Living in the Jungle : Part 2 – Quebrada Valencia, Colombia

…this is a continuation of our previous post about our wonderful experiences, living and working in the rain forest of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta; specifically, on finca Chez Gloria in Quebrada Valencia.

Working in the Rain Forest

In Venezuela we promised we’d come by and work, so that’s what we do.

The first project I get working on is a small canal to take some stagnant water in the clearing away to the river. The water has collected there from the hose and rains and makes a wonderful breeding ground for mosquitoes, aside from that, a pain to step through. I dig a canal about 50x50cm all the way down the property towards the foot path, where it can spill down into the river. It’s a muddy business!

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The second thing we notice is that the rubbish bags are collected in one place to be carried out to the main road, but it’s on a slope creating a mess and an eye sore which the dogs can get to and rip the bags up, so we build a big rubbish basket out of bamboo and plastic mesh which Gloria has in her shed.

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Ebru suggests the idea of putting up a water fountain for the hose pipe, so that it doesn’t remain lying on the floor and inconvenient to make use of. Gloria likes the idea, so Ebru engages me and we get started with what is to become known as the “Fuente del Amor” or “Fountain of Lurve”. (Gloria’s choice of name.)

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I, in my general overly complicated way, start the whole thing with a big solid foundation, and from there on, the whole project becomes a good deal bigger and harder to do. (Even in the end I cannot achieve exactly what I pictured in the beginning because it’s just too complicated.) But nevermind, the hope is that it will last, in which case it’s worth it. For three whole days we work on this fountain.

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First the foundation. Then we need rocks. Big rocks. And even bigger rocks. Those need to come from the river, so eventually we have everyone at the camp dragging rocks over from up the river. Some of them are so big eventually, it takes four of us to lift them.

Carrying all these rocks on the soft ground has turned the entire area surrounding the fountain-to-be to slippery mud. First we get buckets of dry river sand to pour on top, but this only helps a little. So I go chopping down some of the huge bamboo logs (at this size you have to call them logs) growing in the area, split them open and use these to create a temporary floor, which works well.

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…the sweat will eliminate your mozzi-rep in minutes, but mud is plentiful and seems to help protect your skin from bites…

It’s definitely the lingering memories of Machu Picchu and the which seem to have inspired the image of this construction, but now I realize how horrendously difficult it is to build stuff out of rocks in this way! It’s back-breaking work! Well we’ve started now, so we must carry on to the finish…

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Some well placed flat base stones are placed in front of the foundation, where all the water splash will be, so that this isn’t allowed to wash away the surrounding soil and make the whole thing unstable again. Then come the large base stones of the fountain. Because I don’t want these to move at any cost, I use some of the cement Gloria has in the shed to fix these together – Miriam ensures the mix is good as she knows about that side of things.

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PS: in hind-sight, avoid cement with natural rocks if you can, it just doesn’t look right…

Then multiple other rocks are laid on top of each other, ending with a very large flat rock at the top. (The idea was for this to serve as a sort of work surface, but mounting the hose there and ensuring the water doesn’t go everywhere but the canal is another mission altogether, so it serves more aesthetically in the end.) The hose passes into the structure from behind, holding it so the water streams into the canal from a handy height.

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Now the only thing is that the area aside the canal and fountain is quite muddy and ugly, so what do we do about that? Well, we’ll build a floor of course!

Back to the river we go, to find as many flat rocks as we can, to use like tiles. Of course the larger their surface, the less we need, but these are rarely very thin. I have found that some rocks can be split down the middle with a strike on the right place, but even so, they don’t create a level surface by laying them on the ground. Therefore we have to extract a layer of soil about 10cm deep from the area, to place the rocks in, now flush with the surrounding floor. However it doesn’t look very neat and in this soft ground they squash around as you step on them.

What’s the solution? More rocks of course! So off to the river we go again. First, a ring of large rocks around the edge to serves a sort of stabilizing frame. These are also sunk into the ground to about half their depth. Then smaller ones, and these we place in the gaps where they fit naturally, and others are driven in between the rocks vertically on the long side with a hammer, which creates tension in the whole matrix as the rocks now push out against each other and the frame, creating a nice ridgid surface to walk on. – Fascinating, really.

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The last batch of small rocks is then used to fill the remaining small grooves of mud, interspersed with dry river sand, to create a level finish and soak up the remaining mud. I use a 2Kg hammer and a masonry chisel to disintegrate the larger surface protrusions which would create a trip hazard, and there we go! Turned out better than expected.

For practicality of use, I place a couple of remaining pieces of thick wood across the canal, about a metre or so ahead of the fountain, which serve as a step, sit or stand on when washing something or rinsing your gum boots directly in the channel.

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We’re done! But since we’ve come this far, why not make it more pleasing to the eye? There are a few old pieces of tree trunk and exquisite roots lying around, which we place around the, what I like to call, ‘terrace’. As we’re in the jungle they fit perfectly into the picture. Then I recall that, while I was digging the run-off channel the other day, I displaced a load of plants in the way, which I put aside with the thought of re-planting elsewhere. Using a few buckets full of the soil mounds remaining from all the canal digging, we create some nice fertile beds between the large bordering rocks and the logs around the terrace, then plant the plants in there.

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How perfectly convenient! Most of what came out went back in somewhere, and in the end the whole thing looks like something that might have naturally existed there from the start. It’s been an education in hard physical labour. Gloria seems to love it, and it seems to make life on the finca a good deal easier, so we’re really happy with it.

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Ebru has forbidden me any more work. Our last few day here are to be spent enjoying the waterfall and surroundings!

But, as the saying goes, no good deed goes without its punishment. And thus, all this canal digging and fountain building has resulted in a little creek across the foot-path, which could get in the way of visiting day tourists. What to do?

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Miriam suggests we extend the runoff-trench across the foot path. Of course we’re not going to let her do it all alone, so on come the working boots again. We dig the trench across the footpath. Gloria reckons the open trench would be a hazard for passing horses, so would need to be covered – hmmm… simple.

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The water spills out from underneath Gloria’s bamboo fence, down a slope of a couple of metres, then into the canal and down to the river. Flowing water will surely erode all this in time, so we use more rocks to build a cascade system to guide the water down into the canal. We then also need to pad out the floor and walls of the canal with flat rocks to ensure that doesn’t grow out of proportion. Where do the rocks come from? Further up the river!

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Never had I imagined this little 5 metres of channel to be such a huge mission! Digging and moving the earth is the easy part. Getting the rocks and placing them selectively adjacent to each other, sculpting out the ground to lay them in at just the right elevation and angle… forget about using large flat rocks and laying them across the top to cover it! Just finding and carrying the rocks of the right size and shape would be difficult enough; then setting everything underneath in a manner that the lid-rocks would make a flat surface would be torturous! And we don’t have the additional hands, and really don’t have the energy left for that.

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…Miriam in action – this girl is as tough as nails!…

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Further up-river is a remainder of a huge tree that was taken down for timber. It’s so large that the few shavings off the trunk that were discarded are big planks themselves. We take one of these, about 3 metres long, half a metre wide, and about 10cm thick, to use as a lid for the channel.

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Length-wise it fits perfectly, but the one (uncut) side is rounded and we have to graft like hell to get the thing to lie even and stably on top of the bed of rocks. Eventually we do it flat-side-down, which leaves us with a bit of a bulge on the walk-way, but it will have to do. We use some sand and gravel from the river to pad off the edges a bit and make the transition to the bulge as soft as possible. We’re spent!

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Enough! I can’t take any more. I enforce a work ban on myself. Let’s go to the waterfall!

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By evening times we’re exhausted. We head for the river or waterfall for a soothing bath before the sun sets. The jungle surrounds us, the only sounds are those of the water and the birds and insects. The little fish come to investigate us and nip at our broken skin. Back at the finca we devour the delicious stews that Gloria has cooked and watch the fire flies fill the air. – Fair deal.

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That’s life on the finca. Facilities are basic and limited so best be prepared with what you need, such as insect rep, toilet paper, tent or (better yet) hammock, mozzi net, torch & batteries, swiss army knife, first aid kit, towel, money, (how about a board game). Don’t being in stuff that’ll result in a lot of rubbish, that which you do bring, be sure to take back out. For an internet cafe you have to take a bus to the next village, about half an hour drive, and for a cash machine it might even have to be Santa Marta. If you put in some effort to help out and have a good bunch of people around you, you’re sure to enjoy it. (We’d love to hear from anyone who’s been there since! Please drop us a comment below.)

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Note for motorcyclists:
If you do wish to visit here with your trusty mare/steed, I just want you to be aware of a few difficulties.
- Number one is the river crossing, which is in itself no big deal as long as the river is low. Getting into the river bed can either be accomplished by heading straight down the edge or a longer more gradual ramp closer to the main road off-ramp, behind the hut – also best for coming out. Both of these could be a bit dangerous with baggage (or without).
- The dirt path to the finca is narrow and entails some sleek manoeuvring over bumps and at time mud ruts. There are people and horses en route so be careful and respect nature.
- Once at Gloria’s you have a bit of a manoeuvre to turn the bike on the path and then run it up a slope with stone steps into the finca clearing. I off-loaded and had someone support my bike whilst ramping up, but with a bigger that might be tough… but you’ll figure something out I’m sure…
- If Gloria is puzzled by your random appearance, let her know we sent you and I think it’ll be fine. (We said we’d be pointing people to her place)
- More hints on getting there in this post.

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…exiting at the first river crossing…

Hey here’s an idea for you: when you get there, why not get big rocks from the river and integrate a nice ramp into the Chez Gloria entrance stairway for easy motorbike access? (I’d have done it of course, but as you know, I was banned from doing any more work ;)) ENJOY!

Gracias Gloria del Mar! Te deseamos lo mejor. Hast luego!

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