We arrived in Bogota in the evening, after a full day of travel that began with a 3:30 a.m. wake up time. By the time we got to our accommodations (I use this word as I think we have walked a fine line in South America where we stay neither at hotels or hostels but somewhere in between), we were pooped. First impressions upon trying to communicate with the ho(s)tel manager was this: We most definitely do not speak Spanish. Maybe we had gotten by with our “resort Spanish” in the past, but here, in South America, we were useless. Following some charades and pictionary in lieu of dialogue, we were given a map of the city with the neighbourhood of Candeleria at the center and the word ‘NO’ scrawled across all surrounding areas. It was day one and we were not looking for trouble, so we would happily oblige.
We scoped out the ‘yes’ area and found a quaint restaurant called El Gato Gris where they had live music playing while we ate (ceviche!) and ordered a celebratory beer. Part Three of the trip around the world had finally started: South America!
We spent the next day meandering around Bogotá; the palace of justice (which the FARC had notoriously attacked on the orders of Pablo Escobar), the presidential palace, the beautiful gold museum and the streets in general, taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes. Food was cheap and delicious, so we ate a lot that first full day – empanadas, pastries, pasta and the national dish of bandeja paisa. Likely too much, as it ended with some stomach issues.
The next day we flew to Santa Marta and grabbed a taxi to the casually dirty and underdeveloped beach town of Taganga. The combination of an early flight and little else to do made it a good day to spend lazing at the beach. Unfortunately, hurricane Matthew had just come through and the water itself was not especially clean. But the sun was hot and the beer was cold and all was right in the world. We were really just here as a jumping off point for Tayrona National Park the following day.
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada jungle, visitors and locals alike flock to Tayrona for the beaches. There are several of them and you hike through jungle paths to arrive at them, with the first being desolate and beautiful, though closed to swimmers due to a strong riptide. The beaches seem to get progressively nicer (and swimmable) as you walk further and, coupled with the 32 degree heat at 89% humidity, it is all you can do not to jump right in with clothes on. We stayed in the only ‘hotel’ in the park, near the entrance, so that we could have two days there without taking the long bus back to the closest city. The hotel was a highlight in itself with open walls and white curtains for privacy, a small stone washroom and shower in our room and mosquito netting over the bed. At night, the jungle came alive and there was such a cacophony of birds, animals and insects that it woke me up. In the morning, we were served a fresh breakfast while monkeys played in the trees beside us. We were very charmed.
We navigated the intra city busses and made our way to Santa Marta, where we had three stiflingly hot and sticky days and nights. Apparently, most of the colonial heritage was ravaged over the years by pirates so after you check out the church and go for a seaside stroll, you’ve really covered the bulk of it. We mostly stayed in the area of our ho(s)tel, which was slightly out of the city centre. Lunch is the main meal of the day and $3 CAD will get you a soup and juice, as well as a meat platter with rice, beans and platanos (mashed and fried plantain, which is a staple). We also found loud music blasting out of corner store-type places, where they had tables and chairs outside and sold 1L beer bottles for a dollar fifty. We spent an evening there and then made it ‘home’ to catch the second presidential debate, after which, we heard what sounded like gun shots outside of our window. We reasoned it was probably fine and cautioned ourselves to watch less Narcos while staying in Colombia, but all the same, we decided it was probably best if we were in before dark the next night.
The highlight of our time in Colombia was, without a doubt, our four day/three night hike into the Cuidad Perdida: The Lost City of the Tayrona indigenous people, which dates back to 800 AD. The city itself, which you reach on the morning of day three, is nearly, if not, as vast as machu picchu and far quieter to visit, with our group of sixteen, which was one of only three groups to reach it that day.
The trek to the lost city was both rewarding and harrowing. Approximately 50 kilometers round trip, through jungle-encased mountains, with an average temperature of 30-35 degrees, plus humidity. On top of this, we were treated to a tropical thunderstorm with rains so hard that it felt as though we were climbing a waterfall at times and the clay earth turned slack with mud where I was especially prone to slipping on – and in- on more than one occasion. So, a decent amount of physical fitness is required to take on this challenge. However, the work was worth the reward for the stunning mountain vistas, beautiful waterfalls, exotic butterflies and birds, aboriginal settlements and the general knowledge that we were in the middle of the jungle in Colombia doing something that we would remember for the rest of our lives. The group we had was a fantastic bunch of people and we had amazing guides as well, organized through Magic Tours. We had poorly understood when booking and were under the impression that meals along the way might be limited to fruit we picked off trees and some nuts. We were extremely mistaken, as breakfast, lunch and dinner were huge plates of hot meat, eggs, pasta, soups, fresh fruit, and of course, rice, beans and plantain. We also expected to be sleeping in hammocks (and some groups did) but were again upgraded to real beds – dorm style and bunk beds, but in the jungle with no civilization for miles, we were impressed. All in all, this was an amazing experience that we would recommend to anyone looking for a unique adventure in Colombia.
The amount of mud that we washed off ourselves when we got back to Santa Marta was second only to the number of bug bites on our legs. A shower, hot meal and change of clothes were all we could manage before we fell, exhausted, onto our beds to sleep for the night.
We made our way to the colonial city of Cartagena the next day with new friends from the Lost City trek from Cologne, Germany. After some brief confusion upon arrival, we realized that we had actually booked a room about as far away from Cartagena city centre as you can get while still being able to claim that you are in the greater metropolitan area. No matter though- we cabbed to our ho(s)tel, showered, changed, and headed back out to meet our friends in the bustling neighbourhood of Getsemani, where most of the nightlife happens. You could make a night of just walking around the street here, popping into the bars here and there for a drink. The area was very lively, with performers, music and some of the best street food I have ever experienced. We found here Columbia’s answer to poutine: Salchipapa. This was a base of French fries, with sliced sausage and pulled pork on top, three or four different sauces and topped with hickory sticks chips. Just thinking of it makes me hungry again… Anyway, the four of us went to Havana Bar, a popular place for both tourists and locals, and danced to Cuban music while sipping on mojitos.
The next day, we explored the city, which is beautiful. Lined by ramparts, the seaside historic centre is very colourful and art-filled. We spent a few hours at a museum for the Spanish Inquisition, which took place in Cartagena, among other sites. The only problem with a town being so beautiful is that is also makes it a hot-bed for tourists and those trying to pander to them. We decided a day was enough to see what we wanted and eat some fresh fish.
We spent our last day in Colombia relaxing in our little neighbourhood, where we were the only gringos in sight, taking in some local food and a salsa club and getting ready to move on to Bolivia. ❤