Colombia's Gorgona and Malpelo islands are located on the Pacific Ocean, 216 mi/346 km west of Bogota and 38 mi/58 km west of the small landlocked coastal town of Guapi. Gorgona, Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Gorgona functioned as a high-security prison until 1984, the year it was officially designated a national nature park. The island owes its name (Spanish for a snake-haired gorgon, from Greek mythology) to the high volume and variety of snakes that inhabit it.
Remote and relatively unknown, Gorgona and Malpelo islands are the country's best diving and snorkeling spots, with rich coral reefs that extend around the islands to the edge of the white-sand beaches.
Most of the 7.5 sq mi/20 sq km island of Gorgona is shrouded by rain forest.
More than 155 kinds of birds, 12 types of bats, 15 kinds of reptiles and numerous types of snakes populate Gorgona and Malpelo islands. In addition, dolphins and sharks are abundant in the pristine waters. Between June and November, the islands are used as a base for whale-watching and, with some luck, listening to the beautiful melodies emitted by humpback whales that migrate from Antarctic waters to mate and birth.
Visits to the islands are strictly controlled by the environmental authorities. Visitors must obtain permission from a special unit of the National Natural Parks' Administration before perusing the islands. Exploration is limited to guided tours, and neither smoking nor alcoholic beverages is allowed. Maximum stay is four days and three nights. Yellow-fever vaccination and multipurpose antivenom serum are musts.
Colombian authorities strongly advise overnight visitors to remain at the base after 5 pm because of the risk posed by the high number of snakes after dark, when the use of rubber boots is mandatory.
This destination is most appropriate for experienced divers and ecologically conscious adventurers. The old prison facilities have been refurbished to accommodate only up to 90 visitors at one time: Plan well ahead. Electricity, drinking water, a phone and a restaurant cover the most basic needs.
Gorgona is not easy to travel to. The island is served by boats (approximately 12-16 hours) from the coastal city of Buenaventura. Since the road from Cali to Buenaventura on the Pacific coast is considered unsafe at times, your best option is a flight from Cali to the Pacific port of Guapi, from where a boat journey takes about 90 minutes. The boat crossing can be rough.
For more information, contact Aviatur in Bogota (phone 571-381-7111; http://www.aviatur.com). Aviatur has the concession to run the tourist facilities on the island, including diving excursions. Or visit the official Web site of Colombia's Natural Park Administration, http://www.parquesnacionales.gov.co.
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