Passing through the city of Santa Marta we turned a mountain range and came down to a beautiful bay; we had arrived at Taganga. From what we had heard, Taganga was one of those places you either loved or hated. Once a slow paced fishing village, a small amount of development was turning it into a backpacker haven filled with diving agencies, cheaper hostels, bars and restaurants. But, the key draw card of Taganga was its location as being the jump off point to the Tyrona National Park; a piece of pristine jungle and crystal clear beaches. On the downside, Taganga had a bit of a seedy reputation for drugs and break-ins. This was typically due to the proximity of the slums outside Santa Marta that housed tens of thousands of desperate people and with the influx of tourists with money and valuables, it was an easy score.
We checked into Divanga Hostel, a colorful oasis with gorgeous bar, pool, swaying hammocks and a million dollar view over the bay. The French owner Lucy was amazingly helpful and friendly, she greeted us every morning over breakfast and helped us plan next steps to Tayrona National Park and the coffee retreat of Minca. We meet up with Amy and the two Canadian girls, Brandy and Melanie for lunch to swap information as they were positioned in Santa Marta and we decided to all tackle Tayrona National Park together. One thing we were wary of was the lack of infrastructure in the national park and this was only due to our petty experience in Playa Blanca. For accommodation options you had the choice of tent, hammock or luxury cabana, an apparently very expensive option and we decided that we would first get there by foot and then suss out the camp ground options.
The following day we jumped in a mini van from Taganga, picked up the girls in Santa Marta and traversed the 40kms to the entry of the national park. Packed with water, suncream and mosquito repellant in our small day packs, we payed our entry fee and started the 1.5hr trek through the beaten path to the first pit stop, Arrecifes. The jungle was dense and we followed the muddy path for some time climbing over rocks and branches and passing a few local indigenous people and horses on route before we heard the sounds of crashing waves and the jungle opened up to the campground.
Pleasantly surprised, Arrecifes was beautifully manicured with cut grass, an expansive restaurant, thatched hut cabanas, a few tents and hammocks and all that faced a long sandy beach. After checking out the hammock situation which looked fine, we thought we’d view the luxury cabanas just for fun as they were built for exactly five people. Opening up the room, they were equipped with beautiful bathroom, fans, two levels and flat screen television. How much? $35 a night for each of us, sold! What we thought was going to be a tough and uncomfortable few days without running water and electricity soon became a weekend of luxurious comforts. After all, it was Murray’s 33rd birthday so why not splurge.
We all hauled our gear into the cabana, set up and then decided to walk further on to the next beach. Arrecifes was unfortunately un-swimmable, claiming the lives of hundreds of tourists each year with its strong rips. Passing a few more bays, camp grounds and small bakery selling “chocolate bread” (which we were told we had to try), we reached La Piscina, a deep bay partly cut off from the open sea by an underground rocky chain. After a quick swim it was late afternoon so we decided to trek back to the cabana for happy hour and a good feed at the restaurant. In style we slept and woke to our free breakfast the next morning before trekking the 1.5hrs through to Cabo San Juan, a beautiful cape with two white crescent beaches meeting in the middle. Most backpackers stayed here due to the beauty of the beach, however the facilities were very poor with stories of horrendous toilets, no showers, dengue fever outbreaks and food poising from the restaurant, and after scoping out the base, it was clear we had made the right choice.
After our second night in the cabana we were due to check out at midday before trekking back through the jungle to the pickup point where our mini van would take us back to Taganga. Hearing accounts of tourists getting their valuables stolen, we decided to lock our passports, cards and all the cash into the cabana safe. Unfortunately for us, it malfunctioned and we had to wait until late afternoon for staff to be provided with the remote from another partner resort to open it. So after a quick dip back at La Piscina, it was time to meet the bus.
Checking back into Divanga Hostel it was Murray’s birthday so celebrated with a swim, great meal with tropical punch. Most nights, we sat at the upstairs bar and watched electrical storms blow over the mountain range of Sierra Nevada displaying a truly magnificent light show. Staying an additional five nights at the hostel, we got pretty settled as it was a great base for Murray to do some diving. We found Reef Shepard which was a professional dive operator and went out the next day with Santiago and his crew. Murray completed four dives whilst I snorkeled viewing dolphins, sea turtles, soft corals and hunting Lion Fish that were a pest in the area and had been swept south via Hurricane Catrina.
We meet Erin, an American women from San Fransisco who was in her last few months of a two year expedition. She specialised in “adventure philanthropy” and had spent her time volunteering from one project to the next across all five continents raking up a country count of nearly 100. Her stories of being held up in Africa, working with Romas in Turkey, taking self defense classed in Israel and being kidnapped in Vietnam, were fascinating. And the best part was that she ran her own blog, educating others on available aid projects and working with sponsors and the general public to commit sponsorship dollars and grants to those projects most in need. Her website was titled “Go Erin Go” and was a great read. Erin was working on a book and looked to go back home for a few months before moving to the UK to work on her book and complete her Masters in International Development. She had worked all over the world with a past life working in Hong Kong as a financial writer…maybe there was still hope for me?
For our next destination we decided to head inland into the Sierra Nevada to the cool coffee town of Minca, only 45kms inland but a big temperature drop due to the towns altitude. Minca used to be in the heart of paramilitary grounds due to its perfect conditions to grow coca plants but today, had been cleaned up and patrolled by Colombian military where the main plant grown was now coffee. Another perfect stop to fuel our caffeine addition.