Nuqui, Colombia, on the Rarely Visited Pacific Coast

Dugout canoes are used by locals, and whale watching happens in 20 foot long speedboats. There are lots of whales to see here!

Colombia’s Pacific Coast: Wild and Disconnected

By Max Hartshorne

Fisherman near Rio Jovi, Colombia. Everyone uses dugout canoes and they row as far as two kilometers off shore to catch fish with lines, not nets. Photos by Max Hartshorne.
Fisherman near Rio Jovi, Colombia. Everyone uses dugout canoes and they row as far as two kilometers off shore to catch fish with lines, not nets. Photos by Max Hartshorne.

After a week at El Almejal it was time to cross 40 km (25 mi) down the Pacific coast to our next destination, El Cantil eco-resort (in English, it means the cliff), located near the small town of Nuqui.

Most people fly in to this little dirt road village with about 15,000 residents, but we made the unfortunate choice of going by small boat.

A Hard Crossing

The morning greeted us with leaden skies, and drenching rain. We rose at 5:15 am, to get ready for a 6:30 am departure. One by one we donned rubberized ponchos

The rain never let up as we walked the mile or so to the boat ramp, where and stowed our gear in the foc’sle, hoping the raindrops would not penetrate the wooden hatch.

We sat on the hard board seats, gritted our teeth and set off, the driving rain making visibility poor.

The sturdy boatmen were undaunted by the raindrops, as was a visiting Spaniard, who eshewed all manner of cover and sat there hatless as the rain pelted his bald pate.

A waterfall provides a natural shower on Colombia's Pacific coast. photo by Max Hartshorne.
A waterfall provides a natural shower on Colombia’s Pacific coast.

Those of us toting expensive camera gear feared for the worst, and the waves began to get high. We took each wave head on, spearing through the water and watching as it rose around our feet higher and higher in the bottom of the boat.

As the boat plowed through the angry ocean, and then banged down hard on the downside of he big waves, we feared for the worst. The many floating pieces of lumber and big logs made us even more nervous. Still, the boatmen calmly motored on, for a trip that lasted nearly three hours.

When we reached the sanctuary of El Cantil, were were exhausted, and greeted by the friendly owners, Memo and Nana, who had hot coffee and dry towels for us.We staggered out of the boats and nearly collapsed in the ramada, the covered area where they keep the surfboards and diving equipment. We had arrived!

The amazing thing to us was that our boatman and the unlucky Spaniard had to get back in these little boats and take the same trip in reverse! I’ve never been so glad to not be going somewhere.

Later I asked Memo, our genial English-speaking host, how many of his guests arrived like this by small boat flotilla. “Only the tourist board does that,” he said.

Veranda with a Hammock

Boys in a dugout canoe, the preferred method of transport on the Pacific coast of Colombia.
Boys in a dugout canoe, the preferred method of transport on the Pacific coast of Colombia.

El Cantil has seven cabanas that all have a small veranda with a hammock, and simple beds with mosquito netting over them. It’s been a dream of Memo and his wife Nana for many years, and work began fifteen years ago when traveling to this remote part of Colombia’s coast was very unusual.

Only in the last six or seven years has Memo been able to attract tourists. Part of the problem is logistics — there are no direct flights from Medellin’s main international airport, Cordova, so travelers have to make the one-hour drive downhill to the Aeropuerto Olaya Herrera to board the 29-seat planes that fly to the coast.

Nobody Wants to be Chief

Spider in a Colombian jungle.
Spider in a Colombian jungle

Memo and Nana are committed to this poor area, despite their Medellin roots and address.

They have organized donation drives among their Medellin friends to raise funds to buy school notebooks and supplies for the children here.

But even more importantly, Memo has tried to encourage small scale entrepreneurship, to interest local people to start their own businesses.

It is not easy, he said. “Nobody wants to be chief here, nobody is interested in taking the risk, or sacrificing and working hard to become owners. It’s not a concept that people here are used to or comfortable with.”

“People who live here aren’t comfortable being a chief, being the boss. They don’t understand the idea of building up a business, since much of the commerce here is barter, not cash. It’s a tough road.”

We met a local man who once worked for Memo and worked out a deal to buy an old boat motor after he left. Then he saved up for a boat, then he bought another and a second motor and now he has a business taxiing people from one small village to another. Since there are virtually no roads here, these water taxis are the only way to travel up and down the coast.

Rio Jovi Dugout Expedition

Crossing a river by the beach near Nuqui, Colombia. photos by Max Hartshorne.
Crossing a river by the beach near Nuqui, Colombia.

It doesn’t always work out well. Memo also tried to encourage a local group of villagers to start a guide service to take people up the beautiful river Jovi, a trip that takes about an hour in a dugout canoe, to a spectacular waterfall with a pool on top.

“We don’t want to work with Paisas” was the response of the local NGO, called Natura. “No Paisas means no whites,” explained Memo.

Climbing up a waterfall to enjoy a plunge in a jungle pool.
Climbing up a waterfall to enjoy a plunge in a jungle pool.

But he holds no grudges, understanding after nearly twenty years of living here and in Medellin that the culture is tough on anyone from the outside. He’s glad there is now a guide service that affords a great day trip for his resort guests.

Wildlife Up Close

This trip afforded us a chance to view birds and other wildlife up close, as we sat in very low dugout canoes that were propelled by poles used by men who stood up in the back.

After an hour of serenity and the quiet of the flowing river only interrupted by bird calls, we reached a small stream where we got out and hiked.

Releasing turtles into the sea in Colombia.
Releasing turtles into the sea in Colombia.

After a climb up some rocks, we got to a pool where we could dive in. This is a magical and wonderful place, hard to get to, but well worth finding.

Colombia will always have a problem with its image, despite its natural beauty and the friendliness of its people.

It’s up to travelers to trust that time changes things, and to take the risk. As the tourism board says in its most recent ad campaign, ‘The only risk is wanting to stay.

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.