Volunteer Vacation at a Sustainable Farm in Colombia

On this Airbnb Adventure in Colombia, ecotourism is not only about preserving local biodiversity — it’s also about keeping community traditions alive.

Nicholas Gill
Aug 26, 2019 · 11 min read

Photographs by Rose Marie Cromwell

An abandoned ranch from the 1800s.

We are standing in the middle of a circle of rocks placed at the cardinal points at the edge of the rainforest to tap into the energy of the earth. Maricela Solarte, my Airbnb host, wants us to find our equilibrium, our connection between the earth and the sky. “Let’s take off our shoes,” she says.

I can feel the wet grass on my toes as ­Mari­cela leads me into the forest for a trail of rituals based on the elements, part of her retreat program at Desarrollo Biodiverso, a small finca 1,800 meters above sea level in the mountains above Cali, Colombia, just beside Parque Nacional Natural Farallones de Cali.

For air, she does a chant, and somehow, the wind starts to rustle the leaves above us. For fire, there’s a cleansing with citronella and flowers that she picks up along the way and soaks in hot water. It’s all calm and soothing, though this was just my initiation to a four-day Airbnb Adventure in Colombia. My connection to the earth was about to get much deeper.

At night fireflies light up the sky, and at dawn a symphony of birds and insects animates the air, which is always thick with the smell of lime and guava.

A nearby waterfall and scenery.

“There’s no smell,” says Martha Escudero, who assists Maricela at the finca. “At first guests were a bit squeamish, but it’s clean soil.”

There are bins for different stages of decomposition and substance, ranging from bathroom waste to kitchen scraps such as eggshells and banana peels. We rotate the compost with shovels, helping to speed up the decomposition process. It takes just a few months to turn any of it into dark, black soil that’s rich in nutrients and almost identical to what you would scoop out of the earth.

As I shovel a pile of compost made up mostly of the stems and leaves of crops from the farm, I discover that it’s crawling with thousands of red ants.

Maricela observing the trees.

“I think we have an infestation,” I tell Martha. She comes over and takes a look.

“No, this is good,” she says. “The ants help the process.”

She explains how we are working with ants, worms, and other microorganisms rather than against them. Later I find a black scorpion in the compost, and she transports it into the forest. “That one stings,” she says with a smile.

This soil is alive, and Maricela’s goal is to keep it that way. Everything here is alive. Two crowned motmots, majestic tropical birds colored electric blue, green, and gold, dance in the trees above the compost bins. Bruno, the finca’s dog, chases some small gray animal into the forest. Tarantulas crawl up banana trees. At night fireflies light up the sky, and at dawn a symphony of birds and insects animates the air, which is always thick with the smell of lime and guava. This is biodiversity in all of its glory, and it’s why I wanted to come here and be a part of it, if only for a few days. A few years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible.

For years Maricela’s mother kept asking what she was waiting around for. She had taken courses in ecotourism in Cali, but there was little she could do with it here. This part of Colombia had been ignored by travelers for decades.

Cali used to be an epicenter of the Colombian drug trade, and at one point, the Cali cartel controlled as much as 70 percent of the cocaine that reached the U.S. It fought with rival Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel, government forces, and guerrilla armies. It murdered thousands of what they called desechables — prostitutes, street kids, and vagrants. When the civil war intensified in the 1980s and 1990s, many in the countryside fled to urban centers, and the area’s fincas and weekend homes were abandoned. The jungle soon swallowed up the cow pastures and coffee plantations. Maricela and her family left for many years, and when they came back decades later, her father was killed in an attempted robbery during the lingering instability. Still, when things calmed down, she returned again and is now raising her two daughters here. This is home.

The finca’s greenhouse.

Her life took a turn one day as she was selling obleas (wafer cookies), sliced mangoes, and chontaduro (a local palm fruit) while advertising hikes to waterfalls from a small stand in Villacarmelo, which her 17-year-old daughter now runs on Sundays. It wasn’t far from a trail, and on rare occasions a hiker would appear.

“That’s where I met Robert,” Maricela told me. She’s referring to Robert van de Griend, her Airbnb cohost and the founder of Desarrollo Biodiverso, an NGO that combines permaculture science with responsible tourism. A Dutchman, he had studied environmental science and had worked in Ghana and Nicaragua on various sustainable projects. He was staying in Cali and told her he had been searching for a location where he could carry out his goal of preserving the region’s biodiversity while stimulating the local economy. Maricela was enthusiastic about how much potential the area had and told him about her nearly neglected finca. They decided to join forces, and in 2017, her finca became the organization’s home in Colombia.

Robert built cabins at the finca, which are rented out on Airbnb, and applied principles of permaculture to the gardens, promoting the idea of all plants and organisms working together. Maricela and Martha manage a range of hiking tours and sustainable workshops. Aside from wages for the staff, everything earned from the cabins, tours, and farm products gets reinvested into the project and the local community. Neighbors have seen what they’re doing and have been inspired: They’ve launched their own ecotourism services, rented out ­cabins, or switched to composting instead of buying chemical fertilizers.

Liliana Sanclemente, a guest at Maricela’s ritual.

As guerrilla groups have left the forests and mountain ranges they once controlled, large swaths of the country are now opening up to tourism, but also to those seeking to extract the area’s resources. In 2018, more primary forests were cut down — nearly 695 square miles, the highest amount in decades.

Robert has a landscaping company in the Netherlands to go back to, yet he still manages to visit for months at a time to dream up additional ways to reduce waste and make the finca self-sufficient. “The ultimate goal is to make it self-sustainable, but there are still steps that need to be taken,” he says. More brush must be cleared and crops planted in its place to lessen the need to buy fruits and vegetables from the outside. More solar panels are needed to reduce the finca’s dependence on the power grid.

For Maricela, conservation relates to memory and keeping the community’s traditions alive. One such memory is gato trochero, a recipe of her father’s. It’s a dish that few still make, a local version of a fiambre, a filling western Colombian lunch plate, brought from home by hungry workers in the fields, that gets wrapped in its own biodegradable packing made of bijao or banana leaves. Inside is a collection of whatever is farmed and raised locally — smoked meat, a boiled egg, yuca, plantains, and rice seasoned with hogao, a sauce of onions and tomatoes.

Area wildlife.

“I never liked it when I was little, and then one day my father jokingly said he was making it with cat,” she says. She was distraught, but when she learned it was just beef, she laughed, and the name stuck. Now she teaches guests like me to make it.

“The secret is in the smoke,” she says as she sets guava leaves and branches aflame beneath hanging cuts of beef. The other ingredients are prepared separately, though slightly undercooked. Once everything gets bundled in the banana leaf, the contained heat continues to cook what’s inside. When I unwrapped the leaf at lunchtime, a puff of fragrant steam, the sweetness of the landscape, was overwhelming.

When I wasn’t learning about culinary traditions or transplanting seedlings of tropical peppers, there was plenty to explore in the surrounding countryside. A trail right on the finca led to a small waterfall and a lek, a place where bright-orange-crested and rather rare Andean cock-of-the-rocks gather to attract mates.

On the road to recovery: Locals making repairs nearby.

Martha also guided me on longer hikes in the area, places I couldn’t have found on my own, telling me the history of every house and pointing out plants that had been around since the dinosaurs. Most of the hikes were just a few hours’ round trip from the farm, past hillsides dripping with ferns and orchids. She took me to a neighboring finca, a mostly abandoned ranch high up in the mountains where an 1800s-era wooden farmhouse from one of the region’s earliest settlers still stands. Through a gate, a path leads to a beautiful 65-foot-high waterfall. I was surprised to find a few Colombian tourists already there.

“How did they even find out about this place?” I ask.

“Mostly from the Mercado de la Montaña,” Martha says.

It began a couple of years ago when a group from the community got together and brainstormed ways to make their lives better. They created what they called a Mapa de Sueños, or a dream map. Each person tossed out ideas of what they would like to see happen. Some were practical, such as more frequent transportation to the city; others were loftier, such as a community market. For a while nothing came of it, but everyone had a little of this and a little of that that they were growing or making on their fincas — and transporting goods all the way to Cali wasn’t worth the expense or the meager prices they could bring. A market started to make more and more sense, and eventually 20 families agreed on a date to set up stands to sell vegetables, honey, jams, and baked goods.

Martha and Liliana tending the garden.

Though the market consists mostly of farmers trading with one another, it has become a focal point for the community. Everyone comes. Gossip is passed, and sometimes someone brings their guitar and sings. Soon, even locals from Cali started to come. They would learn about all the ecotourism activities and make plans to return. Now everyone in the community is creating something, whether it’s their own artisan coffee or mountain biking trips. There is life in these hills again, and young people are finding work opportunities.

“We practice the type of tourism that keeps people here,” Martha tells me.

I was lucky enough to be there on the first Saturday of the month, when the market takes place. Dozens of mountain bikers were out on day rides from the city, stopping by for the smoked cachama (a South American river fish) and empanadas made from scratch at one stand. Middle-­aged couples wandered from their weekend homes to pick up produce and bags of coffee. One gray-bearded guy selling spices, medicinal herbs, and tinctures looked like he had walked right out of the Burt’s Bees logo as he applied a bark extract to an old woman’s cut and covered it with the membrane from an eggshell. Kids were skipping rocks in the Río Meléndez. The dogs of the town were sniffing each other to see what was up, mostly resulting in wagging tails.

Maricela exploring the property.

I bought a wheat beer from a hobbyist brewer who was also selling small batches of blackberry wine and kombucha that he makes at home. We started to chat, and he told me how nice it is just to see everyone out and about. The country has been through enough. Everyone just wants to enjoy this incredible place.

“This is the life,” he said as he leaned back in his chair and opened a beer.

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About the author: Nicholas Gill, based in New York, writes about food and biodiversity in the Americas, mostly. He is the co-author of Central (Phaidon, 2016) and co-founder of NewWorlder, a website dedicated to the food and places in the Americas.

Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists…

Nicholas Gill

Written by

Nicholas Gill writes about food and biodiversity, mostly. He is the co-author of several cookbooks with Phaidon and co-founder of New Worlder.

Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.

Nicholas Gill

Written by

Nicholas Gill writes about food and biodiversity, mostly. He is the co-author of several cookbooks with Phaidon and co-founder of New Worlder.

Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.

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