Our plane circles over the Pacific as it manoeuvres to line up with the short landing strip in Nuqui, a small town in the remote Colombian province of Choco. This region is only accessible by flight or a long, arduous boat ride from the port-city of Buenaventura. It’s got a proper end of the world feel to it as the jungle comes right down to the coast. Waterfalls tumble over cliffs into the ocean and, every year from June to October, Humpback whales come into the bay to calve. This is why we’re here, we’re hoping to see some of these Humpbacks, hopefully breaching.
There are still signs of the area’s recent past when rebels operated here, such as the posters at the check point leaving town calling for weapons to be dropped and to move forward in peace, but those days are gone. Nuqui is just one of numerous parts of Colombia which are opening up as the country moves forward, away from darker days.
Waiting for us at the airport is Pozo, the local manager of El Cantil Lodge. He directs us to a small building across the street and suggests we may want to get changed into clothes that can get wet. The weather is turning, and the sea a bit choppy, as we board the boat that will take us to the lodge – and we get wet, or at least I get very wet. Sat on the edge at the back I get drenched as wind pushes the splash from the waves and the rain on top of me. No matter, this just adds to that feeling of adventure, of going somewhere remote.
El Cantil is set up on a hill rising up from a small beach with rocks protruding into the water. There are a handful of cabanas with hammocks in the front and some nets to stop bats flying in. Electricity is available in the dining room from 6-10 every evening and meals are taken communally with the other guests. The food is tasty but this is a fish-lover’s paradise. Arrangements are made for vegetarians and people who don’t eat fish, as long as they’re forewarned, but if you do eat fish, be ready to eat it at every meal, fried, grilled, in passion-fruit sauce, in coconut sauce, in soup, in empanada, as ceviche.
Upon arriving at the lodge we’re shown our rooms and have time to relax before lunch. That’s when we spot our first whales, swimming just off the coast. Time to get excited.
Our first whale-watching excursion won’t be till the following morning, however, so that afternoon we go for a walk down the beach and head a short distance into the jungle to a couple small waterfalls accompanied by Memo, owner of the lodge. When Spanish conquistadors first travelled south from Panama it took them several attempts before finding a place where they could land and head inland. This ended up happening much further south in Peru. As I walk along this jungle-fringed empty beach, I can’t help but think of these first Europeans sailing past this coast in search of the gold and riches they coveted and how foreboding it must have looked. To us, however, it feels like a small corner of paradise.
The following morning we head back on the boat to look for whales. The weather is much better than when we arrived and we remain dry as we scour the water for the large cetaceans. It doesn’t take long, mere minutes and we spot some. A mother and baby, heading along the coast, gliding along the surface as they come up for air. We follow them, then head towards some more whales. Sadly they don’t breach, not even flukes (tails), but they put on a good show. As we explore the bay further we spot something just on the surface – a sea snake, this is almost as exciting as seeing the whales.
The whales are seasonal but dolphins can be found here year-round. They’re harder to spot than the whales in season so we’re lucky to come across a pod of them. They swim in groups and, on occasion one or two of them leap up out into the air, seemingly displaying for us. Over the years I’ve been luckier with dolphin sightings than whales but this is probably the best one yet.
As we head back to the lodge for lunch there’s one more surprise, a turtle, swimming on the surface – or so we thought. As we approach the smell is the first tell-tale sign, this turtle, sadly, isn’t swimming, it’s floating, dead. Most likely having choked on plastic that may have been dropped locally, or could, just as easily, drifted here on currents from elsewhere in the Pacific.
That afternoon we take a walk to the nearby village of Termales named for the nearby hot springs. There’s a small surf-school in the village that teaches local kids how to ride the waves. This developed over the years out of an initiative from El Cantil (Memo being a surfer himself). An unusual social project but a great one. These children from a remote Colombian village now have the opportunity to do something they never would have otherwise. Four of them, in fact, even got to travel as far as Australia earlier this year.
A new day and we’re off again looking for whales, we’re hopeful that today we’ll see some breaches, but we don’t. In fact our whale sightings are not as good as yesterday as we see only three and they tend to dive for long periods of time. The silver lining, however, is that as they dive they display their flukes. Memo suggests we head further along the coast to see how the scenery changes. As we get to a cape at the southern end of the bay the views are spectacular. Cliffs, covered in rainforest, fall into the sea as waterfalls flow right over the edge of them. Waves crash onto big rocks covered in Blue-footed boobies and Frigate birds.
Following form, this afternoon we head to another village, Jovi, where a community association, run by the formidable Carmen, offers tours, including by dug-out canoe up a local river. Trees grow over the river creating a natural tunnel effect, various birds, fly off as we approach only to return to their perches as we pass by. It’s relaxing, soothing. At one point I see a solitary cow, reminding me that fish is probably on the menu for dinner (I forgot to mention, I’m not that fond of fish).
After our river excursion the lodge’s boat is waiting to take us back, they tell us that those who went whale-watching this afternoon saw a whale breach – right off the shore by the lodge, 15 times. And we missed it. Luck of the draw. We head out and the sun is setting when Memo spots a whale: ‘it’s jumping’ he shouts and we turn and head for it. The whale is a baby (accompanied by its mother), the jumps are small, it is probably less than a month old. It may not be an adult doing big leaps but this is the first time I see a whale breach, 3 times and with the sun setting.
The following afternoon we did see one more whale, from the lodge, quite far. The guys here tell us we were really unlucky, that may be, but this is still, by far, the most incredible whale-watching experience I’ve had. Though our trip wasn’t over yet.
From El Cantil we are taken to the Utria National Park where a local communitarian association runs a small lodge. The place, once again, is beautiful; it’s at the far north of the bay and across from a small peninsula. The lodge abuts a mangrove forest and whales come here to birth (though we didn’t see any). There’s a boardwalk through the mangroves and some of us went on a brief exploration by kayak.
Nearby is the only white-sand beach in the region, it’s vaunted as an idyllic spot to come, relax, maybe snorkel so we head over to it. The problem, however, is that we go there at high-tide, much of the beach is submerged and what remains is littered with logs and the odd plastic bottle brought here by the currents. I’m sure that at low tide it is another piece of paradise, but as we saw it, it wasn’t all that special. The beach is called Playa Blanca but we re-christen it Playa Basura. Still, just one minor blemish on a fantastic week.
The following morning we head back to Nuqui, hopeful for a final sighting of whales but it’s not to be. We return to the airport and find that we have a slight weight issue (our combined weight of people and luggage, apparently, being too high – the plane can fly but it goes against the limits set by their health & Safety protocols. We’re not carrying anything more than when we came and are pretty sure that even damp clothes and a few meals of fish don’t account for now being 60kgs over the limit. Patricia, our Colombian host, ends up staying behind, catching a later flight, but upon arrival in Medellin we go and get weighed again to double check. Lo and behold, we’re within the limit, even if we add the weight of Patricia left behind in Nuqui. One of my travelling companions even lost 30kgs between Nuqui and Medellin. A faulty scale in Nuqui is the only likely explanation.
Medellin, sadly, marks the end of the exploration part of the trip. We’re here for business meetings, but the time spent in Nuqui was amazing. The whales, the jungle, the local Afro-Colombian communities are all fantastic and I’m keen to return, perhaps at a different time of year when you can dive with rays, Whale sharks and even a sardine run, or maybe I’ll return for the whales. After all, if we were unlucky with our sightings, what must it be like when you are lucky.
Colombia is opening more and more. In the five years since I last travelled here, many parts of the country have become accessible as peace spreads through this amazing country. Even just a few days after my return the UK Foreign Office update their travel warnings reducing the number of places they warn against further. With unparalleled natural diversity and rich, proud culture, this may just be the best country I’ve visited. A few days later, returning home and feeling a little dazed from jet-lag, I find myself looking up flights back to Colombia, keen to go back and explore more of these newly accessible regions.