One thing I think I underestimate as a mountain person by birth is the wonderful, calming, gorgeous opportunities afforded alongside the ocean. Tayrona was everything promised; hot, touristy, a bit of a scene, and stunning scenery. However, Blake and I still craved more time relaxing together, somewhere romantic and calm and off the beaten path.
Palomino lies further east along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, north but not so far north that you need to take the 24 hours aside necessary for the recommended but remote northernmost point in South America. The lure is that you can stand in the waters of the Caribbean, turn around, and gaze at the glaciers atop the Sierra Nevadas. Nowhere else on earth has high peaks in such close proximity to tropical beaches. It seemed like a great finale to our adventure, relaxing and remote and lovely. We had just 48 more hours to go on our travels, and indulging in a charming beach proved to be an excellent choice. After our stay, we wished we had more time or had come here sooner, as the longer we stayed the more we realized that this stretch of coast is lined with hidden surf communities, super chill off-the-grid hotels, and hammocks gazing at perfect sunsets.
None of this was clear in leaving Minca. We took the jeep down from Minca to a blue-collar neighborhood in Santa Marta, then found a bus headed up the coast. Although easy to find, these busses seemed to fill quickly and vary widely in quality. We basically lucked out and stepped right onto one pulling out of the garage, and found seats together to boot. Both Blake and I had turned introspective, and a little grumpy, considering the end of our travels. The heat along the coast didn't really help, and we hoped that our last memories of Columbia were still going to be magical. Palomino was a little adventure, what the doctor ordered, and comes highly recommended.
We took the coastal highway bus for about two hours, getting off alongside the highway in what appeared to be a very nondescript bus stop. Tacky tourist wares and fried food stalls did not make this town appear distinct in any way, except for the hint of a booming economy due to the thousand mototaxis parked at the nondescript cafes. Alighting from the bus, a small army of mototaxi drivers wait to take you to whatever resort you've chosen as your final destination. We'd booked a private cabin through our hostel in MInca at a tiny resort called "Playa Mandala". I'd recommend it.
We swam and played in the waves. We strolled up and down the beach, marveling at the mountains as they peeked their tops above the palms. We oogled at the sexy beachgoers and aww-ed at adorable families spending their days building sandcastles. We relaxed with a rum beverage and watched the most stunning tropical sunset of our lives (that's REALLY high praise!). Our room included half-board, and we ate delicious home-cooked fresh ceviche and grilled chicken with coconut rice. Saying goodbye to the freedom of the road is bittersweet, and I always hope the last days of a trip are as fulfilling as the first. Palomino was magical. As an exit from travel, I can't imagine a more chill transition. .
After the heat of Tayrona, we sought escape once more into the mountains. Perched high in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the wonderful town of Minca. The town consists of a single main street lined with shops, restaurants, and open air markets and the farms and fincas which dot the surrounding hills many of which have converted to hostels. We chose to stay close to town at Marymonte. Our room was only so-so and the internet was out in the whole area due to a recent storm. However, the hostel grounds included 2 mango trees loaded with ripe fruit and the staff was so delightfully warm and cheerful.
The town itself is a delight. It has not one, but TWO, bakeries serving amazing bread. One is French, the other German and they both make a pan chocolat (I fell in love with the German version, Annie preferred the French). There are also a number of excellent restaurants ranging from Colombian, Italian, American, and Middle Eastern.
We spent a couple of days relaxing on the porch of Marymonte, drinking in the views, reading anything we could find, enjoying the excellent food, and walking the roads leading further up into the mountains. Another highlight was our afternoon spent at the waterfalls of Pozo Azul about an hour's walk above town.
Seeking to increase our adventure quotient once again, Annie and I headed off for a few days hiking in Tayrona National Park. This coastal park near the town of Santa Marta did not disappoint. Hiking? Check. Jungle? Check. Beaches? Check. Monkeys!?! Check.
Reaching Tayrona from Cartagena is an uncomplicated afare and we opted for perhaps the easiest option: door to door private transport. Our driver picked up in the morning and after 45 minutes spent picking up the rest of our fellow passengers, we were off. The road paralleled the coast and took us through sand dunes and miles and miles of salt marshes.
Whenever we stopped for a break, the heat outside was truly astounding. We made good time and in 4-5 hours we arrived at our destination: our van stopped on the side of the highway and we walked up the road to the entrance. We bought park tickets and a couple of cheap snorkels from a roadside tout. From the park entrance, the trailhead is an additional four kilometers and if you're hardpressed or hardcore your can choose to walk. We payed 3 pesos a person for a ride.
From the trailhead, the path winds through the jungle for 1 hour before bringing you your first sight of the ocean. The trail offers plenty to keep hikers entertained enroute. There are the immense trees, the vines and lianas, the leaf cutter ants, as well as huge monolithic boulders. We made sure to carry plenty of water and the extra weight, combined with the heat, made this a suprisingly challenging hike. Within 15 minutes we were both soaked in sweat.
Tayrona is not one beach but a series of beaches and coves strung out along the coast. The first beach you come to is called Arrecifes. This beach is reached in roughly 45 minutes of solid hiking - more if your slow :). One of the most challenging sections of this hike is a slog across the sand in the open sun - so hot and so tiring!
From Arrecifes, we continued onwards for 30 minutes before reaching La Piscina - a bay sheltered by rocks where it is safe to swim and snorkel. As it was getting late in the afternoon, we continued on and reached Cabo San Juan in another 45 minutes. On this section of our hike we were lucky enough to see a group of Capuchin monkeys just off the trail. This was our first time seeing monkeys in the wild in South America!
Cabo San Juan is a lovely campground with both tents and hammocks available for rent. You can swim here in a sheltered bay and there is a restaurant as well as a little store selling beer and snacks. Feeling a little tired from our hike, Annie and I, registered - DON'T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT - and set up our tent in the grass. Then we changed into our swim suits for a quick dip before dinner.
We spent the next 2 days enjoying the water, the beach, and the sunsets.