The Joys of Santa Marta

(From the beginning of January – I am impressively behind)

After we returned from Valledupar, Sovio and I spent a few days chilling in Barranquilla, getting to know the city a bit better and visiting all the touristy spots and museums. I will be describing Barranquilla itself in more detail in my next post, so for now I’m going to focus on a trip we took to Santa Marta and Minca.

Santa Marta is a city about 1-1.30 hours from Barranquilla and near to it is Tayrona Park, an enormous national park with a visitable tourist area complete with campsites, walking routes and restaurants. We took the earliest bus to Santa Marta and from there we got a taxi to Tayrona. It turns out they stop letting people in at around 11am, when the park quotas are “full”, so we were among the lucky few who just made it! Our plan to avoid paying an extortionate amount for food/water once inside meant we ended up lugging a huge six litre bottle of water through the jungle and surviving on an odd diet of biscuits, bread and tinned goods whilst there. Luckily, there are lots of little shops at the entrance where you can buy such things. Much to my anger, my Colombian foreign ID card wasn’t deemed sufficient proof of my residence in the country, meaning I had to pay the special (extortionate) foreigners’s fee (15 vs 50 pesos).

Once inside we got a shuttle bus until the road ended, then, after mistakenly taking a path that led us in a massive circle for a good hour, we found the route and began the two hour walk to the first beach, Arrecifes. We continued on to the furthest and best beach, Cabo San Juan, only to be told that they had no more tents to rent, so had to trek back to Arrecifes. My advice – get there early! We had a little swim before heading back to the first beach, and it was BEAUTIFUL.

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The adverse effects of the heat

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Cabo San Juan

The following day we got up early to watch the sunrise on the beach. It was definitely one of those “am I really here?” moments. The peace and tranquillity of the moment was broken only by the waves crashing against the shore.

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For me the words “national park” conjure up images of vast, empty and isolated landscapes, so the park was much livelier and more touristy than I was expecting. From what I can remember they let in about 1000 people a day and there are several restaurants inside and an unfortunate amount of litter. In short, it’s a far cry from the Lake District.

We decided to do the trek to “Pueblito”, a small indigenous settlement belonging to the Kogui people, the descendants of the Tayronas who once lived in the area. The walk lasted about an hour and a half, climbing 260 metres above sea level. It was formed mostly of huuuuge rocks and boulders, making it more of a case of leaping from rock to rock than a simple climb; quite the adventure! The route was incredible. Everything felt huge and we saw all sorts of different plants, birds, butterflies and innumerable strange little blue-tailed lizards. The place just felt so full of life, with any number of weird and wonderful sights to be discovered around the corner. Pueblito itself was composed of four or five wooden huts constructed on what remains of the ancient Tayrona site. It wasn’t exactly anti-climatic, rather the whole idea of an “Indian village” for tourists to visit seems highly questionable to me. The enormity of the climb made it more than worth it in the end though.

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The following day we left the Parque Tayrona and made our way to what is, without doubt, one of the best places I’ve visited in Colombia so far; a small town called Minca, up in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Upon arrival, very hot and bothered, we were less than impressed with the 210 stairs up to our hostel, but it was definitely worth the climb. At 650 m above sea level I found the climate in Minca to be much more acceptable. The hostel, Casa Loma, was really quirky and homey, high up in the hills with amazing views over the pueblo. Lounging in the hammocks you could look out across the mountains and take in the beautiful sunset, a situation that was made all the more enjoyable with passionfruit mojitos. We stayed in a little cabaña hidden in the trees and woke up refreshed and eager to explore.

IMG_3433We set off fairly early on a hike to Los Piños – a viewpoint up in the Sierra Nevada – armed with a dubious hand-drawn and very out of scale map provided by the hostel. You can see where this is going… We got off to a flying start and soon made it to some stunning waterfalls, where Sovio was brave enough to go for a swim (they were FREEZING). The route was incredibly beautiful, so green and vibrant and the kind of place that just makes you feel more alive for being there. The way was filled with enormous bamboos as big as a small house, and all kinds of plants, vines and colourful butterflies. After the sprawl of Bogotá it was fairly surreal.

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The long and short of the story is that after the waterfalls we somehow managed to miss the shorter footpath, and instead continued climbing for hours along the “main road.” Some helpful people in a hostel pointed us in the right direction and we eventually made it to Los Piños. Despite the heat and the difficulty of the climb it was well worth it!!

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We hadn’t initially planned to go to Minca, but I’m so glad we did. Despite it being a small town, I could’ve easily stayed a few days or weeks longer. Though Minca is fairly touristy – I saw almost as many French people as I did cats, and believe me, there was a disproportionately high number of cats – it still has its particular charm. The centre or “plaza” (for those generous enough to refer to it as such) felt like that of any other small town, aside from the handful of hostels scattered among the greengrocers, bakeries and cafes. If I’ve learnt one thing during my stay in Colombia, it is that I am NOT a city person.

Unfortunately, thanks to our detour it was late afternoon by the time we reached the viewpoint, meaning that we had to literally run back down the mountain (having successfully located the mystery footpath) in order to make it back in time to take a taxi to Santa Marta, and from there the bus to Barranquilla.

All in all I had a marvellous few days and strongly encourage anyone so minded to visit this incredible corner of the world.

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