From Cartagena, our next port of call along the Caribbean coast of Colombia was Santa Marta. We had managed to secure a relatively cheap bus fare through a hostel in Cartagena. The bus ride took about 6 hours, including the usual South American transport shenanigans such as being asked to change bus along the highway for no particular reason. To be honest we didn’t mind this though as we had landed ourselves with a rather obnoxious bus of tourists initially.
We received the true door to door service this time (not something you can always count on depending on the mood of your bus driver). Our hotel in Santa Marta was a little on the higher end of our budget due to difficulties finding good accommodation. We were glad to find it was worth the extra spend with a luscious tropical entryway and a pool deck to boot.
Once settled in we headed out to find sustenance, there was a wings store around the corner that seemed promising. A storm must have passed through recently as the streets were full of water. The afternoon sun had turned it into a steamy sauna accompanied by smells suggesting that it was not just water that lay in those streets. We quickly made it a rule not to walk through the “water” where possible. As we ate our delicious and cheap mixed bbq plate, the power at the small café proceeded to cut in and out occasionally. Our waiter shrugged as the soccer cut out on the big screen TV. “This is pretty normal for here” he remarked. His statement rung true as the power proceeded to cut in and out at our hotel room that evening. It did make me wonder how anyone managed to run a business in this part of the world. Constant power, internet, or any other amenities for that fact were never a sure thing.
We emerged from our well air-conditioned lair into a tropical Santa Marta morning the next day. I discovered at breakfast the joys of arepas, small corn-based pockets in this case filled with eggs and spicy sauce. Absolutely delicious, unfortunately full of oil as well given that they were deep fried.
Walking around Santa Marta it quickly became clear to us that this was not a tourist town like Cartagena. While it did not feel particularly unsafe, the streets were not clean and tourist friendly. Locals did tend to stare a bit as only a few stray backpackers wandered around. We covered the “must see” list pretty fast and decided that the rest wasn’t really going to be anything we lost sleep over not seeing.
I overpaid an older man selling water, probably at already a ridiculously inflated price that only tourists would pay. It would have equated to about $2 back home but he seemed over the moon when I let him keep the change. It was almost embarrassing how little that meant to us money wise. People in this town generally seemed to be getting by on very little. However, most people seemed quite friendly.
We discovered another gem of a local restaurant serving the equivalent of a $4 lunch with drinks and dessert. The simple yet tasty fare of Colombia was suiting us well. Aside from this, our other excitement for Santa Marta was going out to watch Colombia play Ecuador at a local bar. The town was full of Colombian jerseys that day and the match was projected onto a big screen in the main square near to where we were sitting. The match itself wasn’t anything too special but the atmosphere and excitement from the locals made it very entertaining. When Colombia scored the first goal the whole town seemed to roar. Unfortunately, Ecuador went on to score 3 late goals and upset Colombia. We made our way back to the hotel swiftly before anyone could take out their frustration.
Our next destination from Santa Marta was a small beachside town further along the coast called Palomino. We had toyed with the idea of camping in Parque Tayrona, a very popular destination with backpackers, about 40 minutes from Santa Marta. However, the weather forecast (lots of rain) and logistics (hiking 3 hours to get to the campsite with all of our food and equipment) of this lead us to rethink our plans. We opted to take the collectivo, cheapest transport option, this time and had to walk for about 1.2km from our hotel with our backpacks to a local supermarket to catch it. Other than being lathered in sweat we survived the walk, I think our massive backpacks must have looked like too much trouble to steal.
We pulled into Palomino several hours later and strapped on our backpacks to walk for another kilometre or so to the beach. The road was muddy and full of potholes and I was dripping with sweat by the time we arrived. Our accommodation was literally on the edge of the sand, a lovely off grid style property with mosquito nets over the beds. We were surprised to find the water at the beach to be grey from all the churned-up sand in the wave break.
Aside from this, it was a beautiful and peaceful location. We spent our three days there alternating between lying in the day beds at the front of our accommodation and walking along the empty beach to the rivers at either end of it. We decided quite quickly that the swimming wasn’t the greatest. There was a lot of debris in the water and more than a few rips. I hate swimming with a lot of debris and only ventured into the ocean briefly. Our biggest stress was deciding which beach side restaurant to eat at each night. Living the hard life. I also had to run some repairs on our mosquito net after accidently pushing it into the ceiling fan. A bit of floss was able to hold the mesh together, however Cass was less than impressed. The mosquitoes seemed to like the taste of her.
As always with slow beachside living, our time in Palomino came to an end very quickly. Next it was back onto the collectivo, haggling with a taxi driver with some success, and a winding trip up into the coastal hinterland to Minca. Minca is a popular hang-out for backpackers and hippies with amazing mountainside scenery and plenty of Instagram opportunities. We had downgraded to hostel living again and had to climb a seemly endless set of stairs from the town to our hostel. The views were to die for once we reached the top, I have to admit we did question whether it was worth the hike up. The hostel was a rustic affair, perched on the mountain top with an array of open air huts and cabins. We had managed to secure a private room which proved to be a small hillside hut with a traditional palm frond roof big enough for a double bed. There was a curtain to pull across which served as a front door and a mosquito net over the bed. Rustic, but with excellent views.
We ventured up the road from town that afternoon to some local swimming holes. The walk itself was quite scenic, but we were both ready to be cooled down once we arrived. The swimming holes were absolutely freezing, very refreshing after the constant Colombian heat. I was “stolen” for want of a better word by a group of middle aged Colombian women who were unperturbed by the language barrier and very keen to take pictures with me. A nice change for Cass not to be the one being harassed for looking different. We eventually managed to escape and head back home.
The following day we decided to hike further up the mountain to a scenic view point. We set off quite early as it was a long walk. We were accompanied by one of the local street dogs who we assumed would leave us at one of the houses or restaurants along the way. However, as the population thinned out and the landscape turned to jungle he continued to walk along just in front of us. It was only after about 2 hours of sweaty hiking up the mountainside that he finally disappeared. It appeared that he made the correct decision as we proceeded to get lost and miss the look out point. We decided instead to head back to a nearby coffee farm for lunch and a tour.
The coffee farm tour proved to be fascinating. The entire production facility very cleverly used water pressure from the nearby river to run almost all operations and sorting of the beans. They also had an excellent composting system which was used to them raise the new coffee seedlings. Unfortunately, the brewery across from the coffee plantation was closed for tours. However, we did reunite with our street dog friend again who followed us all the way back into town.
We were treated to a spectacular sunset back at the hostel. Cass also proceeded to teach me and them flog me at Gin Rummy over dinner. As we settled in for the night we were shocked to hear some noises coming from the base of our bed. After we finally found a light source we discovered none other than our friendly street dog curled at the base of the bed. I have no idea why he climbed the ridiculous number of steps to our hostel or even how he found our little hut. He stayed the whole night, though did need to be ushered off the bed on several occasions.
Daybreak brought a dodgy tummy for Cass. We were a bit concerned with how it would put up with the winding drive back to Santa Marta. She eventually decided to brave the trip mid-morning. Our shared ride ended up being packed beyond belief. Our driver was even keen to fit 2 more people in until we all convinced him that there was definitely no more room. Cass made it down the mountain, just. We encountered a police stop on the way and had to exit the car as our bags were searched. A young French girl returned to find the equivalent of about $25 Australian missing from her bag. She raised it with the police but they feigned ignorance. Our driver informed us after we left the checkpoint that we should always keep money and passports on us, even around police. Seems that they are pretty corrupt.
Our last night in Santa Marta was quite uneventful. However, we were both glad for a proper room and to be not sharing a bathroom. Hostel living is all well and good until you stay somewhere nice, then you really miss the good life. We flew out the next day, with Cass feeling much better.