While dreaming of a nomadic lifestyle, it was obvious to me that there were a few things that I would need along the way. First, I like a little structure in my life. I generally like to know where I’m going and I prefer to have a general plan for the next few weeks.

I also knew that I didn’t want to be a surface traveler, staying only in a touristy hotel to do the top 5 “must-see” activities before jumping to the next spot. I want to try to travel more slowly, more deeply. I want to get to know a community better by hanging around, asking questions, and possibly volunteering some of my time. My hope is that by traveling in this manner, I can make connections and some friendships along the way.

Nowadays, there are oodles of opportunities to travel with a purpose by volunteering or doing a work exchange. In a few minutes on the internet, you will find that many, many organizations would like to take your money and give you a first rate volunteer experience. While I may make a donation to a good cause, I don’t want to pay to volunteer. Searching for free opportunities takes a little more time.

One such source for free opportunities is a website called Workaway(workaway.info) This platform is where volunteers who want to work for a couple of weeks- or a couple of months- meet “hosts” who are willing to take on workers in exchange for a bed and maybe some meals. Farms, hostals, after-school programs in arts or sports, and teaching English to kids are really common Workaway experiences offered all around the world. As a traveler, I decide where I’d like to stay for awhile and I search on the website for a potential opportunity to volunteer in that community. I read the reviews from former volunteer workers to get a better idea of what work I’d be expected to do and to understand exactly what I get in return. Then, I contact the host. They can read about me on my profile and read reviews of me from other hosts. If they agree to take me on, we confirm details and dates. It’s a great way to connect with some locals, feel like you’re doing some good, and enjoy a region in your off hours while practically living for free. 

So, for my travels around Colombia, I decided I wanted to focus my first month in the mountains around Bucaramanga (mostly because I like to say the name Bu-Ka-Ra-Manga), and I thought it would be fun to find a work opportunity outdoors. After some searching on the Internet, I found La Montaña Mágica- El Poleo, and the wonderful people of Zapatoca, Colombia.

The dry Sagamoso River Valley runs through this beautiful mountain region south of the City of Bucaramanga. To get to Zapatoca, you have to travel down into this canyon, cross a bridge and wind your way up the other side.
The entrance sign to this beautiful mountain reserve

Twelve years ago, the Díaz Rueda family bought this 200+ acre (86 hectares) finca, or ranch, which was primarily producing cattle and coffee, and converted it into a Civil Society Natural Reserve to conserve and protect the forests of this special ecosystem. They named it La Montaña Mágica-El Poleo. Don Rey, an environmental visionary, and his son Daniel, a forestry engineer and plant aficionado, understood that these mountains and tropical valleys lay at the intersection between two different ecosystems, the high altitude humid-tropical zone and the dry lowlands in the rain shadow of the Eastern Andes mountain range. Therefore this land is a rich habitat for species from both of these zones. Today, thanks to Daniel and his scientific contacts, they have inventoried more than 135 species of birds, 20 species of reptiles and 30 different mammals including the endangered Oso Andino (Spectacled Bear) that only lives along the high mountains of the Andes. Their monitoring cameras have also documented large felines who use the property as a home.

As if that isn’t enough, the 900 different species of plants in this mountain valley also attract a lot of attention, the most famous being las palmas de cera, or wax palms. If you enlarge the photo below, you will see the white sticklike palm trees climbing up the ridge from the center to the upper-right hand corner of the photo. These palm trees are the tallest palm trees in the world, and they are the Colombian National Tree. As tradition has it, these palms are adored for their beauty during Palm Sunday services so each year all over Colombia and Latin America, the new leaves are cut from these slow-growing trees. Ofcourse, Don Rey, Daniel and their family, already misunderstood in the community for taking perfectly good cattle land out of production, have had to work hard to educate the community on why these particular palms, and the native forests, are important to save. They do this through a lot of outreach, education and cooperation from the community.

The 200+ acre roadless nature preserve extends between 6,000 feet – 7,545 feet (1850-2300 meters) in elevation.
The main houses which serve as the scientific research /education centers are located down in the valley
about 30 minutes from the road.
Don Rey near a sign which reads “Has llegado al Fin Del Afán” which means “You have arrived at the end of the urgency… or busyness of life”. On the reserve, this sign also designates that you are leaving civilization behind and entering this roadless area.
The main house, with various areas for sleeping, meetings and ceremonies, sits near the bottom of the valley with mountains towering above on three sides. From this view,
you can see their hillside of pines, which is the sustainably managed part
of this otherwise wild reserve.
The refugio, or the main house, is a “colonial peasant house” with all the rooms opening onto this open breezeway. Daniel generally uses the space for his scientific research, while Don Rey has embellished it with a passion for art and connecting to Mother Earth. Over the years, he has invited many visitors to add to his creation. It’s a very eclectic house and everyday I noticed something new.
Daniel’s greenhouse where he propagates plants (especially more wax palms)
for the network of reserves.

During my 16 days on the Reserve, I helped clear this large garden, pick coffee cherries, sort the coffee beans by quality, and help prepare and serve meals from this old-fashioned kitchen.

Fernando is a part-time chef, and worker on the reserve.
His humor and great food made every day more fun.

On a local level, Don Rey invites school groups to the reserve for an environmental education field trip. But it’s Daniel, as the scientist, who generates national and international attention. I was here for several days before I really understood the breadth of his outreach. A group of students from a nearby university had come to tour the reserve, and Daniel invited me to listen in on his presentations to them. I learned so much about his efforts.

Groups of students of all ages visit the reserve. While I was there, two university groups came to spend the night and learn about private natural reserves as a means to conserve land in Colombia. Daniel gave an initial introduction about the reserve before we headed down to the house in the valley below.

First, Don Rey and Daniel have been instrumental in inspiring other local landowners to convert their land into conservation reserves. Then, in collaboration with ten other nearby reserves, they have formed a network called RENAZ. Their mission is to conserve the land, restore the native forests, sustainably produce forest products to help local communities, and promote ongoing scientific research of the biodiversity as well as monitoring the effects of climate change over time. Scientists from around the world are paying attention to their efforts (World Wildlife Fund was visiting the week after I left), and the research being conducted is being published and presented at international conferences. I was really inspired by their work, their long term vision and all they are doing to be better caretakers of the natural world. During a recent interview for World Wildlife Fund’s magazine, Daniel eloquently put their philosophy into words: “The true owners of this mountain are the spectacled bears, the plants, the birds, the mushrooms, the insects and the other species that are found here. We only have a title and we are the legal administrators of these lands, but we are convinced that our mission is to return the land to the Earth.”

Daniel, presenting a map of their alliance of private reserves which are currently protecting over 1,606 acres (shown in red). The owners of these reserves hope to someday expand to create a protective corridor
with the nearby National Parks (shown in green).

Don Rey, who is really the spiritual caretaker of the land, adds the theatrical flare to the field trips by hosting official graduation ceremonies for visitors of the reserve.

Living at this reserve was the peaceful mountain experience I was looking for.
But getting off the reserve was also exciting when Don Rey and I walked to the locally infamous La Cochilla del Ramo for beers and the Colombian snack cake, Chocoramo!
Thank you to Daniel and Don Rey for all of your inspiration, friendship and hospitality. Helping in your efforts to conserve the beautiful Montaña Mágica was a memorable first Workaway volunteer experience for me!