Colombia’s Pacific coast was for a long time a no-go zone for tourists, but now the remote harbor town of Bahia Solano is becoming a popular destination for the excellent scuba diving on offer.
A half-hour boat ride from Bahia Solano’s harbor takes you to the the area’s number-one dive site. On the silty ocean floor, 100 feet below the surface, lies sunken Colombian navy ship the Sebastian de Belcazar .
As they begin the descent, divers will see the water’s color fade from pale green to a dark navy blue. Lights twinkle on all sides, gradually revealing themselves to be a shoal of bream. Tame angelfish approach, curious to inspect the visitors from the surface.
After a few minutes, the wreck looms into sight. The ship sits at an angle, with its port side sagging in the sea floor and its starboard flank tilted upwards. It is tempting to enter the Sebastian’s cavernous hold, but dive instructors advise against it for safety reasons.
The Sebastian was scuttled by the Colombian navy in 2004 to create an artificial reef which would attract marine life. Now plump surgeonfish nibble the algae growing from the captain’s cabin as shoals of grunts swirl above and pufferfish nestle among white sea-fans in the front deck. A seven-foot grouper fish which has made the Sebastian its home patrols the ship like a bodyguard. If divers hang in the still water off the ship’s edge and peer into the open, they are likely to see large fish such as giant trevalley and even tuna. Diving instructors say that on rare occasions, reef sharks are spotted lurking in the shadows under the ship’s hull.
Given its historical significance, it is surprising that the Colombian military decided to sink the Sebastian. The boat was built in the 40s by the U.S., and sold to the Colombian navy in the 70s. To date, the Sebastian is the only Colombian ship to experience combat, when its crew tried to board a vessel shipping arms to the M-19 guerrilla group, and the smugglers resisted with gunfire.
The Sebastian is not the only attraction for divers to discover beneath the bay’s surface. Nearby rocky reefs attract life in abundance, with fat parrotfish, trumpetfish and lobsters.
Despite a slightly limited visibility, the diving conditions off the shores of Bahia Solano can be excellent, with warm waters and little current. Divers without experience of the Pacific will be interested in the unfamiliar habitat provided by these stony reefs. While the islands of Gorgona and Malpelo, with their schools of hammerhead sharks and manta rays, undoubtedly offer the best Pacific diving in Colombia, they are not easily accessible – especially for a weekend trip. Bahia Solano, on the other hand, is a mere 35-minute flight from Colombia’s second city Medellin. Qualified divers who make the journey to the Pacific coast to see the whales should be sure to pack their diving licence. But Bahia Solano would be well worth a visit for its diving alone.
Rodrigo Fajardo runs dive trips out of his hostel Posada del Mar in Calle 3. An outing consisting of two dives for four people costs COP185,000 per person, equipment rental included. Rodrigo is an experienced and well-respected diving instructor. While he speaks some English, divers who speak little or no Spanish should chat to him first to check if they can communicate effectively. Rodrigo is also a member of PNAT, a Colombian initiative which organizes expeditions on which divers are likely to see sharks. For around COP300,000, he will take you to areas where the probability of seeing sharks, especially blacktips and whitetips is high. Email Ricaro at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him on +57 313 7460 680 or +57 314 630 6723.
Divemaster Enrique Garcia-Reyes from the Posada Turistica Rocas de Cabo Marzo also runs dive trips. Prices, including equipment rental, start at COP110,000 for a one-dive outing to COP260,000 for a two-dive excursion. Enrique is from the U.S., so speaks fluent English. Contact him by email at email@example.com, or by phone on +57 313 681 4001 or +57 313 681 4001.
When to go
Bahia Solanooffers year-round diving. Many divers will want their trips to coincide with the whale season (from July to November), so they can go whale-watching when not diving. In August the water temperature is around 89 degrees.
The temperature drops to a chilly 45-60 degrees between January and March. Visibility also drops during these months, but the cold water attracts large pelagic fish to relatively shallow depths.
Rain falls from April to June, warming the sea’s surface. The waters conceal frenetic activity as sharks, dolphins and other predators rush to feed on sardines, drawn to the coast by the higher temperatures. During this period, the water temperature rises to 75-80 degrees. This is also an ideal time of year for fishing.
The Colombian Pacific coast is one of the wettest regions on earth and you should bring plenty of waterproofs and plastic bags to store clothes and electric gadgets.
Malaria and Dengue fever are present in the region and travellers should not forget anti-malarials and mosquito repellent.
While conditions are improving, security along the Pacific coast remains a concern, and it is best to check the current situation before travel.