After leaving San Gil, I made my way towards the Caribbean coast and landed in the city of Santa Marta. I wish I kept a better log of the costs from city to city as I’m sure that would be of an interest for some readers.
I stayed at the Drop Bear Hostel based on the recommendation of some of the travelers I had met. Apparently, a drop bear is a fictional animal in Australia that is a species of koala that will attack tourists from above. The hostel is an ex-Cartel house owned by an Aussie. The hostel is humongous, with a large pool, large TV room / hangout area. The kitchen is also large enough to have two stoves. One stove is for the backpackers making their own food while the other stove is for the restaurant, which is run for the residents. The market is about a 5-10 minute walk away from the hostel, but the city center/coast is quite far. You have to either ride the bus or walk a good 30-45 minutes.
There are a lot of things you can do in Santa Marta and the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to explore everything it had to offer and hope to return there someday. While in the area, I went on the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) hike, went scuba diving in Taganga for the first time, and hung out at the beaches of Tayrona Park. What I wish I had time to do was explore more of the area such as Minca, Crystal Beach and Palomino. All of the destinations have heard other travelers raving about.
The lost city trek is definitely a very touristy thing to do, like Machu Picchu. You have to do it with a guide and it’s legal to do it on your own. The Trek through Tayrona Park is 4-5 days depending which option you choose. The only difference is the section being done in one or two days and a visit with some local indigenous people. The Trek is not for the lighthearted and should only be done if you’re in some shape. It was quite tough going through the jungle, forging knee high rivers and being constantly wet. My packing list included a pair of socks and shirt for each day, an extra pair of jeans and swim trunks. Looking back, I would have packed differently. Just one set of cloths for the day that i know will always be constantly wet, and one set of cloths for the night which I know will always be dry. Also ideally, you would bring a pair of river shoes, so you can easily forge the rivers. Initially, our group was diligently taking off shoes/socks, but as the rain poured, the ability to keep feet dry was near impossible. At some point you just deal with wet shoes/socks and just forge the rivers with them on. Bug repellent is also necessary throughout the day and at the base camp. Don’t forget to constantly reapply, I forgot and the end result was being eaten alive by the mosquitos. I personally thought the hike was harder than Machu Picchu due to the rawness of the path. Possibly due to the fact I went during the transition from wet to dry season, it was raining a majority of time while we were on the trek. The rain lead to very muddy paths and higher water in the rivers. There were actually times where it was easier to follow in the river than to deal with the very muddy path. The journey is also more enjoyable than the end destination and the comradery of those that completed the journey. In my tour group, there was one member who bailed after the second day due to leg cramps. He ended up having to go back on a donkey and joining a different group back out. Unfortunately for him, he became the outcast of the group and therefore became the butt of a lot of jokes. Especially since he was not able to defend himself. Even the driver who took us back and forth joined in on the fun. So lesson learned, don’t become the outcast or your not going to have a good time. Luckily by the time we reached the end destination, it was a nice sunny day. Unfortunately, I was unable to get a perfect shot due to the number of visitors and there was not a time where it was completely empty enough to take an empty lost city.
Taganga is a small beach port town 10 min bus ride away from Santa Marta. Taganga is where most of the dive schools are located in the area. It cost 150K pesos to do a discovery dive, which can be counted towards the PADI certification process. This was my first dive and it was definitely an interesting experience. Being able to tell your brain that you can breath normally while underwater took a bit of getting used to. Initially, my heart pounded fairly quickly and I was very hesitant. But as I got comfortable in the water, it became more natural. While you breath underwater your body depth will fluctuate with the amount of oxygen that you have in your lungs. I never got full control of my breathing where I can easily maintain my depth without much effort. I also had difficulty finding the right amount of oxygen to put into the vest to maintain constant buoyancy. During the discovery dive, you run through a few exercises like how to clear your mask, what to do when you lose your regulator, barrel rolls and somersault rolls. However, I was more interested in just observing what was going on around me more than the activities. On my drive group, there was three other student/instructor pairs with various student levels. There was one student/instructor pair, who was on their last day of PADI certification, got caught into an underwater current and was transported quite far from the boat. We lost them for a good 2 hours before we were able to retrieve them. The instructors went through the rescue process and were trying to replicate the steps they went on. However, the lost divers ended up going into a shipping lane and got pulled out by another dive boat and returned safely. They described the experience like a fan had turned on and you could feel the water rushing by. Additionally, the instructor and student held onto each other to guarantee they would not get separated. I would have been definitely shitting my pants had that happened to me, and luckily it did not.
Parque Tayrona is the national park in the area, and within the boundaries of the park contains many nice beaches that you can hike into. There are three main ways to get there. 1. Book the tour through a hostel, which is the most convenient and the most expensive. 2. Take a collective Taxi, the choice I made because it was convenient (10 Mil) and 3. Taking the Bus (6 mil). After arriving at the park, you can take a collectivo to the start of the trails, or walk there. At the trailhead, you have multiple destinations to get to. We went to the most famous Cabo San Juan. Unfortunately, the trails were not easily navigated, there were several points where it was severely waterlogged and care was needed to be safe. At one point we had to cross a stream via a fallen tree, which required some amount of balance to get across without falling. We arrived at San Juan too late in the afternoon to reserve any hammock, let alone the hammocks that are located under the gazebo. Supposedly you are able to reserve the hammocks under the gazebo ahead of time, but we were unsuccessful as the phones were always busy or not in service. The receptionist told us if you wanted a hammock, you would need to arrive before noon, which means you need to leave Santa Marta around 8/9am. So we settled on getting a tent for the night, which did include a bed inside. The light was quickly disappearing, but we managed to sit and enjoy the view for a while. However, towards the end of the night ~10, it started down pouring. Not really thinking about the rain until we were ready for bed, it became apparent the tent was not completely waterproof. But we settled in for the night anyway since the rain was starting to subside. However, through the night, the rain started up again and our tent was completely waterlogged by the morning. I woke up with a nasty headache and absolutely freezing. Luckily the sun came out for the afternoon and warmed us back up. It was a rather lazy day, just a day out on the beach and doing some reading and writing. On the way out, the path was even more waterlogged than when we had arrived. This time some of the trails were submerged completely in the water and we had to go through them to get back to the start point. There we waited for a bus to arrive and caught it back into town.
Once I got back into town though, disaster seemed to find me. At the supermarket, I felt incredibly sore, and just attributed it to the rough night of sleep and the hike out of the park. However, as the night wore on, it became quickly apparent I had a fever as well. The next morning, I couldn’t move and when I spoke to the owner of the hostel about going to see a doctor, he knew I had Chikungunya. It is a Dengue like virus that is transmitted by mosquitos. The symptoms included a fever, sore muscles and joints, and a rash. I was basically bed ridden for 5 days with the fever and another week of sore muscles and joints. By the time I was ready to travel again, I wanted to get out of Santa Marta and continue my journey, so I didn’t continue my PADI certifications.
According to the Hostel owner, the bus terminal in Cartagena is very far from the city, so it was more cost effective to book a shuttle, which will drop you off close to the hostel instead of having to pay 2 taxis, and the bus.