Magic factor to a solo vacation in Colombia: Turtle power
I drop my rucksack on the reception doorstep and tip sand out ofmy sneakers. My sweat-soaked T-shirt reeks of farm animals.
As I wait for the receptionist, dinging the bell a third time, a couple holding hands saunter past in their swimwear. They smile and head out toward the ocean.
Daniel and Federica are on their honeymoon. They’ve chosen this small fishing village of El Valle, on Colombia’s Pacific coast, to explore some of the world’s greatest biodiversity, and live their dream of watching humpback whales migrate from the South Pole.
I’ve comet o see turtles, to witness them emerge from the ocean and lay eggs on the beach at night. This has been my dream ever since Iwatched the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie when I was 8. My girlfriend had planned to come, too, but she’s been held back in Medellin for a job interview, leaving me alone.
Yes, alone, arriving on a pickup-size plane laden with mangos wrapped in cellophane and several boxes of chirping chickens. Normally I wouldn’t choose to fly with tropical fruit and live poultry, but, after seeing online that tickets for the two commercial airlines were “unavailable,” I’ve had to charter a private flight. The usual route is a 45-minute airline flight with Satena or ADA (Aerolínea de Antioquia) from Medellin to the airport in Bahia Solano, then a 40-minute taxi to El Valle.
Because it’s mid-September — prime whale-watching and turtle egg-laying season — I expected the beachfront eco--
El Almejal, to be bouncing with camera-toting nature fanatics. In fact, it’s almost empty. Daniel, Federica and I are the only guests. Apparently the local airstrip is inaccessible to large aircrafts after huge, though not unusual, amounts of rainfall last week. “No more guests will be arriving for a fewdays,” the owner tells me. The empty restaurant, vacant cabins and unblemished sandy paths suddenly become apparent as I ponder my solitary vacation.
After unpacking in my familysize cabin — one of 12 on site — and testing the hammock on my porch, I ask about the excursions. From the page-long list including waterfall visits, surfing, fishing, canoe rides, dolphin searching and bird watching, I choose two: whale watching and a tour around the Utría National Park. “If it is okay, I’ll arrange for you to go with the honeymoon couple who are staying here,” the owner says.
This is a relief. Whale watching and touring a huge national park alone has a certain ring of sadness to it. On the other hand, it is their honeymoon — a vacation traditionally enjoyed by newlyweds in intimacy and seclusion. Maybe they won’t want to share their once-in-a-lifetime trip with a turtle-obsessed Englishman.
First things first, though: lunch. The lodge’s open-plan restaurant has a dozen wooden tables and a whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling. In the far corner, an information table is covered with maps, nature books, a stack of National Geographic magazines and an eco-tourism trophy. In the other corner a primitivelooking xylophone is held up with more whale bones. My place mat awaits on a table for four in the middle of the room. The newlyweds sit in front of me, gazing out to the ocean. I try not to watch them kiss.
I’ve eaten alone before, but not like this. This is definitely a place to dine with a companion. I should be swapping superlatives about the scenery: the glistening blue ocean, yellow-breasted birds fluttering in palm trees and waves crashing against rocks. I should take a sip of fish soup and yell, “Oh my god, you have to try this,” then ram my spoon into a nearby mouth. Instead I gobble down the food, pretend to read my book and leave without saying a word.
I spend the afternoon trudging the beach for miles. Pairs of red crabs scurry into holes as I walk past. Hermit crabs cower into their shells when I pick them up. Two golden Labradors, who have followed from the lodge, bound along the sand, chasing each other toward the ocean.
There are no humans in sight until a hazy dot forms the shape of someone approaching. The blur resolves into a muscular man who is dragging a small dead shark along the sand.
The man slings the shark onto a nearby rock, takes a machete from his linen trouser pocket and hacks the head off. Blood runs down the rock and into its surface hollows of seawater. The man washes his weapon in the ocean, wraps the decapitated shark in a bag and walks off.
I suddenly crave a fish dinner, so I head back to the lodge before it gets dark.
The four-seat table is once again set when I arrive; a solitary light illuminates my placemat. The honeymooners sit with their arms wrapped around each other. I choose creamy mushroom soup followed by grilled bass with coconut rice. As I open my book, readying myself for another meal alone, something wonderful happens.
“Hi,” the newlywed husband says, rising from his table. “Would you like to join us for dinner?”
Attempting to conceal a beaming smile, I accept. I close my book, the waiter switches off the hanging light andmy place mat is moved to the honeymoon table.
Daniel and Federica introduce themselves, tell snippets of their journey so far and express a childlike excitement for seeing whales tomorrow. I simply try to assure them I’m not some lunatic going around hotels preying on newlywed couples. “I do have a girlfriend, you know,” I insist at every opportunity.
Federica hails from Italy, Daniel is half Colombian, and they live in Geneva. Daniel has short, black, curly hair and the beginnings of a wispy goatee. Federica is slim, with wide eyes and pronounced cheekbones. Both wear glasses and have that glistening, just showered look.
We eat and chat. I tell them that, from September to December, oll ive ridley sea turtles lay their eggs on these Pacific beaches, and my new acquaintances agree to come searching for turtles with me after dinner.
So with our flashlights and Daniel’s iPhone, we set off onto the beach. We tread slowly in a line, scanning light from left to right. But despite a few oh-is-that one moments, our search is futile. We head back to the lodge.
Luckily, Luisa the receptionist has received a call from a conservation group who’s found one. Luisa tells us the location but warns that there is an expected donation of 25,000 Colombian pesos — about $10. We return to the beach to find a dozen people standing around a female turtle laying eggs. Kneeling beside it are two women in caps with headlights shining red, the only color that won’t disturb the reptile during nesting. One woman scribbles notes on a pad. The other uses tape to measure the shell, about two feet long. Everyone else watches in silence.
After the last egg plops out, the turtle flicks sand over the hole with its back flippers. It circles the hole twice, then uses its front flippers to crawl toward the ocean. Everybody tiptoes behind. The turtle stops at the edge of the water, as if to take one last breath. It crawls forward, a wave submerges its shell and then it’s gone.
One of the women, meanwhile, has collected the eggs — 48 in total. The other moves among the crowd, hand out, collecting donations. These women are part of Asociación Caguama, a group of 20 conservationists who walk beaches at night protecting eggs from poachers.
Asociación Caguama workers collect the eggs and save them in a pen until the hatchlings are ready to be released into the ocean. The requested $10 “donation” is to improve living conditions, enabling them to work more effectively.
The next morning I stroll 10 yards frommy cabin to the restaurant. My place mat has been set across from the honeymooners’. Whether they like it or not, they’re stuck with me.
“Morning, guys,” I say, placing my camera on our table.
“Morning, Simon,” they say simultaneously.
“Are we looking forward to the whales today?”
“Of course,” Federica says, “this is why we’re here. Look at my T-shirt!” Smiling, she turns to show a humpback breaching up from the water on her back.
Our waiter, Martin, arrives and pours three glasses of ice-cold passionfruit juice. He takes our orders of scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions on crispy arepa cornbread, and three mugs of Colombian coffee.
Martin heads to the kitchen before swiveling around. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he says, standing behind Daniel and Federica. “Feliz Dia de Amor y Amistad!”
“Crap. Is that today?” I blurt, unintentionally loud. “Why, what is it?” asks Daniel. “It’s Love and Friendship Day. Like Valentine’s Day. Colombia celebrates it on the third Saturday in September.”
“Really?” Daniel’s eyes light up. “Well then, happy Love and Friendship Day, my love.” He kisses Federica and hugs her. I smile and ask Martin to change my coffee to a large rum and Coke.
We board the lancha — a small boat— at 9a.m. Daniel and Federica sit in the middle. I perch next to a fat man in sunglasses who never says a word. The boat bounces along, quickly drumming my pelvis against the plastic seat. I try to take pictures but give up after my camera leaps up and clocks me in the chin a few times. Another thumping wave almost throws me against the canvas roof.
Meanwhile, the man next to me sleeps, his limp head bobbing with the waves as I’m tossed around like a caught fish.
After 15 minutes we arrive at a strait of wavy ocean; a whale hot spot, according to the driver. To our right is a small island sprouting trees; to our left, the beachless coast lined with a sheer vertical jungle, as though someone has painted a rain forest onto the white cliffs of Dover.
The boat slows down. The engine’s whirring whimpers to a chug, then is killed completely. We rock gently, water sloshing against the boat’s sides. The man next to me awakens. He stretches and yawns. I takemy camera from its case and click it on. Daniel holds his like a gun, ready to shoot at any sudden movement. Federica scans the water. We all wait.
Then, a spurt of air shoots up from the ocean. “Over there,” Daniel shouts. A mound of black blubber rolls out of the water. Seconds later, another blast. Federica shrieks, “Behind you!” We swivel around to see a fin rotate out of the water and down again. Another blast. Then another.
“Mothers and their babies,” the driver shouts.
We circle the area a few times and glimpse more of these great mammals at the end of their epic journey from the South Pole to the Colombian Pacific. It’s in these warm waters that they mate and give birth between July and October.
During a cool-off swim in a nearby bay we eulogize what we’ve just witnessed. We walk through Utría National Park, swiping through images on our phones, zooming in on our whale photos and squinting to see each other’s videos. We walk back along the beach, stopping occasionally to point out whale squirts in the distance.
The following day, Daniel and Federica have to leave. They’ve lived their dream honeymoon, and I’ve tagged along for the ride. They’re picked up by a shirtless man in a jeep who’ll drive them to the airport. As they speed off, bumping along the beach, I feel my stomach rumbling. I head to the restaurant, where the solitary light above the four-seat table is switched back on.
From September through January, hundreds of olive ridley sea turtles clamber onto Colombia’s vast beaches. In a sand pit, each one can lay up to dozens of eggs, which strolling conservationists then protect.
An adult, below, and baby turtles, above, crawl on the coast near the El Almejal eco-lodge in El Valle in Colombia. A group collects eggs and saves them in a pen until the hatchlings are ready to be released.