Every year over the course of three months, tourists descend upon Bahía Solano on Colombia’s disputed Pacific coast to watch a true marvel of nature - the annual migration of the humpback whales. From the shore in this region of the Chocó, between the months of July and October, one can clearly see these tremendous creatures breaching the ocean’s surface and crashing down on the still-protected waters of the Golfo de Cupica.
Aside from the one high season, there are minor flurries of activity when a sports fishing competition is held or a group of diving enthusiasts come to town to explore these clement waters and the wreck of the Sebastian de Belalcazar nearby.
On the surface Bahía Solano, outside of tourist season, is much like any other seaside town, bereft of visitors and with little for the local population to do aside from go about their lives as fishermen and subsistence farmers. However, beneath this dormant image of pool halls, local bars and tranquil coastal idyll, lies another more serious and troubling truth.
Bahía Solano is the very heart of the zona roja, an area described as high risk by the government in its four decades of armed struggle against the leftist guerrillas. Situated right at the north-western corner of Colombia, close to Panama on the Pacific coast, Bahía Solano is ideally placed as a transhipment point for cocaine to countries to the north. Its numerous hidden bays and deserted beaches are also an excellent place to receive shipments of arms.
The town’s links to the outside world are thin on the ground; daily flights from Medellin are all that connect it to the rest of Colombia and it is easier to reach Bahía Solano this way than from other communities on the coast yet in the same department.
The problem is the FARC guerrillas need the area to ensure that their lucrative business continues. Obviously, the government has recognised this and wants to wrest power away. In the middle of this war are the citizens of Bahía Solano, who benefit from both the added security provided by the government to increase tourism in the area and the shipments of cocaine that pass through its waters. There exists, as hoteliers and townspeople in Bahía Solano both agree, an uneasy paradox.
Imagine if you will a fishing village devoid of fish and yet the Pacific Ocean here is bursting with life.
Every day the fishermen return to town, pulling in their nets and docking their boats at around 5pm. To the untrained eye there is nothing amiss with this picture. But, in fact, everything is askew. The fishermen have not been fishing at all, not at least in the conventional sense. They have been trawling the waters since dawn looking for discarded packages of cocaine hurled overboard by traffickers at the first glimpse of the Colombian Navy.
The financial benefits for a humble fisherman from the Chocó – Colombia’s most impoverished state - are obvious. Ordinarily, the very same cartel that has lost the package will buy it back since profit margins are so high. A middleman is contacted and advised of the whereabouts, in which beach, cave or bay, the package has been hidden and then the cartel goes off under cover of darkness to recover the loot. For the rescue, collection and resale of a 25kg package, a fisherman will receive $25,000.
Overnight, simple shacks are renovated, high quality televisions and raucous sound systems arrive in town and the fisherman in question has a new motorcycle. Everybody knows how he has earned the money but nobody asks. The simple truth, according to the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad) agent based in Bahía Solano: “Where do we start? Everybody does it. The whole town knows.”
On the face of it this does not seem too serious. Who is going to deny an impoverished fisherman his lottery win? But the knock on effect is this; now the fishermen no longer fish, they all go out – save a few – to search for the prized discarded packages. There is precious little fish to buy in Bahia Solano and the cargo planes from Medellin are arriving less frequently as they are no longer returning to that city with a cargo of fish to sell on. It has reached such levels that at times the irate wives of these fishermen go out to fish, something that is relatively untraditional.
The DAS and the military are busy here. Given the paucity of transport from the town of El Valle, some 22km to the south, on my expedition up the Colombian Pacific coast my partner in crime Charlie – over from London with the express desire to have an adventure – and I had to yomp through the mud and floods on foot.
On arrival in Bahía Solano, we certainly attracted some attention for this was low season and we were the only tourists in town. Sodden and mud-covered tourists at that.
The first stop was the cash machine, which to our relief spewed out much-needed pesos. Little did we know that our complete journey had been charted and followed by the DAS and the military. It did not help us that we had appeared in El Valle a day previously, having hiked it through the mangroves of the Ensenada de Utria, a remote National Park where 26 Colombian tourists were captured and held hostage in 2002 by the ELN guerrilla group.
The DAS agent confronted us in the street, brusquely demanding to see our passports, all the while questioning our motives in the town and expressing some disbelief in our journey on foot from El Valle. In his opinion, why would we do this if not to escape attention? It just sounded too unlikely that there were no seats on the transport and we had both run out of cash.
Once he was satisfied with our answers and documents we found accommodation, but not before sticking our heads inside Pablo Escobar’s folly of the Hotel Balboa Plaza. As the only three storey building in Bahía Solano, the building stands out. Its awnings are tattered and shoddy, the Chocó rain and humidity has stained the walls. Inside there appears to be some efforts towards redecoration. The pool is popular and the local children seem to enjoy the gaudy seascape mural along the side. We ask for two Pokers.
“They’ll be warm, is that a problem?”
“You have no cold beer?”
“Es que we have no electricity and therefore the beer is warm.”
“I’ll wait until later, thank you.”
Nancy and Enrique Ramirez have been in Bahía Solano running fishing trips and tours for almost 20 years. Theirs is not a unique tale but this makes it no less tragic. Some five years ago they were forcibly moved from their luxury resort, Las Rocas de Cabo Marzo, a couple of hours’ boat ride north along the coast from Bahía Solano.
Enrique proudly shows me his flyers for the resort but his enthusiasm is cut short by sadness. They were given a few days by the FARC to vacate the resort and in those precious moments they stripped everything of worth and retreated to Bahía Solano. Their property, it seems, is ideally located in a hidden bay, well protected from the elements and with unrivalled views out into the Pacific. For obvious reasons the leftist guerrilla group needs this spot.
Enrique expressed hope and optimism for the future. In our week in Bahía Solano, he enthused about his sports fishing tournaments, led us to cascading and swimmable waterfalls and Nancy, his wife, took us up to the viewpoint to catch impressive views of the town and ocean. In short, they were the consummate hosts.
But something in Enrique’s optimism has remained with me. There appears to be a change coming about in Colombia and, interestingly, both Nancy and Enrique feel it. They both stated that Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe has purchased a vast tract of land to the north. They are hoping that this will kickstart a further military drive to reclaim the land and, more importantly, their luxury resort the Rocas de Cabo Marzo.
Enrique’s hopes for the future aside, where will this leave the fishermen who have now become accustomed to their alternative income? One cannot turn back the clock and pretend that nothing has happened, nor that this trade never took place. I suppose this leaves yet another conundrum to be ironed out on the Colombian sociopolitical horizon.