From a Cursed Island to a Paradise: Gorgona Island National Natural Park

In the early to mid last century, prison islands were all the rage. One of the most famous was Alcatraz, in San Francisco (United States) of which many books and movies were written, such as the famous Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood. There were many in the Atlantic, but all of them were inhabited. In Colombia, the uninhabited Gorgona Island, in the Pacific, was the perfect place to create a prison where more than 4,000 prisoners served their sentences.

Around the decade of the 80’s, 70% of the Gorgona island was deforested, as 10 tons of firewood were used weekly to cook for more than a thousand people. Fortunately, the ecological wave that rising everywhere, saved this unique and magical place from being completely wiped out.

Today it is known as the Gorgona National Natural Park, a spectacular place to visit, which, according to biologist Mateo Lopez, it serves as a barrier against climate change. It rains so much that the water production is immense, forming 75 streams in winter. Besides this, in Gorgona there are unique species such as the spectacular blue anole (Anolis gorgonae). This is a small Galapagos, but in Colombia!

Discovering Gorgona National Natural Park

Gorgona National Natural Park, made up of three islets,  is on the Pacific Ocean in the western part Colombia, between the island of Malpelo and the port of Buenaventura. This small paradise has an extension of about 26 km² of land  and 616.88 km² of marine area.

Gorgona has one of the most beautiful and complex ecosystems on the planet. It is possible to appreciate a tropical rainforest, beautiful coral formations and Indo-Pacific coral reefs. During the months of June and October it is possible to appreciate the migration of humpback whales, which come to this point to give birth to their calves, named ballenatos in Spanish.

A little bit of Gorgona’s History

The Sindagua native (precolonial aborigins) inhabited Gorgona around 1500 a.c. By 1526 the island was discovered by the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro who gave the island its modern name “Gorgona” thanks to the large number of snakes on the island, recalling the Greek mythology, where the gorgons instead of wearing hair carried snakes.

In 1959 the president of Colombia Alberto Lleras Camargo ordered the construction of a maximum-security prison, which opened in 1960. The main house of the Payan family, who lived on the island, was modified to be the prison administration.

In 1984 President Belisario Betancur closed the prison and authorized the house to be turned into a museum. The island was then declared a protected area designated for scientific research.  Entry since then was restricted, but nowadays is open for ecotourism.

Pirates in Gorgona Island

It is estimated that in the centuries XVII and XVIII Gorgona was the refuge of pirates, because it was considered a privileged point to set full sail to attack the galleons returning to Europe from the colonies with large amounts of gold. After the attacks they sailed up the seas to Panama.

La Virgen, old prison reminders in Gorgona, Colombia CC Licence

Gorgona Prison Escape Stories

Daniel Camargo Barbosa, known as the “Monster of the Mangones” was sentenced to 16 years in prison for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a nine years old girl in Barranquilla. After his capture it was learned that in his home he had a record (photographs and underwear) of 170 girls and women from Colombia and Ecuador whom he raped and murdered.

On November 23, 1984 it was confirmed that “Camargo”, as he was known, did not return to the patio number 2 where he was confined and no more information was obtained from him after the weekly bath that the prisoners had on the beach.

3 days later they found a boat destroyed at the shore and thought that sharks had killed the Camargo.  An order  to suspend the “search mission” was issued and the version that the “fugitive had died in his escape attempt” was officially released.

The prison had so far 21 records of escape attempts but none of these men were found alive. The traces of the bodies were found in the remains of the boats in the middle of the ocean.

The only escape that was confirmed much later was that of Pedro Ariza and his nephew Alberto Lopez,  together with their dog Jacqueline. They all managed to survive because they were rescued by a crew of tourists who took them to the port of Buenaventura.

Gorgona Island as a Protected Area

Gorgona Island currently belongs administratively to the municipality of Guapi, Cauca. The protected area consists of the islands Gorgona and Gorgonita, and the islets El Viudo and El horno.

The island is the largest in the world in terms of freshwater production, with 25 freshwater streams and 120 transient streams. The island also has 2 lagoons Tunapurí and Ayantuna, located on the southeastern side of the island, and are home to babillas (small size alligator type reptiles).

The highest point of the island is La Trinidad with a height of 338 meters above sea level. There are additionally  3 other small hills of lower altitude: Los Micos, La Esperanza and El Mirador.

Blue anole – Anolis gorgonae by Diego Gomez

Importance for Conservation and Local Communities

Gorgona Island is an important coastal marine conservation enclave in the Colombian Pacific. Due to its environmental characteristics, the biological diversity on Gorgona Island is considerable. As of 2004, 715 plant species and 1398 animal species had been reported, without considering terrestrial invertebrates and zooplankton species (UAESPNN, 2004). Among these, six endemic species stand out:

  • Nhotria gorgonensis (marine worm),
  • Maldane gorgonensis (marine worm),
  • Hypobolosera gorgonensis (lung crab),
  • Dyrmaeus gorgoniensis (land snail),
  • Parides gorgoniensis (butterfly),
  • Anolis gorgononae (blue anole),

And six endemic subspecies:

  • Thamnophilus punctatus gorgonae (Black-crowned Antshrike),
  • Coereba flaveola gorgonae (bananaquit),
  • Cyanerpes cyaneus gigas (Red-legged honeycreeper),
  • Cebus capucinus curtus (Colombian white-faced capuchin),
  • Bradypus variegatus gorgonae (Brown-throated sloth), and
  • Proechimys semispinosus gorgonae (Tome’s spiny rat).

Additionally, of the total number of flora and fauna species that have been reported for Gorgona Island, at least six plant species and 40 animal species are classified with some degree of threat according to the IUCN categories.

In addition to the high diversity of species and ecosystems, Gorgona Island fulfills a strategic function for the coastal human communities near its area of influence, since it was traditionally used as an artisanal fishing area.

How to get to Gorgona National Natural Park


Take a 45- minutes flight from Bogotá to Palmira city. Once at the airport, take an approximately 3- hours ride to Buenaventura. Once at Buenaventura port  you should take an extra 12-hour boat ride to Gorgona.


Take a 45- minutes flight from Bogotá to Palmira city. Once at the airport, take a flight to Guapi with Satena airline. Finally, from Guapi you should take an extra 1,5-hour boat ride to Gorgona.

What to do in Gorgona National Natural Park

Diving and snorkeling

Gorgona Island is a wonderful place for diving and snorkeling thanks to the great variety of marine fauna and flora species, including whitetip sharks, turtles of different species, groupers, octopus, large schools of snappers, jacks, among others, along with the beautiful and colorful coral reefs found on the island.

The park has 12 authorized dive sites with a maximum depth of 40 meters; the most recognized are: El planchón; La tiburonera; El remanso; La parguera; La plaza de toros; El horno and Las montañitas.

These areas have the optimal conditions for a unique experience. Bear in mind that in order to dive in this waters you need to have certified experience.

Hiking and Trekking

Hiking is the most exciting activity in Gorgona National Natural Park. You can hike along 4 trails: Antiguo Penal, Playa Palmeras, Yundigua y Higueron. This activity allows you to admire majestic landscapes among a paradisiacal tropical jungle while admiring the place that was once a prison.

Gorgona & Gorgonilla by Hector Chirimia Gonzalez


In Gorgona the most representative birds are the frigate bird, the pelican and the sulas. Other species of birds from Malpelo island that can be seen during the traveler’s stay are: the Red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus) nesting in Malpelo, Galapagos and California; the Pomarine and Long-tailed jaegers (Stercorarius pomarinus and S. longicaudus); the Audubon’s Shearwater (Puffinus iherninieri), the sooty shearwater (P. griseus), and the black storm petrel (Oceanodroma melania).

Wildlife Observation

The coral formations of the island are divided into sectors: La Ventana is the one with the largest coral extension (73.2%), followed by Playa Blanca (66.4%) and finally La Camaronera and La Azufrada (44.15%). Corals present in Gorgona belong to 18 different species of a group of 6 reef families.

The park has a record of 381 species of marine fish, 11 species of whales and dolphins, and 4 sea lions. In the second half of the year it is possible to see humpback whales, despite the possible rains.

Where to stay in Gorgona National Natural Park

Gorgona natural national park offers simple accommodation for travelers. In addition, the island has the beautiful Hotel Parque Nacional Gorgona, where you can enjoy wonderful facilities and an afternoon swim at a pool.

Best time to visit Gorgona National Natural Park

The climate on Gorgona Island is tropical maritime super-humid. Air temperature is generally above 26°C while relative humidity reaches 90% saturation. Average monthly precipitation ranges between 180 mm to 400 mm during the “dry” season (January-March) and between 550 mm to 750 mm during the “rainy” season (April-December).

Gorgona Island can be visited all year round, there is no dry season but the months with less rainfall are February and March. 

Gorgona National Natural Park Entrance fees

The entrance fee varies depending on the nationality and age of the visitors. These are the entrance fees for 2021:

  • Colombians, resident foreigners and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru (ages 5 to 25): COP 13,500 (approx.USD 4)
  • Colombians, resident foreigners and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru (over 25 years old): COP 22,000 (approx.USD 7)
  • Non-resident foreigners (over 5 years old): COP 53,000 (approx.USD 17)
  • Children under 5 years old and Colombians over 65 years old have free entrance presenting their IDs.

What to consider before visiting Gorgona National Natural Park

  • To take any of the tours inside the sanctuary you must hire an authorized and certified guide.
  • Gorgona is one of the mating, breeding and feeding sites of the humpback whale. For this reason observing whales must be done under supervision of authorized guides;
  • Consider wearing personal protective items (sun blocker, sunglasses, towel, insect repellent, and hat).
  • The use of flash when taking photographs is prohibited.
  • Recommended the use of binoculars to admire animals’ behavior and beauty in their natural habitat.
  • Carry valid identity documents and health insurance. It is recommended to be vaccinated against yellow fever and tetanus.
  • If you take specific medications, take them with you a personal first aid kit.

Some prohibitions

Feeding, bothering or hunting animals, alcoholic drinks and drugs, throwing cigarette butts, burning garbage, felling, and capturing wildlife.

About the authors

Luisa Martin

Engineer, world traveler, amateur photographer, traveling blogger, and foody.

Sara Colmenares

The current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism–environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services, and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.

When and Where to Go to See Humpback Whales in Colombia 

The second half of the year is the best time to see whales in Colombia. Here you can witness an astonishing show sponsored by nature: the migration of humpback whales from cold Antarctica to the waters of its Pacific coast. 

Whale watching in Colombia is one of the greatest experiences nature travelers can live. Plus, the kind people, the tasty food and the breathtaking landscapes of this biodiverse country make your trip to Colombia an unparalleled adventure.

In this post, we will tell you where to see whales in Colombia, how you get to those destinations and what you can do there, the best season for whale watching and some recommendations for your whale watching trip. 

Whale Watching Season in Colombia 

During the second half of the year, large groups of Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) migrate from Antarctica and Southern Chile during the winter to the warm waters of the northern Pacific Ocean to mate, give birth and raise its calves.

The route is about 8,000 km.  Although the whale migration to Colombian waters occurs from late June to November, it is more likely to see the whales from July and October.  

The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), Bahía Solano, Chocó

Humpback whales have robust bodies, large flippers, and many irregular fleshy knobs. They are almost entirely black, with some white spots.

You can distinguish its spout because it is an expanding column, somewhat balloon-shaped, which can reach up to 6 meters (20 feet) high! These marine mammals range from 13 to 16 meters (43 to 52 ft) and weigh around 30 metric tons.

One interesting trait about humpback whales is the songs produced by males, which last 10 to 20 minutes and are thought to be the longest continuous vocalizations of any mammal. 

During the migration season of whales in Colombia, you can be part of the lucky travelers that see them playing around and listen to their songs! 

Where to See Whales in Colombia 

Chocó, Cauca and Valle del Cauca are the best places to see whales in Colombia. These three departments cover most of the country’s Pacific coast and stand out for its warm climate and people. The food, in general, is also great.

But the most amazing thing about these regions is the biodiversity they host since they belong to the Biogeographic Chocó with 2,750 of endemic plant species, moist, dry and montane forests, and a variety of wildlife. Bahía Solano, Nuquí, Gorgona island and Málaga Bay are favorite spots to watch whales in Colombia 

Bahía Solano 

Bahía Solano is one of the coastal municipalities of Choco, the one with most inhabitants (9,400). It is located in the northwest of Colombia, in the Serranía del Baudó. It acts as an economic and tourist center of the region.

The solaneños live from fishing and tourism, which has grown over the years with the increasing interest in nature and ecotourism. The megadiverse rainforest and sea are deeply cherished in the region. 

Our whale watching tour in Bahía Solano is an ecotourism experience, where you not only have fun seeing the whales’ acrobatics but you learn from a scientific perspective about these large mammals and the environment around you.

The tour also includes a stop to practice snorkeling and listen to the whales song underwater, and sail to the Mecana beach, where you can enjoy a natural pool of the river and wildlife observation. It is also possible to tour the mangrove in Mecana. 

How to get there 

  • By plane: There are daily flights from the cities of Medellín, Quibdó, Pereira, and Bogotá to José Celestino Mutis Airport in Bahía Solano. Flights take up to 2.5 hours. 
  • By boat: Some ships travel from the port of Buenaventura to the seaport in Bahía two times a week in a 6-hour ride. 


There are a few hotels in Bahía Solano with medium to good quality. We can recommend these: 

  • Hotel Costa Chocó is in the town center and offers big rooms with air conditioning, balconies, pool, restaurant and a rooftop with view.  
  • Playa de Oro Lodge is a two-floor hotel in front of a golden beach in Punta Huina, which you can get to after a 20-minute boat ride from the Bahía Solano port. Although the rooms have no view, from the restaurant you can see the ocean. 
  • El Almejal Ecolodge is 40 minutes south of Bahía by road and is privileged to have a private nature reserve and the Utría NNP just 30 minutes away. The accommodation is in separate cabins. 

Other Attractions 

In Bahia Solano you can visit several waterfalls —such as Cascada del Amor and Nabugá—, beaches —Punta Huina, Playa de Los Deseos, Cuevitas, Mecana—, crystalline rivers and the Utría NNP.

At this rich park with mangroves, coral reefs, rocky littorals, and tropical rainforest, you can practice diving, snorkeling, hiking, bird, dolphin and turtle watching. 


 Nuquí is a municipality south of Bahía Solano, also on the Pacific coast, with nearly 9,000 inhabitants. Most of them are Afro-Colombians, while others belong to indigenous communities.

Nuquí is another great destination for ecotourism and community-based tourism in Colombia, as it shares the Utría National Natural Park with Bahía Solano. 

Nuquí, Chocó

How to get there 

  • By air: You can fly from Bogotá, Medellín, Pereira and Quibdó to the Reyes Murillo Airport in Nuquí. Check Aexpa and Satena airlines, or Aeronuqui and Grupo San German travel agencies for charter flights. 
  • By boat: You can access Nuquí from Buenaventura or El Valle district in Bahía Solano. 


These are some hotels where you can stay in Nuquí: 

  • Acuali is in front of the airport, with good,  airconditioned rooms. There are a restaurant and a cafe. They also include flights directly from Bogotá. 
  • La Joviseña is an ecolodge in Playa Guachalito, 45 minutes by boat from Nuquí. There is no electricity during the day, but the wooden cabins are well-equipped. They have a private boat. 
  • El Cantil is about 35 minutes by boat south from Nuquí, in front of the ocean with the jungle around. This eco-lodge offers 7 cabins, a hammock zone, a restaurant, and 2 terraces. 
  • EcoHotel Vientos de Yubarta is located on the beach of Nuquí and offers private transportation to the hotel as well as different nature tourism activities. 

Other Attractions 

There are scuba diving spots such as Piedra de Fidel, Parguera, Piedra Bonita and El Chuzudo. Surfers can visit beaches such as Playa Terquito, Pico de Loro, Pela Pela, El Chorro, Playa Brava, among others. Hot springs are also worth visiting, as the Joví and Coquí rivers. 

Gorgona Island 

Gorgona is a mysterious island on the Pacific ocean, within the department of Cauca, with dense tropical rainforest and rich coral reefs. Actually, it has been a national natural park since 1984 that includes the neighbor small island of Gorgonilla. 

It is a top nature tourism destination in Colombia because of its biological richness, to the point that it has gained the name of “Science Island” for all the information it has given researchers to understand the ecosystems and effectively manage the protected area.

This is a great spot for whale watching in ColombiaNot only you can see whales, but Gorgona also has 381 fish species, 11 whale and dolphin species, and 4 sea lion species. 

How to get there 

  • By plane: 4-hour connection flight from Bogota to Guapi. TAC and SATENA operators offer a daily round trip from Cali and Tumaco respectively. 
  • By boat: You can book a boat service from Guapi that will take you to the island in an hour and a half up to 2 hours. Otherwise, from the Buenaventura port, there are speedboat services that offer round trips for groups of over 10 people. 


The licensed operator in the park offers accommodation for 2 to 7 people in cabins and an oceanfront house for groups up to 4 members. 

Other Attractions 

Explore the island through its 4 hiking trails that allow you to see the ruins of a maximum-security prison built in the 1960s, the ocean, and the species that inhabit the rainforest. During birdwatching tours, you can see frigate birds, pelicans and booby birds (Sula). There are several sites to practice snorkeling and scuba diving to see whale sharks, whitetip reef sharks, and coral reefs.  

Uramba Bahía Malaga 

 Uramba Bahía Málaga is a National Natural Park of 47,000 hectares located in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca. This park belongs to a regional conservation corridor,  along with the Farallones de Cali NNP and Munchique NNP.

Because of its biodiversity, it is considered a world conservation hotspot. Rocky coasts, gray-ish beaches, blue sky, lush, pristine jungles surrounding emerald waters, mangroves and islets make up the landscape of the bay. 

This is another paradise for humpback whales in Colombia to breed their calves. Local tours for whale watching are offered here, guided by young locals. 

How to get there 

You can fly from Bogota to Buenaventura, or get to Cali –whether by plane or by road, and then drive about 2.5 hours to Buenaventura. There you have to take a boat for 1.5 hours to the Juanchaco pier,  where the tour boats await tourists. 


You can look for hostels along the coast in nearby villages. 

Other Attractions 

Jump off the Sierpe waterfall and take a dip in the natural pools of Las Tres Marías, which flow into the sea. You can practice adventure sports such as kayaking, and more relaxed activities including hiking and birdwatching. 

Recommendations for Whale Watching in Colombia 

  1. Whales prefer to go out when the sea is calm and the sun, less intense, so it is more likely to spot whales during the first hours of the day or in the late evening. 
  2. These whale-watching destinations have warm, humid weather, with high level of rain. Dress accordingly for your tour: wear light clothes — preferably long sleeves, good shoes, and cap. Also, use coral-friendly sunscreen and insect repellent.
  3. Take binoculars with you, apart from a charged camera or cellphone to record the experience. 
  4. Beware that the boat you ride does not come too close to the whales since this can scare them or even set apart mothers from their calves. The minimum average distance is 200 meters. 
  5. Consider booking your tours with agencies working directly with local communities and respecting the environment.

We at Sula promote sustainable tourism, so we seek to contribute to the local economy and to raise awareness about caring for the megadiverse country that is Colombia. 

 Find more wildlife tours in the Colombia wildlife tours blog 

About the author

Ana María Parra

Modern Languages professional with emphasis on business translation. Interested in cultural adaptation of written and audiovisual content.  Passionate about knowing new cultures and languages, tourism and sustainable living.