Medellín was so amazing that I struggled to leave – literally! I should have known that booking a flight the day after my birthday was a bad idea…
…just add alcohol and I made the snap decision to stay an extra day with the Guatapé crew and head into the stadium for the local football match. It was a great atmosphere in there but the downside was that I had to book a whole new flight! Luckily, domestic flights in Colombia are not very expensive 🙂
Playa Concha, Santa Marta
I was pumped to be heading to the Carribean coast for some beach time, although I was alone again on the road. Colombia is a little different from the other countries I have been so far in that fellow backpackers aren’t necessarily following the same route. Some have come up from South America, others like me down from Central, and a fair crew who were simply doing Colombia. This meant that the hostels seemingly were filled with a transient population – each heading a different way – and so I found that most of the time, I’d only make friends for a day or two (and not six weeks like Ben and Alex who I travelled through most of Central America with!) The notable exception was a friendly Irishman Geroid, who seemed to randomly pop up in different places along the way!
Planning my next move from the pool!
Flying solo and arriving in Santa Marta after a short layover in Bogota, I chased unsuspecting “targets” carrying backpacks around the baggage carousel. My persistence paid dividends, finding a Swiss guy Severin just as he climbed into a taxi for the Dreamer hostel which was also where I was headed – luckily for me!
Santa Marta itself is a port town, not particularly pretty nor having much of a nightlife or culture scene. The Dreamer hostel was a little out of town but had a pool and was a great base to leave my backpack and go exploring. Air-conditioning was welcomed in the stifling heat, and being close to a large mall I took the opportunity to watch Alice in Wonderland (in Spanish!). Not sure I understood but I enjoyed a couple of hours in Tim Burton fantasyland nonetheless.
Palomino is a beach town two hours to the east, and I met friends Milli, Laura and Emma there at the hostel. The main attraction in town is a two and a half hour tube ride down the river to end up back at the beach. Sounds simple enough, but the operation involved haggling with the street vendor, choosing a motortaxi rider (important as you will see in a minute), coughing up 20,000 pesos each (about $10) and making a quick stop at the shop for some beers before setting off on our way. At this point things got interesting, hanging on to the back of the motorcycle with one hand proved challenging while gripping the inflated tube over the other shoulder.
I was thankful for my driver Geoffrey’s vast experience at 22 years of age (much more than the other moto taxi drivers who looked around twelve) as we bounded over rocks and climbed up a rutted out road towards our destination. Thankfully his skills had me arriving for the hike in one piece, even stopping to rescue Laura’s hat along the way.
The hike was around half an hour, maybe more, along a windy path which led us up a long way before we finally made our way on foot down to the river. A short time later we were afloat, drifting slowly along with the current – but as I learnt the hard way, one needs to watch out for the magroves on the side – otherwise you may end up with unwelcome visitors along for the ride with you (swimming spiders). We reached the beach just on sunset and were treated to a beautiful view as we made our way back, tubes in hand – pity we had to keep turning around as it was behind us though!
Floating our way down the river
Making our way back with a beautiful sunset behind us
The hostel itself wasn’t super welcoming and seemed to be full of Brits on gap years – I didn’t feel that I connected with the crowd, and the others had already left to head back to town. So after a morning walk along the beach, I decided to head back to Santa Marta, where I spent time hanging out with Rocio, a lovely Colombian from Bogota. Her English being about as good as my Spanish, we resorted to Spanglish, which was fine by me. Amazing how quickly everything comes back after a couple of days speaking only Spanish! The language barrier wasn’t a problem and we had a great couple of days together heading to Playa Concha, walking through the produce section of the supermarket with scratch and sniff demonstration, trying some weird and wonderful Colombian fruits and cooking up a storm in the kitchen, and she even managed to convince me that eating a raw clove of garlic to prevent mosquito bites was a good idea. It works, but I only did it once. Not sure I can stomach it every day.
Hearing of rave reviews, I booked a stay up at Casa Elemento in Minca, a beautiful mountainside paradise high up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. As soon as I arrived in this beautiful little town of just 600, I knew I was going to enjoy it. Having intended to enjoy hiking the two and a half hour journey up the mountain to reach Elemento, I looked at the midday sky and decided it was best to hop on a mototaxi instead. According to the Casa Elemento website, “it’s easy, just pay your 20,000 pesos, jump on the back and see you in 45 minutes.” However, they make no mention of the fact that the way up involves something easier likened to a motocross track than a road, and after slipping and sliding my way up I was glad that I made it! My driver earned his money that day, that’s for sure.
The motorcross track on the way up the mountain towards Casa Elemento!
Taking the tour around the property, I could only imagine how nice this place would look, as visibility was around five metres – so it was a good opportunity to stay in bed and curl up with a book. Fortunately, the next day the clouds had cleared leaving a stunning view across the mountains, although we were forewarned that it generally rains around midday everyday. That in mind, we set off for the hike to the waterfalls, taking the hostel dog along with us. Luckily for us, he knew the way and was happy to be our guide.
Enjoying the waterfalls at Minca
The walk was beautiful and after around an hour and a half we reached the reward of a crisp swim, before heading into town for lunch. That is where my luck ended, as half way back up the hill the motorbike I was on suffered a snapped clutch cable (definitely from poor riding skills!! Revving the engine hard whilst changing gears isn’t necessarily the best strategy, as we found out) and I was stranded on the hillside as the others continued up and promised to return for me. I had refused to get on the back of a bike with two others, it’s enough of a gamble as it is!
Before the breakdown
Thinking it could not be much further up, I started walking… and walking… as the large drops of rain relentlessly pelted me in the face. Soaked to the bone but still in good spirits, 45 minutes later a jeep pulled up next to me, and after a short conversation with me insiting I was going to walk, Fernando insisted that I get in.
Glad that I listened and grateful for the ride, it was still around a 30 minute drive through slippery mud – would have easily been another hour to walk if not more! Though I did have to listen to him chatting me up in Spanish the whole way – but that was the least I could do in exchange for a free ride.
Casa Elemento has a great tradition of serving family dinner each night – and everyone eats together outside at long tables. The food is all prepared in house, including the bread, and was absolutely amazing. We had no power for most of the two days I was there, but the candlelight gave the place a lovely atmosphere and you quickly realise you do not need it! Time was well spent playing guitar on the giant hammocks, and learning German card games followed by Cards Against Humanity, as well as a visit to the brewery and coffee farm.
Lazing about in a giant hammock!
Taking myself out to dinner back in Santa Marta, I had a chance meeting with Geroid, the irish guy I had met paintballing in Guatapé – and a quiet dinner turned quickly into spinning the dare wheel in La Brisa Loca. Needless to say our hike into beautiful Parque Tayrona started a little later than intended in the morning!
After navigating a confusing ticketing system and listening to the mandatory briefing (in Spanish so we didn’t understand it all anyway), we set off on our way to Cabo San Juan, one of the prettiest beaches on the area. Arriving there around 1:30pm we found a long line up to reserve a hammock for the night – and chose to cool off and swim at the beach instead. An hour later we returned to no queue but unfortunately all the hammocks were booked – although neither of us really minded so much. There is a pavillion up on the rocks which the lucky first 15 people can sleep under – which would be pretty awesome – but the rest of the campsite is quite average and we were happy to turn around and make the journey back to find a hostel.
Hiking our way through the beautiful Tayrona NP
Having spent time in Santa Marta already and seen all there is to see, we chose to mix it up and spend a night or two in Taganga, a small fishing village close by. We were quicky happy with this choice – on checking in we were given a discount on our accomodation because the pool was under maintenance – which meant a really cheap airconditioned room with breakfast included!
The small fishing village of Taganga
The hostel dog doing what he does best
The beach is nothing special and the roads not even paved, but it was a welcome change from the city and I’d even say I enjoyed it. We went to check out the town’s nightlife and met Tash and Xavier, and were all blessed by a friendly local who tied friendship bands around our wrists for a small donation. A couple of the best mojitos I’ve ever had later, we finished the evening chatting down the beach – perfect!
Cartagena was the last stop of my Colombian tour, and the pretty old town the absolute highlight, as well as the amazing street art womdering through the gentrified neighbourhood of Getsumaní. The stifling heat and humidity was uncomfortable.
Getsumani street art tour
Asides from a lively nightlife, and maybe because we didn’t want to walk around in the midday heat, there isn’t a whole lot to see in Cartagena. Although, the local guys on the street will happily try and sell you a tour, beer, water, or indeed anything you need – they aren’t shy to tell you what they have even if they are 20m away from the police!
Walking along the City walls of Cartagena
A blurry photo of me enjoying the historic district by night
Leaving Colombia has only made me want to book a trip back – there is so much more to explore – what an amazing place!