Whale watching in Colombia

Colombia is the only country in South America with both Pacific and Caribbean coasts. And two wild, whale-loved waterfronts equals two wonderful adventures...

3 mins
The boat bobbed on the still water, a tiny speck on the dark ocean. The wind had settled to little more than a light breeze and there wasn’t a bird in the sky. All was quiet and all was still. It was then, just as the air of expectation had slowly fizzled out to something approaching that familiar thwarted sense of boredom, that something quite miraculous happened. My eyes widened, my jaw dropped. Words were searched for but none were found…

Missed the boat?

I had journeyed to Colombia’s very wet and very wild Pacific coast to meet the locals. Not the native tribes or friendly villagers but the ones that holiday here every year: the humpback whales. Between June and November up to 1,200 humpbacks migrate to the warm and sheltered waters of the Gulf of Tribugá to give birth to their calves. People in the know consider this the whale-watching capital of the world.

But unlike other such spots, seeing these larger-than-life creatures here is a far more intimate experience. There are no big boats leaving on the hour, laden with hundreds of people; no lengthy journeys miles out to sea. Here, it was just four of us in a small fishing boat, low and close to the water, sticking close to the shore.

“We often see them from right here,” said Memo Gomez over a lunch of yellowfin tuna in passion fruit sauce, served in the elevated dining room of El Cantil, his remote ecolodge near the town of Nuqui. Surrounded by banana, papaya and guava trees and accessible only by boat, the seven timber cabins are without electricity and lit by flickering oil lamps. Wi-Fi? Forget it.

Memo and I gazed out at the dark-sand beach, strewn with boulders and backed by the jungle of Colombia’s Chocó region – one of the wettest places on earth. It rains almost daily here, with up to 18m worth tumbling from the sky each year. “People don’t come for the weather. They come to experience the wild side,” said Memo. Mostly, though, they come for the whales. “They’re always breaching in the bay just offshore,” he added. “We saw some yesterday in fact.”

Travel in August and September and you’re virtually guaranteed multiple sightings. I was a few weeks out, visiting in mid-October when mothers and their newborn calves were already embarking on their long journey south to Antarctica. Had I missed the boat?
“Don’t worry, we’ll find them,” reassured local guide Pozo, a man with dark skin, blindingly white teeth and more than 20 years’ whale-watching experience. “I can almost smell them,” he chuckled.

We pushed our wooden boat into the tepid shallows and sped off across the bay. A lone fisherman sat hunched in his dugout canoe. “Any whales?” shouted Pozo. He shook his head and returned to pulling in his line.

Cruising from one whale-less bay to the next, we fished for dinner while keeping watch for far bigger creatures. On the shore, a line of swaying palms formed a frontline, backed by an emerald army that rose high into the hills. Teenage girls took tiny steps on the beach, holding their mobile phones high in the air in the desperate hope of a signal.

Pozo regaled us with tales of a lifetime spent watching whales. Like the time one breached almost within touching distance (“So close, water flooded the boat”). Or the time four jumped simultaneously (“Just like synchronised swimmers”). Then there was the time he joined six adults in the water for a swim: “I was terrified. My heart was thumping out of my chest and I just froze when I saw them circling below me. I felt like a grain of sand. But after a few seconds, it became surprisingly peaceful.”

But for much of his life, Pozo did all he could to avoid the animals he now considers friends. “We all did!” he declared. “Back then we thought they ate people, so fishermen would work from the shore during the whale season. Nobody went in the water. We assumed breaching was a sign of aggression.”

Today, though, there were still no whales. But then... just as we were about to turn back, three were spotted: mother, baby and aunt leisurely travelling south at the very start of their long migration. We enjoyed their company for an hour, venturing close enough to see the craggy barnacles and white polkadots on their mighty bodies. They surfaced in unison, occasionally lifting their tales high in the air. I gazed over the side of the boat as they passed nearby, before vanishing into the depths like submarines for the final time.

Turtle time

The land dwellers of the Chocó region are well used to the whales. The villagers of Termales – an hour’s walk from the lodge – anticipate their return each year. “We sit on the beach and wait for them. We’re very protective towards them. Last year we found one trapped in nets and the whole village came running with knives to free it,” said teacher Hilde Augulo.

Home to just 250 people (and a thousand chickens), Termales is a sleepy place of sandy streets and wooden houses. Children played on the beach, women had pedicures on their doorsteps and men relaxed in the thermal pool, where the main topic of conversation was Colombia’s chances in the World Cup (excellent, apparently).

Others had more important matters on their minds. Jose Mendoza, the ‘Turtle Man of Termales’, stared at the ocean mournfully. “Years ago we had countless turtles here but now not.” He is, in part, to blame for the decline. For years he would scour the beach for eggs, stealing them to share with the rest of the village for breakfast. Poached in salt water or served scrambled, the delicacy – fetid and fishy tasting – was, for some reason, a popular one. “I would gather up to 500 in a single night, sometimes leaving just a handful. I never thought it was a problem.”

His outlook changed almost overnight. Now, during the nesting season (July-January), he patrols the beach twice a night, at 1am and 5am, in a bid to right his past wrongs. “I wait for the turtles to lay their eggs and then carefully move them to a secret place where they can hatch in safety.” An admirable U-turn that has led others in Termales to brand him crazy. He never skips a shift, though. “Would you like to join me tomorrow?” he asked.

And, so, at 4.30am the following morning, we met under soft moonlight. The waves, loud but impossible to see, crashed against the shore. Barefoot, Jose walked quickly, a man on a mission. He led the way across slippery rocks, through gushing streams and onto the pitch-black beach. Our torches illuminated fallen trees and crabs scuttling sideways.
He stopped abruptly at the sight of recently disturbed sand and fresh tracks. “We’re too late,” he said. Hungry hounds had beaten us to it, leaving only shards of soft white shells scattered on the coarse sand.

As twilight crept over the horizon, we reached a small enclosure discreetly placed near trees some distance from the village. Cordoned off by bamboo poles and netting, Jose proudly showed off his makeshift nursery for turtle eggs.

Whale ahoy!

Back at El Cantil, heavy rain clouds had rolled in. I spent the morning in a hammock listening to the droplets splatter against my hut’s shingled roof. The downpour was relentless and I was tempted to miss the afternoon’s planned boat ride. Pozo, however, wouldn’t hear of it.

For the first hour, the rain fell almost horizontally, cruelly lashing against our faces. Clouds hung over the twin peaks of Hananos like strands of a wispy wizard’s beard, obscuring the summits where native Indians once performed ceremonial rituals.

It was me who broke the silence. “Perhaps we should start heading ba...” Suddenly, the sea shook as 40 tonnes of humpback erupted from the water barely 15m away. Thrusting skywards like a rocket and twisting to reveal her pale and ribbed underbelly, the whale crashed into the water with a thunderous splash.

Speechless, I nearly fell overboard. A split second later, the calf followed suit. Then the water settled as though it had never happened. The foamy ripples offered the only proof that I hadn’t simply imagined it.

Caribbean calling

The scene replayed in my mind a thousand times as I left the Pacific and journeyed north-east towards the Caribbean, to Cartagena. The difference here, while not unexpected, was profound – not least because I seemed to have swapped humpbacks for a pot-bellied man in a blond wig and sequinned bra shaking his hips to the crowd on Plaza de la Aduana. Once the venue of a gruesome slave market, the plaza is now part of the maze of colonial streets, squares and old churches that make up Cartagena’s atmospheric walled Old Town.

I took in the view of ancient and modern Cartagena from the hilltop Santa Cruz monastery. Below was the island of La Manga, named for the mango trees that once stood there. They’ve long since been replaced by clusters of shiny skyscrapers, creating a slither of land that looks like a Manhattan in the tropics.

La Boquilla, a fishing village across town, seemed somewhat less 21st century. Empty rocking chairs sat outside homes with patchy paintwork and streetside barber stalls. One block away was the beach, largely deserted aside from flocks of pelicans nose-diving into the water, looking for lunch.

Lunch was also being served at Marlene Gomez’s basic oceanfronted restaurant. Hanging from the thatched roof were lights made from coconuts and seashells. Marlene was stationed at the stove, keeping a close eye on the red snapper sizzling in a pan filled with eye-watering chillies.

She wiped her hands on her faded zebra-print apron. “This was the very first restaurant on the beach,” she said, proud of her 40 years of feeding the village. “Things are very modern now. Before we had no lights or water so I cooked the fish on sticks over a fire.”
“It’s very lively here at the weekend,” chimed another local. “People come to eat fish, drink rum and dance all night.” Now, that was more like it.

The wild coast

I wondered if more Caribbean flair awaited further east in Santa Marta, one of the oldest surviving cities in South America. Founded in 1525 by Spaniard Rodrigo de Bastidas, it’s set against the Sierra Nevada mountains, the highest coastal range in the world, which shelters lost cities and primitive tribes. The early European settlers faced stiff resistance from the native Tayrona community, but the Tayrona were all but decimated by the end of the 16th century.

Today, Santa Marta is the place to go for sun, sea and sand. The promenade at El Rodadero – the Benidorm of Colombia – was packed with people dancing to vallenato music and queuing for rum-on-therun cocktails at modified bicycle bars. Most seemed oblivious that a true slice of Caribbean heaven was just a few miles away.
Well, I was off to find it, taking a road that weaved high into the mountains towards Tayrona National Park – a jungle-cloaked wilderness with some of the Caribbean’s best beaches and trekking.

As we drove, I saw a man by the roadside wearing a distinctive white hat – a style said to resemble the snowy mountaintops. “He’s from the Kogi tribe. They still live up there,” explained my guide, Andres. The elusive Kogi community maintain a traditional existence, venturing beyond their high-altitude enclaves only to trade cassava and plantain. According to Andres, Kogi men are ‘The beach at the fishing village of La Boquilla was largely deserted, aside from flocks of pelicans nose-diving into the water, looking for lunch’ permitted to sleep in a hammock but women, who give birth standing up, must sleep on the ground to be closer to Mother Earth.

Our two-hour hike took us through the humid forest. “The coast here is like many of the Caribbean islands. The scenery is similar and the people have the same laid-back mentality. There’s no chasing money and rushing around like those in Bogotá,” said Andres as we dodged an army of fire-red ants carrying leaves across the mossy trail.

Through the trees and cacti came the sound of pounding surf. La Gomera Beach came into view behind giant boulders, which we scrambled over with care. Vultures filled the sky, landing on the odd piece of driftwood.

I found a shady spot under a palm tree on nearby Arrecifes Beach. The sand was soft and warm, the sea a sparkling blue. My own patch of paradise. There was just one thing missing: a breaching humpback, just offshore.

The author travelled with Chameleon Worldwide (01962 737647), which offers tailormade trips across Colombia. A 12-day Coast to Coast itinerary, featuring Bogotá, Cartagena, Tayrona National Park and the Pacific coast, costs from £2,750pp, including all flights and accommodation. Chameleon Worldwide is the only UK tour operator to offer El Cantil Ecolodge.

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