Parque Utria and El Valle on the Pacific coast of Colombia
After walking along the shallow river for almost an hour, wading through the clear water, with thick green foliage at each side, we reach the little waterfall. It isn’t especially big, and as waterfalls go, neither especially impressive. But the setting, with the lush rainforest surrounding us, the natural pool at its feet, feeding into the river, it is perfect. As we swim to the other side of the pool, climb up the rocks, trying not to slip on the treacherous moss, we see there is more to the waterfall than first meets the eye. There is another little pool and waterfall waiting. Soon we are splashing around in the cool, crystal clear water, and using the waterfall as a slide.
– There is another waterfall, a proper one, a lot bigger further up the river. But we’d have to spend a full day just to see that one; it’s about three hours walking each way. Not many people know about it, and very few tourists go there.
I don’t have a hard time believing our guide, there aren’t many tourists venturing to these parts of Colombia to begin with: these parts being the Pacific coast. And those who do normally don’t venture far into this part of the national park of Utría. They are mainly here for whale watching. And now there are no whales. During my days in El Valle (which translates to “the valley”, which I guess doesn’t really describe a coastal place), other than the few backpackers staying at my hostel, I haven’t seen a single other tourist.
Both el Valle and Parque Utría are located in the region of Chocó. The department stretches from just north of the city of Buenaventura, considered one of the most dangerous cities in all of Colombia, along the Pacific coast and the along the border with Panama, before it reaches the Caribbean coast. It is a region that sports rainforests more bio diverse than the Amazon, and, supposedly, the wettest place on earth. The coastline, maybe not as picture-perfect as its Caribbean cousin, is stunning in its ruggedness. In some areas, especially around El, Valle, Parque Utriá and Nuquí, humpback whales can be seen with their calves straight from the beach during whale season, running from June to October. It has so much to offer and it’s tranquil, so why aren’t there more tourists you may ask?
One reason is its remoteness. But more importantly is that the region has been plagued by violence and conflict for decades. It is one of the most conflict-ridden regions in the country. The region is beautiful and rich in natural resources but it is also one of the poorest in all of Colombia. The population seems to have been completely forgotten by the government for ages. Infant mortality is sky high, way higher than the national average, there are few jobs and opportunities, many parts are cut off from the rest of Colombia and only reachable by small planes or boats.
Its remoteness’ both, physically and politically, the abundance of valuable natural resources, and desperation of the population, has made it a perfect place for harbouring and recruiting guerrilla soldiers, paramilitaries, and drug smugglers. In 2002, 119 civilians were killed in the little remote town of Bojayá when they ended up in the crossfire between the guerrilla group FARC and the paramilitary group of AUC.
Even though it’s one of the wettest places on earth, the region capital of Quibdo lacks drinkable water, due to the high number of illegal gold mines contaminating the rivers around. It is yet another example of the duality, the contrast of the stunning beauty of nature, and the uglier parts of the nature of man that, sadly, can be found all over Colombia. The richness of natural resources, and the greed and desperation that make people kill to control it.
But here, in the secluded woods of Parque Utría, everything seems calm and peaceful. At some point some monkeys cross the river, using some touching trees over our heads as a bridge. The waters at the white sand beach are teeming with small fishes swimming in synchrony and in a blissful ignorance of Colombia’s problems. In the little town of El Valle, yes, we could see some poverty. Like the little boy in shredded clothes dragging a little play “car” made out of a used soda bottle. But in general I just get the impression of a sleepy little village with an abundance of smiles and laughter around. The only real reminder of the region’s problems is the newly stationed military post at the edges of town, controlling every boat heading out towards the sea.
We’re not quite sure why they are there. Maybe they are trying to hinder fishermen going out looking for packets of cocaine floating around in the water, thrown out of smuggling boats when they spot the coastal guard. Maybe it has something to do with the FARC attack on the tourist island of Gorgona, further south on the Pacific coast of Colombia, south of Buenaventura, where one police officer was killed some months earlier than my trip. It was the first FARC attack on an island in the history of Colombia´s armed conflict. Gorgona was considered a safe place, and received tourists even during the most turbulent of times. Maybe for this reason, maybe for that, we don’t know. The only thing we do know is that they weren’t there the day before, according to our guide.
And even with them there the conflict doesn’t seem to real, as when we return to El Valle in the afternoon, the off duty soldiers are playing with a flock of kids checking out their new neighbours. Throwing each other around in the mud, splashing in the water. Showing that we are all just humans, small pieces in a bigger game outside of our control.
My last morning I wake up early. The rain has been hammering on the tin roof above us for most part of the night, but now it’s quiet. I climb silently out of my hammock and barefooted I walk down the pebbled little path that leads through the hostel grounds. Feeling the hard round stones against my skin. In the pitch-dark I walk past the little huts, past the main house, and then I’m out on the beach, out in the open. The big rugged rocks jut up from the sand as solid black shadows, a slight shade darker than the darkness that surrounds them.
I climb up on one of the rocks; watch out over the ocean, into the horizon. Soundless lightning repeatedly strike down somewhere in the water, far, far away. Lightning without thunder. I watch mesmerized while listening to the comforting sound of the breaking waves.
At some point the darkness slowly starts to recede, giving way to more details, more colours. Two women walk briskly past without noticing me. A feeling of tranquillity washes over me, of peace, of fulfilment. I realize I have way too few of these moments normally, in the city, in everyday life. I just don’t take the time to savour the small things, the sound of waves, or the wind, the rustling of leaves, a moment of silence, a glimpse of the stars on a clear night, a bird perched on a branch outside my window. Always surrounded by distractions, begging my attention. Always that nagging feeling that I have to do something.
At this moment a selfish wish materializes in my head, which usually happens whenever I end up at one of these hidden paradises, these beautiful virgin places not yet ruined by tourism and progression: that the place will forever stay like this.
That one day, I will be able to come back and enjoy its tranquillity, all by myself. Even though I wish the conflict will end, and I know that the end of the conflict equals more tourism, and tourism might be a means of economic growth for the forgotten corner of Colombia (though most probably it just means lots of foreigners will by up land and fuck the locals over, and corruption will allow the construction of non-sustainable hotels and complexes, fucking the delicate nature, with lots of species that can only be found here, over) a part of me wishes this place to stand still in time, forever and ever and ever. And one day I will come back and watch the whales from the beach.