Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten lots of destination-related questions. I love fielding these questions – I could talk about the places I went for days on end. Not that I don’t also love helping with backpack choices and solo travel tips, but the locations themselves are what drive us all.
So I figured why not post what I’ve responded to the question, “Where should I go?” It might be useful to other people and a good place to point friends to in the future. Plus I just can’t imagine answering the other most-asked question, “What was your favorite place?” How could it ever be possible to pick one place? I’ve been able to narrow it down to some highlights but even then I feel like I’m leaving out so much. This is probably the closest I can come to any kind of “top places” list.
So here they are, my “where you should go” recommendations:
I will always tell people to go to South America. I spent three and a half months there and personally preferred it to the other regions. As I traveled I found myself constantly wondering how expensive flights were from Asia to South America, and this wonder has not ceased now that I’ve returned. Actually South America is part of the reason I came back to the US – it was unreasonable to go straight from Japan so I planned to go by way of the US. Some of the places that I recommend looking into are:
- Colombia. I will never stop loving Colombia and it’s one of the first places I want to go back to. The Caribbean Coast is gorgeous and hot, the cities are fun, and the mountains great to explore. It has lots to offer and some of the friendliest people.
- The Amazon. The Amazon in Brazil, just outside of Manaus, were 6 of the best days of my trip. It’s not an easy itinerary, at least the one we did since we slept in hammocks in the jungle and caught our own dinners (piranha, peacock bass, etc.), but it’s a very cool experience. Plus if you go here then you can go through Rio, which is a fantastic city.
- Buenos Aires. One of my favorite cities in the world. If you want a more urban trip definitely go here – drum shows, theater performances, weekend markets, insane nightlife, delicious food. There’s also some low-key escapes depending on how long you’re there, like the Tigre and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.
- The Salt Flats in Bolivia and the Atacama Desert in Chile. If you want otherworldly nature go here. The Salt Flats is a three-day tour through landscapes that don’t look like they should be real, and the desert is a Mars-like playground for sandboarding, hiking, biking, and stargazing.
- Machu Picchu. This is a bit of a bonus since I did not go there on this RTW trip – I was there in 2012 with friends – but it is still one of my top South America experiences so it just didn’t feel right to leave it off this list. We did the 4 day/3 night Inca Trail through SAS travel – our guides knew everything and told stories along the way, we had really good food, and the hike was the perfect mixture of challenging and fun. Plus Cusco is a great place to spend a few days acclimatizing.
Having said all that, you can’t go wrong in Asia either, of course. A lot of people are intrigued by the extreme difference of the culture in Asia and I was right there with them. Some of my favorite experiences happened in Asia. Here are my recommendations:
- The Temples of Angkor/Siem Reap, Cambodia. Another one of the best weeks of my trip. The architecture is stunning, and spending your day on a tuktuk riding past ruins is pretty amazing. Siem Reap has a fun streak to it on Pub Street but it’s really all about Angkor here. I would love to go back to Cambodia and get to Koh Rong on the coast, every backpacker’s favorite beach. Also depending on the length of your trip you could add Laos, which has great outdoor activities to offer but wouldn’t be the first place in Asia I would recommend. I do want to go back though; I was pleasantly surprised by that country.
- Myanmar. Like everyone says, go now, before tourism totally changes it. This country just opened up a few years ago and you can already see the changes, and how it’s not ready to handle them yet. But the people are the kindest I met anywhere and the scenery is beautiful. It will be vastly different from home though so that has to be something you’re okay with.
- I hesitate to recommend Northern Thailand because I had a really different experience there at a festival, but the time I spent in Chiang Mai was great and with everything I’ve heard about Pai it’s one of the places I most want to get to next time I’m there. Most people I met traveling in Southeast Asia put this at the top of their list. If you happen to be planning a Southeast Asia trip in February go to Shambhala.
- Another qualified recommendation is Vietnam. Some people love it, some hate it. I had a different time there due to a family visit but if you’re curious about it then it’s worth checking out. Hanoi was good and Halong Bay/Lan Ha Bay were spectacular. Plus it had the best cheapest food and coffee of my entire trip.
- Japan, especially Tokyo. Fascinating culture, energetic cities, gorgeous landscapes, friendly people, efficient travel, and the best food, there’s no way to go wrong in Japan. Tokyo was actually my favorite, despite the popular opinion that Kyoto is best, for its quirkiness, modernity, and variety of activities. If you have time try to make it to the island of Kyushu – it’s much more low-key but still wonderfully Japanese.
Lastly, New Zealand. Of the Australasia portion of my trip I preferred New Zealand. The scenery is unbeatable, the adventures are endless, and the atmosphere is so chill it’s hard to ever want to leave. I still play with the idea of moving to Wanaka for a while. Go to Wanaka! I love that place. And the Abel Tasman Coast Track. And Milford Sound.
If anyone has any more questions about locations (or anything) just ask! I love talking travel, obviously, and am more than happy to help if I can.
Medellin. I have had a hard time writing this post, and I’m not entirely sure why. It could have to do with a few different factors: 1) I spent 6 days there, so there’s a lot to talk about; 2) my opinion on the city wavered, starting a little negative but improving toward the end; 3) I had two friends from San Francisco in town, and while it was awesome at the time, now at almost 3 months away from SF it does make me a little sad to think about; or 4) Medellin was my goodbye to Colombia, a country I thoroughly enjoyed, and to some extent it was also my goodbye to planned travel; I had no idea what trajectory I would take to get to Bolivia.
So having prefaced this post with all of that, I’ll try to summarize my feelings on the week as best I can.
Medellin is a metropolis. Probably the most modern city in Colombia, it has come a long way in recent years. It is loved by travelers and we are loved by it; people wanted to talk to us, take pictures with us, and welcome us to their city.
My initial impression was not positive. It was crowded, dirty, with main attractions running alongside shady areas. I witnessed fights being broken up by cops and thieves running en mass away from who knows what, all while touring the popular sites. Everything seemed further away than it initially looked on the map. It was still effing hot. Parque Lleras, the main place to go out, consisted of groups of foreigners trickling in together looking confused, eliciting the reaction: “A new hostel just got here.” Everyone wandered around looking for fun and found not much of anything. And to top it off, we were there during the Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival), supposedly the biggest cultural event of the year, and we didn’t see it anywhere or feel any sort of excited energy.
Where was the amazing city I’d heard so much about? “Medellin is the best! You’ll love it!” “It’s my favorite city, I have to go back.” “Nightlife is unreal! Medellin is so much fun!”
Maybe this was the problem. I had heard so much hype about how amazing Medellin was that I was initially disappointed. So I took a step back, got out of town for a day, and resumed my exploration of the city with Andy (when he didn’t have work anymore) and Matt (when he was awake).
Then things started to improve. We had a great weekend that balanced tourist activities and general city wandering. Friday we did the free walking tour, which was informative without being drawn out. Saturday we took the Metrocable up to Parque Arvi; the view is truly worth it, and leaves a mixed impression of awe at the scale of the city with unsettling at the conditions that people are living in. It was entirely worth seeing. Plus the market at the park was a highlight; a great place to get gifts and local treats. That afternoon we spent an hour or two just enjoying a beer in a bamboo garden, catching up. Sunday we searched for a place to play tejo, unsuccessfully (I guess I will never get to try this game, sigh), and ended up watching a local soccer game before going to the Flower Festival parade. The parade was actually really enjoyable – we finally found the festival! We watched some of the silleteros walk by carrying their impressive flower displays on their backs, and we wandered the streets with other locals enjoying this big celebration. This was my last night, so Andy, Matt and I made dinner at the hostel and just hung out, something that was so comfortably fun for me with friends from home.
The weekend was also a big improvement for the nightlife. Thursday night happy hour at the Tres Cordilleras brewery gave us a chance to taste all their beers, ones with actual flavor like wheats and IPAs (something I probably appreciated more since I’d been drinking the local watery-flavored beer of Brazil and Colombia for weeks) and Friday night out around Parque Lleras was much more what we were expecting. The only downside was the nightly rain; it would’ve been much better if everyone didn’t have to run and hide in packed bars, we still didn’t feel like we got the true Parque Lleras experience.
By the end, I did enjoy Medellin. It took me a little while to warm up to it, but the city does have a lot to offer. It took just wandering through some new neighborhoods to get there, but that’s how I have been enjoying cities anyway. The center was full of stories and interesting locations but it didn’t seem livable. Getting outside of the center helped tone down the city.
As for having Andy and Matt around, I am so happy they came while I was there. It has been great to have had friends around for parts of this journey, and I hope it continues. But leaving them I knew that I didn’t have anyone joining me again until December, so it was a strange feeling to say goodbye. It felt a lot more final than goodbyes had before. It didn’t help that this coincided with a lot of events at home that are hard to miss – Outside Lands, a close friend’s bachelorette weekend, and prep for Burning Man. All at the 2 months of travel mark, where it’s no longer a vacation and now a life.
I’ve had more time to process this and move on from Medellin and, as evidenced by a recent post from Quito, I am ok with it. Yes I am sad to miss these events, but I know that what I’m doing is right for me right now, and that these friends will be in my life for so much longer that a year away won’t make any difference in the end.
And lasty, leaving Medellin I entered a period of uncertainty: no plans to meet up with people, no planes or hostels booked, and an itinerary that was changing every day. I didn’t know what country I would be in by the end of the week, let alone what city or how I was getting there. That may sound kind of crazy, but it actually feels not just exciting, but like it’s about damn time I just wing it. For anyone who’s been reading along, this probably sounds a little bit like when I left Rio, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that this feels bigger. But it also means that Medellin has become another marker along this year of adventure, and I’m sure it’s not the last.
The trip out to El Peñon and Guatapé from Medellin is so easy to do on public transportation that there really is no excuse not to go, even for just a day trip. It takes about 2 hours (and COP 12,000) by bus from Medellin’s Terminal del Norte, and this bus will actually drop you off at the gas station at the bottom of El Peñon – a helpful tip that was not mentioned in my guidebook. From here it’s a short uphill walk to the entrance, a COP 10,000 ticket, and you’re ready to climb 740 stairs to the top of a gigantic granite rock (the sign says 659 but to the tippy top of the tower is actually 740).
The walk went surprisingly quickly, and the entire time I was just impressed with the feat of engineering that is these steps. They’re fit into a crevice in the rock, winding back and forth as you ascend. The descent is an additional staircase further inside the rock.
The view at the top is beautiful: green mountains and a network of lakes stretch before you for miles. Colombia is stunning. Just a few days ago I was on the beach, and now I was staring at rolling hills as far as the eye can see. Amazing. After a leg-shaking-inducing trek back down, it’s easy to catch an intensely colorful little bus straight into Guatapé (only COP 3,000).
Guatapé has to be the cutest town in the world. The streets are lined with colorful houses decorated with patterns and balconies, accompanied by decorative streetlamps. Its cathedral has so much character on the outside and a beautiful wood interior accented with stained glass. Even the tuk-tuks are adorable.
And what is that delectable aroma wafting through the air? Guatapé may also be the sweetest smelling town; I wanted to immediately consume whatever was creating that smell, but had no idea what it was. If anyone out there knows, please tell me.
I can see how people want to spend more time here – the lake offers a range of activities from jetskis to ziplines to multi-tiered boats with music and chairs and tables; I can only assume those are accompanied by booze. I could have also easily just sat at an outdoor table in the main square and enjoyed an afternoon of micheladas. But for me this was only a day trip, I had friends and Thursday night in Medellin to get back to. It was well worth making the trip out though just to see this charming town and lake-filled mountainous landscape.
I finally experienced long bus travel in South America – from Medellin, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador. It had its highs and lows, and is not my favorite way of traveling by any means, but given the cost efficiency and frequency of bus options it will continue to be a means of transport for me. Hopefully though future trips will be a little more like the buses everyone raves about with smooth rides and luxury accommodations.
It started out nice enough. Jasmin and I got to the Terminal del Sur in Medellin about an hour early for the 2:30 bus. Then we found out that bus was full, and we had to get on the 5:30 one. Well shit. After a little wandering we settled into the waiting room around 2:25 to get comfortable for our three hour wait. We could see the 2:30 bus outside getting ready to go; I turned to Jasmin and said, “I keep holding out hope that they’ll have two empty seats and someone will come get us and tell us to get on the bus.” I kid you not, two minutes later that exact thing happened. What luck! The bus had two seats and the driver saw us waiting, so he checked our tickets and told us to just get on. Phew! A few minutes later we were on our way to Ipiales.
Ipiales, Colombia is on the border with Ecuador, which is a 20 hour bus ride from Medellin. The ride wasn’t as bad as it sounds really: the scenery alone is reason enough to travel by bus, it was beautiful; they showed movies (in Spanish, but I got what was going on); we stopped quickly for dinner/a bathroom break; the temperature was ok as long as you were prepared for it, it got a little cold overnight; and the seats reclined enough for a solid 11 hours of sleep (thanks to Melatonin and ear plugs). There was an unfortunate stretch in the middle of the night when we stopped in Popayan and the lights were on for a while, and then the road get incredibly bumpy, but I managed to sleep through most of it.
Around 11 am we arrived in Ipiales. We joined forces with three other travelers to get across the border. First we took a shared bus to immigration for our exit stamp. Then we walked down the road into Tulcan, Ecuador. As if taking a taxi to get into Colombia wasn’t strange enough, now I have literally walked out of one country and into a new one. Within minutes we said bye to Colombia and were at immigration getting our entry stamps for Ecuador.
We decided to change our money here with one of the very legitimate cambio vendors (sense the sarcasm). Ecuador uses US currency, except that their coins are a mixture of US coins and Ecuadorian versions of US coins. After being away from US dollars for 7 weeks it was strange to see them again, especially in a border town in Ecuador. Being the only American, it was my duty to make sure the bills we were given were real. They were, and after we haggled an exchange rate we took a 75 cent shared ride to the bus terminal to get on another bus to Quito.
It’s 5 hours from Tulcan to Quito, and it cost $5. I did not mistype that – it actually cost $5 to go 5 hours. The general rule of thumb with bus travel in Ecuador is $1 per 1 hour. We were all happy at our new-found wealthiness in Ecuador. Of course there is a reason for this; the buses left a lot to be desired, and they frequently stopped for basically an entire market to come on selling a variety of snacks and drinks. Still though, it wouldn’t have been too bad if it wasn’t for the traffic.
All we were told was that we had been diverted from the main highway into Quito and it would take an extra hour. That hour passed slowly with bumper to bumper traffic barely moving, and then when we thought we were finally almost there we were diverted again, making a U-turn to find a new way into the city. You can imagine everyone’s annoyance at this point. But then the driver turned on the radio for everyone to hear: there had been a 5.1 magnitude earthquake about an hour outside of Quito. 2 people had died in a mine and others in were critical condition.
We felt awful. Now we were concerned about the state of the city, if there would be aftershocks, had any new information on the injured been released. Suddenly we realized that the entire city was in a bad state and our prolonged bus ride was just a minor side issue.
We arrived in Quito around 8:30 at night in the South Terminal; coming from the north, we had driven around the entire city to enter at the south, the only place roads were open to get in. Starving and exhausted after 30 hours of travel, we took a cab to the first hostel listed in our Lonely Planet guidebook and luckily got a room. The receptionist said they were still expecting aftershocks but those never came. (Later addition: They did in fact come the next day, but nothing too major. After being in Quito everything was okay again, it was just the unfortunate news from the mines). They recommended a place for a quick dinner, where we gladly scarfed down a delicious calzone and a beer. It wasn’t hard to fall asleep that night.
My first bus experience was honestly not as bad as it could have been, but it wasn’t a walk in the park either. I am looking into not leaving Ecuador by land but it will come down to timing and price. Honestly this portion of my trip is still pretty up in the air. I just know that at some point next week I’ll be on buses again in Peru and Bolivia.
But for now, I have made it to Ecuador! After the great experiences I had in Colombia and Brazil, I am curious to see if South America continues to deliver in this next country.
I have had a random fascination with Cartagena ever since I watched Joan Wilder try to get to Cartagena with Jack Colton in search of treasure and to save her sister in Romancing the Stone. I realize I just admitted that to a lot of people, but it’s the truth. So when I decided to go to Colombia I knew I had to stop in Cartagena to see what all the fuss was about. It also helps that by now I had learned it was the most well preserved and beautiful colonial town in Colombia.
Every street in the Old Town of Cartagena could be on a postcard. It’s the kind of town where you just wander around all day trying to get lost – not very easy in such a tiny town – staring at the buildings, balconies, flowers, doors, streets, colors, and anything else in your surroundings, trying to take it all in. I had to tell myself to just stop trying to take pictures because they would never do it justice. How many pictures of adorable streets can you take? I could’ve documented the whole town.
The wall surrounding the Old Town is also great to walk along. It’s a unique perspective to see the city from about 2 or 3 stories up, sometimes above buildings and sometimes at the middle of them. The wall is so thick that it’s a hub of activity, from biking to running to sitting in openings enjoying the view of the ocean. At night people gather along the wall to watch the sunset. It’s amazing how sunset is such an activity while traveling. Everyone said you have to get to the wall in Cartagena for sunset, much like watching it from the hammock in Casa Elemento, the rocks in Cabo San Juan del Guia, the roof in Taganga, Monserrate in Bogota, the river in the Amazon, and Sugarloaf in Rio. It goes to show that even with abundant manmade attractions in the world, nature is still the main attraction.
I spent my first day in Cartagena doing just this – wandering the city, reading in shady Plaza Bolivar, watching the sunset with a beer on the wall. Then I woke up for my second day and wondered what I would do. The thing about Cartagena is that, as pretty as it is, it takes less than a day to see all you have to in the city. The rest of the time in Cartagena people go out of the city to beaches like Playa Blanca or the mud volcano. I opted not to do these, seeing how I’d just jumped around all week and knew that Medellin would be a costly next stop. So I spent my second day doing not much at all; some time in the hostel, a little more Old Town wandering, and hanging out in a popular square with some people from the hostel.
I am happy I went to Cartagena. It is worth a visit, but everyone had the same general consensus: it is a family vacation town. I think my sunset experience sums it up well: there is a restaurant that is on everyone’s must do lists for Cartagena, Cafe Del Mar, that is right on the wall and supposed to be the best place to watch sunset. I went there, but instead of going into the restaurant I joined the other budget-conscious people sitting on the wall just next door to the restaurant drinking a COP3,000 (US$1.50) Club Colombia beer from the guy with the cooler. The hotels and nice restaurants in the Old Town were beautiful, and if I had the funds to stay there and venture out to activities in the area it would be lovely. It’s just not the best backpacker town.
The one thing that does make it good for backpackers is the nightlife. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon and stayed at Hostel Mamallena on Calle Media Luna in Getsemani (which I definitely recommend; friendly staff, nice outdoor lounging area, A/C in the rooms at night, and a great location. Just watch out for the parrot, she bites.) This street is full of hostels and bars, and on a Saturday night it is the place to go out. We wandered down to the nearby Plaza Trinidad, where hoards of tourists and locals alike hang out at night, drinking and eating street food from the stands. We heard live salsa in the famous Cafe Havana and had tasty mojitos from an expat’s bar nearby. Everyone was out till after the bars closed enjoying the warm night.
The warm night because Cartagena is sweltering during the day. This coast was really wearing me down with the heat. It was time to get back into the mountains.
One of the things that has fascinated me about Colombia is the variety of landscapes throughout the country; it reminds me of one of the reasons I like California so much. The transition from Parque Tayrona to Minca is a perfect example.
I started my morning eating breakfast on the beach, hiked 2 hours through jungle terrain in already humid heat (at 8-10am), and after a few transportation adventures I was up in the cool mountains overlooking forest by noon. It was a complete change in environment in less than half a day, and a welcomed one considering the temperature and humidity drop in the hills. Since I did this trip I’ve been asked which of these locations I prefer, Parque Tayrona or Minca, and I honestly can’t say. They’re so very different and both wonderful in their own ways. If I had to choose though, I have always been more of a mountain than a beach person, so Minca might get the slight edge here. Just barely.
When I left the park I knew I had a lot of transportation ahead of me: to get to Minca, I had to get a shuttle out of the park, back on the bus an hour to Santa Marta, get dropped off somewhere on the highway before entering the city to find a mototaxi to take me to Minca, and get another mototaxi from there up to Casa Elemento, the hostel I was staying in that is another 30ish minute ride up the mountain above Minca. While waiting for the shuttle, resting after I more or less ranwalked the path out, luck decided to help me out.
My hostel in Taganga had offered to send a cab to come pick me up at the Santa Marta airport, and in a moment of laziness I accepted and was picked up by Edgardo. Edgardo was very nice, despite the language barrier (like pretty much all Colombians, even if you don’t speak Spanish and they don’t speak English, they will still try to have a conversation with you), and he happened to be at the parking lot in Tayrona where the shuttle picks up just when I got there. I have no idea why. He recognized me and said hi, and asked if I was going back to Taganga; I told him no Minca, and he offered to take me there for double what public transportation would cost. I politely declined and he was on his way out when he rolled down his window and offered to take me and the couple behind me to exactly where we wanted to go in Santa Marta for COP10,000 per person, only 2,000 more than public transportation and this way I was dropped off at the mototaxi stand and them at their hostel. The three of us talked it over for a second, the first time I’d even talked to these people since we weren’t together at all, and we all decided it was a great deal. Colombians, always impressing with their friendliness.
At the mototaxi stand Edgardo made sure I got a good deal and a driver that would take me directly to Casa Elemento. The road to get there is continuously uphill, incredibly bumpy and took over an hour. But riding up on the back of a random motorbike made this an adventure. Even though it’s still a little strange sitting so close to someone you don’t know and entrusting them with your life on a mountain road, it’s a much more fun way to go than regular car. (The way back down I hiked with a few new hostel friends and it took about 2 hours. Empanadas have never tasted so good as when we reached Minca at the end of that trek.)
Casa Elemento – how do I describe this place? Recommended initially by Spencer, and then later by so many more travelers, it’s a place whose popularity is owed to word of mouth, which means a lot in the travel world. It’s disconnected from modern life, it doesn’t have wifi and probably never will, power outages are likely and the shower is never warm, and your only agenda is to lay on a tube in the small pool, go adventuring in the next door jungle, or relax on the world’s largest hammock. Yes, world’s largest hammock. This 16’x16′ net fits 10 people and is suspended out from the hill so you really feel like you’re floating above the trees. From here you can see down to Minca and all the way to Santa Marta on the coast; a magical scene as the sun sets and the cities light up.
Casa Elemento is run by 4 owners and a group of volunteers who do everything from tend bar to cook meals and clean, living in tents or a treehouse on the property. When I arrived a volunteer asked me if I’d like a drink, and after my long hot morning of travel nothing sounded better than a shandy (don’t ask my why, this was the first thing that came to mind) but all they had was pineapple juice, so I poured my beer into the juice and had a new Colombian version – I have to say, it was a pretty tasty concoction. After relaxing for a bit I joined Craig and Nikki, two volunteers, and two other guests for a fruit foraging expedition. This sounded like a relaxing walk but I should have known better when they grabbed the machetes; it turned into an hour and a half jungle hike/canyoning trek. It was awesome. We walked out from the hostel and adventured around the surrounding forest, climbing up and down muddy slopes and rocks and through thick grasses. We were successful in picking limes, weird bumpy lemons, and some unfortunately sour oranges; we were not so lucky with avocados – they grow there too but we couldn’t find any. The lemons and limes made for some great drinks later in the night though. In addition to all the readily accessible fruit in the area, Casa Elemento also grows coffee right on the property. This was the best coffee I’ve had so far. Andrew, an owner, was joking with me that their coffee doesn’t have a carbon footprint just a human one.
When we got back the hostel had filled up significantly, so I took my rum and lemon juice drink out to the hammock and watch the sunset with the other guests. We all had a family style dinner, spaghetti bolognese, and hung out at the bar until the morning hours. The next day was more lounging and reading until we decided to walk down and get back to civilization (aka Taganga for one more night, so only sort of civilization).
The vibe at Casa Elemento was so chill it was another place I was tempted to stay longer. This is actually how most of the volunteers end up there; they heard about it and came for a visit, and just decided to stay for a while. It is a relaxed, unencumbered lifestyle where most of your time is spent hiking or just hanging out. My parting words to everyone working there were: “See you in March!” So if after this trip is over you hear I’ve gone back to Colombia, come visit me at Casa Elemento. I’ll make you a Colombian shandy or rum and freshly foraged lemon juice.
Next stop on the Caribbean tour was Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona (Tayrona National Natural Park). Since Taganga was focused on diving, Tayrona was supposed to be my beach time. It was recommended by pretty much everyone who’s ever been to Colombia and it definitely lived up to the hype.
Getting to Parque Tayrona was an adventure of local transportation. First I took a bus from Taganga to Santa Marta, and got dropped off nowhere near the bus to Tayrona. At least in my accidental tour of Santa Marta looking for the bus I got to see the town and pick up a cheap lunch (jamon y queso pan for COP2500 that lasted for 3 meals!). After walking around, sweating profusely, I ventured through a market that I hoped was Mercado Publico, aka where the bus would be. It was full of locals and looked like somewhere I probably shouldn’t be but I soldiered on in faith that I would find it. I was about to turn back when I saw a clearing up ahead and a bus parked on the side of the road. I reached it and saw the sign: P. Tayrona. All I could think was, “Really? This is where the bus picks us up?” Yup it was. In the middle of the crowded town, looking nothing like a terminal, a bunch of buses depart for surrounding areas. So I got on and a few minutes later was on my way to the park. As soon as we got out of town I turned on my shuffle (yes I’m traveling with an iPod shuffle) for a soundtrack as I watched the scenery go by. “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin came on. Perfect.
Parque Tayrona was beautiful, and hot. Have I mentioned yet that the coast is sweltering? It’s the kind of humid heat where you sweat just sitting still, so you can imagine what it’s like when you’re actually on the move. And for those of you who know me, I hate anything above 80, and even more so with humidity, so this is not my kind of climate in any way. Which is a true testament to the awesomeness of this region since I had to put up with my most hated weather and I still loved it.
The walk to get to the beach I was hoping to stay at, Cabo San Juan de Guía, was a jungle wonderland. At some points I was climbing over huge boulders, the next trudging through sand underneath leafy bushes, then wandering up and down narrow dirt paths, and at another point through a palm tree forest. The way in I stopped to take pictures along the walk to document all the landscape variety, but on the way back out I just powered (and sweated) through.
Arriving at Cabo San Juan de Guía felt like entering a sublime fantasy land where time never mattered and people never left. The agenda was to lay on the beach for a while, maybe nap on the beach, cool off in the water, read a book for a while, or grab a beer, also while on the beach. With such a pristine beach of white sand, blue water, and a jungle background, why would you do anything else? If you wanted to be more active you could climb the rocks and stare at the ocean for a while. I found this to be the perfect place to go at sunset. As the day cools off people gather under the only place to eat and have dinner with conversation or card games. Which I also did, alone.
This adventure to Cabo I made the conscious decision to just be alone: I walked it alone, I read/napped on the beach not near anyone else, and I stared at the ocean on my own rock as the sun went down, with just my thoughts for company. At dinner I listened to music while playing Solitaire, Patience and Clock – card games from my childhood that continue to entertain me today. It was perfect, exactly what I wanted. And I was in paradise.
I called it a night fairly early, curling up in my hammock reading by headlamp till I was tired enough to fall asleep. If only the person in the hammock next to me had been more graceful when he got into his hammock I probably would have slept great; instead he swung into me multiple times, creating a Newton’s Cradle with a few of us. My guess was that he enjoyed a lot of beers at the restaurant before getting into bed. Oh well, it happens. It still didn’t take away from the cool factor of sleeping on a beach in a hammock.
It was hard to tear myself away from Cabo San Juan de Guía, but I had to move on. After breakfast on the beach, it was time to hike back out to the world, but not to civilization just yet – to the mountains. But that’s for the next post.
Some of the best advice I’ve gotten so far was to go to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The variety of scenery I saw and activities I did combined for a fantastic week that made me quickly love this country. More than once I thought: “This is it, I found paradise on the Colombian coast.” I was tempted to stay everywhere I went for longer.
It was also a relaxing week where I was able to disconnect and really just travel alone. As much as I’ve loved having friends for most of this journey so far, I was looking forward to some me time, and I definitely got it and enjoyed it.
It started with Taganga. Taganga itself is not much to write home about; it’s a small village that doesn’t have too much to offer, but it’s a great launching point for everything else. I spent my one full day in Taganga doing the one thing it does have to offer: scuba diving.
I played with the idea of getting scuba certified, but it doesn’t make sense to spend the money and days doing the full certification during this trip. Still, I’d never been scuba diving, and Taganga is one of the cheapest places to try it, so I did just a half day “Discover Scuba Diving” course with Aquarius to see how I liked it. Of course, I thought it was great.
The day started with an instructional video before going out on the boat and into open water. Our first dive was short, only ~25 minutes and 6m, and we learned the basics of breathing under water, swimming with the gear, how to clear our masks and recover our breathing devices if they fall out, how to equalize, etc. Then we had lunch on a beach before our second dive. This dive was the fun one: we went down 12m for ~40 minutes and were able to freely swim and take in the scenery while our guide pointed out wildlife and took pictures. Once I really had the chance to swim around, the potentially scary fact that I was breathing through this device in an environment that could drown me faded away; it started to feel normal and I was able to just enjoy my surroundings. I’m hooked, and will definitely be diving again on this trip. One day I’ll get ceritified.
The rest of my time in Taganga was mostly spent hanging out at the excellent hostel Casa de Felipe. With hammocks and outdoor tables everywhere, including a roof deck, it’s a great place to decompress and read, write, or just watch the sun set. And when the French chef is there, it’s a great place to splurge on a filet mignon (and by splurge I mean about US$11).