Fifteen minutes west of Medellín, we flew into a dense bank of clouds. When the clouds broke briefly, the deep green jungle appeared, extending miles in all directions, laced with brown rivers and the occasional riverside village. This is the wild, wet and mostly roadless Chocó region of northwest Colombia. Not a high-rise or highway in sight. Before long, the 17-seat plane descended, and the small town of Nuquí came into view, sitting at the tip of a long beach on the Pacific coast.
Though it attracts far fewer tourists than the country’s Caribbean coast, this remote area is well known to vacationing Colombians, who visit on summer weekends to watch humpback whales breaching near shore. Ecologists come to study the unparalleled biodiversity. And the coast is starting to attract American tourists looking for exotic wildlife, uncrowded waves and a quiet patch of sand.
Nuquí is a friendly but impoverished community of about 3,000 people, mostly Afro-Colombians, living in houses clustered tightly along dirt roads next to a tidal river. There’s no bank or post office in Nuquí, which is accessible only by plane or boat. The transportation fleet includes three moto-taxis, a handful of motorcycles and plenty of bikes. Mostly, locals walk. Or they travel in dugout canoes, always standing — paddling when going to sea to fish, or poling when going upriver toward the villages of the indigenous Emberá people.
From Nuquí, we took a motor launch down the coast, past brown-sand beaches and hills to El Cantil, which sits in a loose cluster of eco-lodges and hostels. El Cantil has seven rooms in a string of cabanas facing the sea, and an open-air pavilion that serves as the dining room. It’s a family operation run by Guillermo Gomez, known as Memo, whose father designed and built the lodge. Mr. Gomez has an infectious enthusiasm for local wildlife, a passion for surfing and a commitment to low-impact tourism. (Guests are encouraged to pack out any packaging they bring, the cabins have kerosene lamps, and a small hydro plant provides power for a couple of hours in the evening, just enough to charge batteries.)
You won’t see any infinity pools along this coast, but on our first morning there we found something better. We walked south to the miles-long Playa Termales. The beach is named for the small town of Termales, and the town is named for its thermal spring. By the time our small group — three young German travelers, my wife and I and a guide from El Cantil — reached Termales, the sun had broken through the overcast that typically moderates the heat here, and the day had turned sultry. But we were ready for the hot spring after rinsing off in the cool water of the adjacent river.
It turns out the spring is not boiling hot, just a perfect bathing temperature. The sulfurous water seeps up through the sandy bottom of a tree-shaded concrete pool. The effect is magical, utterly relaxing. We floated around until our skin was like prunes. Then, after stopping in town for a snack — fresh coconut water, chugged from the shell — we ambled back along the beach. Along the way, we noticed that the waves, choppy and disorganized when we arrived, were improving.
We had not come for the surfing, but did want to catch some Pacific waves. So the next day we rented boards and walked over to sample the beach breaks. The waves were steady, but tiny. Still, it was fun to surf in warm water on a beautiful, empty beach.
The meals at El Cantil are built around fresh local fish, plantains, rice and fruit, and provide a chance to catch up with the other guests. That night, over dinner, a guest from California told us he had taken a 40-minute boat trip to surf a rocky point break and had found great waves. It sounded like challenging surfing, but, after a few beers, we agreed to join him the next morning.
The coast looked surreal in the mist as we motored south with three boards stacked in the bow of the launch. We passed little coastal towns strung out along the beaches — clusters of low houses with thatched palm roofs and a few canoes pulled up on the sand. Then a more austere coastline of wave-lashed rocks. Finally, we came to a wave that we didn’t have to look for. It stood up tall, proud and cobalt blue and broke cleanly over a rock shelf perched beneath the verdant hills.
It looked a bit ominous as we strapped on our leashes and hopped from the boat, the swirls of barely submerged rocks clearly visible in the break zone. But the Californian was soon charging the steep heart of the wave, while my wife and I cheated out onto the shoulder and caught some of the more forgiving waves — sweet lefts that rolled consistently along the edge of a channel.
Bobbing on the boards between sets, pelicans passed silently, very near, just skimming the water. Occasionally, we heard the cries of birds hidden in the trees, barely audible over the roar of the surf. Looking at that steep, wild hillside rising from the rocky shore, the entire scene felt otherworldly, primeval. Nuquí was more than 20 miles to the north, Buenaventura over 100 miles to the south, and the undeveloped rain forest extended dozens of miles to the east. I realized that in a lifetime afield I’d never been farther from a road.
After we left the break under cloudy skies, the sea was still glassy calm in early afternoon. Unlike the storm-battered Caribbean, there’s not much wind here. This is just a few degrees north of the Equator, squarely in the doldrums. Sea stacks that would be wind-scoured crags in the Caribbean are Seussian humps here, covered in mats of vegetation, sprouting trees at odd angles, with frigate birds preening in the branches and blue-footed boobies hunkered on the ledges.
Our last day brought rain, no surprise. The Chocó is among the wettest places on earth, with some areas seeing more than 400 inches of rain annually. Still, it was a fine day for frogs. So I hiked into the jungle with an eagle-eyed local guide and a French tourist. Toucans called in the distance as we climbed the steep path among tropical hardwoods, walking palms, giant ferns and lianas. Soon, an eerier sound — cave-dwelling toads singing nearby. Then the raucous shrieks of parrots high in the treetops and, far away, the low moans of howler monkeys.
We soon glimpsed a spectacular orange-and-black frog clinging to a mossy tree trunk: a poison dart frog. Before long, we found another, this one fingernail-size, black with yellow stripes, idling in a pool in the leaves of a bromeliad. Then, hopping in the leaf litter, still another species of poison dart frog, this one with green stripes and blue-speckled legs. The Emberá smear their blowgun darts with the toxic secretions of the frogs, giving the frogs their name.
The frogs are among the many species uniquely adapted to this rugged place — ranging from enormous leatherback turtles to tiny hummingbirds and endemic orchids. Although still mostly wild, the Chocó’s environment is threatened, especially in inland areas, by logging and mining, much of it illegal, and the steady incursion of roads.
Hiking out, we glimpsed a red-headed songbird perched on a branch, waiting out the drizzle. This is the red-capped manakin, famous on YouTube as the “Michael Jackson bird,” for its moonwalking courtship dance. Finally, near the beach, we came across another creature famous for its video appearances — a basilisk lizard, also known as the “Jesus lizard” for its ability to run on water.
The next day we were back in a boat, leaving for Nuquí and the flight out to Medellín. Halfway to town, we spotted a dark, slender fin slicing above the water in the near distance — the tip of a ray’s wing? Then it dropped from view. A few seconds later, a sailfish burst from the water, its dark, muscular flanks so unexpected in the placid Pacific. And then the fish was gone, the sea calm again. A pair of dolphins rolled in the distance.
At the airport, we saw a twin-engine plane moldering by the runway, ditched there years ago by drug traffickers, one vestige of the region’s troubled past. In 2008, FARC guerrillas kidnapped six tourists about 10 miles north of Nuquí, and released them months later. But in this moment of relative political stability, Colombian tourism is thriving, especially in Bogotá, Cartagena and Medellín. And Nuquí, like the Bahia Solano region just to the north, is also counting on tourism being a big part of its future — it even boasts an eco-tourism themed school.
Taking off in the plane, we caught a last view of the little town and, way off in the distance, still another surf break — a long, empty wave, peeling perfectly onto a jungle-cloaked sandy shore split by a brown river. Then the clouds swallowed it all up.
New York Times | By MURRAY CARPENTER