This part of the trip is something that I had been anticipating for the past two months. I absolutely love Colombia and the coast, so put those two together and BOOM – three weeks of bliss baby! John and I ended up sharing a cab to the airport from Medellin with an English girl named Amelia, aka my Travel BFF. We didn’t speak much the entire ten days in Medellin, but little did I know that the three of us would become inseparable once we met up again at the hostel in Cartagena, and she’d soon become my travel BFF. We had the same plan to be on the coast for three-ish weeks then head to Bogotá, so we ended up exploring the coast together the entire time. Here are some of the spots we hit along with a few memories we made along the way!
1.Cartagena – While Cartagena wasn’t my favorite out of the five, but it’s still is worth going to see and is a great starting point for traveling along the coast. The town boasts open-air cafés and restaurants that line the cobblestone streets where you will often see horse-drawn carriages passing by. The old town has a European feel with its Spanish colonial architecture and when your not melting from the heat, it’s nice to walk around and visit the local shops and vendors. We decided to stay at El Viajero within the “walled city” since we loved the El Viajero in Cali. The hostel in Cali is much better, but our main concern was that the rooms on the coast had AC. It is scorching HOT in Cartagena. I mean, I absolutely love warm weather, but this was borderline unbearable at some points during the day so the AC was a huge plus. We originally had our sights set on staying at Media Luna Hostel for it’s reputation of being a vibrant hostel with a pool, but the lack of AC was a deal breaker. We did however hit up Media Luna’s Wednesday night roof-top party, which I’d highly recommend! We met a group of locals from Bogotá who introduced us to Aguardiente, the National drink of Colombia, as we all danced the night away.
We were only in Cartagena for a few nights, but we still managed to squeeze a day trip in to the nearby Playa Blanca beach, which is on Isla de Baru, one of the larger of the Rosario Islands and is only a 45 minute boat ride from the port of Cartagena. We hit a bit of a speed bump when the boat crew took us to a nearby, smaller island with an aquarium and insisted that we pay extra to snorkel. I, along with some angry locals, was not interested in this at this point since we were all under the impression that we would go straight to Playa Blanca. Most of the boat just hung out on the aquarium island while a handful of people went snorkelling. The boat finally came back and shuttled us to Playa Blanca where we had a delicious fresh fish lunch before getting to enjoy a couple hours on the beach. Playa Blanca is beautiful with white sand and blue water. However, we went on Colombian Labor Day, so it was completely chaotic. I mean, TONS of people and ten times the vendors trying to sell everything any anything from massages to ice cream to jewellery. Don’t worry, even if we had our eyes shut and were trying to catch some relaxation, vendors would tap us on the shoulder to ensure that we didn’t miss out. Regardless, we enjoyed ourselves and took light in the hiccups that we came across and I had a blast swimming and playing catch with some local kids. After a few days, we were ready to get the heck out of Cartagena since the amount of people that try to rip you off becomes overwhelming. Nevertheless, we have some funny stories and good laughs to look back on through the heat and getting seriously hassled!
2. Santa Marta/Taganga – Santa Marta was basically our base-camp for the remainder of the trip on the coast while we made smaller trips to nearby attractions (#3-4). Amelia and I were in heaven once we arrived at the Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta. After Cartagena, we were ready for some serious relaxation. I know I’ve said great things about a lot of hostels, but Dreamer is hands down #1 on my list. The place has such a fun vibe with the pool, happy hour, and incredible staff (Tony, Gustavo, Diego, Matthias, and Eric are an absolute dream!). The owners are Italian so the food offered at the hostel is wonderful and Chef Armando is a total sweetie. The only downside is that it’s located quite far from the beaches, but honestly this place was so great that it didn’t even matter. Many people leave for the Ciudad Perdida trek (Lost City Trek) from Santa Marta, but we were off to Machu Picchu in a couple weeks so this wasn’t really a priority on my agenda. There is also another Playa Blanca beach near Santa Marta, which you have to take a short ten-minute boat ride to. This beach was by far more relaxing than Cartagena’s Playa Blanca. The hostel also organizes day trips to the nearby Concha Bay, which is an incredibly beautiful and peaceful beach just outside the nearby Tayrona National Park. Santa Marta also has some great places to eat downtown. Amelia and I splurged on an expensive dinner one night at a nice Mediterranean restaurant called Ouzo. It felt SO good to ditch the travellers budget for a night and go all out! Sometimes you need to treat yourself – why not! A lot of backpackers also stay in the nearby finishing town of Taganga, also known as a little party town. Many flock here to get their diving licence, which is pretty inexpensive. We couldn’t find it in ourselves to leave the Dreamer, so we ended up just going out in Taganga at night by cab to hit the beach bars. After a few nights in Santa Marta, we decided to head to Parque Tayrona to see what all the fuss was about. We packed our day packs and left our big backpacks behind at the Dreamer before hopping on the local bus the next morning to explore this must-see National park.
3. Parque Tayrona – Tayrona is a delightful spot located roughly 45 minutes from Santa Marta. The local bus dropped us off right at the park’s entrance (fee: 38,000 Colombian pesos, around $20USD/7,000 with a student card, $3.70USD). We then took a shuttle about ten minutes into the park before the two hour hike to the renowned El Cabo San Juan beach. There are also horses available to take you on the trek for those who don’t want to walk, but the hike is truly stunning and about halfway in you start to hear the ocean waves crashing on the shore. When we arrived to the camp site, we booked a hammock for the night (20,000 pesos – around $10USD). Now this was going to be an interesting experience! I was excited to sleep in a hammock along the beach, but good thing I was exhausted that night because it can get a bit uncomfortable at times. We stayed in the hammocks near the tent camp site, but there are more hammocks on the top of the rock along the beach that offer a 360 view of the sea and lush coastline. We spent the rest of the day relaxing on the beach and ate lunch that we brought with us. We were told that the restaurant at Cabo San Juan can get a bit pricey, so we decided to just have dinner there with some new friends we met there. It wasn’t bad but we weren’t enthused about paying 5,000 for a can of beer when a bottle back in town is usually around 3,000. It’s somewhat understandable though since it’s difficult to get supplies down through the jungle of the National Park. After a rough night’s sleep, we enjoyed a fresh juice on the beach before heading out to hike back to catch the bus to Santa Marta. We decided to go grab our backpacks and head out that evening to the Dreamer Palomino, sister hostel of the Dreamer Santa Marta. Sleeping in a hammock on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast – Check!
Tips for Tayrona: Bring snacks, water, toilet paper, soap, extra $$$ (this trip ended up being quite expensive in comparison to other day trips we’ve taken), a lock to lock up any valuables, sweater/hoodie for the night, towel, and bug spray!
4. Palomino – We had been looking forward to staying at the Dreamer Palomino ever since we arrived at the Dreamer in Santa Marta. This hostel looks straight out of a magazine and can be mistaken for a beach resort rather than a hostel. It’s about a two hour bus ride up the coast on the local bus. When we arrived, we immediately extended our stay when we saw how beautiful the property was. We spent five days enjoying the coast, sipping 2×1 mango daiquiris by the pool, and getting our tan on. One of my favorite days in this small beach town was when we ventured out to go floating down the Palomino river with a great group of friends. There is a spot right outside the hostel where you can grab a tube and catch a motor taxi that will take you to the edge of the jungle. Before the 45-minute hike to the river, I burnt my leg pretty bad on the exhaust of the motor taxi (note to self: get off on the LEFT side of the bike, not the right). It totally put a damper on the hike, but once I got in the water, cracked open a beer, and took in the breathtaking scenery, I pretty much forgot about the baseball-size burn on my leg by that point. We all had an incredible time and towards the end of the river, we could see storm clouds coming in. I just sat back in my tube and enjoyed the view of the dark clouds against the mountains. It was absolutely gorgeous. Once the river hit the beach, we enjoyed a walk back on the beach to the hostel in the tropical rain. When we got back one of the staff members at the hostel gave me a banana and told me to “eat half, then make the rest like a cream and place it on the burn, then place the banana peal over it.” Ummm… oook! I was into it though, and then he went on to say that I was an “authentic Colombian now” as he showed me his very own motor taxi scar.
The town of Palomino is about a 15-minute walk from the hostel on a dirt road, so it’s easy to get trapped at the hostel. After the river, we were determined to go out for pizza in town that night. We all took yet another motor taxi to dinner. I wasn’t thrilled about getting on another one, but I’m glad that I did. We showed up and the pizza place looked closed, so the motor taxis started to turn around to head somewhere else. Luckily, my guy was getting the bike situated while the owner ran out of his house letting us know that he’d open his pizza place for us. My guy turned around to get the rest of the crew and by the time we got back, the owner had a white table cloth and a candle lit table right in front of his house ready for us. He had a wood-burning pizza oven just adjacent to where we ate. His darling wife came out to take our order and they had sent a 10-year old boy named Jorge who helps them out to go grab some fresh ingredients for the pizza. The couple also had beautiful, two-year-old triplets who could just melt your heart. We were all absolutely taken with this family. It was a truly special experience to be sitting outside this family’s house, spending time with them, surrounded by friends, drinking wine, and eating their mouth-watering home-made pizza. This was one of those moments that touches your heart and makes you feel so lucky to have experiences like these. This is what traveling is all about!
5. Minca – After five relaxing days in Palomino, we headed back to the Dreamer, once again, before heading to Minca, a small town nestled in the Sierra Nevadas, just about 45-minutes away from Santa Marta. We had received some recommendations from other travellers about the “perks” of Casa Elemento, which is another 20-minute motor taxi ride up the mountain once you arrive in the town of Minca. The town is known for it’s waterfalls and coffee region, and Casa Elemento is known as the perfect escape in the mountains with complimentary green (if ya know what I mean). Minca is the perfect getaway for adventure and relaxation. On our first day we went on an evening hike to see the sunset, but the rest of our two days at Casa Elemento was filled with complete and utter relaxation. The hostel has the most incredible views of the mountains, immaculate sunsets, and the place overlooks Santa Marta lit up in the distance once the sun goes down. The food is served family-style and always tastes delicious. I even saw the cook and one of the staff members go into the mountains to pick some ingredients for lunch one day – talk about fresh! Minca is also a nice refresher to escape the heat of the coast, but it’s still warm enough to take a dip in the pool while the sun is out. It was the most relaxing place to be during the day with it’s ten person hammock hanging off the mountain that the hostel sits on. By night, we made great friends as we sat by the fire and enjoyed cocktails made with fresh juice. The staff were also travellers at one point, and they are some of the most down to earth people you’ll meet. After two days filled with relaxation and some serious laughs, we happily headed back to the Dreamer Santa Marta, aka our home away from home.
These three weeks flew by and it started to hit me that our time in Colombia as well as our time with Amelia was coming to an end. There is something magical about the coast of Colombia and it was hard for me to leave. I feel sincerely blessed to have come across such amazing people – locals and gringos alike. For now, we’re off to Bogotá baby!