By: Fundación Azul-Verde-Azul
Photos: Cristian Pinzón
Every morning, just six miles from Riohacha, the capital of Colombia’s Guajira province, in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a tiny lagoon puts on a spectacular show. Wreathed in the orange sands of the Guajira desert and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, the lagoon’s peaceful waters, home to long-legged, rosy-plumed flamingos, reflect snowy peaks towering over 18,000 feet high.
The tiny shrimp (Artemia salina) that abound in these waters are responsible for the show, providing food for countless pink flamingos, which in turn attract curious spectators…like us! The flamingos, which stand up to five feet tall, spend their nights at Laguna Grande but return to Navío Quebrado every day to feed on shrimp and parade elegantly back and forth across the lagoon’s mirror-like, twelve-inch deep waters.
This spectacular display of nature led to the colorful spot being declared a National Natural and Cultural Heritage site in 1992. More than 6,000 flamingos inhabit the 17,000-acre reserve, which includes the Manzanillo, Laguna Grande, Tocoromanes, and Navío Quebrado marshes, cut off from the Caribbean Sea by dunes and surrounded by dry forestland.
The residents of the nearby town of Camarones, where houses have cactus fences, have managed to take responsible advantage of this beautiful display. This community on the mouth of the Tapias River, through the Grupo Asociativo de Trabajo Comunitario El Santuario (El Santuario Community Work Association), offers accommodations in hammocks, campgrounds, and cabins, and delicious food blending Caribbean coastal and indigenous Wayúu cuisines. They also offer tours of the best spots in the lagoon in wooden canoes, in the best Venetian style. Today I am part of one of these groups, silently, respectfully, succumbing to the magic of the Santuario de Flora y Fauna Los Flamencos.
Our guide, Carlos, propels the canoe using a long wooden pole, commenting that the flamingos are whitish-grey at birth and slowly turn pink as they feed on the shrimp. In August, the huge, long-legged birds migrate to other lagoons in the northern part of the Guajira, although many prefer to lay their eggs in this lagoon, in two-foot high mud nests resembling volcanoes. They usually lay one egg per season; the mother and father take turns tending the egg and raising the chick, which by age six will have chicks of its own, thus completing the flamingo’s life cycle. The lifespan of a flamingo is approximately forty years.
We glide into the lagoon, leaving behind the white sand beach and pounding surf. The fresh air seems to have blown down directly from the Sierra Nevadas, peeking hazily from above the clouds. The wind pushes us towards a flock of pelicans flying next to about 200 black, yellow-billed cormorant ducks and a few dozen white gulls, guiding us to what we most hope to meet: a group of more than fifty flamingos, whose gorgeous pink coloring stands in marked contrast to the landscape. Young white flamingos and sexy pink males march along together to the same rhythm, elegantly synchronized. There seems to be a choreographer among them: wherever he goes, the others follow. They lift their legs and turn together to stare curiously in the same direction. With their necks in the shape of the number two, they welcome us to the lagoon they share with sixty-one other species of birds of all colors and sizes.
The group of flamingos moves from one island to another in what looks like a changing of the guard, but right before the flamingos land at their destination, a white ibis with a bright red bill zooms in front, breaking ranks like some kind of general. In a display of evolutionary evidence, our group of flamingos opens their long, black-fringed wings and uses the water’s surface as a launch pad. It is a sublime sight to see birds of this size take off and synchronize their movements in the air just as they did when they marched along, all lifting one leg at the same time.
The wind blows steadily; we’re far from land so our guide, Carlos, transforms his Venetian canoe into a small sailboat and takes advantage of the wind’s power to take us back to shore, accompanied only by the sound of the wind and water. The black, white, and pink of the birds are colorful sparks on a chocolate-colored lagoon, surrounded by spiny green cactus and the light blue sky with a snowy white backdrop. Back on shore, beside the turquoise sea and the pounding surf, a delicious Wayúu stew awaits us. We take a break from the sun in a comfortable hammock as colorful as the birds in the lagoon.