Rio Magdalena Cañon

At the beginning of September, after four weeks, I left my first eco-community stop in Colombia: Aldea Feliz (Happy village). I had not been feeling very feliz, to be honest and decided to explore other Colombian options. I spent some time in Bogatá and at a friends place outside of Villa De Layva in Boyacá (north of Bogatá). It was a much-needed change of atmosphere, enjoying laughter, cooking and getting some new perspectives on Colombia: from life in busy Bogatá, to simple chilled days in the countryside. And to my delight I had the chance to participate in a local carnival/march to protect local water rights against a large mining company wanting to explore in the area. It felt good to walk with the local people to sing and chant and feel the collective power of community. It is life affirming and empowering to witness people standing up as a community for the protection of our water, our environment and our future generations.

After my week with friends I headed to the south of the country to volunteer in my second Colombian project: Fundación Viracochaclose to the archaeological hub of San Agustín. I arrived at 9pm on a Friday evening to the nearby town of Pitalito, but as my bus was over two hours late I had missed the last bus to San Agustín. I wasn’t sure what to do but I felt calm, and a bit stoned after 11 hours on a bus from Bogatá. I sat to see if I could gather up my fuzzy thoughts and make a plan. An older man came over to me and he asked if I wanted to go to San Agustín. Often there are people trying to pull scams at bus stations but this man reminded me of my granddad; he had a similar sparkle in his eye and with a kindness that I knew I could trust. He was a colectivo driver; this is a type of taxi/bus hybrid and they are usually pickup trucks or jeeps that run set routes. They usually wait until they are full before departing, and they charge a reasonable flat rate. He looked relieved when I said I did want to go. It was late and there were few other potential passengers around. We were only three in total in the pick up, the other passenger was a local woman who clearly knew this man well as they chatted in such a warm and friendly way for the 40 minute journey. They talked about family, friends and celebrations. I had the feeling that I was finally landing into the Colombia that I had been feeling in my heart. I was content to listen to their beautiful Colombian accents as we TORE through the countryside. This old guy had recently bought this truck, he told the woman, and when she said she liked it he picked up speed to show what it could do! He drove incredibly fast along winding roads but I just felt safe and happy in this pickup with these lovely pair.

I arrived at Viracocha in the pitch darkness, as the electricity was out in the area. Through darkness and to the sound of large barking dogs I was greeted and shown, by another lovely man (Diamedes), to a bamboo tipi and to meet my new roommate. It was late so I quickly got to bed and slept.

Tipi Dormitorio CEPA Viracocha

The ti-pi

(which, to me bears a remarkable resemblance to Dougal from the magic roundabout)

Inside the tipi

Dormitorio Tipi CEPA

The next morning I awoke feeling nervous. After Aldea Feliz I was anxious about volunteering. I was in a pretty negative and critical state of mind about eco-communities and projects: so my initial sense of Viracocha was that I felt a bit disappointed: I didn’t know if I would be able to relax here, if I could trust them or if I would be leaving after a few days. With the slightest hint of bother I had decided I would be out of there! To my shame, my critical eye caught on every snaggely detail: I didn’t like that there was no toilet paper, I didn’t like that we had to cook with a real fire, I didn’t like sharing a room again, I didn’t like that it wasn’t a community or that we had to start work at 7am… wow.. I was grumpy that first morning. But I got to work: I started by cleaning the volunteers’ kitchen and then was set the task of putting compost on pumpkins. I was there only a while when Steffen, whom I had met previously in Aldea Feliz, came along to greet me and invited me on a tour of the land with two Italian visitors. For two hours we walked around the site learning about its origins and getting a sense of the work that they do there. It was a pleasure to listen to the story of the place, to hear about their holistic approach to growing and teaching, and the details of their beautiful natural buildings. After the tour I got to meet the three other volunteers properly, I liked them all immediately, and we prepared lunch together (we prepared our own food at the weekends). Sometime between the tour and preparing lunch and chatting together something kind of magical happened: I felt myself breathing a sigh of relief, I just knew I could trust these people and this place. I could relax here. When I was alone later I cried with the sheer relief of finally, after months of stress, being able to begin to let my guard down and truly relax and land. It took me a few days to realise that I could and would stay here for a while.

The name Viracocha comes from Inca mythology; it is the name of the creator deity, seen as the creator of all things. He was worshipped as the god of the sun and storms, and is represented as wearing the sun for a crown, with thunderbolts in his hands, and rain flowing from his eyes. Fundación Viracocha was formed by Steffen (from Germany) with his wife Lina (from Colombia) in 2000 in partnership with members of the local community. It is not an intentional eco-community: it is an education centre that was developed to serve the community through programmes that provide food and practical education. Its mission is to:

“Promote alternative development socially, environmentally and economically, aimed at creating sustainable conditions that allow for the improvement of quality of life and for the construction of a healthy social fabric that is in harmony with the environment”

They currently have two sites: one is Finca Viracocha (a farm) outside of San Agustín where I was staying and the other is a building in the town where lunches are prepared and served Monday to Friday as part of the AiE programme. AiE (Alimentation i Educacion – Food and Education) is one of the two main programmes in the foundation, the other is CEPA (Centro Educativo Piloto Agroecológico), a pilot agro-ecological centre for education. The main objective of AiE is to offer alternatives for healthy nutrition and education for the local marginalized population, which does not have governmental or institutional support for these basic needs. The programme benefits approximately 105 low-income children from local elementary and secondary schools. The purpose is to educate the children in the importance of proper nutrition through awareness of the consumption of fruits, vegetables and native foods, many of which are grown in Finca Viracocha. AiE is subsidised by donations from Viracocha’s partner association in Germany VIRAS (Viracocha Salzgitter) through their sponsorship programme. CEPA is a pilot model focused on the recovery of natural and socio-cultural values in the region: it provides a practical theoretical education based on a sustainable ecological management of agricultural, forestry and agroindustry, integrating the community in rural economic and social development processes.

CEPA and AiE are programs designed to complement each other; creating a process of food sovereignty and security at municipality and regional levels. The comedor (dining room) in San Agustín where lunches are served each day is an example of where the agro ecological work and nutritional knowledge come together in tasty, healthy meals to feed children and adults.

Finca Viracocha is made up of five hectares of land that sits alongside the stunning canyon of the Río Magdalena, which starts in the south up in the Páramo and runs all the way north to the Caribbean coast. There is a large garden where a lot of the food for the AiE lunches is produced and there are also large areas of trees and guadua (bamboo) and a nature reserve to the edge of the river canyon. Buildings on site include the home of the farm caretakers, dwellings for volunteers and course participants (tipi, tree house and kiosk), the volunteers kitchen, the malloca (meeting house), the seed house and a large guadua / bamboo preparation area. A variety of courses are run here; tailor made to suit different groups, teaching aspects of holistic ecology and providing practical hands on experience.

Malokka CEPA Viracocha

The Maloca