This is yet another great guest post from my former colleague, John Couper. John travels like no other traveler I have ever known. He makes people who venture away from the beaten path look mundane and inexperienced. His experience in the little-visited region of Choco Colombia exemplifies his ability to find and see what other’s don’t. I hope you enjoy reading about guest blogger Dr. John Couper’s unique travel experience in the Choco region of Colombia.
The mother whale’s giant tail flipped lightly out of the water and splashed as it returned into the Pacific. Just behind her, a baby’s tail lightly tapped the water as it tried to keep up with its mammoth, humpbacked guardian. The whales breached and powered through and out of the water, in sight of the fishing boats that hate them for being more efficient competition.
To my left, the Pacific was a universe of waves spanning all the way to Australia. To my right, across the strip of sand, hundreds of miles of tropical forest reached above the low hills with barely-countable of plants and animals.
It had been four days since a 12 seater plane carried me to Nuqui, Colombia and then an aluminum fishing boat bumped me to Piedra Piedra Ecolodge, perched between sea and jungle. Both drove home the enormity of nature and the limits of our understanding.
The Choco coastal region remains the most impoverished part of a nation that fought to emerge from the trapdoors of terrorism and drug dealing. The nation’s least–visited region exists as its poorest. 82% of residents are Afro–Colombian, 13% Amerindian and about 5% white and mestizos. These communities barely survive on what they can coax from nature. As usual, poverty and isolation are both curse and protection from commercial development. About 8,000 live in and around Nuqui.
The city resembles an impoverished Venice, along creeks carrying small boats between buildings for basic commerce and domestication. The main economic growth in the area is tourism; this, along with exporting seafood and timber, lets local people survive. The pace is relaxed and easy, the people poorly dressed and survival-minded, but warily friendly when you say hello. Every day, several small planes like mine bring a handful of tourists into the simple airport, mostly heading to the eco-resorts along the Bay.
Choco is a spectacular ecological hotspot overflowing with nature. 577 species of birds, over 10,000 kinds of vascular plants—2,000 unique to the region– 97 reptile species and dozens of other animals, many endangered. Spider monkeys call in the early morning at the sight of a hungry eagle. Only 2.5% of the ecoregion and 1% of the original habitat is protected; logging (half of the nation’s lumber), gold mining, coca production and plantations are eating into the area’s nature. Even so, most of it survives because, unlike Brazil, Colombia does little to support natural extraction.
Various tuna, sailfish, mahi-mahi and hundreds of other fish elegantly grace the ocean within sight of the forest. In the early Fall, giant sea turtles lumber across the dark-grey sand to lay eggs.
I stayed at Piedra Piedra, a pioneer ecolodge in the area. Perched within the few meters between jungle and ocean southwest of Nuqui in Bahia Solano, its walls are rough hardwood planks, its only electricity from a generator powered by a stream of water rushing down the high hills above. Telephone reception is possible only in one spot—a small headland jutting out over the Pacific.
My first morning, clueless, I decided to walk into the jungle that crowded toward my bathroom window. But the tangle blockaded me within a few feet, so I settled for looking up into the canopy of flowers and vines.
A thin strip of beach snakes along the coastline. Even this strip of beach– littered with stones, shells, and fallen trees– is hard to negotiate; every meter is a small triumph of willpower and shoe soles. These obstacles enrich the experience by forcing a slower, healthier pace… pauses when I peered a few meters into the jungle, or a million miles across the ocean.
Choco’s ocean neighbor is the vastest on the planet. I ventured out to see the whales during their warm-water calving season, and dove along its coral cliffs and pastures. Every glance reminded me how irrelevant humans are in the sea’s cities. We glided by dozens of fish and crustaceans pursuing survival. Our bubbles were constant proof that we are not really supposed to be there. The water was cloudy with motes of food, arriving by the ton to sustain all of this life.
Some corals build brittle little towers reaching up into the ocean, their thread-like fingers scooping food. Others are shaped like fans or brains or walls. Inside every gap in the coral, fishes waited or darted.
Rain comes every day, though the sun shows up for a few hours, too. This mix of rain, jungle and ocean keeps humidity close to 100%. A moment clambering over fallen trees can trip you into a creek, as I did three times, but cotton clothes need days to dry. The nighttime isn’t very hot, its humidity driving away comfort.
One afternoon, looking across the shoreline through my screened window, I saw a painted dugout canoe powered by a standing, rangy man. Half an hour later, he walked to our lodge with four fish almost too heavy to carry. The fisherman was hoping to sell them for his day’s wages. He washed them in a small pond built just below my large window. He sold only one, then trudged along the forest to the next possible customer.
The best way to sum up my six days there is “privilege”– the privilege of directly experiencing what most people only know in the abstract. With such natural areas being scraped off of the planet daily, the privilege of experiencing and exploring little-disturbed surfaces shatters a person’s ego. Not always comfortable and rarely convenient, a visit to Choco will always remind me of how little we really control, but how easily we can destroy.
A two hour boat ride back to the village and its tiny airport was my farewell to the ocean; the small plane, delayed two hours by storms, took me over what looked like the untrimmed hair of a green giant; swerving rivers make their way westerly from the mountains toward the coast. Communities in a few riverside outposts, chewed from the forest, remain isolated except by long boat rides.
Less than an hour later I was in pretty, lively Medellin, which suddenly seemed obscenely mechanical and artificial. A chunk of my mind and spirit remained behind in Choco.