hop on the good foot

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24 hours in Bogotá

A sad day, leaving the coast of Colombia. Reluctantly we headed to Santa Marta airport only to find that the chilled vibe continues there; it is certainly the only airport I have ever been to that has a beachside waiting room. Ok, you can’t go for a swim, but certainly a change from your usual duty free fuelled hours of misery.

Santa Marta beach side airport

Santa Marta beach side airport

24 hours in Bogotá. Meaning 24 hours left in Colombia! Determined to make the most of it, we visited some tourist hot spots and dipped our toes in Bogatanian/Colombian culture before a spot of last minute shopping. Just to make it more interesting I set a little photo challenge. Try and capture the colours of Colombia in everyday life when walking around the city.

We stayed in La Candelaria which is the older area with a nice, studenty vibe and left us wanting to get to know it a little better. As with all cities, you need time to really explore and immerse yourself.  Time we simply didn’t have. Oh well, off to Brazil we go…

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The slackers guide to the Caribbean coast of Colombia

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It has been well over a month since our last post and the reason for that is we found ourselves in Colombia’s Magdalena Department. As our time seemed to be disappearing at the speed of the contents of a bottle of ‘Something Special’ on a Colombian bank holiday weekend, we decided to slow down here, well actually just stop here.

How often do you get the opportunity to nothing on the Caribbean for a month? It just so happens there are some wonderful little places around to get some serious hammock time in. It would be an arduous affair for us and you if we were to journal how we spent the last month in great detail, and we are finding it difficult to break it down into separate posts, so here’s our guide to spending a month on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Magdalena Department Map - Click to go to interactive view

Magdalena Department Map – Click to go to interactive view

Why go?: The 70km or so of coastline that the Magdalena Dept has stretches from Santa Marta to the Palomino river and the border of the La Guajira Dept. Facing north you have countless spots of idyllic coastline, lined by an endless sea of coconut and banana plantations. Stand on any beach, look south, throw a stone and you will hit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range with its jungle terrain at the base, unconquered snow-capped peaks, endemic species and the native descendants of the Tairona culture, the ‘Kogi’ that inhabit various reserves. Also, it’s really hot there, Costeños are friendly and lively people, the accommodation is reasonable, and the beers are cheap and mostly cold (providing the power doesn’t go out too often!)

Find a base: This area of Colombia lacks in many things that are a necessity for most travelers. Mainly cash machines and WI-FI.  So we found it necessary to base ourselves in the city of Santa Marta, at the Hostal Drop Bear. This ex-Cartel house has beds galore along with outrageously great value private rooms and swimming pool. The main reason we went back there four times was that it’s near the supermarket and they offer free luggage storage so you can leave your big packs and take small packs for a week away at one place or another. This is important as there is nothing worse than being on a crammed bus or on the back of a moto-taxi with a backpack that is bigger than your average local.

Moto taxi calf burn

Moto taxi calf burn

Dangers & Annoyances: These are few, and not particularly dangerous. Mosquitoes and other bitey things are many so take good bug spray and put it on before you get drunk and forget.

LADS, are a big problem. Big groups of them. Mostly rich kids from the SE of England, but their natural habitat is somewhere where they can drink much, hit the cocaine, get sunburned and offend locals, so it’s perfect for them there. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter many of them at the places we stayed, but they were around the area. Beware and avoid.

The only other one I can think of is the Moto-taxi. A quick and cheap way to nip about is on the back of a motorbike, but be careful of that exhaust pipe. The right calf bandage look is in vogue for many backpackers out there. Also, not all of them carry helmets, so when they are texting on their phones it could quite easily be the end of you.

 

Casa Elemento:

Paul and Catrin went off to be all active in the Jungle on the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) Trek, and we decided to head up into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, and to Casa Elemento which is a 2 hour hike (or 30 minute motorbike ride) up into the hills above Minca.

Above Minca - The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Above Minca – The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

The hostal is just under a year old and is on the premises of a local farm and the property itself was said to be that of an ex-paramilitary General, who no longer occupies it. The land it sits on has some pretty sweet views of the jungle-clad mountains all around as well as views of the offensively hot town of Santa Marta that sits on the coast below. As well as having a swimming pool, a bar with the best view we have ever seen and a jungle canyon in its back garden it of course has the giant 10 person hammock.

The team of British and Canadian owner/operators and volunteers work hard to ensure that you are doing what you want to do up there. It’s like a big kid’s playground in some aspects, with a selection of projects going on at once, ranging from the installation of a bamboo supported pool slide to the cultivation of their new pigs (a giant rope-swing is under construction we’re told). We originally planned to go for two days, then five, then Andy made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, so it became seven. I’m not gonna bang on about how much we enjoyed the delicious home cooked food or the splendid view at sunset. I’ll just show you some pictures of how seven days slipped away from us up on that hill.

Casa Elemento is on every backpacker’s lips in that area and is becoming a destination in itself over the town of Minca that sits below it.

Taganga:

This infamous little fishing village is known for gringos, drugs, prostitutes, corrupt police and, diving. As a result, one helluva party. We were really only looking for a chilled time so were considering dodging it altogether, but Paul and Catrin were resting their weary bones there so we went to see what all of the fuss is about and engage in some more aggressive card playing. A taxi from Santa Marta literally takes you across to the wrong side of the tracks and up into the hills then winds down into a pretty little bay dotted with boats and dusty streets further back.

We have met plenty of backpackers with stories of being set up and shaken down by the cops there but thankfully we avoided that. I did however, just for fun, time how long it took for someone to offer us drugs when we stepped onto the main strip by the shore; 8 seconds was the record! Nevertheless we had some beers, watched the sun go down, then had some rum and headed to ‘El Garaje’ for even more rum where I was forced to try out my Spanish on a strangely aggressive yet clingy coked-up Colombian dude while Ollie asked a man to dance salsa. A strange night and the next day, we got the hell out of dodge and headed for our next stop.

Rancho Relaxo:

Rancho Relaxo

Rancho Relaxo

At km46 on the right hand side of the coast road heading east, just before the ‘town’ of Buritaca you will find Rancho Relaxo (yes, it is a Simpsons reference!). Another word of mouth place; it’s only 18 months old but they have been busy there. The Canadian-run ranch wins the award for the most relaxing atmosphere on our trip. The owners are passionate about three things; agriculture, food and chilling. They have a huge patch of land where they can grow and build anything, so along with their team of volunteers and with the help of their very own mountain spring they keep the place lush and ‘jungley’.

It just so happens that some of the guests from Casa Elemento had made their way their way there as well as owners Jack and Jean, so it was a nice little reunion up at their mirador with a BBQ on the first night. Paul and Catrin were flying out the next day so we spent our last day together on the deserted beach just a short walk away. Sad to see those guys go for the last time on this trip. No doubt we will see them again back in Europe.

We actually stayed at Rancho twice and much like up on the hill above Minca, we were finding it difficult to motivate ourselves to leave the ranch where they have made significant steps in bamboo assisted smoking products. It would also be an ideal place to base yourself to explore the coast (just take loads of cash with you so you haven’t got to go back to SM). Loren, Ryan and the volunteer crew made us feel really welcome there and the home-cooked and largely home-grown food (including some amazing house hot sauce) makes it a must-stop on your trip to the coast.

Rancho Relaxo mirador

Rancho Relaxo mirador

 

General beaches:

From Rancho, you can visit some pretty awesome beaches, some of which you will have to yourself. The one over the road from Rancho was empty, and we had it all to ourselves as far as the eye could see.

Los Naranjos, is another and is near the ‘town’ of Los Angeles. At about km33, a moto-taxi ride dropped us off at the entrance to a coconut plantation that was probably one of the most beautiful places we have been on the trip. The path ran out at a lakes edge, and was guarded by some horses. The beach was deserted in the distance across the river/lake. Fearing we had taken a wrong turn and would soon become lunch for some Caimans, we headed back to search for a path. On the way back we met German and Spanish backpackers we had met before, one of whom assured us we had gone the right way and took us back to show the path. There was no path, just stripping down and wading neck deep through the river. The things people will do for a quiet beach!

Los Naranjos is the most eastern part of Tayrona and has the fun giant boulders and jungle theme that you pay for in the park, except here it’s free. The only price here is the unnerving underfoot squelch and handful of mosquito bites.

Palomino is a small beach town of is about 30 mins drive by bus from the ranch (1.5 hours from Santa Marta) at around km60 on the coast road so we headed up there for a day to see what it was all about. It’s popular with backpackers as the beach front has lots of cheap accommodation and is relatively quiet, but in our humble opinion, even though the beach was nice, it wasn’t worth hanging around there for a few days. I’m sure you will disagree when you see the pics, maybe were just spoiled at this point!

PNN Tayrona:

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At around km30 on the coastal road, you have one of Colombia’s biggest tourist draws that is the ‘beachy’ jungle reserve Tayrona national park. Looking (and sounding) like something out of the TV show Lost, it is a must on any trip to the coast in Colombia. $20US entrance fee gets you access to some fine beaches and the chance to hike into the jungle itself to the ruins of ‘Pueblitos’. Sleeping in hammocks is the main way to stay, but if you’re mental you can sleep in a tent or pay silly money for a place at one of the few hotels in the park. We stayed in a coconut plantation called ‘Don Pedro’ which is near the Arrecifes beach, which was cheap, quiet and had a hilariously moody donkey. There are hundreds of blogs out there detailing how to do Tayrona and what to see there, so we will keep this brief and show you some pretty pictures. You can only safely swim in a couple of spots that have man made wave breakers around coves. The most popular spot in the park(with good reason) is the double coved idyllic spot of Cabo San Juan de la Guía. Two nights in the park was enough for us, but you could spend a few days there exploring all it has to offer. One tip, take your own food, water and bog roll; it ain’t cheap in there and you constantly feel like you are being shaken down for basic items.

 

Costeño Beach & Surf Camp

This place is one of the oldest gringo havens around the coast and is the sister operation to Rancho. At km40 on the highway, a 15 minute walk takes you to the beach front getaway and surf spot. A great spot for a few days of R&R, the beach is beautiful and mostly deserted. They have all kinds of accommodation there from hammocks to fancy rooms, but we opted for a little beach front palapa roofed hut. We lost a few days at this place, sitting in hammocks and waking up to the sight and sound of the sea. Beware of those falling coconuts!

Santa Marta

Santa Marta sea front

Santa Marta sea front

The swelteringly hot town of Santa Marta wins the award for most visited spot on our whole trip. We ventured there five times in total, but only went out to the sea front once. It is the oldest Spanish city in South America dating back to 1525, but not much of its colonial history survives. Still a Saturday night out in the city centre revealed a lively and chaotic place with some great street food and busy bars.

In conclusion…

The Caribbean coast of Colombia has always been there, but it is a relatively new destination for foreign tourists as in the past the area had been a bit ‘FARC-y’ as well as teeming with paramilitaries and narcotrafficantes. Now, it would be a lie to say that there are no longer any worries in the area, but there is no problem for tourists and the roads and hills are full of army and police checkpoints to ensure ‘safety’. As a result, plenty of little Gringo paradises have opened their doors as they take advantage of the increasing tide of tourists and backpackers.

The places we stayed here on the coast are all foreign run and offer some respite from the hard travelling we have experienced on other parts of our trip. Amazing views, cold beer, great food, enthusiastic owners and English spoken is the perfect recipe for getting not much done. The lack of WI-FI connection in these places results in less facebook zombies and more traveller interaction. Ollie tells me this is what backpacking used to be like. Volunteering at all of these places would have been an incredible experience, and one we would have done if we had more time left.

You can’t stop the tide. The proprietors of these little spots we have stayed are the early birds, but there is development. Land is cheap and plentiful, so it is being purchased by developers, foreign and local. Our advice is if you want to go, go now before the landscape changes, and your views are blocked by high-rise all-inclusive resorts!

 


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Coconut cravings – Medellin, Cartagena and Playa Blanca

The walls of Cartagena

The walls of Cartagena

It’s been a long time. Too long. Not being a beach person I didn’t think I would mind being away from it for so long. But we’re backpackers. It’s our natural habitat no? The fact of the matter is that we have actually been in the Andes at this point for close to two months. We haven’t seen the sea since we left Playa El Zonte in El Salvador in mid-February. So by the time we leave Salento we are frothing at the bit for the seaside. But first, two cities. Very famous cities for very different reasons.

The 7 hour bus ride to Medellin from Salento was bearable, and the four of us were soon in a taxi going round and round (and round again)the lively nightlife of the El Poblado district while the driver tried to find Hostel Arcadia. Eventually with the help of a police escort in a kind of motorcade fit for a visiting diplomat we were at our lodgings.

The previously infamous Medellin is now a safe, fashionable, affluent, bustling metropolis, with a young population and an air of ‘Europeanness’ about it. Let’s get the big white elephant in the room out of the way first. Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. It would be downright foolish and I would be being deceptive if I were to say that this man doesn’t still cast a pretty big shadow and that cocaine is not an problem here (or in Colombia in general!) any more.

We don't have any photo's from Medellin, so here is a picture of Paul eating an ice cream there

We don’t have any photo’s from Medellin, so here is a picture of Paul eating an ice cream there

The Pablo Escobar tour is a ‘thing’ here and on offer to anyone who feels the need to see some of his properties, meet his brother and see his grave. Morally I had a problem with it once I got there after being initially keen. This was due to seeing how the city has moved on and I felt that this is history, a history that the city wants to put to rest, so I felt that contributing to keeping the negative aspects and stereotypes alive would be counter-productive tourism wise. But hey, if you want to see it, I can also see that it is an important part of Colombia’s past, and like all distasteful parts of history, should not be forgotten.

Saturday; Ollie bagged a bikini at a boutique shop and then we visited the mall (shudder). Once that awfulness was over, we returned to the hostel in got down to the business of playing Grass and warming up the night with some Ron Medellin.

The card game grass - Leads to some aggression

The card game grass – Leads to some aggression

 

Ron Medellin

Ron Medellin

“You want some Charlie? Good Charlie? Good price! You try?!” Offered to us by a confectionary salesman on the street not five minutes out of front door. We headed to the main drag and to a square down the road that seemed to be lively. It was all lively! This city seems to live for the night. We were out at about 11pm and the feeling we got was “You’re out early guys, it’s a long time till morning!” The square was packed full of ‘the yoof’ of Medellin, all drinking, chilling, singing and watching the girls go by. Sure, a couple had had a touch too much Aguadiente, but on the whole there was an amazing atmosphere with vendors sorting you out your next bottle of Aguila beer as soon as required. We moved onto another square at around midnight, Parque Lleras Poblado I think which is surrounded by cringy euro bars, playing equally cringy euro dance, so after I politely declined a 10 year old’s offer of some cocaine, we moved onto a club. The rest is hazy…

In a way I feel quite satisfied that I saw nothing of Medellin apart from the night and the underside of the bunk bed above me as it was a great weekend. That city can party and we certainly gave it a good go. Being over long bus rides and finding a cheeky flight for about $25 we decided to hop a plane to Cartagena…on the Caribbean coast.

Cartagena

Cartagena

Cartagena de Indias was eventually founded (after numerous failed attempts) by the Spanish in 1533, mainly so they could raid the nearby tombs and fill their boots with native gold, but soon became an important hub for the empire.  A tasty looking place, it was subject to pirate attacks for years, including a successful one by Sir Frances Drake who levelled a quarter of the city. The Spanish eventually had enough of this nonsense and in the 17th century constructed some 11km of mighty concrete walls around the gaff and as a result, managed to stop further French and British pirate attacks. Today this city is still under attack, but now from a constant stream of tourists and backpackers who besiege it by land, air and also by sea on the boats that pour in from Panama every day.

Bewilderment - In the Getsemani

Bewilderment – In the Getsemani

A taxi to the Getsemani district, where the grubby and fragrant streets house the budget backpackers, at night is an illuminating experience. The city is hot, and the streets are full of people who are scantily dressed and clutching fast warming beers. “Charlie Charlie!” A man shouts through the taxi window at Paul before we even get out the car. Possibly you could believe that he mistook Paul for his Gringo buddy Charlie, but I think it not the case. It’s a rough and ready area, but again, not threatening, just alive!

Ollie is reminded of Cuba by some of the colourful and crumbling buildings through the city. It is a city that appears in decay, but in a delightful way. Making our way into the main square the battle with the heat is a hard one, what with the siege of never- ending offers from street hawkers. Still in need of seeing the sea we head to the city walls and walked along them for as long as we could with eyes on the cloudless sky and equally blue Caribbean. After a day exploring these eye-catching streets we decided it was time we get onto the beach proper and have us a coconut.

Coco-Loco at Sunset - Playa Blanca

Coco-Loco at Sunset – Playa Blanca

Playa Blanca on the peninsular of Barú, is a short boat ride from Cartagena, and as the name suggests it promises a white sandy beach experience with a certain amount of isolation that is required to enjoy such a setting. Silly. It was only bloody Semana Santa, a time of year where Colombians get time off for ‘Easter’ and head for quick getaways such as this with their entire families in tow. After a stressful encounter with a boat man who could only best be described on this PG blog as a complete bell-end, we were fast approaching the shores and our hearts immediately sank. The beach was packed. Overflowing, with local tourists. Like those pictures you get in the UK of Brighton beach when we have ‘a heat-wave’. We headed right (when facing the water) up the beach, where it thankfully quietened off and found some hammocks to sleep in for a couple of nights at $5 a throw.

At the 'port' - Toilet with some boats...

At the ‘port’ – Toilet with some boats…

Packed - We should have turned back there and then really!

Packed – We should have turned back there and then really!

“Excuse me, can you take a picture please?” A Colombian lad and his girlfriend ask me and I’m happy to oblige. Only getting ready to take the shot of them, it turns out he wants ME to pose with his lady-friend. Suitably baffled I oblige whilst trying to ignore the sniggers from Paul. Later, some other Colombians shouted at me, “Hey, it’s David Guetta!   David, how’s it going?” We googled David Guetta when we got back to the city, and in my opinion, I look nothing like the mug.

The Colombians we out in full force, and they ain’t shy either. Many of them cracking beers from well stocked coolers from 8am; they are there for the long haul. Nighttime took me wandering around the back of the beachfront restaurants where I stumbled on a scene which can only be described as a happy refugee camp (if there is such a thing, which I’m pretty sure there is not) with tents as far as the eye can see, with children and half-cut adults milling around past fires in the night.

We spent three days there, in our relatively quiet patch of beach doing not much but drinking beers, eating tinned food that we brought (you’re not a real backpacker until you have eaten a tinned frankfurter out of the can in a hammock you’re sleeping in, in the interest of budgeting, in my opinion: Tick) and of course adding rum to coconuts. If I tried really hard, I could imagine what the place is usually like without the hordes, but it was just too much, so the only way to get through it was to drink. A great night out was had along the beach, starting at a reggae bar (on the beach), then busting our one Salsa move to some classic Colombian tunes (on the beach), then onto another bar, where we danced to some cheesy electronic tunes (into the sea this time) and finally ended with the sun just coming up.

“Lancha. Cartagena. Muy rapido?” An offer we couldn’t refuse, but was indeed a lie. After more scenes comparable to evacuating refugees on a barge to a larger boat (complete with helicopter flying overhead) we were on the slow boat back to the city. The worst possible thing happened. A man picked up a microphone and started singing, we realise we are on the tail end of a Colombian day cruise. It only worsens when the chap puts on a Trilby hat and gets involved in a Michael Jackson mega-mix. Say what you want about it, it’s not my cup o’ tea, but the Colombians were all up, dancing, singing along to all the songs and having a great time. I suppose, they were all a bit intoxicated from day drinking, but they certainly can sing and dance.

Our first beach expedition was not exactly what we expected, but nevertheless, we had had a taste of what’s on offer. We then headed east along the coast to see more of it, in search of that deserted white sandy beach with palm tree.

Thanks for reading!