El Valle in Chocó, Colombia
Bahía Solano is under the radar. Even if you’ve made it to Colombia already, you may not have heard of this place. I didn’t before arriving in Medellín. Bahía Solano, and a small village located within its municipality, El Valle, is relatively unknown to the casual traveler. And for good reason.
No roads lead to this part of the country. You won’t find any roads from a major Colombian city linking to the village of El Valle or Bahía Solano, where the airport is located. Basically, you’re left with two options: fly to Bahía Solano, or rent a bunk in a cargo boat, which departs from Buenaventura once a week.
Medellín is the only city in the country offering flights into Bahía Solano. Nope. Not even Bogotá flies here. Therefore, you’re limited to two airlines: Satena and ADA. Both are small, regional airlines and they essentially have a monopoly on this route.
The upside to these smaller regional flights is that you’ll be flying over the mountains and scraping the jungle in a tiny prop plane. These twin-turbo, 12-20 seaters give you a true sense of what flying is. The cockpit is open, like it was for ages before they layered in more modern security procedures.
It’s getting intimate
All the buttons, switches, knobs, lights, and of course the pilots are within view. It feels a little strange seeing the co-pilot reading flight charts or finding myself able to anticipate the increase in speed, as the pilot reaches for the throttle and slowly pushes it forward.
You can honestly feel as the wind changes course and the cabin sways from side to side, reacting accordingly. Our landing was anything but straight, the wings still tipping from side to side as the plane shifted over the runway moments before making contact.
Despite nowadays being airborne a dozen or more times a year, I still hate flying. It’s all about the destination, and flying is often the most efficient way of getting there.
Nerves of steel
I was super anxious flying in one of these small, propeller planes. It was the first flight of my life in a plane this small, one which resembled a toy—it’s difficult to imagine how those Wright Bros or Amelia Earhart felt piloting what’s really a speedboat in the sky.
If you go, you’ll be flying from Olaya Herrera airport in Medellín, which is awesome because it’s located within the city, as opposed to the major international one in Rio Negro, some 45 minutes away. Arrival by taxi or Uber is fácil and since Olaya sees fewer people, check-in is a breeze and security a snap.
I traveled to El Valle during off-season, but still thought my flight was overpriced—maybe it’s my experience with Euro routes offering 50-Euro round-trips. But again, the destination is remote and there isn’t much in the way off competition.
I paid around COP 370,000, or about 130 freedom dollars at the time of exchange. One of my roommates at the time, who had traveled a lot to the Pacific coast and Bahía Solano a handful of times, said she never paid less than COP 330,000, so I figured I got a fairly reasonable deal.
If you’re using a foreign credit card to book the flight, you may run into difficulty, as ADA instantly flags the transaction as suspicious and won’t process it without further confirmation via phone. I’m not sure if all major credit cards and international banks are an issue, but both my Chase and American Express cards were declined, and I had to phone an agent to book the flight.
They required verification by passport and then had me pay over the phone.
The other option to cross the jungle from Medellín is to not cross the jungle from Medellín. Rather, you need to rent a bunk aboard a cargo ship that makes a once-weekly voyage from Buenaventura to Bahía Solano.
Obviously I didn’t take this route, but numerous forums and blogs detail this. You can find a brief how-to on a local hostel’s website, The Humpback Turtle, who’s located in El Valle.
The trip supposedly takes 24 hours and may require you to get in touch with Captain Oscar, as the Humpback lists it, in order to get a space aboard.
José Celestino Mutis Airport to El Valle
Before you have a chance to pick up your bags or register with the airport and its massive book, you’ll be approached by people offering rides into El Valle. The rides are in three-seater tuk-tuks and you’ll probably be sharing, so make nice. My place told me to expect to pay COP 10,000 into EL Valle and that’s the price I paid both times. Apparently no up-charges here like the one they wanted in Guatapé.
I was led to an awaiting tuk-tuk, double-checked he was heading to El Valle and climbed in. We set off down the dirt road, starting our 40-minute ride over the wavy terrain, smashing gravel and potholes along the way.
You really get a feel for how remote the area is when you’re bumping along in the tuk-tuk, surrounded on both sides by the thick jungle. If you’re trying to get off the grid, this a pretty good start.
Find good company
I shared the tuk-tuk with an Argentine, turned 10-year-Philadelphian. About halfway through our trip, Pedro takes out his iPod with a portable stereo. Our driver, sensing Pedro shifting stuff around in his bag, peeks in the mirror and asks him what he’s up to back there. Before Pedro can respond, the driver spots the stereo and tells him to, “Put it on”.
A tropical hip-hop/reggaetón beat slowly fades in and within five seconds Pedro starts belting out the lyrics. The look on the driver’s face was absolutely priceless when this foreigner put on a local band from Chocó and dove in with a huge burst of energy. A few more songs from ChocQuibTown and you could tell our driver was enjoying the enthusiasm.
Rules of the road
As we’re slowly bumping along, we’re about to pass an incoming tuk-tuk. The driver slows down, which is usually the norm, as most drivers know each other and give a head nod or shout something before speeding off again.
We stop, our cars separated by about three feet. The drivers are exchanging money when a motorbike approaches from behind. A few seconds later and this moto blazes right between us, surprising the hell out of both me and Pedro. Our driver? Mostly unphased.
I was beginning to understand that I didn’t really understand any of the norms in the jungle.
The scenery started slowly changing as we approached El Valle. Small, wooden houses and other shops came into sight, with more motorcycles and bicycles cruising up and down the dirt road.
People. Finally, we started to see some other people.
Five minutes later and we’re at the lodge where I’m staying. As I get out, one of the staff comes outside, greets me by name and chats with our driver for a few seconds.
I get out, pay the man and let him know I enjoyed the ride. Less than two hours into my trip and I could tell this one would be something out of the ordinary.
La Posada Ecoturística
It was low-season in terms of tourism in El Valle when I visited. My first indication? There was more staff than guests. I was the only one for my three-night stay.
Disconnect a bit
If you’re looking for luxury, I wouldn’t bank on finding it in El Valle. The buildings are mostly all wood, often with ants, mosquitoes and other bugs and have the bare necessities of running water and electricity. My place did have WiFi, however, which I found was quite the luxury, as most the hostels and other accommodations lacked service.
My room was basic but provided everything I needed to be comfortable in the jungle. A mosquito net provided relief from the bugs. And a medium-sized fan kept me mildly cool in an otherwise tropical climate.
The lodge had a nice sized hangout, overlooking a shallow inlet, which leads to the ocean. The hammocks hanging about offered me one of the most pleasant sunsets I can remember.
The kicker, for the reasonable price of COP 41,000 per night, was the awesome breakfast it included each morning. The younger woman handling booking was also the one serving breakfast. She brought a small plate of pineapple or oranges first, followed by a cup of coffee, scrambled eggs and either an arepa or a few fried plantains.
Untangle that mosquito net, head downstairs between 07:30 and 09:00 and get going.
Something like 80% of locals are Afro-Colombians. They look quite different from those you’d see in Medellín or Bogotá. Their accent is influenced by the fact they’re quite isolated from the rest of the country, and more times than I’d like to admit, I found myself having to ask for clarification.
But the people. Those from El Valle have to be some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. The majority give you a smile, a thumbs-up or some kind of greeting when you pass them. It’s truly a wonderful experience to be so different from them, yet be received with the same warm intensity of the Bahía Solano sun.
El Valle and Chocó in general have one of the lowest standards of living in Colombia. But, you’d be hard pressed to truly feel it based on their attitudes. Everyone is smiling, happy to converse and are generally always laughing and joking around.
During my three days in El Valle I met a few that ended up showing me around the village. One in particular, Felix, was especially keen on helping foreigners out and showing them a good time.
I met him on the beach as I was walking by, asking him about the tide and the waves. He had a boogie-board but was advising me where I could find the best waves for surfing. A shame that the surf business there is truly lacking, as I found out decent surfboards are hard to come by.
The village has a handful of restaurants, most serving fresh fish, rice, fried platanos and fresh juice.
La Rosa del Mar, an unassuming restaurant from the outside, served us one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time. Rosa herself was taking our orders and after my new Argentine friend informed her that she was famous, she blushed somewhat, smiled and seemed happy to have her dishes appreciated.
She started by bringing us a fresh juice made of maracuyá and tomarillo (which is passion fruit and a “tree tomato”; basically, it’s an egg-shaped tomato that’s sweet). This might’ve been my favorite juice I’ve ever had in my life.
She had two fish dishes on the menu of the day, and we both opted for the tuna. It was a good size, covered in a savory sauce, served with a side of lentils, a mound of coconut rice, onions, tomatoes and fried plantains. Those plantains, man. Super tasty. It sounds strange that fried plantains could taste so different, but each region in Colombia seems to have a unique taste to its patacones.
If you’re in El Valle, there’s absolutely no good reason to pass up Rosa’s place.
Other shops are generally dolling out some form of buñuelos and empanadas (the fish ones for 1,000 pesos are so good) and are guaranteed to have at least one fridge stacked with Colombian beers and fruity sodas.
You should also make an effort to try the coconut ice cream or anything with coconut really. They’re so abundant here and fresh that it’d really be a shame to pass this up.
What to do
Walk along Playa Almejal, the main beach that runs the length of El Valle.
Since it was off-peak season, on multiple occasions I had the beach to myself. Literally. Two days in a row I walked at least a mile without crossing paths with a single person.
It was a great way to spend some time alone and really let go of any thoughts or worries and just sort of exist.
From El Valle you can walk north along the beach for one or two miles before you’ll have to either stop or traverse a group of gigantic rocks separating the jungle from the ocean.
Not much here, but that’s a good thing
The most well-known hostel, The Humpback Turtle, is located between the main entrance to the beach and the group of rocks. It’s grouped close to a few more accommodations, all of which are unknown to me and lack advertising.
Side note on the Humpback: I visited once, as I was looking for coffee along the beach, and popped inside. I really can’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s by far the most popular hostel in El Valle, but besides meeting with other travelers and offering paid tours, I really don’t see why anyone would stay here. They do provide hammock rentals instead of a bed in the dorm, so the thrifty traveler might find this appealing, I suppose.
There are a few spots on the beach to eat, drink and escape the sun. One in particular had a delicious dish of fresh fish (surprise, surprise). I can’t remember the name, but it’s about a 5-minute walk south of The Humpback and sits along the paved road, just off the beach.
Find Playa Larga (and a refreshing waterfall)
This requires a bit of a hike, but what are you going to do, sit on your ass all day? Of course not. You’re adventurous, after all. If you weren’t you wouldn’t be in El Valle.
First, hats off to the dude over at Mumwearefine, as this is where I first read about Playa Larga and approximately how to navigate there.
The beach is known locally by the same name and if you ask about it you’ll no doubt be given rough directions.
But let’s back up and start from the beginning of my third day and my plan to find Playa Larga.
Don’t plan too much
I had decided to go alone, so I started off from my place with my camera, some flops and a backpack.
I was taking pictures along the way, pausing every so often to capture the colors of the ocean, the massive rocks or a few hostels which provided a nice backdrop against the black sand and coconut trees.
After walking about 10 minutes north I realized I had accidentally left my flops behind. I doubled back and they were gone. Stolen or just misplaced, it didn’t matter. I needed some new ones.
The bad bits
The lucky for me—but otherwise super sad—part about El Valle is the trash that is left behind on the beach. Some is from the people not caring and the other is from the tide bringing it in. The good thing about this was that about every hundred meters, you could find washed up flip flops.
I ended up making a pair out of different sized women’s flops and was on my way again.
Man’s best friend
Another interesting part of El Valle (and Colombia in general) is that there are a ton of stray dogs. El Valle has no shortage. Two dogs ended up following me along my way for well over an hour.
Fast forward some 50 pictures more and a mile or two of walking and I found myself again in front of the Humpback Turtle, one of the stray dogs still trailing close behind.
Probably better to go with a buddy
I glanced toward the place and spotted Pedro, reading out on the patio. I waved, walked up to him and told him of my plans to find La Playa Larga. After showing him my crude directions of how to get there, he jumped at the chance at an adventure and we set off, still being led by one stray dog.
From the Humpback Turtle it’s about a 15 minute walk until the huge mess of rocks meets the jungle and ocean and you’re unable to pass—well it’s difficult to pass—especially when the tide is in.
While approaching the rocks we saw a man walking out of the jungle coming toward us. He looked straight out of a movie–cut off shirt, shredded to pieces, machete casually hanging at his side. As he approached we asked him how we could make it to Playa Larga and he said we couldn’t now because of the tide.
I explained that I heard of a route through the jungle. He slowly nodded and said we could follow one of the many trails, but to be careful not to get lost.
Pedro and I looked at each other in agreement and pressed on.
Or two buddies
As soon as the machete man departed, a girl appeared, some 50 feet ahead, hobbling down from the rocks. We stopped to chat and found out she had turned to go back to The Humpback, while her friends were trying to figure out how to cross the rocks and also make it to Playa Larga.
We grinned, told her we had a route through the jungle and asked if she’d like to join–she was French and man, I feel bad I can’t remember her name. It sounded like “woman” but I’m sure that wasn’t it. Anyway, she didn’t seem very confident in our jungle idea, but as we set off, we spotted another person close by. This time it was a fisherman, casting his net out among the rocks.
He initially gave the same response as machete man, but then confirmed the option through the jungle. He just warned us to stay within earshot of the ocean. Sound advice.
Into the jungle
After the second confirmation that it was possible, we entered the jungle, just below a few huge palm trees. They’re easy to spot, as they’re the only ones here among the rocks and mark the entrance to the jungle.
As we were entering, our stray dog and new best friend bounced ahead of us, sort of indicating he knew the way.
We followed him a bit, trying to figure out the best path to take to stay close to the ocean without going too far through the jungle. The beginning was fairly straightforward, the path more obvious and easier to navigate as part of it was through a clearing.
One we got past the clearing, the jungle became thick and muggy again. The paths the rest of the way were barely cleared, but walked on just enough to give a general direction to follow.
After ascending for about 10 or 15 minutes, we came to a fork and had to choose. It was at this moment that another stray dog appeared out of nowhere. Seriously, like a ninja. Not Pedro nor the French girl knew where he came from.
The funny part is that we had already seen this dog on a few separate occasions in town and Pedro even had a name for him. Now we were a group of five, with two dogs acting as guides.
Old dogs, new tourists
I say guides because that’s exactly what they were. Remember the fork in the road? We opted for one and moments after beginning to go down that path the older dog barked. We turned around and he was facing down the other path. He barked a few more times and we got the idea we had chosen the wrong one.
It was strange relying on a dog in the jungle, but he was old and as stupid as it sounded, we thought he probably knew the way. So we followed him. Ten minutes later and the path began to descend. The old dog lied flat, and did a sort of crawl along the floor of the jungle.
The French girl and I exchanged confused looks and then laughter at the dog’s unusual method of walking. But, a few seconds later and he began sliding down the path, belly first, and avoided falling down the steep decline. He’d clearly done this before.
The two dogs ended up leading us to a waterfall below. We cooled off for a few minutes, taking turns dunking our heads in the rushing water.
A small stream lead away from the waterfall and in the direction of the ocean. We slowly waded through it, me holding my backpack with my camera above my head, and eventually reached a clearing. This was the first point indicated in our guide—a rocky beach.
After walking through it, we came to a second rocky beach and the second indication that we were on the right path.
A few minutes later and a third beach came into view, this time without rocks. We made it. This was Playa Larga. It ended up taking about an hour but could’ve been a lot more without the help of the two dogs. Don’t hire a guide; instead, find a couple stray dogs and take them along. They do indeed know the way.
Through the jungle, Playa Larga comes into view through a window of palm trees and rocks. You instantly know when you’ve made it, as the entrance from the south has that postcard feeling to it—the perfect clearing that directs your line of sight straight through it, your eyes fixating on the sand and ocean ahead of you.
Pedro, the French girl and I spent about an hour or so at Playa Larga. The waves were actually pretty big, perfect for body surfing. We took in wave after wave, but decided not to press our luck as they started to get a bit rough and ended up throwing me about enough that my head starting hurting.
As we headed out back towards the beach, Pedro looked at me and said with earnest, “Dude, that was mother nature telling us not to fuck with her.” While it made me laugh, it also perfectly summed up how I felt about the last wave that knocked me under.
Back to base
Around midday we set off, making our way back to Playa Almejal, the two dogs leading the way.
As we were walking over the rocks on the second beach, one of my flip flops snapped and ended up breaking. Since this was a pretty deserted area of the coast, there weren’t any replacements this time around. I’d have to continue with only one of my odd fitting flops.
These rocks really started to take their toll on my foot, as I was at the back of the pack, trying to do my best tip-toe walking.
Since this was our first time, we ended up taking a different route back. We came to another decision: head back through the jungle (a different way) or cross over a small inlet while the tide was all the way in.
We opted for the rocky route, against the wishes of both dogs, who began barking as we made our way down the first set of rocks.
Pedro made it across and was helping the French girl cross the inlet. The dogs were clearly confused on just how to cross and avoid being swept away with the tide.
I tried to navigate these rocks the best I could, attempting to land every small maneuver on the foot with the flip flop.
In hindsight it was probably a little foolish to cross over the inlet, scaling down the rocks on one side and climbing back up the other side. With a bit of patience and luck though, all five of us made it to across, and continued our way back.
By the time we reached Playa Almejal, some 30 minutes later, I thought my right food was going to fall off.
As Pedro turned around and looked back at me, he noticed the grimace on my face, and without a hint of sarcasm said, “You know walking barefoot over rocks is really good for your feet?”
I laughed out of exhaustion and pain, and despite his honest remark, I definitely would’ve preferred having proper shoes or at least two flip flops for that trek.
Lunch was definitely in order after our three or four-hour excursion.
We headed to the only restaurant open, me half limping, avoiding the hot sun and trying to stay off my right foot.
A few more people were hanging out, two of whom were trying to get the TV to show a Real Madrid and PSG fútbol match.
The owner brought us two beers and two lemonades, and oh man did they feel rewarding. He rattled of the menu of the day and a half hour later brought us a plate of fish. A huge grilled fish, head and all came out, served with rice, a carrot slaw and my new favorite, patacones.
As we’re all talking travel stories, Colombian sightseeing and whatever else, Pedro points toward the ocean with a huge smile on his face. I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to show us until he said that he just saw a coconut fall from a tree.
Without missing a beat, he went out, picked it up and asked the owner if the groundskeeper could chop it up for us. A few minutes after and he brought us over the coconut, the middle dug out, with a straw poking through. That was the freshest coconut I’ve ever had. Ten minutes from tree to mouth.
It seemed like a pretty fitting way to end the afternoon.
El Valle after dark
Two of the three nights I stayed in El Valle, I went out and ended up having an awesome time. Have a local take you around if you can.
Our friend Felix seemed to be all over the village and we continued to run into him everyday. One night after meeting him in the main plaza he told us (Pedro, me and three German visitors) he’d take us dancing and show us how the locals moved.
We learned a few steps from his friends, a few strangers and all had a good laugh at the foreigner’s expense. It turns out that Americans and Germans are really quite awful at bachata and champeta. But the people were receptive to dancing with foreigners and seemed to enjoy our misguided steps and carefree attitudes.
In between dancing, we sampled a few different types of fish empanadas. A few women were serving them up outside the spot, along with their own secret hot sauce.
The night ended a few beers and foolish dance moves later.
Baile and then billiards
The other night Felix showed us the other way people from El Valle relax—billiards.
After meeting him again at the plaza, we headed toward the billiards hall. Five or six tables lined an open-air hall, with one side reserved for those more interested in playing dominoes.
I found it interesting the way that you pay for a table there. You can either rent the table for 3,000 pesos per game, or the losing team must buy beers for the winning team.
Since it was always teams of two, it was a smart decision from the owner’s view, as beers cost 3,000 a piece, so he’d always make twice as much having the loser’s pay.
The night rambled on with a dozen or so games, before we ended up calling it, heading back toward the plaza and into our separate accommodations.
One last thing
Visit the school that lies just south of the town. If you walk down the main road that leads into and out of El Valle, there’s a bridge that will take you to the town’s school.
After crossing the long bridge, take a right and they’ll be a sign for a park. Follow that across a smaller bridge and it will lead you right to the school grounds.
I watched the kids playing fútbol for a few minutes, then walked towards the back of the school to check out the classrooms.
It’s not super exciting stuff, but the school itself is brightly colored and makes for some nice pictures. Chat with the students who aren’t playing and ask them about their school routines. They’ll be happy to tell you they’re learning English every day of the week.
If you time it right, head back across just before sunset and watch it from the bridge.
That’s El Valle in a nutshell. You have positive people, living isolated from the rest of the country, eager to share their food, dance and daily life. If you find yourself in Medellín with an extra couple days, definitely check out El Valle and experience a different side of Colombia.