With a belly full of deep-fried ants, I headed back to the bus station to catch my ride to Bucaramanga and then on to Santa Marta at the coast. Having been told to arrive in plenty of time, I found myself with eons of time to spare to settle down to watch the novellas (soaps) screening in the departure lounge. And what do you know. I watched the same soap here as I had back in Iran. Of course, back then I’d thought it was a Farsi-dubbed Mexican saga. I’m told Colombia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of trashy soaps. I can’t say how true that is.
Finally on the bus, I was seated next to an engineer from Medellin who was on his way home after a few days on location in San Gil. The Medellin accent, or Paisa, to refer to the broader rural region of Antioquia also affected by the accent, is in my opinion one of the hardest to understand and I had to ask him to repeat almost every sentence. Frustrating for him. Working on a national road safety campaign, he pointed out the crash barriers and road markings that he and his team had been putting in.
“Does the double line in the middle of the road mean ‘no-overtaking’?” I asked, pressing my lips together, clutching the edge of my seat and looking with one eye closed as the bus overtook a lorry in the inky blackness on a blind bend. “Oh no! That is allowed.”
Heaven help Colombian road users.
The night buses in Colombia are for no reason whatsoever chilled down to almost freezing. It’s like a morgue in there and no one has yet offered a sensible reason why. The silliest explanation was that it is to keep the bus driver awake during the night. People counter the bitter conditions by packing as if for an arctic expedition, with bobble hats, fleece blankets and thick woolen socks. In the tropics.
Arrived in Santa Marta bus station in the early hours and decided to head straight for the neighbouring fishing village of Taganga, recommended by a few folks as a pretty spot and a jumping off point to the supposedly spectacular Tayrona National Park. I wouldn’t know. I didn’t make it there.
Getting to Taganga involves a mototaxi, taxi or busetta ride from the main bus station. Obviously I wanted to get a busetta and after the third one sped past me with the name written clearly on the front and but two passengers, I frustratedly asked the parking staff why. They told me it was because they didn’t want to take my bag. Well, that’s ridiculous. Don’t the locals carry bags back to the village? I’ve scarcely seen a single South American on a bus without one of those giant zip-up laundry bags and a taped up bin-bag attached to their person.
My mule characteristics kicked in. Tired from the night bus, I decided that if I was going to go to Taganga, it was by busetta or nothing. And a mere hour later, after some wrangling by the lovely parking staff who were smilingly mystified as to why I was being so obstinate – success. Lod 1 – Busetta drivers 0.
Taganga. Meh. It’s overrated. Nice, colourful beachfront, friendly locals but a major backpacker haunt these days. Extranjeros far outnumber the locals which in a tiny fishing village has a big impact on the ambience.
Checked into a hostel and investigated getting over to Tayrona for a couple of days, a national park of white sand beaches and jungle where life is lived in hammocks. Here too is the famed ‘Ciudad Perdida’, The Lost City, a moderately strenuous six day trek through the jungle to see a lesser, but also lesser visited, version of Machu Picchu. Met some of the locals, asked some questions, found some tours and investigated options. You can hike into the park, bike, boat or bus. Hanging out on the beach, I met César, a local bloke who also wanted to hike in the next day and knew the paths. Bonza.
Next morning, it lamped it down with tropical rain – this is the rainy season, after all – for over an hour. Having mused further, I decided that the jungle in the rains was the last place that mosquito-sensitive me should be. What’s more, I was bound by my personal deadline of getting to Cartagena for the weekend’s festivities, giving me all of one day and a night to enjoy the park. It didn’t seem to do it justice so I bailed, making a note to return after the fiesta. I didn’t.
As you can probably tell from my three-hour whistle-stop tour of San Gil, I was all at sixes and sevens. I was museum’d and church’d out. I was eliminating places as I arrived in them. Didn’t want to be here; didn’t want to do that… I was listless.
Once the rains had departed, I pulled myself together, packed up my troubles and headed up into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to enjoy the quiet village of Minca instead. Travelling via Santa Marta, this journey necessitates mototaxis. I do not like mototaxis so I clung to the back with thoughts ‘brain on a stick’ flying through my head. That is my greatest motorcycle fear; falling off in the skimpy clothes of the tropics, surviving but scraping all your lower flesh off and become a paralysed head on a stick. It’s happened.
But I made it safely and wended my way up a sticky footpath to the Casa Loma gem, ably guided by the local school kids. What a lovely place. Perched up in the jungle, the tiny hostel has panoramic views over the Santa Marta bay below and high-adrenaline canyoning, mountain biking, hiking and rafting on the doorstep. It is owned by a couple of Brits who do a two-month rotation running the place and traveling. Steph, currently in residence with two French volunteers, is a former Londoner who has been lured away by the siren call of Colombia. A very mellow character, she is the perfect host and cooks a sterling spaghetti Bolognese.
I hung out in the hammock for an hour (also my bed for the night), had a Thai massage overlooking the panorama and supped beers with my fellow hostellers as they streamed in from their various adventures. Sarah was an American volunteering on a project near Cartagena who was showing her Dad around for a couple of weeks. Andy was a Canadian entrepreneur who had burnt himself out after too many years working too hard, liquidated it all and hit the road for an unlimited amount of time. Cat was a Londoner who, disillusioned, had abandoned her city career with Microsoft and hit the South American road, also for as long as the winds bore her.
This is something very refreshing about South America. Unlike elsewhere in my travels, there seem to be a lot of people here who have simply rejected their old lives and set out , with no particular deadline, to enjoy themselves and reprioritise. This continent makes me feel like a bum in good company.