I 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.
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.
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.
Colombian 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.