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The slackers guide to the Caribbean coast of Colombia

2014-05-05 13.37.42

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:

2014-05-09 10.17.30

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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Playa El Zonte – A warning to all travellers!

Playa El Zonte

Playa El Zonte

“I’m pretty sure all we need is a couple of days there, you know, just to say that we have seen the legendary coast of El Salvador.  Honestly, I don’t think it can be that great, I mean, we don’t even surf right?  That is roughly what I said to Ols when we decided to head for Playa El Zonte on the western shores of El Salvador.

We left Juayua early and took part in a bus epic through the capital city of San Salvador, not surprisingly, the journey was long and there were four buses. I’m not going to talk about it.   For anyone who wants to bus from Juayua to the coast, it can be done very easily by taking the #249 to Sonsonate and another bus (I forget the number, but your hostal can tell you) direct to Zonte, all the way along to La Libertad. Note, the bus only goes once a day at around 3pm from Sonsonate.  We chose the hard way as we had a tedious errand to run.

Just want some pretty pictures?  Click here! 

Finally we got dropped off to at the side of a random road, and walked down a dirt track without signs in the faith that it was in the direction of the sea.  Soon, we were on one of the most impressive stretches of beach I have ever seen.  To our left lay a lagoon framed with palm trees and rickety looking shacks and to our right an expansive windswept beach that was pretty much empty.  We had obviously come the wrong way, but we were on a beach, so we kept walking, the wrong way, with packs, along the sea front until we find out we have to cross the lagoon to get to our desired lodgings.  We wade through and find ‘the town’ and the hostal of Esencia Nativa, along with a couple of well-earned and frosty cold Pilsners.

Arriving at the beach...boots n' all

Arriving at the beach…boots n’ all

Lagoon out let that divides Zonte beach

Lagoon outlet that divides Zonte beach

“I know a great place for sunset, follow me!” An invitation from another guest that we decline by telling her we want to check out ‘the town’.  She knowingly smirked and tottered off along down the beach.  After 2 minutes, we had seen the town of El Zonte, which consists of three small comedors, two shops well stocked in crisps, smokes and water, and a couple of hostals.  We decided to find the sunset straight away at Olas Permanentes along the front.  Wow…

Checking out the town

Checking out the town

Like you would try and cycle through there!

Black (greyish) sand sunset

Black (greyish) sand sunset

Zonte Sunset

We returned in the dark, to find Rob and Will who we met briefly in Tacuba, who had also just arrived.  After a few beers and some damn fine pizza at the hostal we made a plan to go and surf in the morning.  They had surfed more than I had.  I have never surfed.  They had a couple of experiences between them, and some confidence everything will be ok.  Teco, the local longboard legend rented us some boards the next morning and we headed into the surf.  Let’s just say I have a new found respect for surfers. I was awful and came away with many cuts and scrapes from stupidly spending most of my time in the rocky area.  Board rash is an evil thing!   Ollie gave it a good go in the evening, but had a similar experience to me.  Good fun, and we did the same the day after, but we conceded our surfing careers would end there for a while. Like looking at volcanos rather than summiting them, watching surfers is much more entertaining than giving it a go yourself.

Teco's place

ToNar

Checking out the damage

Checking out the damage

A nervous giggle

A nervous giggle

Ollie showing us how its not done

Ollie showing us how its not done

Success...ish

Two days effortlessly turned into five and then melted away to ten.  The guys are good people (even though Rob is from Sidcup) and we spent plenty of time collectively doing not much apart from ping-pong, cards, frisbee and drinking.  Serious surfers Josh and Michelle joined us when they were not ripping it up out in the surf.  It became an easy routine.  Breakfast at Teco’s for $3 each while we watched the surfers was almost compulsory on a daily basis.  Beers at the sunset bar was a given.  Bottles of Flor de Caña rum were imbibed alarmingly rapidly between us over pizza some nights that resulted in ill-advised acrobatics and questionable dance moves.  Joined by some more fellow Brits, Sarah and Glen, we had some great nights.

This is what rum makes you do

This is what rum makes you do

A walking advert...I know

El Zonte's eastern beach

El Zonte’s eastern beach

Looking out from the cave

Looking out from the cave

Kids fish with wire attached to wood while dad casts his line out

Kids fish with wire attached to wood while dad casts his line out

 

Coffee at Teco's watching the point break surfers

Coffee at Teco’s watching the point break surfers

The need for cash took us to the ‘party town’ of El Tunco one day, where many travelers stay a while and learn to surf in the day and drink hard by night.  We had to leave by 6pm (which was unfortunately when the craft beer house opened its doors) as the last bus back along the front ran at that time.  Chicken buses are named so because people pack onto them like battery farm chickens.  There is also a strong possibility that you will be taking your journey along with some actual chickens (twice so far for us).  This bus offered both, and we had to squeeze on at the front, where some were hanging out the door and I nearly in the drivers lap.

Playa El Tunco

Playa El Tunco

The Tunco rock...could be a beers advert really!

The Tunco rock…could be a beer advert really!

On recommendation we headed west to the end of the beach and up a dark pathway then onto the coastal road for five minutes until we came found a great little restaurant run by Aldo and his wife.  There is no name yet, but ‘Cuidemos El Agua’ is painted on the front.  Lobster was on offer at $10 a throw as well as the fishy option of ‘Sopa de Mariscada’ which had so much fishy goodness in it, it was overflowing.  Aldo has only just opened and they serve up some fine cuisine (the same fare as where his wife works at a fancy hotel up the road, but for cut down prices) along with welcoming service.  Not having a name for the place yet, he is debating whether to call it ‘Carisa Café’ after his daughter or ‘Tube Café’ after his love for surfing.  Aldo is soon to be offering accommodation and also runs some tours.  He is top bloke and passionate about his business.  On our second visit and last meal in Zonte he arranged for a cake to be taxied in from La Libertad for the birthday girl at Will’s request.  Support this guy’s business if you go there.  Make the effort.  It’s worth it just for the nighttime walk along the beach back to your lodgings while you dodge crabs and waves under the stars.

Farewell dinner at Aldos restaurant

We are not ‘beach people’, but we found it hard to leave.  You could spend months along this stretch of coastline and not get a lot else done.  Ollie partook in the surfer geared yoga some days while I got to know some hammocks better.  One day, spotting whales breaching the surface just past the surf was a special moment that I won’t forget soon.

hoponthegootfoot

 

Surfs up

 

Rock pools of El Zonte

 

I've taken to wearing a bandana...don't judge me too harshly

I’ve taken to wearing a bandana…don’t judge me too harshly

Zonte point break

Zonte point break

So, take heed of this warning.  El Zonte is not conducive to a productive travel experience!  Luckily (or unluckily as we felt) we had a boat booked to Nicaragua, so had to leave….

Playa El Zonte

Playa El Zonte

Thanks for reading.For the full photo gallery, click here


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Roatán – an Island Christmas

Beer of the Day - a Port Royal by the beach

Beer of the Day – a Port Royal by the beach

After the delights of La Ceiba it was with great enthusiasm that we got up at the crack of dawn three days before Christmas and jumped in a taxi over to the ferry terminal to head over to the largest of the Bay Islands, Roatán. There is a well-organised ferry over there that leaves twice a day, the Galaxy Wave II; or as it’s known to everyone who has sailed on it, ‘The Vomit Comet’. Staggeringly for Central America, the boat left half an hour early, so by 10am, after the ferry staff had valiantly handed out a large number of plastic bags and catering-sized wads of kitchen roll to our fellow green-faced passengers, we slowed and approached the turquoise waters than line the island. Thankfully our sea legs held.

If you’d like to head straight to the pictures, click here!

Roatán is around 48 miles in length, but only 5 miles wide at the widest point. It has a fascinating history, having been claimed by both the Spanish and the British at various different times during its history. Before the Spanish arrived there had been French buccaneers there at one point during the 16th century, which apparently gave one the island’s main settlements, French Harbour, its name. No trace remains of the indigenous population, instead today the island’s inhabitants are a mix of Hondurans from the mainland, particularly the younger population, and older islanders, many of whom speak English as a first language. There are also a large number of people of Garífuna descent who speak a kind of Creole English. As such it was impossible to know whether to speak English or Spanish on the island; in practice most people seemed to speak some of both!

Two local lads fishing - successfully!

Two local lads fishing – successfully!

On arrival we took a taxi from the ferry terminal which is on the south side of the island around half way along, to West End (unsurprisingly, all the way over on the west side of the island). As the taxi slowly meandered along the road through the town, with the beach, blue waters and swaying palm trees just feet away we agreed that we’d made a pretty solid choice for a spot to kick back over the festive period.

Half Moon Bay, West End

Half Moon Bay, West End

One of West End's picturesque bars

One of West End’s picturesque bars

Our lodgings were a brightly painted wooden cabin with a hammock on the terrace and a little kitchen of our own and for the first time in a long while, we actually unpacked! Perfect. Until around 3pm. At this point the sound system at the newly opened bar/club/restaurant complex next door started up. We’re not ones to complain about a little music but as the evening wore on the volume reached the point where the cabin floor was shaking and we couldn’t hold a conversation indoors. We decided there was nothing for it but to head out for a few cold ones to send us to sleep later and hope it had stopped. No such luck. The same thing happened the next day so the choice was to either find some other lodgings or ship out. Luckily, another spot a little walk away had a cabin to spare so on Christmas Eve with a number of apologies to the lovely owners of the previous place, who were very understanding and driven mad themselves by the noise, we moved to our new spot at Hillside Garden Cabins in a secluded spot among the trees.

(A note on this new bar – it’s called El Boské, and is apparently owned by a guy with no ties to the island and large quantities of cash who doesn’t give two hoots that he’s destroying local business and the community. At the request of the owner of our former lodgings I went to speak to him to explain the effect that the noise levels and lack of respect are causing but I got a rather empty apology and a few platitudes saying he would turn the music down but this was a total lie. It just carried on. They have a website and a facebook page with comments sections if anyone who lives there or has been there wants to share their views…)

After this slightly stressful start, things got better from there. We had a lazy day on the beach and working out which bar had the coldest/cheapest beer. Christmas Day dawned, our first away from home and what’s more in the Caribbean…..and it was raining!! Not to be defeated we headed out in our raincoats in search of a bar (just for the wifi, honest) to Skype our families back at home who told us to stop complaining about the rain as Britain was more or less underwater… We rounded the day off with a lovely fish/steak dinner and bottle of red. What more could you want.

Christmas Dinner 2014

Christmas Dinner 2014

It was time though to take advantage of Roatán’s main draw- the excellent scuba diving. The island is surrounded by coral reef, clear waters and a whole host of sea life. My PADI certification was 10 years old so I sought out a refresher session and some fun dives at Reef Gliders. On advice from one of their Divemasters Rich decided that due to his issues with his ears (essentially he can’t equalize them when there’s changes in pressure) diving was out. With credit to the guys at Reef Gliders – they are not in for the hard sell and genuinely want everyone to be safe and enjoy it so don’t encourage people to do it if it wouldn’t be a good idea. The next day I was back in (and under) the water, and for 5 more days after that. The diving truly was fantastic. I saw moray eels, groupers, trumpet fish, giant lobsters and crabs, big shoals of shimmering blue fish, eagle rays and best of all, turtles. So many of them and I could swim just feet alongside them – fantastic stuff. Best of all on the last day I dived with Jason McAnear, one of their Divemasters and an Underwater Videographer who filmed the dive and pulled out some stills for me which are the dive shots on here – check out his series of videos here!

Rocking a wetsuit...

Rocking a wetsuit…

Trumpet fish doing a bad job of hiding

Trumpet fish doing a bad job of hiding

Me and my turtle friend

Me and my turtle friend

We did take a day away from the tourist bubble of West End for a day on New Year’s Eve, hiring a moped and setting off up through the island. The main road is a little hectic but once we got past the main towns of Coxen Hole and French Harbour the traffic thinned and the road climbed up to the highest point from where we could see out over the north coast of the island and see the reef out at sea. French Harbour itself was fascinating – a working town, mainly centered on fishing, where most of the houses are traditional Caribbean painted wooden boards, often on stilts. We wound on and on down a dirt track with the promise of a little bar/restaurant called La Sirena at the easternmost point called Camp Bay, passing though remote settlements where life on the island looks as if it’s barely changed for 50 years or more. We finally arrived at La Sirena and were not disappointed, a perfect spot for a cold beer while we chatted to a big El Salvadorean family on holiday on the island. Sadly we had to start back for West End – attempting a 100 mile round trip on a moped was a little ambitious perhaps, and both of us on a scooter is not entirely comfortable for that long!

Houses in French Harbour

Houses in French Harbour

Traditional houses and the reef

Traditional houses and the reef

On our return we started to prepare some dinner at around 6pm when the power went out. Luckily they had a gas hob… After dinner by candlelight we set out into the town with a torch headed for a New Year’s shingdig at our favourite beach bar Sundowners along with half the rest of the town it seemed. The power came back on but went out twice more that night which seemed to entertain everyone, especially after several $1 rum and cokes. An excellent evening all round.

NYE 2013!

NYE 2013!

Our cabin home for 10 days

Our cabin home for 10 days

So that more or less sums up our time in Roatán – diving, beach time, a bit more rain than we’d have liked and a few more rum and cokes that is advisable but it is a great spot. We left a day later than planned due to our taxi not showing up to take us to the ferry at 6am which is the type of thing we’ve been learning to get used to in Central America. Ultimately we’ve got nothing but time!

Waiting to get in the water!

Waiting to get in the water!

Yep, this'll do

Yep, this’ll do