The Caribbean coast of Colombia is soaked in sun, drenched in culture and bursting at the seams with diverse locations for the second leg of my journey. Life is brimming with latino culture as the heat rises on the northern coastline; the dense jungle meets white sand beaches of the Caribbean sea, salsa beats bring the streets to life after dark and set the rhythm of life for the Caribes.
Everyone loses their heart to Cartagena, but look beyond the city to find your soul on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, where half-forgotten beaches touch the horizon with a kaleidoscope of blues. Here are the diaries of a gringo en Colombia…
Cartagena de Indias is the queen of the coast; utterly romantic, it is the start of a love affair for any globetrotting glitterati. Whether you are captivated by la ciudad amurallada, lapping it up in colonial casas, tasting the delights of its Michelin star restaurants or island hopping in the Caribbean sea, this colourful destination is full of Márquezian allure.
Charming me at first sight, I sat back in my (air-conditioned) taxi bubbling with anticipation as we passed old mansions, through the walls of the famous old city and along it’s cobbled streets. This was my territory and where I felt most at home, in the sizzling heat; vibrantly painted houses draped bougainvillea over shuttered windows, horses hooves echoed along the cobblestones of the narrow streets and the midday Caribbean heat rose as did the electric atmosphere. It only takes one glance at these old city walls and colonial architecture to know the city has a long and storied history; going back to the days of Spanish power and when it played an important part in trading across the Caribbean sea. Tourism is now at the heart of Carta(h)gena but unlike most overly commercialised destinations I have visited before, I welcomed it with open arms. Into my second week of my trip, I began to feel safe in my surroundings and invited this holiday feel as I passed boutique shops, buzzing salsa bars and a surge of worldwide visitors. Most significantly, Cartagena originally found its way onto the globetrotters map through the historic quest for gold and emeralds. The streets are lined with high-end emerald shops which rival those you would find in Europe. Expect to be splashing the cash a little more in this bougie destination.
Exploring by no other means, my time in la ciudad amurallada was spent discovering the inside of the 13km stone walls by foot. As I had seen in photo’s, the streets are lined with the famous fruit sellers; Las Palenqueras de Cartagena. Part of the makeup of the Caribbean coast of Colombia, these fruit sellers are much more than pleasing to the eye. They are a symbol of strength, the fight against oppression and the resilience of human spirit. The escaped slaves of the Spanish colonisation are present in today’s palenqueras who following their freedom began carving out a new existence in the city of Cartagena selling fruit and maintaining their vibrant cultural heritage. They are now the icons of this beautiful old city, but don’t be fooled by their friendly anecdotes when they ask for money after taking a photograph!
Despite every tour operator around telling you about the unmissable white sand beaches off the coast of Cartagena, I can confirm that it’s something you would be better off saving for the less beaten track further up the coastline. However, with a few days to explore in and around Cartagena de Indias, I decided to pay a little extra to visit one of the private islands in Los Rosarios, Bendita Beach. With the intention of momentarily escaping the bustling town and finally taking a dip in the azure ocean I had been craving, it didn’t get off to the best start.Over the years I have developed an aversion to tours mostly because of relinquishing your sense of freedom and exploration. Having been bundled onto a small crowded fast boat I had very low expectations leaving the harbour, although it didn’t seem nearly as bad as what I had heard of Playa Blanca. Despite first impressions, I arrived to find a diamond in the rough where there was nothing but wooden sun loungers lining each small section of beach and a wooden structure sitting at the centre of the island where a tropical lunch was cooked from scratch. I finally found my solitude on a small stretch of white sand, and as I dozed off under the sun I was woken to the rustling of a wild toucan sitting in the tree above me.
At night there is no other place to be than Barrio Getsemani; the artistic bohemian barrio beyond the old city walls of Cartagena. Only 10 minutes walk from the tourist centre, Getsemani comes alive at night where street musicians meet locals catching up at street corner salsa bars, the most famous of these being Club Havana. The side streets are garnished with hundreds of flags and umbrellas, vivid murals and colour as far as the eye can see. Like many a hipster neighbourhood I have visited in cities across the world, there are amazing brunch spots to spend your morning at and at night street dancers to ignite your inner latino.
It was time for me to break the bonds of the city again. The Caribbean coast was beckoning. I wanted to escape Cartagena’s narrow streets for the wide ocean, for the islands and beaches, but first it was time for some coastal mountain air.
Four hours drive east of Cartagena and perched 600m high in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta lies Colombia’s most dramatic part of the coast where mountains tumble down to the sea. Minca, a small mountain village and jungle-covered terrain is home to diverse tropical birds, jaguars, fresh-water falls, organic coffee and the remainder of Colombia’s indigenous tribes. It was only a few years ago that Minca was not accessible to outsiders due to the coca cultivation and narco-terror that controlled the countryside; the guerrillas would tax the farmers for production of cocaine claiming themselves as “the army of the people”. Now it’s a haven for travellers in search of peace & tranquility, and very much welcomed by its inhabitants.
After a long winded (but cheap) bus journey from Cartagena into the hustle and bustle of Santa Marta, I jumped aboard a local jeep to escape to the mountains of Minca. As I began my ascent leaving behind the city crowds, the mountain air I had become all too familiar with grew pure and fresh. Arriving in the small village base, housing a few eateries and locals willing to guide you round the terrain, it took me back to four years prior in the mountain village of Ella, Sri Lanka. Life is laid back and simple, I knew I’d be happy here.
Strapped onto the back of local Jesus’ moped, we made the bumpy ride further into the dense jungle where my last minute accommodation was apparently located. It was this point that I thanked myself for packing an incredibly light bag. Arriving to what was completely unknown, I was overwhelmed by the sight of where I would be staying for the next two nights. Perched amongst the forestry, this beautiful ‘hostel’ boasting a plunge pool, hammocks and health-food restaurant, overlooked the most dramatic view across the mountain jungle and all the way over to the high-rise buildings of Santa Marta on the coast. I took peace in knowing that these were my surroundings for the next couple of days.
As the sun rose on my first morning I joined the renowned Jungle Joe’s bird watching group, taking us 2,500m above sea level to capture a glimpse at some of the 365 species of bird that inhabited the Sierra Nevada. Armed with binoculars and an abundance of patience, I couldn’t believe my eyes; wild toucans, woodpeckers, eagles, hummingbirds and parakeets were only a few of the tropical birds we were lucky to see. The bio-diversity of this country continued to take my breath away. Minca gives you the ability to completely immerse yourself in nature; jungle treks, waterfall swims, bird watching and absolute peace. The rest of my time was spent in a hammock sipping on lulo juice and eating plantain chips – who could blame me! Minca wasn’t originally on my list, but how thankful I am that I got to visit this truly stunning slice of the jungle.
The final objective of my two week adventure was to find myself back in my natural habitat – the beach. I was ready to feel the sun on my skin, smell the salty sea breeze and waste away the hours. As far east up the coast as I could go with the given time, I found myself reaching the coastline of el Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona.
Tayrona National Park is a sacred slice of Colombia’s Caribbean coast with long stretches of golden sand lined with coconut palms and monkeys basking in the afternoon sun. The national park, which attracts thousands of visitors every season, stretches from the Bahía de Taganga in Santa Marta to the mouth of el Río Piedras; this makes up over 12,000 hectares of land and 3,000 of coral-reef sea. Starting at the park entrance it is around three hours hiking within the dense jungle to reach the furthest point, the mirrored beach of el Cabo de San Juan, where Latin-American’s flock to bask in the Colombian sun. En route you pass the local indigenous Tairona people who carve up fresh coconuts and serve freshly squeezed orange juice as refreshment from the thick humidity. The Tairona tribe reside in the indigenous city Pueblito which can be reached by hiking up into the hills from Cabo San Juan. The park could be described as Jurassic-like, with giant boulders framing the dangerous rip-tides which sit just out from the idyllic looking beaches.
Staying around a 15 minute local bus ride from the park entrance, the solitude and scarcity of tourists on my private hostel beach was much more of what I wanted in the last few days of such an adventurous trip. I spent the remainder of my days waking to the sound of the surf, practicing beach yoga with European yogi couple (and their dogs), watching the flocks of pelicans pass over every half an an hour to fish and swapping tales with fellow travellers over candle-light. With nothing much to offer from the local village Buritaca, it gave me permission to completely lose all sense of reality before I headed back to my whirlwind life at home.
I underestimated your beauty, diversity and richness Colombia; thank you for the most eye-opening two weeks…I have fallen for you.