Colombia’s Forgotten Pacific Coast

Black sand beaches, wildlife, and jungle-shrouded shores on the Pacific Coast of Colombia

By Sally Kay

Humpback whales on the Pacific coast of Colombia. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Humpback whales on the Pacific coast of Colombia. photo by Max Hartshorne.

Colombia is the only country in South America with coasts on both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. However, if you say “I’m going to the coast” in Colombia, it invariably means the Atlantic coast.

Whether it’s living it up in Cartagena, basking on the Caribbean sands of Santa Marta, or partying down in Barranquilla at the second-largest carnival in South America, the Atlantic coast is what’s on everyone’s mind.

Without highways, industry, or a developed tourist trade Colombia’s Pacific coast is all but forgotten. The pristine beaches are surrounded by jungle, national parks, and a few indigenous communities.

The captain had incredible balance. photo by Sally Kay
The captain had incredible balance. photo by Sally Kay

As an added draw, these waters also host hundreds of humpback whales every year from July through October. From the moment I heard about this untouched wilderness I knew that I had go – I needed to see it.

Getting Around…Or Not

Transportation is a bit of a challenge

There is just one highway going to Colombia’s Pacific coast: the road from Cali to Buenaventura. Beyond that, it is all wilderness.

The only way to get further north, or anywhere else on the coast, is by lancha, small motorboats, that ferry people to and from different destinations, but I was determined.

Many people fly over from Medellin, the closest major inland airport hub, to small airfields that dot the coast.

Spending just one night in the chaotic port city of Buenaventura, I was on the first lancha to Juanchaco to see the whales. Police checkpoints at the dock brought to mind tales of drug shipments to and from that port city in Colombia’s not so distant past.

In another country, the police and military presence might have been intimidating, but in Colombia it was comforting. Every officer I had met have been kind, helpful, and gone out of his way to be of assistance to me.

After a brief glance at my passport, the officer waved me on to my waiting boat.

The lancha, how the author got to her coastal vacation spot in Colombia. photo by Sally Kay.
The lancha, how the author got to her coastal vacation spot in Colombia. photo by Sally Kay.

The boat’s skipper helped me step down onto the blue and white boat sitting low in the water, several feet below the dock level.

Squeezing in on the 4-person bench in between two large Afro-Colombians, speaking in their heavy Pacific coast accents. I pulled on the blue life vest passed back to me. I had barely fastened the last snap before the motor whirred to life and we were off.

The little motorboat skimmed over the waves and I looked out at the shoreline in wonder. Sharp cliffs with cascades of greenery tumbling down them, stopping mere feet before the salty ocean waves, black sand beaches, and verdant jungle vegetation.

This incredible scenery met and surpassed all expectations.

I wondered what animals took up residence in the lush vegetation that covered the little islands that rose out of the water at intervals.

Almost before I knew it we were pulling up to a concrete stairway leading up to a tall dock. We had arrived at Juanchaco.

Whale watching

Almost as soon as I had stepped off of one boat I was climbing into another, smaller vessel, and we were pulling out to go whale watching. To some whale watching may sound boring, but the humpbacks of Colombia’s Pacific coast provide quite the opposite experience.

Open boat whale watching on Colombia's coast. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Open boat whale watching on Colombia’s coast. photo by Max Hartshorne.

I had been whale watching in Argentina, and though the boats do get closer to the whales there, the experience in Colombia is on a different level.

The little craft motored around the whale classroom for nearly half an hour, watching mother whales teaching their calves to breathe, jump, and be whales. But that was only the appetizer. Not ten minutes later the real show began.

Mother Knows Best

First, an enormous head emerged followed by the massive form of the mother whale herself arching out of the water and blowing out the stale air. By her side, a smaller form mirroring the smooth movement down to the explosive exhale.

Both forms dipped beneath the waves and all was quiet, for one moment or two.

Suddenly a bulky form, the size of a large bull erupted from the surface hurtling itself sideways at a 45° angle. Hardly had the calf splashed back underwater before an enormous shape rocketed out of the water.

Up and up she went until all but the very tip of her tail hung above the water, and then gravity took its hold and the mother’s huge form crashed back into the murky depths.

But incredibly the show was not over; on and on they went, rocketing out of the water to crash back, again and again, the calf mimicking the mother’s jumps, getting closer and closer each time. I marveled at the force it must take to move a mass so huge that far out of the water. These whales were athletes of the highest caliber.

Black Beaches

Colombian soldier. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Colombian soldier. Their presence is very felt in this part of the country. photo by Max Hartshorne.

But whales are far from the Pacific coast’s only draw. Though many of the beaches are being sucked away by the greedy ocean leaving spectacular cliffs, the sands that are left are spectacular. With warm shallow waters black sand and jungle that comes almost to the water, these stretches of sand are nothing short of paradise.

The little fishing village of La Barra, really little more than a few humble huts, is on just such a beach.

But at last, we reached the promised beach. We were the only people on the black sand that stretched out endlessly. We waded out into the warm water, swam in the ocean, and played in the surf for hours.

On foot, the route is interesting to say the least, and just a little over an hour from Juanchaco’s dock. Following my local guide, we picked our way along muddy paths, over make-shift log bridges, and did our best not to slip on the smooth planks that occasionally graced the mire of a path.

Colombia’s Pacific Coast may be off the beaten path and inaccessible, but to me, this makes it all the better. The warm peaceful waters and pristine beaches offer the ultimate in relaxation and the jungles are just begging to be explored. Yes, the Pacific coast is unquestionably home to my favorite beaches of Colombia.

Sally Kay.After Sally Kay graduated from the University of Kansas’ School of Journalism, she hit the road and hasn’t looked back. She has explored Europe, Africa, South America, and North America, lived in Slovakia, Hungary, and Argentina and is currently traveling in South America. She writes about her adventures in the blog, has written for the websites Tango Diva, In The Know Traveler, and is a travel guru for Tripeezy.

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