My trip to the Pacific started out on a bit of a whim; another British Council-er had been and from the photos it simply looked stunning. That and the fact that it’s incredibly off-the-beaten-track and few people tend to go there. It is definitely not up there with the likes of Salento, Medellín and San Andres island in terms of popularity as a tourist destination.
I spent most of my stay in Nuquí, a town located in the Chocó department. To provide some geographical context, east of Chocó is the department of Antioquia and to its south Valle del Cauca, if you go north you’ll be in Panama and to the west lies nothing but the endless expanse of the Pacific ocean. It’s BIG. From what I understand – especially after telling numerous Colombian friends I was going – it’s not a particularly visited part of the country. Its capital is the city of Quibdó and most of the department is forest. It’s one of the wettest places on earth. People from Chocó are, in their majority, of West African heritage, though there are also significant numbers of indigenous peoples living there. The department is incredibly isolated from the rest of the country (it is at least a 7 hour journey by road from Quibdó to the nearest city) and is often neglected by a government hundreds of miles away in the Andes. Chocó has the highest levels of poverty in Colombia and its sheer inaccessibility, abundance of natural resources and access to important drugs trafficking routes mean that it continues to be one of the greatest victims of armed conflict in the country.
On a brighter note, arguably one of the most famous things to come out of Chocó is a band called ChocQuibTown, whose aptly titled song I have included below…
Getting there proved to be quite complicated. After saying goodbye to our lovely hosts in Armenia, I took a bus to the nearby city of Pereira and from there, the night bus to Quibdó. Normally this journey takes about 10 hours and goes via what I have been told is a “very good road” (the one we took left much to be desired). However, a landslide in a town called Carmen de Atrato, which tragically left 10 people dead and many more unaccounted for, meant that the bus took a different route (as well as an unexplained 3 hour stop in a random town at 3 am) making my journey more like 15 hours. Lovely.
Arriving in the capital of Quibdó was, above all else, a massive shock to the senses, all the more so after the calm and tranquility of Armenia. It’s possibly the least touristy place I have visited and I think I may have been the only foreigner in the city at the time. On first impressions it looks quite run down and maybe just a tiny bit scary. This wasn’t helped by how crazily busy it is with so so many people bustling to and fro. It is a very vibrant and loud place and the city centre was somewhat stressful in this respect. There also seems to be a disproportionately high number of clothes and shoe shops for a not-that-big city (they were everywhere).
After spending the morning wandering and mooching in the hotel, I had a sudden moment of genius and remembered I have a friend from Quibdó, which ended in me going for beers with some of his cousins (LOVE Colombia). They then decided to take me on a slightly drunken motorbike tour of the city at 10pm in the pouring rain – 2 beers Vicky always makes excellent decisions… I got to see a lot more of Quibdó than I had bargained on and, thankfully, didn’t die in the process. We finished the evening eating yummy fish sitting on plastic chairs in the drizzle outside a particularly busy (and tiny) restaurant.
In Quibdó people overwhelmingly travel by motorbike and there are even mototaxis. Unfortunately for me, on my way to the airport the following day I learnt the perils of this seemingly fun mode of transport and came away with an impressive and very painful, egg-sized burn below my right knee. The same burn that everyone who has ever lived in a motorbike using country seems to have and one that invariably elicits the response “you did that on a motorbike didn’t you?” Might get a tattoo.
The flight to Nuquí most definitely made up for the pain and was, without doubt, the tiniest, most extreme and most incredible flight of my life. Pretty much as soon as we flew over Quibdó and crossed the river civilisation stopped. I had been told that there were no roads to Nuquí, that it was only accessible by plane or boat (from the port of Buenaventura), but that still didn’t prepare me for the sheer isolation of it, the unending swathes of forest interrupted only by the gentle bends of the river winding through it. It was truly a world away from anywhere I’d seen so far. This impression was confirmed upon arrival in Nuquí: the Pacific coast is a whole other Colombia.
(I flew with Satena from Quibdó. I know that it is also possible to fly from Medellín, though I imagine it is considerably more expensive to do so.)
As far as I could tell, people in Nuquí live mostly off of fishing and tourism, though, on the whole, it was considerably less touristy that I was expecting. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and there are chickens EVERYWHERE. There are several hotels in the town – I stayed at Palmas del Pacífico. Bahia Solano, a bit further up the coast from Nuquí, is more touristy though it is difficult to reach from Nuquí as boats only go three times a week (it is possible to fly from Quibdó to Bahia Solano too). Most people tend to come on weekends as it is easier and cheaper to organise trips by boat. Fortunately for me my friend also has a cousin in Nuquí, who very kindly offered to arrange a trip for me with a boat-owning friend of his. So it was that we set out, in said boat, on what was definitely not the most comfortable or stomach steadying of journeys. It was about a 40 minute ride up the coast to reach Utria, a National Park covering an expanse of 54 300 hectares. In general the whole area seems to be much the same as the park, though it is specifically protected and visitable. I somehow managed to get in as Colombian, avoiding the 42000 COP “foreigner’s price” and paying only 16000 (yessss).
I got a tour of a small part of the park with a guide who explained all about the different trees, plants, animals and insects that can be found there. Following the walkway through the mangrove forest (above) and spotting all the different kinds of fish hiding in the submerged roots below was pretty exciting. Apparently we were on quite a tight schedule so we had lunch and were soon back on the boat. We stopped off in several other places, including a beautiful bay with both white and black sand beaches and another beach with a hidden waterfall where I took a quick dip!
It’s possible to do a similar trip to the south of Nuqui, stopping off at various villages and ending in some hot springs, however given the rapidly worsening state of my burn I didn’t think it the best idea…
Nuquí has got to be one of the most remote destinations I have ever visited. On few beaches can you sit for 3 hours (writing this!) watching the sun set and only have a handful of people walking past and a pesky dog for company. More than anything else it’s a place to reflect and disconnect, though doing otherwise would’ve been impossible given that there’s no internet here. It truly shows a different side of Colombia and demonstrates the country’s incredible diversity.