Magic fac­tor to a solo va­ca­tion in Colom­bia: Tur­tle power

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY SIMON WIL­LIS Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

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.

SIMON WIL­LIS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

TUR­TLE PHO­TOS ABOVE AND BE­LOW FROM EL ALME­JAL ECOLODGE

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.

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