Constant Summer

Paul & Victoria's Travel Blog

Category: Colombia

Jungle Time In Colombia, Peru & Brazil

We flew into Leticia, Colombia, yet another place of high humidity, but this time, a land covered by the tall and green trees of the Amazon Jungle. As we flew into the small jungle town, seeing only the jungle going on forever out into the distance, we thought, “Where does anyone live here?” The jungle was so impressive, so green – and even a bit intimidating. When we landed we knew that we would only be spending two days in Leticia, one of which was the day we arrived. We also knew that there would be a few hoops that we would have to jump through before able to leave Colombia and travel into Peru.

Luckily, we found one of the best hostels we have stayed at, if only for the simple fact that our host had all the knowledge we needed to make our journey to Peru, taking a boat 10 hours up the Amazon river from Leticia, Colombia to Iquitos, Peru. And a huge plus, she spoke perfect english. Score! We got to the hostel around 2:30pm and immediately sat down with our host as she explained the town. One special thing about Leticia is that every night at around 5:30pm, thousands of small parrots come flying from the jungle to perch in the trees of the main square for the night. We had to see this – what an unexpected and unique experience, we thought. She also offered to book us for an all-day jungle tour the next day, which we desperately wanted to do. The only problem was that we would have to spend the rest of our first day making our travel arrangements for Peru, as there would be no other time to do so. As she started to describe the task we were about to embark on, our eyes got wide and we realized we only had about two hours to get it all done. Paul and Victoria’s South American Amazing Race was about to begin.

3 COUNTRIES IN AN HOUR AND HALF

First off, we had to leave the hostel and make our way back to the airport that we had just flown into. Thankfully, Leticia is small and taxis are extremely easy to find. Our taxi driver took us to the airport where we ran in and got our exit stamp on our passports from Colombia. While we went into the immigration office our taxi driver waited for the three minutes it took us to get this done. He drove us back into town and through broken Spanish, we explained that we needed to go to the dock to find a boat to take us across the Amazon river to a small island in Peru, Santa Rosa. We felt so very lucky, since the moment we got out of our cab, a young man locked eyes with us and said, ‘Santa Rosa?’, and led us down a short, muddy embankment to his water taxi boat. Phew, one task down two more to go. We boarded his small, long, and very skinny wooden boat while stepping through other small boats to start our short trek across the Amazon River. This took about 8 minutes and suddenly, we were in Peru.

Our boat driver, just like our taxi driver, understood exactly what we needed to do and why we were heading to Santa Rosa. We got the impression that the only travelers coming through from Leticia to Santa Rosa are going straight to the immigration office for their paper work and right back over the river. The moment we stepped of our boat, we were waved down by yet another man. He yelled, “Immigration?”, we replied, “Si”, and off we went in his small motorcycle taxi which, in the jungle, are called “tuk-tuks” (pronounced with a “two” sound). Right away, we got stuck in the sand and other tuk-tuk drivers helped push the motorcycle out of the rut, and then off we went into the small shanty town. Within minutes we were at the door of the immigration office. Thankfully our host in Leticia had warned us that the man that runs the office is usually very crabby, often drinking beer in the back, and to be patient for him to arrive at the door. Sure enough, an unhappy looking man eventually opened the door, led us to his office, and handed us pens and immigration papers. We filled them out, handed him our passports they were stamped for our entry into Peru, and throughout this 3-minute transaction there were literally no words spoken. It was a very odd and awkward experience, but one we still laugh at. Our tuk-tuk driver had waited outside for us, took us back to our friendly boat driver who had also waited for us, and we made our way back across the Amazon river, but this time to Brazil.

Since we were leaving on a Thursday, the boat company that we needed to take up the Amazon into Peru was a Brazilian one. Therefore, we had to purchase the tickets at their office in Brazil. Somehow (we are still not totally sure how we managed this so perfectly without a good map), we got off the boat at the main dock, walked along haphazard planks overy the muddy beach, through streets filled with markets, took a couple random turns, because they “felt right”, and in about 10 minutes we were at the ticket office, which looked nothing like a ticket office one might find in the states. We knew we were at the right place though, because our host had given us landmarks around the office, thank goodness! We bought our tickets, which was only possible to do once we had both the exit and entry stamps from Colombia and Peru, hence why we had to go through all three tasks in that specific order. After the tickets were bought, we started walking towards the main street that would take us back into Colombia, several blocks away, and strangely did not have an official border crossing, meaning we were able to walk straight into one country from another with ease. We stopped along the way to escape the heat and have a celebratory treat. Our host had told us that if we had time, to stop and have an açaí drink. Açaí is a berry found in the Amazon Jungle and they make a slushy-like drink out of it. It’s popular in the states as a health supplement, packed with antioxidents. We sat in the air conditioned shop, ate our treat, and within minutes we we were crossing the border back into Colombia.

All of this, incredibly, took just over an hour and a half. We left our hostel at 3pm and crossed back into Colombia just before 5pm. We were just in time to make it to the main square of Leticia and watch the thousands of parrots make their way into the trees to perch for the night, which was a spectacular sight (and sound), as promised.

JUNGLE TOUR

The next day, we left our hostel at about 7am to make our way down to the dock and get on a boat along with about 25 other people for a day of sightseeing up and down the Amazon river. Right away, we made friends with a very sweet Colombian girl, Deandra, which ended up being even more helpful than one could imagine. She spoke great english and was able to fill in the pieces of the descriptions coming from the guide that we couldn’t put together, since he spoke only spanish.

Our first stop was actually what had sold us on the tour – Isla de los Micos, or Monkey Island. We got off the boat, walked through the small but impressive souvenir area and were led towards a clearing in the trees. As we were walking to the clearing, countless small and unbelievably cute monkeys appeared out of the jungle and were following and leading us. We got into the clearing and within seconds, the monkeys were climbing and jumping all over us. They were jumping from the trees, from other people and literally climbing up our legs from the ground. One might think it would be scary, but we were both so ecstatic. The monkeys were so light, and so soft, almost like they were small cats.The tour group was in the clearing for about 25 minutes and the entire time we were covered by multiple monkeys, on our heads, shoulders and back. One even found Paul so appealing that he sat on his shoulder and nuzzled his small monkey head into Paul’s mesh hat. By far one of the coolest experiences we had in Colombia.

Next, we made our way down the river to a part of the jungle that is still inhabited by a tribe of indigenous people. We were seated to watch a song and dance performance by the women of the tribe, then walked through booths selling their handmade gifts ranging from huge wooden bowls to intricate bracelets and earrings.

Our next stop was to see a pond where the largest lily pads in the world grow. We learned that the plant was named Victoria after Queen Victoria, because she had pushed forward and funded the exploration of the jungle that led to the discovery of these impressive plants.

Our fourth stop was for lunch in the small town of Puerto Narino. The timing was perfect – we ate lunch while watching as a heavy jungle rainstorm passed through. As the rain started to clear and became a light drizzle, we made our way up a tall lookout tower that gave us a great view of the isolated jungle town. Since it is not connected by roads, there are no cars in Puerto Narino, so all of the “streets” are really just wide sidewalks. We watched from above as school children walked home in their uniforms, and people walked through town, just like it were any other place in the world. On one side of the lookout, we could see the Amazon river and across the river to the jungle of Peru. On the other side, we saw jungle that stretched so far, it was overwhelming. All the green, the trees we had only ever learned about in school and seen in pictures. It made us feel so very small and far from home.

As we made our way back to Leticia, we stopped a few times along the river to try to see the dolphins, and eventually found a spot where there were a few occasionally popping up out of the opaque brown water. There are two different types of dolphin that inhabit the river. One is the cute grey type that most people would recognize. The other is what they call the pink dolphin. Because of the name I thought that the dolphin would be cute like its cousin, but I was wrong on that. They have a strangly shaped, large humps on their back and are more of a pink-grey hue. They might not be the prettiest of animals, but definitely were one of the more exciting things to see while traveling down the Amazon.

As our tour was coming to what we thought was an end, we landed at a small town where even more magic happened. Inside a couple of small shelters, we spent about 30 minutes in what can only be described as an Amazonian petting zoo. We got to see not only more monkeys of a couple different species, but got to hold and cuddle a baby sloth, which proved to be Paul’s most favorite part of the day. At one point I was holding a sloth, with a monkey on my shoulder and a parrot on my head – cuteness overload! I had no idea parrots of that size were as heavy as the are! We were even able to hold and pet a small tiger-like cat. We still are not sure of the name, but know that it is a relative of the tiger. It was pretty restless and wild-eyed, and we were only allowed to hold it for a second while taking a photo before its handler took it back. As we were leaving we came across the largest rodent in the world, the Capybara, grazing in a grassy area near the shelters. It is a close relative to a guinea pig, so it looks like a HUGE guinea pig, about the size of a big dog. They are grass-eaters and very tame – it seemed to completely ignore us as we stood beside it. After seeing a couple other people pet it, Paul was brave enough to get a photo petting it. I opted out of that, and took the pictures instead.

BOAT TO PERU

Since all of our paperwork and passports had been stamped to leave Colombia and enter Peru, we got packed and ready to embark on our next part of our South American adventure. All I can say is that the amazing race of being in three countries in less than 2 hours was far more easy than the ten-hour boat ride to Iquitos, Peru. We woke up at 2:30am, and a tuk-tuk picked us up at the hostel to take us to the dock in Brazil at 3am. There, a small boat took us across the Amazon River to another dock in Santa Rosa, Peru, where we waited around about an hour until we were able to board our boat. Incredibly, while we waited we were pleasantly surprised to run into a german couple whom we had met on our second night in Cartegena, Colombia, at our very first hostel. They too were traveling to Iquitos. Small world.

Finally we were able to board the boat, which basically was a floating bus. It had rows of seats, and no deck or anywhere else to go. The seats were below a row of windows so you couldn’t even look outside unless you stood up in front of your seat. All of this made the 10-hour boat ride feel more like 24. It was cramped, hot, and muggy, and both of us were ecstatic to get off the boat once we docked in Iquitos.

THE BIG JUNGLE CITY OF IQUITOS

Iquitos, Peru is the largest city in the world not connected by road to any other place. As a result, all things imported are coming mostly by boat, and some by planes. Since we knew this, we were very surprised to see how large the city itself actually is – it felt like a big, bustling, fairly modern place. There are few cars, but the cars that we did see were more consistently nice than any other cars we had seen for the most part along our trip. The majority of transportation for average people are motorcycles and moto taxis, and as a result, the streets seem chaotic, like a never-ending motorcycle rally coming from all directions.

Since the city is in the jungle, we expected it to be extremely hot, which it was! Thankfully our room had air conditioning (our first in quite a while). We spent a couple days in Iquitos. One day, we made our way down to the largest market we had been to yet. It is a place rather hard to describe, but almost everything and anything one would need for day-to-day life can be found in the market. Different booths had everything – clothing items, household items, health and beauty products, small electronics, a ton of different foods. Every type of fruit and vegetable. Freshly-caught, bizarre-looking fish from the Amazon river, sold whole or as prepared dishes. Then we started to enter the “meat department” of the market. This was an area that was interesting, to say the least. We saw every type of animal to be caught or raised along the Amazon, Chickens in their entirety, or parted out into piles – even just baggies of chicken feet. We walked past tables with complete heads of alligators, and to top it off we even saw an armadillo literally cut in half from head to tail (a complete cross-section), which was an eye-opener for sure. After a while of being in this area, we were overcome by the undescribable smell of all of this stuff wafting around in the afternoon heat. We made our way out and caught a moto taxi back to the main plaza. But we must say, we are glad we spent the hour we did walking around in the market, being able to see the way of life in that part of the jungle was a lesson, experience, a small adventure and one that we will never forget.

We spent about a week in the jungle and after that we were ready for some city time. We boarded a plane in Iquitos and made our way to the city of Lima, not only for a change of pace but to meet and continue our Peru trip with our friend Melissa!

 

The (Way Too) Big City of Bogota

Yet another overnight bus ride and we found ourselves transported from the isolated, small town charm of San Agustin to the overwhelming, bustling Colombian capital of Bogota. We booked ourselves into an upscale hostel in the historic district of Candelaria, where most of the buildings date back to the 16th or 17th century. As the epicenter of tourism in Bogota, we expected it to be a little nicer, but instead found it mostly run-down, dirty, and unsafe after dark.

That said, we did see some remarkable things during our three day stay. Just a few minutes walk from our hostel was the Plaza de Bolivar, a huge square flanked by a gigantic cathedral, the presidential palace, the supreme court, and numerous other historic government buildings. It was sad to see many of these tagged with graffiti, though, which detracted from the charm and historical significance of it all.

We also visited Monseratte, an incredible cathedral overlooking the city from atop one of the huge mountains that tower over the historic district. To reach it, we took a tram that climbs slowly up a track at an impossibly steep angle, providing increasingly amazing views across the neverending city skyline. At the top, a walkway leads visitors along a series of 14 beautiful copper statues telling the story of Christ as he prepared for, and eventually faced, the crucifixion. The path ends at the foot of the cathedral, a simple, gleaming white building surrounded by walkways from which hundreds of people were sitting enjoying the view. Lots of selfie sticks were present. There was a mass going on inside, and we stood in the back for a few minutes listening to the booming echo of the priest’s sermon filling the cavernous interior. Following that, we walked a winding path through souvineer booths and small snack and lunch stands before taking the tram back down the mountain.  We had planned to spend the afternoon exploring some of the museums in the area but due to the national elections taking place that day, they were all unfortunately closed. It was probably due to the high altitude (almost 9000 feet), but we were feeling fairly exhausted and just spent the rest of the day and night watching Netflix on our tablet in our hostel room instead.

The next day, we took a day trip out of the city to the nearby town of Zipaquira, where we visited a very unique attraction, the underground Salt Cathedral. Built inside an old vacated salt mine about 600 feet underground, our tour took us through a maze of giant caverns carved from salt, with various religious displays and sculptures throughout. We were taken aback by the scale of the place, and the unfathomable skill required to build it. Soft religious music, glowing lights fading through various colors, and the cool, musty air lent a solemn tone, especially once our tour concluded and we were left to wander on our own through the tunnels and displays. It was unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

We returned to Bogota, made a quick dinner of breakfast burritos, and happily prepared for our flight the next morning into the Amazon jungle town of Leticia.

The Spanish Colonial Paradise of Villa de Leyva

It was  long day to get to Villa de Leyva, to say the least. Our trip began with a bus ride from San Gil to a city named Tunja. The ride only lasted about five hours, yet felt like eight, as we rode through curvy   mountain roads with a bus driver that seemed to accelerate and brake nearly every few seconds. Along with that, the ladies riding in front of us felt it necessary to have their seats reclined as far back as possible during the entire trip, the backs of their heads just inches from our faces. Those few frustrations were matched when the bus driver pulled into the city of Tunja, stopped on the side of a main road in a random place, and literally dropped us off with no explanation of where the bus terminal was to catch our next ride. As we got our bags together and started to put our packs on in pure frustration and a little fright, a taxi pulled up and took us straight to the terminal, where we were able to get on a small colectivo (pretty much a shared taxi van) to take us the rest of the 45 minute ride to Villa de Leyva, which happened to be the last one to catch for the night. As the sun set we curved through the mountain roads while being crammed right in front alongside the driver, which was a small blessing after our ride to Tunja.

As we pulled into the small town of Villa de Leyva and got out at the terminal we realized the town was bustling with people. We had arrived on the Sunday night of their annual Tree Festival. Since we had been unable to book a hostel in advance for our first night there, we wandered through the crowded cobblestone streets to find a hostel or hotel to stay. Since the festival was happening, we found that most hotels were either booked or far out of our price range. After checking with about 5 hotels and 1 hostel we found a small little hotel ran by a sweet little lady which was right around the corner from the main square. After we settled in we set out to find dinner for the night. Since we had such a long day, we treated ourselves to a wonderful Italian dinner of lasagna and a bottle of wine. That dinner brightened our spirits and we began our stay in the lovely and relaxed town of Villa de Leyva.

We woke up and checked out of our hotel room by noon that day and made our way to the hostel, Colombian Highlands. Paul had stayed there during his previous trip to Colombia and remembered it fondly. The hostel is located about a 15-minute walk out of town up a small dirt road. On our walk we had a short but sweet conversation with a boy about the age of 10 who walked alongside us, asking us questions in spanish that we mostly couldn’t understand. After he wished us a good day and disappeared into his house, we passed by a small army camp. As we turned the corner we made our final steps up a hill and into a small paradise. The building was surrounded by trees and a small garden in the center. We had booked a private room with a bathroom, and were expecting to stay in the main building , but our host took us out of the building and we walked a few feet to a private villa which we hadn’t even noticed as we walked up because it was surrounded by trees. Our room not only was very spacious with an attached bathroom, the nicest we had used, but also a small porch with a table and chairs and even a hammock! We felt as though we were kings, and immediately booked the room for a third night.

The next couple days were spent exploring the town and surrounding  areas. We went for a hike out of town to a museum that housed a large dinosaur fossil and many other sea creature fossils. We later found out that at one point the entire desert valley had been completely underwater. As we were quite hungry  once we reached the museum we decided to grab a small lunch. Like many other times along this trip our order somehow got lost in translation. Paul had ordered a couple arepas (flat cornmeal biscuits usually stuffed with meat , cheese or veggies)  but what we got was a small basket, yes basket, filled with small baked potatoes rubbed with salt and cut up chorizo. We were a bit confused but the little snack ended up being very tasty and very filling.

After we got back into town and were heading back up the road to our hostel, we met another traveler named Amanda, from Nova Scotia, Canada. We had a nice conversation with her and since she was traveling the area alone we planned to meet at the main square in the morning to do a couple different hikes the next day.

We had a really great day with our new friend, exploring a beautiful waterfall park, and getting a little lost on some country dirt roads before finding the archaeological site, El Infiernito, described as “the Stonehenge of Colombia”. The site was built as a center for astronomical observation and religious ceremonies. With huge upright-standing stones randomly emerging from the ground and an area with two lines of stones aligned east and west, we noticed that the standing stones appeared to have a phallic look to them. As we tried to translate the explanations of the structures we came to understand that they were in fact meant to look like the male phallus. We learned that not only was the site a place for observation of the sun and religious ceremonies but that it also was used for fertility rituals.
Villa de Leyva was one of our favorite stops along the trip so far. We greatly enjoyed the quaintness of the small town. The cobblestone streets among the white washed buildings with large wooden doors and balconies on nearly every structure looked as though we were in a movie set. We loved our accommodations and the relaxed energy we felt the entire stay, but after a few days, excitedly moved along to our next stop, Salento, in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region.

Into the Colombian Mountain Towns of San Gil, Barichara, and Guane

Our escape from the oppressive heat of the Caribbean coast began with our first bus ride in South America, a 13-hour overnight trip. It started at the Santa Marta bus station, which was surprisingly nice, big, and had a lot of really good empanada stands. We had a couple hours to wait, and our bus company provided an air-conditioned waiting room with a TV showing The Voice (latin american kids edition), which was a great place to pass the time and eat a lot of empanadas.

Our bus ride was very comfortable, and to our disbelief, even had on-board, albeit slow and spotty, wifi. The first several hours took us through dimly lit towns and countryside in a large banana farming region, and then into winding mountain roads with lightning storms and periodic rain. We slept for a few hours in our reclining seats, then looked out the window for most of the early morning as we rode through impressive canyons deeper into the mountains before reaching San Gil around noon.

San Gil is a small city that sits in a canyon along a twisty river. It is famous for outdoor adventure activities like rafting, mountain biking, rappelling, etc, of which we did approximately none. We did, however, spend some time walking around the town, which isn’t too fancy but has a really nice central plaza, a couple of beautiful churches, and a lot of hostels and restaurants to cater to the large amount of tourists who are more adventurous than us. But our reason for staying in San Gil was its proximity to the perfectly preserved colonial town of Barichara, and its little sister, the nearby village of Guane.

We woke up early the day after arriving in San Gil and took a small bus about 30 minutes into the countryside to visit Barichara and hike from there to Guane.

Barichara sits on the rim of a wide, steep-walled valley. Apparently, it’s a popular film and tv location, thanks to the whitewashed buildings with red roofs, flat stone streets, 500 year-old churches, and a tree-filled plaza. It’s a town that is easy to get lost in, in a good way. All of the buildings and streets look very similar, but luckily we could spot the top of the enormous main church from pretty much everywhere we walked, guiding us back to the center of town.

The church towers over the plaza, with red-hued stone walls and a big bell tower. The inside was cavernous and decorated with statues and paintings on every wall. Only a few blocks away, we visited the first church built in Barichara, considerably smaller, with stone walls, a rudimentary wooden roof, and a fantastically intricate wooden reredos (which we recently learned is the name for the decorative artwork and walls behind a church altar – thanks wikipedia!). Next door is a cemetery with a wide variety of interesting gravestones. Ranging from very old and fairly new, some were carved with religious symbols, while others had more personal ties. One grave we saw was in the shape of a tree with a cowboy hat hanging from one of the branches. Another was in the shape of a soccer ball. The graves were very close together, making it hard to find an appropriate path to walk through. Outside the cemetery walls, a couple horses were tied to a tree, waiting for their owners. It couldn’t have been more charming.

Eventually, we found our way to a small restaurant where we had some delicious veggie burgers on fresh baked buns, alongside potato chips, some tiny carrot and celery sticks with mango sauce, and freshly-made blackberry and strawberry juice. The entire meal was just a few dollars each.

After lunch, we started our hike to Guane, the small village a few miles down in the valley below Barichara. The towns are connected by a stone “road” called the Camino Real. It was built in the 1700s to facilitate travel on foot and move livestock from the small farms down in the valley up to Barichara. It begins as a narrow, rocky trail descending down the steep valley walls below Barichara before leveling and widening out, with piled stone walls on either side. The scenery along the trail was breathtaking, with views across the entire valley, passing small farms with cows, goats, and chickens wandering all over. The entire hike, we didn’t run into any other people – the Camino Real was all ours, for a little while anyway.

A couple hours later, we arrived in Guane, a tiny village of only a few streets, a very old church and plaza, and buildings similar to the architecture in Barichara. Oddly, the town was packed, and it quickly became obvious that we had arrived in the middle of a political rally. We had been noticing billboards and posters throughout Colombia for candidates, but didn’t expect to get such an up-close look at one. With the tiny streets crowded by enthusiastic supporters waving flags and wearing campaign tee-shirts, a big motorcade suddenly rolled into town. It began with flatbed trucks carrying as many people as could fit on the back, blasting music and honking horns. Then, a fleet of supporters on motorcycles. Last, a police escort rolled into the plaza, surrounding a silver SUV. People ran alongside it, waving and tapping on the pitch-black tinted windows. It stopped at a corner where we lost sight of it, but everyone went into a large building so we assume the candidate got out there to deliver a speech.

With the commotion over, we figured it was a good time to head home. Just as we were trying to figure out how to go about that, a small bus pulled up. We jumped on, paid about a dollar each, and rode out of the valley, making a quick stop in Barichara to pick up more passengers, and then back to San Gil. We got a pizza that night and headed out the next morning for Villa de Leyva, another colonial mountain town about 5 hours south.

The Jungle Beach of Parque Tayrona

Our shuttle took us four hours northwest, up the Carribean Coast to the fast-paced city of Santa Marta. While there isn’t much to see in the city, it served as our launching point for a trip to the most popular national park in Colombia, the jungle beaches of Parque Tayrona.

Getting to the beach in the park wasn’t easy. Our day started with a 45-minute shuttle to the park entrance. After watching a required orientation video (in spanish), followed by an informational lecture by a park guide (in spanish), we were finally able to buy our tickets into the park. Another quick shuttle ride took us to the end of the road in the park, where we began our two hour hike to the beach. We brought a minimum amount of clothes and camping supplies for two nights, just one big backpack plus two small daypacks. Nonetheless, it was a gruelling hike due to the extreme heat and jungle humidity.

The trail traversed giant boulders, with vines hanging from trees like a Tarzan movie, and eventually opened up to views of isolated, sandy beaches without a single person in sight. We took periodic, somewhat involuntary breaks to take off our backpacks, drink water, and try to cool down in shady spots. As luck would have it, we came to a clearing in the jungle where a random colombian guy (amazingly dressed in slacks and a polo shirt) was selling ice cream bars from a cooler filled with dry ice.

Just before reaching our destination beach, Cabo, a group of tiny monkeys jumped through the trees over the trail right above our heads.

When we reached Cabo, we payed for a camping spot and set up our tent in a grassy area under the shade of a palm tree. Then, we headed straight for the water. The Cabo beach is a small encampment of long, thatched-roofed covered areas, flanking a horseshoe-shaped beach with blue-green water and soft tan sand. The water was cool and felt spectacular after our sweaty hike through the jungle. We played in the waves for a couple hours, then grabbed lunch from a rudimentary restaurant only steps from the water. Given the isolated environment, the food was surprisingly good: sort of a rice vegetable casserole with a side of fries.

We got back in the water and stayed in until nightfall, just after 6pm.

Sleeping in our tent that night was far from ideal. The heat and humidity was suppressing. By 7am the next day, our tent had heated up to the point where we had to escape back to the water. After an hour or so, we got out and hiked back along a short trail to visit a nearby beach that was completely empty. There, we had some apples and breakfast bars and spent some time watching crabs ducking into their holes near where the jungle met the sand. Eventually, a few other people showed up and we decided to head back to the beach near our campground.

Our plan had been to spend one more night in Cabo and then retrace our hike back to the entrance of the park, but the prospect of another hot night in the tent followed by the extruciating hike through the jungle made us reconsider. Luckily, we were able to book a ride on a small boat at 4:30pm back to the fishing village of Taganga, where we could taxi back to our hostel in Santa Marta.

The boat ride was an adventure in itself (see video below). They crammed about 30 people onto benches flanking the sides of the open-air, janky boat, and loaded everyone’s bags into a small compartment in the front. My seat had the unfortunate “extra” of five large plastic gas cans stored at my feet, their caps sealed with produce bags from a grocery store.

The boat was very fast, but the ocean swells were sizeable, and the boat slammed up and down as we made our way along the rocky coastline. After a couple stops at small beach villages, where they amazingly fit several additional passengers on board, we finally arrived at Taganga. A short taxi ride later, we were back in our air-conditioned room in Santa Marta.

We grabbed some food, did some laundry in our sink and hung it in our room to dry, and hit the hay. The next day we stayed in our room until it was time to head to the terminal for an overnight bus south into the Andes, to the small city of San Gil.

Bienvenidos a South America, and our first stop, Cartagena, Colombia

Our long trip through South America started with an overnight flight to Cartagena via NYC, arriving around 1pm local time. Walking off the plane felt like going into a sauna, with the temperature around 92 and 85% humidity. We went through customs, got our bags, and took a taxi to our first hostel, Hostel Mamallena, situated in the historic district just outside the walled portion of the old city.

The streets of Cartagena are buzzing with everyday people, traffic, vendors, horses, and tourists. Everywhere you go, you can hear music, though it’s not always obvious where it is coming from. Things are particularly chaotic along La Media Luna, a street mostly made up of small shops, restaurants, and hostels, including ours.

Inside the walled city, the streets calm down a bit, due to less traffic, but you never get away from the massive amount of people walking every which way. We constantly wondered, where are all these people going all the time? And what are they up to?

And all the while, it’s an inescapable oven.

All of this, however, is justified by the rich history and beauty of the old walled city. It was built by the Spanish beginning in the 1500s, with huge, cannon-bearing walls surrounding picturesque buildings. The city was the biggest port in the Carribean, shipping a majority of the gold that the Spanish were collecting from the native people across the continent. It was often attacked by pirates, hence the giant walls. All of this has been impeccably preserved, and walking around within this part of the city feels like going back in time.

While in Cartegena, we visited a history museum displaying a wide variety of artifacts from The Inquisition, including some torture devices that were used to punish anyone that didn’t follow the strict religious rules imposed by the Spanish. We also went through a gold museum containing a wide variety of pure gold jewelry and trinkets, as well as some urns and other ancient artifacts from the indians that lived in the area before the Spanish arrived. As magnificent as the city is, the dark history of violence here definitely stands out.

Our favorite time in Cartagena was walking around at night in the walled city. It’s like the whole place is having a party. Music everywhere, guys selling beer and street food on every corner, including on top of the giant walls, horse-drawn carriages clopping through the narrow cobblestone streets, flower-covered balconies, buildings in every color, groups of young people in elaborate traditional costumes playing music and dancing in tree-filled plazas – it all feels like something Disney would try to recreate.

The only land entrance to the city was defended by San Felipe Castle, which is basically a huge mound of brick and cement, covered with cannons, overlooking the city. Dark, low clearance tunnels run randomly through it, which were fun and a bit creepy to explore.

One day, we took a shuttle from our hostel to the nearby Playa Blanca, the nicest beach in the area. The water was perfect, very blue, and was so nice to get a break from the otherwise constant heat. The only downside was a small army of vendors walking along the beach selling everything from trinkets to raw oysters to massages, none of which we wanted. Sitting on the beach was an exercise in saying “No, gracias” constantly. So we stayed in the water as much as possible.

Our first food experiences in South America were great. It’s so cheap, and the quality of the food we were getting was impressive. Our meals cost only a couple dollars each. We had some plate lunches, street food (empanadas, meat skewers, corn on the cob), wraps, and even found a vegetarian restaurant serving a big lunch with soup, salad, rice, beans, and fried dough balls similar to a falafel. We also hit the grocery store a lot, which was pretty cheap and fun to browse around in.

After several days, we were ready to move on up the coast to Santa Marta and Parque Tayrona, a jungle beach paradise.

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