The Jungle Queens

The air is sticky, the vibe mosquito-net romantic, there’s a whiff of sun ripe mystique and the piquant thrill of poisonous snakes in this particular corner of Colombia, a culturally multi-facetted and hyper-biodiverse region where Chef Leonor Espinosa and her daughter Laura operate a culinary non-profit organization intent on saving local gastronomic traditions.

Ostensibly the world’s most humid place, along a stretch of deserted beach in the Chocó region, on Colombia’s west coast, with impenetrable rainforest at my back and the Pacific Ocean’s endlessness between my toes.  The only way to reach the village of Coquí and its 117 inhabitants is by boat, and, if you’re coming from Bogotá, a 90-minute flight to Nuquí where the airstrip is a heat-warped, palm-lined piece of concrete, crowned by a Fitzcarraldo-like, rusty and creepy-enchanting airplane cadaver that conjures a certain frisson of will-we-ever-get-out-of-here?  Stray dogs skulked along Nuquí’s main street, an unpaved path that leads to a soupy-muddy dock where we took off toward the open waters in a mostly seaworthy dinghy, through the salty spray of waves, past undulating, voracious greenery, with voluptuous whales watching from the horizon.

Laura Hernández Espinosa flashed a dreamy smile when we approached the small hamlet, her happiness almost tangible.  Once a month she travels here with her mother, Leonor Espinosa, owner of the lauded Bogotá restaurant Leo Cocina y Cava where Laura is sommelier.  The firecracker-duo runs Fundación Leo, or FUNLEO, a non-profit organization that aims to preserve Colombia’s rich gastronomic traditions by teaching rural communities to develop and market their harvests and products while focusing on sustainability, nutritional independence and culinary innovation based on local biodiversity.  Over the course of eight years they’ve established roughly twelve projects, spread across the country.  In Coquí they sowed the seed for Zotea, envisioned to become a quiet tourist attraction in a part of Colombia that is slowly starting to draw visitors from far-flung destinations as the drug misery and guerilla violence has ended.

“Colombia is way behind other countries that market themselves as culinary destinations.  We’re embarrassed by our food culture, despite the fact that we have so much to offer, but one of these days we’re going to become a gastronomic tourist magnet,” promises Leonor, an affable redhead who refuses to believe in the myth of maturity.  Impish, with a childlike sense of curiosity, she has an intricate fish tattooed on her earlobe.

“Yet there are more important things than putting Colombia’s gastronomy on the international map,” counters Laura. “We want to give the Colombians sources of income that don’t come from cocaine production, if they learn how to produce food they don’t have to rely on the drug trade.  It has diminished, which means it’s now easier to grow crops.  But think about this: in a country where 80% of all land surfaces are used for agriculture and animal husbandry, people still suffer from food insecurity.”

“We help the locals help themselves,” explains Leo.  Mom and daughter have a tendency to finish each other’s sentences.

”The idea is to save inherited culinary traditions that are being lost to our modern culture, they will only survive if we keep them alive, which can only happen if we practice them on a daily basis.  There’s nothing more basic than food, but we’ve lost so many customs, for many reasons; migration from the countryside to big cities; a younger generation that doesn’t value our culture and isn’t proud of our traditions.  So we encourage people to use natural resources and our incredible biodiversity.  Here in Coquí we make coconut oil and we grow baldoceño rice, both of which have found their way into restaurant kitchens and specialty stores around Bogotá and Medellín. And then we have Zotea, which is manned by voluntary workers from the village, but is managed by FUNLEO.  Slowly but surely we’ll hand over the operations to the villagers who take home 100% of the earnings,” says Leo as we meander through the moist mini-community, past tropical-hued houses and trees heavy with fruit, along a ramshackle path, with anxious chickens zigzagging at our feet; a wondrous chaos cloaked in the dank smell of things that are never allowed to fully dry.

Leo received the Basque Culinary World Prize in 2017, an honor and gastro Nobel prize of sorts that comes with 100 000 Euros which financed the endeavor in Coquí.  Zotea takes its name from a type of wooden boat that, when hauled out of the water, does double duty as a planter.  The restaurant was designed by Bogotá-based architect Pedro Aparicio and built with local, mostly recycled materials.

“I wanted the floor plan to be open, to encourage dialogue.  We asked the village men to help us build the place, each one contributed with their own specific talent, some were great at carpentry, others found it more interesting to work the land or dabble with electrical wiring.  Everyone learned something useful, something they could apply in their own homes to improve their quality of life.  We taught them to build sustainably, but we also taught them to think esthetically, things can’t only be practical, they have to be pleasing to look at too,” pants Pedro, wilted by heat and humidity, albeit just as enthusiastic as everyone else involved in this project.

We’re here to inaugurate the restaurant, today is the first time the staff is receiving guests, it’s also the first time that Pedro sees the finished building, he’s clearly pleased.  Rightly so, Zotea would fit right in on a more crowded playa in Tulum or Thailand.  The house at the edge of the beach is rounded, its kitchen faces the dining room on one side and boasts a long bar counter on the other, so that guests and staff can mingle freely under the high ceiling.  You can spot the ocean from every angle.  Relentless greenery reaches straight in, palm leaves rustle in the sauna-like breeze.

The generous back staircase is also an amphitheater, designed for movie nights and classes, it leads to the compost and the new hothouse where you can cut the air with a butter knife.

“If you’re not vigilant about tending to the plants they are swallowed by our very wild nature,” explains Smith Valencia, a local project manager responsible for said hothouse.  He points out the importance of having built everything on the spot and not in Bogotá, as it gave the villagers a change to learn new skills.  Then he rattles off the various things that are sprouting in the shiny glass construction; melons, basil, coriander, spinach, ginger, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions whose most prized bits are the green tops, as well as a slew of medicinal herbs – the onomatopoetic pippolongo is a natural Viagra, in case you wanted to know.  

There’s a cluster of jovial ladies cackling in the kitchen; Leo’s neatly aproned students have learned to cook some 40 dishes from recipes that she developed expressly for Zotea. The staircase has turned into a temporary food prep area where a meticulous trio is cleaning pianguas, tiny mussels that grow in the mangrove swamp.  A motherly woman with a robust grip is grating coconut for the rice that will soon land in our bellies.  Someone is mashing taro root, someone is cutting star fruit, tomatoes and basil for the salad.  One industrious individual is rolling albondigas de pescado, or fish balls that end up bopping in a rich stew, another one is juicing limes that will be mixed with viche, a grassy, cocksure sugar cane spirit and local source of entertainment.  Carmen Acosta, the woman who donated the land that Zotea occupies, makes buckets of it behind her house.  Pedro advises me to buy a few jugs, modestly priced at 5 USD per recycled bottle.

Coquí was founded in 1830 by a group of men who discovered the little tract while felling trees along the Baudó River.  The community grew to circa 200 residents, mostly Afro-Colombians and members of the Emberá tribe who survived on fishing and farming; each family grew yucca, cacao, plantains and fruit for personal consumption, while collectively tending to rice paddies that thrived in the boggy area.  They wove hats, baskets and hammocks with coconut fibers, they sang and danced and swigged viche, and they developed their own unique cuisine, spiced with nutmeg-plucky achiote, or annatto, and herbs from the garden.  The drug trade, however, put an end to that El Dorado-lifestyle, just like shrimp trawlers and large-scale fishing emptied the sea, forcing the populace move elsewhere.  And then came Leo and Laura.  

Leo sways in and out of the kitchen, she doesn’t walk, she waltzes to the velvety marimba music that spreads another layer of wellbeing over our Coquí stay.  Why did she decide to establish an eatery here?

“The Chocó region has such an amazing biodiversity, perhaps the world’s richest.  The area has been geographically and politically isolated from the rest of the country for over 30 years, which has generated social issues; lack of education, drugs and violence.  But, the isolation has also created a strong cultural identity,” she responds.

“I want Zotea to become Colombia’s foremost reference for culinary arts.  Slowly but surely we’re building a platform with the residents of Coquí, together we learn from our mistakes and invent new work methods, as we need them.  It’s a totally new way of working, who knows what’s going to happen when we hand over the project.  Who’s going to the boss?  People have strong wills here.  One thing is certain, this is a matriarchy, so the women will be the ones making the big decisions,” she laughs as we sip our howling-at-the-moon viche cocktails.

Suddenly there’s a tiradito on the table.  The tuna ceviche-like starter is laced with balmy-spicy aji dulce peppers, onion and araza, a tart cousin of the guava.  The fish was caught this same morning, it tastes like a mild ocean breeze and smells of the here and now, in a way that can never be replicated elsewhere.  Our lunch is a long affair, sultry and luscious.  When the coconut- and panela-cloying dessert reaches us it starts raining.  A stupefying deluge as stubborn as the will of a villager.  For the next four days I wear damp clothes, nothing dries fully in the world’s most humid place.

“Coconuts have 120 different uses; lotion, toothpaste, oil, bikinis.  That last bit is a joke,” informs Ovidio Asprilla, the village Adonis and our guide in the mangrove swamp.

Remember that fashion tip if you travel to Coquí and you’re ready to shed your damp clothes.