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Our Blog: Uncover Magical Colombia

The first in the Colombia Blog Series by Colombia Photo Expeditions, in which Kike Calvo profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on Colombia for journalism, ecotourism, science, exploration and photography.

We invite you to explore our site including:

Why Colombia?

Why Us?

Upcoming Expeditions 

Colombia on the Media

Are you a journalist, organization or tour operator in need of images of Colombia? VWPics.com archives one of the best photo libraries about Colombia, including the widest range of bird photographs in the market.
Photo: Rusty Flowerpiercer © Juan Jose Arango / VWPics

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Have You Ever wondered about the Origins of La Salsa Caleña?

Learn about the history and origins of La Salsa Caleña in this Spanish interview with Benhur Lozada. Sound was recorded by visual anthropologist and photographer Kike Calvo. If you happen to use the content of this interview as research for a blog post or an article, please do credit us. I invite you to listen to the interview, but also to check our suggested readings about Colombia. Or why not, ask us about our new Colombia Music Tours.

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Dancers from Ensaltase on a private performance at La Viejoteca La Matraca. Photo © Kike Calvo

To learn Explore the Land of a Thousand Rhythms, read of last article on Colombian music, including Vallenato, Canciones de Vaqueria, Salsa, Champeta, Son Palenquero, Rap Palenquero and much more.

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Cartagena’s Next Hip Restaurant?

As writer Ashley Mateo wrote in Time yesterday  “With its pink steel bars, exposed brick and piping, and wall paintings of jungle plants, Interno could be any other hip Colombian restaurant. But the employees inside aren’t just prepping food—they’re serving time. The 60-seat restaurant is located in a cordoned-off area of Cartagena’s San Diego prison, a minimum-security facility that’s the last stop for women before they’re released.”

We are very happy to see that the photograph of choice was taken by our founder Kike Calvo .

 

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Colombia: So You Want to Explore the Land of a Thousand Rhythms?

This is the latest post in the Colombia Blog Series by Kike Calvo which profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on Colombia related to journalism, ecotourism, visual anthropology, exploration and photography. This article belongs to the author’s lifelong series The Güepajé Project.

For the past few weeks I embarked on a rather remarkable music exploration around Colombia with Colombia Photo Expeditions. Most people have probably heard of, and hopefully danced to, international hits by artists like Shakira and Carlos Vives. But fewer are familiar with other of the many folk rhythms, which are as vibrant and fascinating as the interconnection between music, literature and daily life in this country. Through my field notes, audiographs and conversations with locals, this article explores the diversity of musical expression in some of the musical hotspots in Colombia, ”the country of a thousand rhythms”, which are actually calculated at 1,025. Not too shabby.

Palenque

A visit to San Basilio de Palenque is a trip back in time. Its insularity from mainstream Colombia is one of the reasons it was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The village is also considered the first free town in the Americas.

On arrival, travelers will be welcome by high temperatures and dusty streets. Maybe not much to this town after all? Wrong. The strong and proud Afro-Colombian spirit in this town tells the story of human tenacity and is likely to touch your heart. Four hundred years ago, when ships transporting African slaves arrived to Cartagena, many escaped and settled in then remote and hard to access Palenques. A statue of Benkos Bioho, who established Palenque in the early 1600s with other runaway slaves (cimarrones), embellishes the main square. Language of choice, Creole, celebrating their African roots.

Musician and singer Jose Keymer, member of upcoming Colombian music group Kombilesa Mi, and creator of the new genre called Rap Folkloriko Palenquero, a fusion of urban rap, sang in palenque language and incorporating traditional rhythms of the area. San Basilio de Palenque was declared Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and is considered the first free town in America.The word

Musician and singer Jose Keymer, member of upcoming Colombian music group Kombilesa MI. They play a new genre called Rap Folkloriko Palenquero (RFP), a fusion of urban rap, sang in palenque language and incorporating the traditional rhythms of the area. Photo © Kike Calvo / Colombia photo expeditions

I separated from my group trying to capture the essence of this town and I arrived a little late to Kombilesa Mi studio. When I entered I was blown away by the energy and the rhythms of resistance of this group. Lead by Afro Neto, their music combines the sounds of hip hop with Afro-Colombian roots. The new genre is called RFP, which stands for Rap Folklorico Palenquero. There is no doubt to me that this new generation of Palenquero musicians have a very distinctive vision and voice of their own.

“When I feel something, the first thing that I do is think about music,” said Jose Valdes Torres, member of Kombilesa Mi. “Music is a universal way to express all our feelings. The hardest thing here is that we are all farmers. We live from what the land gives us. Also from music, and from Las Palenqueras who visit Cartagena daily, in an attempt to sweeten the life of all Colombians (selling traditional sweets).”

“Here in Palenque we grow up by cuadros,” said Kombilesa member José de Jesús Valdes Sala. “The term refers to any kind of social organization. Whether your group of friends or a corporation you belong to, you share this friendships until the end of your life cycle.”

Palenquero boy holding his drum. San Basilio de Palenque was declared Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and is considered the first free town in America.The word

Palenquero boy holding his drum. San Basilio de Palenque was declared Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and is considered the first free town in America.The word “palenque” means “walled city.” Photo © Kike Calvo / colombia photo expeditions

At Palenque´s Cultural Center I experienced being immersed in the rhtyhms of 15+ drums playing a symphony of color and sounds. ¨For us, drums are a key element of daily existance and culture in Palenque,¨said Andreus Valdes Torres, director of the Casa de la Cultura. “It is through them that we share our feelings, happy or sad. We use drums to say goodbye to our deceased during funerals. But we also use them to transmit happiness during our joyful celebrations. In Palenque you can listen to many rhythms including lumbalu, bullerengue, la chalupa, mapale, puya, catalina and culebra.”

Palenquero Edilson Sala, 15, plays the drum. San Basilio de Palenque was declared Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and is considered the first free town in America.The word

Palenquero Edilson Sala, 15, plays the drum. Palenque de San Basilio is only one of many walled communities that were founded by escaped slaves as a refuge in the seventeenth century. Many of the oral and musical traditions of palenque have roots in Palenque’s African past.                 Photo © Kike Calvo / national geographic creative

Our Palenque experience continued with sampling of local cuisine delicacies near a banana plantation. We shared lunch with some local celebrities, such as musician and composer Rafael Cassiani, leader of El Sexteto Tabalá, known as Kings of the Son Palenquero. To understand the history of this place it is key to listen to songs such as Las Orillas de un Río and Clavo y Martillo. Tabalá means war drum in the local tradition.

AUDIOGRAPH: Son Palenquero sang by Rafael Cassiani.  Audio recorded by Kike Calvo in a banana plantation. San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia. Headphones are recommended.

Emelia Reyes Salgado, La Burgos, and her group “Alegres Ambulancias de San Basilio de Palenque” showed up to this gathering. As the heavy rain adorned the atmosphere with background noise, La Burgos sang songs that are living proof of the espiritual bond of Palenque with Africa.

La Burgos, Alegres Ambulancias de San Basilio de Palenque, afro-colombian, musician, outdoors, palenquera, dialect Photo © Kike Calvo

Afro-colombian singer La Burgos sings a mixture of African dialects with Spanish and Portuguese. her group las Alegres Ambulancias is the main keeper of the Lumbalu songs, the Afro-Colombian funeral tradition. photo © Kike Calvo / colombia photo expeditons

AUDIOGRAPH: “Graciela, Apaga la Luz” sang by La Burgos. Sound recorded in a banana plantation,  San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia. Audio by Kike Calvo.  Headphones are recommended

On departure, a strong rainstorm began in the area, with lightening striking not far from the roofed space where we had lunch. Then our van got stuck in the mud. As we pushed the van out of the mud I kept thinking about their Bantoo sounds and the cantos de Lumbalú. These Afro-Colombian funeral songs have remained intact for centuries, honoring the dead with rum and music.

As we drove away, Bullerengue sounds faded in the distance. A slow and emotional dance from the Caribbean Region, Bullerengue is a cumbia-based style traditionally sung exclusively by women.

Cali

For those who love Latin American music, Cali needs no introduction. Cali is considered the Salsa capital of the world. My first thought? I may have arrived to the right place.

For the locals or caleños, salsa is a native sound, a musical style to be proud of, and this clearly permeates the Cali culture. There are dozens of salsa schools in the city, Swing Latino, Rucafé, or Tango Vivo & Salsa Viva just to name a few. You could potentially dance salsa everyday of the week, which may actually be a dream to many.

Representation of characters of the tradition of the Cauca Valley. Several life-inspired local characters were incorporated by Enrique Buenaventura to his experimental theatre play La Mojiganga and now a must during the Feria de Cali. Photo © Kike Calvo

Representation of characters of the tradition of the Cauca Valley. Several life-inspired local characters were incorporated by Enrique Buenaventura to his experimental theatre play La Mojiganga and now a must during the Feria de Cali. Photo © Kike Calvo / national geographic creative

But what stole my heart about music in Cali was the Viejotecas. In 2001 Popular Music magazine perfectly described the viejoteca phenomenon in Cali, referring to local discos that began holding afternoon dances, Old-theques, catering to the young at heart or 50+ crowds.

I visited La Matraca, in the Obrero Neighborhood to attend a private performance from Ensalsate, a dance cabaret type show, that fusions genres and musical rhythms, in a perfect combination of sounds, color and music.

When in Cali you will probably pass by a giant golden sculpture in the shape of a trumpet that reads the word Niche. It was created in memory of Choco-born musician Jairo Varela, creator of the salsa group Grupo Niche. Each of the bells plays the rhythm, harmony and melody of a different song. This landmark will point you to the entrance to the Museo Jairo Varela. Cali and Varela were forever immortalized in the nation’s rich musical history thanks to his nationally acclaimed song ¨Cali Pachanguero¨.

Dancers from Ensaltase on a private performance at La Viejoteca La Matraca. Photo © Kike Calvo

salsa Dancers from Ensaltase at La Viejoteca La Matraca in cali’s Obrero Neighborhood. Photo © Kike Calvo / colombia photo expeditions

But Cali goes beyond salsa sounds. Each year, rhythms such as Currulao or Chirimia infuse the breeze that descends from the Farallones mountains. The city hosts the Petronio Alvarez Music Festival, where the Marimba de Chonta and other instruments are used to play the traditional music of the Colombian Pacific Region. Mesmerized audiences come to pay homage to the Afro-Colombian culture year after year, listening to local and international bands that play Pacific indigenous music.

Grandson of the iconic Colombian composer Petronio Alvarez, Esteban Copete, born in Choco, is one of the members of Kinteto Pacifico. Copete has explored the musical tradition of the Pacific Region, such as Currulao or Chirimia, and has combined them with Jazz, Bossa Nova and R&B. Photo © Kike Calvo

Grandson of the iconic Colombian composer Petronio Alvarez, Esteban Copete, born in Choco, is one of the members of Kinteto Pacifico. Copete has explored the musical tradition of the Pacific Region, such as Currulao or Chirimia, and has combined them with Jazz, Bossa Nova and R&B. Photo © Kike Calvo / Colombia photo expeditions

Grandson of the iconic Colombian composer Petronio Alvarez, Esteban Copete, born in Choco, is one of the members of Kinteto Pacifico. Copete has explored the musical tradition of the Pacific Region, and now combines Currulao and other Pacific traditional rhythms with Jazz, Bossa Nova and R&B.

AUDIOGRAPH: Agua Abajo played on a Marimba de Chonta by Esteban Copete. Sound recorded in Cali, Colombia. Audio recorded by Kike Calvo.  Headphones are recommended

For musical explorers a visit to Bongo master José Ovidio Quinonez Workshop, locally known as Billo, could well be a treat. He integrated orchestras, which accompanied the different iconic singers such as Daniel Santos, Celia Cruz, Miguelito Valdez, Maelo Ruiz, Roberto Lugo, Luisito Carrion, Tito Nieves or Santiago Ceron. Today he works from his space in Barrio Villa Colombia, and teaches percussion to new generations.

“I arrived to this same house in 1962,” said Billo. “I never thought I would raise my family being a musician when I played Guarachas as a kid using old food cans. But it came true. My parents had to hide my drums so I would focus in my studies. But whenever I had the chance I would bring the rhythm out of those cans, Tiki tiki taka ta Tiki tiki taka ta.” His first recording was “Atiza y ataja” around the year 1971 with composer Edulfamid Molina Díaz, aka Piper Pimienta.

Portrait of Conga and Bongo music master Ovidio Quinonez, locally known as Billo, in his home and workshop. Photo © Kike Calvo

Portrait of Conga and Bongo music master Ovidio Quinonez, locally known as Billo, in his home and workshop in cali. . Photo © Kike Calvo / colombia photo expeditions

When asked what makes the Salsa from Cali so special he quickly answered. “It is the magic we as caleños bring to the stage when we perform,” said Billo. “A way of playing that people really enjoy, a special spice.”

Valledupar

As I arrive in the land of troubadours, Valledupar, a city in northern Colombia known as the capital of vallenato music, the snowy peaks of the Sierra stare at us. The word vallenato means native of the valley. The expression was later used to refer to the music created in this region. Every April, Valledupar hosts one of the most important music festivals in the country, The Vallenato Legend Festival.

The Guatapuri River, flows from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta into the Cesar River in northern Colombia by the city of Valledupar. Photo © Kike Calvo

The Guatapuri River, flows from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta into the Cesar River in northern Colombia by the city of Valledupar. Photo © Kike Calvo / colombia photo expeditions

Minutes after my arrival I decide to go for a stroll. Soon I see a big crowd gathering around a bright yellow bridge. As I get closer, young locals are cliff diving Acapulco-style, passing close to giant rocks, into the Guatapurí River. The pure water glides down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains all the way into town. My heart stops for a second when I approach the railings as the bridge is quite high. Then I raise my camera to compose a scene including the golden statue of Rosario Arciniegas, a little girl that according to legend, turned into a mermaid after swimming in these waters. Folk stories like this and daily life scenes fuel the Vallenato genre.

Andres Turco Gil accordion academy trains young children in the music of vallenato, many of them are refugees from violence or live in poverty. Photo © Kike Calvo

The academia de musica vallenata Andres Turco Gil trains young children in the music of vallenato. many of them are refugees from violence or live in poverty in rural areas of colombia.Photo © Kike Calvo / national geographic creative

For any musical explorer, the Academia de Musica Vallenata Andrés Turco Gil is a must. Even the uninitiated will have their foundations rocked. Each classroom has the names of deceased “juglares” or singers. Alejo Duran, Colacho Mendoza, Juancho Rois surround in spirit pupils as they practice. The place is the alma matter of the talented Niños del Vallenato, who have performed for people such as Bill Clinton, Hugo Chávez and even the Emperor of Japan. “I don’t know where we would be without this music,” Gil said to the New York Times in 2004. “A pure vallenato tastes like the mountains, like the forests.”

Since 1979, master Andrés Eliécer Gil Torres (nicknamed “El Turco” by his grandfather), began teaching accordion under the shade of the trees in the patio of his house in the Primero de Mayo neighborhood. It was not until 1985, that “El Turco” Gil formally founded the music school. Bill Clinton, in his book “Giving: How each of us can change the world”, describes in one of his pages “I wish every conflict area had a teacher like Maestro Gil and children like Los Niños Vallenatos.

AUDIOGRAPH: Vallenato by country-side blind accordionist Juan David Atencia, student of the Academia de Música Vallenata Andrés “Turco” Gil. Valledupar, Colombia. Audio recorded by Kike Calvo.  Headphones are recommended

It doesn’t take long before the visitor realizes that valduparenses love their roots and make a conscious effort to show it. Multiple monuments around the city celebrate their roots. One hour north, in a small town called Patillal, the Parque de las Monedas is a fun outdoor monument that displays one meter golden coins portraying the faces of musical masters such as Rafael Escalona and Freddy Molina on one side, and lyrics of their songs on the other. And if you didn’t realize it, the name of the town comes from the delicious patilla fruit (watermelon).

Hidden in San Joaquin neighborhood we visited a music gem, Beto Murga’s Accordion Museum, that boosts a collection of accordions and bandoneons carefully curated. Hosted by Beto and his wife Rosa Duran, the couple charmingly shared with us the stories behind the collection with pieces originally from as far as Germany, Italy, Russia or the Czech Republic.

“This collection began from the nostalgia of a father,” said Murga. “When my son was five years old, I bought him a accordion. As he grew up, I kept it in my studio. What happened was that years after, Colombian vallenato composers Emiliano Zuleta Baquero (The Old Mile) and Moralito (Lorenzo Morales) visited my studio, and immediately they were drawn to my son’s accordion, starting to share stories about their early beginning. That is how I started doing field research about the world of the accordion.” Needless to say that from a musical controversy between the two in 1938, the Vallenato masterpiece of La gota fría emerged.

Colombian vallenato composer Beto Murgas at his home and accordion museum. Photo © Kike Calvo

Colombian vallenato composer Beto Murgas at his home and accordion museum. Photo © Kike Calvo / colombia photo expeditions

“Acordate Moralito de aquel día

Que estuviste en Urumita

Y no quisiste hacer parranda

Te fuiste de mañanita

Sería de la misma rabia …/…”

 Before my day ended, we visited the headquarters of the Festival del Vallenato. Every year, The Festival features a vallenato music contest for best interpreter of accordion, caja vallenata and guacharaca, as well as piqueria (battle of lyrics) and best song. Its origin dates back to 1968 when the celebrated vallenato composer Rafael Escalona, Alfonso López Michelsen, and the writer Consuelo Araújo, came up with the idea of organizing a festival that celebrated vallenato, a musical genre that’s autochthonous to Colombia’s northern Atlantic coast.

As the breeze refreshed the starry Colombian night, Arahuaco singer and composer Jose Ricardo Villafañe joined us in a traditional parranda. With the arrival of the accordion in the 20th century the indigenous gaita pipes, which had been used since pre-Columbian times, was replaced.

AUDIOGRAPH: “La Casa en el Aire” sang in Arahuaco indigenous language by Ricardo Villafañe with Alvero José Lima. Valledupar, Colombia. Audio recorded by Kike Calvo.  Headphones are recommended

“In Valledupar the traveler will find sources of inspiration,” said Murgas. “Here we have singed to the mountains, to the flatlands, to the Rio Guarapuri, to our girlfriends. Here you will find friend gatherings or parrandas, were locals gather to listen to music and to sing songs pleasing their friends. This is why Valledupar is the Vallenato capital of the world.”`

Llanos

In Los Llanos things still remain the way they used to be in many parts of the world. Cows are milked at dawn to accompany the morning coffee and gain energy for the daily chores. Daily tasks are accompanied by an oral tradition known as cantos de vaquería. Songs from the soul, and spread by the winds, that are still heard across the flatlands of Vichada, Arauca, Meta and Casanare. With masterful skills, locals milk the cows to the rhythms and whistles learned from their parents, in an improvised expression of identity and love of daily life.

The Joropo, locally known as Musica llanera, is a musical style resembling the fandango, and an accompanying dance. It has African, Native South American and European influences and originated in the plains called

Colombian cowboys dance and play Joropo music at finca gramalote in villavicencio. it is locally known as Musica llanera and clearly resembles the fandango. Photo © Kike Calvo / colombia photo expeditions

There are four types of acapella songs: milking songs (canciones de ordeño); cattle driving songs (canciones del cabestrero); calming songs before sunset (canciones de vela); and taming songs (canciones de domesticación.) Each cow has a name, and a song is created for her.

AUDIOGRAPH: Canción de Vaquería by local llaneros. Villavicencio, Colombia. Audio recorded by Kike Calvo.  Headphones are recommended.

For those interested in venturing in the Colombian flatlands for a day, an option is to visit Gramalote Campo Ecologico on the outskirts of Villavicencio. This allows travelers to become llaneros for a day: from attempting to llaso, saddle and ride their new faithful steeds inside the ¨manga¨ to play rejo, made of the last sacrificed maute where the cowboys will capture a partner of the opposing team. For those interested in exploring the surrounding areas, horseback riding will get them to beautiful places such as “Salto del Angel” waterfall.

Environmental portrait of young Colombian cowboys and cowgirls. Photo © Kike Calvo

young Colombian llaneros in traditional joropo attire, a genre of creole music. Photo © Kike Calvo / colombia photo expeditions

AUDIOGRAPH: Canción de Vaquería by local llaneros. Villavicencio, Colombia. Audio recorded by Kike Calvo.  Headphones are recommended.

At the rhythm of Joropo, moving my feet in a zapateo motion I think about how Los llanos preserve not only natural beauty, but also the voices and identity of those Colombian cowboys fighting hard to preserve ancestral knowledge and vanishing traditions. Today these oral expressions are UNESCO´s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Portrait of a Colombian llanera in traditional joropo attire leaning over a wooden fence. Photo © Kike Calvo

Portrait of a Colombian llanera wearing a joporo dress. this musical genre has African, Native South American and European roots. Photo © Kike Calvo / colombia photo expeditions

There is something intrinsically musical in Colombia. I can’t easily describe it. Maybe it has to do with its isolation due to the political conflict in the last six decades. It could be the resilience of its people, or the sheer creativity of its artists, dancers and musicians. What I can say is that any musical exploration in Colombia echoes in us, travelers, when we venture beyond our fears of discovery. I would dare to add that Colombia is a culture that is best understood through its sounds.

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Colombian Marimba Player Esteban Copete

This is the first post in the Colombia Audiograph Series by Colombia Photo Expeditions, in which Kike Calvo combines audio recordings and documentary photographs, sharing interesting stories, sounds, research, interviews and thoughts about Colombia. This article belongs to the author’s lifelong series The Güepajé Project. Who: Esteban Copete What: Colombian Marimba Player, Founder of Kinteto Pacifico Where: Cali Grandson of the iconic Colombian composer Petronio Alvarez, Esteban Copete, born in Choco, is one … Read More Colombian Marimba Player Esteban Copete

Protected: 2019: Barranquilla Carnival Cultural Photo Expedition

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The Medicinal Plant Markets of Bogota, Colombia

In a recent article published by the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine the authors (Rainer W. Bussmann, Narel Y. Paniagua Zambrana, Carolina Romero and Robbie E. Hart) presented the results of their study exploring multiple markets in Colombia’s capital.

The study encountered 409 plant species belonging to 319 genera and 122 families. These were used for a total of 19 disease categories with 318 different applications. They conducted interviews in 38 plant vendors in 24 markets in Bogotá in order to elucidate more details on plant usage and provenance. The markets were chosen to cover as many neighborhoods of Bogotá as possible, thus trying to represent the complete geography of the city and its ethnically diverse population. Plants were always sold in the regular mercados de abasto—the regular food supply markets.

The authors concluded that the study indicated a very large species and use diversity of medicinal plants in the markets of Bogotá, with profound differences even between markets in close proximity. This might be explained by the great differences in the origin of populations in Bogotá, the floristic diversity in their regions of origin, and their very distinct plant use knowledge and preferences that are transferred to the markets through customer demand.

See full article

Learn more:

The Secret Life of Plants: a Fascinating Account of the Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Relations Between Plants and Man

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from a Secret World

What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses

Ethnobotany: The Evolution of a Discipline

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On Conservation in Colombia with Fernando Trujillo

This is the latest post in the Colombia Blog Series by Colombia Photo Expeditions, in which Kike Calvo profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on Colombia related to journalism, ecotourism, science, exploration and photography.

Fernando Trujillo is a Colombian marine biologist from the University Jorge Tadeo Lozano and the scientific director of the Omacha foundation. He has been working with special conservation for 30 years with endangered species such as river dolphins. You may have heard his name watching Mark Grieco’s new documentary A River Below, where he stars with Rasmussen, in a story that captures the Amazon in all its complexity as it examines the actions of environmental activists using the media in an age where truth is a relative term. But for me, Trujillo falls into a dear category of friendship, where our stories were connected years ago by sinking together in the Amazon in the middle of the night, while attending a conference for pink dolphin operators in Iquitos. But that is another story.

Fernando Trujillo completed a Masters in Environmental Sciences at the University of Greenwich in London and a PhD in Zoology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He has been the principal Investigator in most of the projects the Omacha Foundation has carried out in the Orinoco and the Amazon. He has extensive experience in research and conservation of endangered species, with emphasis on aquatic mammals, and management of priority ecosystems. Growing up, he saw a lot of nature and biodiversity in Colombia, and was influenced, like many Spanish speakers like myself, by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente.

Amazon

Trujillo refers to the river pink dolphins as “water jaguars”. They are not only mythical animals, but also an unknown species for many of us. He was inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s words during a Conference at his local university, before Cousteau embarked on his Expedition of the Amazonia. Soon after Trujillo began his own exploration career in Puerto Narino, when he was only 19 years old.

In our conversations, I asked Fernando about special moments as a conservationist. It is clear he loves the childlike curiosity of science. “It is a difficult question because I have had very pleasant moments.” said Trujillo. “During many expeditions I have had the opportunity to be near to large populations of animals that I didnt expect to find. For example, when we made ‘A River Below’ we were in Brazil and it was a magical moment to be surrounded by 7 or 8 dolphins swimming around us for more than five hours. That was a very special feeling.” “It has also been very pleasant to see the happiness of the indigenous children when we take them to see the dolphins,” said Trujillo. “When we started these activities, the children were very afraid of the dolphins. For them, dolphins were sacred animals. Children were really scared when these wild animals came out of the water. But with some time, everyone became excited to have them so close, quickly understanding that these were not dangerous animals. The enjoyment of the indigenous children watching the dolphins is probably one of the most special moments that I have had experience as a conservationist.”

But obviously, not every experience has been a possitive one he explained. “On certain occasions we find dead dolphins,” said Trujillo. “We bring up fishing nets and we encounter entangled dolphins; other times, we get close to shore and we see a lot of vultures feeding on dead dolphins. These are sad moments.”

Pink river dolphin

“Another sad moment that I remember happened about twenty years ago,” said Trujillo. “I remember that a group of fishermen came to us, saying that two dolphins had gotten entangled in a net. We went to the location as quicky as we could. When we got into the flooded forest, we saw that the mother had died and the little one had been tied by a fisherman to a tree. The animal in order to breathe had to throw itself out of the water using his tail, cutting it with every attempt for survival. I let him go using a machete, and took him to a pool that was abandoned on a close by farm. The pool was in very bad condition. Dirty environment for an stressed animal, but the only location available. That night I could not slee. I remember that the next day I went to see how the dolphin was doing. I wanted to change the water. When I got there I found that the children in the area liked to fish piranhas and throw them into that pool. During the night the piranhas had bitten the dolphin. We decided to take the dolphin out the pool. Our decision back then was to free the baby dolphin with another mother also who had a baby. I thought it could be an opportunity, but two days later, we found the dead dolphin. That day I vowed to build a biological station to control those situations.”

Trujillo has done extensive work with indigenous People. Dolphins are sacred animals for the indigenous communities. They are considered the owners of the water, as Trujillo explained to journalist Dario Arizmendi on a previous interview. They talk about submerged cities. In their beliefs river dolphins should not be hunted or eaten, as they are like human beings that transformed underwater. For many years now, Omacha Foundation has supported local artisans in the creation of wooden dolphin carvings. Today, more than 400 families benefit from these activities. The indigenous people Trujillo worked with began to call him “Omacha”, the word for pink dolphin in the Ticuna Amazon Indian language.

“Something I have learned from the indigineous is that we have to take into account the things that happened with the species in the medium and long term and not only in the short term,” said Trujillo. “The indigenous know very well the pulses of flood, the temporalities in the basins of the Amazon and they know that a dolphin or another species can be very abundant at an specific time of the year. They use to change their habitat according to the availability of food . Those are some things that I have learned from the Indigineous. Basically, to look at things in a much more integral perspective.”

“I remember when I asked the indigenous people about their mythology about the dolphins. Soon they started telling me stories about the “Martines Pescadores,” said Trujillo. “I thought they did’nt understand what I was talking about. I kept interrupting them, telling them that I was asking for stories about dolphins not birds. They told me ‘yes, we are telling you the story of the dolphins, but it is important that you understand the other elements before we get to the dolphins.’ That really surprised me.”

“Another thing that I have learned from the indigenous people is to be patient,” said Trujillo. “As a scientist we are very accelerated and we want to get data in a short time.”

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Fernando Trujillo is part of the group of specialists of Small Cetaceans of the IUCN, and he was the president of the Latin American Society of Aquatic Mammal Specialists (SOLAMAC) from 2006 to 2008.

I asked Fernando about the new documentary ‘A River Below’. “I think it’s not just a movie about dolphins, it’s more of a universal documentary,” said Trujillo. “In the movie we talk about how complex it is to do conservation, especially in developing countries and in particular, in such a large region as the Amazon, where there is very little presence of the state. Watching the movie, people will find ethical issues and conflicts in conservation being presented. And this is a universal situation. I think that’s why the movie has been accepted so much internationally and has received so many awards. It is because we not only share a story about the dolphins in the Amazon, but a story about all the economic agents involved, their political interests and much more.

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Fernando Trujillo is well aware of Colombia Photo Expeditions, my new ecotourism agency in Colombia, bringing travelers to remote locations in the country. “Tourism can be a double-edged sword,” said Trujillo. “It may be an opportunity. For example, with the peace agreements many colombians and international tourists can get into regions that were totally no go zones. A new frontier opens up with high biodiversity. But it is important we take into account the carrying capacity of some of these places. We should not over do it, and we should approach ecotourism the right way. In the case of the Amazon dolphins, they are generating 8.3 million dollars a year from those who visit just a few miles up river just to see dolphins. In this cases, I think it can be potentially very useful.”

Colombia has had a unique and complex political history, and many Colombians adapted in many ways to the situations created by the armed conflict. “During the time when the FARC was very active, we never stopped working in the field,” said Trujillo. “We ended up in places where there was a lot of guerrilla presence. I particularly remember 1994, when we went to the Guaviare River with a Dutch team. A few days before our expedition, the Ministry of Defense warned us that it was very dangerous to enter the area, advising the risk of kidnapping to these foreigners back then. We had to change the itinerary and visit another river. We ended up in the Caqueta River.”

“I had to wait twenty-two years to finally explore the Guaviare river,” said Trujillo. “We were waiting for the right moment. Six hours after the peace-agreement with the FARC was signed, we entered the Guaviare River and traveled a total of 1080 km. It was a river with incredible conditions and with a lot of biodiversity. We were very happy to have finally entered into that river.”

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 “As you know well Kike, Colombia is a mega diverse country,” said Trujillo. “We have the highest biodiversity indexes on the planet. But we have problems of loss of habitat and connectivity. The main cause of habitat loss has been the intensive cattle raising that was promoted in the 1930s as a state policy. In this way, large cattle ranches were created with an unprofitable, economical and not sustainable cattle raising scheme. We could well say that cattle ranches have destroyed a considerable amount of habitats.”

“A new study shows that more than 2 million hectares could be being used for cattle farming,” said Trujillo. “But the reality is that 14 million hectares are being used for these kind of activities. Clearly, the carrying capacity of the Colombian land for cattle raising has exceded its limit.”

“The Second big problem comes from large forest crops,” said Trujillo. “Rice is generating an impressive impact because it is drying our wetlands. They are contaminated with agrochemicals and the impact is quite strong.
When cultivation of soybeans, palms and eucalyptus pines began to develop in the country, it was badly done because they basically cutted native forests to implement these palm crops. Today, there are much stricter regulatory policies.

“Of course, I should mention the issue of deforestation in the Andes as one of the biggest conservation concerns in the country, because the entire Andean area is very deforested,” Trujillo said. “But other parts of the country also have a very strong exposure to climate change, such as the north of the Caribbean, La Guajira, Santa Marta and the Orinoco. So if the natural coverage is destroyed, the results can generate very serious connectivity problems.”

All the countries of the world should make an effort to maintain a representation of the most important natural ecosystems. In this way, we can guarantee that the ecological processes work well and also guaranteed that fish and other species can reproduce without pressure and from those protected areas can be dispersed to other areas that have been more intervened. “Colombia is one of the countries that is making big efforts with protected areas,” said Trujillo. “We already have about 13% of the national territory protected. If we manage to validate the indigenous territories in some way for the protection of natural resources, we could say that the country would be protected by 43%. In Colombia we have key sites. We have more or less 56 to 61 protected areas, plus private reserves in which the topic of ecosystem and species conservation is being promoted. There are emblematic sites such as Chiribiquete National Park that has almost 3 million hectares, and the idea is to extend it to 5 million hectares. We can also talk about Caño Cristales or the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. We also have National Parks in the Amazon, in the Andean zone and in the Caribbean. Although I personally believe we should consolidate more protected areas in the Orinoquia.”

On 10 May 2007, Trujillo received the Whitley Gold Award for its work for the conservation of river dolphins in the Royal Geographical Society of London (England), ceremony presided over by Princess Anne and the British naturalist David Attenborough. This award is one of the most prestigious environmental awards in the international arena.

To end up our conversation we talked about the future of the pink dolphin populations in the Amazon. “The situation of the dolphins is currently worrying,” said Trujillo. “A few years ago dolphins were in a vulnerable category. Today, things have change and they are going to come out as a critically endangered species. The population is decreasing more than 10% per year. This means that in 10-20 years, there will be almost no dolphins in those regions. What we see is that the threats are not going to decrease, because they are not going to stop building hydroelectric plants; they are not going to stop polluting with mercury; they are not going to stop deforesting; so this means that the dolphins’ habitat is very threatened, and tnumbers of these animals will surely decrease unless we make very strong and prompt decisions to solve it.”

Learn more:

Journey of the Pink Dolphins: An Amazon Quest

Encantado: Pink Dolphin of the Amazon

Pink Dolphins of the World: Symbols of Global Change

Terry Treetop Saves The Dolphin (Bedtime Stories)

The Pink Dolphin

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The most beautiful towns in Colombia

In a recent article for CNN, Lauren Cocking listed the prettiest small towns in Colombia beyond Bogotá and Medellín. Colombia is full of gorgeous (and less crowded) towns like Villa de Leyva, Guatape, Jardin, Mongui or Barichara.

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We are honored to say that the opening photograph of the piece of Boyacá’s Villa de Leyva came from our Colombia photo collection by Kike Calvo.

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Protected: 2019 Barranquilla Carnival Storytelling Photo Expedition

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Masks of Colombia: Mask #1

Theme: Unpainted Character

Description: This mask some signs of age but its likely unfinished as most masks like these are painted in vibrant colors. Probably from the mountains in the southwest, close to Ecuador – the masks of which are similar in style.

Size: 7 Inches

 

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Description Robert Ibold and Troy Yohn. Photo Courtesy © Masks of the World
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Protected: Masks of the World: Barranquilla Carnival 2019

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Detecting and Attributing Drivers of Forest Disturbance in the Colombian Andes Using Landsat Time-Series

On a recent article about the forest disturbance in the Colombian Andes, authors Paulo J. Murillo-Sandoval, Thomas Hilker, Meg A. Krawchuk and Jamon Van Den Hoek talk about Colombia’s  “megadiversity” given its high level of endemism and species richness. However, over the last 50 years, as they explain,  the spread of informal settlements into forested regions, internal social conflict, and the growing demand for agricultural land have increased the pressure on Colombia’s forest ecosystems even in remote or protected regions.

In the end, as they present, as a consequence, between 1990 and 2015, Colombia lost more than six million hectares of forest, and more significantly, witnessed a 44% increase in deforestation in 2016 compared to 2015.

The authors conclusion in that conversion pasture is the main cause of change, especially from 2007–2014. The results of this study should encourage the remote sensing community to further develop robust frameworks using dense time-series metrics to analyze the drivers and consequences of human-induced changes.

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Learn more:

Conserving Forest Biodiversity: A Comprehensive Multiscaled Approach by David B. Lindenmayer (2002-07-31) Paperback – 1803
by David B. Lindenmayer;J. F. Franklin (Author)

Deforestation For Dummies: An In-Depth Look at the Causes Paperback – November 9, 2017 by Jackson Young (Author)

 

Featured photo © Kike Calvo