Colombia 🇨🇴: Exploring Salento & Valle de Cocora

Its already been a few weeks over here in Colombia after I finished my paddle trip early to spend time with Laura instead. I do miss the outdoors at times (and the not so humid weather) and am happy when I receive the occasional update or photo from Harry who continues his tour in Canada. Harry is now is his last month before duty calls back home in Cologne. My rocket-canoe is still being shipped to London and now probably somewhere on the atlantic – maybe it crosses path with Greta Thunberg on her way to the climate conference in New York? Safe journey both!

 

However, its not that adventure has come to a complete standstill over here – quite to the contrary. And while i am hopelessly behind to write up all the things that have been happening in Santa Marta and around, at least I found time now to report on a fabulous trip to the region of coffee and the worlds´ tallest palm trees – first up was Salento.

Salento: Colonial beauty, my type of climate & amazing Valle de Cocora

We didn´t opt for the easy way to reach Salento, a flight to Pereira followed by a short bus ride, but took the first flight into Medellin and a 7h bus from there (not helped by roadworks). However, with comfi seats, good views throughout, onboard toilet and a 30min lunch stop (beans & chicharron for me, chicken soup for Laura) it was not unpleasant at all (and I had plenty of time to improve my quiz talent on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”). Not a cent richer we made it to Salento late afternoon and checked in to Vila Isabel – a great guesthouse with amazing views & lovely staff. Here some drone footage.

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The Salento viewpoint is nearby the hotel and, nestled into the hills close to Los Nevados National Park, it offers spectacular views which we enjoyed alongside an aguapanela (sugar cane drink). The athmosphere in town is a bit touristy, but ot is organised, clean and there is a good vibe amidst amazing colonial and well preserved architecture. If you are into shopping, there are lots of artesanal shops (as well as the usual rubbish). Just bring a jacket … temperatures drop below 20 degrees at night (which my little samarina struggled with). I, for my part, loved the moderate temperature and lack of humidity. What a good night sleep I had (well, both of us actually).

 

Valle de Cocora: Meet the tallest palm tree in the world

The trip already starts well when you book your “Willy” – a jeep that was formerly used to transport coffee around here (now you can take pictures with a few Willy´s dressed up … for a fee of course). They run from 6.30am and an early departure is advisable to avoid hiking in the heat. If you dont get a seat inside, you stand outside for the 20mins journey to the valley. Hold on tight!

 

Once arrived you have several options. The most common route is a 4-6 hour roundtrip including a visit to a hut with mockingbirds. The routes cost COP3&4,000, seeing the mockingbids another COP5,000. All worthwhile doing. Altitudes reach up to 3,000m – so take your time and drink plenty of water.

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The path is typically pretty and easy to walk. Animals like horses and cattle are commonplace and in the valle de cocora itself you can admire Colombia´s national tree – the wax palm. The trees grow 45m to sometimes 60m tall and were close to extinction (due to the overuse of the palm leaves for palm sunday proceedings would you believe it) before this sanctuary was created. The scenery is outstanding.

Next stop … Filandia. Vamos!

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Colombia 🇨🇴: Two weeks in Santa Marta

After Dec2017 and Oct/Nov, it was my third time back in Santa Marta. This time with less of a travel angle, but to spend time with Laura, her family and help out in certain areas. I also brought lots of German food along to impress with a bit of German cooking (and it went well, generally speaking). Santa Marta continues to fascinate me with its Caribbean feel and bustling nightlife yet also its easy access to the surrounding nature in national parks and the ocean. See you soon!

Hanging out in Santa Marta

Our apartment was pretty central and we used it as a base to explore the restaurants and bars of Santa Marta when we had time. Loved the breakfasts and dinners alike!

Work placement in boiling heat

There were a few items on the list to keep Laura and myself busy. Be it painting walls and doors, repairing chairs (that I broke … need to slim down) or building a terrace foundation. Laura’s skills and knowledge were admittedly quite impressive – respect! More to come in the future …

Drowning in Minca

Minca is a fisher village an hour from Santa Marta nestled into the Sierra Nevada. We visited the Pozo Azul for a rather cold swim in the river and wanted to also visit Casa Elemento, but a flood of rain left us stranded in a cafe – well, could have been worse.

Cheering for Union Magdalena

Unión Magdalena has only been promoted to Colombia’s top division recently and ever since I looked it up on google, the search engine has been feeding me their results on my mobile. This time it worked out to watch a game against America Cali although not of relevance anymore.

The stadium requires a taxi to reach (unless you want to jump a lorry like the local kids) was pretty empty. Ticket prices didn’t help I guess (30k COP or c9USD). The atmosphere right next to the fans in the south end of the stadium was still great (not to be mixed up with those in the north end who are considered enemies). The kept on singing despite Union losing 3:0 and being dominated by America.

Ahh, and we managed to meet Mallory, a school-time friend of Laura, for a nice evening together.

BBQ on fire

BBQ’s were high in demand – one which I prepared (German style) and a Colombian one prepared by Lorena, Laura’s sister. Delicious! We topped it up with a good night out in Santa Marta and a few dance lessons with Lorena though I fear my hips are not made for this. Better leave this to the professionals.

A day out in Taganga

Laura’s dad had already popped by her mums house on a few occasions, but still we owed him a visit in Taganga – the former fishermen village 15mins drive from Santa Marta now turned Israeli party hotspot. From the main village you can hike over to Playa Grande and take in the nice views of the bay.

Playa Cristal 🏖 (well, almost)

Playa Cristal is about an hours ride from Santa Marta (if you don’t miss the left turn…) if you drive yourself. There are also plenty of tours and a boat service from Taganga.

Overall, a bit disappointing given high entrance fees (USD15 for a foreigner being part of Tayrona national park) not including vehicle, parking or the boat transfer you still require for the last bit to reach Playa Cristal. We skipped the boat ride and enjoyed the quiet beach can reach by moto. On the way we stopped to see ‘7 olas’ – the bay of 7 waves.

New tattoos 🐢 🌊

We finally made it to the tattoo studio to get our sea turtles inked on our bodies. We had picked the design already in Sri Lanka, but for reasons of time and drama didn’t manage to get them done. The design was very inspired by our sea turtle experience in Hikkaduwa – what a great day it was!

Our tattoo artist was Denis Bondarenko (here his insta) who has his studio in Rodadero (15min ride from Santa Marta). All super clean, relaxed and very professional. We spent the whole day there amidst lots of chatting about life, travels ans other things with Denis and his wife Estefania.

Santa Marta & Bogota: Family introduction 👧🏻 🇨🇴

Five days in Colombia flew past like a rocket. I met Laura’s family for the first time. Most of them live in and around Santa Marta, just the grandparents in Bogota. Thank you all for your great hospitality and the free spanish lessons 😉 I take away many memorable moments with me as well as my first tatoo 👧🏻 🇨🇴. Hasta la próxima!

Back in Santa Marta

Laura picked me up from the airport and we headed to the airbnb i booked. Presumably close to her house, but not really as it turned out. We spent the time organising a few last things such as doctor visits, injections etc, visited the Tayrona gold museum, Palomino beach, spent time with laura’s mum Deisy, sister Lorena and Mario – their quasi adopted son – and had also a little time for party in La Puerta for ourselves. Good to have Santa Marta nightlife back, be it just briefly. It is really good and authentic.

Tattoo time…

I had been thinking about getting a tattoo done for a while, but i guess never had someone holding my hand to see it through. When laura mentioned she will get a new tattoo done (a joint one with her sister), i figured it was the opportune moment. The studio is run by a venezuelan tattoo artist and was very clean. Tick. The design we did on the spot although i knew roughly beforehand what i wanted. The procedure lasted for about an hour and was a little painful, as the tatoo sits right on my ribs. One of those more sensitive spots. I like it a lot. Let’s see what mum thinks 🙄

Palomino beach

Palomino is one of the many possible destinations around Santa Marta. It’s a long stretch of sandy beaches and at times pretty aggressive waves. You can get there from Santa Marta by bus (1,5h) followed by a quick motorbike ride to the beach unless you feel like walking. Most of the beaches belong to hostels and make money of the associated bars / restaurants and accommodation. We spent half a day there playing with the waves.

One night in Bogotá

While Laura’s dad Mauricio usually lives in Taganga, a hippy beach spot near santa marta, we met him in bogota. He currently spends a lot of time there to take care of his dad and thus help out his mum – both 87. We opted to go by public transport, which means transmillenio bus in bogota. It’s a huge bus network with separate lanes and rather long buses. A bit crowded for my taste, but it works. Laura .

In the evening we relocated to an airbnb in chapinero – one of the best districts in bogota. Sushi dinner at Osaki’s and beers at Bogota Beer Company. Lore joined us and after a glass of wine quickly forgot her flu 😉. Great night… But then the Guiana’s were waiting 🛫

Back to Colombia – then the Guyana’s

Two days in London proved loaded with catch ups – cedric, hubert, yash, per, dan, bernd and a few locals. The rest of the time i spent sorting gear & clothing to get ready for the the next trip.

It was almost exactly one year ago that i visited Colombia for the first time. By now my Spanish is not bad and i have a colombian girlfriend. What difference a year can make! I am really looking forward to hang out a bit in Santa Marta and Bogota, hit the beach and meet new faces.

Off to North East South America: The Guyana’s

However, it is also time to explore some other parts of South America. I have picked a somewhat more unusual and not well travelled part – the North East of the continent. It is made up of the three countries and former colonies Guyana (english), Suriname (dutch) and French Guiana (french) followed by a stint on Aruba to learn kite surfing (fingers crossed). So i won’t get to practice Spanish in public too much.

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Why not so well travelled?

Well, there is the big issue of transport. The amazon jungle to the south, (no-go) Venezuela to the west and water on the other sides making plane travel into the region essential. There are, however, only few options such as usually one flight from the former colonial power (say Amsterdam – Paramaribo) & one from Aruba, but no direct flights from hubs like Bogota.

The other issue, partly going hand in hand, is price levels above your typical budget for backpackers. In fact, french guyana is reportedly the most expensive place in SA being effectively part of France / Europe (eg you pay with Euro’s). Many products have to be imported.

Why is it worth going?

Well, we will see but the cultural mix of locals, former runaway slaves, Caribbeans, colonialists, asians etc is truely unique in the world as is the countryside itself that is dominated by the Amazon covering some 4/5th of the surface and provides for a high degree of biodiversity. There is also the chance to spot satélite launches in French Guiana.

Exciting! Let’s see how it goes.

A day in Tayrona Park: Muddy jungle trek & wild beachfront

Tayrona Park is one of the must do’s in Northern Colombia if you ask me. From Taganga you can take daily boat transfers to Tayrona park. Its about an 35km boat ride (1:15h), but be prepared for choppy waters. Not for everyones stomach ;o). 

I actually preferred the bus option on the way into the park that takes you first to Santa Marta (calle 11/cra. 11, 20-30mins, pretty frequent, 2.5k COP) and then Tayrona park entrance (another 30-40mins, 7k COP). This works out at about half the cost of tourbus operators. The bus driver is meant to let you know where to get off, but best keep an eye out yourself. Once at the park entrance, its a 2h walk first on muddy jungle roads at least this time of the year (Nov/early Dec). My recommendation … just take the shoes off. Doesn’t hurt, looks way less embarrassing than hopping around to keep your new trainers clean and is actually healthy. 

Once you managed to get through the jungle, you will get to enjoy a nice walk on the beach until you get to the swim spot (la piscina) near Cabo St Juan. On the way you’ll find camping grounds, indigenous selling coco nuts and beach restaurants with refreshments and excellent fish (I am saying this as not a big fish eater … lovely stuff).

As I mentioned above, the boat is the best way home from here. Loads are waiting with 4.30pm usually the last departures. Don’t miss it as camp sites are often fully booked in peak season. Better though, in hindsight, get your hands on one of the hammocks in the lodge at Cabo San Juan beach (though pricey, see here for details). 

Magic place!