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Report on Choco Region, Colombia by Pavel Toropov
Choco is probably the most exotic and interesting part of Colombia. It is certainly one of the least visited by tourists, especially by foreigners. The
population is primarily black, so it feels and looks more like Congo than Latin America. It has been notorious for guerrilla and paramilitary activity,
drug cultivation and is a prime location for drug smuggling out of Colombia. Lack of roads (there are only two), forested mountain chains, dense
virgin jungle, and enormous, sparsely inhabited coastline have provided prime guerrilla and drug-running habitat. For the same reasons Choco
has been virtually untouched by development and hence tourism. If you are being responsible when travelling there you can avoid problems and
see a place which is really special. The people in Choco are extremely friendly, polite and welcoming, being unused to foreign visitors, especially
in the interior, they treat you as a guest rather than a way to make some cash.

I travelled to Choco in October 2005, so the information given here may have changed since then, especially plane and boat schedules and the
security situation.

TRAVELLING THERE

BUS
There are two ways to get to Quibdo, the capital by land. ‘Rapido Ochoa’ goes 3 times a day from Medellin, at 7 in the morning, and 2 buses in the
evening, if I remember correctly at 5 and then at 6. The trip takes 12 - 13 hours, the road is terrible, bus the view is tremendous. You will see
Embera Indians on the way, the women naked from the waist up, many with their bodies painted black. The total distance is 250km, but the bus
literally crawls through the jungle for the last 200km. Even in dry conditions it’s a very rough ride on a very basic old bus. If it rains heavily the bus
may stop overnight on the way. The Medellin road is often impassable due to landslides caused by the rain. The price is around 40 000 pesos. On
the way you will be stopped at several army roadblocks. They may be a bit suspicious, but are polite, friendly and helpful.

To go back to Medellin from Quibdo, ‘Rapido Ochoa’ goes at 7 in the morning and 18:00 and 19:00 at night.

In Quibdo, the ‘Rapido Ochoa’ office is on Calle 20 con Carrera 1 (the continuation of the Embankment on the riverside, keep walking up river past
the market, it will be on your left).

WARNING!
THIS ROAD CAN BE DANGEROUS! Few foreigners take it and Colombians, even from Choco do not like travelling this route. Guerrillas frequently
burn buses and trucks (I saw 3 burnt out carcasses), attack the army outposts on the road and a British traveller was taken off a bus by the
guerrillas and killed (under strange circumstances, not known whether in cross fire or deliberately) in 2002.

If you are going to take this bus, ONLY TRAVEL DURING THE DAY! Do not have any military, or military looking items in your luggage, I was
interrogated by the army because my mosquito net is dark green. Ask about the security situation first, but the bus company may tell you that the
road is absolutely secure, like they told me, even though there had been 3 kidnappings and several trucks burnt just 2 days before. If there are
reports of guerrilla activity in Choco, think twice before taking the bus. Kelvin Leeming (NZ), the owner of ’Black Sheep’ hostel in Medellin, has met
guerrillas on this route, and they were very friendly and nice, but if they think you are worth detaining or if they are suspicious of who you are (most
rank and file guerrillas are brainwashed peasants with little knowledge of the outside world) you may be in trouble. Speaking good Spanish really
helps!

BUS FROM PEREIRA
A much better road and a lot more secure than the Medellin route. ‘Expresso Arauca’ goes to Quibdo at 7 in the morning, and back to Pereira at 8
in the morning. The price is 37 000 pesos. Expect to be on the bus for at least 8 hours. The views are reportedly spectacular. Most people, when
travelling by land, take this route, rather than the Medellin road. The ‘Expresso Arauca’ office is on Calle 25 with Carrera 5.

WARNING
Even though this route is a lot more secure, and the road is better, the guerrillas can attack and block it if they want to. Take the same precautions
as on the Medellin road. The road to Istmina is a paramilitary - controlled area, although they were disarming in 2005.

BY AIR
Satena and Aires are the biggest (and the most expensive) carriers flying to Choco. Expect to pay at least 150 000 pesos one way from Medellin or
Pereira to Quibdo. it’s a 20 min flight from Medellin.

A cheaper and more fun alternative is Aeroexpresso Pacifico, or Aexpo. They fly from Quibdo to Nuqui for 70 000 (130 000 with Satena) in a light
aircraft, which flies below the clouds and the views are amazing. The same company has flights Pereira - Quibdo (132 000) and Quibdo -
Buenaventura, as well as short flights to Pizarro, Istmina, Condoto, Bajo Baudo and other destinations in Choco. They do not fly to Medellin.

The flight from Pereira to Quibdo leaves at 9 in the morning (40 min), but schedules change. Expect an hour or so delay.

BOAT

SEA
Cargo boats connect Nuqui, El Valle and Bahia Solano with Buenaventura. I took a boat from Nuqui. Several captains do this route, I travelled with
Gigou (not sure about the spelling, pronounces Zhizho). His boat is called ‘El Luchador’, everyone in Nuqui knows him, ask for him at the docks in
Nuqui. He charges 60 000 pesos per passenger.

The trip will take at least 24 hours. The boat is not supposed to take passengers, so, to avoid the coastguard, you will be dropped off before
Buenaventura, from where you take a speed boat (extra 10 000 pesos) to Buenaventura.
My boat was severely overloaded, I only saw 3 life jackets (for 15 people), and we travelled with no lights at night, even though there are a lot of tree
trunks floating in the ocean. The sea was rough, the boat was pitching and rolling, so if you get sea sick, you will. The small cabin is tiny, and quite
dirty, cockroaches roam at will at night, but the worst of all is that the engine fumes accumulate inside and the effect is like standing behind a bus.
If the weather is good you can stay outside if there is space, but it rains a lot. Try to get a spot on one of the bottom bunks because the fumes rise
up, and its almost impossible to breathe on top bunks. You are given food on board, but it is very unappetizing to say the least, bring water and
some food of your own. These boats sink regularly and ours stopped for a bit when the captain thought that he spotted bundles of cocaine floating
in the sea. I was told that it happens a lot when drug boats have to get rid of their cargo.

If the weather is good, the coast views are stunning. Travelling between late July and late September you are likely to see whales.

I have no information on how to get a boat from Buenaventura to Nuqui or Bahia Solano, but asking in the port in Buenaventura you should get all
the info. Better to ask directly on the boats, the captains take passengers illegally, and there may be no ‘official’ service on that route.

BY RIVER
The Turbo - Quibdo passenger service on the Atrato River has just resumed. Due to intensive guerrilla and paramilitary activity all passenger
service was suspended for several years. Now the security situation is reportedly good, with naval gunboats patrolling intensively, but it’s a 500km
river going though guerrilla and paramilitary strongholds. If they want to get your boat, they will. The boat takes 2 and a half hours to Bellavista, 5 (I
think) to Riosucio and 8 or 9 to Turbo. The price to Turbo is 132 000 pesos. Cheaper to destinations lower on the river.

The boat company doing this route is called Rio & Mar, cel: 310 830 0945, the office is on the Malecon (Riverside Embankment) Calle 24 - 10.

When I was there, the boats were supposed to go on Wednesdays and Saturdays, departing at 8 in the morning. Frequently the boats leave a day
early or a day late, or get cancelled, ALWAYS confirm. The office has very irregular ours, it appears that around 11 in the morning there is always
someone there, but you may have to come back. Even if they tell you there is a boat to Turbo, it may only go as far as Riosucio (2.5 hours from
Turbo upriver), if there is not enough people travelling as far as Turbo. I was assured (by several people) that there is frequent boat service from
Riosucio to Turbo, leaving Riosucio early in the morning, so you may have to spend the night in Riosucio. I was told that the place was safe, there
is a naval and police base there and the region is paramilitary controlled. Riosucio has basic hotels and places to eat.

I have no information on the Turbo - Quibdo return trip.

WARNING

The Atrato river has seen the worst massacres of the local population by paramilitaries and possibly by the  army and guerrillas. It has been a war
zone with some parts totally controlled by the FARC and others by the paramilitaries. Remember: it’s a huge river going though a territory still
controlled by various warring parties. Even though the passenger service is running again and the river police (Quibdo office on the corner of
Malecon and Calle 24) told me the security situation was good, they are the first ones to tell you that they cannot guarantee your safety. If the
guerrillas or bandits want to get your boat, they are more than capable of doing it. Travel at your own risk.

SOME INFORMATION ON QUIBDO

Quibdo looks like Africa. It’s a very interesting, exotic town, with no obvious attractions, but it is fun to walk the streets for a day or too, just looking
around. No tourists, the only foreigners I saw were the French ‘Doctors Without Borders’ personnel, who were not very friendly, at least to me.
People are extremely polite, friendly, and quite reserved. No one hassles you. Great photo opportunities, but please, be discreet!

HOTELS

Calle  26 has quite a few. I stayed in San Andresito Hotel on Calle 26 and Carrera 6. After the corner keep walking up the 26th, its on your right, not
obvious though. There is Hotel Quibdo right on the corner, but I did not go in. San Andresito charges 18 000 per night, its safe, but the rooms have
no windows, are stuffy, but have TV and private bathroom. You may be able to get the price down.

EATING

I ate on the corner of Calle 26 and Carrera 3, the restaurant is called ‘El Buen Sabor’ next to a chicken place (itself not recommended). A set meal
will cost 3500, and is good, especially the tongue and ‘sobrebarriga’.

In the evening you can get rice, potatoes, salad, fish, chicken and pork for about 5000 (depending on the size of the portion) on the market on Calle
26. Recommended, but basic.

There is an overpriced pizza places on the corner of Calle 31 with Carrera 3. Its popular in the evenings, but the food is bad, especially the burgers.

I liked a pastry shop on Calle 26, on your right if you are walking out of San Andresito hotel, about half a block or a block down (sorry, writing from
memory).

PARTY

There is a tiny Zona Rosa in Quibdo, on Calle 31, between Carreras 2 and 3, round the corner from the pizza place. Several clubs and bars are
clustered around the square. Avoid ‘El Capricornio‘, the poshest place there, they only have imported Heineken at 10 000 pesos per can. Looks
like a money laundering place.

BANKS

I got money out without problems on my VISA cards one day, and then failed miserably the next using the same cards. There are several cash
points around, you are almost certain to be able to make a successful withdrawl, eventually, but its better to come with a reserve of pesos.

Bancolombia Calle 24 with Carrera 2, on the same corner there are two more cash points accepting VISA.

Calle 25 with Carrera 2 (one block up) has two more cash points.

I also used a cash point (successfully) on the corner of Calle 26 with Carrera 3, there is another bank on the next corner, which has a bank. Sorry,
writing from memory again.

I have no information on travellers cheques and US dollars exchange in Quibdo.

GETTING AROUND
To get to the airport get a local bus saying ‘airport’ on the corner of Calle 24 and Carrera 4. To get back from the airport take a bus saying ‘centro’
outside the terminal. For better reference jump off on the embankment outside the cathedral. The road going up from the cathedral into town is
Calle 26. You can’t get lost, Quibdo is tiny.

INTERNET
The best and the fastest connection, which did not fail (although MSN does not work very well at times) continuously as was the case with all the
other places, is opposite ‘Expresso Arauca’ office. Blue ‘Movistar sign‘. Calle 25 and Carrera 5.

AIRLINE OFFICES
Aeroexpresso Pacifico (AEXPO) has one office at the airport, and one in town (Calle 26 with Carrera 2). Tel: cel, airport, 311 300 5906.

The Aires office is in the same building as the cash points on Calle 24 with Carrera 2.

DAS
Leaving Quibdo I was approached by a DAS officer in the waiting lounge in the airport who asked me the standard security-related questions and
then inquired if I had registered with DAS when I got to the town. I said that I was  not aware that foreigners had to register. The officer called DAS
himself and confirmed that my stay in the country was legal. He chatted to me for 15 minutes and was very helpful. If you are staying for a while in
Quibdo it’s probably a good idea to show up in DAS, but it does not seem to be that important. DAS office is at Calle 25 with Carrera 6. In my
limited experience in Choco, DAS, police and the army personnel were extremely polite, helpful and (in the case of the army personnel on the
Medellin road) genuinely concerned about my safety when they thought I was at risk.

AROUND QUIBDO
I was recommended two out of town places to go for a swim, which have restaurants and bars. I never went, though.

One is called Tutunendo and the other La Torba. La Torba is closer (20 min by bus) and is more popular. Inquire locally where to take a bus.

‘Expresso Pacifico’ (across the road from ‘Expresso Arauca‘) has frequent local buses to Istmina (small mining village 2 hours south from
Quibdo), the road is reportedly safe. Other places you can visit relatively safely are Tado on the road to Pereira and Condoto. There is not much
there, though.


NUQUI
You can only fly here from Quibdo. I recommend ‘Aexpo‘, 70 000 pesos for a flight (20 min) in a light aircraft. Other airlines charge almost twice as
much.

There are possibilities of getting on a charter flight or chartering your own aircraft if there are 4 or 5 of you. For information got to ‘ChocoTur’ office
in the airport, it’s a small shop which also sells souvenirs.

Overland trek from Quibdo is theoretically possible, but will be ranked alongside crossing the Darien Gap on foot in terms of risk of never being
seen again. I spoke to several locals in Nuqui, who confirmed that there are well beaten paths used by local Indians, but the problems would be
getting a reliable guide and I was assured that the guerrillas will find you and won’t be happy about you being there. They have bases in the
mountain chain which separates Quibdo form Nuqui. Security problems aside, it would be an extremely hard trek of several days through virgin
jungle, sleeping rough and being constantly wet. When the security situation improves, it may be a possibility.

PLACES TO STAY
Nuqui has good hotels, catering for tourists, but there are cheaper options around. Look around, ask and bargain. I stayed in ‘Rocios del Mar’, a
comfortable room with two beds (with mosquito nets) cost 20 000 pesos per night, I got it down to 18 000, but it was off-season and the place was
empty. Opposite the road there is another hotel, which charges pretty  much the same. The owner of ‘Rocios del Mar’ is overly keen to get you to go
on his tours. We found him quite annoying.

TO EAT
Rocios del Mar has a full board option for 40 000 per night. There are cheaper places to eat, though, a small shack owned by an old lady known as
La Gringa (ask around, everyone knows her) serves great food, for a bout 3000 pesos. Meat, fish, coconut rice amongst other things. She also
does great fried breads, which look like thick pancakes. La Gringas place is on the main road, walking from the airport to the beach, its on your
right, it’s a shack with a small wooden sign, saying ‘La Gringa’, Don’t be put off by the shabbiness, the food is good, and La Gringa is a wonderful
lady.

Another recommended place is 1 min walk form ‘Rocios del Mar‘. walking form the hotel to the village, take first left and it almost immediately on
your right. If you want to eat fresh fish, ask the owner (a very friendly lady) and she will get some for the evening meal.

More cheap places to eat are on the street leading to the docks, just walk around and see what you like. Its fun sitting there outside someone’s
house, drinking beer and people watching.

IN NUQUI
The main beach in Nuqui is huge and dirty. The beaches do not have clear water due to the river discharge which carries a lot of mud. Be careful
with broken glass.

You can go to the neighbouring Playa Olimpica, don’t take a tour, but you will need someone to ferry you across the river (1000 pesos), you walk for
10 min on a very clear pass and then you are on the beach. it’s a lot cleaner than the Nuqui beach, almost deserted and equally huge. You can
walk down to the village in the distance. Be careful with the tides, but you can always walk though the forest at high tide. The hotel owners may try
to scare you with the stories of tides and other horrors, trying to get you to do the tour of the beach with them (10 000 pesos), but it’s a waste of
money, you can do it on your own with no danger of difficulty.

You can take various tours with the hotels to visit the thermal springs (although some friends walked there, although you have to sleep in a village
on the way), Parque Nacional Ensenada de Utria (the park keeper drowned in October 2005, he looked after the huts and the boats, so not sure
what the situation is now) and other places on the coast. The petrol is expensive, so transportation, and hence the tours, are not cheap, expect to
pay at least 40 000 for a half a day trip.

Being adventurous you can walk to nearby villages, doing a trek of several days, but ask for local info on the tides. I think its possible to get to the
villages of Pangui and Coqui (south of Nuqui) under your own steam. There are two hills in that area and I was told you can walk up them with a
guide, camping out. Confirm.

PLEASE, DO NOT GIVE MONEY OR BUY FOOD FOR KIDS IN NUQUI! Toursim there is growing and the hassle-the-tourist culture is starting,
although still in its infancy. Please don’t encourage it. Kids are starting to hassle gringos in a way they would never hassle Colombians. Please
remember that children in Colombia are expected to be extremely respectful to adults and aggressive begging is seen as insulting by
Colombians. Don’t encourage them to think that they can be rude to foreigners, or you will have a another Cusco in a few years.

PARTY
There is a disco in Nuqui, functioning during the weekends. Its on the road leading to the docks, ask around. Nuqui is very small, you cannot get
lost, and everyone knows where everything is.

My contact is: paveltoropov@hotmail.com
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