I have seen and experienced a lot in the almost four months I have been in Colombia, but I am always up for grabbing my camera(s), hopping a bus and seeing what else there is out there. Semana Santa (Holy Week) provided a perfect opportunity to see another part of Colombia as we all had the week off in this traditionally Catholic country. So I traveled up the coast with fellow volunteers Kayla and Alyssa, along part of what Lonely Planet deems “Classic Routes: Caribbean Beaches with a Twist.”
Not sure what they meant by a ‘twist;’ for most travelers, I might have to guess it has something to do with what you add to your drink of choice. However, for us it included a rain-soaked motorcycle ride and a steep hike up a muddy mountain, sleeping in a hammock to the sound of crashing Caribbean waves, a night Colombia’s party town where our ‘night on the town’ only included one beer but a spectacular sunset, staying with a family in Colombia’s fourth largest city that only gets four Lonely Planet guidebook pages (though five in the Bradt Guide), and walking around like a local in Cartagena, the town that gets 14 pages. We visited colonial Santa Marta, tiny and hilly Minca, and Tayrona National Park. I then rounded out my six days by staying with a Barbacoas teacher in Barranquilla (a city which probably does not even have a tourist office) and contrasting it with a day and night back in Cartagena (where the streets were filled with tourists that were anything but the backpacking crowd).
So here’s an outline of the travels, a few highlights, and a little insight to life outside Bogotá and Santa Ana. It’s a bit long (I tried not to do play-by-play but mostly failed) so read it in parts if you like – I’ll never know the difference. Or pull up a seat, grab a cup of coffee (perhaps to keep you awake) and join me on our “Caribbean Beaches with a Twist” journey.
(And since this is, as of now, still a word-only blog – because you might just look at the pictures otherwise – do feel free to also check out some of my photos from the trip on Facebook and soon hopefully Picasa as well.)
Part 1: Minca
To get to Santa Marta, four hours northeast on the coast, we took the recommended MarSol transport service, less a bus and more a collective taxi in the form of an air conditioned van. It didn’t cost much more than a regular bus and dropped us right at our hostel (along with a group of other U.S. Americans who were randomly at the same hostel and who tried to turn our modest transport into a chiva, a traditional Colombian bus now known for hauling around rum-toting tourists in the big cities). A night in the nice and very international hostel enjoying the pool and a ravioli dinner, then off to Minca the next morning.
Shrink down Santa Ana (from 5000 people to 800), substitute the dust for mud, and add a lot of steep hills, and you’ve got Minca, a tiny town 30 minute from Santa Marta. Like Santa Ana, the way to get there is by mototaxi, though in this case, the road up through the mountains is paved. This proved important as we climbed, the temperature slowly easing off the coastal heat we had been in since the end of January and a cloud cover blocking the burning sun. Then it kept easing and those clouds opened up – from partly cloudy to a sprinkle to sheets of rain coming down within two minutes.
No way to escape the buckets dumping from above as I struggled with my raincoat and raincover for my backpack. Water and mud splashed up on my legs, then instantly got washed off with the water falling from above and running down off my bag. Even my moto driver thought it was a bit wet – he was soaked in his leather jacket and gave me his wallet to put in my bag – soaked on the outside despite me trying to cover it with my rain jacket, but keeping my cameras (and his money) fairly dry. Our drivers plowed through what literally looked like rushing rivers (simply the road), my ‘waterproof’ hiking boots (already soaked from the inside out) getting partly covered by the rushing brown torrents.
We finally arrived in town, hopped off our bikes with a splash, and waded through another street stream, ankle deep, until we could duck under the cover of a store with other locals and a couple of other tourists.
The rain did finally let up and we headed off to our hostel, Casa Loma, which promised to be a ten minute walk up from town. After passing through the church grounds and crossing the concrete sports park connected to the local school (intelligently under cover), we realized what ‘up’ meant. A steep climb up the side of the hill, alternating between steps and switchbacks. With backpacks and the mud, what would otherwise have been simply a sad reminder of how out of shape we have gotten in flat Santa Ana, turned into an adventure and struggle to climb up the hill.
Next to where a house was being built, a man was re-cutting stairs into the dirt where they had been washed out, and a wrong step meant my shoe sunk all the way into spongy mud with a slurp. I quickly pulled it out again, not wanting to be eaten by the mountain and eventually we made it to the top. With a lot of stops, a couple of slips, and Kayla finally giving up the flip-flops for bare feet, we arrived at the hostel. Soaked to the skin from the moto ride, sweaty from the climb and muddy from the route up, there was no doubt we looked the part of the weary traveler – after only one day on the road.
The rain came and went that afternoon and we enjoyed it from under the cover of the cozy setup of Casa Loma. No chance for a hike in the area however, though I did make it down and back up again (way easier after it had dried off a bit and without backpacks) and enjoyed a locally-grown and roasted cup of coffee in town. We enjoyed the view of the layers of hills that with the clouds made you feel you were in the middle of nowhere and when it cleared a bit, gave you a view of Santa Marta and – if you squinted – the Caribbean Sea. That night we were treated to a spectacular sunset, the clouds layered and lit up florescent pinks and oranges with bright spots of blue where the clouds had parted. Even our two hosts running the place, a British couple, pulled out their cameras, impressed by the painted scene spread out in front of us. Something special.
The next day we had to leave, but got in a short walk though the town and forest, enjoyed the cooler temperatures and the mixed scenery of palm trees, deciduous trees, bamboo and even a pine or two. The sun was still strong, but the cool breezes, hospitality at the hostel, and sweeping views made us promise to return. We would miss the lush, green hills when we were back in Santa Ana – though of course after our ride up we knew firsthand the how and why everything was so green. My shoes wouldn’t dry for days.
Part 2: Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona
We continued with our tourist trek with the very popular (read “crowded” and “touristy”) Tayrona National Natural Park (yes, sounds just as weird saying that out loud in Spanish as English. Maybe I should use it as a tongue twister in class...).
Moto taxis brought us back down the mountain in sunny weather and the temperatures rose again. After stocking up on groceries and water at an Exito supermarket in a gigantic shopping mall, we caught a bus to the gate of Tayrona. We paid our 35,000 entrance fee (they wouldn’t buy that we were residents since our visas are still only temporary but at least the money goes to the park system), and we caught a small bus to Cañaveral, one of the place to stay in the park and the end of the road.
We were not doing the expensive ecohuts however, so shouldered our backpacks and headed down the trail to Arrecifes (‘reef’ in English), the next place to get a hammock or cabin for the night.
The trail was pretty, through a shady but humid forest and rewarded us with views of the ocean when we stopped to catch our breath and for water. Giant blue morpho butterflies flitted about and we constantly had to step over highways of leaf cutter ants, tiny dark red bodies following a well-cut ant road and hefting bright green pieces of leaves for an unknown destination. The guidebook stated a 45 minute walk, but we either are much slower walkers that whoever wrote that or stop to take a lot more photos, because we finally arrived an hour and 20 minutes later, fairly drenched in sweat.
Arricefes consisted of three different places to stay, all privately owned by different people. El Paríaso was the cheapest and we booked hammocks in a netted room outside for $8 for the night. El Paríaso (Paradise) consisted of a few huts like ours with hammocks, a couple cabins, a lawn with tents, and a building which housed a restaurants, bathrooms and lockers.
We didn’t do much that night except eat dinner and enjoy the scenery (including a full moon) before hitting the sack early. Or, I should say, hitting the hammocks, strung out military style under our roof. My first night sleeping in one of those – though I’ve been known to nap in some along the way. Getting in took a bit of maneuvering, as I tried not to swing into Kayla sleeping next to me, but finally managed to unfold myself and stretch out. Next was the task of decided how far down in the middle to situate myself and how to sleep with my purse and cameras (as a pillow? Lumpy teddy bear?) so they wouldn’t walk off during the night. However, despite all of my unpracticed hammock skills, I soon fell asleep, exhausted from the walk, and, ignoring the occasion squawks of a gaggle of geese honking loudly as they wandered the grounds, I savored the sound of the insects and frogs, the wind in the palm trees, and not too far away, the crash of waves on the beach.
Because of course Arrecifes has a beach, a one-minute walk from the restaurant. Many signs along Tayrona’s beaches warned against swimming (the strong currents will pull you right out to sea and despite the lifeguard patrolling the sands and blowing his whistle when waders got in a little deep, four or five tourists die each year at the park – the signs posted warned potential swimmers ‘not to become part of the statistics.’).
With the view, I didn’t even feel like I was missing out with the no swimming. The waves were large and crashed in on the soft tan sand that was strewn with shells (both of the crustacean and coconut variety). Palm trees lined the sand and soon gave way to tall green hills – the start of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, the tallest coastal mountains in the world. Picturesque to be sure.
We spent a lot of time sitting on different beaches at the park, watching the waves crash against smooth rock formations sitting in the ocean, a variety of birds feeding on fish, and foreign tourists and Colombian families playing in the surf and on the sand. We also walked through the humid but nicely shady forest, along the beach, and through sandy palm groves to La Picina (the ‘Pool’ where stiller waters provided a beautiful and safe swimming area) and El Cabo (in total a 50 minute walk from Arrecifes, where foreigners were the norm, camped out in droves). Enjoyed the scenery and if any of you are planning a Colombian vacation any time soon, I’d recommend staying where we did in Arrecifes – the best sweeping views, the swimming place was a relaxing 20 minutes away and despite its reputation, we were not impressed by El Cabo (too crowded and the hyped-up beach wasn’t as spectacular as the other two).
We rounded out our visit by returning to Cañaveral in style – instead of walking back, we got horses ($8 for the one-way trip) and had a relaxing ride through the forest, enjoyed the chance to simply gaze up at the trees and scenery as our horses plodded along.
We certainly were far from the only people to enjoy the park those days, Colombians, U.S. Americans, Brits and more had moved in, but even with some crowds, Tayrona provided a chance to simply enjoy nature – and enjoy the unique combination of beach and mountains.
Part 3: Santa Marta
Santa Marta has two major claims to fame. First, it is the oldest surviving Spanish city in South America, founded in 1525 (Cartagena was eight years later in 1533). Second, it is the place where South American liberator Simón Bolívar died in 1830.
But despite this really quite remarkable place in history, it is today known as the place where most Colombians holiday – or at least known as a vacationing spot. It is certainly along Lonely Planet’s ‘Caribbean Beach’ trek: with its central location providing a base for foreign tourists like us to hit up Tayrona, the Sierra Nevada mountains, small beach towns such as Taganga, or the six-day trek to Cuidad Perdida (Colombia’s mini Machu Picchu), we were glad we were not there the latter part of Semana Santa, when everyone gets off Thursday and Friday and apparently descend into town.
The city of 410,000, despite its history, does not have the romance of Cartagena, but its centro is still compact and a nice place to wander around. The big attraction however, is the main street paralleling the beach (and of course the beach itself), lined with statues and plazas, busy with dozens of restaurants, and dotted with benches to sit and enjoy a juice, ice cream or snack from one of a dozen vendors. At night, outside this area, the town is practically empty however, providing another contrast to the evening hustle and bustle of Cartagena.
Though I walked around a little, we mostly did the sitting and relaxing bit, enjoying another spectacular sunset with an island and its lighthouse silhouetted against long layers of pink and orange clouds. One of the waterfront restaurants fulfilled my every tastebud need with coconut rice and tiny but deliciously garlicly shrimp as Kayla, Alyssa and I relaxed on our last night together.
We didn’t specifically do anything touristy here or explore any historic wonders, but in some ways we were like any other Colombian off work for Semana Santa, and simply sat back and relaxed.
Part 4: Barranquilla
There are really only two reasons you’ve probably heard of Barranquilla. First, it throws Colombia’s biggest party at Carnaval – second only to Rio de Janeiro – but though these four days are what the city is known for, I admit I didn’t know this before I came here. So it is much more likely that you know Barranquilla as the home of music superstar Shakira, who famously sang “Mira en Barranquilla, baile asi” (Look at Barranquilla, it dances like this…) in “Hips Don’t Lie…”
Well no offense to Shakira’s hips, but Barranquilla will never be the happen’ spot in Colombia to rival Bogotá or Cartagena. It is not a tourist destination by any long shot, especially compared to the other places I had visited in the last few days (the guidebook is full of phrases such as “little reason to visit” and “if you need to kill a day here…”). Ouch.
Well, my reason to visit was that it was a major Colombian city, on the way back to Santa Ana, and the home of Norcy Rodriguez, one of the English teachers at Barbacoas we have gotten to know a little. So why not visit? No offense to Lonely Planet either, but I liked Barranquilla a lot from the little I saw of it. It is certainly very industrial and lacks the romantic charm of the historic centro of Cartagena, but it felt very real, and very Colombian.
Norcy summed it up well.
“In Cartagena you have the centro and then separate is the mercado.” (By market, she means the hubbub of hundreds of outdoor vendors and shops.)
“In Barranquilla, the centro and mercado are in the same place.”
I certainly got some second glances walking around with white skin and a backpack, that is for sure. I couldn’t have been the only gringo tourist that day in Barranquilla, but it felt a little like it.
Barranquilla is home to dozens of factories and industries that make this a working-class town. The jobs have also attracted a number of immigrants over the past 70 years or so, especially from the Middle East and parts of Asia, so despite the authentic Colombian vibe I felt there, half the population is of foreign descent, making Barranquilla unique among Colombian cities and the place to pick up good Lebanese, Italian and Chinese food. Barranquilla is also the home of South America’s first airport (1919) – bet you didn’t know that, Shakira fans – which Alyssa and Kayla utilized as they flew out to continue their vacation in Manizales.
Norcy and I walked around the centro (and thus some markets) for a little bit, and visited a newly-cleaned-up large plaza in front of an impressive cathedral. Later we visited a couple other plazas and then headed to one of 14 large shopping malls in the city (by contrast, Cartagena has three). It is true: it felt like Cartagena if you took away the picturesque colonial centro (and the tourists), and simply expanded all the dozens of shops selling used clothes or books, locally-made furniture, tires or motorcycle parts, and who knows what. Norcy’s son David, who is around two I think, played in the “fun center” at the mall and we got pizza (one of a dozen non-Colombian or American food options) in the food court. A very chill and middle class Colombian way of spending the evening – in a city of over a million, a lot were doing the same as us it seemed.
The next day we lazed around, then walked to a supermarket and picked up ingredients to make the Barranquilla traditional Semana Santa fare: fried fish, coconut rice, and beet, carrot, and potato salad – with fresh juice of course. We helped her mother Cecilia a little (they live next door to each other) but she had her kitchen and the cooking under control and so I passed the time playing with David and her niece and nephew Luna and Gustavo, watching soccer, and talking with two of her brothers that lived there are well. A late and delicious lunch, then I said my goodbyes and caught another shared van back to Cartagena.
And unlike my trip north, I was definitely the only gringo in that car.
Part 5: Cartagena
I arrived in the evening back to Cartagena and spent the night at a hostel right off Parque Fernander de Madrid, one of the tree-lined plazas in the historic centro. I enjoyed sitting and watching the night life while I are a classic Cartagena dinner – a hot dog (this is no joke – they have their own character here as they do in Chicago or New York with onion, tiny crunchy potatoes, and five sauces, including pineapple. Delicious, but a reason the vendor gave me four napkins to go with).
At another corner of the park, I enjoyed a fresh mango juice as tourists (mostly couples or friend made up to go out for the evening) walked by, groups sat eating or drinking at the restaurants lining the plaza, a man in a bikini did street karaoke to Shakira’s “Loca,” and dozens of horse-drawn carriages rattled by as part of a tour of colonial Cartagena. I don’t see this side of Cartagena often, usually just visiting for the day, and certainly still felt like vacation as I sat observing all around me.
In the morning I simply walked around the centro, taking even more photos and going to what might have been the world’s quickest Mass (35 minutes) at Igelsia San Pedro Claver for Maundy Thursday services (more on this and Colombia’s Easter celebrations in my next post).
After getting my backpack from my hostel, I walked along the wall and found a spot in the shade where I sat for a while, yet again passing the time with one of my favorite activities – people watching. Quite easy to do this day because not only were there the regular backpacker tourists and upper middle class Colombians on vacation here, but the holiday meant that many more Colombians were walking around – and for the first time I was here the same days as at least three cruise ships. As part of Caribbean cruises, ships come to port for a few hours and the streets were literally inundated with mostly white, mostly older (60-70), mostly white hat and white pants wearing tourists. Some walked around with headphones listening to a tour guide’s commentary from far in front of them, and all walked around with nametags and the name of their cruise line (in case you were a vendor and weren’t sure if they were good targets to buy your hats/paintings/sunglasses/bags/tablecloths). Just make sure you have change for U.S. one hundred dollar bills.
(To be fair, I do like ships and when I am 60, or maybe 80, cruise ship travel might be the way I go too. And many of the folks from the cruise lines were off on their own exploring a little. However, since I am actually living here and they are such a contrast to how I like to travel, I am afraid these groups of senior citizens moving around like lost sheep made for amusing antidotes. Apologies.)
I relaxed in the shade of Plaza Bolívar and continued my people watching before I met our field director Tara for lunch and ice cream at the Colombian chain Crepes and Waffles. And then a nice taxi ride chatting with the driver about the influx of tourists and back to my real world, grabbing groceries, then hopping a bus and mototaxi back to Santa Ana.
Despite the beauty of Cartagena – and I really do love that city – it was good to be home. After all, I have a lot more exploring of Santa Ana and Isla Barú to do too. And I have it made here – close to Cartagena, a short moto ride to Playa Blanca (and that is a guidebook-worthy, world-class beach as well), and a chance to really get to know a small community.
Santa Ana certainly isn’t part of the “Classic Routes: Caribbean Beaches with a Twist,” but it certainly is also Colombia. A country I can now say I know just a little bit better and a country that I have many more opportunities to both explore further and enjoy its day-to-day life.