Colombia’s Mythical Parque Nacional Natural Isla Gorgona

A palm tree on the shore of Isla Gorgona off Colombia's Pacific Coast.
Photo © Andrew Dier. Keep up with Andrew and his Moon Colombia Handbook on Facebook.

A visit to the Parque Nacional Natural Isla Gorgona is an unforgettable one, no matter the time of year. This 9- by 2.6-kilometer (5.6- by 1.6- mile) island about 60 kilometers (37 miles) off the coast was thought to have been originally settled by Guna indigenous peoples who lived near present-day Panama. It was named by the Spaniards after the mythical female Greek monster, Gorgon, who, among other things, wore a belt made of snakes and even had them coming out of her hair. Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro landed on the island in 1527. He and his men were unhappy guests on the island. They didn’t stay long: too many men were getting bitten by snakes. Following that, the island was mostly uninhabited.

Surrounded by sharks and crawling with snakes, it served as a prison starting in 1959, primarily for those accused of atrocities during La Violencia, when Liberals and Conservatives fought each other in cities and towns across Colombia. Many say that the prison was modeled after the Alcatraz Penitentiary in California. Once the prison was closed in 1984, the island was converted into a national park.

Water—in the form of babbling brooks, trickling streams, roaring waterfalls, dewdrops on leaves, crashing waves, and gentle rain storms—is the proof that this island is very much alive. Because of the 90 percent humidity, mist is often seen rising from the thick tropical jungle. It has its own permanent cloud lingering above its highest points.

Travel map of Colombia's Pacific Coast
Colombia’s Pacific Coast


Hiking in Parque Nacional Natural Isla Gorgona

Hiking excursions are included in the price of package tours with travel agency Aviatur. You are not allowed to stray far from the hotel area on your own, and all hikes must be made with a guide. Excursions can also be paid for à la carte. They cost COP$10,000-30,000 each per person.

A popular hike is a half-day trek around the edge of the island and through the jungle to Playa Palmeras, a beautiful beach on the southwestern side of the island that overlooks the smaller Isla Gorgonilla. On the way you’ll have the possibility of seeing a variety of birds, snakes, monkeys, and amphibians. If you are very lucky, along the way may spot the stunning blue anole lizard, the only all-blue lizard in the world and one that exists only on this particular island. It has become threatened due to the presence of non-native iguanas. The beach is gorgeous and would be perfect except for all the flip-flops and plastic bottles—flotsam that has made its way to the island shore from all around the world. On this hike a lunch is provided and the return is via boat.

Another walk takes you to Yundigua, an area of the park with excellent snorkeling. Return from this two-hour excursion is also by boat. You can also take a two-hour walking tour to the site of the old prison, which is an eerie experience. Nature has all but reclaimed the prison, but you can almost sense the presence of ghosts lingering on. A small museum examines the brutal conditions of prison life on the island. It is open daily and is free.

Diving and Whale-Watching

Isla Gorgona is an excellent place for diving. There is a dive center on the island, and courses for beginners are available. You can arrange for diving classes during a week spent at Isla Gorgona. Five excursions can be arranged to one of the seven main dive sites near the island. Aviatur (Av. 19 No. 4-62, Bogotá, tel. 1/587-5181 or 1/587-5182) offers a diving package that includes six dives and just one excursion on land that costs around COP$1,500,000 per person. A PADI certification course costs about COP$1,600,000 per person. Two extra dives cost COP$215,000.

Another option can be to contract a diving trip from an independent dive company. These depart from either Buenaventura or Guapi. Arrecifes de Pacífico (Cra. 38 No. 8A-17, Cali, tel. 2/514-1691, cell tel. 321/642-6015) organizes four-day/three-night trips to Gorgona throughout the year. These typically depart by boat from Buenaventura. It’s about an 11-hour trip to Isla Gorgona from there, and accommodations are on board the boat, which has a capacity of about 25 passengers. This trip, including six dives and one night dive with transportation, meals, and accommodations, costs around COP$1,390,000 per person (not including equipment). Diving spots include Tiburonera, Plaza de Toros, Montañita 1, Cazuelam, Parguera, El Viudo, and Remanso de la Parguera. For beginners, they recommend a short course in Cali before departing to Gorgona, where certification can be offered.

Gorgona is an excellent place for humpback whale-watching from July to October. If diving is too deep for you, within only about 20 meters of the island shore you can swim among thousands of colorful tropical fish and the occasional sea turtle. Sometimes you can hear humpback whales singing in the far-off distance.

Accommodations and Food

Travel agency Aviatur (Av. 19 No. 4-62, Bogotá, tel. 1/587-5181 or 1/587-5182) currently has a contract to operate ecotourism activities on the island. While you can visit Isla Gorgona for the day, the only way to stay on the island is to book a tour with Aviatur. A stay of three nights, including transportation from Guapi, all meals, and three excursions, costs COP$850,000 per person for two persons. During whale-watching season from mid-July through August, the package includes two whale-watching excursions and three on-land excursions and costs COP$1,002,162 per person based on double accommodations.

One area of the island has the park offices, a dozen comfortable cabins, and the pleasant open-air restaurant. All accommodations and meals (mostly seafood) are included in the package price. Call in advance if you have special dietary needs. At lunch, if it is sunny, you might be able to see dolphins frolic nearby. A band of white-headed temperamental capuchin monkeys hangs out near the settlement.

Information and Services

There is a nurse’s office equipped with vials of snake bite antivenin, should it come to that. But, since the park’s opening, they have never had to administer those. (A worker was once bitten by a non-poisonous snake, however.) There is also a small store with handicrafts, souvenirs, and snacks. In the evenings there is even Internet service, but you may have to wait for one of the computers. Tap water is pure coming from the freshwater of the island, and it is then filtered. You can drink it from the tap in your cabin with no worries.

This is one of the most ecological resorts you may ever visit. All electricity is provided by a small hydroelectric plant. For hot water, each cabin has solar power cells on its rooftop.

Getting There

The easiest and best way to get to Isla Gorgona is to organize a lancha (boat) with Aviatur (Av. 19 No. 4-62, Bogotá, tel. 1/587-5181 or 1/587- 5182) from the coastal town of Guapi. These boats leave every Friday and Monday morning at around 11, about an hour after the arrival of the morning Satena (tel. 1/423-8530) flight from Cali. An Aviatur representative will meet you at the Guapi airport and take you over to their office/embarkation point on a mototaxi. The trip to the island takes just under two hours, sometimes over rough seas. It costs COP$150,000 round-trip. If you are not able to take the Aviatur lancha (if you arrive on a different day, for example), you will have to rent an entire lancha from Guapi for about COP$500,000, which may not be so bad if you have others to share the cost. From Buenaventura, boats heading to Bocas de Satinga can drop you off at Isla Gorgona (COP$120,000 one way). If there are four or five passengers, the boat will detour and drop you off at the island. If there are fewer passengers, the boat will radio Gorgona and rendezvous with an Aviatur speedboat, which is an adventure in its own right. Contact Aviatur about this option.

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