In Colombia, time takes unusual shapes. It is liquid like the waters of the Cauca River, flexible like a leafy bamboo tree of the Cocora Valley, and has a funny way of gliding aimlessly like the blade-winged frigates of the Rosario Islands. In this magical country, such is the time of travel, too: it resists all attempts of planning, enjoys contemplation and, if treated with patience, will most likely reveal the hidden beauty of people and places.
I cannot think of a place better than Chocó to incarnate the Colombian shapes of time. There, the pace of nature seems to be the only reliable clock. So when we got to Bahía Solano from Medellín on that sunny August morning, it turned out that the rain from the previous night had decided to turn our ride to the neighbouring village of El Valle into an absolute odyssey. So much, in fact, that we had to push the car out of gargantuan potholes of mud on repeated occasions, thus christening our white feet as our first welcome gift. Clearly, trying to rush things was pointless. It was all part of the fun.
In the coastal village of El Valle, water also sets the time for human activity. Boats can only come in and out at high tide, the hours of which not a soul in the village seems to be interested to predict, even though everyone’s food staple depends on it. They just wait, wisely. That is all. The tide calendars that we use back home, which proudly foretell the ocean’s mysterious movements in hours and minutes, now felt like an awkward invention.
While waiting for the tide to give us way, the delights of Doña Lucy’s generous kitchen came about as another present, matched only by an unforgettable siesta in the hammocks of her terrace. Time was then but a mere companion, and us, simple passengers on its flanks. I figured it was maybe a required step to deserve the entrance to one of Colombia’s best kept secrets: the Ensenada de Utría.
We cruised the swelling waters southwards for a while, along a coast of black sand beaches and lush, electric green jungle, until we took a turn and time suddenly came to a halt. The waves disappeared and the sea turned into a still layer of emerald green. It felt like flying. On both sides of the narrow cove stood steep hills covered in more of that thick rainforest, like a pair of strong arms protecting a treasure from unwanted visitors. Clouds of mist hung over the trees, as if to hide parts of the scenery and delay our amazement just a little more. Truly, it had been worth the wait.
Just like time seems to reveal unseen places, it also uncovers the hearts of people. The colourful visitor centre of the Ensenada was built recently by the National Parks and offers comfortable accommodation and outstanding food to the few passing visitors. It is carefully managed by a corporation of local villagers called Mano Cambiada.
The center’s visionary director, Josefina, is the soul of the place. She is a magnificent blend of Afro-Colombian rock solid identity with the gentle manners of a woman at peace. One night, when time had been forgotten by most around a lively dinner table, she sang traditional songs of the Chocó, jumping from melancholy to smiles and inviting us to chant our own tunes as well, wherever we came from. Maybe that was the Mano Cambiada: priceless moments of exchange, one song for another.
We must have all sung quite well for the next day we were greeted by spotless blue skies, which in Chocó, arguably one of the rainiest places on Earth, are a rare delicacy. That set the tone for a variety of adventures available in the Ensenada.
After a morning walk through the mangrove, we set out for some snorkelling on a shipwreck that lies at the shallow bottom of the bay, home to giant groupers and silvery schools of fish. After more delicious food and interesting chats with a visiting parrot, we finished the day out at sea to spot the humpback whales that gather by the hundreds in these waters every year to breed and give birth. This incredibly moving encounter that demands a good deal of patience, attention and luck was the best of all the gifts we received during our journey in and out of time.