The Beauty and Mystery of Colombia's Pacific Coast
La Manigua Botanic Garden
By Pilar Quintana and Conor McShannon
‘Manigua’ is one of the Spanish words for jungle. It doesn’t refer to just any jungle, though. Somehow it evokes a dark, mysterious and unconquered one. The kind of jungle you’d expect to find in the Romantic novels, in a Joseph Conrad saga where men struggle for survival in the harsh wilderness. When we arrived in La Manigua we thought the name was appropriate.
Colombia’s Pacific Coast is one of the most dramatic places on earth. It rains more than 300 days a year and it can rain for six days in a row. The electric storms roar and shake the ground, and you feel just what you are: a tiny speck of flesh at the mercy of nature.
It’s a land of colorful funny-looking birds, psychedelic plants and furiously-paced rivers that run backwards at the call of the ocean tides. It is also the home of the largest Afro-Colombian culture and of many Indian tribes that still live in their traditional ways.
It has an amazing percentage of endemism [unique flora and fauna], perhaps the greatest flower variety in the world and more plant species per hectare than any other known place. Its biodiversity marvels naturalists around the world, and it has become legendary.
When seen from the air, the villages of Juanchaco, Ladrilleros and La Barra look like a tiny scratch in a giant’s little toe. The rest is this vast carpet of green stretching as far as the eye can see. La Manigua is where the scratch finishes and the vast carpet starts.
It’s on top of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean with jungle spouting everywhere. It has its own freshwater spring, saltwater estuary and beach. It offers more than six hundred meters of magnificent views to the open sea and Malaga Bay. But at our arrival we found that the lot had been neglected for years and the weeds were in control.
At first to walk through it we had to use our machetes. We worked non-stop, the mosquitoes made a feast of us and our hands got blistered.
When we finally had a clear spot to build our house, we visited the local woodcutter. He saw this gringo face alongside his rookie wife and he knew we had made his day. The wood price automatically doubled.
It was awful to wake up in the mornings. Our muscles ached, our bones ached, every inch of our bodies ached. We looked like a couple of old arthritic folks.
Not all was misery, of course. The wood arrived and little by little our house’s structure grew. One day I found Conor on top of the roof beam, looking bewildered into the horizon. "What’s going on?" I asked. He said I better climb up to see it with my own eyes.
There they were. Streams of vapor sprouting from the ocean, and suddenly this dark massive thing rose above the water to drop into a huge splash. Humpback Whales! Every summer, from June to November, they come all the way from the Antarctic to mate and give birth in the calm, warm waters of Malaga Bay.
It has been seven years since we first came to live in La Manigua. Our house has stood the weather, the termites and the storms, the weeds are under control, the jungle is thriving, and the locals have finally understood that the gringo and his rookie wife now know the real prices of things. But the best news is that Malaga Bay has become a National Park.
Uramba Bahía Málaga National Park’s protected areas include the sea and the beaches, with its Humpback Whales and hundreds of species of seabirds. Unfortunately, the continental land and its vast carpet of green were not included. Conor and I decided to create La Manigua Botanic Garden to protect, at least, our piece of land and to show what the tropical rain forest of Malaga Bay is like.
We started identifying the plants and animals that surround us with the help of biologists, field guides and, of course, the Afro-Colombian and Indian natives that have traditionally inhabited the area.
Our discoveries left us awed. La Manigua’s home to several endemic and endangered species of orchids, timber-yielding trees, mammals and birds.
It hosts tiny carnivorous plants, natural bleeding trees, flowers like hot inviting lips, palm-trees that you’d swear they’re vines and shrubs that you’d swear they’re palm-trees.
There are plants used as poison and plants that serve as antidotes; reptiles that can walk on water, two-toed sloths and birds with red legs, seven-colored plumages, and beaks bigger than their heads.
One day, as we were researching the hot lips plant in the Internet, I found a blog where a guy claimed that he had walked hours and hours into the depths of the Ecuadorian jungle to find it. In La Manigua it’s everywhere. Anyone can see it along the trails. One year ago we opened to visitors…
How to get to La Manigua
The most direct route is from the city of Cali. Buses leave the Terminal every 15 minutes for the city of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast. The journey takes about three hours. Once here, a ten-minute walk or five-minute taxi ride will get you to the Tourist Wharf. It is then a simple matter of purchasing a ticket for the one-hour speedboat ride to Juanchaco. This is where the wharf that gives access to the three towns is situated. We are located on the cliff top to the right side of the wharf.
Visitors have the opportunity of staying with us in our cabaña and sharing the jungle experience that’s our daily life. Shops here are very basic, so we ask guest to bring the kind of food they like to eat with them.
Next to the wharf in Buenaventura is a big supermarket. Conor’s a fine cook and is happy to prepare the meals. The other option is to stay in one of the nearby hotels. Delicacies of the Pacific Coast are found in the various restaurants and street vendors.
What to do
You can lounge around on the cliff top enjoying the views, the sun and looking out for dolphins and whales. You can cool off in the outdoors shower. Guided walks through the jungle will give you the opportunity of seeing exotic flora and hopefully some fauna as well.
A freshwater Jacuzzi with its own small waterfall carved in the rock by nature offers a splendid place to relax. At high tide there is a private tidal inlet that acts as an immense swimming pool of saltwater. At low tide you can explore the estuary with its caves and private beach. There’s also bird watching, guided jungle walks by night, and great company provided by your hosts.
Pilar Quintana is from Colombia. She has published three novels and several short-stories in magazines and anthologies all over the world. Conor McShannon is originally from Northern Ireland and is a resident of Australia and Colombia. He is a carpenter, English teacher and bird enthusiast. They both have traveled extensively and have been married for nine years.
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