Discovering El Chocó
There is only one tiny stretch of road in the remote Colombian Pacific province of El Choco. Access is by light aircraft to the town of Nuqui, before continuing along the coast by motorboat. It is a destination for adventure. Infrastructure is limited. Logistics are challenging. Humidity is through the roof. But the natural spoils of such a journey are boundless.
El Choco is the African heart of Colombia, a heritage that permeates through its music, gastronomy and traditions. It contains mega-levels of biodiversity – one of ten such regions in the world. Scientists have identified some 600 species of birds and legions of jungle orchids and butterflies.
Tourism to the area remains mercilessly low. We crossed paths with two Swedish documentary filmmakers, a team of Colombian divers tagging a dwindling population of hammerhead sharks for the Fundación Mal Pelo, and a sailboat of four 20-something French adventurers.
Whale season, which runs July through September, sees a greater influx of foreign visitors. Most base themselves just south of Nuqui, where there is a sprinkling of ecolodges, cabañas and beach bars.
A 45-minute zip up the coast, Yurbata Lodge sits on the edge of the Utria National Park on a black sand beach amidst soaring palms, tumbling waterfalls and pristine tropical rainforest. A river passes through the property bringing fresh filtered water from the mountains for drinking and washing. Lemons, coconut, banana, cacao, papaya, pineapple, guanabana and sapote grow in profusion.
Built almost entirely from choibá, one of the tallest trees in the jungle, Yurbata Lodge is highly sustainable. There are four simple but comfortable rooms with double beds, en-suite bathrooms, a hammock and views over the Pacific. The private cabaña, set slightly away from the main house, is the best of them. There is no Wifi, phone signal or air conditioning, but the ocean breeze blows cooler in the evenings.
A family-run operation, Melisa and her brother Pablo host guests and act as guides. They are supported by an A-Team of maids, boatmen and cooks. Every meal is an ode to the region’s stunning gastronomy: soups, fresh fish, coconut rice, patacones, frijoles, arepas and myriad fruit and vegetables from the garden.
There is time to read, loll in a hammock and swim, as well as visits to the Utria National Park (a must) and to a local indigenous community. The lodge can arrange cooking or surf classes, snorkelling, kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing expeditions and boat rides through mangroves. Experienced divers (January through March) can spot bottle-nosed dolphins, sailfish, manta rays, giant red snappers, barracudas, schools of tuna, Leatherback sea turtles and whale sharks. In season, there is even the possibility of diving with humpbacks.
In the colourful little village of Coqui, next to a vanilla plantation, Zotea is a new offering in partnership with Leo Espinosa, Colombia’s superstar chef. We were welcomed to the restaurant and cooking school with a house cocktail made with viche, the local rocket-fuel, similar in taste to Brazilian cachaça. The project combines locally grown produce, sustainable practices and native chefs. We ate exquisite local mangrove oysters, known as piangua, and a delicate ceviche made from albacore hauled fresh that morning from the Pacific.