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Colombia, Day 2: Off The Map

Looking up at the verdant walls of the huge bowl that is Medellín, and hearing the birds squawk "Chicharrón!" at us from the hotel garden, on our second morning in Medellín I felt like we'd already arrived in the jungle.  By nightfall I'd realize how wrong I was about that.  Medellín has more in common with Paris than with the region of Colombia we were about to visit:  the coastal area of the Chocó department, a scant 50 minute flight to the northwest.  

We spent a good, long time that morning at Medellín's regional Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport.  We'd been impressed the day before at the crisp, on-time bus arrivals and departures.  Planes in Colombia, it seems, are another matter.  Our Aerolínea de Antioquia flight's 10:00 a.m. departure time came and went, with no definite new time on the horizon.  A "creeping delay," my pilot friend Lorri advised. There was rain, but not much, and I'm not sure that had anything to do with it.  

Interestingly, our trip window was to have been in Colombia's dry season, but we learned that's been a moving target the last several years, with La Niña extending the rainy season longer than usual.

At one point an English speaking gate agent came over to check on us, leaving Lorri enormously impressed:  "American Airlines would never do that." We also spotted a couple I initially pegged as German who were waiting for the same flight and we decided to follow their lead; when they started packing up, so would we.  In the meantime, there were cappucinos, books, and journals, as well as donuts and Battleship played via bluetooth.  (We thought about lacing the kids' treats with their malaria pills, but opted to wait for later opportunities.  Bad call, that.)

After about a 2-hour delay we were given earplugs to guard against the de Havilland Otter's loud engines and our flight was ready to go.  Walking toward the plane we met the "German" couple, learned they spoke English, and that their destination was the same as ours:  The El Cantil Lodge, an hour's boat ride south of Nuquí.

We took off into a spitting rain, but still got some impressive views of Medellín as we ascended, flying over countless highrises and what looked like a sprawling university.  Most of our short flight was up in the rain clouds, so the ground below us remained a mystery.

When we started to descend, we could see where we were going, but the mystery, if anything, deepened.  Looking down, there was dark green.  No roads, no towns, no signs of human occupation.  Just green.  Then, also, brown, a river, and gray-blue, an ocean.

The plane dipped lower and the green pulled back enough to offer up a landing strip.  We were in Nuquí.

Nuquí was 50 minutes away from Medellín, but might as well have been on the other side of the world for all the resemblance it bore to the city.  You can hear and read over and over that you need to take a boat to where you're going because there are no roads, but you don't grasp what that means until you're there.  In this part of Colombia, "no roads" is more accurately stated "just jungle."  

An abandoned twin engine prop plane was busy becoming more vegetable than mineral.  The terminal interior was open-air, crumbling or under construction (perhaps both), roughly the size of my bedroom, and manned by two young soldiers bristling with automatic weaponry and special forces torsos.  I wasn't brave enough to take their picture, or even broach the subject.  Our eight-year olds were impressed, fascinated, and nowhere near as cowed by them as I felt (but cowed enough to bring their usual exclamations to a dull roar).  The document checking and collection of our strictly weight-limited luggage took just a few minutes, and we turned our attention to finding the boat that would take us to El Cantil.

There were quite a few people milling around the dirt airport courtyard and the gate leading out to the adjacent dirt road, but no one with a sign with our names.  Hmmm.  A tall, broad-shouldered, African-Colombian gent in a t-shirt, cargo shorts and an El Cantil hat came up to me.  His English and my Spanish were at hopeless odds.  It seemed like he was wondering if we needed a ride somewhere, and I tried to convey I thought we were meeting someone else. No one else was presenting themself, however.  Just then, we caught sight of the female half of the not-German couple from our flight and asked for help.  Her name was Nana, and she and her husband, it slowly unfolded, were not only also going to El Cantil, but worked there.  Wait, we still didn't have that right:  the husband's family owned the place.  Ah!  The El Cantil hat fellow worked with them.  We crossed the street to the boat.

I had just enough time to snap a picture of the dock before the sky started pelting sheets of sideways rain.  We'd had to consolidate luggage for this part of the trip, leaving much in Medellín and packing just the jungle essentials, or so I thought. Some rummaging revealed Tyler's rain slicker to be still warm and dry in our Medellín hotel.  Thankfully, the kids could not have cared less.  They stationed themselves in the front of the boat, scorning the offered plastic tarps and letting themselves get soaked through.  They had never seen the likes of Nuquí, and come to think of it, neither had I. 

Soldiers on a dock stopped us one more time to check and log passports as we motored up the channel past town and toward the ocean.  Lorri evinced a degree of calm about these guys and their firearms that I tried (badly) to emulate.  Rationally enough, Lorri told me later she figured a strong army presence meant we weren't likely to be hassled by FARC or other dissidents.  The guns just made me glassy-eyed and skittish.

I didn't have time to dwell on that for the next hour though, as we entered the ocean, opened up the outboards, and headed south.  The wind and rain that was busy slicing at us had churned the ocean into swells which our panga attacked like it was a cigarette boat.  The boys screeched, squealed, and jounced with glee.  "This is better than a roller coaster!" I just barely heard Tyler yell.  Nana, Lorri, and I hunkered down and held on.  From time to time I scanned the shore for signs of anything that wasn't jungle.  But everything was.  About 20 minutes after the bucking panga ride had lost its charm even for the boys, our driver slowed and backed into the tiny boat ramp at El Cantil.

The accommodations were canvas windowed huts that were solidly constructed and well maintained. The huts were divided to house two sets of guests, each side with its own bathroom, and a shared porch.  We hit a snag when Nana told us the four of us were booked into one room (we were supposed to have two), but our hut-mates weren't arriving until our third night, so she gave us the whole unit for the first two nights.  As we unpacked the boys used the porch-slung hammocks in ways I'm sure they'd never before been used.  Rolled up like a taco, upside down, emerged as their favorite posture.


We were soaked and chilly after the boat ride, and, though lunch was waiting for us, I stripped for a quick shower.  To warm up.  The bathrooms were spacious, clean, and offered gorgeous open air views to the jungle.  There was excellent water pressure.  But zero hot water.  "Um, Lorri?  There's no hot water,"  I spluttered from under a 60 degree stream.  Silence.  I was fast learning Lorri was a world-class, hardcore, nigh unflappable traveler.  But she loves her some hot water.  Don't we all.

We adjourned for the first of a series of excellent meals at El Cantil.  The menu consists of things they pull fresh out of the ocean and fresh from their garden, and everything we had there was delectable.  Tyler struggles with anything that isn't pasta, so I could tell his intake here would be lean, but knew that if kids are hungry enough, they eat.  Our strategy of burying their malaria pills in ice cream wouldn't work here though, as there was none to be had.  We experimented with melting them in soup (bad) and tucking them into other desserts (better).  

Though it was late in the afternoon, Nana told us we had time for the short hike to a nearby stream with a waterfall, and we grabbed our cameras and children and headed out.  Guiding us was a sweet kid from the village of Termales, an hour's walk south along the beach and home of most of the people who work at El Cantil.  We didn't share a common language, but smiles and hand gestures worked fine.  We found the stream about 10 minutes up the beach.  Our guide showed us some prickly plant pods (they looked like sea urchins) the local monkeys use as brushes.  

Soon we were at the waterfall, and what followed was a couple of hours of the sort of bliss you can only have on vacation in a place like this.  The rain had stopped, and the waterfall had a shallow basin for swimming.  The water wasn't warm, but not frigid either, and while Lorri and the kids explored downstream a bit I ventured in.  As soon as they got back and saw I wasn't getting throttled by anacondas or other submerged nasties, they all came in and we let the waterfall give us a good massage.  It was spectacular.

We picked our way back to the lodge eventually, letting the boys play on the beach and find critters, which they absolutely love.  There were enough hermit crabs to keep them occupied for a month.

When we got back to El Cantil the boys stayed in the ocean and made friends with some girls also staying at the lodge, and Lorri and I began to take the place in.  Coco palms lined the beach, with coconuts lying around in great heaps. Vibrant ginger, hibiscus, and orchids grew in profusion.  Dusk came around 5:30, and with it the housekeeping ladies to light the hurricane lamps:  one on the porch and one inside each room and bathroom.  By 6:00 it may as well have been midnight, the darkness was so thick and complete.  At El Cantil there is electricity only in the communal dining room, and only between the hours of 6-10 p.m.  No Internet.  Marginal and unpredictable cell service.  The boys collected some of our packed flashlights and kept exploring the grounds and wildlife, while we enjoyed wine on the porch with Micheline, mother of one of the boys' new friends.

Dinner that night was again delicious: grilled fish, rice, plantains, salad, a key lime custard for desert.  In some places in the world, travellers converge around a cozy fire for drinks and talk.  At El Cantil, it's the power strips:  a starfish-like profusion daisy chained off the dining lodge's couple of outlets.  Phones, iPads, computers, camera flashes, and sundry batteries all fought for their share of juice to face the coming day, and their owners got to know one another while jockeying for plug space.  There was a Brazilian model/surfer and her film/photography crew.  An extended family on an annual visit.  And Micheline, a D.C. resident who'd adopted a girl from Bogotá. The girl's sister and former foster mother still lived in Bogotá, so Micheline had arranged this trip for them all so the sisters could visit.

Micheline, Lorri, and I reconvened on our porch to finish our wine by lantern while the kids shone their lights into the dark places around us.  Some details of our conversation bore into my subconscious like woodworms.  Micheline had purchased kidnapping insurance from Lloyd's of London to cover her various trips here.  She also thought the small army encampment we'd noticed on a stream right next to El Cantil was stationed there because some tourists had been taken from this area by FARC maybe a year or two ago.

We called it an evening when it started lightly raining again.  Tyler and Ryan had wanted to sleep in the porch hammocks, but Nana was pretty adamant we should sleep in the beds under the provided mosquito nets.  The mosquitos here weren't annoying:  they were few, small, and made pinprick bites, not big red welts.  Malaria didn't seem to be a big issue in the region, but as parents we were trying to be careful and responsible.  So, under the netting we went, with the boys having a sleepover in one room while Lorri and I drifted off watching Water for Elephants on her iPad in the other.

More photos from Day 2 are here and here.

Next time:  I'd make sure I knew who was meeting us at the airport and how we'd know them, and be better informed about the availability of things like power, communications, and hot water. There seemed to be several layers of arrangement-makers between Viventura and El Cantil, so I'd personally reconfirm the number and availability of rooms.  Also, be more mentally prepared for the military.

Next up:  Our second day at the El Cantil Ecolodge.

Please see:  the disclosures at the end of this earlier post.

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Reader Comments (3)

What a great trip. I was in San Diego on Friday, thought of trying to reach out to you. Had no clue that you had gone native!

I love what you have written. Looking forward to reading more! Take lots of pictures, this feels like a once in a lifetime adventure.. :)

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBuzz Bruggeman

Hey Buzz, great hearing from you! Definitely look me up if you're back down this way.

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDenise Howell

I love the fact that you are doing this with Tyler. He looks like a handsome young man, and what an adventure for the two of you! I don't think I left Minnesota until I was 17.

Next time I want to be your bag carrier! :)

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBuzz Bruggeman

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