Getting to the End of a Grand Adventure – Part One

It’s about time. About time I got back around to playing StarCraft 2, about time I moved out of my mum’s house again and about time I finished dozens of small, minor tasks. But really, about time I sewed up the rest of the story.

The streets of Cartagena, and the first classic example of a photo not taken by me. I’m sure it would have been better if I had…

It’s been a long time coming for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’m back home now, and the motivation to type up my adventures on the bus back from work is not as strong as it was from South America. Secondly, unlike before, I never actually wrote this bit as I went along. Thirdly (and this relates back to point two, acting as excuse and demotivator), I barely have any photos from this point onward. Unfortunate events resulted in the unluck of having my camera stolen about two days before I returned home. Just as I’d gotten lazy with backing the photos up, as well. I’ll elaborate more on that particular huge life issue later on, though.

I left Medellin to Cartagena, on Colombia’s north coast and Cartagena is hot. A heat unlike anything I’ve known since I left Asuncion during the heatwave. Despite its coastal locale, it’s humid, and no matter where you are, in the hostel, out in the sun, or holed up somewhere in an attempt for respite, you’re sweating. Get used to it.  I was sweating as soon as I stepped off the plane, and this wasn’t solved when I got to the hostel, either. Fans blew the hot, thick air around in circles, providing precisely zero respite from the sticky conditions, and somehow they managed to make it even more difficult to sleep by virtue of their constant whirring. I carefully selected the sole available bottom bunk from the triple stacked beds in my classy 30+ man dorm.

Cartagenian nights with Aanchal and Ansgar.

Fortunately, man of the world that I am, I adapted quickly. It wasn’t far to walk from my hostel in Getsemani (which forever reminds me of the song from Jesus Christ Superstar, even if no one else gets the reference) to the very centre, and leisurely detours could be taken down dozens of colourful, picturesque alleyways. It was the tortoise way in evidence – Everything had to be slowed down (which I’m very good at, as surprising as it may sound), I got used to a certain level of persistent sweating, and every few corners I stopped to find myself an iced coffee. Tasty, nutritious, and most importantly, re-hydrating.

Which subsequently led me into another lazy Cartagena activity. Since these cafes often had wifi, I’d discovered I could play the newly released Pokemon Go on their wifi. Sure, my phone was awful, with it’s broken screen and being ridiculously slow to do absolutely anything at all, but I was sure there had to be something cool, something special that I could get here in South America, that no one would have back home. It turned out I was wrong about that in the end, but where was the need to rush? All the cool Colombian kids were doing it too…

Arepas and lime juice. Mmm…

Arepas and lime juice. Mmm…I made sure not to waste too much time on that, being that I didn’t have too much time left, but I didn’t rush terribly either. It’s possible to see most of Cartagena’s sights in a day, but much more interesting to take a few, and have time to appreciate it and the people. From the guys selling lime juice and arepas (tasty fried corn thingies usually served with cheese) on every corner to a man painting Colombian scenery on mirrors and a dance troupe in Plaza de Bolivar, there’s always something going on. Getsemani’s Plaza Trinidad, it turned out, was the centre of most of it in the evenings. Since it was an easy place to find (cheap) food and people (tourists and locals alike), I found myself there a fair few times, becoming witness to all sorts of slightly unexpected things – an argument between breakdancers in the street and a passing car, a quite serious chess challenge between one random guy and a rather drunk Ansgar, (who turned out to be some sort of chess prodigy) and the appearance of Amandeep who I met in Peru. It’s strange where you run across people again. All around the world, but never back in the UK.

Plaza Trinidad with Brisa, Liz and Ansgar.

This was how I spent a few days. Wandering. Sweating. Dodging ridiculously heavy storms, and wading through the swamped streets in my flip flops. Drinking iced coffee. Eating arepas. Going to museums. Visiting Castillo de San Felipe. Sweating. A bit more wandering. A bit more drinking iced coffee. Buying souvenirs (and not just for me!). Drinking with new friends on rooftop bars that we’d been lured to with promise of a free drink in an attempt to get us to spend more. Hanging around in Plaza Trinidad some more. Probably more sweating and iced coffee drinking. Don’t press me on the details – it’s been a long time! – I knew I should have written this all down! Eventually it was time to move on though. Strict schedule and all that.

Dancing in the square.

I skipped down the coast, past Barranquilla, to Santa Marta. Not because Santa Marta was a lovely place or anything – it was alright, if slightly uninteresting (and I actually spent more time than intended, with a whole day of finding a place to get a hair cut) – but it was a gateway to somewhere far more enticing. Parque Tayrona.

It felt like beach time, and with only a week to go before I got back I figured I should probably work on my tan. You know, make it look like I’d actually been away for a year. And relax a bit before I was forced to join the rat race again. It almost went pear shaped before I started. Queued up at the entrance, I suddenly realised I may have misplaced the one thing I expressly needed to enter. My passport. You see, I’d left most of my stuff back in the hostel lockup, and, well, the passport wasn’t in its usual place. Scouting around the bag didn’t help either – it definitely wasn’t there. I wasn’t sure what I was more worried about – whether I’d lost it (which would prove awkward for my upcoming flight) or left it behind, or whether I was going to get in. As I breathed, focused, and engaged my brain a bit though, it turned out the latter, and a bit of wheeling (it so pays to know decent Spanish now) allowed me to get in with just a photocopy. I knew those would come in useful some day!

The magic (not really) of Santa Marta.

My fortune proved the cue for a very squashed van to Cañaveral, where the road ends, then a walk in the morning heat along the coast to Arrecifes. Not just any walk though. A really nice walk. Properly nice. No that’s not too much hyperbole. Seriously though, each cove I found myself in had more beautiful views than the last, and it was only the nagging knowledge I had to find an available campsite that stopped me from, well, stopping for the view.

I was headed for Don Pedro campsite, which was not the obvious choice. My sources had informed me it was not on the beach like many of the campsites, being set back in the jungle, and there was no picturesque waterfront benab to lie in a hammock like at Cabo San Juan. There was however, no waiting list for said hammocks, and a much lesser risk that I would find myself stuck in a horrendously stuffy and humid tent for any time, so I considered it a good trade off. Camping Don Pedro though, was not easy to find. I walked past Arrecifes, attempting to get directions from people who would all point me in different directions, and it took until I had gone about 10 mins walk past, turned back again and wiggled round a bit on the spot for a bit before I found the (unsigned) stile and path that would take me there. It turned out I wasn’t the only one who had trouble – I directed a few others to the campsite in the coming days.

It was empty when I arrived, no sign of life save a little boy who rode up on his imaginary broomstick horse to greet me. I got the impression he was lonely, there being no other kids of a similar age around, and over the coming days he would try to entice other campers into playing with him. Eventually, after a not quite productive discussion with him, I did find someone, and a hammock. Just in time too, as I got a perfect, seated view of monkeys swinging through the trees at the edge of the clearing. One mother made the jump with baby in hand. I’m glad my mum didn’t try that sort of thing.

Like the picture perfect sort that you see on postcards, the beaches were all stunning, some stretching on for what seemed liked miles, others decorated with benabs, or curled around in a half moon bay, and I spent a good deal of time relaxing, trying new ones and finding tiny secret ones. That’s not all there is to Tayrona though. There’s a jungle to be seen and explored, and a little village to be found. El Pueblito – literally ‘The little village’. After a morning of swimming at a tiny empty cove, I headed up there.

Honestly, I hadn’t quite realised there would be so much up. I was dripping, and wondered seriously whether I’d brought enough water as I scrambled up rocks and hauled myself up with vines, deeper into the forest. At least I’d brought real shoes for this trek though. That made it slightly easier than it might have been. Up at the top, El Pueblito itself was, as described, a small village consisting only of three or four huts and some ruins looking like the bases of more huts, and seemed almost dead. I wasn’t whether anyone really lived there still, or if it was just for tourists, until one guy bobbed out of a hut with a chicken. He quickly disappeared again. I’d be wary of tourists too if I lived there, pesky creatures, and there’s even a sign to ward us all off – “No Photos”, or something to that effect. I should have held one bag – “No need to worry, I’m going to have my pictures stolen soon enough!” Bitter? Not me.

A hut at El Pueblito. Whoever took this obviously ignored the sign.

With the companionship of a pasty, shirt wearing on head Frenchman, his rather more suited to the climate Colombian wife, and a larger German bloke, I broke off down another path down to the bottom again. The blokes lagged behind, so I attempted to keep pace with the Colombian girl (can’t honestly remember her name after all this time!) – she was speedy! – and discussed the trials and tribulations of a Colombian having to live with the French. She’d moved five or so years back, but said she still had issues fitting in, and quite obviously missed parts of her Colombian life. Just as we were deep in conversation though, we were rudely interrupted by what sounded like a roar. Distant, and vague. A few seconds passed, but then again. This time closer. The Colombian girl immediately penned it as a tiger (the universal name for all big cats around here), and I wasn’t about to question her undoubted knowledge on Colombian jungle beasties – “brush with tiger” sounds way more impressive than ” random noise that could have been almost anything” does. Any possible questioning would have been unfounded though, for then we saw it. Blurred and dark against the jungle background, a distinctly indistinct tiger (probably panther) stood, and then vanished into the deep.

Swimming was a much more gratifying experience after the hike. Lying in the soothing waters at Playa Brava was a dream after almost being molested by a tiger. The best thing, though? No people. El Cabo de San Juan could almost be characterised as busy, and most of the others had a few people there. Playa Brava on the other hand, at the far end of the coastal path, was ours exclusively. To be fair, it turned out there was a reason for that – if you enter by the normal route there’s a big fat sign declaring DANGER! Apparently hundreds of people had lost their lives in the dangerous waters (I knew there was something fishy about those waves) over the years, and you shouldn’t swim there. We only saw the sign after swimming there though, so it doesn’t count, right?

Another beach photo. Unoriginal guys, surely you can do better?

Soon enough, I’d left paradise. By the wrong way, admittedly – I walked back to the entrance along the horse trail and missed ALL the views – but I got back to Santa Marta in one piece. Everyone was pleased, so much so that one kid even dragged his boom box on the bus and serenaded me as it bumped along. His slightly less than angelic voice was unmistakable, and I recognised him as the same one who’d been rapping with his mate a few days earlier. It’s a tough business, obviously, but this new angle seemed to be working wonders with the crowd, and there wasn’t the slightest suggestion that we were all paying him to leave. My taxi ride to the bus terminal later on didn’t go quite as smoothly though. Handily, I got to the terminal in plenty of time to book the bus that was leaving that evening. Stupidly, I realised I’d left the paintings I’d bought in Cartagena behind the door in the hostel, where I’d left them to remember them. Doh.

With a bit of convincing, I left my big bag with the bus company, then rushed out to the front of the building. “Phew, there’s a taxi” is definitely the sort of innocent language I was thinking in at the time. “Oh wait, the *******’* driven off”. Fortunately, another turned up. It probably turned out just as well, as when I jumped in and explained my situation, this driver understood. He knew the kind of situation this was, and he knew how to handle it. When you’re in a hurry in Colombia, there’s only one thing for it. Not just speed. No, that’s not going to cut it. Not just cutting lanes, and dodging between all the traffic either. No, you’d still be late. There’s only one answer. Run every single red light between here and your destination. Right in front of cars, lorries, whatever gets in your way. And I didn’t complain in the slightest. In fact, when I got back to the terminal, I even had a few minutes to spare. Now that’s service.

A last stolen photo. They’re all from the labelled for reuse section of Google images, honest!

He wasn’t able to save me from my next mishap, though. On a fairly empty bus someone stole into the big hole that had been steadily forming in my bag and took my camera as I slept. The camera which I’d risked not backing up the pictures on in Santa Marta, and hadn’t done so since I arrived in Medellin. The real kickers? It was only matter of days before I would be flying back, having gone a year without any issues of the sort, and being that the bus was mostly tourists (unlike the majority I’d taken in South America), the likelihood is that it was a tourist that took it, too.

About Doug

Here you will find the (hopefully) up to date adventures of the incredibly handsome pioneering explorer, Doug. As modest as he is wise, as awesome as he is brave, Doug will endeavor to recite the tales of his travels with utmost accuracy. No embellishment whatsoever.

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