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Off limits to most travelers for decades until just a few years ago, Colombia’s Pacific Coast is a natural paradise just waiting to be discovered. This is some of Colombia’s most spectacular landscape. It’s here that jagged hills covered in dense, tropical foliage meet the Pacific in dramatic fashion. El Chocó, as the northern half of the region is called, is one of the wettest places on earth, though that doesn’t stop adventurous tourists from camping out in a growing number of small eco-lodges perched on rocky bluffs or pristine black- or white-sand beaches. They take surf lessons, fish for big game, or go whale-watching. To the south, Colombia’s largest port, Buenaventura, once a dreadful place to spend the night, is even coming around with some good places to stay and eat. The vibe up and down the coast is less mestizo and gravitates more toward the Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups that call this region their home. Visiting isolated communities that still cling on to their traditions is just a hop on a canoe or makeshift motorcycle-powered rail cart away.

Much of the human history on the Pacific Coast is relatively recent. Maroon communities of escaped slaves, and later Free Towns, began to appear in the 17th century, setting up in the rugged rainforest where few others would go. It wasn’t until the 1930s that reliable road connections reached Buenaventura, but after that the port quickly grew and tourism followed soon after. During the Civil War the region was mostly avoided, though it’s finally starting to come back.

El Chocó is rich with unique cultures that have changed little in hundreds of years. In the interior, indigenous groups such as the Emberá still live traditional hunting and gathering lifestyles. In Buenaventura, locals play the marimba de chonta, an instrument with African origins made from a spiny palm tree, and dance the El Currulao. In San Cipriano, far from any roads, locals have created a system of motorcycle-driven rail carts called brujitas to zip them through the jungle to the nearest town.

But make no mistake about it, nature dominates here. Many visitors to the Pacific are surprised just how much lush greenery is around them. The mountains and dense jungles, mostly uninhabited and untrammeled, force themselves right to the edge of the Pacific, like at Parque Nacional Utría, where you can kayak through narrow canals inhabited by kingfishers and herons, plus search for glow-in-the-dark mushrooms and hike to secluded beaches.

The entire coast is thick with trees teeming with wildlife. Tiny crabs scatter beside your every step. Howler monkeys and green macaws chatter from the treetops. Humpback whales congregate close enough to the shore near Nuquí that you can often see them from the beach from late July to October. Join a fishing expedition in Bahía Solano and within an hour you’ll be trying to reel in marlin, sailfish, and yellowfin tuna.

While many are content to lie on the beach, the adventure contingent runs strong on the Pacific Coast. Most lodges offer hikes into the jungle to search for birds, butterflies, and waterfalls. If it’s sportfishing you are after, the sea near Bahía Solano is rich with big game. Whale-watching is best in Nuquí or Juanchaco. If you are looking to dive, UNESCO World Heritage Site Isla Malpelo is one of the most renowned destinations on the planet. You’ll swim with giant grouper, billfish, and hundreds of hammerhead sharks off this remote island some 500 kilometers off Colombia’s coast.