Sam Shroder is a Practical English for Success (PES) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Bólivar, Colombia.
There had been many ideas about what tourism in my site would look like, but what it seemed to shape into was this: a simple and realistic view of life in a town on the coast. That was it. We weren’t able to provide fancy accommodations, or mind-blowing hikes, or fine dining, but we had something real and authentic and interesting. What we could provide was a different kind of audience: the traveler who arrives in Cartagena, with no plan, hoping to see something interesting behind the veil of made-for-tourist attractions.
And we felt we had something interesting to offer. Our culture is rich, and tragic, and real, and it can be felt throughout every aspect of modern life in the town. Just to the south is another town, with a different rich history: one of artisanship and creativity, where local hammock and mochila-makers struggle against the brutal modernity of machines that can pump out near-identical products in little time for a fraction of the cost.
But these men and women artisans create something beautiful, with touches that the machines can’t imitate, and they do it through a humble, yet beautiful process on their patios and their front stoops. Introduced through a fellow PCV at that site, I spoke with one of the artisan cooperatives and learned that they had for sometime been interested in sharing knowledge of this process with tourists. With that, I began to work with them. A tourist visiting my pueblo would have the option of making a stop in the neighboring pueblo and would get a close-up view of the long and intricate process that is behind these hammocks and mochilas that characterize the region. For the artists it was a flow of potential clients, exposed to the works and the processes, and armed with the knowledge of how to distinguish a genuine hand-made product from a factory-produced one. A small fee went to the cooperative as well, to be used to support the art and fund materials. For the tourist it was an intimate look at the lives and livelihoods of locals, and a chance to learn about unique and long-standing traditions that help to shape daily life.
At the edge of my town, separated from the town by highway, is a wildlife reserve: a thousand-hectare monument to the endemic species of plants and animals that had occupied this region long before the town was founded in 1776. I had been to this sanctuary many times already before I approached the director about including it as part of a tourism project. And, in fact, the National reserve already received visits from foreigners. But despite this, it remained relatively unknown to people outside of the region. So, it too became part of the tour, offering tourists another view of the town and the abundant nature that surrounds it. Walking among the trees, with birds darting overhead, hoping for a glimpse of a sloth or a monkey, would perhaps be a welcome break to a tourist coming from bustling and energetic Cartagena. And it’s an opportunity to see something that is seen in only a handful of places in the country, and then nowhere else in the world: the cotton-top tamarin. The forest guide is quick to point out that sightings are a matter of luck, and this speaks to the purpose of the sanctuary: it is not for our viewing pleasure, but for the preservation of a forest threatened by looming deforestation. Any money from the tourism that remains after expenses are accounted for is donated to the local conservancy foundation, and, at the tourist’s request, is directed toward one of several projects dedicated to the continued survival of this sanctuary.
Spreading outward from the hub of the town, away from the sanctuary, and the highway, and the noise of the motos and picos, are miles of dirt paths that wind through the surrounding hills, passing through creeks and jungles and pastures, climbing up to hill peaks, and descending into valleys. This is the final element of tourism in my pueblo. Biking these long roads into the countryside is a popular pastime here, and the main hotel in town even offers bike rentals to do so. With that in mind, I worked with some local cyclists to offer as part of the tour a trip deep into the countryside to visit the small communities that live in the hills and experience, albeit briefly, a moment in the life of the campesinos.
It took a lot of time and a lot of work to bring these elements together. I spoke to dozens of people, each of whom had a different idea about what tourism should be in my site, and each idea pushed or pulled the project in a different direction. Taking each idea into account, I was able to pull together all of the aforementioned elements. I had many meetings with each group, hammering out details on the services they would provide and the compensation they would receive. I emphasized to them all the idea of sustainability, and the concept that the price that we would all set together for the tourism was a delicate balance, that it had to be high enough that each of them would be compensated for their time, work, and materials, and high enough not to devalue the experience, but low enough to be accessible. Many of you, PCVs, came and tried out different elements of the project, and through your feedback we were able to improve. One suggestion led me to work with the hotel on different breakfast options, teaching them how to make omelettes and pancakes.
After getting the initial ideas together, each visit and each run through made the project run smoother, and helped open up ideas for how to increase the benefit that it may provide to the town. The final improvement, and the final benefit that I hope this project leaves the town with is to provide an opportunity for local youth to act as the guides, to have a cultural exchange with visitors and to be the teachers of their town’s history and charm.
After nearly a year working on bringing this project together, the first official tour happened this past July. It worked pretty much as I had hoped, bringing different cultures together and hopefully creating a benefit for both visitors and locals. But most importantly, I think that it demonstrated to the people involved that this is possible: that they can make this work, and bring tourism to a town that has wanted it for some time.
After the first official tour I left the project, that until then I had done my best to push along, completely in the hands of my counterparts and told them that I would be happy to provide any help that they may need should they decide to take the next steps to make it a permanent feature. They were enthusiastic when we discussed it, but in the intervening weeks, I haven’t heard any more from them. This project may or may not continue, but for at least a moment the months of work were converted into a reality for two tourists, a motocarro driver, a sanctuary guide, an artisan, a coffee shop, hotel owners, a conservation foundation, and one local high school student who wanted to meet people from another culture.