I hadn’t been this apprehensive about a trip for a long time. We were traveling to a place we had never been before and I was on edge. This foreboding foreign land for which we were bound was the four-star accommodation. For the first time, we were going upmarket.
I had booked an expensive place to stay and was floundering in doubt. How would we handle staying in a nice place? Would we feel ripped off if everything didn’t go perfectly? Would our three kids be held to a standard they couldn’t possibly meet? Would I? As we boarded the plane for the final leg to our destination, being kidnapped by the FARC was the least of my concerns.
We were bound for Nuqui, a small town on Colombia’s Pacific coast. There are no roads in – boat and plane are the only options. The security situation in the country had been on the upswing for several years, and Nuqui, one of the last redoubts of the FARC thanks to its inaccessibility, had finally joined the rest of the country in shedding its violent past (mostly). I wanted to see the place before it was overrun with tourists (or more specifically, I wanted to be one of the first tourists to overrun it).
Researching places to stay and things to do in Nuqui, I found relatively few reviews and travel blogs, and half of those that I did find were in Spanish. This signalled that we were beating the mass-market tour operators to the area, but it also meant I didn’t have the same crowd-sourcing rankings at my disposal. I was not at all clear whether there would be any of our usual steerage-class hotel options available, and the idea of wandering through town looking for a place to stay with three young children in tow was unappealing. That led us in the lodge direction.
But once we were in the market for a lodge, I was confronted with an unfamiliar set of decisions and their consequences. The area around Nuqui has a few resorts and they are all isolated. They offer excursions to see this village or that waterfall, but they also charge extra for them. I stared at the various websites, wringing my hands, wondering if we would be hostages in the lodge compound until we paid the fee to go see something. This was only half paranoia; a TripAdvisor review about one of the resorts really did use the word “trapped” and “prisoner” several times (and there was no attendant Stockholm syndrome; the reviewer did not recommend the place). We finally decided on Morromico because it was right on the beach, something that held allure for everyone in the family, and wouldn’t be extra.
At the airport in Medellin we were met by Melissa, the lodge-owners’ adult daughter. She was there, superficially anyway, to answer any last questions or concerns we might have and to facilitate our getting on the right plane. I think her real job is to look the guests over and make sure everything is on the up-and-up before they become her parent’s responsibilities.
Our flight arrived uneventfully in Nuqui. Walking from the plane to the security gate, we could see behind the airport fence that half the town was there to watch the plane land and the passengers get off.
We went through security and paid Nuqui’s arrival tax. Javier, the owner, was right behind the security desk waving at us. He looked the tiniest bit apprehensive; maybe that’s normal given that he was meeting for the first time the people he and his family were going to be living with in the jungle for the next few days, or maybe in the past he has had guests get hauled off for making FARC jokes to the security agents. Either way, we got through and were now Javier’s responsibility.
I had read about an extortion technique in these remote airports where someone quickly grabs your bag, announcing he’ll carry it the 30 feet to your next vehicle, then demands a tip for the service (this had already happened to us on arrival at the international airport in Medellin, except it was 10 feet and the perp just had to roll it because the bag had wheels). Here, in Nuqui, we were preoccupied with our kids’ howling and didn’t notice until too late the two teenage boys who had plopped our bags into a wheelbarrow and were awaiting Javier’s instruction. I stood there, frozen, staring at our bags. I felt I should be at an inflection point – I had seen the scam and learned my lesson. I was now a jaded, experienced traveler and nobody’s mark. It was time to act. Except that I still had unruly children on my hands. And I didn’t know where to go. And it was hot. OK, I rationalized, let’s see how this plays out.
The two boys had been hired by Javier. They wheeled our stuff the ¼-mile to the boat. Javier paid them, they waved good-bye to us, and left. A non-existent crisis had been averted.
The ride to the lodge, in an 18-foot wooden row-boat with a motor on the back, was through the open ocean. I began to suspect that a fake, sterile vacation was not going to be a problem, as I got pleasantly soaked. Along the way another boat pulled up alongside us and gave us two tuna they had just caught. The authenticity meter ticked up a notch.
The lodge was a modestly elegant wooden house overlooking the black-sand beach of an isolated cove surrounded by jungle-covered hills. There were no doors anywhere in the house, which meant cool ocean breezes were always wafting through; it also meant the hosts had to periodically sweep out the hermit crabs which had wandered in.
Upon our arrival we were immediately presented with lemonade and papaya. Sitting in the shade, watching the waves break on the beach, papaya juice dribbling down my chin, I calculated, OK, this is what we’re paying for. Maybe upmarket isn’t so bad.
As we learned over the next couple days, our hosts, originally from Medellin, had been living there for 20 years. They had taken part in a Colombian homesteader program designed to populate the region. Nuqui is in the Colombian state of Choco, which encompasses the northern half of the country’s Pacific coast. The area is cut off from the rest of the country by two mountain ranges, the Baudo and the Andes. Buenaventura is the only coastal town in Choco that can be reached by road. A problem since the country’s founding, this isolation has made it difficult for the central government to project any kind of authority in the area. For 200 years the lack of a police presence encouraged unsavory elements to set up shop in the area, the most infamous being the Marxist revolutionaries, the FARC.
In the last two decades the Colombian government has ramped up its attacks on the FARC and the organization has been significantly weakened by those efforts. In a desperate, but effective, bid to survive, they have mostly dropped their Marxist trope, kidnappings, and acts of terror, instead embracing the global capitalism of narco-trafficking. This has led to a decrease in the level of violence in the Choco, but the pernicious effects of having a criminal drug gang lurking in the jungle linger on. Our hosts explained how it throws a wrench in the local labor market. When the traffickers get chased in their boats by the authorities, they toss the plastic bags of implicating evidence overboard. The drugs wash ashore, the locals grab them, let the traffickers know, and trade them for a reward. These cocaine 401(k) plans are quite generous, so it’s difficult for the lodges to find and keep employees.
Another ramification of the Choco’s historical inaccessibility, and the ease with which someone can disappear from the authorities, is that it was a favored destination for escaped African slaves from Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Consequently, Nuqui’s population is almost entirely black, in contrast to Medellin’s, which is almost entirely white and Hispanic.
Don’t Pet the Ant
The lodge, the beach, and the surroundings were spectacular. Javier and his family’s company was always welcome and entertaining. For someone who had been doing this for 20 years, neither Javier nor his wife, Gloria, seemed the least bit jaded about accommodating another set of clueless guests. Despite my best efforts, I was having trouble staying on constant alert and being suspicious of everything.
We were not captive. We could have wandered off and explored whenever we wanted. But I never did. There was plenty to see and do right on the beach. And, as usual, there is always the issue of who gets to go off on walk-about and who has to stay and watch the children. “Honey, you got the kids while I go do something fun and exciting?” is not destined to end in an agreement.
We did not take any of the extra side trips on offer. We could have visited some of the coastal villages, or ventured upriver to the indigenous settlements, or made a special trip to the nearby national park. There was the money; yes, always the money. But what to do with our three children when we try to go off the grid is always a complicating factor, and since we were already pretty far off the grid, we just left well-enough alone.
Javier did take us on the included-in-the price hike up the hill to see the poison dart frogs. Two minutes in it was clear this hike was not within the abilities of our three-year-old son. The trail was a series of switchbacks through the jungle up a steep hill in six inches of thick mud. Javier had carved walking sticks for me, my wife, and a half-size version for our 5-year-old daughter to swing wildly while she held my wife’s hand for support. Javier then cheerfully carried our son on his shoulders up, and then, spectacularly, back down, the mountain.
Javier did find a couple of the bright red and black frogs for us. We took some blurry pictures with our iPhones, but when we got home, we downloaded the crisp pictures of the frogs from the lodge’s website, and that’s what we show people. Along the trail were also lots of ants that were so large that I could easily see their sharp mandibles. Javier made it clear you did not want to be bitten by one of them.
As advertised, the meals at the lodge were a combination of plantains, fish, and fruit. Almost everything we ate came from the trees behind the house or the ocean in front of it. In our five days at their dinner table we were able to complete a thorough audit of the local cuisine.
Every day at 3pm the plate of tuna ceviche came out. I realized I had developed a Pavlovian response to it when we were sitting in the airport, getting ready to board our afternoon flight back to the US and suddenly I could smell and taste the fresh lemon juice again.
The big rocks on the beach were covered with snails. Javier mentioned how good they taste boiled, chopped, and sauteed in garlic. I responded by saying it sounded like something I might like to try. My hint must have been lost in the translation as no snails appeared at dinner (or breakfast). So a couple days later I stated clearly, “I would like to harvest snails and eat them for dinner.” Happily, Javier set us up with a bucket to harvest snails. Our kids did not last long. Sometimes, when pulling a snail off its perch, it squirts out a stream of water. My daughter got sprayed early on, and her snail-farming career was over.
The food was delicious, and those fresh fish dishes would have been extremely expensive if ordered in a Chicago restaurant, but this was not where the value of Morromico came from. When I was arranging the reservations I was mildly annoyed that we had to pay full price for our two older children. After all, they don’t eat much. But at some point I realized that if we eat five papayas off the tree behind the house instead of just four it isn’t going to make much difference to their bottom line. What we were paying for was someone to entertain our daughter while we enjoyed those papayas. And someone to carry our son up and down a muddy trail teeming with killer ants. The lodge felt like the earthy, do-it-yourself places we usually stay, except that we didn’t have to do anything ourselves.
My lesson from all this? Nothing. I felt incredibly lucky choosing Morromico. Even if another place like this exists, I have little faith that I’ll be able to find it on the next try. I don’t think it’s likely that we’ll stumble into a situation again where the owners are so easy-going and excited to make sure we enjoy ourselves. No, it’s back to being cheap-skates for us, and I’ll have to break it to the kids that there will be no more seconds on snails.