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    Visit Nueva Venecia travel guide: the stilt villages of Cienaga Grande

    You’ve probably seen these images of Nueva Venecia, the “New Venice”, with its colorful houses perched on wooden legs in the middle of the water.

    You’ve certainly heard of the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta, an ecosystem where the salty waters of the Caribbean Sea mix with the fresh waters of the Rio Magdalena and Sierra Nevada.

    You want to discover this magical place where the critical fate of an abandoned population and an endangered ecosystem is at stake.

    Well, in this post we’re going to tell you all about it, and maybe even more!

    Disclaimer: we apologize in advance for any grammatical or syntactic errors, as our native language is not English (we're a Colombian-French couple), so we hope you'll forgive us and still enjoy the information we share with you! Please note that all the information on our blog is based on our own experience, and is checked and updated regularly.

    Nueva Venecia and Buenavista, villages on stilts

    Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta

    Visit Nueva Venecia travel guide: the stilt villages of Cienaga Grande
    credit: Luis Alveart

    Nueva Venecia is one of those Colombian postcard images that often conceals a reality far more complex than it appears. Along with Buenavista and Trojas de Cataca, Nueva Venecia is one of three floating villages, known as “palafittic villages”, located on the Cienaga Grande between Barranquilla and Santa Marta.

    What sets these villages apart is the colorful aesthetic of the wooden houses built on stilts in the middle of the lagoon. An epinal image of Colombian “magic realism”, a village straight out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s imagination, another Macondo, so to speak.

    Here, the long-established community lives mainly from fishing. The fishermen traditionally use a small net, thrown by hand from the pirogue. Until recently, a wide variety of fish could be found in the Ciénaga: lebranche, mojarra, sabalo, róbalo, pacora, lisa, chivo, bagre, macabí… Today, with the destruction of the Ciénaga’s equilibrium, the water is increasingly salty, the mangroves are shrinking, the fish are disappearing and fishing is becoming increasingly difficult.

    In Nueva Venecia and Buenavista there is

    There’s a church, a school, stores, a soccer field (donated by Colombian footballer Radamel Falcao), a police station, bars, hundreds of colorful houses on stilts, pirogues and boats to get around, smiles and friendly people.

    Nueva Venecia and Buenavista don’t have

    There is no sewage system, no health post and no drinking water. If you saw the program “Au bout c’est la mer” on the Rio Magdalena, you’ll have seen that fresh water is brought in from a tributary canal of the Rio Magdalena by pirogue, then treated on site with chlorine pebbles.

    The boat is king

    Here, the boat is the central tool without which nothing is possible. An post in El Tiempo gives a good account of the relationship between the inhabitants of villages built on stilts and their boats. While each boat, each pirogue, has its own little name given by its owner, boats are more a part of a large family. The story goes that if a boat is lost adrift, the person who finds it may use it for his or her daily chores, but will always return it to its owner without the slightest problem.

    Solidarity is the name of the game here! And it’s not just about boats. Bartering is part of everyday life. Everyone can exchange goods and services.

    Day Trip to Nueva Venecia and Buenavista

    Tourism as hope for the future

    Visit Nueva Venecia travel guide: the stilt villages of Cienaga Grande
    credit: Luis Alveart

    Nueva Venecia and Buenavista have now decided to try and develop tourism as a way out of their poverty. As in other remote areas affected by conflict, tourism represents a significant way out for these populations. Provided that tourism is well thought-out and adapted to the areas in which it is developed.

    Tourism in Colombia (and elsewhere) often has two faces: that of positive development, and that of nonsense. We defend the idea that in Colombia, responsible and ecologically sustainable tourism, carried out by local people, for local people, can enable many areas to emerge from poverty and the dark years of conflict, and glimpse a future in times of peace.

    Recently, a program for sustainable development and governance for peace was launched in the Cienaga Grande region, financed by the European Union. The beneficiaries of this initiative are the communities of the “palafittic peoples” (populations living on the water). As part of the program, members of two local associations have been trained as guides and given a grounding in ornithology, enabling them to develop a secondary activity to fishing. The program also enables them to participate in the protection of this threatened ecosystem.

    For a responsible visit to the Cienaga Grande

    If you’d like to discover the Ciénaga Grande and its villages on stilts, there are a number of day tours available, as well as informal guides who can take you there at low cost, directly to the landing stages.

    For our part, we recommend that you contact our local partner, an association based in the village of Cienaga that has been working hand-in-hand with the communities of Nueva Venecia and Buenavista for over 10 years to promote responsible tourism. It has participated in the Sustainable Development and Governance for Peace program.

    This guided tour is recommended for groups or families, as it is relatively expensive on its own. But you can be sure you’ll be working with trained and certified guides, supporting a project designed by and for local people, working to protect the Cienaga and making a direct contribution to the community. The need to use boat transport for an entire day also accounts for part of the cost.

    The ecosystem of the Cienaga is fragile and tourism must be developed in a reasoned way. That’s why we feel it’s essential to work with a local association that is committed to this.

    Contact for a Day Tour in Nueva Venecia

    Asoguitour Cienaga (#33)

    To contact our local partner you can use the form below. You won’t pay more, but it will let them know you’re coming from us.

    IMPORTANT: Send your request at least 3 days before your travel date! Otherwise they won’t be able to comply with your request.

    RATES: The association offers two different tours of the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta. The cost of these tours is relatively high, as you have to hire a boat for the whole day.

    Please note that the price is degressive according to the number of people, and a minimum of 2 people is recommended to get a reasonable rate. A minimum of 4 people is more affordable.

    Contents of the Nueva Venecia guided tour

    The aim of this guided tour is to immerse you in the amphibian culture of the palafittic villages of the Cienaga Grande.

    The association works closely with the two communities of Buenavista and Nueva Venecia. Thedirect contribution to the local population represents around 30 u of the price of the guided tour. The guided tour of Nueva Venecia and Buenavista is conducted by local guides who are certified and trained in sustainable development and governance for peace.

    Among other things, this activity enables the fishermen to find a complementary income to that from fishing, promotes education and the protection of the Cienaga Grande ecosystem.

    Guided tour includes:

    • Full-day immersion (5h) with a certified local guide
    • Hydration and lunch
    • Visit to the villages of Buenavista and Nueva Venecia
    • Visit to part of the Cienaga and wildlife observation
    • Meet some of the local characters
    • Boat transport from the village of Cienaga
    • Meet a troupe of local dancers (for groups of 8 or more)

    Nueva Venecia, bright colors but a troubled past

    Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta

    Visit Nueva Venecia travel guide: the stilt villages of Cienaga Grande
    credit: Samuel Ioannidis

    Nueva Venecia is one of those martyred villages that saw the violence of the armed conflict hit them hard one night in November 2000. As is often the case, this massacre was perpetrated by the far-right paramilitary militia of the AUC under the eternal pretext of eliminating “guerrilla-friendly” populations. In this case, we’re talking about madmen who came looking for 3 or 4 people supposed to be guerrilla accomplices, and who ended up killing 37 inhabitants of one of Colombia’s poorest villages. A village where nothing had ever happened, a fishing village, calm and quiet, a tragedy.

    As elsewhere in Colombia, these paramilitary massacres were carried out under the cover of the state and the Colombian army, which at best turned a blind eye and at worst participated in the logistics of the operations.

    In the wake of this tragedy, 90 of the inhabitants left, with only a few diehard families remaining. This was the pattern that repeated itself for decades during the armed conflict, with the constant displacement of populations fleeing the violence. A pattern that persists today in certain remote regions where dissident armed groups rule without the presence of the state.

    The memory of that terrible day is still fresh in the hearts of the inhabitants, but twenty years on, most of them have returned to their villages. In Colombia, people are attached to their land (or their water…) and always end up returning to their homes. If you ask the inhabitants of Nueva Venecia why, some of them will tell you they’ve come back because the only thing they know is “living in water”.

    The Palafittic peoples of Cienaga Grande

    Culture and heritage

    Visit Nueva Venecia travel guide: the stilt villages of Cienaga Grande
    credit: Samuel Ioannidis

    Due to the specific nature of their habitat, the people of Santa Marta’s Cienaga Grande have naturally developed a culture known locally as “cultura anfibia”, or amphibious culture. A mixture of traditions linked to life on the water and the Afro-Colombian traditions of the Caribbean coast.

    Reading El Espectador , we learned that, with the support of various aid foundations such as “Tras la Perla” by Colombian singer Carlos Vives, work is underway to maintain the cultural traditions and intangible heritage of the Ciénaga .

    Inhabitants are reviving their traditions, bringing out their drums and festive costumes, while the younger members of the community are learning the old songs of their elders. Traditional African dances are also being revived. In Buenavista, a traditional music group has even recently been formed: “Congo Buenavistero”.

    Local populations are becoming aware of the richness of their natural and cultural heritage, and are learning to value the customs they had lost. In recent years, the “Amphibious Culture” festival has been revived with the support of the Carlos Vives Foundation.

    Local cultural life is marked by four important dates that give rise to major festivities on the Ciénaga: the Festival del Caïman Cienaguero (January 16 to 20), Barranquilla Carnival (February/March), Virgen del Carmen Day (July 16), and the San Martín festivities (November 11).

    But the festivities here are not confined to these four dates, and around the bars, billiards halls and stores, life remains lively afternoons and evenings. In fact, the area in front of the Nueva Venecia church has become a dance floor, where you can party and dance the “Baile negro”, the traditional dance of the floating villages, all night long!

    The Cienaga Grande, an ecosystem at risk

    Nueva Venecia and the Cienaga Grande

    Visit Nueva Venecia travel guide: the stilt villages of Cienaga Grande
    credit: Samuel Ioannidis

    Part of Santa Marta’s Ciénaga Grande has been part of Colombia’s National Natural Parks since 1977, and the entire Cienaga was designated a“World Biosphere Reserve” by UNESCO in 2000. It is the largest lake system in Colombia, covering more than 50.000 km2.

    La Ciénaga is home to over 200 different species of birds , some endemic, others migratory, and other wildlife (rays, herons, egrets, crocodiles, kamichi chavaria, marsh hens, iguanas and howler monkeys, among others).

    But all is not rosy, and many say that the Cienaga Grande is slowly dying. According to the newspaper Semana Sostenible, the agony of the Ciénaga Grande can be traced back to the 1950s, when the construction of the artificial road between Santa Marta and Barranquilla blocked the natural inflow of salt water from the Caribbean Sea.

    Between 1950 and 1990, the Ciénaga lost more than 20.000 hectares of mangroves, one of the most important biotopes in terms of ecosystem balance, on which many living creatures depend.

    La Cienaga has the particularity of being fed by three totally different sources of water: the clear, powerful waters flowing directly down from the Sierra Nevada, the waters of the immense Magdalena River, which reaches the end of its course here via a system of canals, and the waters of the Caribbean Sea. All these waters mix together, moving and renewing the sedimentary bed, and creating a biotope mixing salt and fresh water, ideal for the development of mangroves.

    This delicate balance has been disrupted by land grabbing and the illegal detour of canals to irrigate pastures and palm, rice and banana crops… The waters of the lagoon are increasingly salty, leading to higher fish mortality, which in turn weakens the villagers’ livelihoods..

    In 2016, the Ciénaga was declared a natural disaster by the government, and a number of actions were taken, including the destruction of illegal dams that were diverting freshwater from the rivers flowing into the Ciénaga. A semblance of balance is slowly returning, and mangrove replanting projects are underway, but nothing is certain..

    Contact for a day trip to Nueva Venecia

    Asoguitour Cienaga (#33)

    To contact our local partner you can use the form below. You won’t pay more, but it will let them know you’re coming from us.

    IMPORTANT: Send your request at least 3 days before your travel date! Otherwise they won’t be able to comply with your request.

    Tour info and prices

    Our partner offers two different tours of Santa Marta’s Cienaga Grande, departing from the village of Cienaga (45 min from Santa Marta). Tour prices vary according to the number of people, and a minimum of 2 people is recommended for a reasonable price. For logistical reasons, it’s best to book at least 2 days in advance.

    • Visit to the floating villages of Nueva Venecia and Buenavista
      Duration: 5 hours
      Guided tour of Nueva Venecia, Buenavista and the Ciénaga Grande, featuring an immersion in the “amphibian” culture and a lancha ride through the Ciénaga to discover its unique fauna and ecosystem.
    • Birdwatching tour on the Cienaga Grande
      Duration: 5 hours
      A tour dedicated exclusively to birdwatching, taking you along the canals and to the mouths of the rivers entering the Cienaga, accompanied by an ornithologist guide.

    Tour prices

    1 pers. : $450.000 COP
    2 pers. $275.000 COP/pers.
    3 pers. : $230.000 COP/pers.
    4 pers. and more: $1750.000 COP/pers.

    Additional options :

    • English translator = $150.000 COP
    • Experience fishing with a local fisherman = $50.000 COP/pers.

    These rates include :

    • Immersion day (5h) with local community guide
    • Visit to the villages of Buenavista and Nueva Venecia
    • Visit to part of the Cienaga and wildlife observation
    • Lunch and hydration during the tour (bring your own water bottle)
    • Meet the locals: cooks, bakers, craftsmen, etc.
    • Boat transportation
    • Community contribution
    • Insurance

    Where to stay in Cienaga

    Cienaga

    El Habitante Casa Cultural Hostal

    Hostal

    El Habitante Casa Cultural Hostal

    Dormitory : $25.000 to $50.000/Double room : $150.000 to $200.000 COP

    A lovely hostal in the historic center of Cienaga run by the Tiempo de Juego foundation, which works with local communities on social empowerment projects. Worth supporting!

    Cienaga

    Casa de remedio Boutique Hotel

    Hotel

    Casa de remedio Boutique Hotel

    Double room : $150.000 to $200.000 COP

    To continue the dream of living like in a Garcia Marquez book, here’s accommodation in a superb colonial house straight out of another time!

    How to get to Cienaga

    There are two main entry points to the Ciénaga Grande: one on the Santa Marta side near the village of Cienaga (Pueblo Viejo), the other on the Barranquilla side near the village of Sitionuevo

    In 2019, a new tourist pier was built near the village of Cienaga, making it easier for local guides to pick up tourists wishing to visit the floating villages and natural riches of the Ciénaga Grande.

    Cienaga is certainly the most easily accessible entry point for discovering Santa Marta’s Cienaga Grande.

    From Santa Marta

    BUS | Santa Marta <> Barranquilla – Cienaga stop (45 min)

    • Fare: approx. $10.000 COP
    • Companies : Libertador, Cootransunidos, Cootragua

    From Barranquilla

    BUS | Barranquilla <> Santa Marta – Cienaga stop (2h)

    • Fare: between $30.000 and $50.000 COP
    • Companies : Libertador, Cootragua, Expreso Brasilia

    MOTOCARRO | Pueblo Viejo <> Parador Turístico (Pier)

    • Price: approx. $5.000 COP

    It’s also possible to go to Sitionuevo on the eastern coast of Cienaga Grande. This is an alternative to the traditional departure from Cienaga/Pueblo Viejo, for those who would like to get to Nueva Venecia from Barranquilla, but it’s a little more complicated.

    From Barranquilla, take a bus to Sabanagrande

    BUS | Barranquilla <> Sabanagrande (45 min)

    • Fare: approx. $3.000 COP
    • Company: Cootransoriente

    In Sabanagrande, take a motocarro to the port of Sabanagrande to take a rowboat across the Rio Magdalena to Sitionuevo

    CHALOUPE | Sabanagrande <> Sitionuevo (30 min)

    • Fare: approx. $5.000 COP

    Once in Sitionuevo, take a motocarro to the Cienaga pier, where the lanchas that will take you to Nueva Venecia are waiting

    MOTOCARRO | Sitionuevo <> Cienaga pier (45 min)

    • Price: approx. $5.000 COP

    LANCHA | Sitionuevo landing stage <> Nueva Venecia (30 min)

    • Price: approx. $5.000 COP

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    Authors

    Angélica & Samuel

    We are Angélica and Samuel, a French-Colombian couple, professional photographers and web editors specializing in travel to Colombia. We created this blog to change the image of the country, help you prepare your trip and inspire you to discover Colombia in a different way!

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