faces of ciénaga: buenavista and nueva venecia

Buenavista, one of three fishing villages in La Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, is home to about 120 families.

Buenavista, one of three fishing villages in La Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, is home to about 120 families.

They came because the fishing was good, but the trip to the market, and home, was long in their wooden dugout canoes. One thing led to another…what began as one stilted cabin here or there in which to stay overnight grew into larger buildings to store belongings allowing for longer stays. At some point about 100 years ago it just made sense to the fishermen to build more structures and bring their families. What once was open swamp with good fishing eventually became a good place to call home.

A fisherman throws his net near Buenavista.  In the distance plastic jugs mounted on posts mark shrimp nets.

A fisherman throws his net near Buenavista. In the distance plastic jugs mounted on posts mark shrimp nets.

Wooden canoes are used for fishing and getting around town.  Nueva Venecia is largest fishing village in the area.

Wooden canoes are used for fishing and getting around town. Nueva Venecia is largest fishing village in the area.

Nueva Venecia and Buenavista (both appropriately named, these translate to “New Venice” and “good view,” respectively) are two small communities in the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta, about an hour’s boat ride from Pueblo Viejo. Most of the towns’ structures are on stilts. There is no electricity except what is provided by gas generators. Most of these are small portable varieties in homes, with the exception of Nueva Venecia. It is the largest of three communities in the area, and has a generator that supplies limited electricity to much of the town. While each town is self-contained, residents commute to Nueva Venecia for high school and community events. Small plots of land in each town were built up over time by piling up sediment and shell, primarily to serve as well-used soccer fields or gathering spaces.

Young girls played on their porch while a family member mended a shrimp net in Buenavista.

Much of life happens on the porch.  Children play outside and adults tend to business, mending shrimp nets, working on outboard motors, or socializing with friends.

Small generators provide power for fans, blenders and lights in Buenavista homes.

Small generators provide power for fans, blenders and lights in Buenavista homes.

Soccer fields built up by piling sediment and shell in the shallow water provide a place for boys to play the popular sport.

Soccer fields built up by piling sediment and shell in the shallow water provide a place for boys to play the popular sport.

Napoleon’s family moved to Buenavista over 50 years ago. He says that life in Buenavista is good and peaceful. People move there because they want to live there, and everyone knows everyone else. While they do have representation for regional political activities, there is no police force because there is little crime. It is not cheap to live in these communities. Everything must be transported in, including supplies for daily life and building materials. It is much less expensive to have a home in Ciénaga or Pueblo Viejo, but the quality of life that calls in these towns out-competes any monetary gain from living the larger towns.

Shrimp nets are put out each night and collected in the morning. Men who are not fishing use the daylight hours to check the nets for holes.

Shrimp nets are put out each night and collected in the morning. Men, such as Napoleon’s nephew, right, who are not fishing use the daylight hours to check the nets for holes. 

Living in these towns is not without its challenges. Nearby, the Magdalena River, Colombia’s largest, flows into the Caribbean Sea at Barranquilla. Every few years, the river floods and greatly impacts the residents of these fishing villages. The rise though is slow, as is the retreat. This gives people enough time to raise their belongings, and even their floorboards, in their homes, to prevent water from coming into the home. Quality education is also an issue. While many children do make it to the university level, government corruption has misrepresented attendance and made it difficult for qualified teachers to be placed in the remote schools.

During floods, the Magdalena River can rise several feet into the home, causing Napoleon, left, to raise everything in the house to stay dry. His wife Berta, right, came to MMI’s clinic last year for cataract surgery but is not able to make the trip this year to repair the cataract in her other eye.

During floods, the Magdalena River can rise several feet into the home, causing Napoleon, left, to raise everything in the house to stay dry. His wife Berta, right, came to MMI’s clinic last year for cataract surgery but is not able to make the trip this year to repair the cataract in her other eye.

A young student pauses by a classroom in Nueva Venecia’s school.

A young student pauses by a classroom in Nueva Venecia’s school.

Fishermen spend their days on water or at home mending gear. They make trips to the market in Tasajeras, to sell their catch and gather supplies, every 4-5 days. Many have outboard motors, but some rely on plastic sails to propel them across the waters.  For the people who live in these villages, inconveniences caused by their remoteness is a small price to pay for a quieter, simpler life.

A group of boys took a break from soccer to visit with us, left.  While younger boys spend their day at play en masse, men spend much of the day on the water, right, working alone or in pairs to catch fish for food and income.

A group of boys took a break from soccer to visit with us, left. While younger boys spend their day at play en masse, men spend much of the day on the water, right, working alone or in pairs to catch fish for food and income.

Nueva Venecia is a combination of vibrantly painted and weathered wood buildings, beautifully reflected in the surrounding waters.

Nueva Venecia is a combination of vibrantly painted and weathered wood buildings that  reflect beautifully in the surrounding waters.

While many fishermen have small outboard motors to shorten their long trips, some travel across the water in wooden canoes propelled by wind.

While many fishermen have small outboard motors to shorten their long trips, some travel across the water in wooden canoes propelled by wind.

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