Travelers who want to go see the Pacific in Colombia have their work cut out for them. This area is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, yet one of the least developed, beautiful, forgotten places in Colombia; where long swaths of pristine beaches backed by rainforest jungle spill out onto black volacanic sands while 4-6 foot waves pound the beach and 12 foot whale spouts are spotted just offshore.
Though only a 45 minute flight from Medellin, to get to the Pacific coast, in the department of Choco’, there’s a 400 kilometers of dense, sparsely populated rainforest between Cordillera Occidental mountains and the Pacific coastline. There are no roads going to the little seaside fishing villages of Bahia Solano and Nuqui’. Both are only accessible by boat or plane. But the remote, pristine Pacific coastline of Colombia makes for an unforgettable adventure, well off the beaten path.
Bahia should be a bigger tourist destination then it is. It’s deep coastal Colombia. One feels safe here due to a sizable military base in town – a response to a history of guerilla activity in the area. The town also has a good infrastructure.
Whale watching But due to the difficulty of passage, Colombia’s northern Pacific coastline is rarely visited outside of the months of July and August, when the whales come into and around the bay of Bahia Solano to breed and give birth. During these two months whale lovers from around the world flock to Bahia flanked by holiday makers from Medellin. Though the whales are easily seen from the shore, everyone in town with a boat or skiff will ferry tourists out to sea to watch the whales up close.
Hotels and Accomodations
There are hotels, hostels and restaurants which operate at capacity during the whaling months but for the rest of year they stay open though mostly unoccupied (excluding the Colombian holiday periods of Christmas and Semana Santa).
Bahia Solano is a sleepy village of 13,000 made up primarily of Afro-Colombians. The town, which was only officially founded in 1962, sits on Solano bay. The streets, unpaved, and usually muddy from the frequent rain storms, are lined with ramshackle store fronts where men from the village sit at outdoor tables drinking cold beer day and night. There are two pool halls, several local restaurants and a number of economical hotels in town.
The two best hotels in town are the Hotel Balboa and the Hotel Bahia Yubarta across the street. Both have private rooms with air and start at 80,000 COP per room. Further up the street there are a couple of nice, pleasant restaurants. Posada del Mar Bahia Solano is a friendly hotel in the center of town with rooms and starting at 60,000 COP and huts at 80,000.
But there really isn’t much reason to stay in Bahia more than a day or two. There are a couple beaches near town, but to reach them you need to take a boat from the town’s port called Esso Pesca Artesenal.
Playa Huina, or Huina Beach, is where the locals go to party. It’s a 25 minute boat ride from Bahia and features calm waters, great for swimming, and lots of local restaurants. But the beach faces northeast and sunsets disappear in the jungle. Not being able to see the sunset on the Pacific is always a handicap.
Playa Mecana is a remote and secluded beach. It’s also a 20 minute boat ride from Bahia, 60,000 COP. Botanical gardens ‘Jardin Botanico’ are located at this beach. The area is a 177 hectar eco-reserve with tours available through the only lodge on the beach and last 2-8 hours.
They say both these beaches can be reached on foot, a feat I hold suspect due to tides. There is a road going to the port which turns into a path along the coast before it veers into the jungle turning into a muddy trek. After a 2-3 hour ordeal they say the path passes through Playa Huina beach. Otherwise both beaches can be reached by walking the beach at low tide which is in the morning and at night. It’s at least a two hour walk there. But the beaches disappear at high tide, around 4 p.m., leaving one climbing over rocks and cliffs or waiting for the tide to receed. For a day trip, passage by boat seems to be the way to go. And many travelers end up staying at the little hotels on Huina beach and the Eco logde on Mecana beach.
After hiking in the heat, there are very nice waterfalls and swimming holes with cool, fresh water within short walking distance of the town. Piscina Natural del Amor is a natural, fresh water pool with ladders leading to more waterfalls and pools up the mountain. It is located just 100 yards from the Port Esso in town. The Salto del Chocolatal waterfall is also near town, just inland, up the road from the port. There is also a nice waterfall, just a 10 minute walk, from the airport. Many travelers go there for a quick dip before the flight back to Medellin.
But if surfing, being a beach bum and staying close to a town is your thing then head straight to the village of El Valle 14 km southwest of Bahia. A Tuk Tuk will take you for 30,000 COP. It’s 7 km of muddy dirt road past the airport with waterfilled pot holes deep enough to fish in, followed by another 7 km. of paved road.
El Valle is an Afro-Colombian village of a few thousand people. The town is hot and humid and isn’t much to look at but the main beach area, Playa El Almejal, a 20 minute walk north of the village is paradise. This is where all the hotels are located.
Is Travel on the Coast Expensive?
Compared to the rest of Colombia everything on this coast is rather expensive since everything is brought in by boat or plane. The hotels usually offer meals with lodging – excellent daily offerings of quality fish like Red Snapper and Tuna are the norm. Basic restaurants in town serve fish and rice. Meat is only usually served upon special request. The internet here is down most of the time, and spotty and slow when it’s up.
There is one bank in Bahia Solano but the ATM is usually starved for cash. No one takes credit cards on the coast so make sure you come with pesos sufficient for your stay. Plan on at least 200,000 COP per day – on a budget less than half.
Playa El Almejal is a good surfing beach with nice breakers rolling onto black volcanic sands. It’s a good beach for lounging and swimming with no complaints of undertows or sharks. Here the jungle spills out onto the beach and black volcanic rock formations dot the shore.
For a more secluded experience, Playa Cuevita is a beach just a 15 minute hike south of town. The longest beach on Colombia’s Pacific coast, Cuevita offers 9 miles of isolated beach to explore. This beach is part of the Utri National Park and no one lives along it. They say walking the isolated beaches is safe here. There is a turtle sanctuary 5 km. up the beach called Estacion Septiembre where turtles can be seen laying eggs and hatching between September and December.
Playa Cuevita is a beach with lots of drift wood. It’s a stunning beach walk in the morning at low tide. But in the afternoon, around 4 p.m. everyone disappears. The tide comes in quickly leaving no beach left to walk on. Where the beach ends it’s all switch grass and mangrove tree roots. Large pieces of driftwood start floating on the rising tide, drifting and spinning in the waves, making the trek back to El Valle hazardous.
Other day trips around El Valle include a boat trip from El Valle up the Rio Tundo, a 2 hour trip through the tropical wilderness through the mangrove swamps. It leaves from El Valle – 30,000 COP per person. Look for an affable man called Fidel Castro in El Valle. He will take you wherever you want to go.
Another day trip is to the stunning waterfall and waterhole called Cascada del Tigre. It is a 20 minute boat ride from El Valle 50,000 COP.
Another is a tour up the Boroboro river, an arm of the Rio El Valle, to the indigenous village of Boroboro. It is home to 100 indigeneous who live in thatched huts on stilts. They fish, sell local crafts and paintings. The tour is around 60,000 COP
The Utria National Park is between the pueblos of El Valle and Nuqui. Boats travel to the park from El Valley. This trip is the most expensive of all the outings. It’s a one hour trip by boat – 60,000 COP. Entrance to the park is 16,000 COP for Colombians but 48,000 COP for foreigners. Then one has to obtain a guide to explore the park – yet another 50,000 COP. I heard complaints that there’s not much to see on this trip: a boardwalk from the interpretation center into the coastal mangroves, a trip by boat across the bay to Playa Cocalito and then by boat to Playa Blanca for lunch.
(I tend to boycott these national sites when I learn foreigner visitors are charged 300% more than the national residents. I’ve had discussions and I know the Colombians think it’s fair. So I argue if they think it would be fair if on their next visit to Disneyland they had to pay 300% more than the nationals at the gate.)
How to get there:
There are a number of small airlines flying from Medellin and Quibdo to Bahia Solano. The two largest ones are Satena and ADA which leave from the little airport in the center of Medellin, Enrique Olaya Herrera, – a lovely airport just a convenient cab ride from anywhere in the city, landing in Bahia’s tiny airport Jose Celestino Mutis 1.5 km south of the downtown waterfront. (Cost of the flight – around 300,000 COP each way).
The flights are very weather dependent and can be delayed for hours or cancelled. My flight from Medellin to Bahia was delayed for 6 hours due to inclement weather in Bahia and the return flight was cancelled until the next day. Since there was no internet in El Valle I didn’t find out about the cancellation until I got to the airport. But Satena did pay for an airconditioned hotel room in Bahia for the night and picked up the tab for dinner and breakfast. It gave me a chance to visit Bahia again. Just make sure you leave at least 48-72 hour margin of time to return to Medellin and not be pressed for time.
There are also cargo boats that depart from the Pacific port of Buenaventura further south (West of Cali) and go to Bahia Solano. The trip takes 24-36 hours – 150,000 COP.
Planes also go from Medellin to the fishing village of Nuqui’ on the Pacific further south of Bahia and El Valle. There are also small fast boats that make the trip from El Valle to Nuqui at 6 a.m. on Mondays and Fridays 60,000 COP each way.
To visit both Bahia Solano and Nuqui it would probably be better to fly into one town, take the boat to get from Bahia or Nuqui , and fly out of the other town. A flight can usually be obtained at either airports a day or two before.
Places to Stay in El Valle on Aljamel beach:
Don Ai’s– has huts/cabins with full bathrooms right on Playa Almejal – 120,000 COP per day with 3 good meals included.
The Humpback Turtle Hostel – owned by an American with his Colombian wife. 60,000 COP private room, 39,000 dormitory, 25,000 hammock with 3 meals a day.
Punta Rocca – rooms 110,000 COP a day for private rooms with bath and 3 meals.
El Morro Hosteria – more upscale, right on the beach, English spoken – 280,000 COPa day for a private room with bathroom and breakfast.
El Almejal Ecolodge and Rainforest Reserve – also upscale, minimum stay 3 nights with meals 1,050,000 COP per person.
Please leave your comments, personal experiences or questions in the comment box below and we will get back to you.
(For more on Colombia’s Beaches see the following articles:)