We're zigzagging between high-rises on the eastern slopes of Bogotá, capital of Colombia and home to nearly 9 million residents, when we find ourselves at a long, graffiti'ed wall welcoming us to La Quebrada Las Delicias.
There are two success stories in the restoration of the creeks, or quebradas, in Bogotá: La Vieja and Las Delicias. While in La Vieja, monetary support from the surrounding community was central to its rehabilitation as a nature park, the key to restoring Las Delicias was community leadership and action.
Las Delicias is the model for quebradas, explains Sofía Lopez.
Sofía is one such action leader. She lives in one of the concrete-block buildings overlooking Las Delicias and over the last several years has been a local organizer, facilitating quebrada conservation efforts with Conservation International and other groups.
In the last several decades, quebradas have been avoided for their contamination and potential danger, serving as a refuge for questionable and criminal activities. Many people are still concerned about visiting, even during daylight and morning hours when police patrol the area. Those who venture outside of the secure zones still risk theft.
As a child, Sofía recalls carefree playing along the lush and wild Las Delicias. Neighborhood kids would go out unsupervised for hours and hours. Things changed. The first time back at the quebrada as an adult, Sofía recalled feeling nervous. It was dark. Polluted. Dangerous.
She went anyways, and as a guide, she began taking others along too. Their reactions help shift her perception of Las Delicias. Sofía began to see it as an important community resource that could reconnect residents to each other and serve as a classroom, playground and gathering place.
Take the grandparents, and they share their stories.
Take the children, and they share their astonishment. They begin to question...
Bit by bit, I began to fall in love again with the quebradas.
The work to restore the quebrada hasn't been easy. Along the trail, she stops to pick up trash and point out native plants and recent developments. The kiosk is new, the interpretive signs are just a few years old. The walls are painted with graffiti murals of the countryside and local wildlife. A few have been painted over with tags. Unlike in La Vieja Quebrada, another creek in Bogotá, there's a lot more trash in the creek bed. We pass a discarded collection of CDs on the trail. Stolen and left behind, Sofía sighs.
The challenges are great, but the chance to change things have kept Sofía motivated.
"Cuando quieres, tu haces."
When you want it, you do it.
Las Delicias winds below a criss-cross of concrete highways and up through a concrete cinderblock patchwork of houses on the hillside. This neighborhood is one of the poorest in Bogotá and one of the most important in the protection of Las Delicias. Here, you have the confluence of the forest and the city.
We walk between the informal settlements, roofs made of plywood and plastic sheets, and through garbage in the narrow streets. A pack of dogs starts barking.
They think the water will wash everything away - the trash, everything - but it doesn't.
It just goes downstream.
Sofía works to educate and inspire ownership of the quebrada. If people appropriate the quebrada, they will care for it. If they care for it, the water will be clean and children may once again be safe to play along its banks. More eyes would help prevent pollution and trash from getting in the creek and encourage self-policing.
First and foremost, members of the community need economic opportunity, she tells me. One idea is through local eco-tourism. Through small home businesses - touring groups, restaurants, convenience stops - community members would have a reason to value and protect the creek. Sofía nods, When you feel a part, you act.
We move past the last concrete house, cross a wooden bridge and enter the forest. The change of scenery is stark. The trails wind up the hillside between imposing trees, past the quebrada that now runs clear and clean.
Passing an effigy of the Virgin Mary, I am reminded that the importance of this creek extends beyond the water it provides. Pilgrims still come here to worship and meditate.
On-duty police guards greet us as we continue hiking. There is security up to the highest waterfall, we are told. We greet three more and a visiting group of elementary school students on the way up. Creating positive experiences for youth is another key strategy for protecting Las Delicias. Many school groups now come here, with the hope of teaching students about the quebradas and where water in Bogotá comes from.
When we reach the final waterfall I'm out of breath, both winded by the altitude and impressed by its delicate grandeur. We are high above Bogotá and so far in the hills that no urban glimpse nor sound can reach us.
I inch closer to the falls, and Sofía tells me to reach out. Here it is pure, she indicates. I funnel some of the cool water into my hand, and drink. It tastes like rocks. I smile.
Sofía smiles back, Our ancestors would drink this water.
Las Delicias represents the past, the present and the future. In climbing the trail up to the mountains, you walk through the passage of urbanization that has now all but eaten this creek. You pass where children of the 70s once would play and, in the last five years, children have returned on field trips. Here, as much as you can see the pollution and the lack of socio-economic access that still burden the community, you can also see the opportunity: safety that has already been won back, beautiful trails that may soon welcome new tourists, businesses that may empower the community, and people like Sofía who are leading the charge to care for their quebrada.
Special thanks to Sofía Lopez, for your wisdom, time and guidance.
For the month of October, I worked in Colombia and Brasil through an exchange with the Water & Cities Initiative of Conservation International. This is in a series of posts regarding conservation, water and urban issues in Mexico City, Bogotá and Rio de Janeiro.