The Department of El Choco, has a special type of fame in Colombia. It takes up a wide swath of the Pacific coast and has been a civil war hotspot for over 50 years. In ancient legends, it is a place of mysticism, magic and the nightmares of Colombian children. For the people who live in El Choco, it is a vibrant, colorful culture which stands as an ironic contrast to the poverty and violence suffered by its inhabitants.
This is the story of one of my visits to El Choco with my boyfriend, on his motorcycle. It is a dangerous journey whether by Chiva, jeep or motorcycle, because of landslides and occasionally road bandits. This route is one of the major cocaine shipping arteries despite heavy military presence. For the average Colombian it is a dangerous journey, for a foreigner, maybe a bit more so. Enter if you dare…
Our motocycle ride went smoothly and before I knew it we had arrived in the pueblo of San Jose del Palmar in the south east corner of this vast department. We arrived safely and slept in the pueblo the first night before starting the final leg of the journey.
We took a delicious swim in the Yngara River where the weather is always hot and the water cold. The Yngara river outpost is a small store, a school for children and a place to leave animals during visits to the pueblo for mercancia, or goods.
Before we knew it, it was over and I was waiting for my boyfriend to go fetch his mother from the pueblo so we could head up the mountain to the family farm. There are more than 80 hectares of land in the family today. At one time, his extended family and ancestors had owned most of the mountain from the river going up. Today only 4 farms remain which belong to his brother, sister and mother. We will be visiting the two at the very top of the mountain where the wild jungle starts and civilization ends.
As I was waiting the local curiosity eventually won out and one by one people started to approach me and ask questions about my nationality, who I came with and what I am doing here in such a remote outpost.
A worker who was repairing the small school nearby told me of his dreams to work in the US. Then he offered to take me to see the local waterfalls “anytime!” Um, no!
A young mother of 3 children (which I later discovered was actually 7 in total with different men) who was born, raised and married here asked for my friendship on Facebook. She was dressed in shorts that had the top button unbuttoned (no bra), spaghetti-strap tank, and tennis shoes. The Indians aren’t quite as chatty, but they will give you the eyeball.
The Yngara river outpost truly is the last thread of civilization, before the people enter the jungle to go home to their farms. We are headed on horseback to the last farm on the trail. It is a rough trail.
Check out this short video showing our journey up to the finca…
Which I edited and now has sound so Click HERE…
The days start early here with the first light of dawn. In a farm with no electricity, you also go to bed with the coming of nightfall. I helped sweep as Doña Melba (Jaime’s mom), prepared coffee and agua panela. While we prepare breakfast the men milk the cows and slop the pigs.
Breakfast is a ritual of conversation and visitation, we ate a traditional Colombian breakfast: fresh made arepas with calientado (yesterdays beans mixed with rice and fried a little), cooked platano, or plantain, with cheese, and large cups of steaming hot chocolate. The chocolate was harvested and processed by his sister, only a little ways down the mountain from us. After breakfast, came farm work: cutting down rastrojo, or weeds, work in the sugar cane fields and more farm chores like splitting wood and cattle rotation.
I suck at washing clothes by hand but I also hate carrying large, overpacked backpacks, so I wash the previous days clothes and then hang them to dry by the kitchen fires to help ensure they will dry soon enough.
Once the chores are finished we went to the jungle to search for Orchids. There are a few types of Orchids that supposedly grow in El Choco and they are mostly found around the edge of the jungles and Guadua forests. Inside these forest areas you will find all manner of exotic houseplants – in their actual habitat.
The rest of the morning we spent taking pictures of the different flowers and exploring the footpaths. During our hike I also learned more jungle etiquette because there are many pretty things, and many distractions that can put you in bad or even dangerous situations. There are many vines that have thorns, grasses that will cut you, poisonous plants that will irritate and treacherous trails that are very difficult to hike. And, most importantly of all – don’t touch anything with bare hands. Not even the dirt where centipedes and poisonous tarantulas tend to hide.
In the night I heard a terrible noise on the tin roof like the cat was running across it. As it turned out I was right, the cat was chasing – a rat?. However, this spurred a very interesting discussion about witchery because sometimes the noise on the tin roof is not a cat. And sometimes the horses turn up with impossibly intricate and beautiful braids in their manes that are not wind knots. Strange legends about witches and spooky things which go bump in the night, abound here. Witches who ride horses and control them only with two braids in their manes.
After our discussion about Colombian folk stories, it was time for me to learn how to kill a turkey for our New Years supper. Off I went to wring a neck. The turkey made an excellent soup and we ate super yummy fried turkey for breakfast and lunch the next day.
On this day we also had our longest hike to go see a “nearby” area of virgin jungle, that had never been cut down. We hiked for an hour up a very steep cattle trail consisting of earthen mounds cut by muddy passages. The easiest way, is to jump and climb from one earthen mound to another. When we finally arrived at the edge of the jungle, I was tired and wet. Then came rain forcing us to fashion a small shelter of leaves to wait for clearer weather.
The jungle is an overwhelming place, characterized by massive trees with hanging vines, plants with incredibly large leaves, butterflies and exotic birds. As we walk the steep inclines are slippery and treacherous. By the time we arrive, we have very little time to explore and with the intermittent rain it was difficult to have much appreciation when tired and wet. Jungle hiking is a very difficult and treacherous experience, especially here in the western Andes. Any mistakes can be painful, and even cost you your life. Not to mention the “x” snake an extremely poisonous, aggressive snake, that lives in the El Choco rainforests.
The reward is stepping onto virgin earth that has never been disturbed where the sun doesn’t reach because you have trees and vines and plants with colorful leaves that shade you. There are hummingbirds flitting around, and flowers which give off strange perfumes. Most of all, you are completely humbled by all the plant variety and terrain ruggedness. Hiking in the jungle requires a lot of patience and strength.
Our last night was New Years Eve, and today is January 1, 2014. We stayed up late talking and visiting, then went to bed at the late hour of 10 pm. Today we will make the journey back down the mountain and go home.
Another adventure completed in El Choco. Many people have an almost paranoid fear of El Chocó, part of this is for the very good reason when, in the past, there have been kidnappings and guerrilla activity. In recent years, the army has been active and present thus making it a lot safer – if you know where to go.
San Jose del Palmar, is a small but very tranquil town. The services for tourism are still quite limited but with time and a little faith this area is an untouched nature reserve where you can hike, swim in the river and take horses into the mountains.
In the words of Hunter S. Thompson: Buy the ticket, take the ride!!