SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 30
Colombia’s Caribbean Coast (on a budget)
Normally when you mention sun, beaches and ruby sunsets an explosion of “oohs” resonates around the room. Yet when you disclose the high price tag, the “ooohs” turn to low murmured “arghs”.
But it needn’t be so. Colombia’s Caribbean coast indulges those on a shoestring budget with hammock swinging cheapness, jungle-draped bays and the occasional flamingo.
Colombia has over 1760km of Caribbean coast catering to an eclectic mix of beach bunnies, nature lovers and a charabanc of international backpackers.
From Cartagena, a trove of colonial treasure rimmed with swanky apartment-backed beaches, to Cabo de la Vela, a backwater outpost with teal-painted sea, Colombia’s Caribbean coast is a traveller’s cut-price oyster.
Check out the guide to Colombia’s Caribbean beaches from west to east, which I hammocked my way along for a month (for research purposes only, of course).
Playa Blanca – ‘Colombia’s best beach’*
As it says on the tin, sugar-white beaches are the tourist magnet at Playa Blanca (White Beach). Framed by the usual suspects of mottled sea and palm trees, Playa Blanca is a favourite with Cartagena residents escaping the suffocating humidity of the nearby city. And they’re not alone. It has reached backpacking circles with talk of bargain beaches but fortunately, there is a slither of solitude to be found.
Accessible only by boat, Playa Blanca sits on Isla de Baru, 30 km from Cartagena. The boat trip (C35,000-70,000; $18-35) sails by Islas del Rosario (C10,000 entrance fee) which are worthy of fronting a postcard. Slow boats stop here and allow passengers to float in the pristine water or visit the badly reviewed aquarium.
Once at Playa Blanca, the further away from the pier, the easier it is to escape from the crowds. Pick up a coconut cocktail before you head away and wander along the soft sand past the peppering of hammock accommodation and women precariously balancing baskets of heavenly sweets.
Tour boats leave for Playa Blanca from Muelle de las Pegasos in Cartagena before 9am every day.
Boats from Playa Blanca depart at 3pm for Cartagena. Day trips are possible but the best way to appreciate Playa Blanca is to overnight in any of the hammocks (C5,000-7,000). Mosquito nets, and mosquitoes, are provided.
Is it safe for solo females? I went alone and met up with people so even in a hammock I felt safe (most of the time!).
Cartagena – Playa Bocagrande
More esteemed for its raft of colonial heritage than it’s beaches, Cartagena’s brown-sand seafront isn’t utmost on travellers’ ‘must-do’ agendas.
In spite of its hard-packed shore, the sea at Bocagrande is the perfect remedy after a muggy day of sightseeing. In the late afternoon Bocagrande gets pretty crowded with diaphoretic locals paddling in the hazy water but it makes a great way to watch the sunset while slinging back a fresh fruit juice or a tropical cocktail.
Jet skis, cocktails, whistling men, juicy mangos and beguiling ‘massage’ women (ever wanted an arm massage with shampoo that isn’t rinsed off?) are all on offer here. White sand and clear water aren’t.
Hostels in Cartagena
Hotel Familiar Calle El Guerrero No. 29 -66 Tel: +(57) 5 664 2464
Cheap, friendly ‘hotel’ with rooms from C18,000 (US9). More like a hostel than a hotel, but well worth the money.
Casa Viena Calle San Andrés No 30-53 +(57) 5 664 6242
Cosy and informative backpacker option with double rooms and dorms with aircon. Kitchen, book swap and internet available.
Dorms from C17,000 (US$8.50), doubles C40,000 ($20).
Tayrona National Park
You certainly get bang for your buck at Tayrona National Park. For the C35,000 ($18) entrance fee you’ll stumble upon secluded bays, lengthy stretches of rugged beaches, a mountain backdrop and an ancient indigenous village.
Tayrona’s rusticness is part of its allure, and even though the sand doesn’t tip the ‘snow white’ scale and the sea isn’t as ultramarine as Playa Blanca, many people prefer it. Perhaps it’s the nature brimming from every trail and tree; growls swing through the canopy from the resident howler monkeys; giant blue crabs scutter along the sand; black tip sharks hide from human contact beyond the coral reef while iguanas and lizards bask in the heat.
A two-hour crammed bus journey from Santa Marta will take you to the main entrance of the park which was created more than
45 years ago to preserve the eco systems and the heritage of the Tayrona indigenous people. Once in the park, a half-day (muddy) walk to El Pueblito, the ruins and current-day village of the Tayronian people, weaves past prodigious boulders to where the original inhabitants of Colombia have lived for 14,000 years. Now one family remains there and more are spread throughout the park.
Accommodation in Tayrona is basic, hammocks under a thatched roof with cold water showers. Camping is also available – bring your own tent. Best of the bunch is Finca Don Pedro, C10,000 per night ($5) where travellers, many from South America, share tips and form new friendships. A restaurant or a wood burning stove is available – take a torch, all your food and your Bear Grylls’ fire-making skills (or do as I did and befriend some Latino guys who’ll burn up a fire and even sometimes cook for you. Sometimes!)
My favourite beaches: La Piscina and Cabo San Juan – take the trail to the second beach (actually a nudist beach but frequented by mainly bikini-clad tourists).
If it’s privacy you’re after, you need look no further. Kilometres of grey, deserted sand sandwiched between a lagoon and raging ocean sum up Palomino. The sense of solitude here is immense, as is the dragging, deadly current which makes swimming impossible. River tubing is a two-hour activity from the centre of the town to the sea, jumping out before you hit the ocean.
Unaware of the river’s undertow, I tried to cross it and was nearly on my way to Jamaica. Luckily for me, there was someone other than the local man who simply watched nonchalantly at the stupid tourist fighting against the drag. I was carried back by a 20-year-old fisherman whose dexterity in the river promoted him to village hero.
You can stay beachside at Rosie’s, a hammock-strewn property run an uber-affable family. Camping is also available. Hammocks C7,000 ($3.50).
This lagoon-bordered beach is home to some of the region’s well-perched flamingos. Stalks and cormorants are similarly striking against the verdant grass. There’s not much to do at Maipo so a half-day trip from Riohacha is sufficient. Sunbathing isn’t a good option, the local men will gawp as no doubt you’ll be the only tourist.
Overnighting is best avoided, Maipo isn’t geared up for it, but if you do find yourself stranded (as I did) you can stay in a hammock at the restaurant Prisi Mar. Trips by solo females should be avoided.
Collectivos leave from the market in Riohacha to Maipo for approx C10,000-15,000 ($5-7.50). Arrange a pick-up back to Riohacha with the collectivo driver.
Cabo de la Vela
Cabo de la Vela shines as bright as a candle after the dust-fuelled, jarring trip across the parched desert. Bumping over the horizon, a mirage of cobalt blue transforms into the Caribbean sea swallowing the saffron-coloured sand. Cabo de la Vela is more like a dirt-blanketed street than a town: a backwater outpost tucked into the corner of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
The thigh-deep sea wasn’t the swimming hole I was expecting, nor was the area ‘the most beautiful beach in Colombia’ as I had been told by several tourists, local and foreign. However, the headland walk to the lighthouse is dramatic. Sea swirls against pillars of rocks which are juxtaposed against the arid land. This is ideal for a half-day wander. Two days in Cabo de la Vela are sufficient, there isn’t much more to do.
Accommodation is a plethora of seafront hammocks from C5,000 to C7,000 ($10-14). It’s best to stay in a place with other people or you’ll be swinging solo in the outback. Locals warn tourists not to leave anything in the hammocks, there are several beggars patrolling the beach.
Getting to Cabo de la Vela requires two days. Take a bus to Riohacha from any town as south as Santa Marta and when you’re in Riohacha head to calle 15 and carrera 5, in front of Cootrauri, for a shared taxi to Uribia. From the bus stop in Riohacha it’s a 20-min walk (and it’s damn hot) to the taxi rank. If you arrive in Uribia before 12pm you can catch a truck from Uribia market to Cabo de la Vela. If not, you will have to overnight in the town.
There are worse places to visit than Uribia which is the indigenous capital of Colombia. Pick up a regional straw hat, sample fried chiva (goat) or chat to the locals in the plaza. Stay at Hotel Juyasirian C40,000-50,000 a night for an aircon room.
The ride from Uribia to Cabo de la Vela is bumpy, dusty and uncomfortable and the entire journey to Cabo de la Vela is tiring. It traverses the Ahuyama desert, and bounces past lone houses and curious children. But as any globetrotter knows, it’s the journey as much as the destination that defines travelling.
* as voted for by me
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