Natural & Cultural Treasures of Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

Colombia’s Caribbean coast is an intense place. Intense heat, intense rain, and arriving during a World Cup match, intense soccer fans. Making our way from the airport to our hotel in the historic Getsemani neighborhood was easier with many people off the street but the flooding from a brief tropical storm slowed our progress. The rain cooled off the summer heat and we celebrated the victory that evening by visiting the historic walled city, where we took in an beautiful and intense performance of Afro-Caribbean dance.

 Cartagena's walled city

Cartagena's walled city

We came to this up and coming South American destination to scout for a new trip that we hope to offer in 2019, to see first-hand the great work of our partner Fundacion Tortugas del Mar in addressing the turtleshell trade here, and to train teachers in sea turtle education. We packed in a lot in a short time, but in less than a week, we visited two islands, saw a bunch of turtles (and turtle products for sale), and met some inspiring conservationists, including Karla and Cristian of the Fundacion. I’ve been visiting Colombia since the early 2000’s and seeing how this country is returning to peace after a long civil war is extraordinary and hopeful.

Our first visit was to Isla Fuerte, about a 5 hour drive from Cartagena. This small island is home to a hawksbill nesting beach and is hosting a sea turtle festival in August to celebrate the release of a number of juvenile hawksbills. The hawksbills were saved from a nest that was laid too close to the water and a local resident headstarted the hatchlings to help save them. Our visit coincided with a local holiday and intense music rang across the island through the night.

Upon our return, we headed back to the walled city to meet with souvenir shop owners. Las Bovedas is a series of stalls filled with souvenirs in a historic building that at one point was a major spot for sales of products made from turtleshell. Over years of working with local authorities to confiscate the products, the folks from Fundacion Tortugas del Mar have significantly reduced the number of these products being sold around the city. Many of these shop owners are now enthusiastic about helping to protect turtles, making Las Bovedas the ideal spot to launch our new Turtle Safe Souvenir Shop program in partnership with the Fundacion, part of our Too Rare To Wear campaign. Travelers to Cartagena can look for this seal to know that they support shops who help protect sea turtles (and soon elsewhere around the region.)

 Las Bovedas Souvenir Shops

Las Bovedas Souvenir Shops

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From there, our next stop was Mucura Island, a beautiful tropical isla in the San Bernardo Archipelago. After relaxing two-hour boat ride through the islands, we arrived to Punta Faro, a spectacular four-star resort that has strong ties to the local community and strong efforts to protect sea turtles. The highlight of our visit to Colombia was a program working with a group of local students who have a very active environmental club. After playing games with the kids, we headed back to the resort so the group could help release a bunch of sea turtles to the ocean. Punta Faro has a wonderful program where fishermen who catch turtles while fishing can bring them to the resort, where they exchange them for chicken (instead of eating them).

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In all, eleven turtles were released in front of an enthusiastic audience of resort guests and local kids, one very large loggerhead, 4 hawksbills, and 6 green turtles. This program is helping save turtles from poaching, providing food for local fishermen, educating both kids and tourists, and providing important information on local turtle populations. In addition, Punta Faro is an enthusiastic support of Too Rare To Wear and is the first hotel to share our materials with their guests, who are a key market for turtleshell products.

While there, we explored the waters around the island, looking for turtles and checking out the coral reefs and fish. We also passed by Islote Santa Cruz, known as the one of most densely populated island in the world, with 400 people living on just about one hectare. That night after dinner, we took a short boat ride the swim in an area with beautiful bioluminescence.

Our final stop on our exploration of Colombia’s coast was Rincon del Mar, a small town on the mainland coast that is a popular spot for local tourists to enjoy the blue Carbibbean waters. Here, we hosted with the Fundacion a workshop for local teachers and leaders, teaching them about sea turtles and educational techniques. Participants included roughly 30 teachers from the surrounding communities, national park staff, local authorities, and residents of Rincon interested in participating in sea turtle conservation. This workshop was the launch of a new effort to build support for efforts to protect sea turtles in the town and address the sale of turtleshell in local shops.

 Turtle Education Workshop

Turtle Education Workshop

 Turtleshell and other products for sale in Rincon del Mar

Turtleshell and other products for sale in Rincon del Mar

On our last night in Cartagena, we celebrated with a final dinner in a fantastic open-air Italian restaurant in Getsemani. We celebrated the success of efforts to end the sale of turtleshell here, making plans to offer the first ever sea turtle trips to this area, and launching new efforts to help the sea turtles that live along this spectacular stretch of coast.