We landed in Colombia after five days of sailing through the beautiful San Blas Islands of Panama, and while the sailing trip went extremely well, we were definitely ready to get some land under our feet. Our first stop on our Colombian adventure was the busy coastal city of Cartagena.
From what I had heard, Cartagena was one of the more touristy destination in all of Colombia, mostly due to it being a cruise ship destination. With that in mind, we decided to keep our stay short and only spend a couple nights in town, giving us enough time to check out what the city had to offer.
We spent the day wandering around the historic colonial streets of Old Town Cartagena, admiring the colorful houses lining the narrow streets. Over head the already stunning streets were accented with vibrant flowers dangling from the Spanish style balconies. You certainly couldn’t deny the beauty of the place.
Being exposed to all that fresh fish on our sailing trip, we were fixated on finding more fresh ceviche. La Cevicheria was the perfect spot, complete with tables and chairs lining the sidewalk amongst the vibrant streets. Their ceviche was nothing short of fantastic, in close contention with that guava based one we had back on Bocas Del Toro. When our South American travels are through, I think we may have to dedicate a blog to all the best ceviche’s from the countries we visit…to be continued.
Our hostel was located a few blocks from Old Town and close to a lot of the nightlife, which is what Cartagena is truly know for. That first evening we ended up meeting up with our friends from the sailing trip and hitting the town. One of the crew members joined us and was able to show us some of the cool local spots in the area. For a little pregame, we headed down to a small plaza lined with food vendors and jam packed with people getting their night started. It was a great vibe of people just hanging out and having some drinks, real local feel. A couple doors down from the plaza, a nice old man sells beers out of his living room window for a buck. There was no way we would have known to knock on a stranger’s window to buy cheap beer, so having a local to show us around really made the night. The rest of the evening was a mix of clubs and bars, but nothing quite as cool as the pregame plaza.
We spent the next day licking our wounds since our alcohol tolerance wasn’t quite what it used to be. We planned on doing the free walking tour but couldn’t even make it through the entire thing since we were so beat. What we did get out of the tour was very interesting. The history surrounding that city and its role in the country’s history is fascinating. If you ever make it down that way, I would highly recommend it, although maybe do it prior to diving into the party scene.
While all that we did and saw in the short two days we had in Cartagena was great, my hands down favorite part about the city was the arepas from Colombitalia Arepas. The place served up simple, yet unreal good Colombian style arepas, which consist of a thick corn tortilla split open like a pita pocket, and packed full with your choice of sautéed meats, veggies and cheeses. I ate there three times in two days, it was that good.
After the boat trip, followed by time in the bustling city, we were ready to throttle back and get a bit of chill nature time in our systems. We joined forces with our new friend Laura from the sailing trip and headed up into the mountains to the small village of Minca.
Since we were traveling with the extra person, we decided to go the Airbnb route for lodging. Casa d’Antonio had a three-person room for extremely cheap, and included breakfast served in their beautiful garden, along with access to a small private swimming hole down by the river. The highlight of the accommodations was by far the super friendly Spanish owner, Antonio. He always went out of his way to make sure you had a smile on your face, and even treated us to a free tasting of his homemade Limoncello. Since it was made with Colombia’s gross national booze, Aguardiente, there was no way it could hold a candle to my own home made ‘cello, but a kind gesture none the less.
We decided on three days in Minca, giving ourselves enough time partake in the local activities as well as a day to just chill and do nothing. The local activities include hikes around the surrounding mountains with visits to a variety of waterfalls, cool mountain hostels, and the oldest coffee plantation in all of Colombia. For our first day of activities, we took on a two-hour hike to one of the waterfalls along with a stop at the La Victoria coffee farm.
Instead of hiking two hours up the mountain to La Victoria, we opted to take moto-taxis up and then hike our way back down. This was my first moto-taxi experience, and it was just as sketchy as I had imagined it to be. No helmet, grasping into the back of the small bike, holding on for dear life as the motorcycle fly’s up the mountain on a choppy dirt road barely wide enough for a single vehicle. Good times.
We took a short tour of the coffee plantation, learning about all the old equipment that was brought there 100 years ago and is still in use. The operations there were small, producing a couple hundred sacks of beans each harvest, but it was very interesting to see how they still produce coffee the same way they did a century ago.
Our journey back down the mountain to town brought us to Pozo Azul, which is the closest waterfall to town and features a couple nice swimming holes for an afternoon soak to cool you down from the hike. A few local boys where there climbing trees that surrounded the swimming holes and jumping off branches as high as forty feet above the water. Now as most of you know, I can never resist a good cliff jump, but janky tree branches forty feet above water that was maybe six feet deep, I’ll pass.
The highlight of my day was spotting a couple Keel Billed toucans out for their afternoon snack. I have seen all sorts of exotic animals on this trip, but I still say my favorite are these colorful, awkward looking birds. I did my best to get a photo, but without a quality camera, its difficult to get a good shot of them. To give you an idea of what they look like if you aren’t familiar, I found this picture online that most closely resembles what we saw:
That evening our appetites were big, so we headed over to the Lazy Cat for some cheeseburgers that people seem to be raving about. Well, the people were right, the Lazy Cat was the bomb, and not only because of the cheeseburgers. We ended up eating there three times in three days, and everything was fantastic. Besides the many burger options, they had delicious wok bowls and even better flavored lemonades. Queue the mouthwatering.
With one of the three days reserved for doing nothing, we decided to hike the other side of the mountain on day two and keep day three open for vegging out. According to all the maps and advice we found, a hike up to Casa Elemento would only take us two hours or so and included a stop at another waterfall along the way. As we trekked up the dirt road that lead up the mountain, we took a look at the trail on maps.me we began to question that time-frame. When we finally reached the Cascadas Marinka at the hour and a half mark, we had serious doubts, considering it seemed barely half way on the map. The waterfall was cool though, more picturesque than the one from the day before, complete with a swimming hole, and even some nets to lounge on that hung over the hillside.
As we exited the falls, we asked another local how long until we reach Casa Elemento and he told us it would be an hour or so. Ok, we thought, not so bad, only 30 min more than what was forecasted, (although the map we got seems like it’s more…) So, we set off up the dirt road, baking in the hot sun and trying not to inhale too much dust as the trucks and moto-taxis whipped by us. After an hour, the girls began to let their displeasure be known. Two and half hours later, we finally arrived, doing our best to not let our exhaustion and irritation with the two-hour hike that really took four hours, ruin our good time.
Luckily this amazing hostel had everything we needed to kick back and help us forget about our struggles. The obvious first stop was the swimming pool for a nice cool down session. Then to the bar for a fresh passion fruit juice and a cold beer, followed by some lounging on the giant hammock hanging over the cliff side. The stunning view down into the valley was breathtaking, you could see clear to the ocean, and it made the trek worth every second. If I was ever to return to Minca, I would definitely spend at least one night up at this hostel instead of spending all my time down in the town.
For the trip home, we opted for the moto-taxi ride, having gotten our fix of hiking for the day. Having the next day to chill was a great way to end our time in Minca. A little reading, a bit of writing, and a fantastic cheeseburger from Lazy Cat was just what the doctor ordered. With our batteries recharged, we were ready to head back to the coast to meet up with more sailing friends in the small fishing village of Taganga.
We were unsure if we wanted to stay in Taganga or possibly just visit the town as a day trip from Santa Marta as many travelers might suggest. After doing a bit of research and finding Hostel El Mirador y Club Social, it didn’t take long to sway everyone into a couple night stay.
Located just up the hill from town, El Mirador is a 4-story structure built into one of the mountainsides that enclose the village. On the weekends this place is known for big parties with all sorts of DJ’s that play well into the night. For us, it was a Tuesday and we pretty much had the place to ourselves for a couple nights. Besides raging parties on weekends, the claim to fame for this establishment is its incredible view of the cove and the small village sitting on the shore below. As if the view wasn’t enough, they built an amazing infinity pool that made you never want to leave.
The only real downfall during our stay was the lack of a kitchen to make our own meals, but we weren’t all that upset about it since a short 15-minute walk brought us down to the town where there were a slew of restaurants lining the beach front. The first night we found ourselves a table in the sand and got a few pizza’s and some cocktails which didn’t disappoint. It was hard for me to agree with the group on the pizza decision being that we were in a fishing village, but I figured I could get some fresh fish on night two, and boy did we.
Just past the restaurants in the sand, you begin walking a cobble stone street lined with cheap local spots. Simple restaurants ran by the fisherman and their families, with just a grill and some plastic tables and chairs, just what I was looking for. We picked our spot and were presented with that days catch, a platter of whole fish that we got select our meal from. We opted for the red snapper and man was it good!
Chill days by the pool with cheap rum cocktails and fresh fish, this must be the place! It may have been mid-week and we may have been the only people there, but that didn’t stop us from partying like it was a sold-out club! I mean, we figured we had to take advantage of this amazing place, plus a group of six traveling strangers that got along as though they had been friends for years, it was a recipe for fun. We got after it and had a blast for the two days we were there, and as much as we haven’t been into the party scene during this trip, I must say I really enjoyed that stop off in Colombia. Besides, it was a much needed warm up for Carnaval which was right around the corner. Before we dove headfirst into that crazy party, we spent a couple days in Santa Marta getting ourselves ready.
Many of the travelers I spoke with were not all that fond of Santa Marta, but like I always say, you should always decide for yourself because everyone sees things differently. We only were there a couple nights, but I enjoyed what I got out of the city. Its situated on the waterfront with a nice clean beach between the city and the Caribbean ocean. There’s a nice waterfront walking path, perfect for a sunset stroll and some local street food.
Besides the nice waterfront, which is always a draw for me, I really enjoyed the pedestrian walking streets through the middle of the Historic District. The Spanish colonial vibe was alive and buzzing after he sun went down with tons of restaurants having tables pouring into the street, and even some local musicians playing traditional Colombian music for the patrons. Strings of lights draped from building to building overhead provided a nice European feel, adding a touch of class to the atmosphere.
My only qualm with our stay was the hostel we stayed in, but not because it wasn’t a cool place. In fact, Republica Hostel was awesome, with a beautiful courtyard and pool, and amazing kitchen, and even a nice bar and patio out back. Even the beds were unique, built from what looked like shipping containers stacked on top of one another, giving each person a comfortable private sleeping space. My issue wasn’t with any of that, I just was hoping to get some rest before taking on Carnaval for the next four days, and that didn’t seem to be in the cards. Even though you had privacy in your sleeping pod, they didn’t prevent noise, and the dorms slept twelve, so there seem to be someone coming or going all hours of the night. On top of that, the hostel itself played music late, understandably so, but also started playing music at 8am. If it had been the right circumstances, I am sure I would have loved the place, so it is what it is.
A nice little day trip from Santa Marta brings you to the small coastal town of Palomino, where, beyond seafood, the main attraction is a river tubing excursion. The group of us headed out for a day of sitting on a tube, drifting down a river through Colombian jungle with sipping on semi cold beers and hoping the sun didn’t burn us too bad. With all the madness of traveling, it was actually quite a nice afternoon, and some much-needed relaxation.
We spent some time each day scouring the streets and markets for fun attire for Carnaval, and we ended up doing pretty well. The street vendors were overflowing with party gear, and you could feel the excitement for the festival in the air. I scored an amazing shirt that is so great I am committing to carrying it in my pack for the next four months. Hopefully I will be as excited about it the next time I wear it as I am now. With our new Carnaval clothes ready to go, we hopped on the bus and headed towards Barranquilla for the main event!
It wasn’t until we got to Bocas Del Toro Panama that we had even heard about the Carnaval celebration in Barranquilla. Some new friends that we had met, Chris and Maria, had mentioned it to us, and I immediately began doing my research. Going to Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro had always been a bucket list thing for me, and it wasn’t going to happen on this trip, so why not do the next best thing. I mean, we happened to be traveling next to the city with the second largest Carnaval celebration in the world, almost exactly when it was happening. The stars aligned, and we decided it was a must.
Unfortunately, being as insanely popular as it is, housing typically books up months and months in advance, leaving only grossly overprice accommodations available at the last minute. Fortunately, we had made a large group of friends that were all interested in attending, so that opened our options for housing. I checked Airbnb each day hoping something would appear for us, and eventually we got lucky.
An amazing Barranquilla local decided to post his property for the first time on Airbnb only a few days before the festival, and I must have spotted it within a few hours of it going up. It was a three bedroom that slept eight, which was exactly what we had, and it only cost us $18 bucks each per night. Everything else I could find was looking more like $60 or more per person per night, so we lucked out big time. On top of that, Andres was probably the best host we could have every asked for. Super nice guy, and he went out of his way to make sure we had an incredible time at Carnaval. Good thing too because it wasn’t the easiest festival to navigate.
Each day of the 4-day affair consisted of one main parade route, but also featured sub parades that went through different neighborhoods each day. At night, there were a handful of events scattered throughout the city, and even with hours of internet research, it was impossible to figure out where to go. Andres made it easy for us, telling us all the best places to go, and because of that we had an insane time.
Two of the four nights we ended up going to a huge block party where they had six or seven stages along a four-block strip. Each stage was DJ’ing different music, and the one main stage at the end of the road featured a slew of live bands rocking out. Drinking and dancing and drinking and dancing, enough to make your head spin. The other two nights we ended up at the best party in town, outside of the notorious La Troja. This place usually features music inside its club with drinking and dancing every night, but for Carnaval, it took over the streets outside of the club and was an absolute madhouse. Beer by the gallons flowing like water, and handfuls of flour blasting faces left and right. As the night progressed, the party did too, with people dancing on chairs, beers and cups of water getting thrown into the air, full throttle partying. The crowd even changed things up at one point and started picking their chairs and just lifting them into the air, dancing with them overhead, it was madness.
Regarding the flour, if you aren’t familiar with Carnaval, flour battles are a major staple. Vendors can be found everywhere selling boxes of flour, or talcum powder, for people to wage war against their fellow partier and cover each other from head to toe. The flour was fun, but for me, the foam blasters were the best. I had never seen these things before, but I love them so much I am working on getting them at our wedding, fingers crossed.
Now, there is a good chance I like them more than others (cough…Lindsey…cough), but you can’t deny how much fun they are. It’s a long skinny spray canister, like silly string but much bigger, and when you pull the trigger a fountain of bubblegum scented foam blasts out up to 10 feet or more. When you spray them directly up in the air, the foam stream separates and rains down like wet snow, covering everyone in its path. Between that and the flour, it was easy to see who was having fun, and who needed a blast to get them going.
The hardest part was making sure we had suitable wardrobes for four days’ worth of flour and foam. My plan was to repeat outfits, but it was hard to do when everything I wore was covered powder and smelled like bubble gum the next day. To help us overcome that obstacle, we all purchased cheap white clothing from second hand stores, bought five different colors of neon paint, and headed to the park to create new splatter art outfits. It was super fun using each other as human canvas’s, and the clothes came out amazing! I only wish we were able to keep them, but I don’t think they would have traveled well. Besides, the act of making them may have been the best part, and that can certainly be recreated next time we need some funky clothes.
After four days of raging Carnaval, every one of us was completely wiped out. We even had doubts that we could make it through day four, but once La Troja started going off, it was easy to finish it out with a bang. I didn’t even think about Carnaval being part of this adventure, totally slipped my mind, but I couldn’t be happier with the way it all worked out. It was definitely one of the most unique and insane party experiences of my life, and I think it turned out better that we got to do it in Colombia. Not sure I would ever need to do it again, but man was it fun!
Tayrona National Park
After four days of heavy raging, we were very much looking forward to some healthy activity and nature time. For our final stop on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, we headed into Tayrona National Park for a two-day trek. Tayrona is Colombia’s most popular national park, situated along the Caribbean and backed up by the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. The protected lands are home to many of Colombia’s tropical bird species as well as some of the most beautiful beaches in the country.
Typically, tourists access the park from the entrance on the east end of the reserve and work their way west, camping out at one of three beachfront camping locations. We chose to begin our trek through the lesser know park entrance located in the town of Calabazo. From there we trekked about four hours and ended up at the secluded and less populated Playa Brava. There they had a handful of beach huts you could rent out for the night, but unfortunately they were all sold out, so our options were limited to a couple open air hammocks under one of the beach palapas.
The weather was perfect for a nice sleep under the stars and only a stone’s throw from the waves crashing on the beach. Each hammock came with warm wool blankets and were encased in mosquito netting to ensure a good night’s sleep. The only challenge was actually sleeping in a hammock. It was my first time taking more than a nap in one, and I can’t say I would be excited to do it again. The experience doing it at this beautiful secluded beach was more than worth it, but I tend to have issues with my feet falling asleep after being in a hammock for too long. I was able to tough it out though and was happy to wake up to the sunrise over the Caribbean bundled up in my hanging bed.
Day two began with another four-hour hike through the jungle towards the more popular and extremely beautiful and picturesque beach, Cabo San Juan Del Guia. This is the main tourist attraction in the Park, consisting of two small crescent beaches joined in the middle by a big rock that jets out into the sea. On top of the rock there is a small pavilion where they have hammocks for rent if you wanted to spend the night. It’s a highly desired experience, and the hammocks are first come first serve each day, so you need to arrive early to reserve one for the night, or else you are limited to the camping option in one of the many tents set up about 100 meters or so from the shore.
While the experience camping out on that rock would have been pretty cool, we were a bit eager to make our way inland towards Medellin, so we only spent the one night in the park. We spent the day hoping from beach to beach as we made our way to the park exit, having a nice little picnic and a couple lounge sessions along the way.
Hiking through the jungle from beach to beach, we spotted a handful of creatures, including the resident alligator near Cabo beach. Apparently, we were told that the day before we had arrived, one of the tourist’s had a little dog that got a bit to close and got eaten up by the gator. Not sure if that’s a tall tale told to each foreigner that comes through, but a sad story none the less.
I think the highlight of Lindsey’s day was the group of monkeys we had came across. She seemed to enjoy the moment when one of them nailed me with its juicy turd. I have heard a bit about monkeys liking to throw there feces around, but this was my first experience getting caught in the cross fire. I would like to think its similar to birds, where it means I will have some good luck, but I’m pretty sure it just meant I got hit with a handful of monkey crap.
Two days in Tayrona was great, but if I were to do it again I would prefer to stay for three. As we hiked out of the park we passed a couple cool beach front campsites that seemed awesome. This time around we couldn’t change our minds and extend our stay since we had booked a flight to Medellin that was leaving the following morning.
So, we said goodbye to the beautiful Caribbean Sea, knowing we wouldn’t see any ocean again for a few months. It was time to explore central Colombia, next stop, Medellin!