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Published: July 18th 2014
The past ten days have been spent exploring some of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The highlight for me was definitely Tayrona national park where beautiful beaches meet protected forest teeming with wildlife. We also spent time in Santa Marta, Palomino and travelled inland to the stunning mountain village of Minca.
Our first stop from Cartagena was Santa Marta where we based ourselves for the week; all of the places we visited were relatively remote so we couldn’t take all of our stuff, fortunately we were able to leave our large backpacks at the hostel while we explored. We stayed at ‘Drop-Bear Hostel’ in a residential area of Santa Marta which proved to be perfect for our needs. Although very gringo-fied Drop-bear has everything you need before setting off for a few days in the wilderness including a pool, tourist info, great staff and free luggage lockers. We were in and out of Drop-Bear three times in total. Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona
Our first destination was Tayrona national park. An hour or so on the bus north of Santa Marta is the entrance to the park and then from the entrance, as we discovered, it is another 2 hours
trek to Tayrona’s most popular beach, Cabo San Juan. There are other beaches and places to stay along the way but most of the beaches are un-swimmable due to dangerous currents.
Despite an early start, bus delays and dilly dallying at the entrance office meant we didn’t enter until about 11am by which time the sun was scorching. The path through the park is passable although a bit tricky in places but not easy or fun in the midday sun. However we were rewarded along the way by an abundance of wildlife. The first thing we saw were the numerous lizards that skit across the ground as you approach them, most of them are whiptails of some description but there are also many other types including anoles, yellow head geckos, amievas and tegus, all of them small and no bigger than 20-30 centimetres in length.
There are of course hundreds of birds of which the area is famed and we saw and heard plenty although most were too far off or quick to identify. The highlight though on this difficult journey was the two groups of cotton-headed tamarins that crossed our path as we sweated and panted our
way through the forest. Cotton-headed tamarins or ‘cotton-tops’ (Colombians call them ‘El Mico Titi’) are very small monkeys with heads crowned with fluffy white fur. Sadly they are critically endangered and only exist in small pockets in northern Colombia so to see them was quite special. Unfortunately they keep quite high in the canopy which makes for difficult photos. You can see a short video here:
We eventually made it to Cabo around 2pm after stopping for lunch about half way. After we checked in we jumped in the sea and quickly realised the walk had been worth it. The coved beaches at Cabo and the adjacent quieter beaches to the east and west were beautiful, white sand and palmed lined with pristine Caribbean blue waters. Perfect.
Most of the accommodation options in the park are either camping or covered hammocks, neither of which were cheap. We opted for hammocks and had three very good night’s sleep despite the campsite being full to the brim. For us it was quite appropriate because we were staying during the same weekend as Glastonbury festival is held in the UK and although we didn’t have the music there were plenty
of similarities, camping and dodgy toilets (only 4 for 300+ people) being the most obvious. We were blessed with glorious sunshine though, which rarely happens at the UK festival.
Considering the relative difficulty getting into the park (no vehicles are allowed) I was surprised at how busy Tayrona was although I probably shouldn’t have been; it was the Friday before a public holiday so there were many Colombian tourists making the most of the time off. Fortunately most were only interested in sunning themselves and bathing which meant the treks and forest areas were pretty quiet and still good for seeing wildlife. The added numbers also made the Colombia V Uraguay second round world cup game very exciting.
Even though we only spent three days in Tayrona I feel like we did loads and I could write a lot more but I’ll leave it there other than to say that Tayrona is much more than just beaches; so much of what I read only talked about beaches but the bio-diversity in the park is incredible and totally worth the $18 USD entrance fee. Some of the other wildlife we saw in the park, mostly along the Pueblito trail,
included: yellow-striped poisen dart frogs; green iguanas; various insects including a rhinoceros beetle, a jewel bug and a stick insect; dozens of butterflies; common basilisks; a yellow streaked snake; red-howler monkeys and white fronted capuchins; agouti’s; black vultures; woodpeckers; Andean squirrels; a silk moth; ghost crabs and very large blue land crabs. Minca, Sierra Nevada
After Tayrona we had a short stay back at Santa Marta before heading to Minca. Set 600 metres high in the Sierra Nevada the mountain village of Minca is quite a contrast to the hot and sticky Caribbean coast.
We also stayed here for three nights but were not so fortunate with the weather and for the first day and a half had to endure incessant drizzle which was occasionally interspersed with heavier downpours. In fact when we arrived via collectivo taxi in Minca the rain was very heavy and we still had a further 400 metres to travel up a winding dirt track to our hostel. The only way to do this was on the back of a motorbike or walk. We chose the bike and it was the scariest thing I think we’ve done. I began by holding onto the
grips behind me but after twenty minutes my forearms were aching so much I had to wrap my arms around my driver’s waist losing all man-points in the process. Helen hated it so much that she said our return would be by foot.
Even though the hour journey was less than enjoyable the hostel made up for it and gave us towels, beer and front row seats to the Belgium v USA game when we arrived. Because of the rain most of our first two days was spent playing cards and sharing stories with other travellers.
We were set to leave on day 3 but the sun had come out and made everything look stunning. Subsequently we spent the day exploring the surrounding forest and cooling off in one of the many waterfalls that are in the area.
Again, like Tayrona, Minca is blessed with an abundance of wildlife, mostly birds and butterflies but we also saw red howler monkeys and our hostel was home to the biggest orb-weaver (spider) I have ever seen. Santa Marta & Palomino
Our last few days were spent in Santa Marta where we watched Colombia’s last world cup game
against Brazil (more about that in my next blog) and Palomino where we spent a day at the beach. Santa Marta is ok although a little hot and as mentioned we only really used it as a base; we didn’t spend long in Palomino either, it’s supposed to be one of Colombia’s best beaches but we preferred Tayrona as the beaches were more picturesque and you could at least swim at some of them.
We could definitely have spent more time exploring this region and hopefully we will in the future but for now our next destination is Medellin.
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