Responsible tourism in Colombia

Tourism in Colombia is still a relatively new concept, and as such it has so far avoided many of the worst excesses of mass tourism, from coastlines covered in all inclusive resorts, to the race to the bottom in terms of prices. However, visitor numbers almost tripled in a decade since 2007, reaching 3.2 million people in 2017. While Colombia is huge, tourists are relatively clustered into the same few places, so ensuring that tourism develops gently and respectfully will be the challenge over the coming years. The country is an incredible ecological hotspot – the most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil – and many of its landscapes, from the high Andean páramo to the coastal Chocó rainforest, are fragile and filled with rare and endemic species. Colombia’s people, too, need to be treated with respect, and vacation companies will need to ensure they are not exploiting indigenous communities to meet their own needs, or taking advantage of people who have suffered for decades during brutal civil wars and guerrilla conflicts.

People and culture in Colombia

The Kogi

Trekking to the mountaintop Ciudad Perdida – the Lost City – could be described as Colombia’s Inca Trail. This five day expedition follows a river through dense jungle close to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and the heat, mud and humidity present physical challenges to trekkers. In Peru, the Quechua – modern day descendants of the Inca – are well known, and Quechua porters, cooks and sometimes guides will accompany travelers along the tough trail to Machu Picchu. In Colombia, the indigenous Kogi that live along the route to the Ciudad Perdida are the descendants of the Tairona people that built this ancient city. They are somewhat more mysterious and private than the Quechua, and a balance has not yet been struck between them and the thousands of tourists who trek here each year.

The Kogi are innate environmentalists who are at odds with Western society in many ways. They believe in a Mother Earth type creator-goddess, Aluna, and believe that non-Kogi are causing irreversible harm to the planet. They don’t like to be photographed and don’t wear shoes, so that their soles are always in contact with the earth. The Kogi have lived in the mountains self sufficiently, in virtual isolation, since the arrival of the Caribs in 1000 BCE, and then of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s.

Most Kogi still choose not to interact with outsiders, although the increasing popularity of the Ciudad Perdida trek means that some of them no longer have a choice. Some communities have opted to receive payment from trekking companies who cross their land, or are paid to be trail caretakers and even guides. This is controversial amongst the Kogi, who fear the spread of materialism and a conflict with their traditional values.

What you can do

At Responsible Travel, we generally encourage travelers to be involved with local communities: using local guides, making efforts to learn about traditional cultures and buying food or crafts direct from producers. In the case of the Kogi, this is not necessarily the most ethical option. Anyone who chooses not to be involved in tourism should be granted their privacy, and out here, money is certainly not the answer to all problems.

If considering the Ciudad Perdida trek, the best approach is to chat with your vacation company to find out how they address this issue. Do they do their best to leave the Kogi in peace, or do they employ willing guides en route? Do they visit Kogi villages? This is not a great option, as most Kogi prefer their villages to be closed to outsiders, and even if some village leaders have agreed to accept visitors, not all community members may be comfortable with this. Money might not always be the best form of payment; are companies contributing in other ways, such as by bringing food, medicine or perhaps school supplies?

If you encounter Kogi people during your trek, don’t approach them, and definitely do not take pictures. Even those who have ‘agreements’ with certain tour companies to allow photos may not be doing so willingly. If people do want to speak to you, by all means take the opportunity to have a conversation; pointing a camera in someone’s face can be an unnecessary barrier.

In 1990, BBC filmmakers worked with the Kogi to create a film which acted as a kind of warning to the Western world about the dangers facing the planet, including climate change, drugs and violence. 22 years later, the Kogi created a ‘sequel’ called Aluna, with their own film crew. It is worth watching these films to gain a great insight into Kogi beliefs and perhaps also to learn something about caring for our planet, too

Wildlife & environment in Colombia

As tourism is still in its infancy in Colombia, rather than focusing on the impacts it has had on the country, it is better to consider those it might have in future – both positive and negative. Colombia has a huge potential to become a leading destination for wildlife vacations, thanks to its phenomenal biodiversity, but in order for this to happen it will need to make a solid effort to protect its natural resources.

The demise of the FARC and the end of the 52 year civil war that blighted the country is what has now made tourism possible here, and this also has implications for Colombia’s landscapes. The guerrilla army blew up oil pipelines, sprayed toxic herbicides on illegal plantations, and established illegal mines. Close to 60 percent of deforestation in Colombia took place in areas affected by the conflict. Conversely, the presence of the FARC acted as a deterrent for industrial logging, mining and agricultural companies – as well as smaller scale farmers – so in certain areas, resource exploitation may have been reduced.

The regions most affected by the conflict are, unsurprisingly, some of the poorest in the country. While there are plans to create protected areas and focus on the restoration of decimated landscapes, in order to stand a chance of success, any initiative will need to support local communities and allow them, too, to recover from the war. Responsible tourism has the potential to do both; incentivising communities to keep their surrounding environment intact, while allowing them to make sustainable incomes and develop infrastructure.

There are promising initiatives underway, with schemes to train over 1,000 former FARC fighters to become forest guardians, teaching them to track and report illegal activity. These initiatives promote sustainable farming techniques as well as responsible tourism, and some of the trainees may go on to become national park rangers – the perfect marriage of the guerrillas’ jungle survival skills and instincts, and the need to reintegrate them in civil society.

What you can do
Seek out tours to some of the regions badly affected by the civil war. Although many are still out of bounds to tourists, others, such as Nuquí and Utría on the Pacific Coast, are now safe. On the edge of the coastal Chocó Rainforest, they present opportunities to discover the jungle and mangroves, as well as being one of the only places in the world where you can watch humpback whales from the shore, from July to November.
When traveling in delicate environments – whether mangroves, the high páramo, the Amazon or the offshore islands – be conscious of your behaviour. Take a self filtering water bottle, remove all waste, and never pick plants or touch or feed wildlife. Check your tour company works with local guides, and uses locally run accommodation and restaurants wherever possible. Community development is just as important to conservation as direct environmental action.

Responsible tourism tips

Learn as much Spanish as you can before traveling to Colombia, and pick up words from your tour leader and local guides as you go along. It’s a great icebreaker, will really help you out and also shows respect for your hosts. There are plenty of great, Colombian owned hotels, guesthouses and lodges around the country. If you’re on a tailor made vacation, do ask your tour operator to book locally owned accommodation whenever possible. Try and choose locally owned restaurants, too.
Rosanna Neophytou from our supplier, Tucan Travel: “Be aware of the indigenous cultures that still remain in some regions – do not take photos without asking as some believe that the soul escapes when you take a photo.”
There are captive dolphins on the islands around the Caribbean Coast. At Responsible Travel, we do not believe it is ethical to keep cetaceans in captivity, and we have campaigned against this in the past. Head to Colombia’s Pacific Coast instead to see humpbacks breaching offshore from July to November, or seek out mysterious pink river dolphins in the Amazon. Never touch or feed wildlife, even if your guide encourages you to do so. Report any guides that offer interaction with wildlife, such as handling them or taking wildlife selfies. Colombia’s long civil war is extremely fresh in people’s minds. Many communities are still affected, and Colombia has the highest number or internally displaced refugees of any country in the world. You may hear talk of the troubles, or of La Violencia – if you do, listen and learn, and be respectful with your questions and opinions. Pablo Escobar may seem like the ultimate TV baddie thanks to films and series broadcast in the West, but there is nothing entertaining about the death and violence that he provoked across Colombia. Tread sensitively. Scott Marquardt from our supplier Tucan Travel, explains: “Part of responsible tourism is respecting local culture. Even if you loved the TV show "Narcos" understand that many people´s lives were affected by the unrest caused by the cartels, try and avoid doing the "Pablo Escobar tours" which only glorify a dark period in Colombian history. You can get much more interesting information on Colombian culture and history from one of the excellent free walking tours.”
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Nick Harris] [Flag: Flavia Carpio] [Rainforest - ruins: McKay Savage] [Wildlife & environment in Colombia: Sebastian Di Domenico] [Colombian woman with fish: Juan Jaramillo]