Tag Archives: Santa Marta

Cool change

After bidding my good friend Scott a teary farewell on the side of the road in Santa Marta, I was having a quiet beer in the cool wooden bar of la Brisa Loca when I met André – a sexy young thang from Melbourne, who introduced himself to me as a painter. At first I thought he meant houses. But he meant paintings. He showed me his sketchbook. Turns out he’s a pretty talented aerosol artist.

We got chatting and hit it off well enough to decide to hang for the rest of the afternoon. We watched the sunset from the water’s edge, walked around the plaza and grabbed a bite to eat at a lil cafe which did a great fusion of Colombian and Mediterranean food.

Later we went back to the hostel for happy hour. A few rum & cokes and What Have You, and it ended up being quite the night. We met a top bloke from Cootamundra (drowning in Aussies over here) who I ended up hanging out with the next day.

Josh & I took a bus & then a motorbike right out of town to a local’s beach. Clean and virtually deserted. A man kept bringing us icy cold beers and later a huge tasty fish lunch. Why can’t they do deliveries on Bondi Beach? Bloody genius.

Next day I took a plane to Medellin and quite literally bumped into Piers as I was walking into a hostel. Another happy accident! Piers is one of the two gorgeous big blokes from Aus that Pinky had brought to Little Corn. I thought he was still up on the Caribbean coast, so it was a terrific surprise. He was travelling with his friend Tara from home and Sam from Switzerland. They were good banter so I kicked around with them for a few days. One afternoon, the boys accompanied me to the Modern Art Gallery which I rated. But outside is where it’s really at – there’s all this incredibly vibrant street art.

We also took an overnight trip to a quaint lil town called Guatapé, where we visited El Peñól. ‘Big Rock’. And it is. It reaches an elevation of 2,135m above sea level and weighs an estimated 10,000,000 tonnes (I’d love to know how they come to this figure). It is said to be 70 million years old.

On one side of the rock, in white paint there is a massive letter ‘G’ and part of the letter ‘U’. Apparently the two neighbouring townships of Guatapé and El Peñol had long disputed ‘ownership’ of the rock. The folk of Guatapé had decided to settle the matter by simply painting their name on the rock. As you do. The people of El Peñól naturally noticed the works in progress and put a stop to it.

We climbed 644 stairs for an amazing view. It’s strange, but this particular part of Colombia is reminiscent of rolling European landscapes. Not what I was expecting at all. But I like it.

We went our separate ways after that. They made their way back up the coast. I returned to Medellin but to a different hostel. Secret Buddha was a beautiful retreat way out of town. I met a lovely young Aussie chick by the name of Ginger (who is actually blonde) and her & I played nanas for a few days. Healthy food, zero booze and lots of early nights.

She left for Salento in Zona Cafetera a day before me. I met her in the Plantation House on Saturday night. Recommended by LP, I thought it a bit rubbish to be honest. I moved the next day to a beautiful eco-farm called La Serrana which is about 1.5ks out of town and I’ve been here ever since.

Salento is a small country town 1,895 m above sea level; population 7,500. The town itself consists of a big plaza and just a few streets of cafes, bars & souvenir shops. The latter can lend a bit of touristy feel to the place. But if you look around, it’s still a very traditional town in many ways. Lots of preserved colonial architecture and wrinkly old brown cowboys sitting around in ponchos.

I really like it here. Everyone says hello when they pass you in the street. It’s got a very relaxed vibe. In one of the most stunning settings. Expansive green mountains and wide open valleys, cloaked by cool grey clouds.

I took a ‘tour’ of a boutique family-owned coffee plantation and learned about the process of picking, drying, roasting, blending, brewing coffee. We spent the better part of the day with a gorgeous family. And got really jacked up on too many espressos. Gosh they were good!

I also did a big hike in the nearby Cocora Valley. I need to start getting fit again if I’m to take on the Inca Trail and other hikes around Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. This area is a great place to start.

The Cocora Valley is part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park. This valley is one of the main reasons folks come to visit this area. It is here the Quindio wax palms grow. The wax palm is the national tree & symbol of Colombia. These trees which can live up to 100 years old & grow up to 50m are the tallest palms in the world. There’s so many of them and they create this completely surreal landscape. It feels like you’re walking through a scene in Avatar.

I spent the next few days simply enjoying La Serrana. Taking short walks, reading, drinking lots of good coffee, cooking. It was in these first few days that I decided I really wanted to stay here. They have a program where you can volunteer in exchange for free accommodation, breakfast and ½ price dinners. I thought I could stop for a while & take some more Spanish lessons.

Then on the Thursday evening (15 March), I was offered an amazing opportunity to take part in a very special event…

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The way it is

Cartagena is surrounded by 11kms of stone wall which took the Spaniards more than 200 years to build in response to repeated attacks by pirates. According to LP, Cartagena was one of the most “important bastions of the Spanish overseas empire and influenced much of Colombia’s history.” Inside these walls there is a charming ‘old town’ whose cobblestone streets I had already roamed (and tripped up on) many times over the past two weeks. Despite feeling like I’d been there a bit too long, I was going to be more than happy to wander those streets again with my old friend, Scott.

I surprised him by meeting him at the airport. Lots of squealing and jumping up & down and hugs all round. Okay, I squealed and jumped up & down. We then checked into a pretty hotel with a rooftop pool & a cracking view of the entire city (his treat). And then it was Christmas! Well kinda.

I had asked Scott to bring me a bunch of things from back home. Vegemite (how could i have neglected to leave home without it?); Bonds knickers (because apparently I have the biggest ass in all of Latin America. Where the fuck do all the black ladies shop?); mini tampons (impossible to find over here); and Bushman’s bug repellent (so many jungles and only 7.5% DEET!?) Aaaand not to forget my brand spanking new Kindle! Books books and more books. I can download up to 1,000 I’m told. And it weighs just 290g! Did you know the LP South America on a Shoestring book weighs 830g? Every Gram Counts when you’re carrying 22kg on your back. Trust me.

We caught up over dinner in an alfresco Italian restaurant in the beautiful (albeit very touristy) Plaza Santo Domingo, where Botero’s Gordita (aka, the fat lady) lounges seductively right in front of the church. Nude! The saucy minx.

Next day, we visited the macabre Palacio de Inquisicion which houses a depraved collection of instruments of torture – including an Addams Family style stretching rack and an iron skullcap with a drill piece. My favourite article though, was the list of questions they used to ask women to determine if they were witches, such as: “What worms and caterpillars/slugs have you created?”

That afternoon, we had wine & cheese and watched the sunset from the rooftop. Much later (no one even thinks about going out until 1030pm over here) – we went to Club Havana. Flocked walls are adorned with antique lights and fading framed photos of legendary Cuban singers. An old timber U-shaped bar is surrounded by high stools. Waiters in white vests serve up the meanest mojitos I’ve ever imbibed. And later: another massive band on another teeny stage playing sassy salsa you just gotta shake yer stuff to.

Needless to say, nothing much got accomplished the next morning. We did manage to visit the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas high up on a hill later in the afternoon. It’s an interesting triangular shaped design with multiple layers, and is said to be impenetrable. Underneath there is a complex maze of tunnels which have incredible acoustics. At sunset, we had a couple of beers at Cafe del Mar before heading to a Japanese restaurant for sushi & sashimi and a lychee martini!

Next day we set off for a side trip along the Caribbean coast towards Venezuela.

I had heard Santa Marta wasn’t particularly special, so we just stopped for just one night. That eve, we had some excellent Spanish tapas & a local brew in a bar by the plaza. The next day we got some beach time in (confirming: nothing special) and went for a walk to a swish-looking restaurant at the top of a steep hill overlooking Rodadero.

I don’t think Scott was terribly impressed when we later boarded a non air-conditioned bus which wouldn’t have provided a midget with any legroom. Luckily the trip to Taganga was only an hour.

The place Scott had booked for us at Taganga was just gorgeous. We were very enthusiastically greeted by a very young, very pretty Colombian girl. She turned out to be the wife of the French owner, who was old enough to be her grandfather (standard.) He had extended his lovely family home with two casitas off to the side. A bougainvillea-lined pool provided sweeping views of the village & the bay.

Later that afternoon, I went for a walk downtown to organise a dive. Taganga is a tiny fishing village rampant with wannabe hippies, high on ganja selling, lots of very average looking jewellery. The township is a bit hot & dusty by day but quite pretty at dusk. It’s renowned for cheap-as-chips diving courses.

I went for a couple of dives the next morning. Windy as all get out on the way to the site, so we got absolutely drenched before even getting into the water. First dive in more than a year that I had to wear a wettie for (Have to say: not too keen on the sub 20 degrees water anymore). The vis wasn’t all that great, but the reef was in great condition. Loads of big ass fish (and a notable absence of lionfish). Plus I got to see a couple of slugs & other stuff I hadn’t seen before. So all good.

Next day we made our way to Tayrona National Park, where Scott continued to up the ante. We stayed here.

At the top of a winding old stone stairway, you are welcomed by not one, but two infinity pools – which guide your wide open eyes to the most spectacular vista of a deserted wild seascape. Our own private beach stretching on for ever. This folks, is what is known as “flashpacking”.

Considering there were only four suites, the place was massive. And there were soooo many things to lounge around on. Banana lounges. Day bed lounges. Living room lounges. There was even a suspended dugout canoe which had been converted to a lounge. It was filled to the brim with big soft poofy pillows of various shapes, sizes & colours. Clearly, I had died & gone to lounge heaven.

So, we lounged around. And ate beautiful gourmet meals. We also got to know the only other guests there: Dot & Wayne – an interesting Canadian couple who captained & care-took a luxury yacht for a wealthy Colombian entrepreneur.

The next day, Scott & I went for a walk into the Park which started with an unplanned ‘shortcut’ shown to us by our uncertain but well-intentioned hotel manager. We had to wade knee deep through a river and do a bit of bush-bashing through some light jungle. Fortunately our intrepid ‘guide’ escorted us all the way to the road otherwise we would have got lost for sure. He flagged down a local on a motorbike & arranged for him to take us to the road’s end. I told Scott it was an adventure. But I don’t think he believed me.

The walk through the park was just beautiful and at the end of the trail – the greenery gave way to these untamed beaches with craggy rock formations peppering the skyline. We had a quick dip in one of the bays but it was a bit seaweedy unfortunately. We turned around & walked back the way we came. Without the stupid shortcut bit.

The next day Scott booked himself on a flight back to Bogota with a view to returning to the States (and home) a lot earlier than planned. He had decided Colombia wasn’t for him.

In retrospect, I guess I could have prepped him a bit more as to the differences between the First World and Colombia. Stuff like: Toilet paper doesn’t go in the toilet. Electricity can be unreliable. WiFi even more so. The shower pressure isn’t always best. You won’t always get hot water. Sometimes you won’t even get water. I could have asked more questions as to what kind of holiday he wanted to have and planned a better itinerary. I always knew we would be different types of travellers. But I just figured it would be stuff we could easily work around.

So that was that. A week of fancy hotels, fancy cocktails, and fancy pools with views. I am grateful to Scott for his generosity (dormitory rooms and shared showers do lose their charm after 10 months on the road). But to be perfectly honest, I would have traded all the fancy for just more time & more laughs with one of my oldest friends. I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed.

We shared a taxi back to Santa Marta. On the edge of town, our cabbie organised for another driver to take me into Centro Historico, while he took Scott straight to the airport. And so I bid my best mate a teary farewell on the side of the road.

We’ll be all right at the end of the day. We love each other immeasureably. And have done for 25 years.  Scott & i will be friends until we’re old & wrinkly.

But it’s true what they say – that it’s not always easy to travel with friends. I think we can only happily travel with people who are very similar to us. Insofar as the places we want to see, how we get there, where we stay, how long for, how we spend our money, and probably most importantly – our overall outlook. Especially when things don’t pan out as we had anticipated. Because one thing’s for sure: they won’t.

And that’s when you just gotta say to y’self, “It’s an adventure!”