Colombia patria querida, te llevo en mi corazón
Tu tienes la llave de mi corazón, yo te quiero más que a mi vida,
– La Tierra del Olvido, Carlos Vives
Colombia beloved homeland, take you in my heart
You have the key to my heart, I love you more than life
A recent post about air travel and airports mentioned plenty of details including the service, the hours and the miles logged – but left out an important element: the other travelers. Waiting for Delta Airlines flight 989 from Atlanta to Cartagena, I met Luis Mario, a student at San Diego State University, traveling to my beloved adopted country for twenty days in the New Year.
After sharing a seat row, and conversing about the beauty and growing economy in Colombia, we exchanged numbers and parted, meeting three days later to begin an adventure along the coast. Street smart, bilingual and expedition savvy, Luis was a great travel partner who added humor to and deducted worry from an unplanned route of the Caribbean Coast: Santa Marta, Taganga, Playa el Rodadero and Parque Tayrona.
Plan to Not Have a Plan
Leaving from the Berlinas bus station ($40000 COP) in the Marbella neighborhood, we arrived in Santa Marta to find all the hostels and affordable hotels sold out. We tried Playa el Rodadero – same thing. Finally, using the free WIFI at Juan Valdez Café on Parque Simón Bolivár, we booked a night stay ($25000 COP) at Casa Buho Del Paraiso in Taganga, taking the short combi ride over the mountain after watching the sunset near Paseo Bastidas.
Casa Buho was just as it appeared online: colorful, rustic, inexpensive and accommodating. The simple decor, leisurely hammocks, and wooden terraces overlooking Taganga, justified the steep climb up an unpaved road. The hostel felt like the right choice for a week of backpacking along the coast, and learning a new words (mochillero – backpacker) along the way.
During a previous visit to Taganga, a taco stand was remembered along the waterfront of the town, which is basically the main strip of this small fishing village. Excited to taste a handmade corn tortilla with pico de gallo, guacamole, fresh fish and cabbage slaw, the results turned out to be futile compared to what was expected; for $7000 COP, the taco was definitely not worth the anticipation.
When I briefly suggested I cancel my order of the slowest made taco
on the Colombian coast, Luis reminded me a good rule of street-food etiquette: “he started cooking it, so you may as well let him finish and then pay.” Admittedly, we both were disappointed in the tacos and quickly soothed our sadness with a savory $2000 arepa con queso several minutes later.
Plans of a restful night were thwarted by three attractive Swedish girls traveling together from their current locations – México, Peru and Chile. After watching their hilarious pantomime of getting ready for the evening, it took little convincing for us to join them at a nearby discoteca, Sensation. Here, vacationers and locals danced uninhibitedly under the night sky as glittery lights swirled to the suave girl DJ’s mix of House, Champeta and Reggaeton.
The next morning, we headed for Playa el Rodadero, a favorite spot in Magdalena for a sunny weather, and spent the day indulging in cocada (coconut treats) and watching huge crowds fill the tarpas (shady square tents) while we elected to rest under tall palms.
A delicious afternoon lunch at Patacón Americano confirmed, once again, that the culinary delights of Colombia continue to go underrated in other parts of the world. Finally, a late-night combi transported weary beach-goers home from their destinations.
Before sleeping another evening at Casa Buho, we phoned Parque Tayrona at the suggestion of José Luis from Doxa Tours, who we met on the bus riding through Giari to Rodadero. The phone call confirmed that the park was experiencing heavier-than-normal crowds, with double the volume at this peak holiday season.
Determined to hike and sleep a night, we woke at 4:30 am with a plan to catch the city bus. Waiting in the dark on the main road to Taganga, a collective stopped, “Parque Tayrona? You’ll never get there by bus, it takes too long! Collectivo, collectivo,” the driver shouted to us in Spanish, “$15000 each!” We thought about it for a split second before hopping in.
On the way, we picked up Benjamin and Anja, two blonde, blue-eyed Germans venturing through South America and also destined for the park. The driver raced along Highway 90 so fast, passing cars along curves and tailgating furiously, that at one point, Anja covered her eyes and appeared to be praying.
Fortunately, we arrived alive, only to face a long line of people already waiting to enter the park. The line moved quickly and we were relieved to get in; after paying admission prices ($37900 COP for me, an extranjera, and $8000 COP for Luis, a student – stay in school, kids!) we took a short bus ride into the park and were set free to hike. And hike we did, for what seemed like a long long, time (about two and a half hours).
Benjamin and Anja left us in the sweet dirt of Tayrona on their own agenda, as we cavorted up canyon rocks, along man-made wooden paths, and across sandy coves riddled with empty coconut shells. Stopping briefly, we enjoyed a lunch of comida tipica (fried fish, patacón, rice and salad) at Donde Lili, before continuing on to Cabo San Juan, where we found yet another line, this time for overnight hammocks and tents.
Waiting in the hot sun, we worked up a thirst (literally) for the beach and, after being twenty hammocks away from not staying the night, we were ushered to an enormous sleeping lodge with open walls, a sand floor and a thick, thatched roof of palm leaves. Colorful hammocks swung for several meters, lined in neat rows of multicolored canvas.
… El Parque Finalmente!
The beach of Cabo San Juan is truly picturesque, albeit a bit small. After taking obligatory “we made it” photos, and swapping sweat-drenched clothes for swimsuits, Luis and I found our way to the beach and came to rest on it’s grainy, toasted-corn colored sand.
After several minutes of decompressing our tired bones, glancing waywardly at the brilliant aqua waves lapping at the shore, we stared backwards and overhead at the tall palms blowing in the afternoon breeze, agreeing it was breathtaking, and truly worth every step of the hike.
Night fell quickly with it came the sounds, sights and smells of a remote national park. Strange birds and animals cooed and cawed against the blanket of stars overhead. Surprisingly, there were four bathrooms to service this popular and heavily-visited area. Yes, just four bathrooms, for what must be well over four-hundred people a night. No doubt the trees have seen their fair share of squats, which is difficult to picture with such lush and lovely greenery.
The next morning, being careful not to wake the three grumpy, sarcastic Australian girls the next hammocks over, an early rise to bypass the long queue for the bathrooms was successful, and also included a shower in the common-but-divided-by-concrete unisex bathing area.
A walk out to the cove revealed an empty beach with a rising sun, and an easy ascension up a small, rocky cliff to an open-walled cabaña with more multicolored hammocks (VIP overnight?)
Having only the morning to savor Cabo San Juan, breakfast in the dining area was leisurely and tasty at a slightly-high price ($10000 COP scrambled eggs, 2 arepas, and café tinto): much-needed nourishment for the day hike back.
Koji and the Coconuts
Following the same two-and-a-half-hour hike, we came upon a kid we had passed on the way in: a small Koji tribe boy wielding a machete that seemed as tall as he was, slicing open green coconuts pulled from a burlap bag. “Agua de Coco,” he said briskly as parched hikers passed. We indulged, and the natural coconut nectar was well worth the $3000.
Handing back the coconut to savor the meat inside, the kid quickly hacked the hard shell in half, almost effortlessly, his tiny muscular arms adept at every motion. Incredible. We figured if he sells ten $3000 coconuts an hour, he’s made more money than some people make in a day. A cottage industry on steroids, or in this case, on the natural high of fresh coconut water.
Arriving to the parking area exhausted, blistered, and a little sunburned, the combi back to the park entrance was a welcomed sight to see. From here, the return seemed easy, with each bus arriving within minutes of waiting, and the transition from Tayrona to Santa Marta to Barranquilla and finally arriving in Cartagena, only six hours since starting out.
Having been in Colombia for two years, this trip along its amazing coast was a journey well 0verdue; one more strike on the bucket list that feels satisfying and rewarding, much like the opportunity to live in this beautiful country.
Updated 24 January: Luis Mario has posted an awesome video about his visit to Colombia! You can watch it here or click below