“Over the Mountains of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,” the shade replied,
“If you seek for Eldorado!”
by Edgar Allan Poe, his final verse of “Eldorado”
Everyone has a little adventure inside of them, whatever they may say. A desire to do something completely different to their normal life, to venture somewhere they’ve never been before, a personal Eldorado if you wish, and to fully experience whatever they may find. As most of our world has now laid bare its secrets to us, finally discovered, explored, and repeatedly charted and mapped, they are still some places that retain a certain mystery, a touch of magic about them, and a hidden secret or two.
In the far northwest of Colombia, one of the most stunningly biodiverse countries on the planet, you will find the department of Choco sharing coastlines with both the Pacific and Caribbean oceans, its inviting sandy beaches surrounded by vibrant, lush jungles, bursting with unique ecosystems fed by the highest rainfall for a lowland anywhere in the world.
For the more adventurous, Eldorado-seeking traveller, there simply aren’t many places like Choco Colombia to be found in this world anymore.
The Choco Department forms the majority of the eco-region known as el Choco which extends from Ecuador north to Panama. It’s biodiversity and unique ecosystems are given life by the tremendous volume of rain that falls each year – the municipality of Lloró there holds the record for the highest average annual precipitation, which was measured at a colossal 523.6 inches (13,300 mm), and making it officially the wettest place in the world. Because of this, the vast majority of the Choco is dense rainforest, teeming with exotic flora and fauna – a beautiful paradise of biodiversity.
So what can the adventurous traveller see and do in a place such as this? Put simply, plenty… and much more. Sit back and peruse the following 20 reasons why you must visit Choco Colombia in 2018 – the places to go and the adventures to seek. From swimming under waterfalls, to whale-watching from the beach, to exploring the mighty rainforests, it is all here for you, waiting.
1. Humpback Whale-Watching in Choco Colombia
All along Choco Colombia’s Pacific coastline, between the months of July and November, there is one natural spectacle you should not miss – the ocean waters become home to huge numbers of migrating humpback whales, who have travelled some 8,000 kilometers north to these warmer depths to mate and then give birth. Weighing around 40 tonnes and 30 meters in length, these huge, majestic mammals cut through the ocean with their enormous back fins, occasionally jumping through the surface in graceful, slow-motion leaps, ocean spray arcing beneath them.
The best places to witness this awesome natural spectacle are the towns of Nuqui, Bahia Solano and, to the south, Bahia Malaga, near Buenaventura, where you can either view from the gorgeous, windswept sandy beaches or aboard one of the many tourist boat trips. If you wish to get closer to the whales, around 200 meters for safety reasons, this is the ocean-going option for you.
El Choco Colombia is home to a high number of different natural reserves, all focusing on a particular aspect of biodiversity, as well as the natural splendor of the environment in general. Situated on the Caribbean coast, close to the Panama border, you’ll find the remote, traffic-free town of Capurganá, home to the nature reserve of El Aguacate bay (meaning avocado), with it’s bright green, crystal-clear waters.
Capurganá has a population of under 2,000, most of which are fisherman and farmers. It is completely disconnected by road from the rest of Colombia, a heaven-sent treat in our automobile-dominated lives, and offers an enchanting white sand beach of its own, a coral reef for those who snorkel, and an adjacent lush rainforest, complete with waterfalls and mountains, for a spot of hiking and exploring.
3. Leatherback Sea Turtles on Acandi Beach, near Capurganá
During the months of April and May, there is one natural phenomenon you don’t want to miss – the hatching and short journey across the sands to the ocean of newborn leatherback sea turtles (tortugas cana) on Acandi Beach, which you can reach from Capurganá with a short boat ride. These wonderful creatures are protected by law by the Colombian government, and their welfare is a welcome part of life for the local people.
4. Aguacate Natural Reserve, Capurganá
Just to the south of Capurganá, and mentioned above, you’ll find the Aguacate Nature Reserve, with its paradise bay, full of colorful coral formations teeming with marine life – a must if you like to snorkel. This small strip of beautiful coastline extends into the nearby rainforest (around 200 hectares of which is classified as nature reserve also). Here, you’ll find howler monkeys, capuchins, tamarins, and the earless aotus monkey, as well as poison dart frogs, common lancehead vipers, lowland pacas, agoutis, and armadillos.
Please remember, as with all Colombian nature reserves, don’t damage the vegetation, don’t contaminate the water sources, and make sure you take your trash with you.
5. La Piscina de los Dioses – “The Pool of the Gods”
A stunning vista awaits you at the nearby “Pool of the Gods,” also to the south of Capurganá. Its rocky coastline is repeatedly hit by large and fast ocean waves, creating vast natural wells in the geology. Because of the precarious nature of the area, it is best simply to sit and marvel at this natural wonder. And take the odd photo too, of course.
The wonderful town of Nuquí is located in the western part of el Choco Colombia, between the Pacific Ocean and the mountainous region of Baudó. Itself a municipality also, Nuquí is an amazing mix of cultural and ethnic diversity with Afro-Colombians and indigenous tribespeople, backdropped by a rich variety of flora and fauna. With less than 10,000 inhabitants living in the municipality, the departmental capital retains a pueblo feel.
As mentioned above, Nuquí is one of the best places along the Choco’s Pacific coastline for a spot of whale-watching. However, it has numerous other activities to engage in – from surfing, canoeing, hiking and river tours, to the rejuvenating and gentle relaxation of immersing yourself in a thermal spring. Many visitors to Choco Colombia choose Nuquí as their base simply because it really is smack in the middle of everything.
7. Playa Guachalito – Guachalito Beach
If you’re looking for the perfect paradise beach, look no further than the exotic, sandy utopia that is Guachalito Beach, a 30-minute boat ride from Nuquí. Here, situated on the Gulf of Tribugá in the Pacific, those idyllic visions of paradise can be fully realised. One of the most popular beaches for the Colombians themselves, the mocha-colored beach stretches for miles, backdropped by majestic waterfalls springing from the jungle-covered mountains behind you. Yes, you do have to see it to believe it. But there’s more to this beach than simply admiring the breath-taking views.
8. Surfing in Choco Colombia
Choco Colombia offers both the experienced and novice surfer (and everyone in between) a plethora of great locations to ride the waves, with both the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines creating perfect surfing conditions for all levels. In fact, Colombia is fast becoming one of the most popular countries to head to if you’re a serious surfing animal.
In Nuquí, the best surf zones are the paradise location of Guachalito Beach, where surf rental and classes are readily available, Cabo Corrientes – only accessible by boat and with world-class surfing – and, situated just south of Río Nuquí, Playa Olímpica, a rugged looking-beach that simply goes on and on, just like the ocean itself.
Just remember, between the months of July and November, you may well be practicing your duck-dives, cutbacks and helicopters In the Pacific Ocean under the amused gaze of the odd humpback whale or two!
9. Joví River Tour / Canoeing
Time to fully immerse yourself, not in the ocean waters this time, but in the magical, biodiverse beauty around you, by taking a tour along the Joví River, deep into the very heart of the rainforest. From your dugout canoe, known as a chingo, you will witness a whole host of natural wonder, from scurrying monkeys weaving through the tree canopy above, to the lush green floor of the jungle.
Eventually, your chingo can go no further, but you will, with a short hike to the awe-inspiring natural beauty of Chontadura waterfall. At the base of the waterfall, you’ll find a natural pool which you are encouraged to dive into. Either return to your chingo, or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, scramble up the side of the waterfall and continue your hike, on to the more impressive Antaral waterfall, offering a larger natural pool and wonderful views back downstream to the Pacific.
10. Termales – Hot Thermal Springs
Ever taken a bath in the middle of a jungle? No? Seriously? Then, el Choco Colombia just has to be your next getaway. Near to Nuquí, at La Cascada de Cuatro Encantos (The Waterfall of the Four Charms), you’ll find wonderfully invigorating natural hot springs, known as termales, to simply fall into – the springs even have a restaurant serving ice-cold drinks as you take it easy. The waterfall itself is so named because of the four levels it negotiates as it cascades down through the jungle.
11. Mangrove Swamps, Coquí
A mere 15 minutes by boat from Nuquí is the delightful coastal village of Coquí, with its miles and miles of the some of the most well-preserved mangrove swamps you can hope to find in Colombia. Locals offer various mangrove tours (again, in chingos) for visitors keen to gaze upon yet another defining aspect of Colombian biodiversity.
The Afro-Colombian community of Coquí also holds a food festival every January and July for visitors to sample their delicious cultural cuisine, and, as you can guess, the beach here is simply stunning.
12 and 13. Bahía Solano and El Valle
Situated closely together, you’ll find the small communities and popular tourist destinations of Bahía Solano and El Valle, with some of the best vantage points on the Pacific coastline for whale-watching.
Bahía Solano is a both a town and a municipality, and is known by the locals as simply Bahia. It has its own regional airport (with daily flights from Medellin, Quibdo, Cali, and Bogota) and seaport, which serves the main and larger port of Buenaventura. The area has some of the best snorkeling Choco Colombia has to offer along the entire Pacific coast, as well as marine sport or recreational fishing.
A single, half-paved jungle road connects the town of Bahia Solano with neighboring El Valle, a small fishing community cut off from the rest of Colombia. The village sits on the estuary of Rio Valle, enjoying its abundant fish stocks, and providing excellent scuba diving activities. At the beach – Playa el Almejal, to be precise – you’ll find far gentler waves to practice your surfing, making it ideal for the novice surfer.
14. Utría National Nature Park
One of the jewels in Choco Colombia’s crown of biodiversity has to be the Utría National Natural Park (or Parque Nacional Natural Ensenada de Utría). Created in 1987 and benefiting from one of the largest volumes of annual rainfall in the world, the nature park is teeming all over with life – both on land and out into the Pacific (the park also protects the adjacent coastal marine environment).
The park, located to the north of the Gulf of Tribugá, is named after the Utría Cove (Ensenada de Utría), a massive coastal lagoon surrounded by lush mangroves and dark sand beaches, and often visited by migrating humpbacks and sea turtles. In fact, it is quite common for the humpbacks to use the lagoon as their maternity ward from August to October!
On land, there is even more to see and wonder at in the nature park – jaguars, peccaries (hog-like mammals), cougars, brocketts deer, howler and spider monkeys, giant anteaters and brown-throated sloths, along with numerous species of amphibians and reptiles. Many of these wonderful creatures can be witnessed from the nature trails that run throughout the park, and visitors are welcomed by the local community here, as long as they obey the strict rules protecting the environment that are in force.
15. Scuba-Diving in Choco
For the keen scuba-diving enthusiast, the coastal area of the Utría National Natural Park has to be the place for you. The Pacific region boasts 16 species of coral, and here you can marvel at 11 of those, including both the beautiful branched Pocillopora and Porites corals, and a variety of molluscs, including ark clams and the eastern pacific giant conch, as well as over 180 species of fish, from the imposing whale shark right down to the tiny goby.
In fact, there are simply too many excellent scuba-diving spots along both Choco Colombia’s Pacific and Caribbean coastlines to choose from, so, our advice is to just go and discover yourself exactly what lies beneath these crystal clear ocean waters.
16. Olive Ridley Sea Turtles, Utría Cove
Nearby Cuevita beach is the perfect setting to witness the olive ridley sea turtle nesting in the sand. For the smallest of our turtle species, the olive ridley is the most common turtle nesting here, but other marine mammals, such as the leatherback sea turtle (mentioned previously), the green sea turtle, the hawksbill turtle, bottlenose dolphins, sperm whales, killer whales, and the humpbacks, are all known to frequent the Utría Cove, obviously finding it as idyllic as you will.
17. Los Katíos National Natural Park
Right up in the far north-east edge of Choco Colombia, on the border with Panama, a veritable feast of nature can be found for the more adventurous traveller in the form of Los Katíos National Natural Park. Now a World Heritage Site due to the amazing diversity of plant and animal species, the park is a part of the Darién Gap, a densely forested area shared by Colombia and Panama. An example of this can be found with the bird-life here – over 25% of Colombia’s reported species inhabit an area compromising only 1% of Colombian territory. A true birdwatcher’s paradise.
The park is named after the indigenous tribespeople of the region – the Embera Katíos, and notably features a rainforest that rises up from sea-level into the dominant Serranía del Darién mountains to the west, and floodplains around the Atrato River to the east. An absolute must for the hardened backpacker.
18. Quibdó, Choco’s Capital
Quibdó is both a large town (the capital of the Choco Colombia, in fact) and its own municipality. Located on the Atrato River in the east of the department, it receives probably the largest volume of rainfall for any equatorial region. Its inhabitants are mostly Afro-Caribbean, and the surrounding area is rich in gold and platinum deposits.
Although you certainly wouldn’t class Quibdó as a tourist destination, but, come late September, you’ll be treated to the San Pacho Festival – 2 weeks of lively parades, and even livelier traditional music, all washed down with a local Pacific drink called viche.
19. El Páramo Tatamá – Tatamá National Nature Park
El Páramo Tatamá, more formerly known as Tatamá Natural Park, is probably one of the most inaccessible nature reserves you’ll ever visit – if you’re up for the challenge. The park is known for its rugged geography and steep slopes, earning it the reputation as one of the only areas of virgin wilderness left in the world, and also for its excellent record in conservation. Now, who’s up for this challenge? Just another of Choco Colombia’s hidden gems.
20. Seafood, Seafood, Seafood!
Lastly, we couldn’t leave our best reasons for visiting the natural wonder of el Choco Colombia here without mentioning the vast array of delicious and delectable seafood on offer along its dual coastlines. Besides, 19 is an awkward number to end on. Tiger prawns, sumptuous shrimp, clams, lobster, squid, oysters, swordfish – you name it – it’s all here, waiting for you to try, and all of these dishes are infused with the particular region’s myriad of flavors.
Make Choco Colombia in 2018 Your Next Getaway
Choco Colombia – unless you live there, it is one of the last truly unknown places left on the planet, where the natural biodiverse world is king and its human inhabitants put great effort into its well-being and its conservation. From the grand nature parks that extend out into the ocean waters, to the newly-hatched olive ridley sea turtles heading out to those very same waters, Choco Colombia is fast-becoming the vacation destination for eco-tourists and beach-worshippers alike – in fact, any seasoned traveller with a more adventurous attitude.
Miles and miles of glorious sandy beaches are the only separation between the Pacific and the Caribbean ocean surf, and the lush green rainforests and cascading waterfalls that bedeck the nearby mountain ranges. Yes, Choco Colombia really is some kind of heaven right here on earth.
What particular place or activity makes you want to visit awe-inspiring Choco? Its biodiversity? Its excellent surfing? Watching humpback whales arcing out of the Pacific waters before crashing back down in a huge torrent of ocean spray? You can still feel the spray 200 meters away, you know!
Whatever your reasons, let us know with a comment below, and don’t forget to share this article among your fellow travellers (maybe with a little comment saying, “Wow! Check it out. Who’s up for this?”). Choco Colombia and all its natural glory is waiting right here for you.