Welcome to Colombia
June 2, 2016
by Bianca Monteiro
The week ended very differently from how it started.
It was our first ocean border crossing, paddling from Central America across to South America through the San Blas islands.
[single_map_place] San Blas Islands [/single_map_place]
Panama: San Blas Islands
Picture a postcard of the beach: glistening white sand, glassy turquoise waters, palm trees ripe with perfectly plump coconuts; sun blazing and piercing through fluffy clouds against clear blue skies; as if someone dialled up the exposure and saturation on their Instagram. This is the reality of the San Blas islands–no filter needed.
San Blas is a collection of over 300 islands off the coast of Panama, less than 50 of which are inhabited, and each their own small slice of paradise. Dolphins waved to us from the distance when our small boat sunk onto the sandy shores of our own private island. We slept in hammocks under the stars where you could reach your hand out on either side and feel the salt spray from the ocean roaring around you. The seafood had the kind of freshness where all you needed was a pinch of lemon and garlic to burst with flavour. Even the coconuts seemed sweeter -though that could also be the spiced rum snuck in with it. Days were spent napping in a pillow of sand, snorkelling in waters so clear you could see your own shadow trailing behind you on the sea floor, playing volleyball, and practicing yoga at sunsets. Nights, throwing glitter in the air, playing games, and dancing with the ocean lapping at your ankles.
We also spent time with the Kunas, indigenous to San Blas, a beautiful people who made it easy to fall in love with their welcoming and accepting nature. People there are free to choose their own religion, gender, and sexual preference. The Kunas have an unusually high incidence rate of albinism, and there, albinos are celebrated as Children of the Moon. During an eclipse, the Children of the Moon venture forth with their bows and arrows strung to protect the village from the dragon blocking the sun. They share most things and mainly trade in coconuts. A part of me believes it’s because the Kunas are a matriarchy that there culture is in such harmony.
And then… things took a turn when we arrived on the shores of Capurgana in Colombia.
A sweet little beach town only accessible by boat, it’s running water, electricity and internet puffed in and out throughout the day. We planned on staying a night or two there, recovering and enjoying its small town charm and our last moments with the San Blas Adventures crew. The following morning however, we were bombarded with the news that all boats, planes and buses in and out of Capurgana were being shut down one by one. The stories surrounding how and why tumbled differently from different people; the police killed a major mafia boss or ten mafia members or high ranking paramilitary leaders, and in retaliation, the comrades of whoever was down were creating a blockade around the town as a show of power. That afternoon, everyone scrambled to the groceries, buying out all the food and water in town down to the scraps. Soon after, all restaurants, shops and businesses were forced to close down. A bakery that tried to open the following day had gunmen shut them down. Rumours about unexploded bombs and policemen killed in neighbouring towns swirled through the empty streets, previously brimming with colourful restaurants and coconut huts. A 7 O’Clock curfew was enforced at night. Our plane was officially cancelled and we had to ration the oats, spaghetti, tinned tuna, corn and water we had left. We had no idea how much longer we would be trapped for, it changing hour by hour from 2 days to 2 weeks. What a welcome to Colombia!
It was one of those things that sounds a lot worse on paper than in reality however. During the day, other than a strange stillness in the main parts of town, we were still able to go out and explore fresh and salt water whirlpools, dried up springs, and play uno on a small stretch of beach. At night, we tucked ourselves away into our hostel, cooking together and playing cards by candlelight. It was the effervescent uncertainty that was the worst part by far; the waiting on the docks early every morning, backpacks strapped to us, hopeful that today would be the day we could leave.
On our fifth day, there was a momentarily relief in the blockade, and we were able to catch a boat to nearby Acandi, where our plane was supposed to take flight from. However a mass exodus of people all with the same thought as us and a lost coin toss meant more waiting, more uncertainty. Finally, on an early Sunday morning, a nice man quietly snuck us onto an 19-seater propellor plane.
To this day, we are still unsure of how those circumstances aligned because we had been told quite firmly that there was no way we were getting out that day. We were ushered on under hushed tones and with baited breaths, we felt the rumble of the wheels on the runway, really only believing it when we were high up in the skies, leaving the ocean and its salt spray behind us.