PLAYA ALMEJAL, Chocó — The waves whisper as they wash up ashore, their way of calling you to the ocean, to swim, to surf, to sit under the sun.
Our front yard was the waters of Playa Alemejal, without much else around, other than our hostel and a few small hotels nearby, none of them popular with tourists compared to the Caribbean Coast. It was relaxing.
That’s why, as beautiful as those Caribbean cities are, we didn’t go. This trip, like the one to Ciudad Bolívar, was about doing something different.
With the help of my friend Marta, who owns Todo en Viajes (Circular 73A #38-69, Laureles, 412 5209), a Medellín travel agency, we found roundtrip flights for a little under 400,000 pesos each (about $215).
It’s quite the laid-back way of life. Actually, maybe laid back is too tame. It’s more mellow than Spicoli confusing class time with pizza time.
I asked my sister what time it was one day, and she said, “I dunno, the sun’s out,” and she made a great point: you usually tell time there only two ways…daytime and nighttime.
Two of the only reasons to worry about the exact hour are when you’re departing for home or leaving on an excursion, a trip to Parque Nacional Natural Utría, for example.
We left around 8:30 a.m. on a tiny boat, enough room for 16 and more than enough room for the eight of us who made the trip that day.
I recommend asking around El Valle, the tiny town a 20-minute walk from Playa Almejal, to get different quotes. Then you’ll have more leverage.
We tagged along with our new German friends, who agreed to a price of 50,000 pesos per person (about $28) for the boat ride, 45 minutes each way; 15,000 for lunch (about $8.25, for fried fish, rice, soup, salad, and the table coaster-sized fried banana chips called patacones); and 36,500 to enter the park (about $20.25), or 13,500 (about $7.50) if you are Colombian or you have a cédula de extranjera (a Colombian ID for foreigners).
Altogether, that can cost about $60, expensive compared to another great adventure I made in Colombia — the trip to Punta Gallinas. We left on a Friday, returned on a Monday, and my four new friends and I each spent 270,000 pesos (about $150) for everything — food, lodging, tours and transportation.
I’m not saying to avoid the Pacific Coast. I recommend going. Here’s some advice.
One of the best places to eat in town is at someone’s house, a woman named Rosalia, who has three dining tables. The dinner, like most of them in the area, was fish with rice, salad and patacones.
There’s not much nightlife in El Valle, just a few spots, the main one in town called Me Jucy’s, and one on the beach, El Mirador, which is open on Sundays. But this should not be a priority because there is so much natural beauty to enjoy.
Just bring enough cash because there are no ATMs in El Valle, and be firm in confirming prices because these people are trying to earn what they can when they can.
Our taxi driver told us it would cost 10,000 pesos (about $5.50) to the hostel, then, after stopping in the town to drop off a woman there, tried to raise it to 30,000 pesos (about $16.75). We settled on 20,000 (about $11).
On our way out of the airport, the woman at the gate made my sister and I pay 14,000 pesos (about $7.75), what she called a municipal tax, something friends later said was another way costeños take advantage of travelers.
That “tax” sure hasn’t done anything for Bahia Solano or El Valle.
It’s literally dirt poor there. There are no paved roads, other than a short stretch between the towns. The buildings are old concrete or wooden structures. There’s no internet in El Valle, except for a place near the town center where the connection is slower than the way of life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same way in Bahia Solano.
Guard your belongings too. Even though my sister and I kept an eye on my camera and our other valuables, my flip flops were stolen when we were at Playa Blanca, our final stop on the Utría tour.
The national park, for the most part, was nice, the main attraction an inlet surrounded by jungle-laden hills and filled with the turquoise water that beach vacationers crave. The water was the same at Playa Blanca, the beach’s salvation because it was littered with debris and a little bit of trash.
Too bad it was the wrong time of year to see the whales splashing in the inlet. It happens during the summer and early fall, June through October. Next time.
So, here’s a recommended itinerary, something you should plan for May to ensure the best surf or September to ensure a viewing of the whales:
1. I would book two different one-way flights (which should not cost much more than a roundtrip fare), the first from Medellín to Bahia Solano — trips to this part of the Pacific Coast typically originate in Medellín. After landing in Bahia Solano, take the 40-minute cab ride to the Humpback, then enjoy your time on Playa Almejal and your trip to Parque Utría.
2. After a few days at Playa Almejal, take a boat to Nuquí. There, you can take another boat to spend a day at Guachalito, and you can spend another day or two enjoying the beaches of Nuquí. From Nuquí, take a flight back to Medellín.
Like the end of “Back to the Future,” when Marty and Jennifer join the Doc in the Delorean then disappear into the sky, exactly what happens next, until you see the sequel unfold, is unknown. Only one thing is certain: another adventure awaits.