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Way off the beaten trail on Colombia’s Pacific coast

The storm has been raging all night. Rain billowing in hard from the sea, inevitably wearing away the rotting wooden structure of the abandoned discotheque where we have taken shelter, perched two metres from the cliff edge.

Uramba Bahia Malaga National ParkThe rain falls heavier here on the Colombian coast than in the Amazon. Possibly heavier than anywhere else in the world, this region is so under-studied. Never before have I experienced such magnitude of thunder and lightning and such torrential rain. It is akin to something biblical and I am charged with a new kind of energy which I have not before experienced.

With the overwhelming power of the storm and the constant din of waves breaking on the shoreline only metres below us, sleep proves difficult. By 4am we are sat upright in the attic of the discotheque. A million rain drops thunder on the asbestos roof above us, and wind tears through the holes between the wooden slats which form the walls. We are compelled to the moment. Staring into this wild weather front which comes every night, and does not pass until well after dawn.

We travelled to Buenaventura by bus through the mountains of Valle de Cauca, part of the upper Andean chain. From the high altitude Paroma we descended through rainforest which claims to have one of the highest concentrations of fauna and flora in the world. The bus Weaved its way down to Colombia’s largest port: Bueneventura. Exporting over 60% of the country’s legal goods, and a high percentage of the most valuable yet illegal export – cocaine, which underpins the economy in a way less stable than the shack in which we stay. We have been warned that security is lacking in this strategic location. This is a conflict zone and we are visiting a secure pocket within it – Uramba Bahia Malaga National Park.

Uramba Bahia Malaga National Park

Uramba Bahia Malaga National Park

We caught the last boat of the day from the quayside and reached Bocana before sundown. Bocana is an AfroColombian settlement relying predominantly on fishing for survival. The town attracts tourists from Cali, being a taste of the ocean for those who cannot afford the more attractive Caribean Coast. There are grey seas here as oppose to the blue of the north. The place is shabby and driftwood and trash covers the beach. Three white horses stand sodden by rain, looking sad.

I feel there is poetry in this shabbiness. The jungle stretches to the water’s edge where driftwood and trash brought in by each night’s storms, lines the beach. Simple shacks inhabited by locals and vacant cabanas litter the shoreline. It is at once horrible and beautiful.

We pitched our tent beneath a small palm-roofed beach shelter above the driftwood. We then fell asleep early as is the custom in the tropics since night comes swiftly at six. Waking suddenly at eleven, the wind had got up and rain was falling heavily. As I sealed the zipper on the front of the tent, an immense crack of thunder shook the sky above us and a lightning bolt tore the sky apart. Fearing for our lives we huddled in the tent between our packs and one wet wall of fabric as this wild tropical storm brought the coast to life like something reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Robinson Crusoe.

It is now 5am as I write. I have woken early for after five fitful nights in the storms, I still feel I am out there on the cliff edge – a feeling I want to hang on to. It is difficult to know where to begin to describe Colombia’s Pacific Coast. Is it at once so vibrant and wild, that one feels they have been cast off to a distant land seldom reached by explorers. The dense jungle and mangroves provide such a hindrance to arrival from the sea, that much of the shore line is inaccessible.

Passing from Buenaventura by sea, the biodiversity the traveller witnesses is overwhelming. Trees spill down to the water’s edge and occasional sandy beaches can be spotted in hidden coves between the caves which dot the cliffs. There are African settlements along the coast. They receive little government assistance, and there is no integrated sewerage system in the town of LLadrijeros where we stay. Yet the people seem content here and the sea and land provide good nourishment.

Uramba Bahia Malaga National ParkBeyond the African settlements, the Indigenous Wounan tribe inhabit the jungle. This knowledge stirs a fascination in me, I am intrigued to experience their naturally harmonious way of life. By asking around in Lladrilleros I soon find Sebastien, a lean fellow who wears a white t shirt with the insignia of the Colombian National Parks on his sleeve. He is obliging and aware, showing an intelligence which is different to the usual approach of the local people who tend to operate on a day to day survival basis, hustling what money can be made, rather than attempting to implement lasting strategies of development, such as clearing up the beach and really embracing the spirit of a national park – which means conserving the natural beauty in it’s natural state. Sebastien tells me there exist Wounan communities on the El Bongo tributaries of the San Juan river and then up the San Juan. They can be visited but there is risk and it will cost me – at least financially.

We consult maps of the recently established National Park (2010) and see the El Bongo system just outside the Park’s boundary, about three hours by boat from the coast. Sebastien takes us to the home of an elderly fisherman named Maximus. He is known to fish the waters deep in the mangroves of El Bongo. He was willing to take us to the Wounan, but the fuel tariff stood at 300, 000 pesos (£100). We thanked Maximus and held his offer for a later date when we had researched the area further.

Uramba Bahia Malaga National ParkThe San Juan river system is optimised by paramilitary cocaine traffickers. This is an area one approaches with extreme caution. The beauty and the tragedy of the situation are startlingly apparent. There is so much that should be respected about the Wounan way of life, and so much that is wrong with the way the cocaine market is. Uramba Bahia Malaga is one of only two pockets of land on the Pacific coast which is currently deemed safe enough for visiting Colombians to freely visit. I want to push the boundaries. The nature of what lies beyond this safe zone pulls at me, even though I am aware of the danger and have heard of massacres and kidnappings. Indigenous communities have been displaced from land they have inhabited for millenia.

Possibly it is this stark contrast between ancient harmony and recent conflict which compels me to contact these people. To visit a tribal community in the midst of such conflict. I also believe that while this conflict is brutal and violent, it has to some extent preserved vast tracts of rainforest and deterred excessive intrusion by multinational forces and the impending development through road networks with gross mineral extraction.

Uramba Bahia Malaga National ParkThe following day, in exchange for a bottle of Colombiano Pop, I am allowed to photograph a family of Wounan artisans. One of the group travelled down from the San Juan river just yesterday. This sheds a whole new light on the possibility of travel. Changing our perception of a place which is dark, hostile, and unknown, to somewhere potentially accessible and possibly even friendly. This is the power of local knowledge and friendship, suitably bargained for with gifts and goodwill. These things can go a long way in remote parts. Can the idea of a Peace Boat, which passes freely be given birth to? To develop a project here which involves kayaking the tributaries, strikes me as a great opportunity to bring people to the area. I would like to work with the National Park to develop opportunities for foreign tourists in particular, kayaking the mangrove coasts on expedition. Of course work in the area has obvious risks, and potentially great rewards too.

More by this author on his own website.

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