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Northern Colombia: beaches and beyond

First stop Playa Blanca, a short cruise from Cartagena, or a wasteful day trip via Islas del Rosario. The Islas del Rosario are part of a national park of small cay islands, which looked beautiful, but I decided instead to stay on Playa Blanca for a couple of nights.

Playa Blanca

Travelling with Lucy, we arrived in time for a late lunch and mass assault by women selling ‘massaje’ men selling anything from an assortment of plastic jewellery to oysters, “try, try!” and that’ll be COP10,000 if you were stupid enough to try their wares.

Lucy and I soon gave up on trying to find the Lonely Wanker’s recommendation and plumbed for Hugo’s and an upstairs room under palm frond thatch with two beds, no running water and thus no showers for two days! However, that didn’t stop him developing a huge crush on Lucy.

When all the boats had left for the day about 3.30/ 4 pm, the beach settled down, the harriers and hawkers flew home to roost, the sun started wearily to droop and the twenty or so gringos who were stranded for the night, swam in the crystal pale water or walked the finally deserted beach. After two hot, sweaty nights we were more than ready to leave. My morning swims were a highlight for me, beautiful snorkelling with great visibility – and I saw stingrays, a barracuda, countless bait balls and beautiful coloured shoals of fish. But the beach could have been beautiful; white sand, swaying palm trees, clear still waters, but for man’s intervention. Horrendous plastic makeshift shelters covering plastic chairs littered the length as did actual rubbish strewn everywhere.

Also it would have be relaxing except for the constant aggressive efforts of the locals to sell you stuff; with the women persistently trying to rub your shoulders in wasted attempts to sell a massage, grinding sand further into the skin. Unfortunately man had turned paradise into frankly a bit of a dump.

After a refuelling in Cartagena, we hot-footed it to Tayrona National Park near Santa Marta, not least because it was an election weekend (read dry – no alcohol to be bought or consumed!). And despite a nation-wide alcohol ban from 6 pm Friday to 6 pm Sunday there was still no president elected – it was only the first round – WHAT?!?!? There was to be another round, and another dry weekend 3 weeks later. Armed with a decanted bottle of vodka in a plastic water bottle, Lucy and I headed to the beaches of Tayrona Park to meet up again with Bee and some other girls we’d met in Cartagena.

Cabo San Juan

Second stop Cabo de San Juan, in Tayrona National Park; a jungle that cascades over huge boulders and mountains down into beautiful scheduled bays of sparkling sand and warm seas. The beaches are accessible by horse, foot or boat and accommodation ranges from luxury ecohabs to hammocks strung cheek by jowl for an extortionate 25,000 COP for the ariba (upstairs) ones, where there is more air and less mosquitoes but a long trek to the bathroom or COP 20,000for those strung in a mosquito invested sweat pit.

As we were travelling from Cartagena that day, we dumped our big packs in Taganga (see later) and the LP’s hostel pick the not very nice Divanga, there are much much better places to stay, and jumped into a cab with the idea of getting a bus from nearby Santa Marta to the Park. The taxi driver persuaded us to take the taxi, not because he dropped the price from 80,000 to 40,000, not because “it was his privilege to have two beautiful English girls in his cab”, but because the park closed at 5 pm and we would not get there if we relied on public transport. So we rocked up at 4.30 pm, parted with 35,000 COP to enter the park and then another 16,000 COP each to ride a horse to Arrecifes, one of the closer beaches , from there we walked another 40 minutes (really over an hour) to Cabo San Juan. It only took us an hour as we were practically running being pursued by relentless mossies in the gathering dusk.

We opted for the hammocks ariba and paid our COP 25,000 each and headed up a steep path (that became more treacherous at night after several rums) to a hut on top of huge boulders over looking two bays. It was stunning and we smugly took our hammocks, not contemplating the complete drenching we would endure over the next two nights.

That night we ate out under the stars with Bee, Aisha, Sorcha, Lilach, girls we had met on the day trip to Playa Blanca. Despite the alcohol ban we drank rum and the vodka we had smuggled in. Lucy and I found ourselves at 3 am contemplating life, under the watch of a nearly full moon, sitting on a rock as the Caribbean sea lapped quietly around us.

The next day thoughts of a jungle trek were surpassed by the idea of chilling on the beach with the girls. We put it off until the next day but were then further dissuaded, it didn’t take much, by two Brits, Nick and Will who had done it and so instead we headed to another deserted beach, until Oggie and Yaya, turned up to demonstrate coconut golf. Whilst cooling off in the sea we watched a huge green iguana run down the beach so quickly it seemed the sand was burning his feet and hurl himself into the white water, where he remained surfing.

Our second night we sat out on the little deck watching the amazing lightning show, after eating dinner with an ever expanding group of people reaching 16 – 18 people that we had met in various parts of Colombia and South America. Whilst watching the show, we were told that we may want to pull down the black tarpaulin when the rains came – er the rains??? Just then we felt a couple of drops and suddenly the heavens erupted and poured forth a deluge of unrelenting water. Quickly we battened down the hatches only to find the tarp only covered the sea facing side and the rain was coming in from the land side. So the consultants, there were a number of us, got to work and finding another piece of tarp created a makeshift shelter in the torrential rain, getting soaked with thunder and lightning all around us. Having managed to find a dry spot we secured all our belongings from the flood and it was quite fun with everyone mucking in to ensure we remained relatively dry, but when the rains came the next day and continued from 4 pm onwards it was a bit tedious.

Despite being able to shower in the rain and wash my hair, it got very boring and we were more than ready to head to Taganga the next day.

Tayrona accommodation

Tayrona itself is stunning, it is just a shame the accommodation is so expensive and yet so basic; there was a massive hike to the bathrooms, and 25,000 was expensive for just a hammock that were hung inches from each other meaning you were practically sleeping on top of your neighbour. Taganga has become pseudonymous with Israelis and partyin, although there are only 2 places to party. It is a dive centre mecca for those wanting to do their ‘open water’ cheaply and tens of centres compete for business amongst the many backpackers who use Taganga as a jumping off point for the Lost City trek, Tayrona and the Guajira Peninsula. Unfortunately the diving was decidedly average, the beach and sea dirty and the village itself nothing special. More unfortunately I got stuck there for longer than I cared for. Thankfully we were staying in a fabulous room in Casa Felipe which was fortuitous because Bee became quite ill with a fever and Lucy developed not one but 3 or 4 cold sores requiring her stay out of the sun, so I had no play mates, not that you really want to do anything as Taganga on a good day is about 35 – 38 degrees centigrade with 80 – 90 percent humidity. This left me playing unsympathetic nursemaid. I’m neither a good patient nor nurse, but I ran around doing chores, taking Bee in and out of nearby Santa Marta for blood tests to see if she had Dengue or Malaria, she didn’t and then back to see the doctor and interpreting for her. He claimed it was a kidney infection so put her on antibiotics and painkillers. Unfortunately after 48 hours she was feeling worse. So was I. I was bored out of my tiny mind so stated I was going up the peninsula with or without the sick duo – told you I was an unsympathetic nursemaid, but it is also one of the beauties of travelling alone; answering to no one but yourself. Thankfully Lucy was feeling better; so on Monday we clambered into a taxi and taking Bee to a private clinic in Santa Marta. We left her there with an English speaking doctor, before heading to Riohacha. Although a seaside town, we were there so briefly and due to a tropical storm and power cut that immersed us in darkness for most of the night, it hardly warrants a mention in this ‘beach’ blog. But via our hostel we organised a 4 x 4 jeep and driver, Tony, to take us to the most northern point of South America, Punta Gallinas and an adventure into the wild.

The whole of the Guajira Peninsula is sparsely populated by the matriarchal Wayuu people who roam freely between Colombia and Venezuela; is relatively lawless and along the Caribbean coast a prime spot for smuggling everything from cocaine to contraband. There are no paved roads, little to no infrastructure, electricity etc, yet there was intermittent mobile phone reception – this is 2010 even in remote Colombia. The terrain is harsh, dry and barren. It reminded me of the Kalahari, in Botswana, low stunted acacia trees whose leaves were being nibbled by goats standing on hind legs with donkeys sheltering under the sparse canopy. The earth a light grey sand and in places brick red; the communities a couple of mud huts. The difference being road blocks manned by young children demanding sweets. Our driver wasn’t playing their game and in the local dialect demanded they lower their rope barricades. Reluctantly they did. On the one occasion he told us to give sweets, dulces, to the kid, the child looked so disappointed with our offering that Tony, our driver, probably decided it was best not to do that again, and we continued on our journey without parting with any cash or dulces.

We arrived at a hut with a telegraph mast and were informed this was the most northern point of the South American Continent. A few donkeys hobbled around desperate for some shade from the unforgiving scorchio mid day sun. Tony then took us to our accommodation for the night, his brother’s place, a clutch of houses on top of huge burnt orange cliffs that jutted out in a spit with the wild Caribbean on one side and a sheltered bay of jade waters on the other; complete with mangrove swamps. Here the toilets flushed and water came out of a shower head, bloody luxury! Our hammocks were chinchorros, huge traditional hammocks big enough to totally cocoon yourself in. After negotiations, we were set for the night. COP 10,000 for the hammock, COP 15,000 for the lobster dinner and another COP 20,000 boat ride to find Flamingos, which we duly did, getting a bit too close initially sending them airborne in ungainly flight. We then tried with limited success to take photos from a constantly rocking and jiving boat. After the photo session we headed to a deserted beach, the first of many. We were the only tourists in the area and that night we held out until 7.30 before collapsing into our welcoming hammocks, showered and well fed, we gently swayed under the diamond studded velvet night sky, drifting off into one of our best night’s sleeps. We slept peacefully until the bleating of a lonely wandering goat woke us.

We arouse early and headed to Taroa Beach, a place of sheer wonder. Huge shifting sand dunes spilled down into the gentle turquoise waves of the Caribbean. Miles and miles of deserted undulating and virgin ochre dunes stretched as far as the eye could see. We felt we were on the edge of the world and could have spent a longer time there, but Tony was eager to get going onwards to Cabo de la Vela. We arrived in Cabo after some impressive off road diving, check point negotiations, which didn’t go as smoothly as the day before, but we still managed to get through without reducing our candy hoard. I continued to be mesmerised by the landscape, so reminiscent of the Africa of my childhood, dry river beds, scrub land shot with splashes of paint as crimson and aureolin birds fled disturbed by our mechanical beast.

Cabo was a bit of a disappointment, it was still rustic, but resembled a ghost town, desolate and forlorn with none of the wild remote beauty and charm of Punta Gallinas. Makeshift shacks of palm fronds lined the ‘road’ a flattened pathway of compact dirty sand. Walking along you feel in the Wild West, there is an air of expectation, of slight menace, as if people are waiting for a shoot out; dogs hunkering under any semblance of shade whilst locals stare; unsure or uncertain of your purpose or want. The main draw of Cabo is the winds which blow down the coast, attracting a multitude of kite surfer who whip down close to the shore, flip in the air with mixed results in their landing before shooting off in the opposite direction. Thankfully close by, a 40 minute to an hour walk or 15 minute jeep drive, is the the Playa de Pilon under the auspices of the Pilon de Azucar, a pyramid shaped hill. Lucy and I decided to make an expedition but made the huge mistake of buying a 5 litre bag of water to stock up our empty bottles. When we tried to drink it the water was beyond foul, it was putrid, smelt like sewage and tasted of rotting life. Our walk back under the harsh early afternoon heat was unforgiving and the first thing we did when we returned to the village was to buy and down to two bottles of drinking water. Later that night as we were busy watching the sunset and the kite surfers, the Colombian army sneaked up on us. We turned around to see about 8 military police vehicles and 30 or 40 uniformed and armed police. And why were they there, to pick up a motobike and take photos – “por moto y foto” and yes Lucy and I were the subject of many photos… all pretty hilarious. We departed Cabo after two fitful nights in chinchorros at 4 am on the scheduled jeep service to meet the main road from Venezuela to Riohacha. We pilled in with 6 gringos; a lovely couple of Colombian chicas; numerous bags, polystyrene boxes full of fish and other goods that were more often than not hoisted onto the roof that was slowly buckling under the weight and about 15 Wayuu. Just when we thought we couldn’t physically fit any more people in, we would stop and more would cram in or hang off the back. There was no space to move; limbs were falling asleep as the freezing early morning air ferociously whipped through our hair and bodies as we charged through the barren landscape watching darkness slowly giving way to orange, pink and yellow.

We arrived back in Taganga for the weekend and to find Bee. The trip had been expensive, there are no roads in the Guajira Peninsula so it is necessary to hire a driver and a 4 x 4 or go with a tour, neither of which comes cheap. We had been quoted COP 720,000 to leave Taganga on a 3 day; 2 night tour. But by making our way to Riohacha and doing it ourselves we managed to spend slightly less; COP 500,000 about US$250 for all transport, accommodation and food for 5 days and 4 nights. Sometimes it pays to be adventurous and I’m so glad we went, as Punta Gallinas became another highlight of my trip.

Back in Taganga we managed through email and Facebook to kind of locate Bee, who didn’t know exactly where she was herself. After we left her, the clinic decided to keep her in for a couple of nights rather than sending back to a hostel on her own. But her credit card was declined and not understanding Spanish and feeling a bit delirious she uncomprehendingly was turfed out of the clinic and put on the back of a nurse’s scooter and taken to the nurse’s home where the whole family cared for her.


Martha, the nurse, injected the antibiotics; her mother cooked and her sister translated. When we saw Bee the next day she was positively glowing, having experienced such immense hospitality and generosity from a family that had so little and didn’t expect anything from her, thinking she was destitute and homeless in Colombia.

More by this author on her Travelpod Blog.

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