One of the many perks of traveling in Colombia is that it’s so damn cheap for Americans. On average, I pay $10USD/night for a bed in a hostel dorm, and can find a private room for $20USD/night if I’m lucky. Meals on the street run me about $2, and a nice sit down meal ranges from $5-8USD. Local beers are less than a dollar. Touristy activities are similarly cheap, which is what led me back to Bucaramanga, eager to check out rock climbing and paragliding.
Another traveling friend (Lars) hooked me up with a local that he’d met in Santa Marta that happened to live in Bucaramanga. Carlos’ family had a “campo” (second house in the country) that was close to the rock climbing in the area and I graciously accepted an invite to escape the hostel life for a few nights and join him while he oversaw the construction of a hot tub. Every little thing in a foreign country can be a challenge sometimes, and when I’d successfully found the bus stop, boarded the right bus and was on my way I was happy. What I didn’t realize until the bus stopped at the last hostel on the route and tried to drop me off, that I passed the house 45 minutes ago. Oops. When I finally arrived, I told Carlos it’s hard being a gringa sometimes. 🙄
Not only was it great to have my own room, but it was also great to have a legit home cooked meal. I also learned that queso arequipe (cheese with caramel in the middle) is f’n delicious and arepas con cochinos are not chocolate arepas like I’d hoped but made from corn. You win some and you lose some I guess :). Carlos had a car, which meant I had zero chances to screw up transportation to the rock climbing spot. I ended up hiring a private guide and equipment (I was the only one going in the afternoon) for less than $30. Which is about what it costs if you want to go to the rock gym in Austin and boulder. Indoors. I did four climbs, that were just challenging enough to feel both accomplished and exhausted.
They say Colombians are some of the happiest people in the world, and after a night out in Bucaramanga I can see why. Saturday night Carlos had a friend that was having a going away party (who was actually moving to Atlanta) at a club/bar. The local drink is Agua Diente, and rather than each person ordering a drink here and there, it’s common for the group to go in on a bottle and then dole out mini shots as the ‘bartender’ sees fit. The ‘bartender’ is basically whoever in the group happens to have the bottle. It made it much more of a communal event, and I will say I was impressed with their willingness to take “no thanks” for an answer. We took mini shots of agua diente in between dancing and talking for a few hours until we moved to the “salsa” room (I can’t remember the name of the music in the first part of the bar, but it was much more upbeat and poppy but still in Spanish). In the salsa room, everyone knew every lyric to every song and they happily belted them out for a few more hours. I’ve never seen so many smiling, singing humans in one place. It was a great night out.
After a lazy day of sleeping in and then some quick paragliding ($25 for 15 minutes), I boarded a night bus for Santa Marta, a coastal town about 8 hours away.
Even after visiting, I’m not quite sure what Santa Marta is known for other than some popular landmarks outside of the city. I was entertained by urban mules that pulled impossibly heavy looking loads and an air conditioned shopping center where I was finally able to find some shoes with a minimal amount of bling to replace worn out flats. (I don’t get it, but every piece of clothing and shoe I’ve seen has at minimum 5 pieces of bling/jewelry or an excessive amount of sparkle. I’ve had similar problems finding a hair tie that doesn’t fall in the “scrunchie” category…). Rather than rush the popular Ciudad Perdida trek that originally put Santa Marta on my itinerary, I opted for a few chill days with some smaller adventures. The first was scuba diving in nearby Taganga, and second to check out nearby National Park Tayrona.
Two dives at the best rated dive shop in town cost me $60 USD; the pictures tell more of the scuba diving story than I could in words, so I’ll move onto Tayrona Park. Tayrona is known for its unique landscape where mountains meet sandy beaches. It’s much more populated and accessible than Cocuy; a quick, successful bus ride got me there in just 45 minutes. You are able to hike in just ~2-3 hours and sleep in a hammock or a rented tent, eat at a restaurant, and converse with your choice of a few hundred other tourists. Despite its popularity, it was fairly confusing to navigate some of the park logistics. Depending on your arrival time, you had to watch an informative video about the park and get a receipt proving that you had done so to buy a ticket. There’s not a sign for this. Then only one person per party is allowed to stand in line. There is also not a sign for this. (Side note–there were also a few dead looking cats sleeping around the ticket pavilion. I checked, they were alive but it has inspired me to start a new photo series called “animals that look dead but really aren’t”. Stay tuned). Anyway, once you get to the beach with the tents, they wait until 2pm to start doling them out, which means everyone lines up around 1:30 and stands in the sun for an hour waiting. Then a guy walks groups of ~10 people to the tents and folks can select their tent and show that it’s “taken” by zipping it up. I can think of 95 ways to make this better, but whatever. <end rant>.
The views of the park more than make up for it, as did a very cool hike up to a small ruins called Pueblito that used to be home for 2000 people and still has a small indigenous community living there. I met a few nice characters there as well and overall it was the perfect mix of relaxation, hiking and socializing. I spent one night in the park before returning to a different beach hostel and then making my way to Barranquilla for Carnaval!