Cienaga was named a Pueblo Patrimonio (a historical village) in 2012, one of 17 of the most beautiful, historical villages in Colombia. They are all worth visiting, each one is more beautiful than the last. But Cienaga, while it may the least captivating of these historical towns, it is definitely a village I would not hesitate to visit again. This hot, steamy town may look a little run down on first impression but a deeper look reveals the bones, spirit and history of a rich, agricultural past. It’s a hidden jewel with the potential to become a great destination. Here one can learn about banana cultivation, bathe in hot springs and participate in a festival honoring a caiman.
Located on the Caribbean, in the Magdalena department under the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Cienaga is just a 30 minute drive south of Santa Marta. The town is famous for its vallenato and cumbia music, musicians and composers.
Stilt Villages in the Lagoons of Cienaga Grande
But most people know Cienaga for its stilted villages – groups of houses built on stilts in the marshes of the great swamp of Santa Marta. These villages can only be reached by canoe. The houses and canoes make for a colorful, magical landscape. One of the villages is called Nueva Venecia, or the New Old Venice is the most popular followed by the villages of Bocas de Aracataca, Buenavista, La Paz, and La Junta. This is the largest lagoon area in Colombia and was declared a wetland of global importance by UNESCO.
Cienaga Grande stretches across 45,000 hectares and is inhabited by 2,500 people, mostly descendants of African slaves. They have been living here since the 1800s. Cienaga, in Spanish, means swamp and Cienaga Grande is a wildlife sanctuary made up of creeks, rivers and swamps and interconnected by canals and impenetrable mangroves. The marsh consists of a mixture of salt and freshwater creating a rich ecosystem with abundant fish. The people here are dedicated to agriculture and fishing. The fish and crops are sold in the nearby markets of Barranquilla and surrounding villages.
Many travelers come to Cienaga disappointed the stilt villages are so far away and difficult to get to. Maybe difficult, but not impossible. One can rent a boat to tour these villages. Take a tuk tuk from Cienaga down the highway to Barranquilla. On the road is the company Costalara, which has been in business for 33 years. They will rent a boat and guide for 550,000 cop. Best to call to reserve ahead of time. One can go privately or share the cost with other travelers. The boat leaves at 7:30 and returns at 1:00 with lunch included back at Costalara. There are other companies doing tours like Civitatas. One can reserve a tour through the travel agencies in Santa Marta where they will pick up passengers up at their hotels and take them to the canoes.
These tours are usually busy during Colombian holidays. Not too many people visit the stilted villages in the off season. The excursions have seen a series of set backs in the last 20 years. Previously the great swamp was a territory of the FARC, then there was a dam break and the floods in 2010. After that clean up, tourism was just hitting steady when the covid pandemic closed everything down in 2019.
The Beautiful Historical Center of Cienaga
But few people talk about the impressive historical center of Cienaga. It is a beautiful city center with well preserved Republican era architecture and a quaint splendor owed to the agricultural wealth of the region and the rich estates on huge banana plantations stretching around town.
The historic center is very easy to get to. There are cars and buses from Santa Marta and Barranquilla going there throughout the day. There are many interesting buildings within walking distance of the town square: Templete, Chapel of the Santa Teresa School, the old Railroad Station, Church of San Juan Batista, the Masonic Lodge and the abandoned Casa del Diablo or House of the Devil. The tourist office on the main square offers maps of the center and sites.
What I found truly delightful with Ceinaga is the town’s beach which is just an 8 minute walk from the main square. A dirt road runs along the beach, shaded by big trees and full of restaurants and bars. It’s a great place for lunch and a break from the noon day sun.
Festival of the Caiman
Down by the beach there is the Caiman monument honoring a local legend. Every year on January 20 they have a Festival of the Caiman which is famous for its folkloric myths, songs and dances also performed at carnival celebrating La Historia del Tomasita.
The story goes back to 1883. Tomasita was the child of a fisherman. His wife and daughters were down at the river one day washing clothes, unaware they were working close to the den of a large alligator. Back then, alligators thrived in the streams and swamps of Cienaga. The smallest child, Tomasita, wandered off and was playing near the water’s edge when the large alligator slowly stalked her, closed in and grabbed her disappearing underwater. The villagers later captured the caiman, killed it and carried the animal through town to the house of the fisherman’s family.
Reenacting this attack and the hunt is what the songs and dances depict during the town celebrations. With colorful costumes, spears and alligator floats they tell the story again and again.
Hunting alligators has been a part of the festival and contests were organized amongst the youths to see who could hunt the most baby alligators in a day. A major cause, they say, as to why alligators no longer exist in swamp today.
Cordoba Hot Springs
The Cordoba Hot Springs near Cienaga also offer relaxing opportunities. These are high temperature springs with thermal waters near 100 degrees F. or 40 C. so it is advised to stay in for no more than 20 minutes at a time. There is a rustic spa at the springs maintaining the thermal pools, both hot and cold alternating pools, along with mud for mud baths and personnel available for massages.
To get there take a bus or taxi to Cienaga and have the driver leave you at the volcano. It’s a 20 minute walk to the pools and spa and costs 15,000 COP to get it in.
The Banana Massacre 1928
Cienaga is also famous historically for the Banana Massacre in 1928. It was a tragic event depicted by the nobel prize winning author, Gabriel Garcia Marques’ in his book ‘100 Years of Solitude’ which chronicles the story of the Colombian military sent to end a two month worker’s strike against the banana plantations being run by the United Fruit Company – a local monopoly at the time.
The workers were striking for better working conditions, demanding the foreign company respect the labor laws of Colombia. The striking workers were testing the United Fruit Company’s ability to exert its power through traditional ties to corporations, mercenaries and missionaries, a relationship backed by the Colombian military and the diplomatic influence of the U.S. government.
The Colombian military confronted the workers and told them to disperse. When the workers refused the military opened fire killing hundreds. By the morning most of the bodies had disappeared. Only 9 bodies were left, laid out in a row in the town square, one body for each one of the worker’s demands.
After the massacre many of the workers fled to the mountains. But most of them returned to avenge the massacre. They destroyed buildings, stores and living quarters all belonging the the United Fruit Company. The Colombian military and the United Fruit Company kept pressure on the workers and more killing ensued. Six weeks later, the U.S. embassy reported that more than 1,000 strikers had lost their lives.