Listo! (Northern Colombia)


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South America » Colombia » Cartagena
September 24th 2022
Published: September 30th 2022
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(Day 86 on the road) Not further accelerating climate change can be hard. Faced with the choice between a 16-hours bus-ride for 20€ or a 50-minute flight for 35€, I admit that I opted for the plane. Thus, leaving Bucaramanga in Central Colombia, I soon found myself in the northern, somewhat shady city of Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast. It felt like being in a different country.

For one, compared to the central parts of Colombia, the northern coastal area seemed poorer and less developed. Power cuts were frequent – if there was electricity at all. A number of places I visited relied entirely on diesel generators. Maybe counter-intuitively, prices for most things - especially accommodation & food - were higher (not just in some remote areas, but also in the bigger cities). The culture was also very different. Whilst the interior of the country is certainly bustling, it manages to feel almost subdued at times, whereas the Caribbean coast is much “louder” somehow: Music blasting, hustlers trying to sell you stuff, the traffic is more aggressive (and certainly less organized). Somehow, everything was just a little more in your face than what I had seen so far in other parts of Colombia.

Also, the heat (and the humidity) was oppressive. Often the weather app on my phone told me “34 degrees - feels like 42”. And boy, it did. And even more if you weren’t in the shades. Luckily, most late afternoons were marked by rain, cooling everything down nicely. Sometimes just a normal shower for an hour or so. Sometimes torrential rain like the world was going to end. Pretty cool actually - I witnessed some awesome thunder and lightning.

One of the highlights of my time in the north was the four-day trek to Ciudad Perdida – the Lost City, also known as Teyuna by the indigenous Kogi tribe . Ciudad Perdida is an ancient city founded around 800 CE (some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu), and was literally lost and forgotten for centuries. It was only discovered again by looters in 1972. Nowadays, the looters (and the paramilitary groups) are a thing of the past, and the Lost City is safe to visit.

The only way to reach this ancient city of 169 terraces carved into the steep jungle of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is on foot. And it surely was an adventure. While the trek itself would not be overly difficult under normal conditions, there certainly are no normal conditions here. It was hot, it was humid, most afternoons it was raining, which in turn made the steep path extremely muddy and slippery. In the evenings, mosquitoes were added to the mix. Nights were spent in fixed camps used by all hikers, before getting up at 5 am for breakfast, starting to hike at 6am every day. However, finally climbing the 1.200 steps that lead to the Lost City on day three, and laying eyes on this magical place, was absolutely special. I don’t think that pictures can capture it fully. And of course, the sheer effort and adventure of reaching the Lost City adds a certain layer as well.

After the strenuous hike in the jungle, it was time for some beach therapy. I went to the backpacker haven of Palomino and found a tranquil hostel directly by the ocean. I spent a blissful week doing almost nothing at all. Every day started with an 8am yoga class offered by my hostel, on a wooden porch directly overlooking the ocean. The setting could not have been more perfect. The rest of the days were satisfyingly uneventful: Sampling the many restaurants. Reading my book. Taking lazy naps. Doing sweaty but rewarding runs along the beach in the late afternoon. Maybe watching a movie at night. It was good to take a little break from constantly being on the move.

With recharged body batteries (and after visiting a pink flamingo colony along the way), it was time to move further north-east. I was debating with myself if I should travel to Punta Gallinas or not, due to the strenuous journey to get there. But I figured I would regret not going later. So I went. And it was the right choice - it was the second highlight of my travels along the coast.

Punta Gallinas is the northernmost point of South America, and it is very, very remote. To get there, I had to take a bus to busy Riohacha, then a shared taxi to hot Uribia, then a 4x4 jeep to tranquil Cabo de la Vela, then an utterly rough boat ride to the remote Punta Gallinas peninsula, and then another 4x4 jeep to actually reach the lighthouse that marks the northernmost point of South America. And of course, then the whole bloody thing in reverse to go back to civilization. Phw.

However, it was totally worth it, both as the landscape up there is extremely beautiful, and because it offered a glimpse into the lives of the indigenous Wayuu tribe who call this inhospitable corner of the world their home. The whole region is very remote, and with the barren desert landscape where almost nothing grows, the people here are very very poor. Matter of fact, I have idea how they actually survive here. Certainly not through the few tourists that make it this far.

You start noticing the poverty and desperation at the numerous “road blocks” you have to drive through on the way to the peninsular. These roadblocks are "staffed" by little children, between three and ten years I would guess. They would drag a rope or steel chain across the road, forcing the cars to stop. Only after handing them a road toll of sorts, would they lower the rope and let you drive through. I was not aware of that beforehand, but one Colombian couple I was sharing the jeep with was well prepared: They had bought small packages of cookies and lollipops, and were handing them out generously to the children. On the three hour jeep journey, we passed maybe twenty of those road blocks, and those small sweets sure lit a few children’s faces!

Back in civilization (of sorts) five days later, I spent two blissful days at a beautiful nature hostel right in the jungle, coupled with a day-trip to the IMHO overrated Tayrona National Park, before I found myself in colonial Cartagena. Cartagena was a mixed bag for me. While the walled, Old City is undoubtedly very beautiful, it also felt a bit like Disneyland at times. I had the impression that nobody actually lives there any more, that the Old City has gentrified completely and forced all residents out. All is left are boutique hostels, emerald “museums” (free entry, yeah!), gift stalls, beachwear shops, art galleries and restaurants. All coupled however with the beautiful, well-preserved colonial architecture that makes Cartagena so special.

After a few days of wandering aimlessly around the old town of Cartagena and another two days on nearby, yet rustic Isla del Rosario (think no electricity or cellphone reception), it was time to leave the coast behind, heading inland again into the Zona Cafetera. Listo? Listo!



My route in Colombia so far (more to come): Medellin - Guatape - Rio Claro - Bogota - Zipaquira - Villa de Leyva - Paipa - Tunja - Guadalupe - Barichara - San Gil - Bucaramanga - Santa Marta - Ciudad Perdida - Minca - Palomino - Laguna Navio Quebrado - Cabo de la Vela - Punta Gallinas - Tayrona - Cartagena - Islas del Rosario.

Next stop: Pereira (Central Colombia).

To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com.



Bonus reading – an angry word or three on traffic in Colombia: While traffic can certainly be terrible in certain places (more so on the coast than in the interior), it is normally fairly OK and actually not overly aggressive. What makes it really challenging and very frustrating however is the supremely egoistic attitude of the drivers. Example: In two months in the country now, not a single car has let me cross a street, not even at one of the numerous pedestrian crossings. Pedestrian crossings simply hold no significance to any driver, and are 100%!i(MISSING)gnored (this is not an exaggeration).

If you do dare to cross the road at one of the crossings, you are honked out of the way by cars, who are completely unwilling to slow down, even if they are stuck in the thickest rush hour. It is the rule of the fittest: Buses are at the top of the food chain, they literally expect everyone else to yield to them. Then come SUVs and Jeeps, then normal cars, then motorbikes, and finally pedestrians.

On top of this, sidewalks are often blocked by parked cars, by hawkers selling their fare, or are simply non-existent. So often the only place to walk is on the street. But this is scary as hell as drivers will not yield one bit; they simply assume that pedestrians will move out of the way. Even if there is no oncoming traffic, they will not drive around you, but just keep going in their original path. My fellow Colombians pedestrians are used to it and simply step into the ditch and let the cars pass, but I find it hard to fathom. The few times I felt brave and did not yield to an oncoming car (forcing it to drive 50 centimetres around me), I received angry shouts and lots of horn-honking. How dare you, gringo?!

This egoistic attitude of drivers also extends to dealing with ambulances: An ambulance might be blasting their siren and flashing their light, but I have never once seen that any car would move over to the side so the ambulance could overtake. Hard to understand what goes on in the head of those people. Hopefully it will never be them in the back of that ambulance, blocked by their egoistic driver buddies who simply wouldn’t yield.

I have travelled in many countries with bad traffic, but there was always a sense of looking out for others, and a certain courtesy. Here in Colombia, there is no such thing, which makes it very frustrating after a while. Basically, the only way to cross a street is to simply start walking and NOT look at the drivers. As soon as you look at them, they assume that you have seen them and they just keep driving. If you don’t look at them, they will still honk their horn at you (“how dare you to cross my street at this pedestrian crossing?”), but at least they will slow down and let you cross. This leads to the almost comical sighting of old ladies and woman with children literally running across streets when they spot any opportunity. Scary shit, not cool.

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30th September 2022

Northern Colombia
You've ventured to parts of Columbia few people see. On our up coming visit we will be in more mainstream locations. Thanks for taking us along on this trip.

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