The coffee growers in wide brim. hats and frayed shoulder towels are piled on a pick-up truck waiting to receive a box of young trees. The task of the day is to plant 300 guayacan trees donated by the Autonomous Corporation of Santander in Las Gachas, as part of a reforestation project in this mountainous department to protect a stream that collects water in a series of deep rock pools, before arriving to the rough waters. of the suarez.
In the heart of a region that depends on cattle ranching and coffee harvesting, the flow of Las Gachas extends for several kilometers, and until just four years ago, it was known that deep wells existed among the locals and a thread of adventurers Exploring the slopes of the Yariguíes mountain range.
When it became known in the travel guides that this granite rock formation used by ranchers as a watering hole for their beasts of burden could be promoted as an attraction, the reputation of Las Gachas went from being a curiosity to being a rival to another of the wonders most unique natural resources in Colombia: El Caño. Crystals. Although there are clear similarities between the "Rio de los Cinco Colores" in the Serrania de la Macarena and Las Gachas National Park, the ecological footprint in the latter has begun to take its toll, destroying the threads of green algae that hold the water moving. From a smooth stone terrace to the next.
The planting of the first 500 trees out of a total of 10,000 marked the beginning of a community initiative in Las Gachas to recover a bathing place that receives about 50 visitors every day, including many foreigners. "You are sitting in bags of gold, but you die of hunger," comments Carlos Alberto Duque to a group of cattlemen, coffee farmers and small hotel operators, gathered under a tin roof. "You can not blame the state for losing your income for tourism, you can only blame your mental state."
The harsh words of the expert in tourism, who designed the Gabriel García Márquez literary route for the Colombian government, not only addressed those who have a stake every day, picking up beer bottles and cans discarded in the reeds by negligent . visitors, but also in the highest authority of Guadalupe, the closest city to Las Gachas, Libardo Romero.
"As a small city with 6,700 inhabitants, we are joining forces with the private sector, educators and our students to inculcate a sense of environmental responsibility. Our ecosystems are very fragile, and if we do not self-sustain ourselves, we will disappear in a few years from the tourism map, "said the mayor before planting the first guayacán.
The challenges Guadeloupe faces with the adoption of sustainable tourism are repeated throughout the country, and many other remote communities lack even the most basic water and sanitation infrastructure. As young people migrate from the countryside to find stable work in large cities, finding qualified and bilingual staff to work in hotels and hostels is another challenge. "In the next decade, 80% of the farmers will reach the age of 70, and are a critical population for the promotion of rural destinations, "Duque believes," since they are the only ones who know the land and wildlife better than anyone. "
As the midday sun takes over the valley, local farmers are busy staking wooden stakes on the ground to loosen the soil for the seedlings. Women and children also participate by going up and down the steep ravines of Las Gachas with ceramic cups of panela water to put out the villagers who attended to see how the echo happened. For Jairo Rincón, owner of the largest hotel in the region, Las Terrazas Campestre, reforestation is reduced to protecting the resource on which the entire tourist industry depends: water and, as a vocal representative of the private sector, the problem of waste resides in his companions. Santanderanos
"Our foreign visitors do not damage the environment because they invest a lot of money when they come here, not even those who drive from Bogotá, because this also implies a financial cost, but when Bucaramanga hikers think that this is a backyard, it is when we started to see illegal fires and quad routes in a wetland in danger of extinction. "
In a decision to protect the Macarenia clavigera Alga that gives Caño Cristales its bright colors, the Colombian government closed all accesses to the park in December 2018, ending a year in which 15,000 tourists registered. However, the decision was also based on a series of incidents harmful to the ecosystem with 4×4 rally drivers trying to cross the river.
"It is not an option for us in Las Gachas to close our main attraction," Rincón believes, "but if conservation is not a team effort, then all we will have are empty rooms."
For Duque, sustainable tourism also comes down to understanding how the term "luxury" is applied to industry. "Luxury tourism is not what shines in a hotel, it's what makes the heart beat faster, luxury in tourism is not a room with a view, but a community that understands the economy of landscapes."