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Colombia's Caribbean Coast

soaking up the sun

Story by Heather & Pravin September 11th, 2017

After a couple of days in Bogotá with Pravin's parents, Daksha and Bhaskar, we flew north to the Caribbean resort town of Santa Marta. We were booked for 12 luscious days of R&R on the beach, and we truly had an amazing time doing a whole lot of nothing! The resort hotel was right on the beach, and both of our rooms had an amazing view of the pool and beach. Each day started off with a visit to the delicious breakfast buffet, where we could dine on fresh tropical fruits, juices and local coffee, and Colombian breakfast items such as arepas, buñuelos, calentado, huevos pericos, and plátanos.

The only decision we had to make each day was whether to head to the beach or the pool. The Caribbean waters were clear and refreshing and there were cabañas for shade, and the pool was surrounded by tables with umbrellas and conveniently located next to the hotel bar which served piña coladas and smoothies.

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The first weekend that we were on the coast was very crowded, as it was a long weekend for Colombians. Although it was a lot of fun to see so many people, especially local families, out and about and enjoying the beach, it was also quite peaceful and tranquil mid-week when many of the vacationers had left and the beach was much quieter. Even the (many) beach vendors seemed to slow down mid-week – there were much fewer of them coming by with offers of sunglasses, cornrows and massages!

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Jungle Joe's

About halfway through our beach time, Pravin, Bhaskar and I decided to head up into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains and explore the area around the small town of Minca. We signed up for a full day tour with Jungle Joe, and started off the day by hiking to a waterfall with a local indigenous Kogi guide. The humidity was very high and we were all soaked – not only from sweat but also from the several (unexpected) river crossings that we had to make along the way.

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The next stop was Jungle Joe’s bamboo house, located a short walk out of town and deep in the jungle. We enjoyed lunch with a view on the patio, and finished up just as the skies opened with a tropical rainstorm. Everyone sheltered inside Joe’s house, and once the rain let up, we headed back outside to proceed with the next event – cacao tasting. We learned all about the process of harvesting and preparing cacao, and got to taste the cacao at a few of the different stages. The most delicious treat was pieces of roasted cacao with small pieces of panela – the toasted flavour of the cacao with the brown sugar sweetness of the sugarcane was the ultimate combination and we couldn’t stop going back for more. To top it off, we also got cups of hot cacao to drink. It was so rich and flavourful that we assumed it had to have been made with cream, but we were surprised to learn that it was only a mixture of cacao, water and panela, brought to a boil three times to bring out the best flavour notes.

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Finally, the day ended with a tasting on a beautiful organic coffee farm that had expansive views and beautiful tropical foliage. We learned about coffee cultivation in Colombia, and were pleased to find out that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta coffee we had been drinking all week at the resort is considered among the finest, and is always organic, shade-grown and naturally resistant to plagues that can harm coffee crops further inland.

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FINCA CARPE DIEM

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12 days at the resort passed all too quickly, and eventually it was time to part ways with Bhaskar and Daksha as they flew back to Bogotá. As they made their way back to Canada, our next stop was at Finca Carpe Diem, a hostel/farm in the jungle southeast of Santa Marta. From the resort, we took a local bus a couple of towns over, and from there we each had to catch a ride on the back of a motorbike to get up the rough, unpaved roads to the finca. Although Pravin was looking forward to the ride, I was pretty nervous as it would be my first ride on a motorbike, and the 15ish-year-old kid that I was going to get a ride with didn't exactly inspire confidence. I was sure I wasn't going to make it to the finca alive as we sped up the rocky road at incredible speeds and quickly lost sight of Pravin and his driver far back in the distance. The driver insisted on having my pack in front of him, and we lost it twice going around corners, and when we went up an especially steep section, the bike tipped over and we both had to leap out of the way. By the time we did end up at the finca, my hands were so cramped from holding onto the back of the bike with a death grip that I could barely get my money out to pay him!

The grounds of the finca were gorgeous and lush, with tropical foliage and flowers blooming everywhere. Of course, along with this comes bugs, and there was no shortage of giant creepy crawlers to keep us on our toes! There were all kinds of hidden waterfalls within an hour or so walk of the finca, and we swam in quite a few of them. The humidity was incredible, and traipsing through the jungle made us desperate to leap in the cool water of the river.

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parque nacional tayrona

After Finca Carpe Diem, we headed north to a hostel located just outside of Tayrona National Park. Tayrona has some incredibly picturesque beaches, but most of them can only be reached after a couple of hours on foot, so we used the hostel as a base camp and did a day hike into Tayrona to enjoy the beaches. The walk itself was gorgeous, and after only about 20 minutes, we came to a large family of monkeys in the trees, and stood awestruck as they swung around above us - even a mother with a small baby on her back!

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Once we made it to the beaches, we were happy to discover that they really were as picture-perfect as anticipated. The water was gorgeously clear and just cool enough to be refreshing after the heat of the jungle.

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cartagena de indias

From Tayrona, we headed a few hours west to Cartagena de Indias, a historic jewel where the old city is contained within stone walls that date back to the 1600s. The heat and humidity of the city at midday was unbearable, so we made a habit of getting up very early to walk around as everything was just getting started. We would pick up arepas, tintos and fresh fruit from the street vendors around the old city, and enjoy a leisurely walking breakfast.

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With Cartagena's prime location on the Caribbean sea, there are many tropical islands offshore, begging to be explored. We took a boat ride out to the Islas del Rosario, where the turquoise water is crystal clear and teeming with fish. The day trip was a bit of a splurge for us, but we got to use the facilities and have lunch at a seaside resort, and enjoy two hour-long guided snorkelling trips in the water off the island.

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On our last day in Cartagena, we had made plans to take a 12-hour night bus out of the city to Bucaramanga. We were in desperate need of clean clothes, so we dropped our laundry off to be washed and set out to find somewhere to have coffee. A block or two away from the laundry place, it started to rain quite hard. We heard thunder rumbling in the distance, so we started to run for a café, but within 10 seconds, the skies had opened up and it was absolutely down-pouring. We took shelter under the entranceway to a house, assuming the heavy rain would quiet down within a few minutes. Instead, it started to pour even harder, and along with more thunder and lightning, the wind also came up, throwing sheets of water from the rapidly-flooding streets against us. We were drenched pretty quickly, but the water in the streets was rising as the storm sewers backed up, so we decided to wait out the storm rather than wade through the murky waters.

The storm lasted much, much longer than we had anticipated, and eventually we just made a run for the laundry place. The streets had become impassable for vehicles, and most people were taking cover in shops and restaurants. We were worried that if we waited too long, some of the city might actually get shut down, and we wouldn't be able to get our laundry before having to get on the night bus (for which we had already bought tickets). We had to walk through some areas with nasty, opaque water up to our knees in some spots, but eventually we were able to pick up our clothes and by taking a long detour to avoid thigh-high flooding, we made it back to our hostel in time to shower up before the night bus.

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Footnote: Up next: Santander & Boyacá
Cartagena - Bolivar, Colombia