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Juanchaco and Ladrilleros

Located forty-five minutes from Buenaventura by boat, the Juanchaco, Ladrilleros, and la Barra region is one of the last largely unexplored and untouristy areas of Colombia. But give it time.  Get there now before it gets overrun by Dutch backpackers and Australian adventurers looking for their own slice of unspoiled Colombian paradise! Basically all roads here lead through Cali. From there it is a 4 hour bus ride through some seriously steep and windy roads down to Buenaventura.

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Endless tropical paradise awaits. I stumbled upon this spider while walking down a little-known jungle path, and for me it encapsulates the wonder, the mystery, the raw and magical beauty of this exotic land. Likewise, you are bound to see spectacular orchids in the wild. Flowers have proved to be an incredible boon to the Colombian economy, and currently account for one of their biggest exports.

While I would recommend going here, I want to give a few caveats. First of all, Buenaventura is not to be entered lightly. While its days as a murderous cocaine port have largely subsided, it still has an appreciable presence of guerillas, paramilitaries, and criminal elements. Fortunately, they are not in the zones where tourists would have any reason to go, so as long as you do your research and use common sense, you will be fine. Additionally the area has a significant police and military presence, so you will feel safe.

You will arrive by boat at Juanchaco. From there I would suggest heading to the slightly larger and more developed Ladrilleros, just five minutes away by motorbike. It should be only $2.000 or $3.000 COP to get there. There are no cars in the area. Due to the tides, you need to time your beach time correctly. Basically from noon to sundown, the Ladrilleros beach is at its best, that is to say, low tide. For $5.000 COP rent a table on the beach, and plenty of vendors will walk by selling water, beer, and coconut deserts.

There is a range of budget to mid-range accommodations available on the island. Remember that prices may range wildly between high and low season. For a nice resort with air conditioning, cable tv, and a pool, expect to pay something along the lines of $75.000 COP to stay in a classy spot like this. But dig around a little, and you will find many more humble establishments that will be happy to rent to you for $20.000 COP a night.

La Barra is located a few kilometers north of Ladrilleros and maybe the most unspoiled paradise you'll ever find. Electricity only came here five years ago, and there are still no hotels or restaurants. Your options are camping on the beach, or renting space in a family house. For just $2.000 COP ask this friendly guy to pull down a coconut and slice it open for you.

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Make sure to spend an unforgettable afternoon walking in between Ladrilleros and La Barra, to the north. There, you'll find some spectacular rock formations that are located about half way in between Ladrilleros and La Barra. It's about an hour to hour and a half walk between the two beaches, but make sure you time it right with the tide. Going either way in the afternoon you should be just fine. La Barra is the perfect place to take a picnic, a bottle of wine, and a guitar and hang out for a lazy afternoon. The area really encapsulates the double-edged sword that is Colombia. People stay away from the area now because of the bad reputation of Buenaventura. But in 100 years is this pristine wilderness going to look like another Cartagena or Miami Beach? Let us all pray that the answer is no!

Many small rivers creep and wind their way through the jungle as they make their way out to the ocean. With a little patience and luck you can take a great photo of butterflies and all kinds of other wildlife. However, be careful about taking pictures of the indigenous people that still live on the island. Just always remember to ask, and be gracious if they say no.

The smaller and less-developed Juanchaco side is a good spot to see natives boating or fishing. Something along the lines of twenty miles beyond, and around the point that you see here, lies the Pacific Port of Buenaventura.

For the months of January and February the Colombian government enforces a break from fishing for shrimp in order to ensure that the shrimp populations have sufficient time to grow. Although it's a little pricy, it's an absolute must to treat yourself to garlic shrimp (camarones al ajillo) during your time here. They will almost certainly be served with rice and patacones, or fried banana cakes.

In many parts of the region, transportation is more practical by boat than by motorbike. In my tourist package, I got a two hour tour of the rivers in the area included as part of my stay. Ask a local guide to take you to the waterfall, where you can bathe in deliciously fresh water.

I paid $240.000 COP (or about $150) for a three night stay at a hotel resort. My advice would be to arrive first, and then walk around, as you can do far better for your money. This typical coastal Colombian meal features shrimp soup, patacones, rice, cabbage salad, and a piece of fried fish. Make sure to squeeze fresh limes onto the fish and into the soup. Put some aji (hot sauce) on your rice, and you're good to go. For desert enjoy tasty fried coconut balls.

After half a week in Juanchaco, it was tough to leave but I had to head back and continue on to Pasto. If you can handle taking pictures with the bumpy ride, pull out your camera. There are some great shots to be had, such as this one.

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