Behind the Scenes in Choachí

As I’ve probably mentioned before on this blog, working with local communities is one of my favorite parts of the ecotourism industry. Earlier this week I had the chance to spend a few days in Choachi ‘behind the scenes’ of the tour we offer there. After completing a our typical tour last Monday, I met up with Hernán, one of the guides in Choachí, and went to his mom’s house for dinner. It was great to meet some of the other locals in the area and get to know them better as people, not just tour guides. I learned about Hernán’s family and interests, and he learned about mine. When dinner was finally ready, I sat down at the table and realized how challenging it would be to finish the mountain of food on my plate. Though I simply could not finish all of it (like most meals in rural Colombian areas), everything on the plate was truly delicious.

Choachi is known for its dairy products, and after dinner I got to see how Cuajada is made. Cuajada is a very mild country cheese that is usually served with sweet blackberry jam or a Panela (sugar cane) sauce. I had seen Cuajada served in the Impact HUB market before, but I found a whole new respect for it watching how it was made. The process was fairly simple, but a bit time consuming, only producing a small amount of Cuajadas at one time.

When it was finally time to head to the home where I would spend the night, I hopped on the back of Hernán’s motorbike and was treated to some truly spectacular mountain views. The rare, clear night allowed the full moon to shine it’s pure white light on the cliffs, allowing shadows to play against the rocks. The ride from Hernán’s home to the next house only lasted about 5 minutes, but every second in the crisp, cool night air gave me a deeper appreciation for the home of the ancient Indians who once lived there.

It wasn’t long before the crisp, cool night air became absolutely frigid. When I arrived at the house where I would spend the next few nights, the family could tell I was absolutely freezing. I immediately put on every layer of clothing I had packed and the family began serving me every possible hot drink or soup imaginable. That night I drank 3 cups of agua panela, a hot sugar cane drink, as well as a bowl of soup. By 9:00 I was ready for bed (mostly to get some relief from the cold), and when I asked about waking up at 6:00 the next morning, normal by Bogota standards, the family just laughed and laughed. They explained that it was way too cold to wake up at 6, and that most people in the town wouldn’t be up until 8 at the earliest, once the day had warmed up a bit.

The next day was spent hiking with Hernán and Manuel, another local guide. We spent the morning slowly trekking through the waterfall trails, while I took more thoroughly about the history and local plants along the way. We explored a few sites that are not typically visited during our tours including ruins from an ancient oven and living space, páramo fields, and a beautiful, but difficult to reach waterfall. I was thrilled to see some of the hidden spaces in Choachi! Even though it was more challenging than usual, the hike was completely worth the beautiful views and untrodden landscapes I got to experience.

I also had the opportunity to see some stunning pictograms and rock art seen only be a few people in the area. After trekking through some farmland and crossing wooded streams, Hernán revealed an immense boulder covered in perfectly preserved pictograms. The red paintings gave an almost lace like appearance to the rock. It was truly amazing to see these centuries-old remnants of another culture in such good condition. Hernán and I took some time to interpret the symbols left by the people of the past the best we could. I shared what I knew about rock art from my anthropology experience and Hernán explained how the locals interpreted the paintings. I loved the knowledge exchange and learning about different opinions from the community.

My stay in Choachi ended with one last great meal from Doña Blanca, the cutest little lady in Choachi. Once we finished, I said goodbye to all of the people I had met and hopped on the back of Hernán’s motorbike once again to make the trip back to Bogota. I arrived home with wet clothes and a red, wind-burnt face, but neither could dampen my great experience staying in the mountain community.

- Sarah

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