27. Cartegena, Santa Marta & Bogota

The last leg of my circumnavigation of South America saw me re-enter Colombia on the north coast to close the loop down to Bogota through Cartegena and Santa Marta.

Cartegena – Jun 9

After some frugal accommodation whilst island hopping, we decided to splash out on a bit of luxury in Cartegena. We booked a beautiful house right in the old town for the five of us (Tom rejoined us with his friend Sam) even though the place sleeps 9… so we had plenty of space. It was a gorgeously airy and modern place with a cute pool right by the living area; sadly this meant I didnt see as much of Cartagena as I normally would have.

Relaxing digs in Cartegena!

My ventures outside were more or less only for food and drink. On these trips though I fell in love with Carta’s narrow streets, low & pretty buildings and scenic squares – so much so that I didn’t really take any photos! One very obvious difference to other towns however was the number of prostitutes casually standing around the main square in little groups- it’s clearly not considered a majorly illicit industry here.

The weekend saw lots of sunbathing in the sweltering heat, cold beers in the pool and a couple of nights out dancing salsa with some of the guys from San Blas. So although I didn’t see much of the city- I loved it my time there!

Santa Marta – Jun 12

Reluctantly leaving our cosy house, a two hour bus took us east along the coast to Santa Marta; it’s not renown as a great city in itself, but it’s a launchpad for loads of surrounding activities. So after an early night at a random hostel (with a 2.20am alarm to wake for the Lions game) we headed to the natural coast reserve – Parque Tayrona. 

With four people (joined by Kiwi Florence) we got a 30 minute taxi to the park rather than the bus- worth the extra $2 or so each. We bought the park ticket, got a little shuttle to the start of the hiking trail and headed off towards Cabo San Juan, a beach resort where we’d spend the night. The first part of the hike is over a wooden plank path through thick forest; an hour of winding, climbing and descending our way until we hit the sea. From there you follow sandy paths and the beach itself along the coast, passing locals selling coconuts and smaller campsites for another 30 minutes until we hit home. 

The beach views are your reward for trekking Tayrona

Cabo San Juan is a little campsite resort with two little gorgeous cove beaches, a cafe restaurant and a grassy area for tents. Most people sleep in hammocks however, we were no exception; sadly ours were in the grassy hut not the hut perched high on the rocks- you can’t get those unless you stay the night before really / arrive at 9am. It was like being back in San Blas except here it was packed and there was no cultural side to the experience. Still, I spent a lovely afternoon getting schooled at footy and relaxing in the sea. This included a ‘small world’ meeting with James, a mate I’ve known since primary school; it’s funny when this happens as I’m always briefly confused by seeing the familiar in the most unfamiliar settings. 

When I was napping… Tom caught this incredible shot of the sunset

Lots of people just come for the day it turns out, with boats taking you directly from the beach back to Santa Marta, so the night wasn’t as busy as expected. Despite being ready for a big beach party, I didn’t bother as the vibe wasn’t really ramping up after dinner- maybe everyone was tired from the trek and sun! By now I was a seasoned hammock napper so I got a good night’s sleep and unusually rose well after sunrise; still early enough to go for a morning swim, take a leisurely breakfast and trek back to the park entrance by 1pm though. I’m not sure staying the night added that much to the experience, it could definitely be done in a day, but maybe I’d feel differently if I hadn’t experienced remote island hammocks on San Blas just a week earlier. 

Before we returned to Santa Marta we continued 45 minutes further east to Palomino, on one of the frequent coaches trundling along. This tiny little strip of buildings along the main road is hardly a town, but it’s near a wide, shallow and calm river that’s perfect for tubing! We got some lifts on off road motorbikes through back country lanes further upstream to the start of the float, bought some beers and set off. It was a clear and hot day with the water cool but not cold – basically providing a perfectly relaxing way to spend an hour, at least when Westy wasn’t trying to push me into reeds by the bank. 

Tubing is tiring work!

I returned to Santa Marta for 3 nights before my flight to Bogota, staying at The Dreamer hostel. This is an awesome spot in a dull residential neighbourhood 20 minutes from the city centre. A large courtyard with rooms lining 3 sides, a clean swimming pool & sunbeds in the middle and bar / restaurant (with obligatory pool table) on the other side. They make lots of money here… why would you leave? I only went out for a couple of jogs, the rest of my time I spent in those four walks- taking in every last ounce of South American sun before the impending Auckland rain and teaching Flo how to play pool.

Lounging around at the Dreamer in Santa Marta
Bogota – 17 Jun

A short Latam flight brought me to my final stop in Latin America- my ninth capital city in four months. Sadly my head and heart was already in New Zealand, such was my excitement about the Lions tour and the knowledge that a new phase of my trip was close at hand. As a result I don’t feel I gave Bogota a proper chance, I’ll have to come back here. Maybe I’m also just a bit fatigued of exploring new cities, having also not done much exploration in Cartegena & Santa Marta, but unusually for me I didn’t do any of the main tourist attractions. 

Pretty Bogota

I did like the city however, I stayed in the La Candelaria district where most hostels seem to be. A calm place without much traffic motorised or pedestrian with hipster coffee bars and cheap cafe restaurants. The main thing I did was hang out with friends from the San Blas again, going for a great night out on the Saturday (despite failing to get in to the main club after enduring 45 minutes of queuing in the drizzle) and watching the Colombian club footy final on the Sunday. The former of these also contributed to my lack of sight seeing, with plans to visit the gold museum with Ally the next day not met – I think the musueum was shut by the time he got up at 5pm!

South America – ✅ 

And then it was all over. Four months to the day after I arrived in South America it was time to leave – and boy how it had flown by. It’s truly an amazing continent, with some of the most varied and beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen: deserts, lakes, mountains, jungles, sea, vineyards and everything in between. The people are generally amazing with subtle differences in each country- but there is far more that unites each culture than divides it – when looking from my Anglo Saxon / North European point of view anyway. The history of the place is not something I’ve ever really studied but found it fascinating although it does get a bit repetitive after 4 months- the cycle of indigenous peoples, colonisation, revolution and independence is a consistent theme. 

Rio – where I entered Latin America four months earlier

I have commented to some people that I’ve been surprised at how ‘easy’ it is to travel, which for me was a slight down side. I felt like I was 6/7 years too late to really ‘backpack’ South America; it seemed a bit spoon fed with an abundance of reliable accommodation, efficient A-B transport and easily getting by with English. Of course one can always choose to take the hard option / go off the beaten track, but I’d rather there not be a choice in the matter. Its hard to choose the crap local bus when a gleaming AC coach is doing the same journey in half the time for $5 more. For most people however (and the countries themselves) this is undoubtedly a positive thing, it’s opening up this often forgotten corner of the world to all sorts of people and means life is getting better for the locals. I’m sure all who visit will enjoy it as I have – because there’s a hell of a lot to see and do!


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