When we arrived at the Ecuador / Colombia border crossing we had no idea what to do or where to go. We must have looked like proper gringos with our South American phrase book in one hand and the Lonely Planet in the other. We joined the only queue there was and hoped for best. Fortunately it was the right queue and we managed to get our exit stamps relatively quickly. It then took literally two minutes to cross into Colombia. Well for me anyway…Sam got asked 100 questions about why he was visiting, where he was going etc…but eventually they waved him through. We did find ourselves in a familiar situation where we had no Colombian money so we changed what dollars we had left with one of the many dodgy Colombians hanging around the border and made our first stop an ATM. With no hostel booked and night travel not advised our cab driver took us to what he called an ‘Economical hotel’ which ended up being a godsend at only £10 a night and right next to the bus station.
Our plan was to get up to the Caribbean coast as quickly as possible as we’d heard it’s the nicest part of Colombia. From there we were going to go to Venezuela, however after hearing how expensive it is we’ve reluctantly decided to give it a miss. This means that we will have to double back through Colombia and Ecuador to reach Peru. I’m sure some of you are wondering why we don’t just fly, but flights in South America are ridiculously expensive, so our only option is more bus travel…fun!
En route to the coast we stopped in a couple of places; Popayan which is a small Colonial town, very pretty to look at but not much to do. We then took a 12 hour night bus to Medellin, a large bustling city to the West of Bogota. We could have taken a Pablo Escobar tour which included trying on some of his old hats and meeting his brother (doubtful) but at £20 each we decided that we wouldn’t be missing out on that much. Instead we took the metro across town and had a walk around down-town Medellin…not that nice to be honest and weirdly full of statues of fat people. There were lots of people selling everything from a phone minutes, i.e. use their phone for so much a minute. You could also pay to get weighed on what looked like bathroom scales and there were lots of people selling home-made juices just walking around with them on trays like they were a waiter at a party.
We did go on a cable car though which provided great views over the city and across the poorer areas. I also managed to get my hair cut whilst there…a real treat for me and I felt human again for a while. The last time I had it cut properly was in Laos (Jan) and Sam attempted to trim it in KL but that was a bit of a disaster to be honest. We were in Medellin mid-week so there were no wild parties or salsa nights happening unfortunately. Although I am sure the latter wasn’t a problem for Sam…I think it would take a small miracle to get Sam on the dance floor salsa dancing (watch this space).
One thing that has struck us the most here is how expensive bus travel is. A typical 12 hour bus trip is about £35 each (over a day’s budget) which is why we have been trying to travel through the night…save on accommodation. This however, brings along its own risks and the stories we’ve read about armed bandits and bags being stolen have made these journeys somewhat nerve-racking. My bra has become our new wallet and Sam’s socks have become the hiding place for our passports. The buses are also freezing cold, for some unknown reason they crank up the air-con (maybe to keep the driver awake) and Sam finally got to use his sleeping bag on our last bus…after 9 months of carrying it around. My alpaca jumper and socks seem to be sufficient so far…I just need a nose warmer and I’m all set.
Our latest bus journey of 14 hours brought us to the city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. Our first impressions…mental! As soon as we stepped off the bus and into a battered looking taxi we were faced with chaos everywhere. The lonely planet (yes we do read it sometimes) describes Cartagena as ‘a fairy tale city of romance…the most beautiful city in Colombia’. We soon realised that this was only true for a very small part of the city…the old town. Behind the ancient walls, lies the beautiful old town with any stunning squares, flower-decked balconies and boutique shops. We spent a few days in Cartagena just walking around, taking pictures and of course enjoying a mojito or two along the way. Outside of these walls was nothing but high rises, dirt and chaos.
Continuing our journey along the coast, our next stop was Santa Marta where we were hoping for some nice beaches to chill out on for a few days. Not so. I think I had a certain expectation of a Caribbean coast and unfortunately so far Colombia has not lived up to it…the beaches are dirty and with a big old port stuck at one end of the beach and a sewage river through the middle, they are not very pretty. Instead we spend a few days chilling out in our hostel and enjoying the blistering heat from our roof terrace. We were back to cooking our own meals as well, so it was good to get a change from fried food. Not exactly what you want to eat when it is 36 ° outside, but you don’t really have much of a choice in South America.
We quickly moved on to a small fishing village called Taganga further along the coast. We’d heard that the beaches were a bit nicer and it was also the gateway for Tayrona National Park where we plan to spend a few days before heading south to Bogota. Taganga is famous for its cheap diving so we signed up for a couple of dives as soon as we arrived…probably our last dives of the trip. It was great to be back in the water but sadly the dive sites themselves weren’t the best. Our first dive was ok but the coral reef was either dying or dead so there wasn’t a huge amount to see. The water was freezing as well so for our second dive we both decided to wear hoods (a first for us).
The second dive was more like a drift dive as the current was really strong…at one point I thought we had lost Sam so I had a mini panic and grabbed the dive master but soon realised that Sam was just above me laughing at me panicking…nice. Sam was excited to see a flying gurnard and we also got to see a giant green moray eel poking its head out of the reef wall. Another highlight for Sam was watching me (and taking photos) trying to get back in the boat…there was no ladder or step so the idea was to pull yourself up and over. Well I have zero upper body strength so our dive master had to pull me over and I landed flat on my stomach…so much for chivalry and Sam helping me. Included in our dive package were some underwater photos so we finally have a few to share with you.
After a few days of hanging out in Taganga, it was time to head into Tayrona National Park. We’d heard nothing but good things about it and were told that this was where all the amazing beaches were. All we had to do was to decide which was the best way to see the park. The Lonely Planet recommends a route which involves a few hours of walking but with many beaches along the way to stop off at or stay. However, we’d met with a group of people the night before who were taking a boat to one of the remote beaches but this is all they would see but they would avoid the park fees so we were torn between the two. In the end we decided to take the books advice and go with the recommended route…even with the two hour trek.
The bus dropped us off at the entrance and we spent the first hour walking through some very nice jungle with some people we’d met on the bus. We came to the beach called Arrecifes which we’d been told not to swim in as it was too dangerous. There were several cabins, camping sites and restaurants here so we stopped off for a drink before heading further into the park. The beach itself was huge…very hot sand and just a shame that we couldn’t have taken a dip. We followed the trail further into the jungle and passed several beautiful beaches on our way to Cabo San Juan, where we would be spending the night.
We spent the afternoon lazing on the beach and it was wonderful…I know it’s only a few months since we were last on a beach but I have missed it so much. Our bed for the night was a hammock about 50m from the beach…sounds idyllic but the reality of sleeping in a hammock is being is a very uncomfortable night’s sleep. The evening was very relaxed…a nice meal and enough beer to help us sleep. The next day after a few more hours on the beach we followed the trail back to the entrance but this time we stopped at all the beaches along the way, had a dip and played with the frisbee.
We eventually got back to Taganga around 7pm and managed to meet up with the group who had taken the boat…they all had a good time but I am so pleased we chose our route. The beaches were the nicest we’ve seen in a long time and the first we’ve seen in Colombia. I actually felt I was on the Caribbean coast.
Until the next time…