Journey to Capurganá

“You need to stop this plane!”

The lady sitting next to me frantically waved her arms in the air, nearly smacking me in the head.  Dressed in an official-looking green camouflage uniform with badges sewn on, she didn’t seem the type for hysterics.  She seemed to have herself fully put-together, which made her outburst a little bit alarming.  An anxious flight attendant scuttled over.

 “I’m sorry, Senora, but you cannot leave the plane now.  We’re all ready for takeoff!”

“I have military orders,” the woman responded.  “You can either take my word for it or I can have my commander call it in to the captain.”  

Colombian military women such as the one I saw on the plane. Photo from Pinterest.

A minute later, the plane stood still in the middle of the runway.  The military woman hopped off and a flood of men streamed onto the plane: Colombia’s version of the FAA.  A group of men began opening and emptying the overhead compartments.  Two other men walked directly toward me and asked that I get up and stand in the aisle.   I complied, of course, and watched nervously as they dismantled my seat.  

Were they searching for a bomb?? If that was the case, then why were we all still on the plane?  Surely we should evacuate.  The rest of the passengers whispered to each other nervously but remained in their seats.  Eventually, the officials must’ve concluded there were no suspicious objects on board.  They left and I sat back in my seat as the flight attendants prepared for takeoff for the second time.  As if nothing unusual had happened at all.  The military woman never re-boarded.

The search had caused the plane to be delayed by over an hour.  My friend, who was also on board but sitting in the opposite end of the plane, was traveling through Colombia with me.  This was the last leg of a 4-week trip, and this strange occurrence on the plane was pretty much in line with the chaos I’d encountered everywhere else in Colombia.

Monteria, Panama – photo from Mingateachers.org

When we arrived at the Monteria airport, it was already dark.  I was surprised to find the city quiet, deserted and asleep.  There wasn’t even a taxi cab waiting outside the airport.  We stood on the sidewalk, trying to decide how to proceed.  Luckily someone noticed our predicament: two men rode up on motorcycles and asked if we needed rides. 

Sensing that we had no other options, we thanked the men for offering and negotiated a fair price for their service.  As we hauled our huge backpacks onto the handlebars, rain started sprinkling around us.

“Do you have extra helmets?” I asked.  They shook their heads no.

That was how I found myself on a motorcycle with a strange Colombian man, speeding helmetless down a pitch black highway in the rain.  And that’s just the beginning of this story.

The Monteria bus station, from Chicanoticias.com

The men dropped us off at the town bus station, where we were supposed to catch a bus to the port town of Necocli.   We needed to get to Necocli that night because we had pre-paid and highly-sought-after boat reservations there for the following day.  Unfortunately, the Monteria bus station appeared to be closing.  I walked up to the ticket window anyway, thinking it couldn’t hurt to ask.  A teenage boy sat there.

“Are there any more buses to Necocli tonight?” I asked him.

“Maybe,” he responded.  “If enough other people also want to go.”  He instructed us to sit and wait.  The rain outside was turning into a fierce thunderstorm, so I was glad to be in a dry, safe place, even if it was an empty bus station.

A couple hours went by, during which the boy checked in with us several more times.  “I found a couple more people who also want to go… we just need one more person…. We are looking for a van to use…” and finally, “we have a van but the gates are closed so you’ll just have to walk across the street.”

We joined a line of 4 passengers following the boy.  Lugging our wet, heavy backpacks, we hiked across the highway and up a hill to a gas station, where a van was waiting.  The boy himself hopped into the driver’s seat, causing some raised eyebrows.  Random men on motorcycles were one thing, but a teenage driver was quite another.

Nonetheless, I allowed myself to relax as we took off down the dark highway, surrounded by jungle on both sides.  The storm continued, but there were few other cars on the road.  Soon I was lulled to sleep.

A loud screech and I jerked awake.  The van had stopped.

“What happened?” 

“There’s a downed tree blocking the road,” said another passenger.

“Are we going to have to turn around?” asked another.

“Oh, hell no!” exclaimed my friend.  “I didn’t come this far just to be stopped by a tree!” He slid the door open, allowing spurts of rain to rocket into the warm van.  He marched up to the tree and crouched down, illuminated by the van’s headlights.  With his bare hands, he ripped off a large branch and threw it to the side of the road.  Inspired, the teenage driver reached into the glove compartment, grabbed a machete, and bounded out into the rain.  Together, the two of them methodically dismantled the tree until the road was clear.  When they climbed back into the van, soaked to the bone, we all cheered.

The boys tearing apart the fallen tree. Meanwhile I sat watching and taking photos, safe and warm inside the van

The last hour of the ride was much more lively, the passengers having bonded over the fallen tree.  The driver blared old Akon rap songs until finally reaching Necocli in the early hours of the morning.  The village was deserted and as we walked to our hotel, a symphony of frog croaks rumbled through the air.  The rain was done but the puddles remained, and they had attracted a plagues’ worth of frogs which sat watching as we walked by.

Necocli, Colombia

Falling asleep that night in a dry soft bed, I felt proud of myself for having an adventure, and couldn’t wait to get a full, pleasurable nights’ sleep.  In the morning we planned to sleep in and then get a nice hearty brunch.  Unfortunately, this also did not go as planned.  I hadn’t slept but three hours when I awoke to a hotel employee banging on my door.  

“Your boat is leaving!” he called.  

I groggily opened the door.  “Thank you, but I’m actually catching the 12:00 boat.”

“They canceled the 12:00 boat today!  You have to take the 6:00.  You have to go now or you won’t make it!”

I frantically grabbed my sopping wet clothes, which I’d hung about the room to dry, and shoved them into my backpack, which was also still wet.  Still in my pajamas, I ran to the dock and nabbed the last ticket onto the boat.

The dock at Necocli

This 1.5-hr-long motorboat ride was the last leg of the trip from Cali, in the central Pacific of Colombia, to the Caribbean paradise known as Capurgana, located on the Panama/Colombia border.  The lush jungle region had been controlled by the FARC for decades, hidden from development until very recently.  Due to its well-protected reefs and forests, and sparkling beaches, it was coming into its own as an eco-tourist destination.  Yet it was so remote that it had no roads or cars, and the residents (and hostels) only received electricity for 2 hours per day.  After speaking with many backpackers and locals, this was where I’d decided to spend the 4th week of my 3-week vacation.  Yes, I’d so loved Colombia that I’d postponed my flight and life back home for an extra week to see this difficult-to-reach part of the country.

Map of Capurgana in relation to bigger cities in Colombia. It is right on the border of Panama, and in fact you can walk across the border with minimal security.

As the motor revved up, I reminisced on all the strange situations I’d found myself in during this trip.  The Colombians I’d encountered all over the country had been unwaveringly cheerful and positive, despite numerous obvious challenges with infrastructure and corruption.  I’d ridden on a bus that had no doors (at least there was fresh air), and on another that narrowly avoided a bridge collapse.  On two separate occasions, a bus I was riding broke down and I found myself emptied out on the side of the road.  In the Pacific region, there were no buses at all – nor roads, for that matter.  The residents maneuvered the dense rainforest using brujitas.  A brujita is a plywood board attached to a motorcycle that had been jerry-rigged to ride along old railroad tracks.

Brujitas

I was pondering my experience, gazing out at the exotic little tropical islets sticking out of the bay, when the engine died.  I turned to my friend, who rolled his eyes.  It wasn’t worth getting upset over these things; we’d learned that in Colombia you just couldn’t expect anything to go as planned.  We put our feet up on the seats in front of us and sat back, basking in the Caribbean sun.  While the captain fooled around with the engine, the other passengers produced a bottle of whiskey and passed it around.  It took a good 45 minutes before another boat pulled up with a replacement motor, but that turned out to be the perfect amount of time to make friends with the other people on board.

Chilling with our new friends the next day
Happy drunk guy on the boat
It’s all part of the adventure!

3 thoughts on “Journey to Capurganá

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