Arepas con huevo and scrambled eggs
On the morning of our last full day in La Barra we ate early. The pile up of food inside me was turning from conversational curiosity (“ha, I don’t know where it’s all going!”) to worry (“seriously, where is it all going?”), but I couldn’t help finishing Oralia’s delicious arepas con huevo. Forget the cafés in San Francisco turning toast into a hipster treat, the Afro-Colombians in El Pacifico have turned this poor-man’s bread into something exquisite.
Prepared normally, Colombian arepas are the Australian beer of the bread world; bland to the point that it’s curious why the locals consume so much of it. They’re made of (“masarepa”) flour and water to make a dense, corny patty. No crust, no flake, no succulence, just a dense corny patty.
But, deep fry one, wait for it to swell up a bit, cut it open, put an egg inside, pinch the edge shut again, drop it back in the deep fryer and wait until it’s a crispy, textured, hard-crust doughnut, and you’re in simple food heaven. No longer an accompaniment, the pacific coast’s arepa is so good it can (and should) be served all by itself.
Motorbike tracks between La Barra and Ladrilleros
Anyway, we had to eat early because high tide was at 8 a.m., at which point we wouldn’t be able to walk the beach to Ladrilleros. Picture a romantic stroll, a beach, the tropics, the morning sun, hand-holding, few others around, the odd scuttling crustacean and soft brown sand for 45 minutes.
From Ladrilleros we got motorbikes to Juanchaco, then followed directions to a guide that could take us in kayaks up the mangroves. A stout, strong man came met us in the street and greeted us a little coldly. He took us to the beach with his son and daughter, and together we dragged kayaks to the shore. We were surprised to hear that it was his daughter, Tatiana, who’d be taking us on the trip to the few jungle islands out to sea. Tatiana looked surprised too.
Satellite view of the islands. For scale, the big one is about 2km from top to bottom
We paddled across calm waters out to the first of several islands and began circling them. They were each only a few acres of land, essentially large rocks jutting out of the ocean crowned with palms and rubber trees and broad-leaved evergreens and parasitic vines all blocking out sunlight from the forest floor. We explored the large one to try and find a waterfall. It was immediately clear that Tatiana had no idea where she was going. However, we saw families of crabs, a giant blue butterfly, hawks, vultures and an oddly placed, newish-looking military base (I don’t believe the government here will mind if I tell you it’s the cleared land on the South East side of the large island above). Thankfully, our exploration didn’t take us to accidentally wander onto the base. That could have been fatal.
The whole trip was beautiful, strenuous, everything a kayaking trip should be. But it was also annoying knowing that the guide had palmed us off on his daughter. Tatiana assured us that she did, in fact, know where a waterfall was back on the mainland, and we could paddle there if we liked. So, we traversed the sea again, and about two hours after first setting off we made it into a mangrove canal, as tranquil a place as you can imagine. No wind, no waves, not even a ripple in the water, just lush vegetation, butterflies, vine tentacles dripping down into the water and the odd submerged log.
When it got too shallow we disembarked and walked upstream a little while until we reached the waterfall Tatiana had promised us. It was about 2 meters high, trickling out of a hole in the top of a broken concrete dam that had never been finished and was already crumbling. The damn was topped with a rotting log, the pool was laced with rough concrete bricks. Okay, water was falling. But it wasn’t quite the idyllic spot we’d been imagining for the last few hours.
The stunning waterfall at the end of the Mangroves
Mute this video: the mic was malfunctioning so I’ve put some random, inoffensive music over it:
We returned to the beach, walked back to La Barra, ordered a cocoloco, then walked through town to a place that sold viche, a strong spirit derived from sugar cane that has been used for centuries to cure snake bites, ease stomach pains, kill parasites and increase the libido. For £1.50 we could get about half a litre of the slightly yellowish liquid, enough to keep us tipsy for the rest of the day. We met a family of Wounaans, an indigenous local tribe, who were selling bracelets and earrings. They were the only indigenous we’d meet in the Pacific, so we both bought a little something from them and made our way down to the beach. One final swim later, we returned to our barn for dinner.
Looking down the neck of a decapitated mero, dead but still ready for the fight
That night a motorcyclist turned up at Oralia’s with a 55lb headless mero fish. It was an unexpected but welcome delivery; the wooden fishing boats had been returning empty recently, and food reserves were running low. This giant fish had been harpooned by a free diver. It now needed to be cleaned and skinned. They bought it for $500,000 COP (around £100), and it’d last about 100 meals, once they’d turned it into steaks. That, however, was going to be a challenge. This fish was a tough beast.
Oralia’s ageing husband slowly got out of his chair and faced the mero with a machete. It was a difficult task, skinning the fish with the blunt knife, and the old man visibly struggled, every so often stopping to steady himself. Five minutes of wheezing later, he went into the kitchen and returned with a handheld circular grinder and a honing stone, neither of which were effective on the dull blade.
If you were unsure of what the coolest way to sharpen a machete was, this is it.
A few locals turned up, perhaps hoping for a part of the bounty, or perhaps just to see Oralia’s husband in action – it was the first time I’d seen him do anything other than stagger or sit. Exhausted after completing just one side of the fish, he collapsed back into his chair and a younger man took over. It was no easier for him. Even the family axe failed to easily get through the thick bones of this ocean beast – an animal I was quickly gaining respect for.
The axe took several well-aimed strikes to get through the mero’s thick spine.
I had another cocoloco and took photos of the battle. Slowly the fish carcass was separated into seven or eight huge, impractical chunks that were tumbled into a large plastic bucket. Somebody would still have to hack away at these pieces before they would even fit into a pot, let alone turn into a meal. The old man gave the fish one last go, putting the last of his strength into axe swings. Defeated again, unable to make it work, he put down the axe, walked off a few paces, put his hands on his knees and violently vomited on the floor. It was very almost human 1: fish 1.
When the skirmish was finally over, Lily and I brought what was left of our viche and cocoloco down to the beach to lie on and look up at the stars. Being in the southern hemisphere it seemed that Orion’s Belt was upside down. About half the sky I didn’t recognise at all.
This would be the last night on the trip that I would be the only “gringo” around – that’s what they’d written on the hotel ledger when we turned up; “Lily y el gringo”. Despite the lack of ostentation here, and how welcome everyone is made to feel, my skin made me feel a little like an outsider – worse, even: like a bad omen. When my kind do eventually swamp these beaches, La Barra will have lost its charm – and maybe its pride.
Paul Theroux wrote, “Nothing is sadder than a resort out of season”. But La Barra off season would be just as lovely. Perhaps lovelier – a fishing village free to be a fishing village again. And yet, when the hordes of European travellers eventually come, La Barrans will earn pesos through service and servility, cooking and cleaning up after us while we drink ourselves merry.
The price of peace, perhaps.