Robert Armstrong is cast away in Colombia
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
To the uninitiated, on a calm day, open water looks like a featureless expanse. The motors thrum, the boat cuts through the ocean, and the horizon separates two even shades of blue.
This is a failure of perception. I learned this some miles to the south-west of Bahía Solano, Colombia. An hour or two out to sea – we were looking for yellowfin tuna – the mate, Jairo Zuñiga, slowed the boat for no reason I could make out. There were only one or two birds circling around, not the tell-tale diving swarm that will follow a school of baitfish. No fish broke the water. Felipe Morales, our captain and host, hopped up to the raised prow. “I don’t know, man,” he said. “I think there’s something here.” Then, just off to starboard, a 10m whale breached, gave a gentle blow and rolled back into the water. “Holy shit,” Felipe said, speaking for all of us.
Some fishing trips are better than others. A trip to Black Sands Lodge is as good as they come.
There are no roads to Bahía Solano, the nearest town to Black Sands. The options are boat or plane. I flew in a six-seater from Medellín; 45 minutes of fog I spent silently repeating to myself that the pilot did this every day and loved his life as much as I loved mine. The town, at the head of a bay 75 or so miles south of the border with Panama, is an amiable and basic place of semi-paved roads and semi-finished buildings, with tuk tuks, bars and fishing shops. The biggest building is a gaudy, marigold-yellow hotel, the Balboa, built by Pablo Escobar when he is said to have used the town as a cocaine shipping depot.
From Bahía Solano it’s a 20-minute boat ride to the lodge, out at the tip of the jungle-swaddled peninsula that forms the west side of the bay. Whenever the steady breeze occasionally lets up, the salt and humidity are tactile. “The sea eats everything,” Felipe sighs. “Anything you don’t use is rusty or mouldy in, like, two days.” Clouds hang more or less permanently over the mountains in the distance.
The near total lack of development in coastal Chocó Department is remarkable given its stunning beauty. The explanation is that the area was, until recently, controlled by Farc guerrillas. The group signed a peace deal with the government in 2016. Tourism was not their thing.
The lodge is a simple, two-storey wooden structure with just five guest rooms, wedged between the jungle and a three-quarter-mile slice of beach. It looks east across the bay, with the ocean opening up to the left (a 15-minute walk up the hill leads to a high lookout, facing west over the Pacific). A stream trickles out of the jungle next to the lodge, attracting birds, crabs, butterflies and moths. You can hear the croaking of toucans. A colony of oropendola birds, with long, bag-like nests, lives in the palm trees that line the lodge’s front.
Simple. But rustic it ain’t. Catalina Vásquez, the chef, is first-rate. The fish we caught were turned into ceviche, steamed dumplings, sashimi, delicate curries, all paired with excellent wines. Desserts run to things such as dulce de leche-filled cannoli and homemade gelato. The hostess, Mar Palanca, is a Spanish marine biologist who studies the humpback whales that migrate through the area in the summer when the lodge is closed (the one we saw was probably a Bryde’s whale). She is worldly, knowledgeable and multilingual. All that is true of Felipe, Black Sands’ co-founder, an Argentinian fishing machine fuelled by Coke Zero and Marlboros who has guided from the Seychelles to the streams of the Rocky Mountains. Catalina’s amiable and immense coffee-coloured bloodhound Alfredo completes the front-of-house team.
I’m not a fisherman, but I hang around with a number of them. The 50th birthday of one of these is what brought me to Black Sands. Because the group was a mixture of hardcore anglers and pale civilians such as myself, we kept a sane schedule. The boat went out by 8am or so each morning – a scandalously late hour for some in the group but a little early for me, especially given that we spent the evenings emptying tequila bottles in tribute to the lost days of youth.
Still, late and hungover, we caught a lot of fish. What is so special about fishing off Bahía Solano is that almost no one else is there. “What’s amazing about this place,” my friend Scott says, “is the opportunity to target so many different species with essentially no other fishermen around, no ‘fishing pressure’ as we call it. You can go after tuna, sailfish, marlin or mahi mahi on open water and a bunch of other strong, fast species right along the coast – cubera, roosterfish, African pompano and snook.”
Motoring out of the bay to chase tuna, we were accompanied by flocks of pelicans in wedge-shaped formations, moving at almost the pace of the boat. That is saying something. The Siroco, the lodge’s boat, is really nice and really fast, my friends in the know told me in hushed tones (it’s a 32ft Contender with twin Yamaha 300s). Finding the tuna requires a lot of knowledge of the area, and entails a lot of looking for dolphins, who chase the same baitfish as the tuna do. Often the dolphins – both bottlenose and spinners, the latter so called because they like to leap out of the water and spin along their long axis – swim right alongside the boat, playing in the wake. At other times, they appear and disappear with maddening speed, chasing their food. You have to cast right in front of them to maximise your chance of a bite (the dolphins themselves show no interest in the lures).
Topwater casting for tuna is a blast. They are big, strong, fast fish that hit your lures hard and fight mightily, as birds circle overhead and dolphins leap. You have to cast fast when the animals gather near the surface; they can disappear in seconds. When they get a good grip on a lure, the reel hisses as the fish rip the line away – “I’m on!” “Yeah man!”
Bringing them in takes strength and patience – knowing when to pull, and when to let them run. I was hopeless, of course, and my casting is atrocious – always too high or too flat to optimise distance and accuracy, never fast enough to seize the right moment. But my friends (mostly) refrained from teasing me and, as I learned, it’s the skill of the captain and mate that matters most; I managed to bring a nice one in on my first morning with the help of the rest of the crew.
Deep-water jigging – fishing for bottom-dwellers with short rods – takes less skill but plenty of strength. We dropped special weighted lures some 400ft down and then brought them back up jerkily a few metres at a time, hoping to attract bites, ideally from grouper (a great delicacy). What I caught instead was a big amberjack, a fish known as a “reef donkey” for its muscular resistance. It immediately bent my rod almost in half. I felt like I was pulling a refrigerator up from the ocean bottom. My shoulder muscles were burning within seconds. Jairo leapt over and strapped me into a belt with a brace for my rod. After I brought the fish in, a stout 3.5ft, I thought my left arm was through for the week. We only caught one small grouper, but it was enough for Cata to make some dumplings and two platters of ceviche.
That first day taught me to respect the tropical sun. I thought my more experienced friends were a bit eccentric for wearing long trousers in the 70-degree day, and wrapping their heads in gaiters. Then my knees, despite lashing on the sunblock, burned to lobster red. The frames of my sunglasses left distinct pale stripes along the side of my browned head. Eleven hours on a boat leaves you feeling like Ernest Hemingway but, if you aren’t careful, looking like a beet.
Fishing is a very specific way to hang out with friends. Even on a 32ft boat, there is not a lot of room. It’s a lot of hours of being close together. There is a certain knack to making it work – when to talk, when to be quiet, when to lead and when to defer. When it works, though, it creates a feeling of easy harmony. At the end of the day, our group would swim the 100 yards from the mooring to the lodge, washing away the exertions of the day. (My buddy Dave insisted on swimming in the middle of the group, for fear of sharks, of which, according to Mar, there were none whatsoever. I have known Dave for more than 40 years, but I suppose all friendships have their limits.)
I liked the coastal fishing, casting off the boat towards rocky beaches, just as much as hunting tuna. The Chocó coast is staggeringly beautiful, with lush walls of forest rising vertically up from the sea and jagged rocky outcroppings jutting out all along it. In all the hours of motoring we didn’t see a human soul, save a line of soldiers with heavy packs and rifles, trudging along a remote beach. They filed silently into the forest without a wave (they were national guardsmen, not Farc, according to Jairo).
We reeled in an amazing array of prehistoric-looking creatures onto the boat: plumed roosterfish, blue-toothed Pacific needlefish, luminous red cubera snapper and silvery, nearly rectangular pompano. My friend Conan got a massive dorado on his line that leapt clear out of the ocean, but on its third jump it dislodged the hook and got away, the boat groaning as one.
“Did you catch the fishing bug, do you think?” one of the group asked me on the trip back to New York. He has a boat out on Long Island, and goes out after bluefish and striped bass. Weary, sunburned and salty, I reflected that it was time I bought myself a rod.
Bespoke packages, POA; blacksandslodge.com