Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean…Or Not
Taganga, Parque Tayrona, & Santa Marta
As Toby recounted in his last post, he developed a highly-sophisticated (“ahem”) system for directing our travels in Colombia: whapping virtual stars onto google map and following them. Hence, after Bogota and San Gil, the stars directed us to the Caribbean coast, where we were lead to believe that we would find untold treasures, including pristine beaches, incredible hikes, and a party atmosphere. Being of a certain age (“ahem” #2) and a married couple to boot, we were willing to put up with the final “treasure” for the sake of the former two. But did we end up uncovering any treasures at all? Aye mateys, but not all those we expected.
Before I describe some of our discoveries, I feel compelled to mention the bus ride from San Gil to Santa Marta. This was our first “overnight bus” ride and – following this experience – I am loathe to repeat it. We had already read about the dreaded air-conditioning overload on night buses, so were well prepared with warm socks, fleecy jumpers, and sarongs-as-blankets. And we were actually excited about the prospect of watching overly-loud, cheesy action flicks in Spanish. But there was one important thing I forgot: I am highly prone to motion sickness. And this bus was winding its way down a mountain – to-ing and fro-ing, listing and turning – at high speed. There was no “horizon” upon which I could focus either. Urgggghhhhhlllblueerrrch. I managed to hold things together for the 2 or so hours it took to reach the plains, but only barely. And then attempting to sleep semi-upright on a slippery chair (where the seatbelt literally is the only thing to keep you from sliding onto the floor) meant I was doomed to stay awake most of the night. So yeah, next time (if there is one), I’ll take anti-motion sickness tablets and mentally prepare myself for some rocking-and-rolling in my seat. This blog has other excellent tips for surviving the night bus experience.
There is debate amongst travelers in Colombia as whether to base oneself in Taganga or in Santa Marta for the eventual excursion into Tayrona National Park. On the one hand, we met people who told us “there is nothing to see/do in Santa Marta”, but on the other we read things about Taganga that made us concerned for our safety. Ultimately, we chose Taganga largely based on the recommendations of friends who had done this journey before us.
So Taganga is supposed to be both a major hot-spot for partying gringos AND a quaint, beautiful fishing village. On the whole, evidence for either point of view was lacking during our visit. With respect to the first point, I’m guessing we missed the high season for travelers to this part of Colombia, as the streets were not filled with throngs of gringos nor were the bars blaring music at intolerable volumes and touts trying to recruit us into their establishments. Score for the Two Hermit Crabs! But Taganga wasn’t quite as pretty as we had been expecting. While the drive down the hill into Taganga was truly lovely, once you actually arrived in town it was dusty, run-down, too-skinny dogs roamed the streets, and the main drag was dotted with a series of bland restaurants and bars. As Cher from the film Clueless might say, it was somewhat of a Monet. Mind you, if you stood on the beach and looked out onto the harbour over the little, peeled-painted fishing boats – ignoring the actual town behind you – you could get a sense of the quaintness remarked upon by travel guides and writers.
We largely spent our two days in Taganga planning our foray into Parque Tayrona, wandering back and forth on the beach-front, taking photos of the bay, boats, and fishermen, looking for cheap places to eat (food-wise, Taganga is more expensive than it ought to be), and sunbathing and taking dips in the roof-top pool of the hotel in which we were staying (we treated ourselves to a rather nice hotel rather than the usual hostel for this particular jaunt). And as advised to do so by the hoteliers and others, we did not venture far from the paved roads when walking around at night lest “bad things” happen.
Also while in Taganga, I came close to ‘adopting’ an extremely emaciated, doe-eyed, stray black-and-white dog that we encountered a few times. I couldn’t look into its eyes without welling up. :'( I tried to feed it some fries, but it didn’t seem to recognize them as food. The “dog problem” in Central and South America is a whole ‘nother post though…..sigh.
Let me end the Taganga bit on a more positive note by giving a shout-out to a great restaurant: Babaganoush. If you want a break from ‘typico comida de Colombia’ and/or you are vegetarian, give this place a try. It is muy excellente!
Also, if you are into diving, apparently this is one of the best and cheapest places in the world to get various PADI certificates. Toby camethisclose to prolonging our stay in Taganga to do the Advanced Open Water certification, but I wasn’t too keen on hanging around any longer, so we agreed to hold off until we get to South-East Asia.
Most travelers who have visited Tayrona National Park wax lyrical about its beauty. Even the Lonely Planet asserts that it contains the most picturesque beaches in all of Colombia, owing to the jungle abutting the white strip of sand, which itself meanders alongside the aqua-blue waters of the Carribean Sea. Although we had spent a month living on the stunning Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, we were curious to find out if the rumors we heard about the beaches of Parque Tayrona were true: Was this the most beautiful stretch of coastline in the world?
I’ll spare you the details about the various modes of getting to and staying in the park, as that territory has been covered well by others. Suffice it to say, we arrived at the park with our backpacks and tevas on, ready to make the hike into the jungle and across various beaches to find a place to rest our heads for the night and discover the park for ourselves. The path was fairly well marked out, so we were able to direct our thoughts to looking and listening as we walked. We didn’t end up encountering the monkeys that we had heard about, but caught a glimpse of a tawny-colored agouti (basically, a humongous rat-like creature) and had to carefully step over many different colonies of leaf-cutter ants. Who can failed to be impressed by the industriousness and social coordination of these little creatures, I don’t want to know.
We eventually exited the jungle to view the much-vaunted beach for the first time and were immediately confronted with a sign advising us that visitors were not allowed to swim due to a very strong undertow which had taken many lives over the last decade. Oh yeah, perhaps I failed to mention that people are not able to swim along most of Tayrona’s beaches. Okaaaaay. Strike one, Tayrona! But still, the scenery was stellar, so we resigned ourselves to locating the beaches where swimming is allowed. And quickly too, as trudging along the beach under the sun’s rays in combination with more than a sprinkle of humidity made for less than comfortable walking.
After bypassing one campsite because it looked too much like a ghost-town, we settled instead on Bukaru. Although the Bukaru campsite was not immediately next to a swimmable beach, it was next to a great beach-side panaderia we had heard about; and anyone who knows me will know how much I like my carbs, so Bukaru it was. 🙂 At most campsites in Tayrona, you can choose to stay in a tent, a hammock or (perhaps) even a little cabana, so another decision had to be made. While the hammocks were the more adventurous and cheaper option, I like my sleep and doubted the possibility of catching any Zs in an open-air hammock, so we went for the tent (significantly cheaper than the cabana option). Good old Goldilocks strikes again.
Once our tent was up and we could put out backpacks down, we went to find a beach where we could wade in and cool off. I imagine you might now be wondering, so are the beaches of Tayrona the most beautiful in the world? To answer that question, check out a few photos from our visit:
Clearly the answer is that yes, Tayrona’s beaches are among the most beautiful that we’ve seen in our travels so far. BUT, having spent all that time on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast before visiting Tayrona meant that we were fairly hard to impress in this regard. Add to this that Costa Rica’s Caribbean beaches are free to visit (entry to Parque Tayrona requires a costly outlay for most travelers) and the waters off of most of the Costa Rican beaches did not threaten death, we felt that Tayrona, perhaps, had overplayed its hand.
That being said, we didn’t regret our visit at all, not only because it was a beautiful location, but because:
- It was fun to experience sleeping in a tent near the ocean
- At the nearby panaderia we ate fantastic and cheap food for dinner (cheese arepas and beer, mmmmmmm) and breakfast (warm bread with chocolate inside, mmmmmmmmm)
- We went on a difficult-but-satisfying hike up to the ruins of a pre-Hispanic town now called El Pueblito, at the end of which we spotted a bright green snake killing and consuming the entirety of a gecko (poor thing)
- We made some new friends during our hike to El Pueblito (hi Daphne and Steven!)
- And last but not least, we experienced an adrenalin-pumping, water-drenching, bum-bruising boat ride back from Tayrona to Taganga. Wahoo!
So while the treasures we had anticipated in Tayrona weren’t all uncovered, others – perhaps better – were.
Word-of-mouth from other travelers led us to expect that we would find no treasures in Santa Marta. It is viewed by many as simply a town in which to organise your trip to Parque Tayrona and/or to get a bus elsewhere. On this basis, we planned only one night there so we could catch an early morning bus to Cartagena. We arrived in the early evening – still semi-drenched from our Tayrona-Taganga boat ride – to discover a town with a romantically-lit and vibrant main square, with several little streets full of restaurants, bars, and shops shooting off this way and that. In looking for somewhere to eat, we discovered a small and somewhat-trendy looking eatery that offers fantastic fare for vegetarians (I had a super tasty veggie casserole) and non-vegetarians alike AND they do a mean mojito. They have some strong fans too, which is much-needed, as Santa Marta is HOT.
The next morning we meandered the streets to see what the town looked like in daytime and found them to look nearly as interesting and bustling in the day as in the evening. We even considered staying in Santa Marta another night but, alas, our room was not available, so we made the decision to continue following the google-map stars and take the next bus to Cartagena.
The map that the Two Hermit Crab pirates followed did not take us to the treasure chest we had expected, but our high-sea adventuring was rewarded in other ways. Next stop: the walled city of Cartagena.