is one of the least visited, and therefore, most fascinating
countries in Latin America. The true land of El Dorado, Colombia's
natural wonders are still concealed in a mist of mystery and
legend. Few dare to explore its snow-capped mountains, wind-swept
desert, tropical forests, colorful coral reefs, vast plains.
Why? Some say bad international reputation, guerrillas, drug-related
violence. Parts of Colombia are definitely banned to international
travellers, but if you visit the Pacific coast along the Choco
Province your experience can be rewarding.
This region is still the realm of the elusive curassow and
a naturalist's paradise. Don't bring your credit cards or evening
dress. A hammock and rubber boots will be more appropriate here.
No luxurious hotels for miles or pompous yachts, if you want
to visit one of the last pristine stretches of coastline in
tropical America you will likely have to rely on more humble
accommodation and transportation: outboard dugout canoes, a
modest hotel, or a local's hut are usually the only options.
For those diehards who may actually venture into the Choco forest
of Colombia, Serrania del Baudo is a good choice.
Ending abruptly in the Pacific Ocean, the largely unexplored
Serrania del Baudo gives tropical exuberance a new meaning.
This coastal mountain is covered by lush tropical forest that
gives life to a myriad of plants, animals and crystal-clear
streams. The relentless Pacific ocean clashes with the forest
in a perpetual struggle for space, and every September humpback
whales enter the scene. To this unique ecosystem, only Utria
Sound National Park, and an adjacent Indian territory (called
in Colombia resguardos) offer an incipient, yet vital,
The region as a whole, known to conservation experts as Choco
Biogeografico, a tropical rain forest larger than Costa Rica,
extending from Panama to Ecuador along the entire Pacific coast
of Colombia, flanked between the western slopes of the Andes
and the Pacific Ocean.
Until recently the region's thick forest, abrupt terrain and
numerous rivers and streams stood in the way of progress, separating
the bustling urban centers of modern Colombia from the Pacific
Ocean. Only one major seaport, Buenaventura, was connected to
the rest of the country by an important road. Small towns and
villages, peopled by blacks and Ameri-Indians, survived in total
or partial isolation.
Overlooking the breathtaking and unspoiled Bay of Tribuga,
the village of Jurubida attests to this condition. To go to
Jurubida one must take a small commercial plane from Medellin
or Cali to the coastal town of Nuqui. From here you must proceed
on a small boat toward the north several miles, or on foot during
low tide. To the casual visitor Jurubida belongs to the past.
Cars have not yet conquered it. Electricity and telephone are
Women dry their freshly harvested rice on the streets while
they keep domestic animals at bay. Men paddle their dugout canoes
to their respective plots, where they grow a variety of food
crops, mostly for self consumption. Children learn to read in
a one-room schoolhouse, whose walls are decorated with forest
themes. Fresh water and good fishing are taken for granted,
they have a near inexhaustible supply. The people who live here
are the descendants of the African slaves, brought by gold-seeking
Spaniards more than two centuries ago, and they have leant to
share this region with the Embera people.
Going up the Jurubida river you will find an Embera village
laying just e few miles from the beach. Literally carved out
the tropical forest, the village is composed of a dozen or so
tambos, or stilt huts. The forest here shows little degradation,
and if it weren't for the dugouts beached along the river banks,
it would be difficult to notice the human impact.
Traditionally, the Embera people have lived in small family
groups dispersed throughout vast expanses of forest, practicing
hunting and gathering and slash-and-burn agriculture. To date,
despite considerable outside influence, this tradition is still
alive. Humberto Charampia is young member of the this Embera
community who takes a long hike to Nuqui (he seldom can afford
to pay for the boat ride) every week to attend school. He is
aware of the outside world and eager to see it. Yet, when he
returns to his village he goes back to his traditional ways.
The Embera are friendly people, but they make sure you understand
they are wary of outside threats. Like their Jurubida neighbors,
they fear that changes are inevitably coming to their land.
In fact, they are appearing over the horizon.
Several miles southeast of Jurubida the roar of bulldozers
heralds the arrival of a new highway, bound to connect the coffee-producing
region of Colombia to a proposed seaport on Tribuga Bay.
This is part of a grandiose development scheme formulated by
the national government since 1984, which has began a radical
transformation of the Choco forest an its ancient inhabitants.
A particularly ambitious project is to extend the road north
across Indian territory, dangerously close to Utria Sound national
Park, into Panama. This would bridge the only missing link (the
Darien Gap) in the Pan-American highway between Alaska and Patagonia.
In the context of Colombia this means trouble. Opening up the
region to the rest of the country and beyond will inevitably
funnel into the region people of all descriptions, from powerful
entrepreneurs and multinationals to landless peasants and outlaws.
This, of course, will result in the plundering of one of the
richest biodiversity preserves of the planet.
In fact, the destruction is well under way. The entire region
has reportedly lost 25 percent of its original forest, and counting.
Scientists warn that the rest will disappear within the next
50 years. Some ecosystems are so imperiled that as much as 50
percent of their plant and animal species are bound to vanish
during the next 12 years. The culprits, so far, have been logging
companies, gold mining operations and poor peasants hungry for
According to a recent report, industrial gold mining alone
is responsible for the destruction of 80.000 hectares (200,000
acres) of forest per year, which also threatens aquatic ecosystems
with sedimentation and dangerous levels of mercury. This is
particularly distressing if we consider that most plant and
animals species of the Choco forest are yet to be discovered
by science. Approximately 3,500 species of plants are known
to exist here, and scientists predicts that as many as 6,500
await identification -- one forth of which would be found here
and nowhere else. Because most of the environmental degradation
has occurred in populated areas and along major rivers of Choco
Biogeografico, Serrania del Baudo has thus far escaped major
depredation of its pristine ecosystems. The new road that is
bisecting Serrania del Baudo, however, will soon facilitate
its destruction. A modern seaport will inevitably doom Tribuga
Bay, and the people of Jurubida will lose what they took for
granted for so long.
Located north of Jurubida, Utria Sound National Park, and
neighboring Indian land, stand as the only hope for long-term
conservation of the area's unique ecosystems. Encompassing a
rare combination of tropical moist forest, mangroves, estuaries
and coral reefs, Utria has received considerable attention since
its creation in 1987, not only from the government but from
national and international non- governmental organizations as
well. It is indeed an admirable case within the troubled national
park system of Colombia. Where else in Colombia are you greeted
and lectured by an expert biologist on the park's ecology?
The park also has a well-kept visitor center and relatively
comfortable cabins for tired visitors, even scuba diving facilities.
The sound itself forms a protected lagoon whose tranquility
has lured humpbacked whales and marine turtles, among others,
since times immemorial. Miles of pristine beaches, forest trails,
an impressive waterfall, can still be seen here. But Utria can
not exist in isolation surrounded by environmental destruction.
Its 54,000 hectares (135,000 acres) are hardly noticeable within
the larger Choco Biogeografico. Although other national parks
do exist in the region, they are located far from Serrania del
Baudo and its coastal and marine environment.
If the Choco forest is to survive into the next century, conventional
economics must be redefined to include the rights of indigenous
communities to self determination, the cost of biodiversity
degradation and extinction, the political and social conditions
Large-scale development projects that so captivate powerful
economic interests may turn into an ecological and social nightmare
when they materialize in the context of a country like Colombia,
where environmental regulations are difficult to enforce, to
say the least. Indigenous people are well aware of this risk
and have frequently protested against government plans, including
the road. But the region is economically too important and thus
changes are inevitable. Maybe you will need your credit card
The author lives in Miami and can be reached via email