After being bed ridden in Medellin for several days, the itch to move on had become unbearable, despite my illness. It was time to get out! The bus up to Santa Marta would have taken me 24 hours, and since I was on a tight time schedule (and wouldn’t trust my bowels for 24 hours on a bus!) I booked a flight for a decent price with Avianca, a huge airline in Colombia. I arrived in the morning and while I waited for my room to be ready, slipped into the pool at the Dreamer hostel where I was staying. The cool pool was refreshing and kept the fever at bay. I decided I was going to tackle heading into Tayrona National Park even though I felt awful. I wanted to see a little of this beautiful country and didn’t want a little illness to stop me. So I packed a day bag, grabbed 5 litres of water and began my adventure into the park.
It was a two hour hike in thick humid weather and I felt like I was going to collapse any minute. My body was terribly weak from days spent in bed and not being able to eat much of anything. But it felt good to be moving again nonetheless and the scenery was gorgeous. I was walking in through a jungle trail beside the ocean, and at times it would open up to show me waves crashing against the shore, and huge stones fallen long ago from the mountain sprinkled the beaches. The weather was mostly overcast and I was thankful for the masking of the heat that surely would have been unbearable if the sun was shining down on me on top of the already heavy humidity. About and hour and half into the hike, an indigenous girl in traditional dress had a table set up and was selling fresh pressed orange juice. I bought a huge class, savouring the sweet freshness as my clothes stuck to my body and I reapplied bug spray as the mosquitos came flocking to my damp skin.
Tayrona was beautiful, but not quite what I was expecting. I had this romantic image of a picturesque beach (which it was!) covered in palm trees with hammocks strung up between all of them. This was of course what Tayrona was all about- hiking into a secluded beach with no road access, with a small bag and sleeping on the beach in a hammock- there are no hostels here! But alas, there was a huge wooden roofed awning that had about 50 hammocks strung up side by side – which meant no swinging without hitting your neighbour. So my romantic idea of swinging between the palm trees on the beach was crushed as I was led to my crowded hammock space which cost the same as a night a hostel – $10 USD!
Still the place was beautiful and I met some lovely people on the way in and was lodged beside them in our hammock barrack. There was a simple restaurant, and 4 bathrooms (without toilet paper or toilet seats) and that was it. The rest was just beautiful nature. Still being sick, I didn’t do much other than read my book, hang out with the others and walk the beach. It was beautiful and relaxing, but the sun continued to play hide and seek, so the weather wasn’t amazing, but it was still hot, if overcast. I was planning on leaving after my first night, as my illness seemed to be having a bad day, but I was convinced by our group to stay one more night and was glad I did. We swam in the ocean, enjoyed the hot sun when he peeked out from the behind the clouds for an hour, got a wicked sunburn, and watched a fascinating iguana encounter. This guy waddled out on to the beach, a huge specimen demanding our attention.
He stopped. He sniffed. He didn’t move a muscle. Abruptly he turned and bolted, fasted than I could have imagined and beelined for one of the beach dwellers who had some food in hand. The guy handled with grace what i would have handled with panic and screaming! The iguana came right at him to try and get his food. he put a bottle out to push the big guy away, but he would not be deterred to easily. He wanted that bread, damnit! He ended up crawling on top of the mans leg, to which the guy finally submitted and handed over a bite. The iguana had no teeth; he had nothing but a pink rolling mass of tongue that lolled comically out of his mouth giving him an amusing appearance.
After lounging, reading, swimming, taking a few pictures, burning, iguana watching, and snacking on fresh warm bread stuffed with mozza, tomato and basil, it was time for naps in the hammock. Feeling pretty sick, I needed the nap fiercely. When I got up I was feeling a bit better and joined our group for dinner (rice and veggies, mmm…) and some evening conversation. Afterwards, I left the group, took my book to the beach and stole light from the nearby lamp to read as I listened to the ocean waves crash just ahead of me. This place was truly relaxing. Being in the middle of a national park with no road access gave it a solitary, quiet, disconnected feel that I was savouring. However, sleep was rather restless as I just don’t sleep well in hammocks, and it gets quite cool at night here! The next morning, I wandered around to an adjacent beach, read some more, and then made plans to leave. We decided to hike out a different route on our way back- little did I (or any of us!) know this was an 11km hike mostly uphill… It was monumentally difficult for me, but luckily the others knew I was ill and we had another girl along who was also needing to take a slow pace.
The hike out was spectacular: we clambered up massive boulders and slipped through crevices for 3 km all up hill. While incredibly strenuous, the scenery at least helped make it bearable. Our group stopped often for breathers, water breaks, and to help each other summit some of the difficult areas by lending a hand. After a few more kilometers we came to an ancient pueblita- a small community where Colombian indigenous people still live today in huts made from the surrounding trees. On we trudged, uphill ever more. We stopped about halfway for a lunch break and all shared what we had in our packs – peanuts and raisins, bread, tuna, waters and peanut butter. As we marched on, I marvelled at our group- an Aussie, a Canadian, two Americans and a Swede. This is why I love travel. You meet people from all over the world, learn about their homes, form quick bonds and share adventures like unexpected 11km hikes through the Colombian mountains.
We finally made it, caught the local bus and headed back in to Santa Marta. I parted ways with my lovely crew and walked the few blocks from the bus stop to my hostel, happy to have survived and feeling complete exhaustion set in. I asked the front desk about the best way to get up to Minca, my next stop, and they said a jeep was about to leave so I had to go that instant! I grabbed my full pack and hopped in the jeep and was off without a second to think about it or to feel my exhaustion. The drive up to Minca is lovely- the town itself is small and seemed full of character, but this was not my stop- we were heading up to the very top of the mountain in the coffee region to stay at Elemental Hostal. The drive was a doozy. There wasn’t much of a road and I was thankful we were in a four wheel drive vehicle. At one point the road disappeared beneath a shallow river and we simply ploughed through. Later, half the road disappeared, but the jeep just crawled over the jagged mountainside regardless. The driver honked at each corner to ensure we didn’t collide head on with anyone coming down, but it appeared that this was a seldom traveled road. We kept climbing higher and higher and higher.
When I arrived at Elemental Hostel I was greeted warmly by their staff and showed the grounds immediately after dropping my bags off in my dorm room. The place was spectacular. It was perched atop the mountain, overlooking the vast land below, Santa Marta looking like a miniature city in the distance. We were soo high up that clouds rolled in and over the surrounding mountains. A massive ‘hammock’- it’s actually just a huge net with four corner posts- was clinging to the mountainside and you (and about 30 other people if they felt so inclined) could lay in it looking out over the expanse of land below you. The bathrooms were set off to the sides, also perched on the edge of the mountain and were equipped with large cut outs in each room so while you were having your morning movement or a nice cool shower, you could look out at the breath taking scenery. (Whcih bathroom view do you prefer? This one, or the ocean view in Gigante, Nicaragua here?)They had a refreshing pool to dip in after a long hike through the trails around the hostel that took you over waterfalls, jungle rivers and coffee farms. A tiki bar stands beside the pool to satiate any thirst you might have. A string of hammocks is set up in the evening for guests to sleep in that look out over the screened in porch area into the mountains. If you walk a few minutes below the main hostel area you come to jungle town, where they have another small bar, a bon fire pit and two giant net hammocks like the one up top. There is a climbing wall and zipline that they run at certain times. They rent out mountain bikes and offer great tours of the surrounding area and have a great little kitchen where the staff take turns cooking the 3 meals of the day which are delicious and filling.
This was hands down the best hostel I have stayed at in my adventures, with so much to offer, great staff, perfectly comfy accommodations, and the best. view. ever.
I was still sick but I was finally having a bit of an appetite and since there is no communal kitchen I ordered the meals offered at the hostel and devoured them- slowly, but surely every last crumb. They didn’t sit too well with my tummy and I cold feel my world rumbling again, so I popped a couple pepto to hopefully keep things at bay. But the food was so good, I just couldn’t resist, and I was quite literally starved for food, hardly being able to eat the last ten days. My first night there was uneventful, I got in around 6, got settled, went for dinner and met a few guests around 8, then hit the hay around 10. The next morning, I was up early, had a nice cup of fresh coffee, grown, picked, roasted and prepared by the hostels own farm in the backyard- it just doesn’t get any fresher! I had a shower with the world’s best view, laid myself out in the giant hammock with my book for an hour and then got ready to head out on a hike of the surrounding area with a group. The hike was beautiful, albeit strenuous for my weakened body. Our guide took us through the backcountry in the mountains through coffee farms and to a small waterfall where we all caught our breath and washed the sweat off our faces and refilled out water bottles. The water at the hostel was tapped from the mountain top river, as fresh and clean as it gets.
We scrambled up the steep mountainside while our guide hacked away at obstructing bushes with his machete, pointing out poisonous plants to avoid, while our socks got covered in burs as we tried to keep up. He suddenly rushed off the trail at one point and mounted the trunk of a tree, feet planted firmly and arms wrapped around it and began to climb. I couldn’t help but think of Mowgli in the jungle book attempting to climb a tree (our guide even had red shorts!)- however or guide was much more graceful in his attempt! He made it up a few feet- swiped with his machete at something and came down with a fruit in his hand. “Cocoa!” he exclaimed. He ripped it open and gave each of us a large white furry seed. He told us to suck on it. To my surprise, it was sweet, tangy and delicious! I could not believe that inside this little seed was a bean that would be roasted and then turned into my favourite food group of all time- Chocolate! I will not deny that I thought chocolate surely was fabricated in a magic factory, perhaps by a man the name of Willy. Finding out that it came from a oval shaped orange coloured fruit hanging from a tree was not what I expected! Oh, the things you learn!
Onwards we ploughed, and as we came through a beautiful bunch of banana trees, our guide again ran up to the tree, lifted a massive banana leaf and exposed a huge beautiful bunch of green thick bananas. He hacked away with his machete and threw the huge cluster on over his shoulders, sagging beneath the incredible weight of 100 bananas. We all stared slack jawed, chests heaving, feeling pathetic. Here we were, gasping for breath on a pretty easy hike (I blame the high altitude!) and our guide adds 50lbs to his back and practically runs the rest of the way! Our two trusty dog guides followed enthusiastically behind and we trudged onwards back to the hostel. It was a perfect day, and we were rewarded with a delicious lunch upon our return. The rest of the day was spent relaxing, reading and enjoying the views.
The following morning, I was up at 5am as I could not sleep in the hammock. I silently slipped out with my book and blanket in hand and headed for the giant hammock. I had it entirely to myself and it was far more comfortable to lay out on than the hammock for me. I laid out as the sky changed from black, to gunmetal grey to pale blue. The howler monkeys began their serenade, backed by the chorus of birds. It was just me and nature awake, the rest of the world was still sleeping, and as always, I felt so privileged to be awake with nature as she roused.
I had planned on sending my bags down with the tour, renting a mountain bike and biking back down to the town of Minca, picking up my bags and then hitching a ride back to Santa Marta, however my stomach and bowels were wildly unhappy with me and making a fuss, so I thought the safest route was to just take the motorcycle taxis down. I wasn’t sure how it would work, but my driver grabbed my 50lb backback and threw it over his handle bars then prompted me to hop on behind him. I was a little apprehensive, knowing what this road was like, and wondering how in god’s name he would balance a 50lb backpack and a 130lb girl behind him – but these guys are pros at what they do, and they drive this road day in and day out taxiing travellers up and down the mountain. Trust me – this is the way you want to head down the mountain! It beat taking the jeep on so many levels! The fresh mountain air blowing past you, the slow pace enabling you to take in the beautiful scenery, and the exhilaration of course of being on the back of a motorbike!
While I was sick the whole time, Minca and Tayrona were still amazing adventures – the only- that I was able to really have in Colombia. They have so much more to offer than what I was able to experience, so I highly recommend a couple of days in each, at least! savour the beauty of this incredible place by exploring as much of it as you! I adored my time up north on the Caribbean and wish I had the time and health to have seen and done more. Have you been to Colombia? What part of this amazing country was your favourite?