During one of my low moments in the Bog, I bought a flight to the Caribbean. One aspect of Colombia that I really admire is the geographic diversity: the Caribbean sea, the Pacific Ocean, the Amazon rainforest, the Tatacoa “desert”, and the Sierra Nevada mountains are all within short trip from Bogotá or the airport.
Then, one of the perks of being in Fulbright is having new friendships across this eco-rich country. So, I spent two nights with a Fulbright friend in Santa Marta, and two nights at an eco-hotel between Parque Tayrona and Palomino.
Santa Marta felt like a different world from Bogotá, even just 60 minutes away by plane. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the climate. Santa Marta is hot, hot, hot. And these are the “winter” months. When I say “hot”, I mean it was so hot that even my fingers were sweating as I put in contacts in the morning. Thank the lawd my friend, Francine, had an apartment with A/C in her room, because I’m not sure that I (or my hair) would’ve survived the humidity and heat without it.
Francine and her friend were gracious hosts and took me around Santa Marta to several different bars, restaurants, and city look-out spots. I appreciated the going-out scene there; I felt like I belonged! Even though the pedestrian-only bar/restaurant streets are nowhere as large as Bogotá, I like the experience of bar-hopping and being outside.
Francine and I also spent a day at Taganga Bay + Playa Grande, as Taganga is only about a 15 minute (unbelievably hot) bus ride from Santa Marta’s marina, and you can take little boats from Taganga to get to the other beaches. At the beaches, you pay a small amount to rent chairs on the sand in front of different restaurants. These definitely aren’t areas with US tourists, and you can feel a difference. I mean, I like that it’s not a place for US tourists and that I’m forced to speak Spanish, but that also means no frills dining.
At one point, Francine and I ate lunch at a restaurant behind us and it for sure pushed my comfort zone. I was eating a full fish (face and eyeballs and all, because it’s rude to ask them to take off the head), sweating profusely, being swarmed by flies (I thought I had seen a lot of flies in Jamaica. NOPE.), and two stray cats were at my feet begging for food (have I mentioned my fear of cats?!). I was literally thinking to myself, “You can do this, Lauren, don’t freak out!!” the whole time.
I mean, the fish and food were delicious and the fresh pineapple juice was on point, but it’s nothing I’m used to. That’s what I wanted for my Fulbright year though, right? And, it’s the change I was looking for from Bogotá. A Caribbean trip with newly caught fish and super hot weather.
I was sad to leave Santa Marta after a couple of days, mostly because I was sad to leave my friends there. So, now I have another spot to add to my list of places to visit (again) in the Spring.
Gitana del Mar + Parque Tayrona
Then, I headed maybe 90 minutes west to Gitana del Mar, a super cool eco-resort nestled on the edge of Parque Tayrona. I loved it immediately. I heard about it from a family friend and am so, so happy I had the chance to visit. I was right on the water, living in a large bungalow with a bathroom and attached outdoor shower. Because Gitana is so remote, they provide three large, delicious meals a day, all included in the price of your room. Finally, since it’s off-season right now, Gitana wasn’t too crowded. That ended up being great, because I got my pick of hammocks by the sea, and was able to get to know some of the women working there and other visitors to the hotel.
After a stressful cab ride to the resort, I arrived later than expected. Fortunately, they waited for me for lunch! So, I ate (I think I did better with eating around the fish head this time…) then walked maybe 50 steps to the beach. I hung out by the water with the hotel’s two Labrador pups, and then took a yoga class in a covered bungalow by the water. It began to pour rain during yoga class (there’s a reason why this is the off-season; there are huge storms nearly every night), and I ended up showering in the rain when I got back to my room. Despite these being partially outdoor bathrooms, they were super clean and fell more toward “glamping” than “roughing it”.
I didn’t entirely mind the rain, because it cooled off my room a bit at night. There was, of course, no A/C, but it didn’t feel nearly as hot as Santa Marta.
On my second day at Gitana, the resort organized transportation for me and a few other guests to hike Parque Tayrona, one of Colombia’s most popular (and, arguably, most beautiful) national parks. Once you reach the entrance gates, you listen to their orientation about which beaches where you can/cannot swim, hiking trails, camping options within the park, etc. The park workers asked me to translate the orientation video and presentation (which was only done in Spanish) for a German couple, making me feel super proud as to how far my Spanish has come in the last few months. Then, we climbed into vans, and ventured up a windy road about 20 minutes until the trails began.
I hiked part of it solo, part of it with the German couple who I met at orientation, and part of it with two Colombian sisters also staying at Gitana. It was hot as Hades in the parts without shade, but I loved it. I’d never hiked alone before, and it was an interesting experience. Not that I was ever too alone; like I said, this is one of Colombia’s most popular parks, even during off-season.
Along the typical day-trip hike, you pass several beaches, some of which you are not supposed to swim at; the currents are too strong! After a mildly serious encounter with a strong current last year in Hawaii that hurt my back for weeks, I have far more respect for ocean currents.
With that said, I spent most of my time in Parque Tayrona at a beach where I was able to swim, with the sisters from Gitana. It was warm and beautiful and I was so happy to be in the water. Unfortunately, after a few hours, we had to start thinking of making our way back to the park entrance. The sisters wanted to hike again, but I went to the next beach over, Cabo San Juan, and rented a horse to ride back.
I suppose because it’s Colombia and people are far less worried about being sued than in the US, there are just a bunch of guys with horses by the beach and I road back next to one who was transporting food to the entrance of the park. Cars aren’t allowed in Parque Tayrona, so you can only get things in/out by foot or horseback. So, my new riding buddy, Javer, helped throw me onto my horse’s back and off we went! He kept poking my horse, even though I gently reminded him that I hadn’t ridden a horse in about 15 years, so we moved up and down the hills and rocks of Tayrona at a decent trot. After my initial fear of falling off and hurting myself hours away from medical attention or cell phone reception passed, I was pretty pumped to go quickly and enjoyed the hour-ish ride back through the forest.
Begrudgingly, I packed up and left the next afternoon. As with Machu Picchu, the transportation situation was stressful (something has to be, right?). But even that couldn’t change that this was an awesome trip.