South America’s Hat – Northern Colombia

Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park

After Cartagena we took a short bus to Santa Marta. Santa Marta is less of a destination than it is a jumping off point and from here, Julia and I visited Minca, Taganga, Tayrona, and Costeño Beach.

Santa Marta

Santa Marta

Santa Marta

Although mostly known as a hub, Santa Marta did have a few bright spots. For one, our hostel, The Dreamer, was spectacular. This was the first hostel we stayed in that was purposely built to be used as a hostel. This meant the rooms were perfectly designed for dorm beds and the property had plenty of space around a pool for meeting fellow travelers. It was also situated in a central location right on a bus line and across the street from a supermarket (Exito).

The supermarket shone a bright light on another quality of Santa Marta, fruit. On a quiet day, Julia and I decided to go over to the Exito to purchase fruits that we had never even seen before. Here are a few that we tried and a quick description of each:

Top row: Lulo, Uchuva,   Bottom: Mangostine, dd

Top row: Lulo, Uchuva, Pitaya
Bottom: Mangostine, Atulfo Mango

Pitaya – This is similar to a dragonfruit. You cut it open and inside is a delicious white fruit that you spoon out. This was probably our favorite of the group.

Pitaya

Pitaya

Mangostino – A very hard dark purple and almost black fruit. You break it open and find a jelly like fruit that surrounds a seed. You eat the whole fruit including the seed which has an almost nutty taste to it.

Mangostino

Mangostino

Ataulfo Mango – These are awesome. They taste the same as regular mangoes, but smaller and for some reason usually taste a little better. These are really popular for using in drinks.
Lulo – This is a Colombia only fruit and it was one of our favorites. Generally, you wait until the fruit is very ripe and the outside bruises easily. Then you can either eat the contents with a spoon, or (what we prefer) you can make it into a tangy sweet juice.
Uchuva – These are a little funky. They look just like orange tomatoes, but the taste is completely different. They taste like overripe or dried cherries. It didn’t matter how many of these I ate, I was never fully prepared for the flavor.

After our fruit tasting, we began exploring the surrounding areas, starting with a quick day trip to Minca.

Minca

Minca

Minca

Minca is a small coffee town just south of Santa Marta. While here we saw some pretty waterfalls and some very lush forests.

Waterfall

Waterfall

However, highlight of the trip was visiting the La Victoria coffee farm where we were able to observe the intricacies of a working coffee plantation.

La Victoria Coffee (sadly, not very good)

La Victoria Coffee Farm (sadly, not very good coffee)

They showed us how the plants grow on the hills and explained how seasonal workers are paid by the box for their services. During this explanation, a Santa Cruzian (Santa Cruzite? Santa Cruzer?) politely inquired as to whether or not the plantation was certified free trade. Our tour guide was confused at first, but after a short explanation of free trade, she assured us that yes, the workers are paid for their harvest depending on the size of their box (note: this is not how free trade coffee works). The rest of the tour involved a lot of old machinery and a coffee tasting. Incredibly, the coffee was pretty terrible. It turns out all the good coffee in Colombia gets sent home while everything they keep is pretty much Folgers Mediocre.

Freeish Trade?

Freeish Trade?

After our tour, one thought kept bothering me, “how did we (humans) ever figure out coffee?” Tea is simple. Leaf falls into hot water = Tea! Coffee on the other hand seems like a miracle drink. You pick the beans (“gross, this tastes like plants”). Then you peel them (“no way, still plants”). Then you dry them (“seriously, these are just dry plants, also they smell”). Then you peel off another layer (“no, no more tasting for me”). Finally, you carefully roast them and then you can eat them. After all that, some girl or guy said “hey, now lets grind this up and put it in hot water.” Boom. Coffee. Thanks random thinker for your persistence in these matters, my coffee-fueled self can’t thank you enough for your discovery.

Taganga

After Minca, we returned to Santa Marta where we had a short layover before heading to Tayrona National Park. So, we decided to visit Taganga to see what all the fuss was about. As it turns out, there is a beach there and people seem to like it. Personally, I thought it was a boring beach with too many tourists and too many venders/drug dealers. There is one saving grace of Taganga, though, and that is diving. If you want to get a diving certification for bargain basement prices, this is the place to go. After an afternoon of hanging out at the beach, we took a collectivo back to Santa Marta and got prepared for Tayrona.

Tayrona National Park

oo0' oo0' oo0' Ants!

oo0′ oo0′ oo0′
Ants!

When we first got to Tayrona, we were blown away by the cost (40000 pesos or $22 for foreigners!) but then we were even more surprised by the sheer size of the park. It took us just over 2 hours to hike in to the main camping area in the park. When we got there, we realized that the area we wanted to camp in was still another 45 minutes away down the beach (our lives are hard). Finally, we got to our site where we rented hammocks to use for the night. As much as I wanted to just run straight into the ocean right in front of our campsite and wash off our nearly 3 hours of sweat, I was deterred by the plethora of signs posted along the beach warning of extremely dangerous currents that routinely carry competent swimmers out to sea.

Dangerous Beach

Dangerous Beach

Good news, there is a protected beach where you can go in the water. Bad news, it is another hour hike away. After another hike along the coast, going past these beaches:

Beach

Beach

Other beach

Other beach

we came to this beach:

Cabo San Juan

Cabo San Juan

Cabo San Juan

Cabo San Juan

The beach is beautiful, but, unlike Costa Rica, it was very crowded with tourists and the water was cold. After a few hours in the sun, the weather, which had been scorching throughout our early hike, began cooling down to the point where sweatshirts were necessary. So Julia and I packed up and went back to camp where we made some new friends and learned a new card game before crashing for the night. The next day we woke up and hiked right back the way we came.

Stay away from the standing lagoon.

Stay away from the lagoon.

In my opinion, the park is beautiful, but it is expensive and to get your money’s worth, you need to spend at least 3 days there. The good news was that we were now on our way to Costeño Beach.

Costeño Beach

Costeño Beach

Costeño Beach

Costeño Beach might have been our highlight of Northern Colombia. Only ten minutes down the road from Tayrona, the bus drops you off on the side of the highway and you walk down a dirt road towards the beach until you reach a small surf camp at Costeño Beach.

Costeño Beach, right this  way!

Costeño Beach, right this way!

Upon arrival we were greeted by their staff of extremely warm volunteers who were just as happy to be there as we were. The camp was literally on the beach and Julia and I slept in hammocks just a few meters from the ocean. With no town or store nearby, the meals were provided by the camp in a family style setting. Each meal was enjoyed by everyone at the same time and presented a unique opportunity to get to know the other “campers.” One camper was a Colombian, Sebastian, who was from Medellin and insisted on giving us his information (Julia will talk more about him in the next post).

The Surf Camp

The Surf Camp

Not only were the staff and the guests awesome, but the scenery around the camp was beautiful as well. We weren’t able to do much surfing due to the terrible conditions, but did take this opportunity to spend some time on the beach.

Behind the beach

Behind the beach

We left Costeño after four days only because we had a flight to catch. We were heading to Medellin and continuing our trek through Colombia. Considering how outstanding the Cartagena and Santa Marta areas were, we couldn’t wait to see what the rest of Colombia had to offer.

Julia even made her first sandcastle!

Julia even made her first sandcastle!

Up next: Medellin, Guatape, and Salento!

Locations:

Santa Marta

Minca

Tayrona National Park

Costeño Beach

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