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Feb 07

The Forgotten Coast

Playa Almejal

Playa Almejal

This stretch of coast is alive.  At my feet dozens of tiny hermit crabs inch their way across the black sands leaving diminutive little trails in the soft wet sand behind them while in front of me a squadron of a dozen pelicans fly low over the crashing surf, looking more like boats magically hovering through the air.  Walk around a group of rocks and you will catch a glimpse of dozens of pink crabs, flashing out as pink streaks in all directions before disappearing into their holes, moving impossibly fast for an animal that runs sideways.  In the late afternoon the pelicans can be seen hanging out in the surf on the other end of the beach, looking for all the world like a group of surfers waiting for the perfect wave.  They aren’t there to surf though, and groups of four or five of them at a time will launch into the air, glide across the waves, and then in perfect coordination dive bomb one right after the other into the fish-filled waters.  The ocean here is practically boiling with fish, from yellow fin tuna to red snappers to millions of other varieties that I don’t know the names of.  It’s easily sport for the birds, and they share their hunting grounds with the fisherman from the nearby village, who at all hours of the day can be seen walking back from the hunt lugging their heavy catch.  Sometimes they are carrying dozens of foot-long snappers, other times just one single meter-long monster.

Sand Writing

Sand Writing

I’m sitting on the peaceful, wild pacific coast of Colombia at a little-visited place called Playa Almejal.  This strip of soft volcanic sands is surprisingly the only beach on Colombia’s 1000 km pacific coast that is easily accessible from the rest of Colombia.  There are no roads here though and so visitors must either come by boat from Panama like I have, take the long 30-hour weekly boat ride from Buenaventura to the south, or fly in on little 16 seater propeller planes from Medellin.  The flight only takes an hour, but the $200 return fare and the infamy of dangerous Choco province mean that this beach is perpetually empty with only a sprinkling of travelers trickling through each week.

I’ve been here for almost a week, here at Playa Almejal, the village El Valle as well as the bigger town of Bahia Solano.  I’m waiting for the next cargo boat to Buenaventura.  I like it here.  Here is the kind of place where you call the boat captain yourself to find out when he will get back, it’s the kind of place where you can’t go 2 hours without some local offering you a beer, the kind of place where all the Juans are differentiated by what they do (Juan del Agua sells purified water, Juan de Panes has a small bakery).  Petrol in Solano is bought from the green and brown house two houses down from the bridge crossing the river.  Ask for Elvis.  Lunch in El Valle is served in Rosalia’s living room.  Ask for the sopa de queso (cheese soup).

Petrol Station

Petrol Station

Despite knowing that we are just one-hour from Medellin by a regular flight, I simply can’t shake the feeling that we are in the middle of nowhere.  We are after all, on a beach surrounded on all sides by large expanses of dense, virgin jungle.  The source of this perceived seclusion for me comes for the long hard boat journey I had to take from Panama City to arrive here, but for other travelers – especially for Colombian visitors – it comes mainly from the perceived – and real – dangers of Choco.

Choco is Colombia’s Darien, a province of intense untouched jungle that borders Panama’s Darien province and stretches most of the way down Colombia’s undeveloped Pacific Coast.  It is the home of guerrilla fighters, paramilitary groups, the Colombia Military, and drug cartels.  Fisherman in villages along this coast have become rich overnight when one day they pull out of the water something other than fish.  Military in this area remains on edge remembering raids from 6 or 7 years ago that left 30 of them dead.  This week rumors float around about two Americans and two Chileans that may have been kidnapped, which later changes to 1 American and two Peruvians being killed, which later changes to 3 petroleum workers being kidnapped.  Quien sabe?

EL Valle

EL Valle

It is easy to forget about the dark past and the current hard reality of this province whilst chatting with the friendly easy-going locals, and walking barefoot along the dirt streets of a safe and quiet fishing village.  I’m told it’s a paradox that defines not just this region, but all of Colombia.  Small indicators remain though amongst the tranquility.  After all, the men with machine guns are there for a reason, as are the signs offering amnesty to guerrillas, and perhaps – just perhaps – the heavy drinking and customary beers for breakfast that many of the men here seem to enjoy are the result of something other than simple boredom.

 

 

 

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P1040758Travel information:

Getting there:

To get to Bahia Solano, there are flights offered from Medellin ranging from $120 to $300 for a return.  Otherwise, you can get here from Panama city by following the same 2 day journey I took… or by getting one of two weekly cargo boats from Buenaventura.  The trip lasts 30 hours and costs $77 with bunks and foods included

Accommodation:

In Solano, there are a variety of small hotels starting at about $12/night for one person or $16 for two people but going up to the high-end.

The only road.  It runs between Solano and El Valle, 18 km apart

The only road. It runs between Solano and El Valle, 18 km apart

In El Valle and Playa Almejal there is also a full range of accomodation.  On Playa Almejal I can recommend the one hostel in this area The Humpback Turtle run by “the gringo without a shirt” Tyler and his Colombian wife Carmen.  This young couple’s thatch and bamboo eco-hostel offers $6 camping, $8 hammocks and $10 dorm beds.  You can play with the most awesome dog in the world, “Brownie” for free.

Facilities:

Both Solano and El Valle have electricity and the tap water is considered safe to drink.  There is a bank and ATM in Solano, and another ATM by the airport in between Solano and El Valle.  Internet Cafe’s can be found in Solano and El Valle.  Mobile phone service is good here.

Activities:

Apart from enjoying the villages and the beach, there is good surfing here, incredible fishing and sport fishing, the national park Utria, Turtle hatching season, and humpback whale watching season.  For more detailed information call Tyler.

Best time to come:  Dry season or whale season.

 

 

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