CARTAGENA, Colombia – The tourism-dependent inhabitants of the northern Colombian hamlet of Zarabanda, located on the road linking the Caribbean cities of Cartagena and Barranquilla, say that the country’s strict coronavirus-triggered lockdown measures have caused their lone source of income to dry up and that the government is doing nothing to ease their plight.
The roughly 20 food huts located on either side of the road were filled until recently with travelers and visitors stopping off to have lunch, snack on a traditional egg-stuffed arepa (corn pancake) or enjoy a soft drink.
But since nationwide stay-at-home orders took effect two months ago and domestic and international flights were grounded, more than 70 families in that community have been left in a sort of limbo.
They say they not only have lost their sole means of supporting themselves but also are being forced to do without basic services such as potable water and natural gas, adding that no government aid has been forthcoming.
Yolanda Montes, a restaurant owner in Zarabanda who employs 12 people, told EFE that she does not understand why government officials who once were her customers “ignore us completely.”
She gave the example of Senate President Lidio Garcia, a native of the department of Bolivar, whose capital is Cartagena, saying that he dined at her restaurant many years ago when he was a vallenato singer.
“We’ve sent him messages begging him for help, but there’s no reply … I think they don’t know we exist even though they all come to enjoy our arepas,” Montes said.
The restaurant owner has heeded all of the officially mandated biosafety measures, yet she still has not received authorization to reopen her business.
“We’ve gone from selling 150 to 200 lunches a day to selling five lunches a day,” she lamented.
Located nearby is El Totumo, a 15-meter-high (50-foot-high) mud volcano that for more than a decade has attracted thousands of domestic and international tourists eager to take an allegedly healing mud bath inside its crater.
Some 45 families from the nearby hamlet of Loma de Arena make a living from tourism, offering plans that include immersion in the crater, a visit to a nearby lagoon to remove the mud and the sampling of typical food from that region.
But now that the flow of tourists has ground to a halt, that community has been stripped of its livelihood.
Yet another hamlet devastated by the coronavirus crisis has been Galerazamba, which is located on the border between the northern departments of Bolivar and Atlantico and is home to a community of nearly 300 families of African descent who for decades made a living by mining salt from El Salar de Galerazamba (known as Colombia’s pink sea).
But salt mining entered a period of decline starting around 2005, causing a plunge in the quality of life of most of Galerazamba’s inhabitants, who today scrape by on their meager pensions.
“Most of the income comes from pensions,” community leader Enrique Porras Diaz told EFE, adding that fishing is not a viable source of revenue even though the community borders the ocean and that the salt mines currently employ fewer than 20 people.
That dusty town, where temperatures climb to 33 C (91 F) at midday, enjoyed a small economic resurgence in 2018 thanks to an influx of tourists who arrived to snap photos of the pink-colored sea (a phenomenon that occurs between December and April when water levels are low and there is a high concentration of salt-loving microbes).
But the promise of a budding local tourism industry has proved to be fleeting.
First, the company that holds the concession to El Salar de Galerazamba ordered a temporary halt to visitors on the grounds that unbridled tourism was harming the salt crystallization process. Now, the pandemic has thrown a further wrench in those plans.
Like the residents of Zarabanda and Loma de Arena, the people of Galerazamba are alternating between anguish and despair as they see their economic resources become increasingly depleted while experiencing a level of government neglect that is more conspicuous than ever during the coronavirus crisis.