El Valle, Bahia Solano: where the Colombian jungle meets the Pacific Ocean
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Though not yet on the international radar as such, Bahia Solano and El Valle whale tours have made the area famous around Colombia. For 5 months of the year, humpback whales come to the area to breed and rear their young before heading to colder waters. That’s certainly not all this Pacific jungle has though, and this guide aims to give you literally everything you need to know about what to do in El Valle Colombia, how to see whales in El Valle & Bahia Solano, where to stay, where to eat and some key tips about El Valle & Bahia Solano to help your visit be as smooth as possible. Check out our video of our time in surfing, releasing baby turtles and spotting whales in Chocó Colombia:
El Valle and Bahia Solano are two separate small towns, though Bahia Solano is the largest of the two, and is the key hub of the region alongside Nuquí – another place to whale-watch in Colombia just down the coast. Bahia Solano is where you’ll find your amenities like a cash point, the airport, the port and the beginning of some of the day tours. It’s not beautiful, and it’s in no way built up for tourism. El Valle also lacks a touristy vibe, and to be honest when we first pulled up we felt a little unsafe going past rickety shacks on stilts built over the sea, puddles reminiscent of Quebrada Las Gachas in Guadalupe, lots of stares and even a few jovial taunts from the locals. Over time though, we came to feel comfortable walking through the town at all hours (in groups, mind you), and people began to warm to us as we became more regular faces in their cafés and restaurants. There’s lots of poverty in this area, in a region that has historically been a reluctant home for escaped/freed African slaves and disenfranchised indigenous groups, and an area that suffered a lot during the Colombian conflict of the late 20th century.
Still, the draw of seeing whales completely in the wild is a good enough persuader for many backpackers to travel to this riskier part of Colombia, and while it’s still technically Colombia off the beaten track for now, we predict that in the next few years tourism here will explode. Despite their littered towns, El Valle & Bahia Solano are pretty hot on ecotourism, and much of the land around them is protected as part of the Utría national park.
While things like walking tours to learn about the towns and culture in this part of Colombia do not yet formally exist, there is a Colombian ViaHero guide called Andrea who specialises in Chocó, and has links to a children’s charity in the region. You can see Andrea’s profile and contact her here.
As with most of the West of Colombia, El Valle beaches are not beautiful, but they’re peaceful and have their own way of wowing you. River from the forest flow down to the sea across black sand, and the view as you stand in the Pacific Ocean and look back up at the jungle is breath-taking.
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How to get to El Valle, Colombia
There are no roads connecting Bahia Solano and the nearby town of El Valle to the rest of Colombia, so driving or getting a bus there is not an option. Instead, your only choices are to fly to Bahia Solano airport or to take a boat from either Nuqui to El Valle or from Buenaventura to Bahia Solano. From Bahia Solano, you’ll need to get a 45-minute tuktuk or taxi to El Valle.
Flying to Bahia Solano
Bahia Solano airport is only served by propeller planes, which range in size from 8 to 50 passengers depending on the route. Surprisingly, there are no direct flights from Bogotá or Cali, so Quibdo and Medellín (leaving from smaller the Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport in the centre of the city) are the only options from which to find flights to Bahia Solano. Companies that fly to Bahia Solano include Satena (which have a terribly buggy website so if you can call or visit a desk, that is the better bet to actually succeeding in buying tickets), San Germán (whose website is also terrible but the payment system at least doesn’t crash) and Ada (who we had literally never heard of before arriving at Bahia Solano airport).
When buying your plane tickets, make sure you leave plenty of time between any connections on the way back, because the runway at Bahia Solano airport is not well-built, so the regular downpours often mean that planes aren’t able to take off or touch down. It’s quite normal for the planes to be a few hours late while they wait for the weather conditions to clear, and we’ve even heard of a flight getting all the way to Bahia Solano from Medellín and then aborting the landing at the last second and returning back to the city. Leave at least a day if you’re connecting to an expensive international flight, and get yourself some travel insurance to cover any mishaps.
Bahia Solano Airport
Anyway, when you arrive at the airport, you will be asked to pay a Bahia Solano airport tax of 30,000 pesos in cash before you can go back the way you came to pick up your luggage from the side of the runway. The airport process has about the efficiency of a dog wearing slippers (you’ve all seen those videos) but eventually you’ll be smelling the fresh jungley air of Chocó.
On your return, after check-in you will need to go to the little desk in the departures lounge to pay a 7k COP airport tax. Without proof of this, you cannot board the plane. The airport is small, so if you want any chance of getting a seat in Departures you need to get there very early. If you miss out, there are several uber-local restaurants to sit in just outside of the airport (you can walk in and out of Departures as you please).
Getting a tuktuk from Bahia Solano Airport to El Valle
Right outside the airport, there will be tuktuk and van drivers waiting to take you the 14km/45 minutes to your accommodation. Tuktuks to El Valle will cost a flat rate of 15k per person – if you’re travelling alone you can expect the tuktuk driver to ask you to share the ride with someone else unless you’re willing to pay for the empty seat. If you’re staying on Playa El Almejal, which is just an extra 5 minutes drive from the town of El Valle, tell the man at the airport tax desk which hostel you have a reservation at and he’ll link you to the right van driver who takes people that way in bulk for 15k each. If you’re just going to El Valle town and not all the way to Playa El Almejal, it will cost 10k per person. Note that if the tide is up you may have to walk the last couple of hundred metres along the beach/across the river to your hostel, depending on how far down the beach you’re staying.
Getting the boat from Buenaventura to Bahia Solano
Though cheaper, this option is only for those with more time to spare and a lot of patience. To take the boat to Bahia Solano, you first need to get yourself to Buenaventura. This area has historically been key for narco-traffickers, and it was greatly affected by the conflict Colombia has suffered over the last 30 or so years, so it’s somewhere that people tell you to be extra alert to trouble. Buenaventura is only a couple of hours on the bus from Cali (have a look at all the amazing things you can do in Cali if you choose this option), and there are direct flights with Satena from Bogotá. Alternatively, you can get an 11-hour or more bus to Buenaventura from Bogotá (though taking this option at night is not generally recommended).
Once in Buenaventura, you need to find the Bodega de Renacer and book a place on the cargo boat that travels up the Pacific coast to Bahia Solano, leaving from Buenaventura every Tuesday and returning to Buenaventura every Saturday. This will cost 150,000 pesos and includes a bed and basic meals over the 24 hours you’re on the boat. Once in Bahia Solano, you’ll need to get a tuktuk or taxi to El Valle for 15k COP.
Getting the boat from Nuqui to El Valle, Colombia
There is one other alternative, which is flying to Nuquí (there are more flight routes to here, such as Cali), and then getting a 1-hour speedboat up to El Valle. This speedboat leaves only on Monday and Friday at 6am, so you’ll need to stay in Nuquí at least one night. It returns from Bahia Solano at 11am on the same days. The Nuquí speedboat costs 80,000 COP each way. Make sure you keep a look-out for whales! 😉
Where to stay in El Valle, Colombia
This is a no-brainer for us. There are a couple of small hostels in the town itself, but there’s really no better place in El Valle to be than on Playa El Almejal. And on Almejal Beach, the Pelican House Hostel is up there with one of our favourite hostels in all of Latin America. While the facilities may be basic, the vibe is INCREDIBLE – not a party but certainly not quiet either – staff are mega friendly and the location is perfect, both on the edge of the beach and the edge of the jungle. We could see both from our beds!
And if we wanted an even better view, Pelican House has built a mirador hut up into the jungle on the hill, from which you have a better chance of spotting the whales that like to come close to the shore.
Now, we’ve seen most blogs on El Valle recommend the Humpback Turtle Hostel to stay, but really we think this is just because it was the first hostel to be built on Playa El Almejal, and in reality it’s now past its hey-day. We met several people who had to move to the Humpback Turtle because Pelican House was booked out, and all of them said Pelican House is better. One even disliked the vibe and lack of facilities so much that he checked out of the Humpback Turtle after just one night and moved a few hundred metres down the beach to Hakuna Matata Hostel.
How to see whales in El Valle & Bahia Solano
The season to spot whales in El Valle & Bahia Solano is June to October, and although locals say they do get sightings from April until December, they only operate El Valle whale tours Jun-Oct to better guarantee satisfaction of visitors. Along Alemjas Beach and Cuevita Beach, it is possible (and in certain months very likely!) to see whales very close to the shore without the need for booking Bahia Solano or El Valle whale tours. It’s actually easier to spot the mist blowing out of their blowholes on the horizon than it is to see their tiny dorsals from a distance. They’ve been known to come just a few metres from shore and are often seen breaching. If you catch sight of them close, try and find a high viewpoint asap. Pelican House’s mirador hut is perfect for this!
Even if you are lucky enough to see them from the mainland, we still recommend that you book a place on one of the Bahia Solano or El Valle whale tours to learn more about these amazing creatures. Here’s what’s available to you:
El Valle whale tours
The El Valle whale tours are all locally run, by people who have grown up seeing and learning about the whales. For now they’re available in Spanish only. On an El Valle whale tour, expect to be taken out in a small fishing boat of anywhere from 2 to 8 people, where the trained guide will do his best to spot whales with his crazily well-tuned eye and lifelong knowledge of the spots they like to hang out in. The 3 to 4-hour El Valle whale tours cost 110k pesos, and start with a hostel pickup at around 7:30am. We found our guide, Yepes, to be very knowledgeable and thoughtful of the whales. You can couple this tour with a visit to Utría national park OR Cascada El Tigre as a full-day trip for an extra 25k pesos. Remember kids, chase waterfalls, not whales.
Are El Valle whale tours ethical?
Boats legally have to keep a long distance from the whales, and they shouldn’t ‘chase’ them, especially if the whales are close to the shore. However, if it looks like a whale is getting close enough to land to accidentally beach itself, the boats are permitted to put themselves between the whale and the beach to try and push them back out to sea. There is a limit of 4 boats allowed around a whale, but we saw several non-whale tour boats disobeying this as they stumbled across some whales on the way to a tour of Utría national park. Our guide, Yepes, was NOT happy, and kept whistling and shouting at them to keep their distance. It seems the whale-tour boats understand the importance of ecotourism in keeping their livelihood sustainable, but the other tour guides don’t care as much since their career isn’t as at risk if the whales don’t return next year (a pretty myopic view, really!).
And while you can’t chase nor get too close to the whales, if you’re bobbing in the sea with the engine off and they get curious and come to check you out, well that’s just dandy! Once all the nasty Utría boats had left, we were the only boat remaining in the area, and the mother and baby whales kept popping up to say hello, getting gradually closer each time. It’s quite nerve-racking when they disappear underwater for 5 minutes and then surprise you with a blow of water a few metres from your tiny boat! They were mega chilled with us being there, and continued playing with each other and floating to the side, something they only do when very relaxed. We spent the next 90 minutes or so just floating alongside them with the engine off. Both a peaceful and exhilarating experience to see them so close up in the wild.
If you want to learn about the whales in English, by far your best option is to take the Madre Agua tour from Bahia Solano. This is a larger boat of around 20 people run by a group of biologists who are currently studying the whales. They are extremely knowledgeable, and even have a hydrophone device with which to listen to whale songs underwater if any males are singing (female humpback whales can only listen!). Madre Agua offer several Bahia Solano whale tours, from a 3-4 hour whale tour for 120k pesos, or a full-day whale tour including lunch for 180k pesos. The final option is a day where you’re not on tour per se, but actually helping the biologists study the whales. It’s a day that doesn’t guarantee seeing whales as you have to methodically keep to the linear path of the study, but one in which you would learn the most about their behaviours. This scientific whale trip costs 200 pesos per person, 7am to 2pm. Keep in mind that the Agua Madre tours do start from Bahia Solano, so you will have to factor in a 45-minute tuktuk ride from El Valle to get to the tour on time.
Other things to do (that aren’t El Valle whale tours!)
Explore the Utría national park
Utría is an expanse of protected mountainous jungle, which meets the sea just at the end of Cuevita beach. There are tours that offer to take you on a boat ride around the mangroves and then a 45 minute jungle hike to some of the beaches of the national park (Playa Blanca and Playa Cocolito), with the opportunity to rent snorkels at the end before being taken back to El Valle. These tours cost 120k pesos per person if there are 3 people or more in the tour (160k pp for the minimum of 2) and do not include the 53k COP national park entrance fee per person.
Surf the Pacific Ocean
The waves to the north end of Playa El Almejal (just outside Pelican House, conveniently) are perfect for beginners’ surfing. You have to be more careful towards the south, as the rocks make it dangerous and it’s permanently on a red flag there. You can rent surfboards in El Valle for 20k per hour from Pelican House or the Surf School on the beach (a little down from Hakuna Matata Hostel).
Help the El Valle turtle nest conservation programme
This is one of the most involved of the El Valle & Bahia Solano tours. In the dead of night, you accompany the turtle protection programme leaders with torches onto the beach as they search for female turtles laying their eggs or signs of newly-dug turtle nests. The eggs are then dug back out, the depth of the nest is recorded, and the eggs are taken to the turtle foundation where to nest is replicated within a fenced-off area to protect the eggs from predators such as birds, dogs and even jaguars. This activity costs 40k per person.
Release El Valle baby turtles
Once the turtle eggs have been kept safe for between 45 and 55 days, they begin to hatch naturally. The turtle foundation puts them into a pen for safe-keeping from predators and the sun, then releases them that same day at a time when the sea is calmest and the sun is low. This usually means around sunset or just after, which makes for a bloody beautiful scene. Now, there’s absolutely no guarantee that a batch of eggs will hatch that day, so you can’t plan this turtle activity ahead that well. What you do need to do is register your interest with the turtle foundation or via your accommodation, and then make sure you’re on-call to jump into action if they send word around that some baby turtles have hatched that day. The turtle release first includes a 40 minute (Spanish-only) explanation of the turtle protection programme and some in-depth information about the behaviour of turtles in the wild. The release itself only takes about 5 minutes, as the baby turtles are carried out in a bowl and the programme leader pours them out onto the sand. It’s then a case of cheering on the racers as they follow their instincts haphazardly into the sea. It is sad to see some of the weaker baby turtles struggling to move even a few paces, but that’s just nature. The El Valle turtle release experience costs 40k pesos per person, with no set time and seemingly no maximum group size.
Learn about poison on the frog tour
We didn’t take this tour ourselves, but our friends came back sopping wet with raving reviews. This activity took them on a walk deep into the jungle, where their expert guide told them all about the flora, fauna and more specifically, frogs. They saw several poisonous frogs, and learnt all about how the indigenous people of the Chocó area extract the serum to create poison arrows. After the tour, you return via canoe on the river. This is a 3-5 hour tour and costs 85,000 pesos per person.
Hike to Cascada el Tigre
This El Valle tour leads you on a 4-hour hike to the ‘Tiger Waterfall’, which falls out of the jungle into a natural pool next to the sea. The hike will take you across kilometres of beautiful shoreline before heading upstream and being able to swim in the pool of Cascada el Tigre. You can climb and jump from some of the rocks, but obviously exercise caution when doing this; the nearest hospital is a long way away. There is a lunch spot there, which should be included in your tour. To return, you have 2 options: to walk back along the same 4 hour hike (which would mean the total tour costs 70k COP plus the cost of entry to the waterfall) or to get a 20 minute boat (making the tour 85k COP). Strangely, just opting for a boat there and back only costs 70k COP, but I guess you’re not needing so much of the guide’s time to visit La Cascada el Tigre this way.
Heading North along Alemjas Beach, just an hour up the same hike as the Cascada el Tigre tour takes you on, you’ll come to the ‘Secret Beach’. There are plenty of small waterfalls to see on the way, and lots to explore around it. As a warning though, you must be aware of the tide times both for when you start off and come back. Tides change by 50 minutes every day, but your accommodation should have a timetable to check. We went too late in the day and found ourselves completely blocked by the sea. The views up until that point were pretty special anyway!
Horse-ride down Playa Cuevita
Playa Cuevita is a 9km beach that connects the town of El Valle with the Utría national park, and myyy is it a beauty. It’s almost always clear of people, and a popular hang-out for whales rearing their newborn young. This 3-hour tour takes you on a gallop all the way down the beach, ending in a lake that you and the horse can cool down in.
Where to eat in El Valle, Chocó
There aren’t that many restaurant options in El Valle, and to be honest we had hoped for more local menu del día vibes for a simple but hearty lunch. However, the small town is home to Rosa del Mar, a restaurant that is highly recommended by locals and tourists alike, and serves up some excellent fish or meat with soup. You may have to get there early to get a table for dinner!
If you’re passing through El Valle and fancy a snack, you must – MUST – try the coconut ice cream. We found a lady at an unnamed shop who sold incredible cocohelado for 2000 pesos. From Playa El Almejal, if you continue straight down the road you came in on, 2 blocks into town you’ll find her shop on the left with a hand-painted sign that says ‘Jugos Naturales’, opposite Restaurante Delicias del Pacifico. You should also stock up on her envueltos for a tasty breakfast!
And speaking of breakfast, you can get simple but filling arepas with egg, bread and a drink for 10,000 pesos at Ricuras del Valle bakery, just off the first crossroads from the beach road.
On El Almejal beach, the options for places to eat are even fewer, but luckily Pousada Don Ai provides really tasty fried fish and a delicious soup for 25k. However, their service stops at 1:30pm for lunch and 7:30pm for dinner so again, you have to get in there early.
Key knowledge for El Valle & Bahia Solano
Is there a cash point in El Valle?
Nope. Sorry. There is only one cash point in this roadless area, which is in Bahia Solano. The cashpoint doesn’t always have money in it, so you can ask your accommodation hosts to ring someone in Bahia Solano to check it’s working that day before you set off on the 45 minute tuktuk from El Valle. Apparently the day of the week with the best chance of having it working it a Monday due to the money-refilling schedule.
Does El Valle have WiFi?
This is mostly another big solid ‘no’, but recently some establishments have been popping up with some particularly slow WiFi in the town itself, such as La Casa Azul Hostel. Some people are able to get phone signal if their network connects to Claro, but for us on Movistar it was emergency calls only. To be honest, it was nice to switch off!
Humidity in El Valle and Bahia Solano
Keep it in mind that everything – everything – in the Bahia Solano area gets damp at some point, whether you’ve worn it or not. Despite being around the 28 degrees mark, the humidity is so high that it’s almost impossible to dry things naturally, and you can expect your bag to smell to high heaven on your return. Factor in some time to wash all your stuff when you get to your next destination!
It does rain a lot in the Chocó region, even when it’s not yet rainy season, so if you see a blue sky make the most of it as it could all change in a few hours!
Is El Valle tap water safe to drink?
Surprisingly, yes! Our hostel informed us that the town’s tap water comes straight from natural streams nearby, so unlike many places in Colombia, El Valle tap water is perfectly safe to drink water.
Is viche safe to drink?
Well, thats a loaded question 😉 Viche is a Chocó speciality, a potent spirit made from sugar cane. It’s essentially moonshine, and usually comes in reused Aguardiente bottles or even plastic soda bottles. No one knows the alcoholic percentage in each batch, nor the quality of the batch until someone knowledgable has tasted it. The owner of Pelican House Hostel has taken to trying each bottle before he deems it fit for sale in his hostel (what a champ), so we at least know that their stock is as ok as it can be. In El Valle, there is a man who sells viche from his bedroom opposite the great coconut ice-cream shop we mentioned earlier. We know this because our group drank Pelican House out of stock. Not our proudest moment.
How long to stay in Bahia Solano or El Valle, Colombia? 4-5 days
Well, at over 3,500 words this El Valle, Colombia post is one of our most comprehensive destination guides yet! We hope this helps you find a place to stay, book onto some great tours and pick a Bahia Solano or El Valle whale tour. Let us know if there’s anything you think we’ve missed!
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