Wow. It’s been a wild start to the New Year. Entering the beginning of February, this is the first time we’ve had to slow down a little. Yet as fast as we’ve been moving around, it’s hard to imagine that only a month has passed. For a second, I thought we’d missed an update, only to realize it’s just the effect of travel on our experience of time.
This year couldn’t have started in a more incredible place. We’ve been truly spoiled by our decision to focus on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. And while it’s been at a pace far outside of our regular travel style, it’s almost impossible to complain.
And all through it, we’ve probably eaten more seafood this month than we have in the entire last decade.
At the finale of our last update, we’d arrived on the island of San Andres to less-than-favourable weather. Thankfully, by Christmas things had improved significantly, and by New Years everything was back the way it should be on a tropical island — sunny and warm.
Note: Going back a few days into 2019, we had an incredible encounter that reminded us just how small the world is. While stopping at a swimming hole on San Andres, we bumped into an English-speaking couple. And long story short, they’re not only from our home town, but we share a mutual friend. To make it even wilder, our friend put them in touch with this website to help them plan their Colombian honeymoon, and I’d actually spoken to them via Facebook several months prior!
Welcoming 2020, we spent our final days on San Andres swimming in the crystal-clear water and relaxing as much as possible. We knew the coming weeks would bring the same chaotic travel schedule as our previous month in El Salvador.
We boarded an early-morning flight from San Andres to Cartagena, and spent the first day wandering the town in the sweltering heat, with our bags, as we waited to check into our hostel.
Cartagena is a spectacular city, physically speaking. It’s comfortable, has outstanding architecture, a modern skyline and a great backpacker scene. Though it’s also gotten very busy — almost too busy — since our last visit.
The cafes are great, and the pre-crowd walks through the colonial “Old Town” are hard to beat. The gritty streets and colourful graffiti of Getsemani are a welcomed familiarity, and our old favourite ceviche stall was a great treat.
Speaking of familiar eats, we also popped into a place a little outside the tourist area, to a pizza shop we visited in the past. To our delight, it’s still one of the best pizzas we’ve ever had while travelling.
Good bits aside, the crowds and prices of Cartagena tend to get overwhelming fast. So after a few short days, we jumped off the beaten path a little and headed south to the town of Tolu.
A few hours southwest of Cartagena is a small town called Tolu, which surprised us in a few ways. Though it might be off the radar for foreigners, Tolu is packed with Colombian vacationers. And January happens to be the month most Colombians take their holidays.
The beaches aren’t perfect, but they’re comfortable, and the whole town was energized with holiday vibes. Everyone was eating and drinking, from dawn until late into the night. The entire town square was a raging party once the sun went down, with beer and street food vendors lining the roads.
After sampling various roadside snacks, we discovered a new arepa. Unlike other varieties we’ve encountered, this greasy cornmeal cake was overflowing with magma-like cheese and drizzled in sweetened, condensed milk. It’s one of the most unhealthy things we’ve eaten in a while, but also a game-changer in the way we view this Colombian treat.
From Tolu, we decided to visit the nearby San Bernardo islands. This small archipelago, an hour from the mainland, has some truly gorgeous islands, some of which are almost completely deserted — others, not so much.
Initially, we planned on staying overnight, something that probably would have improved our experience. Instead, mostly due to time constraints, we opted for a day trip. And what a mess of chaos this turned out to be. We were herded around like cattle, with hundreds of other visitors. And while we managed to find a little sliver of peace, it didn’t make up for the overall experience.
Interestingly enough, the most exciting part of the day was a visit to Santa Cruz del Islote, one of the most densely populated islands in the world!
The full story will be out soon.
Rincon del Mar
From Tolu, we began making our way back north, up the coast. Dodging a few overly-aggressive and scamming Moto-taxi drivers, we bus-hopped to the tiny seaside village of Rincon del Mar.
This was our kind of beach town. It’s quiet, it’s calm, it’s local. Our hostel was basic and opened right onto the beach. Phenomenal seafood was cheap and abundant, and there was little to do but relax. The only downside was that we only had one day to soak in the amazing atmosphere.
We’ll be returning.
Another travel day followed, this time from Rincon del Mar all the way up to Santa Marta. Although the journey was, for the most part, uneventful, we had one little hiccup as the bus stopped in Cartagena.
I hopped off to grab some snacks and water from the inside, and made sure to confirm with the driver that I had time to do so. Given my half-hour window, the quick trip didn’t concern me. What the driver neglected to mention, was that he would be moving the bus to the other side of the terminal. So there I was, wandering out of the station, staring at an empty space where the bus had been just minutes before.
Thankfully, I knew Kylee was on board, so the bus wouldn’t actually leave me. After a little running around, I found the bus parked in its new location, and we were soon off again.
Santa Marta is a place we didn’t really love on our first visit. I guess we still don’t love it, but it grew on us much more on this second visit. This is mostly because we stayed at a nice hostel right in the old town. Previously we stayed at a dumpy AirBNB far from the action, so we missed out on the chance to enjoy the downtown.
It’s a city most travellers use to base themselves for other, nearby activities. Scuba diving, national parks, and the famed Lost City Trek, to name a few. Though the city itself has a few great restaurants and a very impressive street art scene. These alone are worth the visit.
Given our short window (and budget) we made the journey to Bahia Concha, rather than the more popular activities. Bahia Concha is a stunning stretch of beach that most foreigners aren’t yet aware of. We spent the morning here, playing in the postcard-perfect water, before the crowds arrived and the sun became unbearable.
Leaving the coastal vibes for a quick couple of nights, we took the 45-minute journey to Minca, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This chilled-out town with hippy vibes was a favourite of ours during our first visit to Colombia. Though on that trip we only took a day trip up to Minca. This time we decided to spend a couple of nights, so we could explore a little better.
One of the highlights in Minca is a small, but very informative museum. Run by a Colombian-American couple, it depicts the fascinating history of the town, including a very violent and tragic era that only came to an end in the last decade.
We spent the morning of our full-day hiking out to some waterfalls and breathing the fresh, mountain air. However, unlike our last visit, we didn’t encounter any giant boa constrictors!
Still, we enjoyed our short, but relaxing visit.
Two buses later and we were back on the coast. This time heading north, towards the tip of Colombia. Our first stop was just outside Tayrona National Park, at a place called Costeña beach.
This place is rustic. It reminded us of our early days in Thailand or Goa. And it makes Rincon del Mar seem like a bustling metropolis. There’s no wifi and no power, aside from the three hours between 6 and 9 pm when lights come on to the rumble of a gas generator.
Though the water is too rough for swimming it was nice to disconnect for a night. As travel writers, being glued to our laptops is all too common. It’s nice to have a forced day off once in a while, to just swing in a hammock and read a book.
Before carrying on to Palomino, the backpacker capital of these parts, we spent a night in Guachaca. This is a small town a few minutes from Costeña beach. There’s little to do here, activity-wise, but it’s quite a pretty town to wander; as long as you step off the main highway.
Early in the morning, before catching our onward bus, we headed off into the jungle in search of some waterfalls we were told about at the hostel. As exhausted as we were, the early-morning hike was entirely worth it. I use the word hike, but in reality, it was an effortless, flat walk.
A multi-tiered waterfall, dotted with deep pools, snaked up the mountain above us. The cold, mountain water was a crisp wake-up to get us ready for another day of travel. And the rumble of howler monkeys kept us company as we hike back to the highway.
An hour later, we arrived in Palomino. This town is incredibly popular among backpackers, and it has all the signs of such a town. Restaurants of all cuisines are found here, as well as yoga, massage, tattoos, and all kinds of stalls selling handmade jewelry.
The only thing this bustling beach town doesn’t have — is a beach. I mean, there’s sand and water, but the sand is a sliver against the pounding waves of the un-swimmable sea. It’s a nice place, with good vibes, but we’re still struggling to see why or how this specific spot became the it place for backpackers, given the dozens of other — far prettier — beach towns nearby.
Though we left a little underwhelmed, Palomino was still a nice spot to visit. We just don’t quite get it.
Cabo de la Vela
Now, the crescendo. Our whole coastal adventure these couple of weeks brings us to one epic journey. We left Palomino for Riohacha, the last real city before the end of Colombia as we know it. Along the way, we met a Swiss couple with some fantastic stories of live-aboard dive ships and wild hikes in Peru. When we arrived in Riohacha, the four of us went out to dinner at a somewhat upscale seafood place.
Since San Andres, Kylee and I have become somewhat addicted to shrimp ceviche. Thankfully it’s incredibly cheap on the Colombian coast, though it’s a habit we’ll need to break once heading inland.
After sorting out final details for the journey, the two of us rose early the following morning and hopped in a shared car to the town of Uribia, near the Venezuelan border. From there, after some haggling, we crammed in the back of an old Toyota Land Cruiser, which took us bouncing through the desert to the coastal village of Cabo de la Vela — and I use the word “village” very loosely.
In Cabo, we swam on some seemingly untouched beaches and ate some of the most delicious lobster of our lives. There’s little else to do in Cabo de la Vela, as power and internet are non-existent, so we relaxed and took in the vibes. On our second night, we stopped for a cold beer at a roadside bar that was literally a shack in the sand with a simple gas generator keeping the light on and the beer cold.
At 5 am the following day, we boarded another 4×4 and drove off through the already-hot desert once more. We bounced over rocks and sped through vast plains of cracked earth. Three hours later, we climbed into a small boat with a sputtering off-board motor that brought us to our home for the night.
Any other day, this would have been an enjoyable experience, though the intestinal infection I seemed to have picked up in the last few days made it a little precarious at times.
After settling into our spartan room of stone and concrete, we boarded yet another lifted truck to explore the surrounding area. The first stop was Punta Gallinas, the northernmost tip of not only Colombia, but all of South America. More bouncing through the roadless landscape followed, with more stunning sights to behold.
Eventually, we arrived at the base of a huge dune that blocked any further passage. Climbing to the top, we were greeted with the most incredibly blue water as the desert sand met the sea. The swim in the warm water was the closest thing we’d have to a shower that day.
Back to Civilization
The desert was a challenging journey to make, but entirely worth the effort. We’re now back in Riohacha, getting ourselves organized and packed for the next adventure. Our time on the Caribbean coast has come to an end, for now at least. Though not without one final hiccup.
Upon returning to Riohacha, my computer decided it would not charge. After some basic troubleshooting, it seems either the charger is broken or the computer itself. Considering this tool is an absolute necessity for our job, this is kind of a big deal. In desperate hopes that it’s just the charger, we make the journey all the way back to Santa Marta and the closest store that can help.
Aside from a 10-hour round trip journey, some mall food court Chinese food and a cup of strawberry frozen yogurt, our mission has failed. It’s not a charger issue, and the only option we now have is to take it in for repairs. Yet mysteriously, it seems to have sorted itself out after our trip to the city, though we’re still unsure of the true cause and are hoping it won’t happen again.
Now we pack. As January comes to an end, as does our time in the north. Tomorrow morning we head to the airport and board a flight to Bogota, where we’ll spend a week catching up on a months worth of writing and photos. And hopefully, getting this computer issue sorted.
Overall, January has been a whirlwind adventure with more highs than lows. And while I’m going to miss the beach, it will be nice to return to the incredible mountains and jungles this country is so famous for.