My daily Instagram piece turned into a lengthy one, so I thought I’d post it here instead. In the wake of yesterday’s horrific shooting in Oregon, I felt obliged to...
The Salty, Sandy & Slightly Sweaty Side of Colombia
From one coastal town to another. That was our life the week Shira came to Colombia. We woke up on Playa Blanca, took motorbikes back to Cartagena, then caught a little bus to Taganga — all in a single day. We figured we could sleep on the bus, as it was supposed to be a few hour ride. Well, sleep, we did. What was supposed to be a 3.5 hour trip turned into about 5.5 hours, thanks to the countless and pointless stops for food, bathrooms and random pick-ups. Direct bus, my you-know-what. That’s the gamble you take in this part of the world though, and we knew that. In Colombia in particular, posted bus times read, “8-11” hours. There’s literally that big of a window because they really don’t know how long it’s going to take. They attribute it to the mountainous terrain and number of car accidents. Now that I’ve seen how often (and for how long) they stop, I have a different theory. We were beat, so we didn’t mind the long drive so much. My sunburn was taking a toll on me, along with the lack of sleep from the hammock on the beach. Just after dark we started to notice city lights. We knew we would pass through another big town (Santa Marta), so we figured we were close. As we got closer and into the heart of Santa Marta, we noticed the streets were on fire, so to speak. People covered the roadways. Music came from every direction. Cars were at a complete stop. Party was in the air — and we were stuck right in the middle of it. That’s usually a good thing in my book. Today, however, sitting on a 12-person bus after an entire day of transit, it was not my cup of tea. Everyone else was a bit annoyed and just as ready as we were to get off the bus and into a hostel. You could sense it. After an hour or so of stand-still traffic, we finally started moving. Minutes later we were in Taganga. Naturally, we didn’t know where we were staying, which was really poor planning on a Thursday night during Semana Santa. Every hostel was at capacity, making for a crappy situation when you’re arriving in an unfamiliar town after dark. After our bus driver dropped everyone else off at their desired (and booked) hostels, he asked us what we wanted to do. Obviously, we told him we just need a place to sleep for the night. We stumbled upon some locals who could tell we were looking for a place, and they were more than happy to help. They told us to hop in their van with the bags so we could go look for something with vacancy. Taganga is a small beach town, but the hostels are spread out, to say the least. The town sits on a cove and is backed by mountains. The most popular places are towards the mountains — aka, uphill. After a few minutes of driving we finally found a hostel with vacant beds. Waahoo! We weren’t concerned with details as we gladly chucked our bags out of the van and thanked the kind locals for their help. I seriously do not know what we would have done if we had not run into this couple. We were able to effectively communicate with them and use their transport late on a Thursday night. With lodging so spread out in this town, what more could we ask for? We threw the couple a few thousand pesos (about $2 or $3) and they were shocked. They weren’t expecting anything, which really made me smile. They had a few extra dollars and we had a place to stay. Everyone won that night.
View of Taganga from the mirador (lookout, in English). The lookout is located on the road that connects Taganga to Santa Marta.
We checked into Bayview Hostel right away and were greeted by a lovely woman who helped run the place. We threw our bags upstairs and hit the showers with the quickness. We were told that the next few nights would be crazy, as it was Easter weekend. We expected this and were ready for a party. We went out that night for a wander around town and were pleasantly surprised. The pedestrian-only streets were buzzing with people and street food surrounded us. For the first time, it wasn’t empanadas. It was better. We found massive hotdogs, hamburgers, salchipapas and more — all for reasonable prices. This was just what we needed after spending a day on the road. We grabbed some Aguilas and Aguardiente from the local shop and sat on a corner to eat every last bite of our cherished street food. After our stomachs were happy with us, we took another wander along the water. We ended up running into an Argentinian friend Ginski and I met during our stay in Medellin. Oh, that’s another thing I haven’t pointed out yet. Generally speaking, when you backpack down the Gringo Trail in Central America, you run into a lot of Dutch, Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Swiss, etc. South America (Colombia in particular) is different that way. It’s widely traveled by it’s own people….and loads of Argentinians. We met so many of them throughout our time in Colombia. They are kind, happy and love a good party. Most of them are on holiday, so they really go all out when they travel. Their accents are beautiful — a mix of Italian and Spanish, if you will. Our buddy Nicola was traveling through Colombia on holiday and was a ball of fun. He was thrilled to see us on the streets of Taganga and after sharing a few shots of Aguardiente with us, suggested we meet him later that night at Sensations (the “it” club in town). So, we did. It’s a rooftop bar that sits on the main beach road in Taganga. It transforms into a happening club at night, thanks to Colombians, Argentinians and hundreds of other backpackers. On this particular evening, it was going off. The drinks, the breeze, the people, the music, the view — yeah. It was a killer introduction from Taganga. We were so sold.
Taganga at sunset. It really does look just like this every single night. I found it easy to fall in love with this town.
The following two days were spent soaking up all Taganga had to offer. The vibe is equal parts hippie and beach, sans any of that dirty feel. The main strip is lined with barefooted, music-loving, instrument-toting backpackers, who are just looking for a place to put their bags down for a few days. The town has recently capitalized on its stellar position on a beautiful reef , making it a popular dive spot. Shira really wanted to get in on the action, but with her cold still lingering, we all knew it was best to let it go this time. As I mentioned on a blog last summer from Utila — diving with any type of sinus/cold issue will make you hate your life immediately. Ginski and I didn’t want to spend the money on diving, so the three of us just opted for a couple of sun-filled days spent getting to know the town. I may or may not have gotten a hair wrap. Okay, I did. I mean, how many times in your life is it going to be socially acceptable to have a hair wrap (after the age of 13)? The only other time that qualifies is when you’re living out of a bakpack. So, there.
Yep. And in case you’re wondering, I still have it in…as I type these very words.
So THIS guy. He wanted to snag a photo of Shira and I during some sunset time at the beach. He was from Medellin and was in Taganga on vacation. I think he was in awe of the light skin and hair. A nice guy and a good moment.
By Friday evening, I started feeling the effects of travel. My throat became swollen and the nose started running. Dammit, I thought. I get sick about twice a year and this amount of transit will certainly push me a third time. I hadn’t been sick in months, but here were were…….in the sweltering heat of Taganga, Colombia…..and I could feel a bug coming on. We took it easy that day and tried to have an early night. Let me emphasize the word try there. It was Good Friday in Colombia and our hostel just so happend to be throwing a massive party. DJ’s were being brought in from Cali (a hip party town in Colombia), so we were told. Yay. We ate dinner and went back to the hostel with every intention of trying to sleep through the noise. When we arrived (around 10PM) to find the hostel empty, I thought it was a good sign. Then I thought realistically. Then I worried. My fears were confirmed. The party was not starting until around midnight, which meant it would go until sun-up. And did it ever. I think we all woke up every hour, on the hour, to the sweet, sweet sound of base and electro. Just what I wanted after coming down with a bug hours before bed. It’s times like these I have to remind myself that this is the travel life. You take the good with the bad when you’re on a budget. These are the prices you pay. Still, I was frustrated, grumpy and tired. Anywhere else in the world, Good Friday would have been one of the quieter Fridays of the year. Not in Colombia, though. Party on, they did.
Our plan was to get up early Saturday morning and head to Tayrona National Park, where the jungle meets the Caribbean. It’s supposed to be magical. A “must do” for anyone visiting the region. Despite the lack of sleep, we stuck with the plan. Shira and Ginski pep-talked me and made sure I felt well enough for more travel. The truth was, I didn’t. They knew that. I knew that. The alternative, however, was worse. The hostel was having yet another party that night too. I figured I had a better chance of getting solid sleep in a hammock in a National Park than I did at that dump again. So, we packed the bags and hit the road, Kleenex and all. Tayrona National Park was calling our name and we didn’t want Shira to miss it. We took a little collectivo to Santa Marta, where we caught another (much larger) bus to the park’s entrance. It is incredibly hot in Santa Marta and Taganga, so we we were looking forward to some breezy jungle-meets-ocean time in Tayrona. After a bizarre checkpoint involving Colombian police and a long stop, we were dropped off at the entrance of Tayrona National Park. Like any National Park, there was an entrance fee. They wanted $37,000 COP from non-citizens. That’s about $18USD! In other words, that’s a TON of money just to get into the park. Sick and irritated, I rolled my eyes and handed over the money.
First (real) use of the 5 fingers in Colombia. You know we’re committed to a good adventure when these things are on.
We started the trek on a nice paved road, where we were told to walk about 5K’s. Several taxis stopped to ask us if we wanted a ride to the actual trail, but we declined. A few kilometers of walking is what we came for, right? What we didn’t realize was how long the next part would be. About 45 minutes after walking through fairly easy road and mud, we saw the trail. From that point, we were to walk another few K’s. This is where it became tricky. I was blowing my nose every 2.5 minutes and the recent rainfall made the trek more technical than usual. It was supposed to be a stunning walk accompanied by views of the beautiful blue water and massive stones that lined the beach. Once again, that was not the case for us. We managed to hit one of the 5 rainy days Tayrona gets annually. No, really. I think we did this a few times in Colombia. The ocean offered no visibility, thanks to the lack of sunlight, while the trek itself was clogged with mud. Everything was gray and colorless. This was not what I had been so excited about just a short 24 hours ago. I cannot lie — it was one of my least favorite moments in Colombia. I was sick, short-tempered, wet, muddy and we didn’t know where we were going, to boot. We walked for hours (no exaggeration), until we stumbled upon a cool little swimmable beach hangout. Oh, speaking of beaches! You can’t get into the water in most of the park, as riptides and strong currents are so frequent, you will be not-so-blissfully swept away. Isn’t that just lovely? I thought so too. There are designated “swimming beaches” for this reason. This was one of them. I bought a freshly squeezed OJ and rested up for about 30 minutes. The cold was really getting to me at this point and Ginski had to force me to stop. He knew the only way I was going to make it another hour or 2 was with a bit of rest. I quickly felt a bit rejuvenated and told Shira and Ginski I was ready to finish this thing. We hiked for another hour through small creeks & paths, then over rocks and then into the ocean a bit. The terrain varied, to say they very least. We finally arrived at a massive camp and sleep spot called El Cabo. That was our final destination and we were happy to sit for a while. They were all out of hammocks (surprise), so they offered us camping as an alternative. “Camping,” I thought? Now, I love a good camping trip — but not when I’m expecting to sleep on the beach in a hammock for one night. This threw us off, but we had no choice. They showed us to one of the hundreds of tents, and that was that. We weren’t given a mattress so Ginski went back to the “front desk” to ask for one. We received 2 wet mattresses in no time. Oy, what a day. We tried to dry the mattresses out, but it did no use. Whatever. It was one night and I had PM medicine.
View of our lodging/campgrounds from the beach.
We walked the few steps to the beach and Shira and I debated getting in the water. The overcast, dreary weather wasn’t exactly screaming, “What are you waiting for?” We looked at each other and decided that we’d come all this way — why the hell not? We hopped in the freezing water and laughed our asses off. It was so cold it literally made us giggle. It was one of those moments where you laugh at yourself because you know you’re a moron. The waves were huge, but fun. It was like being a kid again. Our words were interrupted by 4 feet of salty goodness every 15 seconds. Ginski got cold just looking at us. We had enough after a few minutes and gladly got out. We roamed around the area and wondered how beautiful it must be a warm, sunny day. We made the best of the day and night, but we were all a bit over it. Having a cold certainly did not make matters any better. We even got rained on as we went to bed. I think the universe was playing a mean joke on us in Tayrona. There aren’t many places I’d like to “do-over” in the world, as there’s simply just too much I want to see. Tayrona, however, is on that list. I’ve seen picture after picture from friends during their visits to Tayrona and it is stunning. Absolutely stunning. So yeah, I’m calling for a re-do.
This could look a bit deceiving. Let me be the one to tell you — if one of those kids were to fall in off that rock, it would not be pretty. I have never experienced a current like that in my life. It was both incredible and horrific.
We awoke with the sun the next morning — Easter Sunday. Yep, that’s right. I said sun. It was sunny, and we were high-tailing it out of there. We had our fix of unexpected camping & rain and had taken all the good there was to be taken. We were done with Tayrona this go ’round. By 7AM we were on the trail headed back towards the park’s entrance. We arrived quickly, shortening our in-time out by close to an hour. Clearly, we were on a mission. We waited for the first bus that read, “Santa Marta,” and quickly hopped on it. It was crowded that day, as Colombia doesn’t stop for Easter. Families were trying to get to churches and houses. We got back into Santa Marta by late morning, then onto Taganga straight from there. It was Easter Sunday, which meant it was time for Shira to make her way back to Cartagena for her Monday departure. We were bummed. We wanted to go out with a bigger bang, but Tayrona had let us down a bit. We checked back into our super-loud hostel and ran for the showers to wash off the mud, mist and bug spray. Shira had already booked a bus back to Cartagena that night, so we just hung tight with her until departure time. Ginski and I had heard about an awesome hostel in Santa Marta, so we were headed there for a few days to simply slow down and relax. We hugged Shira goodbye, knowing we’d see her soon, somewhere out there. She was headed back to Atlanta to finish up another semester, but would be back on the road come May. I was already looking forward to more adventures with her…wherever they might be.
I kicked your ass….with a cold, Tayrona. See ya.
Ginski and I snagged a bus to Santa Marta just after Shira caught her bus to Cartagena. We went straight to La Brisa Loca, the hostel we had heard so much about. We reserved beds earlier in the day, as I was in no mood to play the disappointment game. I was still recovering and we were both absolutely exhausted. We arrived around sunset and the hostel was everything we needed and more. The staff were welcoming and the amenities were incredible. It was more hotel, less hostel. Just what we needed after a week on the move. We settled in, hit the bar and let the relaxation begin. I’m not sure what happened to the time, but we found ourselves there for almsot a week! Ooops? The nightly rates were low and we were eating a lot of street food, so it certainly didn’t hurt the wallet. I think our bodies were just telling us to slow down for a bit. We met so many other backpackers from this hostel and really enjoyed the interactions. We weren’t getting a lot of it in the Caribbean region, so it was a nice surprise. We spent our days at the beautiful pool and on the rooftop. This is one of the hottest places I have ever been in my life — and I’m from Atlanta. Santa Marta is brutal. Trust me. Lucky for us, the bar offered three happy hours a day, allowing us to “cool down,” or whatever. Stop judging. The owners and bartenders were mostly from the U.S. , which worked out really well for me this time of year. It was the beginning of baseball season and I was determined to find the Braves game on opening day. With a little help from the bartender, we succeeded. I was all geared up and ready to enjoy one of my favorite days of the year, even if it was in Santa Marta, Colombia.
We did some laundry in Taganga while we were in Santa Marta, as it was far cheaper that way. This was taken on the way back from Taganga. Fresh laundry makes Emily one happy camper. Please note the tassels hanging from the window (above). Pimp tight van, I know.
We had a few at the bar, then this happened. My little sister had just moved to New Orleans, Louisiana and this was our congratulations photo. It was a hit with her, and that’s all that mattered.
When we weren’t lounging by the pool, we spent our week walking the streets of this historic town. Santa Marta is the oldest existing city in South America, and thus, contains the oldest church in South America as well. It sits on The Caribbean, but the beaches aren’t anything to write home about. It’s more of a bustling city than it is a beach town. Surprisingly, there aren’t many gringos around, which we really enjoyed. This gave us both a chance to practice our Spanish and feel less touristy for a while. It was a nice change of pace from Taganga and Cartagena. We got into all sorts of street food and even cooked at the hostel a few nights. The streets were nuts every hour of the day, and the nightlife was limited to the hostel. We heard there were a few bars on the outskirts of town, but we never ventured that far. To be honest, we simply did not have the desire or energy by this point. The bar at La Brisa Loca was happening every night, so we found plenty of fun in our own quarters. We really loved this town, although neither of us could pinpoint why. I’m not sure if it was the local feel, the heat or the food. We just really felt like it fit us.
What? You’ve never seen a girl working out in her swimsuit? In Colombia? There was an outdoor gym on the top of our hostel. Every 10 lifts cancels out one empanada. I may or may not have made that up.
An amazing view of Santa Marta and all of its history. This is what $10/night gets you in Colombia.
All of that being said, we finally got antsy after about a week. The small mountain & coffee town of Minca was still on our list, and we were in perfect proximity. We booked a room at a little finca from our place in Santa Marta, then packed the bags. It’s only about 45 minutes away, so it doesn’t take much planning. We walked through the markets to the “bus station,” where we were supposed to catch a cheap bus and be on our way. When we arrived though, we only saw cars, which appeared to be waiting for backpackers like us. It turns out, the cars are the busses on this route. The roads up the mountains are tight, so old, beat-up cars are the mode of transport here. We hopped in the car with another couple of backpackers and we were off. Within a (very hot) hour, we arrived in Minca. It was ever so slightly cooler and heaps quieter. We threw the overweight packs on our backs once again and began our walk to our finca. Their website warned of the “ten minute, uphill walk,” but I didn’t take it seriously. After just a few minutes, I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared at Ginski. It was the, “You have got to be kidding me” face. They weren’t lying. It was straight UP for ten minutes. Combine that with the heat and 25 lbs on your back, another 10 lbs on your front, and you’ve got a little workout. We finally arrived to the top of Casa Loma Minca, bags and all. The view was stunning. You could see Santa Marta in the valley and mountains for days. We were so kindly greeted by the owner who quickly helped us get settled. We had a private room that night, since the dorm cost was almost identical. Ahhh. The temperature was cooling down already. It was a nice break from the vicious heat of Santa Marta.
The stairs to Casa Loma Minca. This is not even close to what the trek actually looked like. Holy hell.
The finca has a unique, family style vibe. Dinner is served every night around the same time, and if you want in, you eat with everyone else. Food is prepped by fellow backpackers who are working there to offset travel costs. It is owned by an incredibly friendly British couple and feels more like a bed & breakfast, and less like a hostel. Oh — and the showers. They were perhaps some of my favorite along the way. They sat on the mountain side, just a few feet away from the main building. The water felt like it coming straight from a waterfall. In hindsight, it probably was. After a hot day, it was the most refreshing thing I could have asked for — not to mention the view. Minca is a perfect get away for a night or 2, but aside from a few day hikes, there’s really not much to do in the area. That’s often the point of remote fincas like this. We had a lovely night spent chatting with loads of travelers about Colombia and what it has to offer. Per usual, Ginski and I split a plate of dinner, which was delicious. Chicken and beef schnitzel served with potatoes paired well with our boxed “Chilean” vino. It was just what these two travlin’ souls needed.
Casa Loma’s dog. Almost every hostel has one in Colombia and I absolutely loved it. The way they take care of random dogs in Colombia is something we could all learn from. It’s not about “who owns it.” It’s about helping in something in need. It’s about community. I found this display by the Colombians to be so endearing.
We left Minca around 10AM the next morning for the quick trip back to Santa Marta. We spent another night at our spot, La Brisa Loca, then decided it was time to head on. After a week of sitting on our asses, we decided it was time for some adventure. We were hearing quite a bit about Colombia’s paragliding, waterfall repelling and whitewater rafting. We couldn’t come all this way and miss any of the crazy stuff! Doing these things at home is fun enough, but doing them in a country that barely adheres to simple traffic rules? Bring. It. On. San Gil, the adventure capital of Colombia, was next on our list.
Stay tuned for more from Colombia, guys! You won’t want to miss the post about San Gil, nor the photos. It was such a kick ass time. A nineteen year-old Paragliding “instructor” (who I almost spewed on) and class 3.5 rapids? You got it!