Coqui, Between the Jungle and the Sea

In Coqui, an Afro-indigenous village just south of Nuqui in the Chocó on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, the people began to forget who they were.

Coqui was first settled in 1830 by a small group of men who stumbled upon the spit of land between the mangroves and the ocean while cutting down trees on the Río Baudó. Over the next century it grew to around 200 people, mostly Afro-Colombians with a few Emberá. They survived on fishing mostly, setting out to sea before sunrise in groups of two or three, and collected mollusks called pianguas from the mangroves. Most families tended small fincas carved out of the jungle too, growing yuca, plantains, and cacao, and various fruits. Collectively they grew rice, of which artisan varieties thrived in the swampy mangrove soil, and the surplus was sold to Nuqui and beyond.

The community thrived. They lived within the limits of what their ecosystem could provide. They wove elaborate baskets and hats and hammocks from coconut husks and other natural fibers. They sang songs and performed dances. Using everything they had around them, their gastronomy grew rich and varied. They made atollado, a risotto like dish that was one of dozens of ways to use the rice they grew. And tapao a fish stew with whatever tubers they had around, seasoning it with achiote and the herbs from their gardens. They made sweet things with the cacao that was growing in their trees and had more fruits (guanabana, mangoes, araza) than they knew what to do with.

As the community expanded and the Chocó became more connected to the rest of Colombia, problems arose beyond their control. To keep up with industrial rice coming from Buenaventura they planted other varieties that could produce more, however, they were less nutritious and didn’t grow well in the soil. Narco trafficking made the coast less secure. Shrimp trawlers and commercial fishing depleted fish populations. Many had to leave the village, mostly moving to cities to go to school or find work. Younger generations left the village before being taught about the plants and animals around them. Traditions were lost. Fincas were abandoned. Coqui’s communal memory began to grow dim.

When it seemed like all hope was gone, tourists discovered the Pacific Coast. Over the past decade, security in Colombia has improved dramatically and new parts of the country opened up to visitors. The Pacific was undeveloped, and remains so today, though the lush rainforest covered mountains that crash into a pristine ocean, where whales congregate just off shore for part of the year, is hard to keep a secret. The trickle of tourists that has come has been enough of a spark to begin the resurrection of Coqui. And it brought Leonor Espinosa to them.

Through the open kitchen of Zotea, you can see the jungle and the rain. It’s coming down like buckets, then slows momentarily to just a drizzle, then picks up again before stopping all together. It’s late 2018 and the first day of the restaurant, which Espinosa, whose Bogotá restaurant Leo is widely regarded as Colombia’s best, helped open just off the beach in Coqui. A dozen or so women are in the kitchen and the steps behind it. There’s Cruz Mélida Martínez, aka Mama Cruz, one of the community leaders, who everyone looks to when there’s a question. Some of the women are cleaning pianguas. Two others are grating coconuts, for which the meat will be used to make coconut rice or to flavor stews. Others are squeezing the juice from limes or bitter oranges, which they’ll mix with a local firewater called viche or panela. They are mashing papa chino (taro); cutting carambola, basil, and tomatoes for a salad; or shaping albondigas de pescado (fish meatballs).

Espinosa is in the kitchen too. She has taught them new techniques and to refine the 40 or so recipes that will be served. She, along with her daughter Laura Hernández Espinosa, the director of their NGO FunLeo, have invested more than just time, though. With 100,000 euros for winning the Basque Culinary World Prize, they used much of the money in Coqui to help build Zotea, which was never intended to be just a restaurant serving traditional food.

“There are examples of community run restaurants around the world, but as a sustainable business model it doesn’t exist,” says Hernández. “We’re figuring it out.”

No one in Coqui knew Espinosa was a chef until someone saw her picture in a magazine. She bought a house in the village and would often been seen sleeping in a hammock on the porch. Now she is there side by side with them, showing how to make a tiradito with tuna caught that morning and some araza, aji dulce, and onion.

“We want to recuperate these gardens that were abandoned,” Espinosa says as we walk through wild, overgrown plots of guanabana and yuca. They are also trying to grow vanilla and cacao criolla, but recovering Coqui’s once great rice tradition is one of the primary goals.

After a 30-minute canoe ride through the mangroves, which include seven of the world’s 12 species and are some of the best preserved on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, we get out and hike through the mud. Smith Valencia, one of the leaders of the project, needs to chop our trail through the jungle, including removing a venomous pit viper known as equis.

Valencia’s father grew rice his entire life and was one of the most important growers in the region. There were eleven varieties grown, such as garza, fortuno, and criollo, but the prized rice of these parts was baldoceño. It grew beautifully in the swampy, mangrove soil. Coqui rice became emblematic of the community and songs were sung about it. During harvest, couples would play a game to see who could pick the most. It was eaten with every meal, from arroz con coco to jututiao, a rainy season preparation where it gets toasted in a pot.

We reach a clearing and Valencia wades through the knee deep water through the fields of rice.

“We don’t use any non-natural products,” he says. “It’s very clean. You don’t want to eat chemicals.”

When FunLeo became involved they helped market it as an artisan product. They helped give it nice packaging and they started to get requests from stores in Bogotá and Medellin. They did the same for coconut oil they were making and both products are starting some get some buzz in Colombian culinary circles. With a clean work facility with modern equipment inside of Zotea, they have increased production to 40 bags a day.

Nearly the entire community is involved in the project in some form. Everyone gets a wage and rest goes to a common fund where they propose ways to spend it, which might be to increase rice production or to invest in the schools.

FunLeo’s investment, along with that of Chocó Emprende, builds off the work of other NGOs that came before them. Everywhere you look you see ideas coming to fruition. A cooperative of eco-guides now leads tours in hand-carved dugout canoes called chingos through the mangroves to tourists. In the center of town, a museum has been set up to teach visitors about traditional medicine, weaving, and to sell local products and arrange guided tours in the mangroves, to isolated beaches, and to spot the whales that have become a major tourist draw from July to November.

On beaches up and down the Pacific Coast rustic ecolodges have sprung up. Fishermen are coming for big game fish and surfers are seeking out waves. There are no roads, so everything is reached by boat from Nuqui, where an airstrip is receiving multiple daily flights from Medellin and sometimes Bogotá. What’s going on in Coqui is a cornerstone of a region, once considered too remote and dangerous to visit, that is blossoming.

The community is being empowered to be self sufficient once again, with guidance. The physical structure of the restaurant was built by men in the community with the help of an architect they brought in from Bogotá, but the traditional way of doing things can never be erased. For instance, a greenhouse was designed that modified the stilted garden beds made from old wooden canoes that are typical in Coqui herb gardens. Typical garden beds would not have worked. The people of Coqui knew from two centuries of experience. There are small black crabs that would devour the plants. Everything here is alive.