Last year, CI cameraman John Martin traveled to Colombia to document the threatened páramo ecosystems that supply critical fresh water to Bogotá. Back in March, we brought you the first two parts of John’s behind-the-scenes look at filming spectacular aerial footage; here’s the conclusion of his story. Check out his previous posts.
Bogotá’s weather can change from one minute to the next. This high-elevation plateau city of about 8 million inhabitants is often blessed with blue skies and plenty of sun, but can also be veiled in fast-passing clouds loaded with moisture. We are on our second day of filming the páramos surrounding Bogotá from the air. Our target site now is the páramos of Chingaza, but the weather forecast provided by the control tower is not favorable for flying there.
Once again, Ron Chapple, director of cinematography at Aerial Filmworks, and I find ourselves waiting in the pilot’s lounge at the airport, enjoying the best-tasting coffee in the world — Colombian! At 11 a.m. we are updated by Captain Sandoval, or Capi Oscar as we call him, that the weather in the mountains is not expected to improve the rest of the day. However, the weather in Bogotá is perfect, sunny with a few clouds. So we carefully design a new flight plan and set out to get the necessary authorizations to fly and film over Colombia’s capital.
Acquiring compelling aerial footage of this vast metropolis is essential for our story. Bogotá is on the receiving end of the páramos’ freshwater supply. The valley on which this city was built contains marshlands, and it is here where we begin to roll tape and do a few flyovers. A century ago, these marshlands, or humedales, were the main freshwater supply for the inhabitants, but as the city expanded the marshes were soon decimated. Today, Bogotá receives all of its fresh water from surrounding páramo ecosystems.
CI-Colombia has been working closely with the local district governments and other local NGO partners, and together they are successfully restoring those degraded marshes back to their native state. Although these beautiful marshlands no longer provide the quantity of fresh water the city requires to thrive, they absorb carbon and play a huge role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and creating a healthier environment for those residents who live nearby.
After various low and high altitude maneuvers, both Ron and I are satisfied with the shots of the marshlands; we now head to capture Bogotá’s impressive skyline and intertwined streets and highways.
It is quite jaw-dropping to see a massive city from the sky, and it makes me wonder if the people below — people traveling by car, bus and taxi; people working in offices, stores and restaurants; people going to school and others not going to school; people without a home and others with enormous luxurious homes — have any knowledge of where their water comes from, and how important it is to ensure that the places that provide their water are protected.
My thoughts are suddenly interrupted as Capi Oscar carries out a very close flyby of Bogotá’s financial district and its skyscrapers. It was a very hair-raising moment. And as awesome and marvelous as it was to fly over this fascinating city — the city where I was born — my thirst for reaching Chingaza and its imposing páramos is still not quenched.
As we leave Bogotá and start climbing the zig-zagging hills, the weather begins to improve. Ten minutes later, at an altitude of 10,500 feet [3,200 meters], we witness an unprecedented event: an enormous rainbow, resting on cotton-like white clouds just above the peaks of the Chingaza páramos. Ron quickly directs the camera, zooms in and focuses on this amazing natural spectacle. My head bobs up and down as I alternate watching the rainbow through the cockpit windshield and on the monitor on my lap that connects to Ron’s camera.
After a few minutes with the rainbow, we change course directly to Laguna Seca, or “dry lagoon.” Once a sacred site to the ancient Muiscas, the native people of Colombia’s central highlands, Laguna Seca is the main point where the water from Chingaza’s frailejones — plants that absorb moisture from the air — begins to accrue and get filtered down to create the creeks and rivers that will deliver it to Bogotá. But, why is it called a dry lagoon — where is the water? The landmass that surrounds the lagoon is moss and lichen, which create a spongy surface, constantly absorbing the water and filtering it into the ground.
“We have 20 minutes left,” Capi Oscar warns. “Then we must head back, or else the clouds will close and we won’t be able to fly out.” Not being able to navigate through cloud cover in these high-peak mountains would mean landing the helicopter in a clearing and spending the night in subzero temperatures — and with no supplies at hand, it is a risk we don’t want to take.
As the sun begins to descend, the light creates a beautiful golden shroud over the hills and the yellow frailejon flowers sparkle. It is as if the spirits of the Muisca people, who for centuries considered these mountains sacred, have offered us this gift, and asked the clouds to open up and the sun to shine. We are in absolute awe, and Ron is ecstatic about the images he is recording, at last.
Chingaza is vast and lush. It is mystical and powerful. It is also the birthplace of Bogotá’s water — without it, life would be in peril.
John Martin is CI’s senior video production manager. To see one of the finished products that uses aerial footage from this trip, check out “Páramos: Water for Life.”