I just got back from an excellent whale-watching vacation in the pacific, and considering how little information there is on the area, I felt compelled to write a blog to help fellow travelers find their way.
Despite mixed information found online we discovered that Satena is still currently the only airline flying into Buenaventura. We took a costly direct flight from Bogotá (almost COP $600,000 per person). The flight was delayed about 2 hours meaning that we ended up missing the 1pm boat to Juanchaco so we had lunch in the town and took one at 4pm. We reserved our flights about a week and a half before the trip so if you plan early you will probably be able to get a better deal. Flights depart from Buenaventura early in the morning so you should plan to spend your last night in the city unless you are bussing back. There are no early boats that will get you back from Juanchaco in time for the flight. Transport by taxi from the airport to the docks cost COP $20,000.
Despite the horror stories you hear about Buenaventura I felt completely safe the entire time. The people are friendly, the streets were busy and well-lit and I had no problem whipping out my camera to take pictures at any point. If you take a bus, the terminal is really close to the docks and you can walk no problem.
Where to stay in Buenaventura
We tried to make a reservation ahead of time since we had no idea what we were arriving to, but all hotels told us it was unnecessary and we could just show up. Most of the hotels are located within a few blocks of the docks on Calle 1 that follows the boardwalk. We ended up staying at the hotel Titanic, which was built in the early 19th century. Although it has been renovated and modernly decorated, some of the old antique details can still be found throughout. The rooms are clean and comfortable. Towels and soap are provided, but the water is cold.
We had cocktails at a really nice bar on the corner near to the hotel. The hotel also has a restaurant on the top floor that faces the bay. Service is a bit slow (food took about 45 minutes to come out), but the quality was excellent. Right now there is construction going on in front of the hotel because they are building a new boardwalk area, but once it's ready, the area will look much nicer. The surrounding streets are lively at all hours with shops, restaurants and bars. The hotel also had a free airport shuttle which saved us some good money. I'm not sure if that's always available, so it's worth checking ahead of time. The hotel cost COP $95,000 per night for 2 people.
Boats to Juanchaco
There are a couple of companies running trips from Buenaventura to Juanchaco, but the major ones seem to be Bahia Mar and Transjuanchaco. Bahia mar is my recommended choice because they have bigger boats that are enclosed and will keep you dry. Transjuanchaco has smaller lanchas with a tarp roof, but you are likely to get sprayed by a waterfall of water as you ride. Boats currently depart at 10am, 1pm and 4pm. Returning boats run on the same time schedule. The ride is about an hour each way and will cost you somewhere around COP $54,000 each way.
Getting from Juanchacho to Ladrilleros
You can walk from the port to Ladrilleros in about 45 minutes following the main road. Alternatively there are moto taxis, cars, tuc tuck and tractor chivas that run frequently between both towns at a cost of $3,000 per person each way.
Where to stay in Juanchaco/Ladrilleros
When I did research on where to stay I found most sites recommending ladrilleros over juanchaco, but I preferred Juanchaco. The town had more character, offers easier access to the boat trips and has some great local restaurants. There are a number of hotels both in the town and on the outskirts. Ladrilleros is bigger, but lacks charm and the beach is quite undesirable. We spent 2 nights in a fantastic hotel located between both towns. Los Alcantilados is in a secluded spot surrounded by the sounds of nature. It's an affordable option with a private beach and spectacular views over the ocean. The rooms are simple with shared outdoor bathrooms/showers. Most rooms have a double bed an a bunked with mosquito nets. Soap is provided, but towels are not. We payed $45,000 per person per night with breakfast and dinner included. Drinks are available for purchase as well. The mostly private beach is accessible in the mornings or late afternoons. It's not technically private, but limited access makes it difficult for others to reach. High tide in the middle of the day brings the water level all the way up to the cliffs meaning there is no swimming. The beach is spectacular with caves, waterfalls and natural pools. At night you can hear frogs and other peaceful sounds coming from the forest.
The season starts in June and runs through mid-October, but the best time to visit is August/early September because this is when the whales are most active. The whales arrive to give birth in the bay in an protected area that is off limits to the public. Once this happens they move out into the open water where they spent time instructing their young and preparing for the long journey. At the end of the season you will still see them, but they are less likely to breach as they are getting ready to leave. Most boat companies will tell you to meet at the dock at 9am and when they have a big enough group they head out. Afternoon trips are still possible, but it's harder for them to get a group together so after waiting for hours the trip could get cancelled. All in all you will probably be out for about 1.5 hours. Once they find the whales you will spend 30 minutes watching them before heading back. No more than 5 boats are allowed with one group of whales and they are supposed to keep a distance of 200m, though it seemed more like we were 50m away the majority of the time. Each boat has an authorized community member working for the national park that will tell you about the whales and monitor the activity of the boats. We payed COP $25,000 per person for the trip and went out twice. The first day we had a group of about 12 and the second day there were 21 of us. The minimum amount seemed to be 6 in order to get the group price. We traveled the first day with Eco Natal and the second day with a guy referred to only as 'El Paísa'.
We visited both the Sierpe waterfalls and the Oriental waterfall, but the Sierpe were by far the most impressive. After following wide canals through the jungle we arrived to a collection of waterfalls in the middle of the forest. The boat docks right in front of them and you can swim through the channel from one to the other. I've seen a lot of waterfalls in my life, but these were definitely some of the most impressive. Surrounded by wild, pristine scenery the place was magical. The Oriental waterfall was ok, but I wouldn't take a trip out just to see that one. If you get a chance, there is a beautiful trail worth checking out that follows the stream behind the waterfall. I was told it's a good spot to see the Crystal frog, though we didn't see any. From Juanchaco the trip takes about 45 minutes to reach the falls. We did this trip with EcoManglar from the village of La Plata.
Piangua & other stuff to try
If you want an authentic cultural experience, then look out for excursions offering you the 'Ruta de la Piangua'. It's an opportunity to learn how the locals look for this small clam-like animal in the muddy mangroves. Piangua can be found on most menus and served chopped up and stewed. Be advised that the locals say that piangua can still be found in abundance, but is listed elsewhere as a red-list species. It might be worth doing some more research to make sure you are eating responsibly. Tapao is a traditional dish and is the name is mostly used to describe the way in which the fish is prepared and cooked. It's baked and served in a bath of flavorful, lemony goodness alongside sweet plantains. Definitely worth a try. Unlike the caribbean, the pacific coast has a lot more fish and seafood options, meaning you could eat something different at each mealtime. Also worth trying are the shrimp/piangua empanadas and the cazuela de mariscos, a hearty soup filled with all kinds of seafood. Although I felt uncomfortable eating such a majestic creature, I was also served ray as one of my included meals and found it to be quite delicious. It's not uncommon for the locals to eat sharks either. On one of my excursions I came across a lady slicing up a baby hammerhead with a machete.
Things to keep in mind
While I found the locals to be very kind and genuine, there seemed to be a tendency for prices to change and plans to be up in the air. This didn't necessarily mean they would always raise the price - sometimes it actually ended up being lower than we were originally quoted. Make sure you confirm the price before, during and after the activity to make sure that you are ok with the arrangement. Single travelers and couples are also probably better off visiting on the weekend because if you want to do boat trips to see whales, waterfalls and other similar excursions it can be challenging to get a group together and keep costs down. Prices for most activities will run you COP $25,000-30,000 in a group, but up to $180,000 by yourself which makes for a pricey getaway. Also, keep in mind that monsoon type rains could start up at anytime and last all day and night meaning you may have to reschedule activities. Flights and boat trips could also be delayed and/or cancelled due to the weather. Flexibility is key to having a good time.