Exploring Colombia’s Pacific Coast: Everything Travelers Need to Know

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Sunny tropical coastline in Colombia

THIS COMPREHENSIVE TRAVEL GUIDE OUTLINES EVERYTHING AN ADVENTURE TRAVELER NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT VISITING THE STUNNING COLOMBIAN PACIFIC COAST; INCLUDING, HOW TO GET THERE, WHAT TO EXPECT AND WHAT TO DO.

 



While you might be aware that Colombia does indeed have a Pacific coastline - the only country in South America to have a coastline on both the Atlantic (via the Caribbean) and Pacific Oceans - it is quite likely that you don't know much about the Pacific Coastal region. Totally understandable, for this part of the country has somehow been able to stay very much under the radar. Unless you are really into whale watching and possibly scuba diving, it is quite likely that you haven't given much thought to visiting this off the beaten path region of Colombia.


Well let us tell you, if you are a traveler looking to explore a lesser-known region of the country and also mix equal parts adventure and relaxation, then we cannot recommend heading to the Pacific Coastal area enough. Home to dense jungles, thundering waterfalls, wide open sandy beaches and a ton of wildlife, the Pacific Coast is a hidden gem just waiting to be explored.


Below is a comprehensive travel guide full of everything a traveler needs to know about visiting and adventuring in the stunning area; including, how to actually get there (spoiler: there are almost no roads), how to get around, what it costs and what to do.







 

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT EXPLORING COLOMBIA’S HIDDEN GEM: THE PACIFIC COAST

 






\\ Basic Things to Know About Colombia’s Pacific Coast


Here are a few important things all adventure travelers need to know before they hop on a plane (or a boat) and head for the beautiful Pacific Coast of Colombia.




DEPARTMENTS


The Colombian Pacific Coast is split into two different parts: the north and the south. The northern part of the coast is totally encompassed in the Chocó Department, while the southern coast is made up of the Valle de Cauca, Cauca and Nariño departments.


We will mainly be focusing on the northern part of the Pacific Coast (Chocó), and more specifically on the actual coastline itself.







CITIES


The major cities in the Chocó department are Quibdo, the capital city (population: 100,000), Istmina and Condoto (both located in the interior) and Bahia Solano, Nuqui, and Acandi, which are located along the coast.




POPULATION


In total, 534,826 people live in the entire Chocó Department.




ETHNICITIES


82% of the population are Afro-Colombian, while almost 13% are Amerindians or Indigenous. In fact, the second largest ethnic group in Chocó is the Emberá people - a Native American tribe that mostly lives near rivers. More than half of the total population of Emberá people in Colombia actually live in Chocó.







TOTAL AREA


The department measures 46,530 square kilometers or 17,965 square miles.




GEOGRAPHY


Most of the Chocó department is made up of the El Choco ecoregion (not to be confusing), a biodiversity hot-spot that extends all along both the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts of Colombia and down into Ecuador, and which is made up of mostly dense rainforest.


The department is also home to three major rivers: the Atrato, the San Juan, and the Baudó and many smaller tributaries. The capital of Chocó, Quibdo, sits right on the bank of the Atrato River. Somewhat unsurprising, the department is the main source of wood for all of Colombia, and it also has the highest producing platinum and gold mines in the country.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the very small town of Lloro, which also sits on the bank of the Atrato River, is said to be one of the rainiest places on Earth. The town holds the record for highest average annual precipitation at 523.6 inches or 13,300 mm. The small river town is just a bit south of the capital city of Quibdo.




Line of sunlit palm trees in Colombia's Pacific region

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Now that you have a better idea of the area and the region of Chocó as a whole, let's dive a bit deeper into the specific area around Bahia Solano - the largest coastal town (on the Pacific) and also the main tourist and economic center for the whole northern Pacific Coast.


We specifically explored the small town of El Valle, which is located about 30 minutes to the south of Bahia Solano on the only road out of town. While we heard Bahia Solano - or more commonly referred to as just Bahia - was rather boring, we found El Valle to be absolutely incredible.


The landscape, the culture, the adventures. Even for two certified “non-beach people”, El Valle was hard to resist. In fact, after spending four days there we really (really) did not want to leave.


So if you are looking to spend some time in a more off the beaten path area of Colombia and also are looking to explore some absolutely stunning natural landscapes, then you need to add the area around Bahia Solano, and El Valle in particular, to your Colombia travel itinerary. Below is everything you need to know to visit and adventure in the stunning region.



🗣WHAT'S IN A NAME?

One thing we quickly realized upon landing in Choco - and Bahia Solano and El Valle in particular - was that we were totally pronouncing the names wrong. El Valle, which translates to The Valley, is pronounced "el vai-ye" while Bahia Solano, which translates to Solano Bay (bahia is bay in Spanish) is pronounced "ba-ia so-lano" (the h is silent).






\\ How to Get to Bahia Solano and El Valle


Due to the town's very remote location and dense jungle surroundings, the only way to reach Bahia (and in extension El Valle) is to take either a plane or a boat. In fact, besides the road that runs between Bahia and El Valle, there are no roads in and out of town.



PLANE


The Jose Celestino Mutis Airport is located about 1.5 kilometers from Bahia along the road out to El Valle. The airport contains only one rather small runway and two rooms - one of which has a small store and craft shop selling local trinkets (the other has the three check-in counters). It is the kind of airport where you can show up 10 minutes before your flight and still have plenty of time to grab a snack.


In fact, the airport is so small that they don’t even have security and they don’t bat an eye at you bringing a full water bottle on board. A win.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the airport is infamous for delayed flights due to weather, so much so that it has earned the nickname, “Get Out While You Can”. If you are planning to fly in or out of the Bahia airport make sure to give yourself pleeeeenty of leeway between other connections (by plane or bus) in case of a delay.







FLIGHTS IN AND OUT OF BAHIA SOLANO

From what we could tell, it looked like there was usually only one or two passenger flights in and out of the airport a day. Otherwise all other flights - of which there were very few - were mostly made up of cargo.


The main airlines that fly in and out of Bahia are SATENA, Pacifica and San German Express. We ended up booking our flights with San German Express and had no issues. Similarly, just know that really the only cities you can fly from to reach Bahia are Medellin, Quibdo (the capital of Chocó) and Cartago, a small city near Pereira and Armenia.



Below are the available flights to and from Bahia with San German Express:


MEDELLIN → BAHIA | Flights Monday - Saturday at 8 AM & 1 PM, and on Sunday at 1 PM


QUIBDO → BAHIA | Flights Monday - Saturday at 10 AM, no flights on Sunday


CARTAGO → BAHIA | Flights on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 10 AM




 



BAHIA → MEDELLIN | Flights Monday - Saturday at 11 AM & 2 PM, Sunday at 2 PM


BAHIA → QUIBDO | Flights Monday - Saturday at 9 AM, no flights on Sunday


BAHIA → CARTAGO | Flights Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 11:15 AM



Find more flights with San German Express here.



💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are thinking of flying into or out of Quibdo, then make sure to plan for a long and often delayed bus ride from the capital. Common routes to and from Quibdo are between Medellin (around 12 to 15 hours) and Pereira (around 6.5 hours). Look for and book your bus tickets on Busbud.


Luckily, the flights to and from Bahia are all quite short. We flew from Cartago to Bahia and it was almost exactly 40 minutes from ground to ground. Then on the way back we flew from Bahia to Medellin and it was around 35 minutes total. Also, be prepared for the planes to be quite small (the largest option seemed to hold 17 people) and very basic (no bathroom, no services).


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: upon landing in Bahia Solano, you will need to pay 30000 COP (around $8 USD / €7.40 Euros) per person before leaving the airport. We don't know exactly what this fee is for, but we believe it has something to do with tourism in the area. Either way, you will pay it (in cash) right when you walk off of the airport tarmac.




BOAT


Your other option for getting to and from Bahia Solano and El Valle is to take a boat along the coast. We, unfortunately, didn’t look into this too much because we already had our plane tickets booked. But we know from speaking to other travelers that there is indeed a boat that leaves from El Valle to the town of Nuqui (located further south) every Monday and Friday. While the time of departure depends on the tides, the ride, which is done on a fast boat, should take about 2 hours total. We believe the cost to be around 70000 COP ($17.90 USD / €16 Euros), though it is best to ask for the most up-to-date cost at the marina.


Otherwise, your other option is to take a larger, slower boat (really a cargo boat) up and down the coast. If looking to take the cargo boat from Bahia (we don't know if it docks in El Valle) then your likely end destination will be the large port city of Buenaventura to the south, which then gives you access to the interior of Colombia via the very busy highway that runs from Buenaventura to Cali. This boat ride takes around 24 hours total.




Bay with boats in it at low tide in Colombia.

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\\ How to Get Around Bahia Solano and El Valle


Because there really is only the one road between Bahia and El Valle, which measures around 17 kilometers in length, the easiest way to get around the two towns is simply to walk.


But, with that being said, there are a few instances where having some form of motorized transportation is very helpful and even necessary. For example, if you are looking to explore some of the popular sites around El Valle - including El Tigre Waterfall and Utria National Park - then you might want to look into getting either a boat or motorcycle to take you one of the ways (either out or back).


Many tours to El Tigre Waterfall include a boat ride back from the waterfall, simply because it is such a long, tiring walk that you likely won't want to do it twice, but even more so because the tides can make some sections on the walk nearly impassable. Utria National Park on the other hand, is just a bloody long walk away. Getting a ride on a motorcycle or a boat in either direction will save a lot of time and a lot of soreness.


💬 INSIDER TIP: we unfortunately don’t know how much it costs to hire a motorcycle to take you to Utria National Park. We got picked up by a friendly local on our walk back from the park and he didn’t ask for any money (though we tipped him 10000 COP because he saved us a loooot of time). Similarly, we don’t know if hiring a boat to take you to El Tigre Waterfall by yourself is actually possible since most of the trips are done with a guide. Your best bet for getting a ride, by boat or by motorcycle, is to ask your hostel host or someone in town.


If you are looking to get a ride around El Valle, either from your hostel to downtown or more likely from downtown to your hostel, you can simply flag down one of the many tuk-tuks that cruise the streets (tuk-tuks are small, two-seater cars that feel a bit like covered go-karts). The ride from central El Valle to the hostel area - which is a couple of kilometers away - takes about 10 minutes and should cost around 5000 COP.


🗺 We recommend downloading a handy offline map for exploring Bahia and El Valle. Just know, that while we usually like to use maps.me for things like this, this time around we found that the map was relatively blank. We still suggest downloading maps.me for Bahia and El Valle, but just be prepared to still do a couple of things blind (also make sure to check out our interactive map with all the important points below).




One white tuk tuk car in green jungle in Colombia.

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GETTING TO EL VALLE FROM BAHIA SOLANO


If you are planning to fly into Bahia Solano but stay in El Valle then you will first need to get a ride from the airport (or the town of Bahia) to El Valle, which is located around 17 kilometers to the southwest. We went directly from the airport to El Valle - this is what we learned.


The easiest way to catch a ride is to simply walk out of the small airport and ask the first driver that you see for a ride. You can take either a car or a tuk-tuk, they cost the same. It is likely that there will be at least a dozen of them waiting around for you. Then simply tell the driver to either drop you off in central El Valle or at a specific hostel. The ride to and from Bahia and El Valle is on a half-paved, half-dirt road (that was at least under construction when we were there in early 2022). It can be a bit bumpy, but the scenery is so great that you won’t mind the slow speeds.



DETAILS


| COST: 15000 COP per person, per way ($3.80 USD / €3.40 Euros), in either a car or a tuk-tuk


| TIME: 30 - 45 minutes from the airport to El Valle depending on traffic and construction



💬 INSIDER TIP: if you need a ride to the airport and don’t want to stress finding a driver, you can likely just ask your hostel host to call up someone they know. This is what we did and it was super nice to not have to worry about making it to Bahia on time for our flight.






\\ Weather in Bahia Solano and El Valle


We were told repeatedly, both by people who had previously visited Chocó and from various guidebooks and blogs about the area, that it was one of the rainiest places on Earth. Therefore we of course assumed it would be raining 90% of the time we were there.


So you can imagine our surprise when we experienced only two rain showers in our four days exploring the area. And better yet, both of the rain showers occurred in the early morning when we were still either sleeping or just waking up. This meant that all of our afternoons were dry and sunny - perfect for beach and jungle adventuring.


We don’t know if we just got lucky or if this is quasi-normal, but either way, we were definitely grateful (we actually found out later that we did indeed get lucky and happened to visit during the “dry season” where the area only experiences, on average, 12 days of rain and 170 mm of rain).