The bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta – we now know – is notorious for taking longer than expected. And indeed, our 4 hour journey took 6 hours due to a lot of hanging around for no apparent reason. We arrived at The Dreamers hostel with 7 minutes to spare before our beds were given away, but luckily we were welcomed with open arms and smiling faces, which lifted our tired and weary mood a little before we zonked out in our beds.
Santa Marta is one of Colombia’s oldest cities and the place where Simon Bolívar died after a heroic attempt to make Latin America one united republic. But in all honesty, we didn’t venture there for the history. Santa Marta is where everyone heads to have the sun on their faces, shots of rum in their glasses and sand on absolutely f**king everything. The hostel was also a good 5km out of town, and with everything you could possibly need there or on the doorstep, we barely ever made it into the center. Dreamers hostel deserves its high Hostelworld rating, and good reviews. One of the most commonly mentioned benefit is their incredibly helpful staff which, as you’ll find out, we 100% agreed with. The space is well thought out, relaxed, and the Italian chef never failed to magic up some wonderful food to nibble on next to the pool.
Arguably the main attraction in Santa Marta is visiting the naturally beautiful Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. The park is covered in dense jungle teeming with wildlife – so perfect for hiking – but we wanted a few relaxing days so opted to spend our time at some of its many palm fringed beaches instead. Concha Bay is a short 15 minute ride from Dreamers hostel and the hostel arranged transfer cost us 35,000 COP; it’s worth noting that prices for tours seem generally high as they include the compulsory National Park entrance fee. We took very little with us on the assumption that this would be another tourist beach, we hoped selling cocktails. Unfortunately – depending on which way you look at it – it was surprisingly quiet, with one restaurant and only a few stalls selling water and beer. I’m a really restless sunbather so it wasn’t long before I was up building a sandcastle. I resisted the urge to steal a little child’s bucket and spade, and made do with my small cup and a couple of pieces of driftwood. There was a surprising amount of digging, demolition and wet sand retrieving required to build the foundations, which meant I woke up the next morning with two completely dead legs and D.O.M.S. that lasted for days. Gyms could probably just replace the squat rack with a sandpit, sea and makeshift driftwood scoops.
In the evening we met up with Sam and Sid and went out to La Brisa Loca Hostel in town, which has a really cool rooftop bar. If you want to stay centrally in Santa Marta, or you’re after a party hostel then this is the place for you. Everything of the night up until waking up in a hammock by the pool is still an absolute mystery. Naturally the next day was a horrendous hungover blur for me; I quite gladly slumped off to bed at 8.30pm ready to rejuvenate and be fresh for beach day #2.
We planned to visit Playa Crystal in the National Park but wanted to avoid the expensive package tour that included a 2 hour hike to the beach. After a bit of research, we decided to try and get there ourselves via a boat from Tatanga. The hostel owner tried to convince us otherwise and mentioned to Sam that the sea could be choppy and unpleasant at this time of year. Assuming this was exaggeration and an attempt to dissuade us from going solo, we ignored the tip off. Probably not our best move. We bundled 5 of us in a taxi from the hostel to Tatanga costing 5000 COP each, and then paid 70,000 COP each for a return boat ride inclusive of national park fees and snorkel rental. Tatanga is a small little fishing village with a horseshoe shaped bay and is a popular base from which to explore Parque Nacional Tayrona. Taxis from there to Santa Marta generally cost us somewhere in the region of 15,000-25,000 COP.
The speed boat ride was something else and certainly one of my most memorable/hilarious/terrifying transport experiences. As it turns out, the lady from the hostel wasn’t lying, and as Tatanga got smaller and smaller, the waves got bigger and bigger. Some waves probably reaching two or so metres high, the front of the boat was constantly soaring and then thrashing down for about 30 mins. And we were in the front row. Our driver also seemed to enjoy playing chicken with the rocks…genuinely quite painful, I slid off my seat more than once, and Sid was worried he might become infertile. Our arses truly got a pounding, and not of the good kind. We all laughed, some of us cried, and I began to wonder which photo my family would pick to go on BBC news. Sam also saw a flying fish, and somehow our boat driver understood him when he waved his hands and trying his very best Spanish, enthusiastically shouted ‘pescado del fly!’.
Luckily, our destination was a peaceful paradise and the journey home was a tad more calm. The turquoise and crystal clear water was a dream, and there was an abundance of brightly coloured fish right at the shoreline. Which was lucky because the quality of our snorkels was questionable! Like all good pirates, we took a couple of bottles of rum with us. Somehow us five Brits managed to avoid any serious sunburn too, so I’d call that a success.
With just over a week until we had to be in Mexico, we needed a plan to leave South America. Flying direct was an immediate no go; at $500 minimum for a flight, there was no way we could fit it in our budget. We found a connected bus route that takes you through the whole of Central America starting from Panama for $140, so we figured that would be a better plan. Research on how to get to Panama commenced, and what we learnt is that every method is either complicated or expensive, or both. Going overland is near impossible unless you’re Bear Grylls; if you’re lucky enough to make it past the heavily armed guerillas then you’ll have harsh unmarked rainforest trails and deadly animals to contend with. One popular option is to book yourself onto a San Blas Island boat tour. The cheapest of which is $395 for a 4 day, 3 night tour with San Blas Adventures. Visiting these stunning islands would no doubt be an incredible experience, but the more we looked into it the less appealing it became. As ever, there are added extras and we estimated there would be at least $200 on top e.g. the $40 transfer from the port to Panama City, taxes etc. You also have to be in the starting point (which is a little town that seems awkward as hell to get to) at least 2 days before, which would have proved difficult with our itinerary. The other option which we ultimately went for is to fly from a main city such as Medellín or Bogota. We managed to get a flight from Medellín to Panama City with Viva Colombia for $97. To add another spanner in the works, we heard on the grapevine that there had been some political trouble in Medellín, which resulted in severe traffic issues and standstills. We heard horror stories of buses grounded and people stuck on buses outside the city for 48 hours! Already short on time and not in a position to take the risk, we decided to book another flight from Cartagena to Medellín for $44 with Viva Colombia. SO all-in-all, we had to grab a late bus from Santa Marta to Cartagena, crash the night there and then get a flight around midday. We had one night in Medellín before we then got another flight around 2pm the next day. The bottom line is, there’s no cheap or simple way to get from Colombia to Panama – unless you have a bulging budget! In the end (and totally spoilt by the dream of flying) we decided we couldn’t face 4 days on buses through Central America and so continued the search for cheap flights. One of the girls located a direct flight from San Jose in Costa Rica to Mexico for $158 with Interjet so we happily settled with that. Considering there wasn’t a huge price difference, this new plan meant we could see a snippet of Panama and Costa Rica and not arrive in Mexico hating life and probably each other.
For some reason booking transport in South America is always an over-complicated ball ache, and arranging one of our flights with Viva Colombia was no exception. Although we could ‘book’ our flights online, we were unable to pay. A guy from reception called the company on our behalf so we could pay over the phone; it was possible, but the person wanted to add on extras and charge us about $40 for paying by phone. The last option was to make a brand new reservation, print it off and pay for it at the local supermarket. So we did just that, and headed down to Exito. Unfortunately that didn’t work out so well either as they wouldn’t let us pay on card. With a cost of over a million pesos, it wasn’t feasible to withdraw from a cash point, nor did we feel comfortable paying for something like that with no protection or proof. So we headed back to the hostel feeling deflated, irked and yet again a bit worried about how we were going to get to bloody Panama. Luckily Tony, our new friend on reception, kindly called the company again and worked his magic; we paid for the flight just fine with no extra charges or issues. Our South American hero!
Unfortunately around this time Andrea somehow caught conjunctivitis and passed it onto Amy, who passed it onto me. We all joked about who was farting on our pillows, which was followed by the classic freak out when we googled pink eye and words like ‘chlamydia’ and ‘cancer’ popped up. Day by day, I increasingly lost my vision and looked more and more like I’d be punched in the face. Even with medicated eye-drops, it has taken me a good two weeks to recover. But I’m finally looking less like a gunky red eyed monster!
Friday was Sam’s last night before he flew to Miami, so we all had another night out at La Brisa Loca. Word on the street was there was a group of guerrillas out in town so we avoided going to a club, and finished the night at the beach instead. A big group of us got cabs to Tatanga, picked up a massive crate of beer and then a couple of us when for a moonlit skinny dip. The next morning we said a sad goodbye to Sam and checked out, with the intention of spending the following two nights in Palamino. Just 1.5 hour drive down the coast, Dreamers have another hostel there right on the beach. They do a direct transfer at 11am for 20,000 COP, or you can go via public bus for something in the region of 10,000 COP. The last public bus is around 5pm. Lazy hangover and beach bum mode had fully set in by this point and we managed to miss all of those options…cabs cost around 150,000 COP, but the cabs aren’t big enough to take us three girls, Sid, Kiwi Sam AND all our bags. Luckily Tony came to our rescue again and arranged for a mate with a jeep to take us for 34,000 COP each. Happy days.
The next day we were joined by Matt, Tom and his girlfriend Beth whom we had met in Cartagena and again in Santa Marta. We decided to go tubing, which we arranged with a company on the beach and cost 15,000 COP each. The hostel was offering tubing for 25,000 COP, so as always it’s worth asking around. It was a simple activity but with such a great bunch of people; the day was absolutely epic, full of laughter and up there as one of my favourites of the trip. We started around 1/2pm and it took us about 4 hours to float downstream. The sun was setting as we arrived at the mouth of the river. We couldn’t have [accidentally] planned the timing better; it was a beautiful end to an equally beautiful day. We had a drunken splash around in the sea before heading back to our hostel for dinner.
I take back what I said before about Medellín – I wasn’t being very open minded and definitely didn’t give it a proper chance. We returned to the cocaine capital for one night, and one night only. This time staying in the other Galleria hostel, which was much more pleasant and in a much better location, surrounded by bars and cool and contemporary food spots. We picked the hostel so we could see Will and Nick whom we met in Cusco, and had the lovely surprise of finding Aussie Luke from Máncora was staying there too. We bought our last bottle of Colombian rum and sat on next door’s rooftop having a catch up before the boys left for their flight at 3am.
The long drive to the airport gave us another chance to see Medellín from a different perspective. The city is surrounded by lushious green forest, which coupled with the spring like climate makes it feel very fresh. It also seemed to be a very clean, well kept city. We weren’t aware until we arrived at the airport that when flying into Panama, you must provide proof that you will be exiting the country. Despite having proof of a flight out of Costa Rica a week later and subsequent flights elsewhere, the baggage check-in staff were adamant that we needed proof of exit. This may be a reflection of the cheap airline however as we met a German girl later on who’s flight out of Costa Rica was just fine with her much more expensive flight! No doubt a ploy to panic you into buying a flight with them… what we actually did was bought one $33 dollar bus ticket to Costa Rica and then forged the confirmation document to say it was for 3 of us… it worked a treat, and they conveniently never even asked for the document again. Be warned that Panama also charges you $4 to leave the country, money grabbing bastards.
So, we finished our 14 week South American adventure in Colombia. And what a country to end it on! Without a doubt in my top 3 favourites, Colombia is simply incredible and hopefully I’ll get the chance to return in the future. It may want to hide from its danger and cocaine connotations, but I find its rich history fascinating and enjoyed experiencing a different culture. Colombia has beautiful beaches, rum continuously flowing, gorgeous valleys with high class coffee, delectable cuisine, astonishingly beautiful colonial cities and friendly and welcoming people. What’s not to love? South America, you’ve been an absolute ball. Onto Central America!
Love, Lottie xx