We said our goodbyes to Alberto and his family in Coffee Country and headed off to the Pacific coast. The whales were still off the coast but would be migrating south in another week. If we wanted to see them we had to go now. We were just four hours away.
We decided to become reacquainted with the Colombia bus system as flights to the area took twice as long. It would be difficult as we had gotten used to Alberto’s wonderful hospitality in chauffeuring us half way across the country. We called a taxi for the one hour ride from our plantation to the bus station in Armenia. Our destination was Buenaventura. Internet research showed this to be one of the top places in the world to see whales up close. Unfortunately, Jennifer did lots of research about whales and not so much about Buenaventura.
The bus route was a quick two and a half hour drive from Armenia to Bugga where we were to catch a connecting bus to Buenaventura. We were a little perplexed when the bus dropped us off at the side of the highway. No station in site. The driver removed our bags and pointed for us to wait under a nearby tree and said "Taxi, Taxi." We joined a woman under the tree. Within minutes a taxi came by and we flagged it down. For a few thousand pesos she drove us the 5 minutes to the station.
We arrived at our destination just after nightfall and the bus station in Buenaventura was not a place to be after dark. The terminal looked like a scene from a post apocalyptic movie or your worst nightmare. The lighting was dim with lights burned out intermittently in the building. Locked metal cages hosted now closed offices. Litter was strewn about the station and a gauntlet of rough and dirty characters lined the narrow corridor leading out to the street. We walked through the hallway, dodging the panhandlers and hustlers. We tried not to make eye contact but we were obviously not locals and stood out in this crowd.
We quickly made our way to the street and looked for a cab. None were waiting. We were warned about flagging down a cab as criminals occasionally pose as cab drivers and have been known to pick up tourists and drive them to a remote area and rob them. With no other options we flagged down the first cab to drive by. We asked him to take us to the main tourist hotel in the city. About three minutes later the driver pulled up in front of the large modern glass and steel hotel overlooking the harbor. Relief washed over us.
When we walked into the bright clean building we were greeted by a smiling young man speaking speaking English with a slight Caribbean accent.
“My name is Hamilton” he said, making the night even more surreal.
“Seriously?” I asked. “Have you seen the play?”
He looked at me confused.
“The musical, Hamilton” I said. “A hip hop story about America’s founding fathers.”
He just looked at me blankly. He had never heard of “Hamilton”!
Before we left, I would have to log on to youtube and let Hamilton hear Lin Manuel Miranda rap about Alexander Hamilton.
Buenaventura is not a tourist town. It is a rough port city dominated by rival gangs competing for Colombia’s drug trafficking business. It is actually one of the most violent cities in the world with a murder rate 42 times higher than that of New York City. I regret telling Jennifer not do her research. When we were safely in our nice hotel she found an article that described chop shops in the city that were known to dismember people alive and then dispose of the bodies. We decided not to venture out after dark during our stay even though numerous uniformed military men with automatic weapons patrolled the streets.
The only reason for tourists to visit the city is for the whale watching experience, it ranks in the top ten places in the world to do so. As many as 2,500 humpback whales come to the warm calm Colombian waters to give birth from August - October. They then head south to their Antartica summer feeding grounds.
Most tourists arrive on buses and head straight to the docks and skip visiting the city all together. Many head to stay at beach town resorts up the coast which are only accessible by boat. Much of Colombia’s rugged pacific coast in this area is undeveloped. Our only question was whether it was worth the risk in order to see these beautiful creatures up close and in their natural environment.
The next day we ventured out of the hotel in order to stroll the boardwalk and look for the best boat to take out for a day of whale watching. We found the commercial pier that is lined with vendors all selling tours to the offshore islands and beaches. We quickly discovered that the vendors are not used to international visitors. It is almost impossible to navigate the confusing system of boats and destinations without a thorough knowledge of Spanish language. Our tourist phrases was no help in this situation.
After wandering around confused for a while we met a vendor named Arizmendy who called his friend Alberto who spoke English, a rare ability at these docks. Alberto helpfully walked us through the maze of ticketing and regulations. We explained that we wanted to spend a day on the water to see the whales and return. Alberto sold us the package that we needed. “You will see the whales” he assured us, “it is guaranteed.”
Our tickets were for 8:00 am the next morning and we were told to be a the dock thirty minutes before that. We arrived on time and waited for the boat to take us to Juan Chaco beach for a day of whale watching. We were told that it would be a forty minute ride and that when we arrived we were to ask for “Julio.”
The boat looked much smaller than it should have been foe a trip into the Pacific Ocean. We were all given life jackets and braced ourselves for the ride. After about twenty minutes it was apparent that this would not be a smooth ride. The waves tossed the small boat high into the air time and again and we took quite a beating on the hard wooden seats. Pursuant to Colombian custom, the forty minute ride actually took eighty minutes.
We arrived at our destination and found ourselves in the middle of a mob of semi organized confusion. We began asking around for “Julio” and sure enough a first name was all that we needed. We were pointed to an older man who told us to follow him through the maze of people amassed on the dock.
“Julio” led us to an even smaller boat and another man who would be our captain for the whale watching tour. Several young female backpackers who spoke English were in our group and we quickly boarded the boat by wading out to where it rested in the shallow water. The captain shoved off and we were on our way to the resting grounds for the whales.
Within fifteen minutes we could see a small group of boats huddled in a semicircle. The captain pointed and we could see the huge creatures in the distance breaching the ocean. Before we knew it, we were a short distance from the action. The whales were leaping out of the water and raising fins in a display of awesome power and beauty. Expressions of awe and amazement filled the small boat as we watched the magnificent creatures dancing on the surface of the water.
After about thirty minutes, the whales began to swim away and we headed back to the beach. It was barely 10:30 in the morning and we had seen more than we could have hoped for. We returned to the beach in a state of excitement and wonder.
No doubt about it, the trip to Buenaventura was worth the price of admission.