The landing gear extended as the small propellor airplane prepared to descend into Buenaventura. Looking out the window, I was struck by the drastic change of scenery. The andean highlands of Bogota, characterized by vast urban areas and extensive agriculture in the valleys between steep mountains, was replaced by a dense tropical paradise that looked more like a diorama than a real city. From above, I could barely pick out the brown houses within the thick layer of green.
Even before the air-tight seal of the airplane cabin was cracked open, I could feel the heat penetrating the windows. Colombians divide their territory into two categories: the andean highlands are known as tierra caliente and the tropical lowlands are known as tierra fria.
The hour-long boat-ride from Buenaventura took us through the choppy water of the Pacific, around a jagged coastline that reminded me of Thailand, and into the flat, calm waters of Bahía Málaga. Getting up to speed, our boat jolted to a stop. We had hit the bajos – an enormous area of the bay that is just barely covered with water during low tide. After calling for a rescue boat, we waited nearly thirty minutes for the tide to rise enough to inch our way through deeper channels of the bajos.
Arriving to the community of La Plata, the first thing you notice is a sky blue fiberglass dock that is moored in place with fluorescent orange polls. Wooden houses dot a 300 yard stretch of beach on the island. Walking down the dock, you must pass by the restaurant. Hungry from an early morning and a long day of travel, our group (two Columbia students, and six UniAndes students) were treated to a generous helping of piangua ceviche – a mollusk that grows in abundance among the mangrove forests of Bahía Málaga. The cabin, in which I would be spending the large part of the next two months, is about thirty paces from the restaurant. A quick glance around the cabin revealed enough room for approximately twenty visitors, two toilets with a working septic system, a sink, four showers (two per gender) with rain-water fed showers, and mosquito netting covering each bed.
After a few days it became clear that the promising shower system was rarely functional, but each shower also comes equipped with a drum filled with rain water and plastic bucket that work nearly as well and use quite a bit less water. Bahía Málaga is one of the wettest places on Earth and therefore does not require a complex water system to provide fresh water. Rooftops and barrels throughout the town are modified to collect as much rainwater as possible.