“Do you think there’s actually a landing strip down there?” asked my seatmate as the small plane started its descent. Good question, since all we could see was ocean butting up to jungle. But, sure enough, next thing we knew we were bouncing over a bumpy runway headed for a battered building that served as the Bahía Solano airport terminal.
No one seemed to be in any rush in this tiny bastion on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, and we spent at least an hour hanging around the airport waiting for our transportation to arrive. Finally a few bare-bones four-wheel-drive Toyotas showed up. They’d definitely seen more than their fair share of bad roads, and they were about to see more. For about nine miles we crashed over deep ruts and sank into water-filled potholes — as we tried to stay mostly on the wooden bench seats. None too soon, we arrived at the coast and drove across the sand to our home for the next four days: El Almejal, an ecolodge tucked between the sea and the rainforest.
After what our host, Cesar Vasquez, aptly described as “the adventure of arriving,” we assembled in the common building. Large, wooden and open-sided, it served as combination living room, dining room and kitchen. Prior to lunch Vasquez, who has owned and run El Almejal with his mother for more than 25 years, gave us a rundown on his philosophy and the lodge’s programs. Vasquez is passionate about ecology, and his primary focus is teaching visitors about the local flora and fauna, emphasizing sustainable tourism. From the lodge, groups of guests go whale watching, hike into the rainforest, take nature walks and visit waterfalls.
While we ate lunch, the staff deposited our bags into wooden cottages scattered around the grounds. The accommodations weren’t fancy — we’re talking ecolodge, not luxury hotel — but they had comfortable beds, a proper bathroom and a hammock on the porch. There were also mosquito nets, because every paradise has its drawbacks — and no rainforest is without bugs.
Make no mistake, there is a military presence at El Almejal. This is Colombia, after all, and robberies and kidnappings are not good for business. While they try to be as unobtrusive as possible, young soldiers in camouflage uniforms carrying impressively big guns were around the property and accompanied us on hikes into the rainforest.
After a full day and a little jetlag, I was happy to settle down with a local Poker beer in the main building before dinner. Meals at El Almejal are simple and tasty, featuring fish caught by local fishermen and local produce, some grown in the lodge’s gardens. Night at El Almejal is a special time. The crashing of the waves and the mysterious sounds of the rainforest are more soothing than a lullaby.
Every year between June and October, humpback whales migrate, looking for warm waters to give birth to their calves. The Pacific Ocean at Colombia is teeming with these huge mammals, and I was eager to see them in action. The next morning a group of us hopped into the lodge’s outboards and headed out to sea.
We zipped across the dark blue water while our guide scanned the ocean for whale activity. Just as it looked like the elusive mammals might not put in an appearance, our eagle-eyed guide shouted instructions to the boat’s driver, and we sped off toward the horizon. Whale fins, backs and tails broke the water as we all tried to catch them on camera. It was exciting to see these giant creatures, and being in small boats, we were able to get quite close.
That evening I took part in a turtle release. In order to save sea turtle eggs from being dug up and destroyed by local dogs, Vasquez has built an environment for them on the El Almejal property. When they hatch, the baby turtles are put into tubs of water and carried down to the beach to start their crawl to the sea. It was amazing to see the little creatures head instinctively in the right direction and eventually disappear into the Pacific.
The next couple of days I hiked, kayaked, swam, looked for more whales and visited the local town. I ate fish, slept in a hammock and generally unwound until it was time to head down the coast to another ecolodge, El Cantil. Most visitors fly into the town of Nuqui and then take a 35-minute boat ride to El Cantil, but I had made arrangements to make the entire trip by boat instead.
While this sounded like fun initially, when I woke to pouring rain and black skies, I was dubious. Still, I donned rain gear and trudged down the beach to climb into an outboard for what was supposed to be a two-hour ride. The seas were rough, the bench seats were hard, the rain unrelenting, so I wasn’t sorry to see the trip end three and a half hours later.
El Cantil owners Nana and Guillermo Gomez welcomed me with a steaming cup of hot chocolate. Even in the bleak weather the little wooden red-roofed cottages perched on the hillside looked inviting. Overlooking the Pacific, with the rainforest as a backdrop, porch hammocks offered straight-on ocean views.
By afternoon the skies had cleared a little, so I opted for a hike to a rainforest waterfall.
The next morning, I joined a group hike to a natural thermal pool. We could smell it before we could see it: The big cement pool that butted up to the river was filled with steaming sulfur water. After a soak in the toasty thermal bath, a dip in the nippy river water was truly refreshing. Our local guides gave us facials using sulfur-infused mud. Relaxed, we walked back to El Cantil for an afternoon of whale watching.
The Gomezes were the ultimate hosts, and their excellent English was a plus for those of us whose Spanish is limited. The next couple of days brought a mix of scuba diving, hiking, surfing and reclining in a hammock to catch up on reading.
Despite a few initial pangs of uncertainty, I joined an “extreme” five-hour group hike on my final day at El Cantil. The goal was to hunt for poisonous tree frogs, and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get a glimpse of those lethal little red-dotted frogs. We set off — equipped with hefty walking sticks — into the thick forest that bordered our cottages. It was wet, muddy, slippery and steep; and within 10 minutes we were drenched in a combination of beyond-belief humidity and sweat. After more than two hours of serious hiking, we reached tree frog territory. Guillermo was expert at finding the elusive little creatures — he foraged in the foliage around the trees until the tiny little red and black frogs appeared. I had no idea the frogs were so small. Unfortunately, there is no helicopter service deep in the rainforest, and all too soon we had to start the trudge back. I survived the hike to the lodge; but if a few locals had appeared carrying a sedan chair, I’d have paid anything to be carried the last mile. It was exhausting and murder on the knees, but worth it — a fitting finale to a terrific trip.
INFO TO GO
El Almejal Rainforest Beach Lodge (tel 574 230 6060, www.almejal.com.co) and El Cantil Ecolodge (tel 574 252 0707, www.elcantil.com) are open year round, and both offer a basic package that includes airport transfers, a room and three meals a day, as well as specialty packages which include more activities.
Medellín is the nearest major city to Colombia’s Pacific Coast. U.S. travelers fly into José María Córdova International Airport (MDE), about 30 minutes from city center, and take a taxi or shuttle to Olaya Herrera Domestic Airport (EOH) near city center for flights to the coast. El Almejal Lodge is served by Bahía Solano Airport (BSC), El Cantil Ecolodge by Nuqui Airport (NQU).
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