If you're looking for an off the beathen track authentic itinerary in Colombia, this is the article for you!
Los Montes de Maria is a region in the North-East part of the country about 3 hours away from the Pearl of the Caribbean, Cartagena.
This incredible area suffered the sorrow of the armed conflicts for over 60 years, which contributed to give it a negative image linked to fear and violence.
Our aim with the project Escucha Colombia is precisely to help the development of these rural communities through responsible tourism that can highlight the importance of traditional music in the region. In fact, thanks to culture and typical rhythms, the inhabitants of los Montes de Maria are able to share their past in a different way:
''Music is the new gastronomy'' said the WTO (World Tourism Organisation).
One of the main characteristics of the region is the presence of a special ecosystem called Bosque seco tropical (Tropical dry forest). Bosque seco tropical is usually located between 0 and 1000m and is characterised by the alternation of intense rains and periods of drought which can sometimes last up to 5 months. This unique diversity makes it a perfect environment for plants, animals and microorganisms adapted to extreme conditions. 10% of Colombia's plants are actually found in the bosque seco tropical!
Here you can meet 131 species of birds, 23 species of amphibians, 14 reptiles, but also monkeys, felines, sloths…
However, it is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country, just think that from the original 9 million hectares in the 1980s, only 8% is still present. The main causes are the development of infrastructures and the intense agricultural activities that contribute to the destruction of the bosque seco tropical.
Let's start our discovery of los Montes de Maria through these stops:
Rincon del mar
San Jacinto: cradle of traditional handcrafts
San Jacinto is a small rural village of the Bolivar department in the region of los Montes de Maria. Be ready to live a real immersion discovering its cultural heritage linked to music and handicrafts, as well as the richness of the bosque seco tropical that presciously preserve archeological petroglyphs. Here, with San Jacinto Travel, you'll be able to explore the cultural richness of the urban part and the unique ecosystem of tropical dry forest in danger of extinction in the rural area through two thematic routes: Cultura y Tradición y Patrimonio verde. Through the Culture & Tradition route you'll play the musical instruments of gaitas with the Mestro Rafael Pérez García, dance with the children of the Corporación Escuela de Danzas Macumbé, you'll also meet Maestra Olivia and admire her know-how in the elaboration of hammocks. The musical heritage of Los Montes de Maria is not only characterised by the music of gaitas, but also by other indigenous rhythms including Cumbia, a musical genre very famous in Colombia, especially in the Caribbean region. In San Jacinto, the cultural foundation Andres Landero Rey de la Cumbia, is engaged to highlight Cumbia music in the region, particularly through teaching it to the new generations like little Sophie!
The Patrimonio verde route, instead, offers a real immersion in the rural area of San Jacinto. After a 2h walk in the tropical dry forest, you'll be able to swim in a refreshing natural swimming pool and to admire the ancient petroglyphs that the vegetation has preserved for years. And for a pleasing break once back in the village, you'll enjoy a coffee with cocoa tastes at Cierro Maco Coffee. We definitely had a big crush for San Jacinto and its people so passionate and in love with their culture. Each of them with an individual project while sharing the same vision on community tourism! If you visit San Jacinto, make sure to stay at Hostal el Telar, a cultural hostel owned by a passionate writer and his wife who are exquisite people!
Ovejas & the National Festival of Gaitas
Ovejas is the village of a dear friend, Joaquin. Here, the hot and humid weather makes every movement very slow, time seems to follow another rhythm.
Every year, Ovejas hosts the National Festival of Gaitas to celebrate the importance of this local instrument in the cultural identity of the region. For this occasion, gaitas passionate come from all over the country to listen to the best artists and to live the experience of the festival. In fact, festivals in Colombia have a particular importance: they are the expression of a glorious heritage and traditions that vary according to the specificities of every region.
In Ovejas, we met the local artist Henry Ortiz, part of the group los Gaiteros de San Jacinto. In his workshop it is possible to admire the art of musical instrument making, such an interesting experience to learn about the specific materials and techniques!
Thanks to Luma Fondation, we also had the chance to visit a school in the rural area of the village to offer some school kits to their children. This was definitely a special moment: it's so important so send these children a message of hope and positivity for their future, they have to know that education is an essential instrument to realise their dreams and better their life conditions.
Chalan, a special adventure immersed into nature
Time for a bit of adventure and adrenaline to discover los Montes de Maria !
Accompanied by two beatiful souls, Elliot and Angela, from the community based tourism organisation Etnia Trips, we started a 2-day trek from the village of Chalan.
Chalan will immediately surprise you for the pastel blue colour of its church surrounded by enchanting mountains that seem to protect the entire village.
The area is characterised by a tragic past, in fact during the armed conflict a donkey charged of explosive (el burro de Chalan) was sent to Chalan as a trap in order to kill many people. The aim of Etnia Trip is precisely to tell this story in a different way, through various cultural project.
In Chalan we bought the necessary food for the two days and we started a trek of about 2hours immersed in the dense forest of los Montes de Maria. Fresh air, the hot sun hitting our head, the smell of nature after the rain, the sound of the river, enchanting waterfalls hidden by vegetation and the passion of Elliot and Angela while telling us about this territory.
We then reached Refugio Altamira, a natural paradise immersed in the tropical dry forest created by Mr Rafael Narvaez, a passionate farmer of the area. The family of his son, cooked for us delicious meals during our staying in this natural reserve that Mr Rafael created to protect it from deforestation.
We spent the night here sleeping in hammocks lulled by the nocturnal sounds of nature and under a magic sky full of stars. Have you ever slept in hammocks?
Hammocks are a central element of mestizo and indigenous culture in Colombia.
For centuries in hammocks we sleep, we dream, we are born, we die,
we make love...
According to some theories, this object appeared in America about 1000 years ago. In los montes de Maria, the men of the Zenù tribe had a tradition of sending a traditional hammock to their future wife.
In Chalan I suggest you to stop at the cultural centre La Casa del Bonche that organises many interesting workshops and offers accommodation to visitors. For a delicious local meal, you have to stop at Restaurante y heladeria Linda Melissa, the owner Lydis is so sweet!
Rincon del Mar
And of course, a bit of relax and sweet Farniente on the Caribbean coast is well deserved! If you're trying to define paradise, Rincon del Mar could be the living expression!
Rincon del Mar is a small village between the mangroves and the Caribbean Sea characterised by a strong Afro-Colombian tradition. With the association Mundo Verde we made a tour of the mangroves combined with a hike in the tropical dry forest, this association uses 10% of the fallout from their tourist activity to ensure the cleaning of the mangroves and the treatment of waste.
Several experiences around traditional music such as Champeta dance lessons and Bullerengue drums lessons (two typical musical styles of the region), are perfect for a real immersion in the culture of this authentic community.
If you're looking for a responsible accommodation structure that recommend various local activities, Dos aguas lodge is part of a project that coexists with the local community and contributes to the sustainable development of Rincon del mar through tourism!
Definitely one of the most incredible travel experiences ever lived for the level of immersion and the passion of local people in sharing their projects and stories, proud of the cultural identity of the territory where they live.
To me, the perfect definition of what tourism should mean.