As the sun sets on this tranquil piece of the Pacific coast it seems the turtles are in a Darwinian struggle for life. They waver left and right, zig-zagging achingly slowly. Then, mission seemingly accomplished as they teeter into the ocean, they’re dragged back to shore by the next wave.
After what seems like an eternity they’ve disappeared into the Pacific and a sunset of brilliant orange. The fittest few that survive to maturity won’t return to their birthplace for a decade or so, when they come back with a mate to start the cycle again.
Whether it’s watching these tiny sea creatures or some of the largest (such as the humpback whale), Colombia’s Pacific coast is a burgeoning hotspot for eco-tourism. Add surfing, rainforest treks, river trips, beach soccer with smiling local kids or just lazing in a hammock strung between palm trees and it’s hard to believe Colombia is a country with an image problem.
Throughout the 1990s violence, murder and kidnappings meant the country was one of the most dangerous places on earth, largely thanks to drug cartels, militias and Farc ‘freedom’ fighters.
Although the nasty headlines persist, and some provinces remain no-go zones, Colombia’s security situation has improved dramatically since the start of this decade, and its 1300km of Pacific coastline is the kind of place to counter the perceptions that bedevil the country.
The road not travelled
The Pacific coast is accessible only by air or boat, and warrants only a paragraph or two in the country’s Lonely Planet guide — meaning it’s unlikely tourist hordes will be descending any time soon.
But building the area’s eco-tourism infrastructure is something locals are keen to do. Cesar, who founded Almejal in 1982, says eco-tourism is the future of the region.
“It’s a big job to change the country’s image, but with the virgin beaches and the jungle, eco-tourism is the future,” he says. “Twenty per cent of our guests are foreigners, and you can tell they enjoy it. They are very surprised by the jungle, the number of species of flora and fauna and the warmth of the Pacific.”
Meanwhile, Memo Gomez, whose family runs the El Cantil eco-lodge further south along the coast, says 500-room hotels with acres of swimming pools and golf courses would not be welcomed in the region.
“The locals don’t want big developments, and most tourists like nature and things as they are now,” he says.
Though there aren’t a lot of job opportunities for young locals, “big developments take the best for themselves, while smaller developments work with the locals”, Memo says, for example, by buying local food instead of shipping everything in.
A journey to the Pacific coast will likely begin with a flight from Medellin (Colombia’s second biggest city) to one of the small towns of Nuqui or Bahia Solano. From there you can travel (usually by boat) to one of the many eco-resorts or guesthouses dotted along the shoreline.
Whale watching is a popular activity, and as there are no exclusion zones your guide will try to get you right up close.
Between June and October the humpback whales travel to the warm waters off the Colombian coast to give birth (having migrated from their cooler homes farther south), so there’s a good chance you’ll spot at least one or two adults and a calf. Many stay close to shore, making it one of the few places in the world where you can see whales from land.
While we’re not lucky enough to see one of the 30-ton beasts breaching vertically out of the water, we do see them poke their heads up then dip down again as a tail the size of a small car rises and falls, amid what seems like indignant spurts from their blowhole.
In between hunting for whales to watch you can jump into the ocean for some snorkelling or surfing. There are plenty of rocky outcrops that are home to schools of colourful fish. The gentle waves around El Cantil are perfect for beginners while for experienced surfers, Memo (himself a super-keen surfer) can take you by boat to some fantastic, uncrowded breaks.
Back on land, the jungle-filled hills that stretch for miles inland make for taxing but rewarding walks. You’ll need gumboots and be willing to clamber up and down some muddy hills, but the pay-off is the thrill of seeing some unique flora and fauna (including neon-coloured frogs and plenty of massive spiders), and returning to base being able to say you successfully negotiated a six-hour march through some seriously dense jungle that wouldn’t be out of place in an Indiana Jones flick.
Amid the jungle are tranquil rivers and mangroves great for kayaking, where you can paddle among the low-hanging trees and gaze at the remarkable diversity of plants. The creeks that flow down from the hills also provide a lovely way to spend a few hours, walking upstream from one crystal-clear pool to another or standing under a waterfall. In the town of Termales (not far from El Cantil) is a thermal spring that’s just great for lounging in. A local might even give you a mud mask that’ll leave your skin glowing.
At the bautismo (baptism) pool near Almejal you can jump into a narrow pool about 3m deep. Being a strongly Catholic country, the tradition is that as you jump you choose yourself an extra middle name.
Given that before I left for Colombia my friends were warning me about getting kidnapped and how to dodge bullets, taking the plunge in a pristine mountain stream or sitting in a thermal spring with a face full of green mud is about as far from a suburban shoot-out as I can imagine.
It’s perception-confounding experiences like these that make Colombia such an interesting place to travel. And with the worst of its troubles behind it, now is the time to go — while you can still get an entire beach or swathe of jungle to yourself.
» Daniel Landon travelled with Proexport, the Colombian Government Trade Bureau (www.travelingcolombia.com).
I’d been in Colombia less than half an hour when my
guide said Medellin “is no longer the most dangerous city in the
world”. Thank God for that.
In the ’80s and ’90s Colombia’s second-biggest city was home to
the most infamous drug running operation of all, the ultra-violent
Medellin Cartel headed by Pablo Escobar, once estimated to be the
seventh-richest man in the world. But he was hunted down and killed by
the Government in 1993, and the cartel gradually fragmented and lost
control over its 80 per cent share of the cocaine trade.
Medellin has since improved markedly. The downtown is a
fascinating area to wander around, with its blend of races (black,
white, indigenous and every mix thereof) making for interesting people
The Museo de Antioquia is a must-see, with fantastic displays of
contemporary Colombian art, including that of world-renowned Fernando
Grab a beer or three from one of the numerous bars on the Plaza
de Posada — they’re particularly vibrant when the national soccer team
is playing and chants of “goaaaaaaaaaal” reverberate.
For something different take a ride on one of the funiculars
(chair lifts) the city has built to help residents get from the valley
floor up to their homes in the suburbs — invariably the poorer areas.
Cocaine is big business for Colombia’s militias and cartels.
» About 60 per cent of the world’s cocaine comes from Colombia, with the rest from Peru and Bolivia.
About 100,000ha of coca is under cultivation. (The coca plant is
indigenous to the region. Its leaves are processed to make a narcotic
» This is enough to produce 600m tonnes of cocaine a year.
» Authorities seize about 40 per cent of world production.
» The market is worth US$70 billion a year — more than Nokia’s revenue.
What the Farc?
Most wanted posters appear regularly across Colombia — a reminder that the country is fighting a vicious insurgency.
many of the faces have crosses over them, indicating their owner is
dead (invariably at the end of a bullet) or captured, a sure sign the
Government and military are winning the battle against the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, aka Farc.
guerrilla force started in the 1960s as a movement aimed at bringing a
socialist revolution to Colombia. It’s since morphed into a band of
ruthless terrorists more interested in drug running, kidnapping,
murder, extortion, making money and maintaining a violent grip over as
much of the country as they can.
Helped by some
controversial (and violent) right-wing militias, Colombia’s president
Alvaro Uribe has cracked down big time on Farc since 2002.
is not yet quite a spent force (as some suggest), but their loss of
troops, firepower and support means Colombia’s big cities and main
tourist areas are now far safer than they were a decade ago.
the Caribbean coast in the country’s north attracts loads of tourists,
especially the World Heritage-listed colonial port of Cartagena, for
true adventure travellers Colombia’s northern Pacific coast (the south
is best avoided) is the place to go.