Taganga / Santa Marta

The not quite perfect beach of TagangaI saved some money by taking a bus instead of a plane to the North Coast of Colombia, but in the end it wasn’t worth it.  The air-conditioning in the bus turned the vehicle into an ice-box, a problem that is apparently common on Colombian buses.  I had been warned of this and had decent enough clothes to accommodate, but would have been far more comfortable with a blanket.  For those travelling Colombia by bus, always bring a warm blanket!  I managed a window seat and had a decent amount of leg room, but for most of the journey was accompanied by a rather large Colombian gentleman seated next to me.

I used my phone to watch some TV shows (once again lamenting my lost IPad) and then did my best to get to sleep.  Unfortunately I continued to be awoken fairly regularly by loud Spanish-dubbed Hollywood films.  I’m not sure what any of them were, one had Nicholas Cage, another was the latest Adam Sandler flick with Jennifer Anniston.  I knew from a quick glance that I wasn’t particularly interested in watching any of them and regardless, my lack of Spanish prohibited my ability to enjoy said entertainment.

Lunch!There were a few stops along the way where I stumbled through ordering food by pointing and handing over money. Overall, it wasn’t a pleasant journey and in hindsight I should have forked over just a bit more money (probably about 50% more than I paid) to get a flight that would’ve taken several hours instead of 24 hours.  Had I done so, I also would’ve reached Santa Marta by Friday night and been able to enjoy a night out on the town (which despite the advice given to me was NOT dry on Friday).  However, the ride certainly wasn’t the worst overnight bus I’d been on, several journeys in India which involve vomiting and worse sleeping conditions certainly have this one beat.

Finally arriving at the Santa Marta bus terminal just after midday I hopped off the bus and consulted my Lonely Planet to decide what to do next.  It was then I realised that this was a first, the first time I’d finally arrived at a destination, on my own, without any accommodation booked.  Every stop along the way in America thus far I had planned out at least a week in advance, securing accommodation through friends or family.  Here I was now in a non-English speaking country, standing outside a bus station, with only a vague plan to head to the nearest beach.

The only time I’d ever traveled this way before was back in India with my mate Matty several years ago and for the most part I was following his lead, trusting that we could find accommodation no matter where we landed.  On our trip, we had landed on a southern beach in Goa just before New Year’s and from all reports just about everywhere in Goa would be booked out by tourists.  Matty didn’t see this as a problem though and sure enough we easily secured some extremely cheap accommodation less than 50m from the beach off a young kid who approached us within half an hour of arriving.

Doing the same on my own now should be much easier, it definitely wasn’t high tourist season and my current edition of the Lonely Planet had a huge number of options with respect to where to stay.  I jumped onto a small local bus with a sign saying “Taganga”, the beach I was shooting for.  After a fairly long ride through the bustling city of Santa Marta, crammed onto the back-seat shoulder to shoulder with locals and my backpack on my lap, I finally saw the beach come into view.  It certainly wasn’t Goa or the pristine beaches of Thailand that I was used to, the roads were for the most part unpaved, fishing vessels crowded the bay and rubbish covered much of the ground.  I’d seen worse sights however and just the fact that it was warm (I planned to change into shorts ASAP), on the ocean and held the possibility of scuba-diving was enough to lift my spirits.

The Octopus Dive Crew!It didn’t take me long to find Casa Holanda, which while not the cheapest option on the beach, was recommended in the Lonely Planet and did provide a private room for 30,000 pesos a night ($15 USD a night).  I could’ve paid half that to stay in a hostel, but a private room seemed like a good idea, it even came with a double AND single bed, so had I not been travelling alone would have been even better!  After checking in (blundering my way again through a conversation with no Spanish), I ditched the jeans and headed out in search of some scuba-diving.  I quickly came across Octopus Dive Center and I quickly booked in for a night dive and double-dive the next day.

I’ve dived with a number of different crews over the years, but the Octopus Dive crew are definitely one I’ll remember.  Consisting mostly of local Colombians, their general jovial demeanor was always on-show, whether it was trying to get the rusted old 4WD started, pushing each other off the boat at various times throughout the day, or just running around the shop and engaging in wrestling contests.  Not exactly the most “professional” team on show, but absolutely hilarious and a blast to drive with, I’d have no hesitation recommending them to anyone wanting a great dive experience.

The rest of my stay in Taganga consisted mostly of diving, eating and of course some partying.  The diving conditions were good with fairly warm water and decent enough coral and fish on show.  Food was twice as much as it should be, meaning a full meal cost 5 bucks instead of 2.50, but was all good with lots of tasty soups, fresh seafood and juice available.  I quickly made friends through those I dived with, mostly Australiasn again (as usual), though late night festivities were restricted due to the continued alcohol ban.  As one of the Aussies I met pointed out though over dinner, “this is Tagana mate, anything is possible”, it was indeed and even though the restaurants wouldn’t serve us booze, a quick trip to the liquor store next-door where purchases were sneakily put into a brown paper bag easily fixed that problem.

Scuba-diving off TagangaColombian beer was decent enough, rum was better value and went down well, with much being consumed on Sunday night after our diving was finished back at a local hostel.  Since it was still the weekend on Sunday after we finished most of our purchased booze, I went for a wander with my new Aussie and Pommie mates Nick and Alex to see if any local bars or night-life was open.  As it turned out, none were, but we ran into another contingent of tourists who led us to a rather bizarre Israeli hotel located at the far end of the beach.  Several stories high, the place was fairly palatial and after walking through the large metal gate, a massive pool and bar laid out before us.  The bar we discovered was open 24 hours, therefore further drinks didn’t prove a problem.

The next day was spent recovering, I opted out of further festivities the next night as well so I could ensure I was in a fit state to make my flight the next day.  Everyone I’d met was either staying longer to continue diving, continuing on their journey through South America or had already been backpacking the contient for several months.  I hated them all and was embarrassed to admit to them I’d only allotted myself a week in Colombia.  I was now in back-packer mode, I was relaxed and care-free, I wanted to stay here on holiday and continue exploring, thoughts of changing my flights quickly entered my mind.  In the end I left as planned, I had scheduled myself a job interview on my return next week and had already pulled out an “emergency” credit card to fund this trip.  My time in South America was far too brief, but nontheless I had made it to my 6th continent, gotten in some diving, made some new friends, experienced some culture and reminded myself how easy it was to slip back into holiday mode.  The trip gave me a brief taste once again of the freedom that comes with being backpacker and the incentive to save up again and hopefully explore more of South America soon.

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Bogota

The Sprawling Mayhem that is BogotaI landed in Bogota, the capital of Colombia located in South America after a long series of flights across North America.  After a weekend on the West Coast in Seattle, I intended to use my flight-pass to get myself in one trip to Colombia, which necessitated returning to Boston.  Therefore I ended up flying from Seattle to Long Beach, California, then an overnight flight back to Boston, then to New York, Orlando and finally Bogota, arriving at around 10PM.  Overall, I think I was travelling for almost a day and a half, it was a long and tiring journey to say the least!  After landing and taking a taxi through the streets of Bogota, the city reminded me of many other large sprawling foreign cities I’d been to in recent the years, whether in India, China or South Africa.  The obvious difference here of course was the use of Spanish on signs and buildings.

Unfortunately my plan to learn Spanish over the Summer had been unsuccessful, so I wasn’t having any luck deciphering the signs flying past me or conversing with the taxi driver.  I did have my first experience understanding Spanish though after not too long when a bizzare man came up and started dancing in front of the cab, dressed as a robot, with his own music.  “Locco, Locco!” the taxi driver I said, I laughed and agreed, “yeah, that guy’s crazy alright.”  Fortunately, my lack of Spanish skills weren’t going to impede me too much as I had to arrange for some couch-surfing prior to arriving and to start off I was hosted by the wonderful Cami who was a local who grew up in the area.

She showed me around Bogota the next day, taking me into the center of the city and introducing me to the local equivalent of Starbucks called Juan Valdez.  Since Colombia is known for its coffee, I had to try some and observed that although Juan Valdez is a well known coffee-chain, the lay-out and feel of the stores is almost exactly the same as Starbucks.  I ordered my coffee (with Cami’s help) at about 10 o’clock in the morning and was surprised when they asked if I would like brandy or whiskey in it!  As tempting as it was, I declined.

Square full of Pigeons!Bogota is a massive sprawling city, full of traffic, bordered on the East by a luscious green mountain range.  There’s plenty of history, different areas to explore and a decent bus system which can be used to get around, though  its train system was destroyed in riots many decades before.  I had a stroll around a local shopping mall and then wandered through the center of the city, with Cami showing me her University and the main sights including churches, the residence of the President and various other historic and Government buildings.  I took an entertaining guided tour run out of the tourist information office and then paid a visit to the must-see Museo del Oro, the Gold Museum.  Apparently housing one of the largest collections in the world, the museum had loads of pre-Hispanic gold artifacts with gold shaped into just about everything including jewelry, armour, weapons, kitchen utensils and art-work.

I then learnt that the timing of my visit happened to coincide with elections across all of Colombia which were being held over the weekend.  Much to my shock however, because of the elections I discovered that the country would dry the whole weekend, in other words no alcohol could be bought or served!  This is apparently to avoid the practice of politicians heading out to bars and shouting drinks to people in order to persuade them to vote their way.  To ensure this I didn’t miss out, I went out on Thursday night where I sampled some Colombia brews at a Bogota Beer Company bar as well as some aguardiente, a local anise-flavoured liqueur.  There was definitely a party vibe in the area, a huge and rowdy crowd in sports jerseys were parading down the street, their local team had apparently just won the national soccer comp.  I enjoyed the spectacle, until an enthusiastic supporter jumped out from behind me and threw a handful of flour in my face, resulting in me coughing for the next minute or so before I recovered.

So I’d witnessed a bit of the night-life in Bogota and seen the historic sights, I had to decide where to go next.  I had my Lonely Planet, plenty of suggestions and it was obvious I could go in just about any direction and find something great to check out.  Colombia was a massive country.  After researching, I soon found a destination which offered exactly what I was after, warmer weather, beaches and scuba-diving.  I made my way to the bus terminal, bungled once again with no Spanish through buying a ticket and after a wait of several hours, boarded an overnight bus to my destination – Santa Marta, located almost a whole day’s ride away on the North Coast.