Holidays in Colombia. For many this involves a trip to idyllic white beaches with a bright blue sea surrounded by palm trees and a visit to the colourful city of Cartagena. If you have the time you might plan some party nights in Medellín and a visit to one of the many coffee farms to taste authentic Colombian coffee. But did you ever consider visiting the mysterious Pacific coast of Colombia?
In the west of Colombia where Colombian borders meet Panama there is a region that not a lot of tourists visit yet: El Chocó. El Chocó is blessed with breathtaking dark beaches surrounded by untamed jungle. Amongst many animals El Chocó is a perfect location to spot turtles and whales. Another reason why the Pacific coast is worth a visit is because the area is not very developed when it comes to tourism which allows you to truly experience the authentic Colombia.
Most villages aren’t even connected by roads on the land and can only be reached by boat or plane. Once you get there, brace yourself for a bumpy ride because there are rarely any paved roads nor cars in the Pacific region of El Chocó. Consequently, the most popular means of transport in the villages are Tuktuks. Due to heavy rains you might have to help your driver push your TukTuk out of the mud at least once a day. Heavy rains are a good thing though because I haven’t seen a shower in El Valle. Merely large buckets with water. Not convinced yet? Read about my stay.
BLACK AND GREEN
When you decide to visit the Pacific coast you exchange idyllic white beaches with a bright blue sea for dark beaches hidden behind the jungle. Here you don’t have to worry about going to the beach early to conquer a sun bed: there aren’t any. Instead, you stay in a hostel where you hop out of your bed-hammock almost directly into the sea. Does the idea of exchanging white beaches for dark deserted beaches surrounded by jungle appeal to you?
The two most popular animal species that you spot in El Chocó are turtles and whales. The turtle season is in September and unfortunately I missed it. Luckily, I was right on time for the whale season that starts in June and ends in October. It was an honour to observe whales in their natural habitat and the joyfully jumping whales spewing water took my breath away.
In the port of Bahía Solano I met a biologist from Medellín who was doing his Masters in Marine Biology. As part of his curriculum he regularly took out his boat to listen to whales singing and at a fair price he sometimes took tourists with him. As a biologist he clearly understood the importance of keeping distance from whales when observing them and had a lot of knowledge. He carried an underwater microphone connected to a little radio box so we could all listen to the underwater performances of the whales.
The biologist wasn’t the only friendly Colombian I met during my trip. El Chocó is inhabited by insanely friendly and sincere Colombians. They were incredibly curious about my story and also shared a lot with me about their lives. The best friend I made during my stay here was Johnny (I still doubt if this was his real name). Johnny was a Tuktuk driver who dreamed of starting his own surf school because the Pacific coast is also great for (advanced) surfers (surfing season starts in April/May until December).
One evening as he drove me and another girl from Bahía Solano to El Valle, he asked if we could visit his aunt to pick up a bottle of rum. ´Yes, of course!´ we replied, hoping he would keep the bottle of rum closed until we arrived at the final destination. When he dropped us off at the hostel Johnny picked some coconuts from a tree. He asked if we would like coconut with rum. How could we say no to that? That evening we made a fire on the beach and drank the bottle of rum with the three of us. It was one of the best nights of my stay.
The next day I had a hangover like I had never had in my life. My head was pounding, it felt like a had moss on my teeth and I could not get out of my hammock. Johnny dropped by the next day to ask if he could take me somewhere. He noticed that I wasn’t doing very well. We started talking and it turned out that the rum we had been drinking was produced by his aunt… Super dangerous! If I had known the rum was homemade I would have politely declined.
QUEST TO THE UNKNOWN VULCANO
After my recovery of the worst hangover I ever had I met two German girls when I was walking on the beach. We talked for a bit and they told me that they were going on a boat trip to hot springs the next day. I love hot springs so I decided to join the girls on their trip the next day.
Except for the price of the journey and the fact we were going to hot springs I had no clue what was going to happen that day. Due to rainy weather circumstances and strong currents I hesitated whether I should go on the trip as I did know the only way to get there was by boat. Our guide claimed it was completely safe to make the boat trip so I hopped on the tiny speedboat.
The boat trip was awful. Apparently it would take us 3 hours to reach the hot springs. I did not sign up for this. Our captain draped some kind of giant poncho over the 3 of us and whilst we uncomfortably crouched on the wooden benches, of which one broke halfway the journey. We only made one stop on the way for just 10 minutes. We started to wonder if we had made the right choice. Was all this misery worth a visit to hot springs?
After what felt like 10 hours we arrived at another dark beach surrounded by mystic jungle. It finally stopped raining. To my surprise a man was already waiting for us on the beach. I glanced around and noticed that a cloud of steam floating above all the greenery.
The man on the beach who was apparently our guide informed us the walk to the hot springs would take about an hour. Our captain didn´t join us on our quest, he didn’t feel like walking after that horrendous boat trip I guess. We disappeared into the jungle. The man was very quiet during our walking tour and kept a high pace. The only thing he told us about the hot springs is that they don’t know where the heated water comes from. That is why the hot springs are also called “termales de vulcano desconocido”, which translates to hot springs of the unknown volcano. He also explained that the residents in the surrounding villages like to come here.
Barely 30 minutes later we came across a sign that welcomed us to the hot springs. At this point we smelled the “rotten egg smell” that natural hot springs often reek off and we saw two small hot spring ´tubs´. Our guide immediately jumped into the water fully clothed.
None of our phones worked out there and they didn’t tell us where we were. So actually I have no idea where exactly I had been that day. It is a crazy idea, but it is also cool, such incredible memories of such an unknown place.
Just a heads up: please be aware that you can´t count on a clear blue sky at the Pacific coast. It rains a lot in this area, but the temperature is pleasant all year round. Beaches can be polluted by litter such as plastic but also wood that has been washed ashore.
Nonetheless, a visit to the Pacific coast is absolutely worth it. Meet a completely different side of Colombia and stand eye to eye with the jungle and deserted dark beaches without being surrounded by a bunch of selfie stick equipped tourists. Meet the one of the largest mammals on this planet. And stay away from homemade rum.
PLAN YOUR VISIT
Did I convince you to pay a visit to the mysterious Pacific coast of Colombia? I hope so, but do note you need to plan your visit in advance. The villages along the coastal area of El Chocó can only be reached by plane as there are no connecting roads to the mainland. Nuquí is one of the most popular places to visit in El Chocó but there are other interesting villages. I stayed in El Valle near Bahía Solano for example. Book your flight from Medellín to Nuquí or Bahía Solano with Skyscanner. Not a fan of flying? I fully understand, check out this unique alternative to sail on a cargo ship along the coast of El Chocó(my most special travel experience!). You can find accommodation on Booking. I recommend to book in advance as especially budget accommodation options are limited.
So why can’t you skip the Pacific coast in Colombia? Well, first of all you will discover beautiful dark beaches surrounded by wildly untamed jungle. Be smart and plan your visit during the whale season and you encounter one of the largest mammals on the planet. And finally, you will get to know another side of Colombia and and make your own memories! Not convinced on the dark beaches (yet)? Check out this blog about a visit to the Caribbean side of El Chocó.