Santa Marta – Ma, this town’s starting to scare me
As the oldest continuously inhabited town in Colombia, Santa Marta receives a constant influx of backpackers passing through. As a particularly poor & ramshackle place with open rubbish in the streets, beggars and some shifty characters, this may’ve resulted in our less than comfortable first impression. All the hostels & tourism seem huddled together around just a few blocks as if cowering from the visible poverty of the surrounding inhabitants. Apparently the more luxurious hostels are a few miles out of town which in having a swimming pool and idyllic location also cater to ‘wankpuffins’ meaning overly pampered hipster gringoes, in the words of Sam, a travelling companion we met further down the trail in Quito. Alas there was still some decent street art
We did however hop a bus out to the former hacienda (farmhouse) residence & final resting place of Simon Bolivar when he died which despite begin unbearably hot…
…offered some luxurious shade opportunities
There were also numerous bird sightings with helpful identifiable signs attached to trees
as well as an art gallery, nature trail, countless iguanas & the foreboding mausoleum temple itself.
Mercifully they also had an air-conditioned café with delicious ice cream & extremely chilled bottles of water. There was also an area of this extensive complex that a guard informed us we weren’t allowed to explore which was open scrub infested with iguanas & forest that backed onto houses. We couldn’t help wondering what was in there they didn’t want tourists to see…mass grave, bomb testing site, drug/money/t-shirt laundering, counterfeit Shakira/Man Utd shirt production line?
Enjoying the relatively open sense of being outside of the grubby town centre, we opted for a set lunch menu of the day or almuerzo typico from a no-nonsense ‘restaurant’ over the road from the hacienda. For somewhere between $1 – 4 we got 2 courses but in Colombia it’s all about the soups, generally with veg & rice and a chunk of meat on the bone used as stock. These hearty broths are often excellent & nourishing but the mains can differ wildly. And so it was that the sinewy and overly tough thin beefsteak arrived with some semi-mushed lentils, rice and salad. Warned against eating salad because of unsafe water supply, we didn’t chance it. Lou also doesn’t like beans or pulses so the lentils were out. She didn’t want her meat either given its appearance so was just left with the sticky and flavourless rice. Winning! The fact flies were buzzing around landing on the food and that we were essentially sat on plastic patio furniture under a corrugated metal lean-to shack may have also tempered her appetite.
Here is Santa Marta’s main cathedral with a symmetrically-perfect pigeon captured mid-flight. To be enjoyed whilst listening to John Shuttleworth’s ‘Pigeons in Flight’
We also met & befriended 3 (other non-Irish) guys travelling together of which 2 were Brits – 1 from Bristol & 1 from Doncaster of all places; keeping that Yorkshire pride alive with his surfer locks & straight-talking demeanour. The third was from New Zealand, somewhere impossibly far away from the rest of the recorded global population of course. My first pangs of linguistic envy set in as all 3 spoke pretty fluent Spanish, not Spanglish or even Spanish with a Yorks or West Country dialect damn their dextrous mouths! Because Colombians speak virtually no English unless they work in the tourist sector, you are thrown in & forced to learn straightaway. As per usual, the Brits, Aussies and Yankydoodledandies were on average quite a way behind their fellow European counterparts.
Our gameplan had been to journey onto the Gabriel Garcia-Marquez affiliated timewarp town of Mompox which sounds like a highly contagious outbreak and lies over remote canal wetlands. But first we wanted to visit Tayrona national park which incorporates several coastal habitats to experience some jungle trekking and justify those hard-earned anti-malarial jabs.
We also wanted to see Minca as a group of friends had just returned with produce they cultivated from volunteering at a new hostel high in the mountains founded by yet another entrepreneurial Belgian based on permaculture principles.
M-m-m-my Tayrona (Parque Nacional)
The most visited of Colombia’s national parks, everyone bangs on about Tayrona like it’s still some remotely well-kept secret. Alas just when it started getting interesting we had to turn back. Allow me to elaborate – there are strictly regulated trails throughout to which you must keep. The fact it was Holy week (Semana Santa) meant that all the coastal boulder tracks were heaving with pleasure seeking families hoisting surfboards, BBQs, beachballs and allsorts which kind of ruined the indigenous wonder of the conical clifftop huts and mico titi monkey sightings.
The first night we set up camp in Canaveral, the first available campsite which might have demonstrated our lack of pioneering adventurous spirit. We were about the only ones who settled here as everyone ploughed onwards to the beaches in which you could swim a good 1-2 hours walk away. Subsequently anywhere we wanted to walk we would have to return from before nightfall. Being that we were only a few hundred feet from the entrance this didn’t leave much room for undisturbed exploration.
To make circumstances weirder whilst I explored our campsite’s toilet blocks young policemen on patrol passed through beside our tent holding loaded machine guns and bid Lou good afternoon cheerfully. Understandably she was very enthusiastic in her response as a cover for feeling petrified that if she greeted them too unnaturally they may assume she was an endangered monkey smuggler or worse, not sticking to the established paths.
Our dinner was a delight of disgusting rice, ludicrously overpriced prawns and squidgy peas leftovers that had been exposed to 40 degrees heat and no refrigeration for most of the day. Having no form of afterdark entertainment we bedded down and attempted to tell ghost stories from about 8.30pm. We didn’t need to provide our own sound effects as there were many surrounding rustlings from nearby bushes and hoots and hisses at various distances but nothing that would actively tear open our canvas cocoon to anesthetise us with deadly venom and then feast on our slumbering carcasses. Nothing we were warned about anyway.
However things looked up on our second day as luck would have it we bumped into Laurent from our Cartagena hostel with his German friend Anna and 2 others at Cabo San Juan del Guia playa/beach. Somehow owing to his native charm and sharp tongue he had managed to bag them the much sought-after private hut closest to the sea with a hammock and mosquito net each.
Gringo swallowing rocks!
Determined to embark on some real exploring along a more challenging and less inundated route, I somehow talked Lou into following the trail to Pueblito which cryptically means ‘small town’. This was the national park’s most intact ruins and remains of an indigenous Tayrona settlement high up in the jungle. Some see it as a miniaturised version of the several day guided Lost City (Cuidad Perdida) trek popular with backpackers. Like many things this sounds more grandiose in Spanish even without the fact that The Lost City is an indoor and decidedly unadventurous ‘adventure’ golf course in the basement of a Nottingham entertainment complex.
Colombian estimates of time and ability along these trails are optimistic to say the least. Signposts stated that our trail was suitable for 5 year olds and above and would take approx. 1-2 hours which isn’t really an estimate at all (every point of interest seemed 1-2 hours apart in Tayrona Park). They may as well have written 5 hours and over for 1-2 year olds.
We scrambled up ever steeper giant boulders upon which you could only cling in the style of Spiderman meets a barnacle with no shell or sticky solution. At some points we flung ourselves onto the next almighty boulder with blind faith that we could grab some vines or a rope before sliding down the side of the next into a great dark void. I admit this may sound fun to your average 5 year old but crucially it would’ve also proved mortally dangerous. The clamour & heightened buzz of surrounding insect & birdlife gives the impression that the jungle is enclosing around ready to swallow you slowly whole as you ascend the trail. There were also increasingly omnipresent howls and cries from deep in the forest that we couldn’t locate or agree on what was making them. Game over man, game over!
We caught up with a polite and softly-spoken Indonesian Londoner lass who was bravely going it alone but seemed very grateful for our presence as we could assist one another across some sections as a trio of intrepid jungle adventurers.
Arriving in a clammy, sodden state at the summit was one of the few Indiana Jones moments of our trip (with me as Indy & Lou as Short Round obviously). I took a moment to stroke my stubbly jawline in the inimitable style of Harrison Ford making the mental note to self to include this in any subsequent travel blog that may eventually materialise.
Jungle love monkeys
We had the site virtually to ourselves and a family of Venezuelan red howler monkeys were playing affectionately in the treetop canopy. They had been the mysterious and evermore threatening constant screeching in the distance for the duration of our ascent.
What looks affectionate to us humans may be vicious free copulation or indeed coveted group assault within a jungle love monkey horde. Indeed follow up research confirms that although physical fighting is rare and over quickly amongst all 15 recognised species of howler monkey, there is fierce sexual competition between males due to an unbalanced sex ratio. It’s also worth noting that broadly the larger a male howlers’ hyoid or horseshoe-shaped neckbone, the smaller their testes and the more exclusive their copulation with females in a distinct group from the other males. In other words; Ladies, please don’t dismiss the singer just because his organ is undersized. The only thing I’d like to add is that I used to sing AND play organ in a band called The Cosmic Funky Nuts.
The village was supposedly still home to a couple of dozen Tayrona Indians protected within the park who weave bags and headwear to sell to tourists during the day. Their traditional huts were situated around the crumbling ruins of ceremonial temples and stone altars.
Dusk was beginning to creep in around a setting crimson sun so we bid farewell to our fellow climber who was journeying onwards along the trail. We hurtled back down the boulders to our beach encampment before too much light failed us and we couldn’t see anything. The last thing this already-terrifying descent needed was another element of danger.
All that clambering about on rocks had given me a major appetite so we joined the lengthy queue outside the only restaurant on Cabo San Juan. We had read it was agreed by Colombian standards to be unexceptional and quite pricey but I had a satisfying and well-cooked Milanese steak. Also with only 4 bathroom cubicles onsite and over 2,000 campers at capacity I was more concerned with the chef’s hygiene rating. After dinner we walked back to the beach shore where we sat and listened to the swell and pound of the waves’ surf. Without any modestly priced liquor or musical equipment we simply soaked up the strands of ubiquitous vallenato on transistor radios as the revelry of holidaymakers wafted along on the Caribbean coastal evening breeze.
Again retiring to bed at a time that would make an agoraphobic choirboy ashamed we had to endure the frustrating spectacle of an inept young party of Germans/Swiss who had clearly never erected their tents before, or possibly even a tent, let alone after dark directly obscuring any view of the moon, stars and sea in front of evermore pissed off campers who bothered to pitch up at a decent hour.
(Stomach) trouble in paradise
Shooting bolt upright with a start in our tent during the early hours I instantly sensed something wasn’t right and knew my time was short. My sleeping bag was about to double up as a colostomy bag if I wasn’t quick. Sudden pangs of horror fluid boiled up from the depths of my being and longed to be released. Attempting to keep both legs together when frantically putting on trousers was no enviable chore. I then grabbed our toilet roll and torch (never forget the 3T’s and I don’t mean Michael Jackson’s band of nephews).
I hurtled towards the toilet block whilst trying to contain myself from experiencing any extreme laxative fallout. 3.30am was about the only time there wasn’t a guaranteed queue. Unfortunately I still couldn’t quite make it in time and had to abandon my boxers of sludgy shame in the waste bin. God willing they would soon be incinerated in some fervent ritual of banished spirit cleansing. I tried to put things into perspective and considered myself one of the lucky ones as its worth reemphasising; there were only 4 toilet cubicles for a campsite of over 2000 people. What would’ve no doubt counted as a walk of shame with no safety net, in other words just trousers was in fact nothing of the sort. Nobody was about save for a few bewildered Chinese ladies washing up who I treated to my best John Wayne impression minus the racial supremacy and Nazism.
By the third day we’d had enough of Tayrona as I still wasn’t well. Subsequently I was sweating like a petting zoo with beads pouring even more profusely (if such a thing were possible) in what felt like a permanently sweltering pressure cooker. My few remaining clothes were drenched, stuck to my body and chafing. We walked the 2-3 hours back to the entrance in painstaking discomfort and exhaustion. It was quite tempting to sling myself over a horse’s back in pitiful surrender as there were plenty we passed along the trail.
We were hampered further by the fact even more human traffic was still entering the park for their holidays so we were swimming against the tide. On many sections of staircase over the boulders or boardwalk through mangrove the path is only single file in each direction. Heavy sand was another factor. In the end it took us nearer 3.5 hours to exit the park and flag down a passing bus back to Santa Marta.
Minca – Welcome to the Jungle baby, you’re gonna dieeeet…
Upon reflection Lou probably shouldn’t have had that strong coffee and sandwich in the café behind Minca’s collectivo drop-off point. Even if for no other reason than their bathroom was fully exposed to onlookers bar a shower curtain and lackadaisical Alsatian dog. Shortly after arriving we saw a motorbike splutter past with the rear passenger somehow balancing an entire wooden door. If only our snacking destination of choice could splash out on such luxury.
I sampled the local microbrewery Nevada Cerveceria based in an old converted chapel. Their Happy Toucan Irish red ale really is quite moreish but their Happy Jaguar (pictured above) is sadly lacking as a hoppy pale.
Tucked deep in the Sierra Nevada mountain range (no, not the Californian or Spanish ones), the journey on foot up to Mundo Nuevo is a seemingly endless steep and winding climb from the village centre. To further help matters, we very sensibly took almost all day to arrive so the sun was setting by the time we began our ascent. Evermore spectacular views rewarded us intrepid travellers as the vistas grew higher across the dramatic peaks back to Santa Marta bay.
At a short cut the trail narrowed to looming exposed banks full of reptile holes and screeching cicadas or tree crickets with the males desperate to get busy during mating season. Unlike the howler monkeys a flash of tiny testes and a quick warble wasn’t enough for these insects who desperately flung themselves at any light source to lie upturned, fluttering and stunned.
After another turn of the path one bank subsides and we overlooked a jovial farmer who wished us good evening. With no other folk or signage in sight amidst frolicking birdlife and persistent insects, we had only the strength of our own convictions in following the trail.
The lodgings were without a doubt still a rather barebones affair as the organic sustainable vegetarian farmholding had only been up and running for under a year. The dry compost toilet was out of use owing to needing time to decompose the waste matter before use. Another was still being built but had possibly the most enviable view of any al fresco thunderbox we had the pleasure to use. I can’t think of many other toilets that merit taking your camera everytime.
Mundo Nuevo also had 2 lovable pooches that enjoyed tormenting and eating all the blinded, stunned and plentiful cicadas.
The next morning I was holed up suffering repeatedly with stomach cramps and an exceedingly regular bathroom schedule to contend with. As there was only 1 indoor shared bathroom off a large dorm I had to pick my moments carefully but was not blessed with the longest ‘window of opportunity’. In fact make that ‘window of a poo-tunity’. My witticism knows no bounds…ahem! One girl believed this bathroom was hers and hers alone and was quite protective of it so I had to sneak past when she was napping.
Birdlife and Toucan love
All I could do was lounge around in hammocks under citrus trees at 700 metres above sea level whilst Lou read me passages about Colombian birdlife. Whilst being partially immobilised, there was admittedly few places I’d rather be stuck. Hammocks became my all-day swinging tomb between bathroom visits.
The range of birdlife and calls they make is astounding – from 80s cellphones, 90s dance hits and in the case of randy cicadas a faulty modem internet connection that causes a power shortage. I think we had both caught food-poisoning from washed or unwashed salad and chicken in yesterday’s almuerzo (set lunch) so had lead weights in our stomachs and took rehydration salts.
The next next morning I just about felt recuperated enough to walk to a neighbouring hostel La Candeleria across the valley. Here we met their resident orphaned toucan ‘Toukey’ with a hole in his beak from being set upon by another toucan family. If you’re patient & non-threatening looking he’ll perch on your arm. I was delighted to hear that more recently some friends of ours Pete and Amy stroked Toukey during their time in Colombia. As Bobby Brown once remarked about crack addition to Whitney Houston; ‘Toucan play that game’.
We also took an organic rainforest coffee plantation tour and mostly learnt that a third generation expert Arabica coffee farmer who grows, hand-picks and roasts everything himself in-house made almost all his apparatus, except his rather fetching hat from instructional videos on youtube! He informed us that Finland and Scandinavians in general are the world’s largest coffee consumers worldwide. Sadly there is virtually no demand for this quality of coffee in his home country despite being the fourth biggest global producer. As a people it would seem Colombians just ain’t the least arsed about buying decent coffee or chocolate for that matter.
After all this excitement and a thoroughly excellent tour it didn’t even matter that we failed to locate a secluded waterfall, helpfully called Pozo Azul or Blue Pool. We also had to creep past giant sleeping dogs (which I’ve heard you should let lie) terrified that they’d wake and tear us limb from limb with no one else around. We also tried paddling at a scenic spot along the river only to trespass upon some unclearly marked land and disturb an extended family picnic who eyed us suspiciously.
In the end we just ended up back at the same café we first visited in Minca dining sensibly after failing to keep any food or even drink down for the previous 48 hours. Always room for a sandwich and a Postobon
Stand by your Taxi man
No sooner had we returned to Santa Marta that we were again desperate to leave. As the central Caribbean coastal go-between we had already ventured onto Tayrona Park and Minca only to return reluctantly. We quickly forged a plan to breakout of that dustbowl town once and for all by securing the services of the first taxi driver we could find for a round trip back to our hostel to collect our baggage before returning to the bus terminal.
En route to the bus station in a taxi we spotted a Santa Marta restaurant sign proudly proclaiming ‘El Vomito (Le Originale!)’ which certainly wins best name yet. It was packed out as well so revenge publicity must really pay. As long as everyone coughs up for the bill.
Uno mas tiempo en Barranquilla
To reach Medellin we first had to travel back through Barranquilla for a second time where Shakira (she make Felipe wanna speak Spanish) AND Sofia Vergara, that feisty buxom actress from Modern Family were born. There is a much bigger than lifesize metal statue of the former with a guitar somewhere in her hometown. I would hope for the sculptor’s sake that her hips are depicted entirely truthfully.
Barranquilla is best known for having one of the biggest carnivals in the world (after Rio and Notting Hill) featuring a wide range of folkloric traditions and musical styles including cumbia. Also unlike Notting Hill carnival people from the area who actually use their first and only homes leave them and become involved! Cumbia is one of the most widespread Latin American dance-orientated genres incorporating courtship dances from Africa with origins along the Caribbean coast and Panama http://www.last.fm/tag/cumbia/wiki
We had unfortunately missed the 4 days of festivities as it begins with the Battle of the Flowers on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras. That would’ve taken some commute from N’Awlinz! Our passing experience of the bustling chaotic and commercial centre however was that carnival season seemed long gone…TBC