MONIQUIRA, Colombia – Moniquira, a Colombian town that is a three-hours’ drive from Bogota and is known as the cradle of the country’s bocadillo de guayaba (a traditional guava jelly snack), is looking to revive its struggling economy with a varied tourism offering.
Most of the town’s 24,000 inhabitants make a living from growing plantains, yucca and sugarcane on small plots of land and selling them in the local market, although low prices, institutional neglect and a lack of generational renewal threaten to make farming inviable.
In response, the small farmers and inhabitants of Moniquira, located in the north-central province of Boyaca, are looking to attract visitors and bolster the local economy by touting the town’s natural and gastronomic heritage, its mild climate and adventure tourism potential.
THE AROMA OF THE GUAVA FRUIT
The smell of the guava pervades the halls of the La Moniquireña bocadillo factory, where some 50 crates of the sweet and juicy tropical fruit arrive every Sunday.
The production process involves mashing the guavas into a pulp, which is boiled at a low temperature along with panela, or refined sugar, and then left to cool until it is thick enough to be molded into a block. This bocadillo is then typically eaten with cheese in Colombia as a simple dessert.
The owner of the business, Libardo Villamil, told EFE that the bocadillo de guayaba was invented in Moniquira but is typically associated with the neighboring province of Santander because the town previously belonged to that administrative region.
Last week, workers at La Moniquireña took part in a competition to determine who could most quickly wrap these bocadillos in their traditional packaging (the leaves of the bijao plant), a contest that was part of the latest edition of the Moniquira Sweets and Bocadillo Fair that ran from Dec. 11-15.
PLIGHT OF THE COUNTRYSIDE
The bijao plant, which grows in the tropics, is one of Moniquira’s main crops. Its inhabitants pick the leaves and then bleach them before selling them in the market for an extremely low price.
A farmworker who cultivates the bijao plant may earn “some 150,000 pesos (around $45) a week,” said Guillermo Luis, a farmworker who also lamented the low prices of two other crops of which Moniquira is Boyaca’s main producer: coffee and sugarcane,.
“Since the price is very low, people don’t farm the land because they go broke. I’ve even sold my mules, and young people also don’t want to work in the fields because there’s no incentive,” he said.
Guavas for bocadillos, meanwhile, are now brought in from other towns because that crop stopped being cultivated due to the damage caused by a species of small beetle native to Asia, the farmworker said, adding that the solution lies in carrying out a recovery effort in alliance with Colombia’s National Training Service.
The problems of the farming sector led to a search for new economic opportunities, including an effort to draw visitors with an eco-tourism offering that leverages the area’s nature trails and more than 15 waterfalls.
One of those waterfalls, the Salto del Zorro, offers tourists the opportunity to practice the sport of abseiling, or rappelling (descending in a controlled manner off a vertical drop), go on nature hikes and take a dip in crystalline water.
A National Tourism Fund project also is financing campaigns to highlight Moniquira’s natural beauty and eco-tourism and adventure tourism potential.