I settle into my hammock for the night, my body is sore, my mind is tired from taking in so much beauty. Thirty minutes later my heart is racing and the dog is barking like a terrified woman in a horror movie. Were those gunshots I heard? A few more shots ring out. Then I remembered, it’s New Years day, the parties from the night before are still winding down as people offload the rest of their fireworks. Not too long ago this wasn’t the case due to a long history of guerilla warfare that has long left El Choco isolated and shunned by the rest of Colombia.
Once again I am in the southeastern corner of the pacific coast Department of El Choco. Here in the western corridor of the Andes mountains is a savage paradise. Each time I visit I peel back more layers of this conflict zone onion only to realize that there is a heart of pure gold within, some of it mined illegally. On the surface are farms winding their way up mountains capped by virgin jungles, rainforests and cloud forests. Way off in the distance I can see the impressive peaks of Nevados del Tatama. An untouchable range of dramatically tall mountains which touch the sky in between passing clouds and the pure oxygen mist coming from the forest. The Tatama mountains range from 200 meters to 4,000 meters high and at their peak is a special climate zone called páramo, an ecosystem which exists above the treeline but below the snowline. The farms I visit are in the lower cloud forest and jungle elevations. This region is covered in a massive biodiversity of plants, flowers, birds, bugs, animals and reptiles.
Let’s explore some of the things I discovered on my last trip out:
The Birds: Crested oropendula
There are too many birds to count in San Jose del Palmar as Colombia is a major migratory zone for almost any species you can imagine. However, during our stay we fell in love with one particular species that sang louder than the rest, and had some pretty funky tunes.
Just in time to finish this article I was able to discover that the bird in the video below and the pictures you see is a Crested oropendula, or the New World version of a blackbird. Commonly found in Central and South America they have a diverse range of vocality and even mimicry. These birds possibly live near an aquifer which makes the water noises you hear them mimicking. They have long yellow tail feathers and pointed bills and tend to live/fly in groups. It’s something you must see to truly appreciate. According to my husband, Jaime, these birds were one species of many which were being overhunted by the local natives. However, thanks to some government programs they are not as hungry as they used to be, thus allowing the Crested oropendula to make a lovely comeback.
The ideal times to catch their birdsongs is between 5 and 6 in the morning and evening. During this time your ears will be tickled with sounds you never dreamed came from such fine feathered friends.
Ahem, flies. Or more appropriately the bugs and insects where the only thing rivaled by their beauty is what they can do to you. I am little paranoid when visiting this area because of a fly known as the “nuchi” amoung the locals. I shudder to think of the nastiness this little bugger is capable of. Let’s take a closer look at this beauty!
In Choco it is quite common to run across the gringo-feared Common green bottle fly. I finally saw one for the first time this last trip after a good rain came down the night before. Don’t let this one bite you cause it could lay an egg under the skin which turns into a larvae which can be quite painful and difficult to extract. If you do find yourself a victim to this little critter, allow it to grow to pill size and then use tobacco smoke to help drive it to the surface and tweezer-ish tools to carefully pull it out. Brace for pain. Sleeping in my hammock at night definitely helps as I can zip shut my “no-see-um” netting and have at least 8-10 hours of bug-free peace. If you travel to Choco, definitely bring bug spray and mosquito netting.
We also encounter many fuzzy, multi-colored caterpillars like this one:
I tried to identify this one but even pages and pages of photos on Yahoo.com failed to yield a hit. Any insect detectives who recognize this caterpillar or the moth/butterfly associated with it, let me know!
On this trip I made it a point to do some investigative journalism about the guerilla threat. The question on everyone’s minds upon hearing the name “El Choco,” is: what about the danger? The guerilla? The paramilitaries? The cartels? They are all still pretty active unfortunately, and most of this department is still largely off limits due to stories like this one, about a gringo who disappeared into the jungle never to be heard of or seen (alive) ever again. San Jose del Palmar has definitely seen it’s share, as shown in the following stories BUT, I think small groups can travel in and out without too much risk. I have never felt in threat of my life, and there are several active military checkpoints along the route with a heavy military presence in the pueblo. Obviously caution must be exercised at all times. You will see coca fields and hear about plenty of cocaine production however until that changes I would advise visitors to look the other way and avoid conversation with strangers. If you are approached the best policy is honesty. Here are some first hand stories by some of the locals in this area of their guerilla encounters:
“My son had come to visit me for a few days. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that a clean cut man with a military bearing was staying with me. He is a former army veteran. Suddenly one morning we found ourselves surrounded by a guerilla force with arms drawn. They asked who my son was and if he was army intelligence. I responded, “Of course not, he is my son.” They held us at gunpoint and sent their scouts to neighboring farms. After a time they returned one by one with negative reports. They disappeared as suddenly as they came and we were left alone after that.”
“I got off the chiva one morning in the nearby pueblo of Italia, where I am mostly a stranger. Instantly I was surrounded by paramilitary (probably FARC) and they asked for my papers, who I was, where I was from, who I worked for. They copied down my information and I knew that if they had caught me in a lie, lo matan, they kill.”
Equal Opportunity Warfare
“There is no type, that they (the guerilla) recruit. Boys and girls are equally at risk during their pre-teen years. Around 12-13 years of age most of us are approached at some point by the guerilla and offered a place within their ranks. We are told stories about how easy and fun the life is and all the great adventures we will have. I have seen good girls who were attending school suddenly just leave one day with them. Many discover, only once it is too late, the truth.”
“It is not uncommon to encounter the guerilla in the jungle. But, it is always an uncomfortable experience. You would never want to show any pretense of friendship or favor. If you do they will immediately take advantage and you might find them camped out in your patio one morning. If they ask you a question you answer truthfully and go on about your business as soon as possible. No lingering. To be caught in a lie is death.”
With time and experience I have gained a perspective of the daily triumphs and struggles of life in a legendary hot zone of Colombia. A trip that I almost take for granted, in the minds of others is a death defying plunge into danger. The truth however is the most delectable treat of all – for the first time in years it’s also surprisingly safe. The parac’s (paramilitary) and guerilla’s no longer have the firepower or force to carry out kidnappings in this area. To miss out on the sheer beauty and uniqueness of this region is to miss out on seeing an almost untouched biodiversity hotspot. Stay tuned for the second story in this series where I will discuss in detail the cocaine industry of Colombia and my interview with a couple quimicos, or chemists, who cook the coca leaf into pure cocaine. For Part II click HERE