Although I have yet to do any real work in Barranquilla, we recently had our first week of holiday. There are so many places we want to visit in Colombia, but for the week of Semana Santa we decided to keep things local and explore the coastal region.
Last Saturday morning, five of us volunteers met at the bus station and left for Santa Marta. It was a relatively uneventful experience, although we had underestimated the queues of people we would find at the station, as everyone fled the city in search of sun and sea in Santa Marta. Once we’d hopped off the bus, we dawdled on the side of the road for a few minutes deliberating on how best to get to Taganga – a small village about fifteen minutes outside the city. We decided that a taxi between us would amount to the same as a bus, and so the five of us squashed in and off we went.
Taganga is a strange place. Once a small fishing village, it has been overrun by backpackers. The sandy streets are littered with hostels, and most local activity seems to revolve around tourism. I found the town to be enjoyable by day. We admired the colourful buildings perched on the cliffs overlooking the beautiful bay and swam in the calm water. We had a cheap and delicious lunch of fresh fish at a small restaurant, and drank rum with freshly squeezed juice on the beach.
But at night, Taganga becomes a haven of gringo hedonism. It felt a bit seedy to have every second person offering us drugs in this quaint seaside village. One of the local teachers had joked that Taganga is quite unique: “It’s the only place you might see a gringo begging for money…” He was right; we did see a few ex-travellers, usually selling jewellery, who had been sucked in and consumed by the gratuitous lifestyle. I guess your enjoyment of Taganga depends on what you’re looking for.
Later that evening we were joined by three more Barranquilla volunteers, and two more from Armenia and Popayán arrived early the next morning. We had gathered in Taganga to find a boat to take us onward to our next destination: Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona.
One can take a bus to the entrance of the national park, but from there it is a two hour hike to the campsites. Being very unfit and lazy, I found out about this alternative online and proposed it rather hopefully in our group’s planning discussions. For a little extra money (we paid 30 000 pesos each – about R150 – due to Jordan’s bargaining skills), it would save us the effort of schleping our packs through the jungle and would allow us to beat the rush of hikers to check in (you can’t book accommodation in advance).
The boat trip was a great experience in itself. We had been warned it would be rough, and as promised we spent most of the trip bouncing up and down over the waves, groaning as our bums hit the bench and the air was knocked out of us. The revelry of the previous night caught up with some of our shipmates about twenty minutes in, and thereafter they sat with their eyes closed and mouths firmly shut. The rest of us had a lot of fun, and I was very excited to spot a dolphin and some flying fish.
After just under an hour, we arrived at Parque Tayona: Golden sand dotted with impressive boulders, turquoise water and palm trees, with the South American jungle lurking just behind.
We fell asleep and watched the sun rise in hammocks perched in a hut atop a rocky outcrop, soothed by the sound of the Caribbean Sea lapping the shore. We drank delicious fresh fruit juice and ate ceviche on the beach. We watched the sun set behind the palm trees after swimming at la piscina (the swimming pool), and played cards at night.
We hiked through the jungle to the ancient ruins of Pueblito, and Keagan and I rode horses (instead of making the long trek on foot) to the park’s exit.
Tayrona is incredibly beautiful, and we had an amazing time. However, my experience of this natural splendour was tainted slightly by the crowds of people; I was left a little disappointed. The internet promises an untouched paradise where jungle meets beach, and so perhaps my expectations were a tad unrealistic. Cabo San Juan, where we stayed, felt a little like a strange music festival – we walked past the rows of tents and queued to pay an exorbitant entrance fee complete with festival-style wristband (although some of us used un-dated student cards and only paid 8000 pesos), queued to use one of the four toilets provided for the entire campground, and queued to order (overpriced) food at the school-camp-style restaurant.
Understandably, travellers will always search out these hidden places of beauty and solitude, until eventually (and a lot sooner these days, thanks to technology) they won’t be quite as deserted and pristine. That’s just the way it is. But I do hope that Tayrona isn’t developed and commercialised any further, because Colombia would lose one of its greatest symbols of bio-diversity and “magical realism”.
After leaving the park, Keagan and I made our way to Minca, a small village nestled high in the Sierre Nevada mountains, with a spectacular view of Santa Marta far below.
The B&B we had booked was a little outside of Minca, and so I had arranged to meet the owner in the centre of town at five o’clock. It was about midday when we arrived, and we were dying to shower and take a nap, so we thought we would make our own way to the hostel instead of checking out Minca for the day. A taxi drove us part of the way, crawling up the steep dirt track, until the driver told us his car could make it no further. “Sólo cinco minutos,” he said, pointing at a sign in the distance. Either he was lying or I misheard him, because when we got close enough to read the sign, it said forty-five minutes.
It was very slow going, dragging ourselves up the hill in the heat of the day. I stopped every few meters to “look at the view”, which was undeniably beautiful, and the forty-five minute walk took closer to one and a half hours. It turned out to be well worth it, though.
We were welcomed at La Candelaria with several glasses of homemade lemonade as we got acquainted with the spectacular view from the veranda. We met Eugenio, Ana and the family, as well as Toqui, their pet Toucan, and their dogs Princessa and Mona. Only Eugenio speaks English, but we understood most of what was said and were actually quite surprised by the (still very small) amount of Spanish we came up with.
La Candelaria is a working coffee farm. The coffee plants, along with a variety of other fruit trees (we saw avocado, mango, passion fruit, mandarin, zapote, and banana), are scattered throughout the finca’s indigenous forest. We spent three days walking along the shaded paths, admiring the flowers and marvelling at the strange calls of exotic birds. We lazed in hammocks and watched the sky turn purple as the lights of Santa Marta twinkled into existence in the valley far below. We were also ravaged by mosquitoes – our sissy insect repellent from home didn’t deter the bloodsuckers of the jungle in the slightest.
Eugenio offers a free coffee tour for guests, and it was so interesting to observe (and participate in) the coffee-making process from field to cup.
We learned about the difficulties facing organic coffee farmers, and the methods used to combat them. Eugenio proudly showed us the insect traps he learned how to make on YouTube, and used a YouTube-inspired homemade machine to roast the coffee beans we collected.
We ended our stay with cups of delicious coffee and promises to return to La Candelaria in the future. We said goodbye, hefted our backpacks, and made our way back down the mountain.
We arrived in the village red-faced and out of breath, and were happy to settle down to some lunch at Tienda Cafe Minca. We paid a small fee to leave our backpacks at the cafe, and then began another uphill trek to the waterfalls and swimming holes at Pozo Azul. Hundreds of motorbike taxis sped past us as we walked (even once we had turned off the main road onto a footpath), and so we should have been prepared for the scene that awaited.
Hundreds of people (mostly Colombians) wallowed the pools or lounged beside them on the shore. We clambered over rocks and scaled muddy banks, hoping to evade the crowds further up river. We were moderately successful and took a quick dip in the icy water before heading back to town, promising ourselves we would come back on a quieter weekend.
We walked back along the dirt track, dodging motorbikes and Coke cans, surrounded by plants wilted by petrol fumes. Again, I hope the people of Minca or perhaps the government consider measures to encourage responsible tourism that does not destroy the environment.
Finally ready to begin the journey home, we found ourselves unable to. Traffic in the town had come to a standstill as more holidaymakers than the roads can handle all attempted to leave at once. Even once the traffic had begun to clear an hour later, we couldn’t find any collectivos (share taxis) leaving for Santa Marta, and began to panic that we wouldn’t get to the bus station before sunset.
Just as we resigned ourselves to another night in a hostel, Colombian kindness came to the fore once again! We were approached by a man who had noticed our predicament, and he offered to drop us in Santa Marta on his way home to Rodadero. We were so grateful to Jose and Claudia for rescuing us from the roadside, and enjoyed chatting to them on the ride into the city.
The bus station was absolute chaos. There were only a handful of open ticket windows, and long lines of agitated people stretched behind each one. We found one much shorter than the others, and confirmed as best we could that we would be able to buy tickets to Barranquilla at the front. We were feeling rather smug, until we realised this line wasn’t moving at all. We stood there for about an hour, watching the chaos build as people ran from line to line, yelled and shook their fists at the employees behind the glass, and argued vehemently with the people around them. There was a real sense of desperation in the air, as it became clear there were very few buses heading out of Santa Marta at 6pm on a holiday. We joined forces with two German girls and the American guy in front of us, united by this shared experience of mayhem. When our line eventually began to move forward, we held our ground as people started edging in from all sides, and managed to grab five tickets.
Our bus finally arrived, we fought for seats (several people had to sit on the floor), and began to relax after several stressful hours in the station. The Colombian passengers recovered from the ordeal quickly, and were soon asking the gringos to sing songs for them. The Germans sang ‘The Bare Necessities’ (in German) and a song by Robbie Williams, and we joined forces with Daniel once again; our rendition of Sublime’s ‘What I Got’ was met with cheers and applause. It was by far the most entertaining bus journey I’ve even undertaken, and a fitting end to our trip.
Overall, it was an amazing week: exquisite scenery, great friends and kind strangers, delicious food, and a little Colombian chaos! I know we’re going to be torn between revisiting these places and exploring new ones when we next get the opportunity to travel.