Note to self- don’t sit at the front of a speedboat; it hurts. And if the guy working on the boat, happily wearing nothing but joggers with a vest and no shoes, suddenly waves his arms and puts on a pair of goggles and life jacket, it’s a totally valid response to want to crap yourself.
Buenaventura, Colombia is certainly not the prettiest place I’ve ever visited. It has a reputation for being a dangerous and rugged industrial city and this isn’t entirely unfounded. The short walk from the bus terminal to the city pier was doused in rain as the smell of Pacifico cooking mixed with the thick exhaust of passing traffic. The entrance to the pier is lined with small stalls selling local produce, ranging from sickly pink cream liquors to creepy yet elaborate shell sculptures.
We bought our tickets and followed the rest of the travellers down to the bustling and quite confusing departure point where a number of boats called Lanchas were being packed full of passengers. One striking visual note was that all of the staff had black skin while the passengers on the boats were all of a lighter hue. Colombia is certainly a country of ethnic hierarchies.
Our boat journey to Ladrilleros and Juanchaco was a rocky one. As the last people to get on the boat, we took the only available seats left which were at the very front with the luggage. I hadn’t considered there might be a reason these seats hadn’t been taken and thought we’d lucked out with the best view for the journey. Technically that might have been true and the first fifteen minutes were deceptively smooth: a few novelty bumps across the waves and amazing sights of eagles, pelicans and frigate birds circling above forest-topped cliffs like Jurassic Park. But things soon changed.
Every wave we met threw us from our seats with a heavy smack back down. These were joined by screams ranging from joy to fear while the wind pushed my eyelashes back into my eyes and the sea spray began to feel like slaps in the face. It turned out, during this time, both my friend and I had been trying to judge whether we’d be able to swim to the nearest rock face if we had to, without getting our brains dashed out on the boulders.
An hour later we arrived at the tiny town of Juanchaco without throwing up and set off on the much more exciting second part of our journey- to see the whales.
Our boat sped to the area they’re known to pass through, and with the engine switched off, we waited. It wasn’t long until our guide spotted a shape in the distance and sure enough a fin cut through the surface of the water. It was followed by a huge blast of air and water as the colossal creature cleared its blowpipe. The sound was amazing. As clichéd as it is, seeing such a vast beautiful animal in such a vast endless ocean really makes you feel small.
I barely took photographs. I didn’t want to miss the majesty of the moment.
We saw a surprising number of them, while our captain maintained a safe distance so they weren’t disturbed. The highlight for me, and one that will forever be in my memory was when a whale lifted its tail high above the water and brought it crashing down on the surface again and again and again.
As someone who adopted every whale I could as a child, this was truly a spectacular experience. If I could have told nine year old me, sorting through my pictures of whales I’d never meet, that one day I’d be standing in the ocean with them passing by, I’d probably have had a tantrum that I’d have to wait so long for it to happen.
After an amazing hour of whale watching, we returned to Juanchaco and a two and a half hour wait in the tiny drizzle soaked town of shacks and cabañas.
The sand of the Pacific coast is a dark grey colour and sadly due to the direction of the currents, much of the beach is strewn with litter pulled in by the sea. Plastic bottles and debris line the bay as a perfect reminder of the importance of recycling. This combined with an ominous grey sky and murky sea didn’t really resemble the perfect white beaches of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
We wandered the short stretch of tiny hairdressers, grocery stores and a slightly depressing looking discotech pumping out reggaeton at three in the afternoon. Then passed the remaining time sitting on the bough of a fallen tree watching the tide come in. There’s a great organisation of people working to clean the beach of its pollution; Colombians giving their spare time to travel to Juanchaco and protect the beauty of the country they love, by collecting and sorting litter. A commendable way to spend Colombia’s Friendship Day weekend.
The time on land made us really not look forward to the prospect of another hour-long speedboat ride back to Buenaventura.
Our boat pulled in with a range of passengers. They included a woman who dramatically sliced her toe open stepping from the boat to the pier and an exceptionally well-accessorised gentleman in an all white boating-themed ensemble complete with clutch bag and slip on loafers.
The return trip held no pretences and immediately began with extreme bumps through the waves. The water was much choppier now. We’d learnt from our previous experience though and made sure we were near the back of the boat. Feeling both sympathetic and smug, we saw the couple at the front suffer with every wave, screaming in thinly disguised panic. Even so I reminded myself to keep my mouth closed if we ended up overboard; the greyness of the water didn’t seem like the type of substance I wanted coursing through my body.
There was one stop for fuel at a tiny collection of shoreside houses with boldly painted fences and doors shining brightly against the sludge coloured waters.
As our group of passengers looked tired, bedraggled and slightly sick of the ocean, another boat powered by with a small group of locals and what I can only assume was the coolest guy in Juanchaco. He cruised by with a thugged out lean on his lancha and really did not give a fuck. I have never seen anyone with more blatant street style out on the open sea.
The Pelicans flew by us, the cliffs and caves loomed over the shifting waters and a rainbow rose above it all. Buenaventura may not be the tourist destination of dreams but it’s definitely a doorway worth passing through to the unforgettable experiences across the water. Although I may never return, I will always remember the majestic movement of the whales gliding past, the sense of how huge the world truly must be to hold such monumental beings and the smallness I felt in those brief moments I spent in their presence.