Almost a year ago I was in the department of Choco on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, which feels like a different country altogether – here, latinos are almost as foreign as white folk. The locals are a mix of indigenous and afro Colombians, who escaped slavery at the hands of the Spaniards and fled to the mess of mountains and jungle that fall away onto black sand beaches and the bath warm Pacific. Aside from the half hour ride from El Valle to Bahia Solano, the entire coast is connected only by speedboat – the jungle eats roads. ELN guerrillas lurk at the fringes, and in El Valle the local unit of marines would kit up every night and amble down past us, fully armed in two lines on either side of the road, disappearing into the jungle to go rebel hunting. By day, amongst the mechanics fiddling with mopeds at the local workshop, they would tinker with their grenade launchers.
There’s no industry or too much formal employment in Choco, just fishermen paddling dugout canoes beyond the surf at daybreak, and carrying their catch straight into the local supermarkets and restaurants several hours later. Giant grandmothers are always surrounded by hordes of children, while the lean, muscular grandfathers sip beers and fruit juice after a day on the ocean. The young men are all muscle and testosterone, shouting through beach soccer matches and whistling at the women as they glide past, long legged and barefoot on the sand.
Favourite memories include:
Being cheered into waves by dancers watching me surf from a salsa bar perched on a boulder on the beach at El Valle.
An evening at the village of Pangui, chatting with fishermen over a beer and watching their grandkids surfing a little sandbar in miniature dugout canoes.
Clapping hands and stomping feet to songs about runaway dogs.
Watching the father of a family from Bogota tormenting a snake with a stick on the beach. A local guy walks up and watches for a few minutes before he interjects: “Careful with that one. There’s no antidote if he bites you.”
Being herded before the mayor of Nuqui by angry tourists after locals shut down the airport, protesting the lack of electricity in the town. “Don’t make him call his embassy, and make an international incident of this” they said, putting words in my mouth. I actually sympathised with the villagers, and had just turned up at the council chambers to see what all the fuss was about.
Looking for the green flash every evening.
Helping an indigenous fisherman carry his catch up to his hut in return for a ride across a river mouth. “So you’re from Medellin?” he asks.
“Do I look like I’m from Medellin?”
“Fair enough. Where are you from, then?”
“Australia.” There’s long pause.
“Never heard of that one.”
“Well, it’s on the other side of that ocean out there.”
Another long pause, a look out to sea, and a shrug of the shoulders.
But enough with the stories and on with the photos.