El Chocó, the area of Colombia on the Pacific Coast, has been out of reach for visitors until recently, and still receives very few visitors, though tourism, both Colombian & foreign, have shown first signs of take off in the last 2 to 3 years. There are several reasons why El Chocó still is so much Off The Beaten Track:
- It was one of the last strongholds of various guerilla & paramilitary groups, and the Colombian government could only stabilize parts of this region recently.
- It is extremely challenging and costly to reach El Chocó in the first place, and traveling around is no bit easier or cheaper…
- The various highlights in the area are also not easy to reach, as you need to set up a small group if you want to keep costs at a reasonable level, which is no easy undertaking in an area that still receives few visitors.
- Being one of the wettest places on earth (more than 12 meters rainfall per year), the weather is extremely unpredictable, making it challenging to plan accordingly. You can be rained in for days!
- With tourism being a completely new phenomenon, the infrastructure remains completely underdeveloped, which enhances the challenges quoted above.
But why visit this area in the first place?
Colombia Off The Beaten Track
Being so challenging (and costly) to reach, this area, also known for its large Afro-Colombian populations, descendants of slaves brought in to Colombia by Spanish settlers, is still very much untouched, and you will not meet many foreigners here. The experience you will have there is surely one of the most genuine you can find in Colombia…
Imagine mountains covered with green lush primary rainforests falling directly into the emerald waters of the Pacific Ocean.
The shores are dotted with dark grey, empty beaches of fine sand, bordered with thick rainforest. The only drawback is that only few beaches can be reached independently (some are, though, especially at low tide), therefore you will need a boat to reach many of the most stunning beaches.
Your only companions on those beaches are numerous small crabs that run around and dig holes in the sand, a scene quite funny to observe…
Whale Watching – The Main Reason To Visit El Chocó?
Between July & November, Humpback Whales come in the waters around Bahia Solano & the Parque Nacional Natural Ensenada de Utria to breed. With only very few tourists, this is an ideal place to go Whale Watching!
Rodrigo from the Posada del Mar in Bahia Solano offers a great day tour Whale Watching. I personally truly enjoyed his sustainable approach, looking for the whales, and then killing the engine to avoid disturbing them, making it possible to observe the giants in total quietness!
It was my plan to go Scuba Diving, but nobody here will take you out unless you are at least a group of two… Which I couldn’t arrange in the 4 days I was there…
Note that the water is filled with plankton in this time of the year (which explains why you have Whales in this season), and visibility is ok but nothing spectacular (I guess from snorkeling 10 – 12 meters).
How About Trekking?
There are many trekking possibilities in the primary rainforest, but paths are extremely difficult to find. You will need a guide if this is what you are looking for, and this activity seems to be completely neglected currently…
Bahia Solano – Do Not Trust Your First Impression …
Sad? Depressing? What on earth I am actually doing here? It took only a few hours for these conflicting impressions to rush through my mind upon arrival…
Both the heat and the humidity are oppressing when you leave the plane and especially when you wait for a long time that the ground crews of this very small and totally chaotic airport that more looks like a shack than actually an airport finally bring in your luggage. Why dies it take so long, everybody wondered…
The village is a nondiscript grid of muddy paths with potholes filled with rainwater and lined with rundown and / or unfinished one story houses and uninviting shacks. There is a certain “End Of The World” feeling this place…
It is also a bad idea to arrive in such a small place on a Sunday, as everything is closed. The only places open are bars, which feature deafening music to cater for the crowd who come here to drink beer all day long…
The only good news on the first day was that The Posada del Mar is a very pleasant place, featuring simple but pleasant bungalows in a tropical garden and run by an enterprising couple who are pleased to organize all possible activities. Worth mentioning is that they do not receive commissions when they organize a tour or an excursion for you!
Organizing The Trip
Reaching El Chocó is no easy undertaking, and you should plan accordingly and days ahead if you do not want to be stranded in this area for days! You have 3 possibilities to reach and leave El Choco:
- By road from Cali to Buenaventura and then speedboat from Buenaventura to Nuquí or Bahia Solano. I met a French couple who made this trip: this back-breaking trip is like sitting on a machine gun during 7 hours, for no less than 200.000 COP (65 €) per person one way. They said they would never do it again…
- Take a bus to Quibdo and then fly to Bahia Solano or Nuquí… Beware that the road is one of the worst of Colombia, and that it can be closed due to bad weather conditions. A French couple told me the bus ride from Quibdo to Medellin was a 13 hour madness on some of the bumpiest roads they had experienced so far…
- Fly from Medellin to Bahia Solano or Nuquí in one of those tiny planes (15 to 42 seats, depending on the airline and the day of the week). This is the easiest way to reach El Chocó, but keep a few aspects in mind:
- The flights are short but very expensive: between 250.000 & 350.000 COP (80 to 110 €) per person each way!
- Book both flights in & out if you do not want to risk being stranded in El Chocó for days! And book the flights something like 2 weeks in advance or more, as they quickly sell out, especially in the Whale Watching season, which have turned popular amongst Colombians!
- You are only allowed 10 kg of luggage & 5 kg of hand luggage. This will be checked and can turn expensive!
- There are only 2 boats between Bahia Solano & Nuquí per week (and no other way of travel – chartering a boat for such a distance will be an extremely expensive undertaking): on Monday & on Friday (time depending on the tide). So plan accordingly if you want to visit both: I had to change my tickets because I had overlooked this.
- The airport is completely rundown and only allows approach by sight. In an area where it heavily rains daily, flights are often delayed or even cancelled. Do NOT plan a connecting flight coming from El Chocó, as you might have hours or even one day delay coming back!
All In All?
Beware that visiting El Chocó is both budget & especially time-consuming. I am glad I discovered this area of Colombia, but I am not sure I would recommend it if you only have 3 to 4 weeks at hand to discover the country and / or are on a tight budget.
The highlights are not necessarily in line with the cost and the hassle coming here. But if you are looking for some really Off The Beaten Track experience in Colombia, then you will most probably enjoy El Chocó.