net, it was almost certain that he could not design a website to cater to tourists from abroad, like us.

This was a tour of a disappearing and beautiful ecology, natural and human, in which a marginal group of people with little wealth and power are poised at the mouth’s edge of an all-consuming multinational tourist industry. It was a lesson to those of us who want to travel the world and at the same time be aware of the dynamics through which the world is being molded, and at whose expense that molding is taking place. La Boquilla tours is perhaps flawed, perhaps even based on exploitation, yet at least it is tied to local economies and ways of life in such a manner as to allow the tourist with a conscience to really come into contact with local issues and concerns, and to glimpse the biospheres and ways of life that are hanging in the balance.

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Laura is one half of the traveling couple behind CoupleTakes. When she’s not traveling, she works as a law librarian in Las Vegas, NV and loves exploring the beautiful desert landscapes in the Southwestern United States on the weekends. Read her posts here.

Juan Pablo is one half of the traveling couple behind CoupleTakes. When he is not traveling he is at a desk somewhere pursuing his studies for his PhD Program in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University. Read his posts here.