15th October 1999: Maracaibo to Santa Marta, Colombia (Day 86 overall)
Michael’s alarm went at 6am to get us up for the 7am bus to Macau the other side of the Colombian border. We managed to board only a minute before the bus departed and contemplated the fact we were about to leave Venezuela and enter Colombia.
In the first 85 days of our trip, no decision has seemed as complicated as that of whether we should enter Colombia. We have spent several weeks thinking about it, chatting with other travellers and have been changing our minds regularly. There are many messages from home from different people arguing for or against and we look out for any snippets of news we can get about the current situation across Colombia.
Apart from the regular reports of guerrilla activity and the danger to tourists – we didn’t know much about the country but we also didn’t know what we might do instead. The main alternative was to bypass Colombia and take a flight directly to Ecuador but we’d have an extra four weeks to fill before we were due to meet Irinia who was flying in from her trip through central America – and she would likely want to do everything we would have already done! It also didn’t help that we’d heard that much of Ecuador was out of bounds due to the series of volcanoes that had been very active lately. We also considered spending an extra four weeks in Venezuela but it is one of the more expensive countries en route which would ultimately curtail the trip. The Galapagos possibly worked time-wise and volcano-wise – but this was way too expensive to consider more than briefly.
So the question of Colombia hinged on how safe we felt vs the not really having a viable alternative. In the end the real complications of ‘not going’ outweighed the potential dangers of the paramilitaries and other violence (even if the impact of the latter might outweigh the former!). We had learned that travellers do tend to ‘hype things up’ and if we listened to our Foreign Office advice – we would never have come to South America in the first place. We just hoped it would be okay.
As for Venezuela – the feeling of leaving this country was completely different to when we left Brazil a month ago. Although I was happy for us to more on, I was keen to return to Venezuela at some later point to explore more and do things we hadn’t done. I think it is a very interesting and in many parts – a beautiful country with lots to offer. However, it is a bit expensive and one really needs a bigger budget than what we had. It was far more touristy than many parts of Brazil but not too much so. I think the north coast would be lovely to come back with a sailing yacht!
However – I digress – so back to our bus. The journey was pretty routine with little in the way of scenery but it was pleasant enough. The ‘bare-bones’ structure of the bus was stable enough for a little reading and so that’s how we spent most of the 4 hour journey.
At the border to Colombia, I was surprised they didn’t ask for a usual tourist tax of $5-$10 but they did ask for my tourist card. Not having heard of this, I shrugged and pointed to my passport and the official shrugged himself and decided to forget about the need for whatever a tourist card is. I had a brief strip search (down to my pants!) by Venezuelan customs but none by the Colombian side and I felt pleased there was no need for any ‘tips’ to cross hands. The Colombian’s only gave me permission for 60 days in the country whereas Mark and Jono got 90. So not sure what I did to displease but it didn’t matter anyway since we only planned to stay for a month.
We changed our remaining Venezuelan Bolivars into Colombian Pesos and boarded another bus to Macau. We’d been warned this was a lawless town and we should get out as quick as possible. Outside every shop along the single high street, stood a armed guard – usually with a large shotgun. Nearly all these shops were filled with crates of spirits – mostly Scottish Whisky and there was a noticeable tension everywhere. We couldn’t leave yet however since we needed more Pesos and therefore a bank. A Colombian guy who had sold us the onward bus tickets wanted personally to show us the way to the bank but there was something suspicious about it so we kept up our guard. However, it turned out okay and we found the bank although they wouldn’t take our Travellers Cheques so had to use our emergency Visa cards. We jumped on the bus and it headed off to Santa Marta. I pondered that it can be hard not to see danger in everything if that’s what you are expecting – even if actually, people are just wanting to help out.
The bus was an ‘Executivo‘ and cost about 15,000 pesos each (about $5) which was fine except that the air-con didn’t work. I sat next to my rucksack and watched the north east corner of Colombia go past my window for the next four hours. In contrast to the trip to the border, the scenery here was quite beautiful and fields of Cacti slowly changed to misty mountains on our left, and the Caribbean on our right!
Not knowing when we should get off, we missed our stop in Santa Marta and had to stop the bus further down the road whilst we jumped out and hailed a taxi back but at least we were able to find a hotel quickly. Set in what seemed like a nice bit of Santa Marta – Cosa Familiar was clean and friendly hotel at a very affordable rate of $2 for all of us! We headed out to explore the town but soon became trapped in the shelter of a small doorway as whilst the heavens opened in torrential rain. Within minutes, the road was overflowing and the pavement became part of a river of flood water. We sat on the step of the door way for an hour watching all kinds of rubbish float by. It would be dangerous to walk through the flood not only due to the spread of disease – but also the risk of falling in one of the deep pot holes we’d seen in both the road and pavement that were now covered by the grey water. Finally, the rain subsided enough to allow the water to recede and we were able to continue our way. We stopped in an internet cafe to swap messages with home before enjoying a set meal of chicken, chips, rice and soup all for $1.5. By now it was late, so we headed back to the hotel and straight to bed. Santa Marta seems like a nice town in which to relax for a few days.
16th October 1999: Santa Marta, Colombia (Day 87 overall)
That was the best night’s sleep in a long time and I dare say I needed it. Since our exhausting trek in the mountains at Merida, we had not been able to properly recover since we’ve been on the move ever since. So this morning we took our chance to generally relax. I popped out to buy us a late breakfast at a nearby bakery I had spotted yesterday and we gathered ourselves for a wander around the town and to the beach.
We found what was described as a beach as a rather dirty area right next to the port on which a few people were milling about. The sea was rough and brown coloured yet several people had ventured out for a swim. In the port, three big tankers were berthed next to huge cranes and piles of shipping crates. In contrast to the port side, the view the in the other direction was prettier. In the distance beyond the other end of the beach, forested mountains rose steeply from the sea disappearing into the clouds; and within the bay in front was a small island. The town ran along the beach front and although it was quite basic in many ways, it had a certain charm which I liked. The buildings stopped after a couple of hundred meters and we turned inland to return to the hotel via some back streets.
Ominous black clouds loomed overhead and I thought a repeat of yesterday’s flooding may be inevitable. We carried on and luckily it held off and we discovered some relaxed, pretty plazas, a small street festival and the usual large number of street vendors selling everything a supermarket might sell and more. We made it back to the hotel and I went off to talk to some operators about Spanish lessons, dance classes and anything else they might recommend in the area. We wanted to take Spanish classes sometime soon and maybe this was the place. In the hotel bar, I met a Kiwi couple who were doing a similar trip to us but in reverse. They had taken a plane from Quito to Cartagena since they mentioned that south Colombia in particular was virtually a no-go zone at present which made me feel uneasy. On a good note, they highly recommended Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia and told me a story of how they were in Quito airport when the nearby volcano first erupted. All the planes were immediately cancelled and they took the first bus out of the city to Guayacil from where planes were still flying. They also said Cartagena was lovely but a bit dodgy and there was a fair bit to do around there. We returned to the Spanish classes man and declined is offer since his course was both expensive and spread out which didn’t suit our cheap, mobile lifestyle. We’d wait to find a more intensive course.
Colombia has a police-imposed, dusk curfew. Although it was Saturday night, and I felt guilty at not even making an attempt to go out, we thought it best to do as all the other travellers were doing and stay in. This curfew might get a little tiresome. We watched a little TV (in English for once) and played cards before going to bed way too early for a Saturday.
17th October 1999: Santa Marta to Tayrona NP, Colombia (Day 88 overall)
I was up before Michael’s trusty alarm and enjoyed another of the refreshing showers the lack of hot water in the hotel provided. We had decided to head to a nearby Tayrona National Park so after packing, we said our goodbyes to Michael who had been tagging along with us for a few days but was now heading south to Ciudad Perdida – the ruins of a lost city from 800 AD. Jono and Mark went to get some food supplies whilst I tried to dissect the intricacies of our hotel bill.
At 10:30, we loaded onto a small but colourful wooden bus outside the nearby Hotel Miramir and set out on a rather slow journey. It was not that Caravel (our destination in the nearby national park) was that far but it took so long as the bus was travelling so slowly. I didn’t really mind however since the scenery was good and we chatted with the only other passenger – Dan – who was a journalist from England over here for a two-week holiday. He had a Colombia Lonely Planet from which I was able to learn a little something about Tayrona as our ‘All South America Lonely LP’ had barely a couple of lines.
We paid 6,000 pesos (£2) at the gate (which included the bus ride itself) and continued in the slow, wooden bus for another 4km to Caravel. Here, as we’d hoped, the horde of local Colombians who had descended on Tayrona over the weekend were busy packing ghetto-blasters; huge hampers (now empty); BBQs; and all sorts of other junk into their cars or into the bus we arrived in before we even got out! We scrambled out quickly before some ghetto-blaster BBQ thing trapped us in and decided to walk along the coastal path to Arecifes which was the middle of three camps to choose from. As it turned out, it was about an hour’s walk through the jungle which left us very hot and sticky by the time we arrived. At one point on the walk, there was a loud rustling to my right and two small creatures, about the size of pigs, shot out of the bushes, across the path and back into the jungle. I never did work out what they were!
Arecife camp consisted of some thatched roof covered shelters with no walls and a small central bar are area sheltered in an area of palm trees. For 3,000 pesos, we were given some hammocks which we took over to one of the thatch huts which we had all to ourselves (yesterday it would probably have been packed!). Nearby, there were some lockers for our stuff and a shared bathroom area. We quickly set up the hammocks from the wooden beams of the hut, locked away our bags and headed down to the beach.
It was late afternoon by now and the sun was cool but we jumped in the sea and it felt so good to fully immerse myself and get the sweaty stickiness washed away. The beach was beautiful – a few hundred meters long and backed by the thick palm forest. From the forest emanated a multitude of squawks, squeaks, cheaps and chirps from the many birds who must live there. Donkeys wandered around freely along with a number of ducks which perhaps belong to the camp.
At either end of the beach, interesting, rocky peninsulas jutted into the sea and invited us to have a clamber upon them, so Mark and I duly took up the offer whilst Jono wandered back to camp. We were soon on top of the rocks and peering into the clear waters at the colourful fish which were all around. There were many larger fish of a dark blue colour, with turquoise fins as tall as the fish were long. Hundreds of smaller fish darted everywhere ignoring the waves which crashed upon the limpet covered rocks just below us. We explored amongst the rocks and found crevices we could squeeze through and eventually made our way to the outer edge of the peninsular. Here I found a shallow rock pool containing a variety of what I called ‘clam coral’ because of its shape – little fields of tiny blue, green and brown mounds with little mouths sucking at the waters around them. A wave of my hand near these fields would cause an instant ripple of the mouths suddenly closing, only reopening 30 seconds later to continue their work.
It was dark by the time we got back to the camp and it seemed deserted except for us. At 6pm, a light came on and the bar opened up and a few people appeared from other huts. We made some tuna sandwiches from the food we had brought from Santa Marta and then spent the rest of the evening on the beach where a fire had been lit. I met Dirk, a German traveller who had completed almost exactly the same path as us from Rio albeit over a longer time frame (we did race around!); and a couple of other people who I recognised from Merida. It was a fun evening which continued until late before we retired to our hammocks.
19th October 1999: Tayrona NP, Colombia (Day 90 overall)
There was plenty to do around here so we wouldn’t go hungry for ideas. Much as this was the case however, we opted to swing the morning away in the comfort of our hammocks. At 9am, we did make a quick jaunt over to a nearby bakery but the bread wasn’t ready and so we chatted to a couple of locals in broken Spanish about park. The result of the baking was lots of tiny loafs at 1,000 pesos (30p) each so this wouldn’t be a cheap food source. The loafs were also not very tasty as the bread hadn’t risen and they were thick and stodgy. It served us okay for breakfast though and we relaxed some more trying to digest them.
Mark and I decided to enrich Jono with our experience of yesterday and take him on the rocky peninsular. This time is was even better as there were even more fish with even more colours. Some of these were about two feet long and the metallic turquoise colour. they seemed to turn on their sides as they passed out position as if to get a better look of us.
When we reached the end of the headland, we jumped fully clothed into the sea since they needed a wash and it seemed like a good way to get back to shore. We swam slowly back to shore along the side of the peninsular. About half way down we saw a sign facing us say “No swimming”. We had actually noticed the sign on the way out but the other side said “Probido Nadar” and therefore, not knowing what that meant – had ignored it. We didn’t think to read the back. Oops. Apparently, as we later found out, there are strong currents which sweep out to sea and swimming in the bay is considered quite dangerous.
We made it back to shore and got changed to head to the bar. Here we met a couple of English guys who had been living in Bogata working as teachers. They were friendly and we chatted about their views on “La Violencia” as it is commonly called here and they warned us again not to go near Cali in the south. After another tuna, onion, tomato and bread dinner back in the hut, we re-joined the English guys who were now chatting to a group of English girls. It seemed most guests in this camp were English? We chatted all philosophically over many glasses of rum and deep into the evening – managing to solve many of the world’s problems….
20th October 1999: Tayrona NP, Colombia (Day 91 overall)
Disillusioned with yesterday’s bakery and having heard tales of another, we set of down the beach in search. Just 10 minutes later, we were each munching on similar priced, but distinctly tastier banana bread. Next we decided to find a different beach and wandered down the coast. The climb / walk over the jumbled boulders which separated the bays was interesting although the only wildlife was the sand-crabs which scuttled away into their holes at our approach and lizards who were most often seen were their blue tales as they skimpered out of sight. We swam in several of the bays including one known as ‘la piscina‘ which was so called because it was surrounded by a reef making the sea within quite calm.
Distant thunder indicated it was time to return before the afternoon deluge and we made it back just in time to the bar at Arecife. There we passed the time with cards, reading, chatting and the odd drink until it was time for our own meal. Tonight we had a change: tuna, onion, bread but… this time ‘no’ tomato! How’s that for variety!
I had been feeling a bit out of place here since most of the travellers we have met in Colombia seemed a bit older. Most were 26-30 and had a bit more cash to spend then we did. Everyone was friendly and we joined in as best we could but it may be good to meet people with a similar budget to us since it felt awkward at times especially for food and drink. The evening passed and as if someone had heard my thoughts, a New Zealand couple joined us who were slightly younger and it was nice to chat with them. It was also a Colombian girl’s birthday and we celebrated with her. By the end of the night – I wasn’t feeling out of place anymore (at least not tonight). Our hut had three new hammocks but there was still plenty of room for everyone.
21st October 1999: Tayrona NP, Colombia (Day 92 overall)
Pueblito was supposed to be like a mini Ciudad Perdida (the famous ‘lost city’ south of Santa Marta) and just 2 hours walk from our camp. Since we weren’t going to be passing the latter, we felt it our duty to see the former. On the way along the beach, we popped into the bakery and since it was early – there was an interesting selection. We settled for a ‘chocolate ana’ and it was very tasty. The path led onwards and became quite tricky leading up into the forest – we weren’t even certain this was the correct path since there were no signs and we only had a vague sense of direction of where this place was. From higher up, we could see further along the coast and that there were many sandy bays stretching as far as we could see.
The path definitely wasn’t the path as it had petered out into nothing and we were just making our way through the jungle. We kept a rough bearing using the coastline which appeared occasionally though the trees and eventually we broke out onto what must have been the path cutting perpendicular from the coast – we had just cut a big corner with our shortcut. This path led uphill and before long, we were stripped to the waist and sweating profusely.
We heard many rustlings of what may have been lizards or birds but I was disappointed not to see a snake. Under some caves, we found a little colony of bats who squeaked when we came near and flapped silently off to a more private location. The uphill section lasted for about an hour and a half and we were delighted to find an area where long vines hung from the high tree canopy. I tested my weight on one, carried the end up to a tall rock and then swung out and along the path! It was great – we swung back and forth crashing through the bushes about 10-15 feet from the ground. I even managed to swing from one vine to another in Tarzan fashion before smacking sideways into a tree!
A little further on, we reached the abandoned ruins of an ancient Tayrona village known as Pueblito. All that remained were low foundations which provided rough scale and an impression of what it must have been like. A few Indians had moved back to live here and we spoke with a couple of them but it seemed like they were here to earn money as a tourist attraction then living a traditional way of life. To be honest, we weren’t overly impressed and if Ciudad Perdida is similar, then we were glad we didn’t decide to go. We were able to stick with the actual path all the way back to the beach and although it was probably a longer distance – it was shorter due to not having to cut through thick jungle.
That evening, we agreed upon a welcome break from the usual tuna suppers and went to a nearby restaurant for the cheapest thing on the menu. This in Colombia is the ‘Comida Carriate‘ or ‘meal of the day‘ and for 5,500 pesos (~£1.5) we had chicken, rice, friend bananas and a Pepsi which made for a tasty change. In the evening, I met a couple more English people who were with Jon and Ken (the teachers we met on the first evening who lived in Bogata) and a Colombian guy called Louis who I ended up have a long chat with. Amongst many of the topics we discussed, we spoke about the Colombian people’s general dislike of America and friendliness to Europeans. Although I wasn’t convinced by all his points it was very interesting to hear his view of what was happening. He was mainly saying: that Colombian people believe cocaine is not their problem but rather Americas. If American people didn’t buy it – then they wouldn’t need to produce it. Americans give them plenty of money to buy US weapons to fight crime but no money towards setting up alternative incomes such as coffee or beans. They want the money made by the cartels to be invested in their own country but the cartels had so many US dollars that even the US treasury was having to produce more to keep up the circulation. As a result, they buy gold to support the new money and its Colombia who has a lot of gold as well which is also owned by the cartels so more US money flows into their hands. There were many other points he was making which went over my head but it was all interesting to listen to.
22nd October 1999: Tayrona NP, Colombia (Day 93 overall)
Today marked three months since we’d left blighty and it was starting to sound like quite a long time. We had been feeling a little travel weary lately but the rest of the last few days in beautiful Tayrona has been rejuvenating. It also marks a slight change in our travelling style. At the beginning of our journey, we rushed from place to place and even left places we quite liked early than we might have wanted to as we felt we had so little time to see as much as possible. I think it was in Venezuela that we came to terms with not trying to do everything and just putting some things aside to do on some future trip. We enjoyed Venezuela and were very much enjoying Colombia so far and I think as a result – I look forward to coming back one day thus I am okay with doing fewer things and in a more relaxed way.
Colombia has been lovely so far. Apart from the outstanding scenery, the people have all been relaxed and very friendly to us. It has less of the Westernisms of Venezuela felt more untouched. Last night, I had asked Louis what he thought were the key things which were quintessentially Colombian. My question arose out of Louis sharing his impressions of British people – I can’t remember everything but the one I thought was funny was that he said British people always seem to be reading a book whether it was on the train, beside the pool or after dinner. For Colombians he said: they will always be dancing even if it is just a hand or a foot whenever there is music playing; and they are always game for a round of ‘Aguardiente‘ which is an ouzo like drink. I forget the third thing he said but we had drunk a lot of rum by then!
Speaking to Jon and Ken also got me thinking about possible future jobs which I will have to think about when we finally get home. Before the trip began, I had a vision that at some point during the trip – perhaps at the famous Sun Gate at Machu Picchu, that I would reach some focus about the path ahead and it would all become clear. As yet, it doesn’t feel any clearer but I am beginning to think about things in a different way – perhaps I don’t need to know the path but like with our own travel around this vast continent – I know there are things I’d like to achieve along the way and I focus on these and the path will come naturally. I think I will stop now before I confuse myself further.
The reason for my incoherent thoughts today is that it is a bad weather day and we are sat in our hammocks looking out under the roof thatch of our hut out at the pouring rain. I finished a most enjoyable book “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” and was left to muse on such life dramas as those written above as well as whether to eat the chocolate or coconut bun for lunch.
A small band of Israeli’s kibbutzed into our spacious hut and I watched as they too produced a familiar looking meal of tuna, onion but with ketchup as opposed to our recipe with tomatoes. They did have an added luxury of being able to cook some pasta since they had a couple of gas burners. Oh well – they will miss out on stale baguettes!
We decided that five days of complete lethargy was enough and we would leave tomorrow. We are not too excited about spending more time in Santa Marta so may try and reach Cartagena. Will have to see what the slow wooden bus will do and what the bus times when it gets back to the town.
23rd October 1999: Tayrona NP, Colombia (Day 94 overall)
Our plans to leave today were put on hold since after yesterday’s washout – the weather was now gorgeous sunshine. Mark also wanted to do a little snorkelling and may see those fish we saw on the first day. We headed out to the beach – the waves were up and we body surfed until we we exhausted and then just lay in the sand enjoying the warmth. By lunch time, the weather had fallen apart and it dark, wet and dreary in complete contrast to the beautiful morning. The Israelis in our hut had a tape player and it made me feel quite homesick when they played U2 and David Bowie songs.
We decided that another Corriete for dinner was too boring and went for a ‘pollo del diablo‘ (chicken of the devil) in the local bar. It was pretty good but I think Lucifer should think about corrupting a better chef for his meals. Meanwhile, Maria the baby boa constrictor and one of the tame parrots appeared at our table to amuse themselves. Maria preferred to sleep in the crook of my elbow but the ‘Green Philosopher’, as we called the parrot, preferred the perch of my shoulder. The parrot was so named due to his funny walk where it looked as though he was holding his hands behind his back and swayed as he walked. He would make the most unusual noises and tilt his head as though trying to reason with some argument related to some great learning.
We joined Jon and Kenny for a drink and along came the slightly mad, self-proclaimed born again Christian who was dressed rather tartily. She proceeded to tell us how she didn’t have sex and didn’t drink, smoke or swear. This didn’t stop her from getting quite distressed that we weren’t paying attention to her boobs that she was desperately trying to flaunt. I told her that my rum and coke was non-alcoholic and upon a tiny swig, she ran around the room frantically until finally spitting it dramatically over the railings. We weren’t trying to be mean as she was really just trying to sell hair services and products but she wasn’t taking no for an answer. Kenny got a bit confrontational and launched into a Spanish tirade telling her what he thought (not that we could follow). She accused him of lying to her – something about his promise to buy something. I just thought it was time to say goodnight and left them to it.
24th October 1999: Tayrona NP to Santa Marta, Colombia (Day 95 overall)
I awoke with a jump as someone was peering over my mosquito net and pulling it up. It was the nutter woman from last night who then asked me if I wanted my hair cut. “No I don’t and please go away!” I cried and she disappeared so I quickly put some clothes on.
In the bar, we joined Jon and Kenny for breakfast. The barman had found a rather large boa (Maria’s mamma?) under the hut which he was now parading around the camp. After our usual chocolate bun breakfast from the bakery, we packed up and settled the bill. In total, we paid $35 for 7 days here (including a few drinks) which isn’t bad at all.
Jon and Ken joined us on the walk back through the forest to Caravel where at noon, the rickety cheva arrived, the rain began its afternoon downpour and set off on the slow and wet ride back to Santa Marta. Being Sunday in Santa Marta meant that it was extra quiet and most places were shut – but we set off in search of something to eat. A Pico Riko provided an excellent chicken and chips although we were harassed by streeters (the kids who live on the streets) asking for the bones to chew even before we’d started (which we did eventually give one of them).
Whilst checking back into Casa Familiar, we bumped into Michael who had returned yesterday from Ciudad Perdida. He said it was really good and enjoyed it immensely – so we had to assume it was better than the few round foundations at Pueblito. Michael also asked if he could join us on the bus to Cartagena and we of course said no problem since he was a nice bloke.
After our first proper shower since before setting out to Tayrona, it was time to say goodbye to Jon and Ken who were flying back to Bogata. They invited us to come and stay with them and had also paid for our chicken meal earlier which was really nice of them on both counts.
That evening, we headed out for some cheap street food and a beer. I ate two potato bajee things at 500 pesos each (~20p) which were filling and tasty. We discussed whether we should take up their invitation and head to Bogata. I was keen having so far had all good experiences in Colombia and we got on very well with Jon and Ken. Jono was also keen but Mark was unsure due to the safety concern. We put off the decision since next stop was Cartagena.