After just narrowly making our flight in San Jose, we found ourselves high above the Caribbean as we flew towards Colombia. The flight itself was quite a treat; not only was there a significant amount of leg room, but there was a meal – with wine – included! This might not seem like much but considering the flight was under two short hours, most airlines won’t even offer pretzels! After a brief stop in Bogota, where we sampled some deep-fried airport goodies and a few cold drinks, we continued on.
Descending into Santa Marta was a visual treat in itself. With the runway running parallel to the coast, from one side of the plane you see the sun setting over the blue Caribbean. Looking out the other side, the Andean foothills climb abruptly from the earth, into the low clouds.
Almost Flawless Arrival
It wasn’t until we were cruising along the coastal highway towards the city centre that we realized a slight problem. Though we had a general set of directions to our accommodation, no specific address was given – only a cul-de-sac. The missed detail on our part was that upon arrival, we were to phone the host who would come out to meet us. Seeing as we don’t have a Colombian SIM card, this part was going to prove difficult.
As the cab pulled away from the curb, leaving us standing there on the dark corner, in a new city and country, we’re reminded of our arrival in Leon several weeks earlier.
Just as we’re about to start rattling the gates to the cul-de-sac, a tall foreigner steps out of a house a little up the road and calls out to us with a British accent. In a stroke of luck, our host just happened to be doing some late-evening sweeping.
We’re Going to Eat Well Here
Almost immediately, we head out in search of some late-night food. Thanks to a suggestion from our host, we walk the few short blocks to a place called De Picnic. Essentially an open-air food court, this was one of the greatest places we found during our stay when it came to prices and selection.
We sat down near a random stall and ordered salchipapas mixto, while a woman from another stall took our drink orders. The meal itself was essentially a massive pile of French fries, tossed with sausage, pork, chicken, lettuce, cheese and an assortment of delicious sauces. The whole thing was a cardiovascular nightmare, but damn was it tasty.
The Triumphant Return of Street Food
Aside from the heart-stopping madness of the salchipapas, we were in for a fantastic treat when we ventured downtown the following day. Walking the streets of the Old City, we were greeted almost immediately with an unmistakable smell: street food.
Definitely a focus of a few posts in the near future, street food certainly wasn’t something we’d expected in Colombia. Considering the general street food scene seemed to vanish after leaving Mexico, our hopes were all but faded. Within the span of a few blocks, we enjoyed churros, sausages, several styles of dumpling, and the quintessential grilled meat-on-a-stick.
Everything was amazing and all hopes of leaving this country any thinner suddenly fizzled out completely.
A Visit to Minca
Although the city itself didn’t offer a lot more than a few questionable beaches and a bit of a faux old-town, the real draws to Santa Marta are the surrounding areas. One such place is the tiny village of Minca, high in the aforementioned foothills.
We made our way through the early morning chaos near the Saturday market to track down our bus. Already far too sweaty for this early in the day, we’re welcomed to a perfectly air-conditioned shuttle – something we’ll learn is the norm in these parts.
Going for a Dip
The climb up the steep mountain road came with stunning views of the Caribbean coast as we made our way into the mountain village. The main purpose of our visit was to hike up to Pozo Azul, a series of small waterfalls and swimming holes deep in the jungle. Upon arrival in Minca, though slightly cooler than down on the coast, the thick air was warming fast. We wasted no time starting our hike.
The pools themselves were a welcomed reward following the hour-long walk, the cold water set everything straight within seconds. There were a fair number of people enjoying themselves in the lower pool, but from previous experience, we knew there would likely be much less crowded areas further up. So we climbed a little more until we found a couple of smaller pools that were completely deserted.
An Unexpected Encounter
Now, swimming holes and waterfalls are always a great experience, especially when they’re as beautiful as these. However, the best part of our little trip to Minca and the pools was actually during the hike up.
Around the half-way point, surrounded by thick, hazy jungle, we noticed a few people looking down in the bush. Assuming they’re just a few mesmerized tourists who’ve seen their first squirrel or something, we think little of it.
We were quite mistaken.
Slowly slithering along the roadside and over a concrete retaining wall, was a six-foot-long boa constrictor. I don’t think I’ve seen a snake this big in captivity, let alone in the wild! Much like the first time I encountered sharks while scuba diving, my first instinct was to get as close as possible for a look, letting it’s tail slide through my hand before it disappeared. Thankfully, constrictors are rarely aggressive unless threatened, so I figured it was alright.
Encounter a giant carnivorous snake deep in the jungle – check.
Beach Time Running Out
Seeing as we’d soon be heading inland for the rest of our time in Colombia, maximizing beach time was a priority. As previously mentioned, the beaches of Santa Marta themselves were nothing special. Although the water was warm, there were few stretches of sand clean enough to pass as remotely appealing.
That being said, step away from the city centre a short distance and you’ll be greeted with some alluring stretches of Caribbean coastline. While many of these beaches are found in the popular Tayrona National Park, our favourite was much easier (and cheaper!) to access. Although Bahia Concha is technically inside Tayrona itself, access via private road allows visitors to avoid the park fee.
As suggested by our host, we left as early as possible to avoid the crowds; and were well-rewarded as a result. Arriving shortly after 8 am and finding a nice shady spot beneath a tree, we had nearly the entire place to ourselves for over two hours. The crystal clear water and pale sand made the entire bay postcard-perfect.
Eating a few snacks we brought along, we lazily wasted most of the day away in our own little corner of paradise. And while beach days were numbered, we still had one final coastal destination to visit: the beautiful colonial port city of Cartagena.