We got to Barranquilla (where there are no camping spots with power) and found a hostel with safe parking at a nearby restaurant with security overnight once the place closed. It is quite a modern city compared to Cartagena with wide boulevards, sidewalks and apartment buildings with a very different vibe. There is a lot of traffic, lots of shopping and plenty of hotels and restaurants.
We have a private room with a shared bath and good AC. We had groceries in Tigger so we made dinner in the kitchen there. That night we learned that Joe & Josée were also in Barranquilla having their vehicle repaired after some damage from their shipping container. They got to Colombia about two weeks before us. We, too, wanted to get a couple of things done (oil change, an electrical issue etc.) so we went over to the overlander mechanic favourite as well, called Iguana 4×4 in the morning and left Tigger there. We decided to spend another night here and join Joe and Josée for dinner that night to catch up and get tips for our trip up to the northern most point of South America that they had just completed. Tigger was able to spend the night safe inside at Iguana so we didn’t have to worry about parking that night.
That afternoon, we visited the Barranquilla Zoo, again not because we like zoos, but like Belize, there were some local fauna that you rarely get a chance to see in the wild (especially the singing cotton-topped tamarins that ONLY live in northwest Colombia where we cannot get to). It was a hot one but the zoo had lots of shade. It is a small zoo but has a fair number of residents. We not only saw the tamarins ( and three different kinds) but also the giant anteater and several birds. We had seen “giant anteater crossing” signs heading up here so it was nice to actually see one.
We returned to the hostel, showered and enjoyed some awesome pizza and cold beer with our friends sharing info and getting caught up with each other.
Thursday, we picked up Tigger and headed up towards Santa Marta (another Caribbean port city of Colombia) and as there is no place to stay there either we went 4km up the road to a fishing village with lots of hostels called Taganga and parked at Sierra Ventura (recommended by Josée) and met Nico, the Belgian owner, who made us feel very welcome. We were able to park out front and using our heavy duty extension cord, get good enough power to run the AC – always a plus! Nico spent most of his life in South Africa in Nelspruit near Kruger National Park so we had stories to share.
This hostel has good amenities: bathrooms, showers, Wi-Fi, a bar and a pool that is actually cool not bathtub warm. We enjoyed a swim and some reading time before dinner and a short walk after dinner down to the waterfront where there are several restaurants and bars as well as plenty of souvenir vendors.
Friday, Fran wanted to take it easy as she still seems to have a tummy bug of some sort so she’s restricting her diet and started taking some Imodium. Doug went for walks and we both enjoyed some internet and pool time in the hostel. We had laundry done at the house next door as well – much cheaper than in Cartagena too.
We decided to catch the bus into Santa Marta on Saturday to see El Centro. The local bus cost 1600COP (around 50 cents) and it took about fifteen minutes to get to the malecon part of the city. The weather was mostly sunny and, of course, darn hot! Santa Marta is one of the oldest cities in the continental western hemisphere; founded in 1525 and is the gateway to the Sierra Nevada Mountains – one of the highest coastal mountains in the world (the only higher ones are the Saint Elias Mountains in Canada). This range is not part of the Andes range.
Note: Santa Marta was also the gateway for football (soccer) to enter the Americas. It was brought by English sailors who kicked a ball around on the beach. Children would kick around a ball of cloth on teams and soccer was born!
We wandered through the streets, checking out the squares, the old cathedral and found a Museum of Gold here as well. This museum is housed in the old Customs building was free and told the history of the indigenous people of the area and their use of land and the local gold. Some of the rooms were air conditioned and this was a welcome respite.
After a yummy Subway sandwich, we returned to the place we’d been dropped off hoping to catch the bus back to Taganga but never saw it. Doug asked a young woman about it and she said she was heading there too and it should come soon. Then her friend, a German man, came over and said we’d be having to catch two buses: one to the station and then the one to Taganga so if the four of us split a cab, it wouldn’t cost much more and we’d get there faster so we agreed and he flagged one down. Ulrich lives in Bulgaria but works in maritime security and is currently on assignment in Venezuela; he’d flown to Santa Marta and was visiting the area for a quick break with this lady friend.
Saturday thru Tuesday we hung around the hostel debating our next move. We want to head up the north coast of Colombia to the most northerly tip of the continent but it’s remote and we are advised not to travel alone so we have put out feelers in the hopes of finding another overlander to caravan with us. A guide is also recommended; you either follow one or bring him along in your vehicle and he finds his own accommodations at the point (Punta Gallinas). So Joe & Josée gave us their guide’s name and at the very least, we can reach out to him and bring him along. There are apparently indigenous “tolls” along the route and the roads are not well defined. We did receive from Hernando at Iguana 4×4 in Barranquilla, Garmin maps for these roads so we are torn between waiting for others to join us, and/or using a guide or going it alone. The Guajira peninsula is desert and sparsely populated so that brings with it, certain risks as well.
Saturday morning Fran was doing stuff in the rig and when she came out to go into the hostel, her sandals, that she had left outside the door, were gone – our first theft; guess someone needed them more than she did. Luckily they were older and when she was back in the US last month, she’d gotten a new pair so all is good.
Observation: we notice that Colombia has a lot more cats wandering around than any other Latin American country we’ve visited so far. The hostel has a few resident ones and there are plenty in town as well. This little guy loved to sleep under Tigger.
So Tuesday night we decided we’d head into the mountains to the town of Minco the next day only to awaken to dark skies and although we began to unhook, Nico came out as we were filling with water and said major storms were coming (due to Hurricane Bert) and Minco was going to be a mess and the tours in that area are closed for at least today so we decided to hang here another day or two; not a hardship.
The town of Taganga, like many Latin American towns, has no municipal water system so water is brought it tanker trucks daily and people’s home tanks are filled. When we asked Nico for water, he said of course, but when he told us how much water he goes through in a week (remember, there is a pool here), we offered to pay for filling out tanks but as we told him he’s not charging enough for camping and we are going to pay more, he said water would be free.
By the time we filled the tank, the rain had started. Another reason we wanted to leave was to stock up but again, Nico, to the rescue; he is going into Santa Marta to the big mall and said we could come along; such a nice host.
So Nico took us and a young Dutch couple, Ana and Tieth, to the big mall in Santa Marta so we could shop and see if we wanted to take in a movie on this unpredictable wet day but all movies were lame and in Español only not subtitled. We did our shopping and as we were checking out Ana and Tieth showed up and we all shared a cab back to the hostel. As we drove into the village, we saw blue patches of sky and it seemed brighter outside; so far not much rain but the mountains look socked in. It did rain pretty hard a couple of times in the late afternoon and evening so it justified hanging around another night or two.
Thursday we both walked for a good while in the morning as the sky cleared up and then spent another afternoon by the hostel pool. We decided to gather up more laundry and get things done before we leave here (hopefully tomorrow) so we start with a clean slate. There is a chance we may stop here again enroute to the northern coast but we’ll see how the next few days go. Colombia is a big country and we’ve only just scratched the surface; all of Central America could pretty much fit in Colombia and that took us over a year to explore!
So Friday we took the leap; we left Taganga but will probably come back on our way through to the north. We arrived in Minco, which is at about 600M – 1000ft, before lunch and arranged for some “moto taxis” to take us up into the mountains before dawn to see the peaks of the Sierra Nevadas. Like many mountain views, you gotta get up there before the clouds come in.
Then we arranged for two others to take us to a chocolate/coffee farm for a tour. It was about a twenty minute ride up the hill then a fifteen minute walk into the “finca”. The previous tour was just ending so we had to wait almost a half hour for the next one. The coffee and chocolate tours turned out to be separate and since are not coffee drinkers, but chocolate lovers, we took only the latter. La Candeleria is run by the third generation Colombian family and the current owner and his wife do the tours. We were taken outside first to see the cacao plant and then had to rush back inside as it began to rain quite hard. We were given a wonderful explanation of the process and the owner even had a mini roasting machine in which he roasted some beans and he made us hot chocolate from them.
This is an organic farm so everything is done in line with those principles and no sugar is added to their products (but there can be honey, stevia, agave and maple syrup). We were given a piece of ginger chocolate, some fresh bananas and an avo to take home. The tour took about an hour and at the end we were treated to some freshly made hot chocolate and then seated in rocking chairs outside enjoying the view (weather had cleared by this time) and given chocolate facials!
Our moto taxis arrived and took us back to Tigger (which was parked in a parking lot in the village that allows overnighting) and we had lunch before the same drivers, Elkin and Jimi, took us to Cascada de Marinka, some waterfalls in the other direction from town. It was about a ten minute walk uphill from where they dropped us and we enjoyed a dip in the cold pool at the bottom of the falls before returning once again to Tigger.
We sat for a while and read and settled in for an early night as we had to get up at 3:30 the next morning.
Saturday morning (if you call 4AM) morning, Armando and Manuel, were waiting for us and we hopped on the back of the motorcycles for the two hour ride up into the mountains towards Cerro Kennedy. We drove through the El Dorado reserved which is a famous bird sanctuary, but it was even too early for the birds; we only saw a few grouse on the road. There was a lookout point where we could see the lights of both Barranquilla and Santa Marta.
We arrived at the Mirado just after six and we were granted a spectacular view of the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevados. The highest peaks are Bolivar and Colon (5775M – 17500ft) and sadly, the snow up there is melting so not as many snowcapped peaks as in years past. The fog began to roll in shortly but the sun was coming up and it burned it off before covering the peaks. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. We were up at 2400M/7500ft and it was quite cool but we had been warned and came dressed in long pants/sleeves and jackets.
At the second lookout we saw a green macaw flying way down below and heard many bird as well as saw a few small flocks.
(sadly, not our pic)
There are cell phone towers up here (surprise, surprise) and the man that works in the one closet to the lookout made us hot drinks and from his little home on the other side of the mirador, you could see the ocean. Cerro Kennedy is further up the trail but involves some tough hiking and there is a military base up there, so chances of getting to the summit are slim.
On the ride down, we stopped a few times trying to see birds but although we heard many, including toucans, we saw few. We stopped at a small tienda which usually has many hummingbirds but today only one was visiting.
We also tried stopping at the El Dorado lodge only to find out you MUST stay one night in order to spend any time on the reserve; bummer.
We got back to Tigger around 10:00 (very glad to get off the bikes!) and after organizing some stuff, hit the road to go back to the hostel in Taganga. The music nearby last night kept us up later than we’d hoped (and we had no power for AC to drown it out) and there are no services at this place so for the same money we can get all we need at Sierraventura.
We arrived at the hostel to find the owner’s vehicle in “our spot” so we parked on the street and hung out inside. They moved the vehicle in the late afternoon and we enjoyed two more nights here before really hitting the road on Monday. We only went 40km to the other side of Tayrona National Park and camped at a little site we’d found on iOverlander called San Martin which is basically the yard of a very small community. They shared their bathroom/showers with us and offer power and water, no internet but it was cheap. There is a river alongside the property to cool off in and we decided we’d walk in to the ocean. Pedro told us it was possible via the river and it was less than a kilometre. Well it turned out to be over a mile and it was in and out of the river. When we got to the coast, it was pretty wild – not suitable for swimming and the national park is on one side and a private resort on the other with no access further along the beach AND to top it all off, there is a caiman sanctuary where the river meets the ocean!
We hung around a little while then carefully (watching behind us once in a while) made our way back up the river to San Martin. The power supply was not really strong so our AC kicked in and out a few times until it got late but still not as strong as it should be so neither of us slept well.
Now we head to the northern most point of South America – Punta Gallinas!