The next morning we met back up with Lily’s parents in Medellin’s airport, to catch our flight to Nuqui together. From there we’d take a motorboat up the coast to Playa Morromico, the idyllic and completely isolated hotel Lily had booked for us.
Lily’s dad looked a bit nervous; Jorge is not one for risk, and flying counts as a risk; flying in a small plane is an even bigger risk. Our 19 seater dual propellor plane was even smaller than the one we’d taken to La Macarena, and felt kinda toy-like. The plane bounced and shook while taxiing towards the runway. It even rocked when we came to a halt, giving the impression that the propellers on either side were either unaligned, faulty or both. A first for me – our pilots’ windows were open. Like, they had little hatch windows, and they were open. The smell of fuel flooded the cabin. There was no safety speech. Okay, I was a little nervous too.
We rose and got another look at Medellin. Like most Andean cities, the central mass of the city’s concrete buildings tapered off along shallower climbs up into the mountains, the very outskirts of which were thin grey scars of shanty houses and isolated farms on the hillsides. In the definitely-not-pressurised cabin, my ears popped a dozen times in the first 5 minutes after taking off. The engines strained, humming like a thousand bumblebees, or the sound a car makes when accidentally put into a low gear on a fast descent.
We were flying out of Antioquia, Colombia’s wealthiest region outside of Bogotá, and the strongest voice against peace, on our way to Chocó, a region with 1/20th of the wealth, one of the hardest hit regions in the war with FARC, and the country’s biggest proponents of voting “Yes” on the peace agreement. Every “No” voter who was against the peace agreement because “the victims deserve justice” should speak to someone from Chocó – they WERE the victims, and they just wanted the violence to end.
People might have serious problems with the terms FARC had secured in the peace agreement, but at least in voting “Yes” Colombia would be making progress. Yes was a vote for hope, progress and, as the coffee scientist had said back at the coffee farm, opportunities that are not currently on the table.
Anyway, we levelled off only a few thousand feet up, giving us a superb view of the Andes all the way to the coast. At points we were flanked by rocky peaks that rose up even higher than us. Phenomenal.
An hour later we started our descent, coming in low over the jungle. There was absolutely nothing around, just miles and miles of completely uninhabited tree-lined beaches. And somewhere, hidden in the forest, Playa Morromico was waiting for us.
The airport we landed at was just a clearing in the jungle by the sea. Next to it there was a building that looked like a control tower, but it had no radar mast, and nobody was manning it. We made our way into the airport terminal, a square yellow building with large glass windows looking into town. Kids on the other side tapped their hands and blew their mouths on the glass, trying to get our attention as if we were fish in a tank. All the passengers getting off our plane were white, all the locals were black.
We went straight to a bar and sat outside drinking a cold beer, waiting to be taken to the hotel. Some of the kids in town had yellow patches in their hair from malnutrition. It’s a funny feeling, hanging out in a town full of people who have no money, drinking a beer and waiting to be chauffeured to your hotel.
The history of coastal towns in Colombia, and the reason why they’re almost entirely black has to do with slavery, the war of independence, Spanish militias, enduring racism and kinship. 5 million black slaves were shipped through Cartagena, and since arriving they’ve escaped, convinced others to escape, armed themselves, fled deep into the jungle and founded these entirely inaccessible towns for their own protection – the harder they were to find and the denser the jungle, the harder they’d be to re-capture. And now, as nobody who lives here counts (politically speaking), the government all-but ignores these coastal communities.
If you’d like to read more about why these remote towns were founded – and why they are so poor today – you can do so here. But, it’s important to note that being ignored, forgotten and all-but excluded from politics is a large reason why so many black, indigenous and ethnic minority groups have joined FARC. Before they were narco-trafficking kidnappers, they’d started out wanting justice.
At the mouth of the river we were met by 5 army guys on a fortified pier who boarded and rooted through our stuff. They asked for our captain’s ID – the only black guy on board. Given the all clear, we got out onto the ocean and headed East along the coast. Vultures and eagles soared above, and the shoreline was an unbroken thatch of dense jungle, other than the odd telephone mast. Ahead of us the cliffs of a few small, tree-topped islands sliced out of the sea. Rain clouds darkened the horizon. The landscape we both sort-of terrifying and tranquil.
Along the way I interviewed Pablo, our host from Medellin, opening with the traditional British icebreaker: does it rain often here? He said it was generally rainy. His Dad had visited the area 36 years ago, fell in love with the place and decided to stay. His Dad’s friends would often ask to stay with them, so after a while he decided to open a hotel. Three years later Pablo was born. He’s 17 now, and helping with their hotel, speaking English that he learned when studying for a year in Canada.
Playa Morromico was as secluded as you can get. Over an hour by motorboat from town, nestled amongst the trees at the back of its very own cove. Pablo told us that shortly after his Dad was given land there (he was told he could just have it), the land surrounding it became a protected national park. So now, although they can build whatever they want, nobody else can move here. They’ve been given, for free, a small section of what has become a protected national park. Amazingly lucky.