A Destination Guide to Filming in Colombia: The Pacific Coast
We continue our journey through the diverse regions of Colombia to the wild tropical jungles and remote beaches of the Pacific coast.
Home to humpback whales, the deadliest vertebrate on earth, and an array of tropical bird species including the Harpy Eagle and Chocó Toucan, the Colombian Pacific is one of the most biodiverse regions in the country. It is also one of the least explored. While the Caribbean coast is already on the map as a production destination for filming in Colombia, the Pacific region remains tantalizingly off-the-beaten-track.
The area collectively known as the Colombian Pacific is, in fact, made up of four different departments: Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Cauca, and Nariño. The coastline extends for over 850 miles, stretching from the northern border with Panamá (the infamously inaccessible region known as the Darien Gap) to the frontier with Ecuador in the south. Most of the inland region consists of dense jungle crisscrossed by rivers like the Atrato and the Baudó, while the coastal landscape consists of rocky promontories, black-sand beaches, and a handful of urban settlements.
The Pacific coast of Colombia remains largely cut-off from the rest of the country. There are no roads connecting the coast of Chocó department with “mainland” Colombia, and the only way to arrive on the Pacific coast by road is from Cali to Buenaventura in Valle del Cauca department, or Pasto to Tumaco in Nariño.
The most reliable way of reaching the wildest areas of this region is by air. The small Chocó towns of Nuquí and Bahía Solano can be reached via small planes from Medellín (be aware that long delays are always possible due to weather conditions on the coast). Tumaco counts on flights from Bogotá and Cali, and Buenaventura airport also has connections with the Colombian capital. The small Cauca town of Guapi also has flights from Cali.
As most of the flights are on small aircraft, baggage weight restrictions can be tight. At WhereNext we’ve become experts in the logistics of moving film gear to this remote region. Because of our near decade of experience filming on the Pacific Coast we have contacts with the regional airlines which allow us to negotiate favorable baggage allowances and carry delicate equipment as hand-luggage rather than stowed luggage. Sandra Eichmann Perret, WhereNext’s Executive Producer, is clear about the need for taking pre-production seriously for project on the Pacific coast: “Since this is such an isolated region, the importance of thorough pre-production planning and logistics is not something to be underestimated.”
Local transport in the region is by boat, which can add to the cost of a production as gasoline is more expensive than in other parts of the country. WhereNext has worked on several productions on the Pacific Coast and we always recommend working with a local production company to manage boat transport with trusted local operators and on mechanically sound boats with adequate storage for gear in order to prevent damage.
In 2009, WhereNext founder, Gregg Bleakney’s boat capsized off the Pacific coast while he was on assignment for National Geographic Adventure Magazine. He lost the bulk of his gear but managed to fire off a few photos as the boat bobbed in the surf. He says “Never again will I travel in that region without a vetted boat captain. A decade later, I’m still in contact with the captain of the boat that eventually rescued us—he’s WhereNext’s go-to contact for any project along the Pacific coast.”
The Colombian Pacific is among the wettest lowland regions on earth. On one hand, this extreme moisture is responsible for the abundant biodiversity in the Pacific region; on the other hand, this can make filming there difficult, as the chances of a rain-free day are much slimmer than in other parts of Colombia.
The coastal towns of Bahía Solano and Nuquí are among the wettest settlements on the Pacific coast: between May and December the daily chance of precipitation hovers around the 90% mark. There are three drier months between January and April, when that number drops to between 65-80%. The wettest month is generally August, when an average of over 19 inches of rainfall has been recorded.
Further south, Guapi has a significantly drier climate. The dry season is slightly longer than in Bahía Solano and Nuquí– from mid-June until late-September – and in August the average rainfall is just 1.3 inches. In contrast, the wettest months are April and November, when that average rises appreciably to over 6 inches.
Tumaco and Buenaventura follow similar patterns to Guapi, and are also substantially drier than Bahía Solano and Nuquí. Once again, August is the driest month, while April is consistently the wettest, with peaks also occurring later in the year around November.
WhereNext gained invaluable experience of filming in the wettest area of the Pacific during the production of The Birders near Nuquí.
The majority of film production on the Pacific coast is focused on Nuquí and Bahía Solano, and these towns boast the best infrastructure and local guides for exploring not only the coast, but the inland jungles and rivers. The coast surrounding these two towns is filled with stunning little beaches, jungle rivers, and waterfalls, and WhereNext has several trusted contacts who can assist in wildlife-watching, visits to local communities, and other locations.
The Botanical Garden of the Pacific – a huge area of protected mangrove forest, jungle, and Andean foothills – is an especially accessible and diverse destination. Playa Guachalito, to the south of Nuquí, is another beautiful spot, and was where WhereNext shot the Pacific Coast chapter of The Birders.
Further south, the island of Gorgona off the coast of Cauca department is an absolutely gorgeous spot. A small, jungle-clad island surrounded by coral reefs, Gorgona was once a maximum-security prison, and is now a National Park. The ruins of the old prison have been reclaimed by the jungle and are now full of monkeys, bat and snakes, making for an atmospheric location.
The Pacific coast’s star wildlife attraction are the humpback whales which visit the region annually between June and October to give birth and raise their young. They can be observed all along the coastline during these months, but the peak months for whale-watching are August and September. The top spots for filming whales are around Utría National Park, Gorgona Island, and Bahía Málaga near Buenaventura.
Apart from the whales, the Pacific is home to a large variety of species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. The world’s most poisonous vertebrate, the Golden Poison Frog can be found in the jungles of Cauca department, and many other species of these brightly-coloured amphibians can be spotted near Nuquí and Bahía Solano.
The Colombian Pacific is also the top diving destination in the country, and is an incredible location for aquatic-focused natural history productions. The islands of Gorgona and Malpelo are world-class diving locations. Gorgona’s extensive reefs are home to sea turtles, sharks, rays, and even whale sharks. Malpelo is much less accessible but is world-renowned for its remarkable number of hammerhead and silky sharks, with schools of more than a thousand regularly encountered. It’s also one of the few places on earth where the smalltooth sand tiger shark has been seen alive: it is regularly encountered at the El bajo del monstruo dive site.
Birding is also a popular activity in the region, and the area around Utría National Park is especially well-known for its avian diversity. Endemic bird species in the region include the Baudó Oropendola and Sooty-capped Puffbird, as well as colourful tanager and hummingbird species like the Scarlet-and-white Tanager and Humboldt’s Sapphire. WhereNext has several reliable local birding guide contacts in the Pacific region.
Read our: 10 Birds You Can Only Film in Colombia
The majority of inhabitants of the Pacific coast are of Afro-Colombian descent, along with Indigenous people from ethnic groups like the Embera. Since the region has been so isolated from the rest of Colombia for such a long time, much of the culture along the coast has retained its authenticity.
Music is an especially important element of Pacific culture: rhythms such as currulao and bereju are unique to the region, while instruments like the marimba de chonta – which is made out of a local palm wood by skilled artisans – are a key aspect of local musical culture. One of the best spots to visit to discover Pacific music is Guapi, where marimbas are still made by hand by craftspeople, and musical performances by traditional artists can be arranged.
Closer to Bahía Solano there are a number of Embera Indigenous reservations and it’s also possible to arrange to visit one of these in order to learn more about their traditional way of life, and their handicrafts, which are focused around crafting jewellery from colourful beads and carving wood into the shapes of wildlife like toucans and whales.
The Colombian Pacific is a mixture of wild beaches, dense jungles, diverse wildlife, and distinctive cultures and, similarly to the Eastern Plains and the Amazon, many o parts of it have rarely been featured in International productions. WhereNext has plenty of experience shooting in this off-the-beaten-track region and has the contacts and local knowledge required to facilitate a video productions anywhere on the Pacific coast.