I finished my job in Bucaramanga at the end of May and then went to Bogotá to await the arrival of my dear friend Courtney from the US. We spent a day together in La Candalaria – the historic part of Bogotá. Then we took a fancy double decker bus to Bucaramanga for my final goodbyes with all my friends there.
We traveled to the countryside in La Mesa de Los Santos one day and Courtney (begrudgingly?) learned how to dance salsa. Obviously, my last night in Bucaramanga was spent dancing salsa until 2am.
The first stop on our Atlantic coast tour was Riohacha where we stayed in a strange, half-abandoned castle hotel.
From there we went with a tour group to La Guajira, a desert located in the northern most part of Colombia. I had read that this area was remote, but hadn’t understood just how remote it is. The route we followed through the desert was completely unmarked and there were no roads – just tire tracks in the sand.
We made a stop at Manaure to see the pools where they extract salt from the sea water. Some Wayuu (the indigenous tribe of this region) children ran up to us asking for candy, water or coins – whatever we would give them. Our final destination was Cabo de La Vela, which felt like a ghost town from the Old West situated next to a pool with an unfathomable shade of blue.
We went to a few beaches, ate a fried fish for lunch and then spent the evening with the Colombians in our tour group. We slept in chinchorros – the large, traditional hammock from this area.
The next day was also spent visiting beaches. We climbed to the top of a hill called Pilon de Azucar. It’s situated on the tip of a peninsula so we could see blue ocean all around. The view was spectacular.
We returned to Riohacha for a night and then went to a flamingo sanctuary everyone had recommended to us by the town of Camarones. Turns out only 10 flamingos had stayed behind during migration season, though, so we were confused why everyone had suggested we come.
But it was situated next to a pretty beach so we couldn’t complain. Our teenaged tour guide took us on a canoe ride all of 20 feet to get just a little closer to the flamingos.
I had some goat meat for lunch – a typical food of the region – and then we took a bus to Palomino.
Courtney and I were immediately disappointed upon entering Palomino. We had no idea what to expect because tourism in this city only started a few years ago, so there was no mention of it in the 2010 guidebooks we had read. There was a village located next to the highway, but then began a long stretch of touristy hostels that led all the way to the beach. A bit too touristy for us. We picked the Tiki Hut hostel and resolved to get out as soon as we could in the morning. We went for a dip in a nearby river that empties into the ocean and enjoyed a nice sunset on the beach, but didn’t enjoy all the gringo couples who were with us at the beach.
Our plans to get out were foiled though when I woke up the next day feeling sick. We have since come to blame the goat meat from the day before. We were thus stuck in gringo paradise another day. While we weren’t crazy about Palomino I must say it wasn’t a bad place to spend a day lounging around in hammocks under thatch-roof huts.
After Palomino we headed towards Tayrona National Park -a site that everyone had been telling me to visit for the last year. We stayed at a beautiful hostel called Yuluka right by the park entrance. We spent our first afternoon there at yet another beach by Casa Grande. (Side note: our trip consisted of 12 beaches in total) The following day we got an early start on Tayrona.
We hiked in from the Calabazo entrance and passed El Pueblito – the ruins of an ancient city from 400 – 1600 AD where 2000 people once lived.
Our hike down consisted of jumping over giant boulders which Courtney greatly enjoyed. We ended up at the beach of Cabo San Juan where there was a beautiful bay to swim in.
Our hike out of the park went first through palm tree fields and then through the jungle along the beach.
The hike was a bit longer than expected and we arrived back at our hostel thoroughly exhausted. At the last minute we decided to spend the night in Santa Marta so that I could go to a doctor the next morning for a bump on my head that turned out to be a small infection. (Don’t worry, Mom. All taken care of as of the writing of this post.)
Everyone has always badmouthed Santa Marta, but I was convinced it would still be a nice place to spend a night. Maybe the city had just been misjudged. I saw what they meant, though, when our bus let us out at a sketchy corner downtown and we scurried into a taxi. The area our hostel was in was no less sketchy and we found out that we had made an unfortunate reservation in a party hostel. We moved next door to a quieter hostel and cursed the fact that we had left paradise to come to Santa Mierda. However it was nice to get my head taken care of in the morning. We had lunch in Taganga, a nearby fishing village that we liked a lot. It was very small, had good pizza and juice and lots of friendly locals. Also an incredible cemetery full of hand-painted tombstones. In the evening we took a car to Minca.
Minca is situated in the mountains 45 minutes outside of Santa Marta. It’s a tiny little town that consists of just a few main roads, but has developed into a travelers’ hot spot in the last few years.
We climbed up 200 steps to get to our hostel, Casa Loma. It was a beautiful wooden hostel sitting on top of a mountain with a view all the way to Santa Marta. Our first full day in Minca we went on a hike to a coffee farm named La Victoria. We were accompanied part of the way by a friendly campesino (countryman) who works at the farm and gave us some mamones. During our tour we learned about the process of picking the coffee beans and processing them on the farms 100+ year-old machinery. The guide explained that part of why Colombia’s coffee is so renowned is that the hilly terrain requires the beans to be picked by hand, so they’re always picked at optimal ripeness.
During the tour, though, half of my tongue began to swell to three times its size and so by the end I was in a hurry to get back to town to see a doctor. I took a moto taxi to the health post where they gave me something for the allergic reaction I had had. Still not sure what it was, though. Our last day in Minca we mostly sat around the hostel enjoying the view and then got a bus to Cartagena via Santa Marta.
I had to twist Courtney’s arm to get her to spend two nights in Cartagena. She was going to stay there after I went to Peru and was afraid that more than one night with me in the city would be too much time there altogether. Cartagena is known as the walled city because the historic part of town is surrounded by a wall the Spanish built to defend the city. As soon as we set sight on the wall all lit up at night, like something from a fairy tale, we were happy we had decided on two nights instead of just one. Google a few pictures of Cartagena to get a sense of how beautiful the city is, mine don’t quite capture it.
The area around our hostel felt like Europe with narrow streets, horse carriages and picturesque buildings. Our first full day in Cartagena Courtney came down with the same stomach thing I had had earlier. We walked around a little, found a vegetarian restaurant for lunch and then spent the afternoon in Bocagrande – a peninsula of Cartagena with all the beach resorts. We didn’t know where to go exactly, so naturally the taxi driver dropped the two gringas off at the Hilton. We were disappointed by this beach after all the beauties we’d been to before, but were delighted to find that walking into the Hilton’s enormous pool next door was quite easy. We went to a fancy restaurant for dinner to celebrate my last full night in Colombia. While the ambiance was nice, we were reminded of the fact that Colombians are incapable of adding spices/flavor to their foods. We also walked around Getsemani – the bohemian neighborhood of Cartagena.
Our final day we returned to Getsemani to take pictures of all the graffiti we had seen the night before. After lunch we eagerly awaited the arrive of our friend Suny who lives in New York! The three of us spent the afternoon at Castillo San Felipe – the old fort that defended the city. The Spaniards’ defeat of the English at this fort could be the very reason that South America speaks Spanish and not English. Colombia runs its national monuments a little differently from the US. We delighted in being able to explore unlit tunnels, climb the fort walls and stand on a tall, unprotected ledge. At the top of the fort we enjoyed a cold beer – Colombians love to drink beer anytime and anywhere.
We had dinner at La Diva, a fancy pizzeria which was one of the best meals I’ve had in Colombia. In the evening I bid farewell to Courtney and Suny and then took a series of three red-eye flights to arrive to Iquitos, Peru. I’ll be spending 5 weeks here with CU Peru doing trainings for health volunteers that live in the villages along the river.