Can we really be there?” I wonder, as our motorboat pulls to the side of a river deep in the Chocó. I am expecting a town, but there is none in sight, just a muddy riverbank.
I check again with the boat driver. “Yes, we are there, time to get off,” he says. I crane my head to see a few rundown wooden houses and a creek with canoes, some half-filled with water. This is the start of one of Colombia’s most abandoned communities, Pié de Pató.
The upper Baudó River is a long day’s travel from the departmental capital, Quibdó. I left well before sunrise to get two buses and a boat here and now, standing by the strong brown water flow sandwiched between jungle-clad hills, I am wondering if I am in the right place.
The other disembarking passengers already hopping over an old wooden canoe separating us from the shore, and picking their way up to a thin concrete walkway that heads inland through a scruffy banana plantation. I grab my bag and follow.
The journey has already been full of surprises. The day before I was standing at the counter of a stationery shop in Quibdó, when I noticed an Embera man with a blow-gun hanging from his shoulder, and a small wooden container of poison darts on his belt.
“What do you hunt with that?” I ask. “Monkeys and birds, mostly,” he replies matter-of-factly as he pays for his pencils and pens. “But sometimes deer and guagua too,” he continues, guagua a large jungle rodent favoured for the pot. He hands me the weapon to inspect and we discuss the finer points of blow-gun hunting: apart from being cheaper than a rifle, the main advantage of poison darts is that the hunter can silently bring down a bird or animal from the treetops means the other wildlife does not flee at the sound of a gunshot. The hunter can keep hunting small game until his darts, or breath, runs out.
For hours after, I am still grinning at the thought of seeing a real working blow-gun, but that’s the Chocó for you, economically Colombia’s poorest department, but perhaps, it’s richest in terms of sights, sounds and adventures. It’s also the cultural crossroads of Afro-Colombian communities, many the descendants of slaves who fled to the jungles escaping colonial oppression and indigenous people like the Embera in the papelería.
And now I have landed in its most remote corner. The first thing about Pié de Pató is that it does not mean “Duck Pie.” A Spanish-speaking geographer, with knowledge of Choco’s rivers, imagines it means “foot” as in the Headwaters of the Río Pató – but that’s a rather murky interpretation, like the water around me.
Only when you arrive and look closely at the terrain do you realise that Pie de Pató is on the River Baudó, a large healthy river carving its way through hills westward to the Pacific Ocean. The Río Pató is actually two hours east walking over a steep jungle ridge. The remarkable thing is that the Rio Pató flows into the Atrato River which disgorges its frothy brown log-strewn waters into the Atlantic coast. Here, there is some sort of magic pivot point between two great oceans, a point that the locals are keen to point out.
“We could have had the Panama Canal right here,” explains Emilio, a local banana grower who seems to be the town’s unofficial tour guide. He stubs a brown toe in the brown soil. I imagine he is imagining a glass and steel skyscraper city raised right here in Pié de Pató, not further north in neighbouring Panama, territory which Colombia lost through US intrigue over the canal plans.
Whether dredging the Pató and Baudó Rivers and cutting through 12 kilometers of hillside would have been easier than building the Panama Canal with all its huge locks is an interesting discussion for engineers, though unfortunately 100 years too late. Not that the Chocó canal never got off the starting blocks. Enterprising villagers as early as the 1700s were cutting small channels to unite the Pacific and Atlantic and poling cargos of cacao over the watershed during the wet season.
The internet is ripe with Colombian interoceanic canal conspiracy theories, when the first proposal was made for a Chocó canal. One plan from the 1970s suggested nuclear bombs blast a marine highway across the peninsula. In Pié de Pató this is all seems like pie in the sky and, in a town with houses rotting where they stand, no clean water, a broken health post, no supermarket, and obvious no way to make a living. “Hay mucho platano, pero no hay plata,” says Emilio: “We have bananas but no money.”
That anyone at all lives in this tropical backwater is something of a surprise, but in fact, there is a quite large population –over 30,000 people – widely spread over the upper Baudó, which includes dozens of large tributaries with clear mountain headwaters, mostly occupied by the indigenous Embera. The larger Afro-Colombian community came later as cimarrones, escaped slaves, fleeing to the Pacific lowlands and villages of their descendants dominate the main river today.
For arriving cimarrones this remote valley must have been paradise. But the cloak of remoteness that was once protected is now a burden as there is still no easy way in, or out. The long river route in- the one I took- is arduous and for many locals too costly.
It also runs the usual gauntlet of Colombian armed groups such as the ELN guerrillas, that mark the riverbanks with their red and black flags, and their enemies, the neo-paramilitary Autodefensa Gaitanistas which spray-paint the walls in the main transit towns of Istmina and Puerto Meluk. Anyone crossing these lines runs a risk, as in these parts of Colombia even the innocent can be found guilty by where they live or whom they relate to.
So for reasons of safety, many people choose to walk the 12-km old trail from Rio Pató to catch a motor-canoe to Quibdó. Emilio and his friends point out the path which ascends the rugged hill be- hind the town. “Where are the mules?” I ask. Too steep, they say.
Then, to my amazement, Emilio and his friends try to tell me that the community still uses paseros in Pié de Pató, and a colonial tradition that in which “human mules” traverse the very steepest climbs carrying paying passengers in a chair strapped to their shoulders. It was a backbreaking trade declared “inhuman” by colonial administrators back in the 1700s but persists in pockets of Colombia until well after independence. And still a mode of transport in the Alto Baudó today.
Emilio’s tone is serious now. He waves his hand towards the serranía bathed green and gold with the evening sun. “This is how we live here […] we still carry people on our backs.”
Transport is definitely a sore point in the town, even more so when an army helicopter clatters overhead, bringing supplies to the nervous platoon of soldiers that routinely trudge through the town.
“Funny that they send helicopters to bring soldiers in and out but when people get sick here they have to travel by river and bus for 10 hours to get to the hospital,” says someone with a wry smile.
In many parts of Colombia there are fine paper plans to connect the town to rest of the country – the Pacific Way they call it – but nothing has been built, except perhaps a few kilometres of cleared jungle.
The road is permanently on hold because the whole of Chocó is a declared nature reserve, which seems ironic considering the state seems to tolerate a massive invasion of heavy digging machinery to rip up rivers and forest in quasi-legal mines. And on every road ahead there are dark-eyed mestizos from the interior stacking trucks with illegally-cut timber.
For now though, the small town seems quiet with children playing in the muddy pools of water and, at sunset, the town turning out to pasear – the tradition of an evening stroll, though in this case, over a circular route of concrete walkway that winds its way through a few hundred meters in the town centre.
At midnight the town generator shuts off and my hotel is plunged into a velvet darkness and silence except for the chirp of bugs and coughing of geckos. The morning dawns damp and drizzly, and from the hotel balcony I can see an Embera woman, bare-breasted and bare-footed, breaking logs with an axe. The axes splits the logs just inches from her toes which she uses to steady the logs on the soft earth.
The Embera and Afro-Colombian families seem to coexist in the town, keeping to their own social spheres, though occasionally there are mixed race couples and offspring. It is harder, though, to speak to the Embera. They seem shy and only the older men are willing to describe their lives up the river, and only then in general terms.
After just a day in the town everyone knows me, and I have established my routine of the bread shop for breakfast and coffee, a small restaurant for lunch and dinner (chicken or fish with beans and rice) and a cold beer spot for a sundowner. To say I feel welcome is something of an understatement. Kids run up and grab my hand, or follow me like a shadow. Everyone smiles and greets, even the town toughs, with their baseball caps and reggaeton music on their smartphones, make room to pass on the concrete walkway.
I am in no rush to leave, but after two nights it is time to board the boat. “Come back, bring the family,” someone shouts, as the canoe pulls out into the river stream, “Sure, I’ll bring the suegra. And leave her here!” I shout back. There are hoots of laughter from the riverbank. As I settle on a wood plank punch-drunk in the sensation, I feel I struck some cultural motherlode, having arrived at this improbable bend in the river that somehow straddles the world’s two great oceans and the past and future of Colombia