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Colombia: Our First 2 Weeks in a Coconut Shell



Well, it has been around six years in the making, but Emma and I finally descended to South America, our budget flight touching down a little after eight at night, 12 February in Cartagena, Colombia. Now, coming from personal experience, I can say Cartagena, Colombia, is a good place to start one’s exploration of the big mass of land down below.

But, this blog isn’t about all that. I can wrap the highlights quickly: Cartagena is stunning, an old colonial port town that was so often ransacked by pirates (England’s Sir Frances Drake included) that it now has a 300-plus year old stone wall surrounding the oldest part of the city. Oh, yes, it overlooks the Caribbean, the airport transfer took less than ten minutes, and the streets downtown were safe to wander.

You may remember the city’s cameo at the end of the 80s classic, Romancing the Stone. It's worth a view, if only as a reminder of how hot Kathleen Turner once was.

What I really want to note, though, are the specific happenings of our trip thus far, how we ate patacones, coconut cookies, and passion fruit snow cones from street vendors. And, how we posed with the army for a promotional photo of them informing us about the threat of kidnappings—Emma says, “Does that really happen here?” and without missing a beat, the boyish soldier bellows, “Noooo.”


The next stop, Santa Marta, moved us further north along the coast, to a land of beaches and ex-cartel homes, one of which we stayed in: (now under Australian direction) Drop Bear Hostel. Not only was there a pool, free coffee all day, hammock alley, and Ping-Pong, but Sunday evenings the owner offers a complete rundown of the cartel history and a free tour of the place, which was frequented by Pablo Escobar.

Our house was built with marijuana money in the 70s, before cocaine hit. It was still fancy, though, but a funny fact was that the cartel members—from the rural Colombia—still slept in hammocks as opposed to beds.

In Santa Marta, we lazed. We enjoyed the cartel life, the hammocks and pool, the nearby supermarket and kitchen, and we even managed a trip out to the beach. But, to be honest, it was one of those times when the hostel overshadows the surroundings. The nearby coast was beautiful but without shade, and the big house was just fun. So, Santa Marta—no apologies, no regrets, it was great.

When we left, we headed to Paso del Mango, a little mountain spot so remote no one in the hostel had heard of it, not even the local staff. But, it was less than an hour away, and Finca Carpe Diem was one of the main reasons we ended up on the Caribbean coast as opposed to Bogota (a wise choice). Five minutes before we arrived (free shuttle service), Nele stopped her jeep to tell us the hill was too step, so could we walk the last five minutes? Then, she left us in her dust.


The surroundings had significantly improved. Washed in nature, mountain streams crisscrossed the land creating a multitude of waterfalls, the forest is interspersed with farms and nature reserves, and ancient stairways create trails to millennia-old ruins. We swam in every pool we came across, the Pool of Love being the most talked about on the Finca (we made a great group of friends). We hiked here and there, discovering beautiful vistas, endless cascades, and Pre-Colombian structures. We were one with nature.

Perhaps the weirdest thing we saw was a school of Amazonian fish, Arapaima (they even made it onto River Monsters), that look massively prehistoric and somehow came to live in a pond in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Colombia.

The visit also proved to be our first time using the tiny tent Emma has been lugging around since our visa run to Mexico last year. It worked well despite our lack of bedding—a borrowed comforter made the last night much more comfy, you might say. And, what’s more, it was a great test run for the next adventure: We were off to Tayrona National Park, where camping would be required and the beaches promised to be exquisite.


We’ve been such lazy planners for the touristic side of this adventure (we are all about the farms these days) that we’d not even heard of Tayrona, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, until after we’d arrived. The point here, perhaps, is that we still made it. Despite no guidebook, we managed to sniff out what’s what and even find out which spot offered the best deals for budget backpackers. Note to self: Remember that lesson.

Our campsite at Tayrona required entering the park, taking a short shuttle ride towards the coast, and then hiking another hour. We also knew this but still managed to carry about fifty pounds of groceries with us (Buying food inside the park is expensive, and vegan options do not abound). Still, it was worth it. We pitched our little tent beneath a mango tree, had a quick bite, and set off exploring.

Another thing to add to the least of oddities: For some reason, there were two turkeys, a male and a female, roaming the area around our tent. The male was hideous but not deterred in its pursuit of the uninterested female. The gobble echoed us awake in the mornings.

The beaches just got more and more stunning, tiny coves fighting off the big surf blowing in from the north, the water the more refreshing shades of blue. We saw beautiful birds. We clambered over rocks. We even saw the odd unusually large rodent. Coconut trees were everywhere, and we swiped a couple of fallen fruits each day for a late afternoon snack. And, by the end, via consensus effort, we managed to eat nearly all the food we’d brought.


Hiking back out of the jungle proved much easier and full of wildlife. We saw quite a few agoutis scampering along the forest floor, and just as we neared the end of the trail, there were several titi monkeys. It was a fitting end, and pretty much put an exclamation point on our first two weeks in Colombia and South America. We were set to catch the overnight bus to Bogota that evening and ready start volunteering on a new farm, which I will tell you about next time.

A last, perhaps lasting, image to leave you with: One downside to Tayrona was that I suddenly became a tick magnet. The first we spotted on my ribs, there was another on my arm, and later on my thigh, but the worst was when I found one while showering. It seemed to be getting romantic with me. What a moment it was when Emma followed me into the bathroom with some tweezers from my Swiss Army knife. Sweet dreams to all.

Posted by jonathonengels 10:49 Archived in Colombia Tagged waterfalls beaches travel backpacking environment expat

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