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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!