Beach, Beach and Beach
28.06.2013 - 10.07.2013 30 °C
From Medellin we were very excited to head right up to Colombia's Carribean coast. Most backpackers head straight up to the touristy city of Cartegena but we had heard some good things about a remote town called Capurgana, in the far north west of Colombia very close to the border of Panama. Despite being a wonderful beach paradise in the Carribean, it is seldom visited by travellers due to its difficulty to reach. It is at least 10 hours in bus and/or boat travel in any direction from any other place worth seeing and flights aren't cheap. It took us a full day to reach it from Medellin. We took off after breakfast with our Irish friends Luisna and Michael for the ride to Turbo on what is regarded as Colombia's worst road. It was bumpy and windy and although our deathwish driver seemed intent on getting us there in world record time, the journey took 11 hours rather than the expected 8 hours. We had to spend the night in the rough town of Turbo as this was the departure point for the daily 8am boat to Capurgana. It is impossible to drive there as no roads to the town exist. In fact there are no roads that connect Colombia and Panama, an area of dense jungle known as the Darien Gap, controlled by paramilitary and guerrilla groups.
We woke early the following morning after a sleep on a bed less comfortable than the floor and wandered down to the port to buy our boat ticket. What ensued was 2 hours of waiting around and trying the figure out what was going on. From what we could understand, there were no tickets left but another boat could be going. The entire system at the port was completely disorganised, nothing ran on time and it was basically chaos. The horror prospect of 24 hours more in Turbo was looking increasing likely but eventually we got four tickets as there so happened to be 4 no shows. We bought big garbage bags for our packs to keep them dry and prepared for 3 hours of what Lonely Planet describes as the boat ride from hell. We had also been advised to avoid at all costs a seat at the front but as we were last on board that was all that was left. We were fully expecting a bone rattling voyage but while it was far from pleasant, it wasn't too bad and the coastline views made it more bearable.
We arrived in the ultra laidback town of Capurgana around midday and checked into a cheap but nice hostel for 4 nights. That first arvo the four of us walked 45 minutes up the untouched coast to reach a completely isolated family home which, for a small fee, they open to guests to enjoy a home made limonada and the natural pools. The best and biggest pool is connected to the sea but is semi-protected by huge rocks. The waves crash over the rocks to create a jacuzzi effect in the pool and there is a tight rope to grab onto to avoid being hurled into the rocks. We spent the rest of the arvo relaxing on Capurgana's nicest stretch of beach, napping under one of the many palm trees lined across the sand and cooling off in the luke warm Carribean water. At sunset we enjoyed what became a daily tradition of a coco loco cocktail which is made up of Amurelo, vanilla vodka, 2 types of rum and Irish cream used as a mixer, all served in a coconut.
The following day we went on a short inland walk through streams and jungle to El Cielo natural pools and waterfall. We spent some time here relaxing and watching the local kids hurling themselves into the water from a flying fox. The rest of the day was taken up with more beach time.
Capurgana is so close to the border that it's possible to walk into Panama and back in a day. It is impossible to continue walking all the way up the coast so we set of on a sticky and humid inland trail and after about 1.5 hours we reached the even more tiny town of Sapzurro. The beach on Sapzurro was absolutely pristine and even nicer than the beach in Capurgana so we stopped here for a bit before heading up the steps to Panama. At the top of the hill there were beautiful views with the waters of the two countries on either side. This would have to be one of the world's most bizarre border crossings and it was funny seeing two border officials sitting at the top of the hill checking the passports of people in nothing but swimmers, flip flops and sarongs. They don't even bother stamping them as we were coming straight back after a few hours on the beach of La Miel. Now in Panama, we walked down the other side of the hill and spent a few hours at the beach and had our typical Carribean lunch of whole fish, rice, patacon and salad. The beach here was a bit busier and less clean so after lunch we caught a small boat back out of Central America and back into South America and Capurgana.
The next day Luisna and Michael left for Cartegena and as we had done everything there is to do in Capurgana we spent a full day lazing under a palm tree on the beach. The beach in Capurgana consists of two shack bars, a shack resturant and a massage lady and we made use of all of these. The water, as you might expect in the Carribean, is a perfect temperature and very clear.
The journey from Capurgana to Cartegena was one we really were not looking forward to which is one of the reasons why we spent the extra day in Capurgana. We were determined to get there in one day to avoid wasting two days and we even booked a hostel in Cartegena online and paid a deposit to make sure we didn't change our minds and break the journey into 2 days. Our return boat to Turbo was at 7am and we worked out if everything ran on time and connects well (which rarely happens here) we could be in Cartegena at 8pm. Things didn't start well when our boat didn't depart until 8:15am. We did however score the backrow seats this time for which we were very thankful as the 3 hour ride was extremely choppy and rough. We got drenched at the back but it beat the constant thumping and smashing the front rowers had to endure. Once in Turbo we had to find a bus to Monteria and from there onto Cartegena. We eventually arrived at our hostel El Viajero just after 11pm.
Cartagena is a nice colonial walled port city with 16th and 17th century architecture. We spent a couple of days here wandering around and seeing the streets. We were planning on having about five days here but decided to cut it short as we were struggling to find things to do. Despite being Colombia's most touristy city we were quite dissapointed with Cartagena and thought it was overhyped. Other backpackers were raving about a beach called Playa Blanca, not far from Cartagena were it's possible to spend the night so we decided to do that.
We packed our daypacks and wandered down to the port in the morning and got bombarded with companies wanting to take us to Playa Blanca. We must have settled on the wrong company as our boat broke down after slowly chugging along for half an hour and when a new boat came to rescue us that one proceeded to break down too. The 35 minute speedboat ride turned into 1.5 hours but our worries didn't last long once we arrived. Playa Blanca is on a small island not far off the mainland. It is located on the west side of the island, facing away from the mainland and towards nothing but Carribean sea. When our boat dropped us off we were met with hundreds of families jammed on to the beach which really wasn't what we pictured but after only 500m of walking down the stretch of white sand it became much quieter. Our options for sleeping were either hammock or cabaña. We would have liked to have slept in hammocks but with our bad backs it would have been a bad idea. We found a guy on a nice semi-secluded section of beach with a few cabañas which are basically raised huts with nothing more than an old mattrass inside. We checked in there and for the next 24 hours we did little more than rotate between our deckchairs with a book or drink in hand and the clear teal sea. We enjoyed a cracking sunset before spending the evening with Luisna and Michael who were having a second night there and some other Irish guys over a few bottles of Carribean rum. Around midnight we were entertained by an amazing lightning show over the sea which lasted for hours. The heat woke us up early the next morning but after a shaky 8 steps down from our cabaña and a further 8 metre walk to the sea, a quick dip proved the perfect hangover cure. For lunch we treated ourselves to our first ever proper lobster meal before catching a boat back to Cartagena. We spent the night back at El Viajero before setting off further east along the coast to Taganga.
Taganga is a small fishing village just outside of Santa Marta which has become popular with backpackers in recent years particularly as it is one of the cheapest places in the world to obain a scuba diving certificate. Everyone says Taganga isn't what it was 5 years ago before it became popular and they must have been right as we really didn't see the appeal of the place. The hostel we stayed at was great with heaps of hammocks and a french cook who whipped us up some awesome chocolate crepes but the town itself was quite ugly and lacks infrastructure to keep up with the mounting tourism. The beach was not as inviting as the others on the coast although it was nice looking out over all the old fishing boats and eating fish at one of the cheap seaside restaurants. The region around Santa Marta has a few good places to visit in a close proximity so we used Taganga as a base and left our big bags at the hostel and set off with our days packs to check out the Tayrona National Park, the home of some of South America's nicest coastline.
A collectivo took us to the entrance of the park from which point we had a pleasant 1.5 hour hike through the rainforest to the first campside at Arrecifes. While this campsite is meant to have the best ammenities, the water there is not safe for swimming due to the currents so we kept walking another 45 minutes to El Cabo which has a basic campsite but the prettiest beach. The walk between the two campsites was great, passing secluded and pristine swimming spots. We arrived at El Cabo and were met with a picture perfect beach with large boulders on both ends. The beach was busy with gringos and Colombian tourists alike but by no means overcrowded and secluded stretches of beach were available to anyone willing to walk a short distance in either direction. We rented a tent here for two nights. During the days we got stuck into our books, drank fresh juices, ate chocolate banana bread, swam and slept on the beach. By night there wasn't much to do so we had early nights and slept listening to the sounds of the waves crashing, birds chirping and donkeys hee-hawing. To exit the park almost everyone hikes back out the same way but an Aussie guy at our hostel in Cartegena told us about an alternative largely unknown route directly inland which takes 4 hours and passes through the ruins of El Pueblito. The 1.5 hours to the ruins was mainly uphill climbing and jumping up rocks and we were sweating profusely after the first couple of minutes. It was incredibly humid in the thick rainforest and we quickly realised why most people don't take this route. After a quick look around the ruins and a quick breather, we set off on the second leg of the hike on what we hoped was the right path back out of the park. We made it out onto the road dripping in sweat after exactly 4 hours and hailed down a passing coach which took us to Santa Marta.
Next stop on our little adventure with the day packs was Minca and we arrived here after 40 minutes in a collectivo from Santa Marta. If Tayrona is where jungle meets ocean, Minca is where mountains meet ocean. Well, they don't quite meet but it is possible to see the ocean from the top of the Sierra Nevada mountains which is where we stayed in the form of Los Pinos Hostel. We decided to come to Minca really just because of this hostel. We had heard others raving about it and we actually met and had drinks with the owner Ed when we were in Capurgana and he was on his way up to Panama. After getting dropped in Minca our only option to get to Los Pinos was to find someone to take us up the mountains 30 minutes on a motorbike or hike 3 hours. Given we had already hiked 4 hours early in the day it was an easy decision. We found two guys to take us up and we quickly made our ascent up the lush tropical mountains. We started questioning where they were taking us as we passed nothing for miles but eventually we rocked up at the hostel, completely isolated and miles from anything, perched high at the top of the Sierra Nevada. The big drawcard of this place is it's magical view sprawling for miles encompassing tiny Minca below, Santa Marta off in the distance and the Carribean Sea out almost as far as the eyes can see. We had 2 nights here and spent our time playing lots of backgammon, sleeping in our suspended swinging double bed, making ravioli from scratch, going for walks and collecting mangoes and avocados from the trees, chilling out on the giant 10 man hammock placed over the edge of the mountain and getting the binoculars out for a spot of bird watching. The best find was some green beaked toucans. We caught a mototaxi back down the mountain when it came time to leave, stopped off at a waterfall and had a quick look around Minca before making our way back to Taganga to collect our big bags.