Surf’s up on the long arcing beach of Termales on Colombia’s Chocó coast, which is good news for the surfers paddling out into the rolling breakers, but not good news for me, as I wait for a fishing boat to haul my family nucleus from the beach. Like many of these coastal villages, transport out over this watery wall of waves into the open Pacific is at best of time, precarious.
A large panga races out into the foam. This is the regular motorboat that plies the coast to the town of Nuquí. The passengers, which include a mother and small baby, seem relaxed and are crammed in with a large mattress. No-one wears a life-jacket. The craft leaps salmon-like over the first crest. A crewman wielding a long pole is standing silhouetted on the prow, a dramatic man-against-sea pose which turns out to have a purpose: he is manually checking the water depth over the sand bar as the driver revs and dips the motors to time the next charge. One more leap, and they are out onto the smother swells and soon just a dot on the horizon.
“I guess for them it’s no different than us taking the bus in Bogotá,” I comment, but no one in the family seems convinced by my comparison. The waves are growing bigger and whiter as the rising tide and afternoon breeze pushes them harder up the beach. “I never want to go in another boat,” declares my son.
He is still traumatised by our arrival on the coast a few days before through stormy seas as we travelled along the coast to our beachfront hospedaje, now a two-hour walk away. But now, there is no chance to walk back as the tide is high, making the rocky headlands impassable. Instead we must wait for our boat, already several hours late, and brave the waves.
Not that Termales is a bad place to be stranded. Set on a wide sandy bay fringed with palms and pounded by surf, it is the archetypal tropical paradise. But it is also a real-deal beachfront fishing community with the washing lines hanging between the palm trees and old fishing nets strung as hammocks. Not a piña colada in sight. Instead, locals sit around crates of Poker beer, crank up the reggaeton, and discuss the finer points of a new fifty-horse, four-stroke.
There are no cars so everything is about boats and outboards, or small dug-out wooden canoes which lone fisherman paddle out far to sea. And there is no port, so villagers haul their boats over log rollers to the top of the beach and park them nestled in the palms, or run them over the sandbar into a small river-mouth that dries with the low tide.
My previous travels on Colombia’s Pacific took me to lowland coast covered in mangrove swamps where boats can safely traverse a network of estuarine waterways mostly protected from the restless ocean swells. But here in the Chocó, the jungle-clad mountains tumble to the sea creating rugged headlands washed by ten-metre tides, a stunning wilderness which can change by the hour as sea and sky conspire to soak you in sun, salt spray, or driving rain.
I begin to wonder whoever decided to call it ‘Pacific’. Ferdinand Magellan, it turns out, the first European to explore its waters in 1520. Looking at the large rollers storming up the beach I wonder if he was having a kind of explorers’ joke: “Hey, let’s call it Peaceful and see if they believe us back in Spain,” – I can imagine him telling his salty crew over a spiced rum.
Then, I read of Magellan’s travails in the violent seas of the Southern Atlantic and Cape Horn, with ships lost in storms, a mutiny, and sailors hung from yard-arms. All things are relative, so for Magellan and his men sailing out into the western side of South America, which is generally free of super-storms, must have been a blessed relief.
Meanwhile on the beach the waves are growing and we are still waiting. I remonstrate gently with “Tocayo,” our guide, who accompanied us in our walk down the coast and has taken advantage of our wait to swill some Pokers with his mates. How much bigger will the waves be when our boat gets here?
“You’re not scared are you?” he says with a grin. “Take it easy, you’re on holiday.”
Actually, I am a quite nervous of our pending boat trip. But perhaps Tocayo has a point. Waiting and worrying won’t change anything. Termales, as its name suggests, has a hot spring at the base of a nearby hill where a leisure complex with some pools where we go for a good soak in sulphur water under jungle canopy.
Back in the village again we get some snack at a corner shop. Carmen, the owner, explains how supplies arrive in the village: “By truck from Manizales to Buenaventura, then by cargo boat up the coast – at least 24 hours’ voyage – then we have to send out our launches to transfer the goods to the shore, sometimes at night, always through the surf. And we need strong guys to lift the sacks of cargo from the big boat to the launches…and we must pay them and the cargo boat for each sack.”
“Do you lose many sacks in the sea?” I ask, wishing I hadn’t. “Oh, a few,” she says. “But they eventually wash up.” Suddenly the thirty per cent price hike for fizzy drinks and a packet of crisps doesn’t seem so excessive.
We stroll back to the beach where the kids build sand-castles and I take photos of the surfers. They are local lads and strong and masterful in the waves, ducking under the foam to reach the big breakers and then lifting off with long lazy strokes to ride back in. As fisher-folk they fear the waves but as surfers they crave them. I wonder if the sport – which is fairly new to the coast – changes how a generation sees these swirling forces that pound the doorstep.
Inspired by this thought I stow my camera and run into the sea to catch some of the smaller waves, body-surfing with my hands stretched in front. My daughter rushes in to join me and soon we are buffeted by waves and scraped on the sand but yelping with joy. Then, all too soon, our boat arrives over the glistening ocean. It charges down the waves into the calm river-mouth and we climb on board, with Tocayo at the bow with a long wooden pole ready to joust the sea.
And then we are off, over the sand bar, frozen in mid-air and a long moment in time as our floating fiberglass steed mounts the surf, screaming as its prop chews thin air, and all our fears are piled above us in a glass-green wave which now pushes us up and up, until for a minute I am sure we will tip backwards, but suddenly we crash through and are free, racing over the ocean. Tocayo, soaked in spray, turns to see me smiling and shouts: “Now you’re on holiday!”
Termales is one hour by motorboat south of Nuquí, the main town for transport on this part of the Choco coast. Nuquí can be reached by plane from the cities of Quibdó, Medellin with scheduled flights by Satena (www.satena.com.co) with connecting flights to Bogotá. There are regular charter flights where you can book seats with TAC (www.taccolombia.com), Searca (www.searca.com.co) or San German (www.gruposangerman.com). Some charters originate in Bogotá and fly direct to Nuquí, and are linked to large hotels, but flight-only tickets are also available. Note that because of heavy rain on the Chocó coast, flights are frequently delayed by many hours.
Nuquí and nearby villages are linked to the large Pacific port of Buenaventura by slow cargo-passenger boats (24 hours) and rapid motorboats (6 hours), known as la ruta, and north to the larger coast town of Bahia Solano (3 hours from Nuquí). Note that hiring boats to take you (expreso) can get very costly ($200,000 from Termales to Nuquí). At low tide you can hike parts of the coast i.e. from Guachalito to Termales and on to Arusi.
Villages like Termales and Guachalito have basic hospedajes where backpackers and surfers can stay, and some travelers coast-hop by launch and hiking along the Chocó coast. For planned accommodation many lodges and cabañas are listed on Tripadvisor and offer all-in packages including three meals, boat transport to and from Nuquí (they will meet the plane) and some include excursions. Expect to pay around $150,000 per person per night for all-inclusive at a simple cabaña or homestay, and more than double that for luxury lodge. We stayed at Mar y Rio in Guachalito in a cabaña run by a local family of fisherman, which I would highly recommend.
What to bring:
Bring lightweight fast-drying clothes and warm top and waterproof (can get cold at sea on the boat trips), plastic bags to keep things dry, a waterproof camera is recommended (or a good dry-bag). I use a sealing plastic sandwich container to keep documents and phone dry. Strong sandals are needed for walking the rocky headlands. Life-jackets are provided on the boats. At the lodges all food and clean water is provided, and most other drinks and snacks purchased in the village shop. Bring a good torch as electricity is often out, and a simple first aid kit for cuts and grazes, and some string to make a line to dry clothes.
What to do:
Many excursions can be booked locally, though prices can depend on numbers in the party. Keep prices down by linking up with other travelers for whale-watching (July to October), fishing, canoe trips up local rivers (can be done in Jovi, north of Termales), visiting villages of indigenous Embera Katío (in Jurabida, north of Nuquí), diving (larger lodges run dive trips). Many people will be happy just to walk the beautiful beaches, but be careful with the tides. Your accommodation will offer guides for this which is recommended to keep to the safe trails and to learn about the nature and Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.