Caribbean Style Colombia - Café Y Agua Cristal
Santa Marta, Colombia
We arrived in our hostel in Santa Marta, a big old house in one of the nicer suburbs in town. It was a great hostel, our room was huge, there was a bar, pool, huge TV and games room, kitchen, or you could have meals cooked for you.
In the morning we went to reception to ask a few questions about places we wanted to visit, and as it happened, the hostel owner was an old Barker boy, from the year below Fergus. Seems like such a small world at times!
That day we ventured around the town a bit. Santa Marta is apparently the oldest city in South America (post-Colombian). We visited the cemetery, which was similar to the Recoletta Cemetery in Buenos Aires with above ground family tombs, though on a smaller scale.
The beach wasn't particularly nice to look at, especially on an average day, but the foreshore was quite nice to walk along with a few statues and sculptures along the way.
After an iced coffee break we looked at the Catedral De Santa Marta, said to be the oldest church in South America and walked through the local food market with its interesting produce and smells. We also had a look at the statue of El Pibe, Colombia's most famous soccer player.
The next day we went on a tour to Minca, a town up the hill a bit from Santa Marta. The 4WD we were in had seen better days, and after a quick stop we found ourselves having to push it so our guide could clutch start it.
The first stop was a place called Pozo Azul. We had to walk about 20 minutes from the road, and we walked ahead as the other two members of our group who were there for some bird watching so the guide stayed back with them to help spot them.
On the way we managed to come across a few snakes! The first turned out to be dead, but soon after we spotted a red, black and white snake and despite making a bit of a commotion we took it by surprised, though fortunately it slithered away. We then noticed it seemed to have been about to feed on a much smaller snake.
Carrying along the path, stomping quite loudly now, we reached the swimming hole. There was a few small waterfalls and pools to choose from, so we picked a spot with no people and jumped in for a swim. The water was freezing! So cold it sent a huge shock through our bodies. We stayed there a while, getting in and out of the water as much as we could bear it. It was a beautiful spot with clear water cascading past us over the rocks.
Soon the other group members arrived and after they had a quick look around it was time to move on. Our next stop was the Victoria Coffee Farm. While the others went bird watching again, we were given a tour of the facilities.
The farm dates back to 1892 and is owned by a German family. The majority of the equipment is still the original machinery, including the generator that powers everything. We saw where the coffee is fermented, separated into 3 grades (the best coffee sinks), dried, etc. They only roast coffee for their own consumption on-site, as most is exported unroasted. At the end we were given a taste.
Next we visited a restaurant that had feeding trays out for hummingbirds. There were stacks of the birds fighting with each other to get at the feeders. It was quite interesting watching them. Then we walked through the town a little to a hostel which had a beautiful view back down the mountain over Santa Marta where we had a fresh juice before returning to Santa Marta. We learned at that point that the others on our tour had to be back early for a bus, so it seems our tour was cut short for them.
The next day we visited Tayrona National Park. This park covers a coastal stretch to the east of Santa Marta, and originally we had wanted to spend a few nights here, but given the weather had been very average we decided to just take a day trip. We had a few options, and one was to take a boat to a beach called Playa Cristal. Unfortunately we were advised that the water wouldn't be quite so crystalline due to the rain in recent days, so we chose to trek into some other beaches instead though we were now heading out later than we had hoped.
We had to catch a bus from Santa Marta to the park entrance, about an hour away. After a bag search and paying our rather expensive park entrance, we had to take a van that shuttles you to the end of the road. From there, you have to walk.
The path is quite up and down, some of it on raised walkways, through some forested areas, along the beach front, then through some palm forest. We passed a few areas with shops and accommodation along the way, Arrecifes a nice beach area called La Piscina, until we reached Cabo San Juan, one of the nicer beaches in the park. We had been told the walk would take 2.5-3 hours so we walked pretty quickly and made it in 1.5, giving us more time at the beach.
Cabo San Juan was quite crowded with mostly foreign backpackers. There was a big grass area with tents, a big shelter with hammocks, a restaurant and another hut on top of a small peninsula with more hammocks. Fortunately the weather had finally improved and we had quite a sunny day. We enjoyed our pre-packed lunch and lazed on the sand and in the water for a few hours. While the beach was quite small, the water was beautiful and warm.
Unfortunately at around 3 we had to start making our way out of the park. It was a shame we didn't have more time to stay a few days. The walk back was along the same path, but with the sun out more it was extremely hot, and we were both sweating profusely! We saw a few monkeys on the way out, as well as some coconut crabs that Fergus enjoyed scaring back into their holes.
Back at the hostel after a big day, Gabriel the owner was giving a tour. As it happened, the hostel was actually an old cartel house, and so it had a lot of history. The tour started in the bar over a few beers, with Gabe telling as much about the cartel owners of the house as was possible. It had 3 cartel owners during it's time, but he only names the first 2. The 3rd owners sons arrived at the hostel one day and said that they didn't want their father's name to be mentioned, as he was an upstanding member of the community and they didn't want his name, or the family's, mentioned with criminal tendencies. Due to their father's occupation Gabe very quickly obliged.
He went on to mention that the house was built back in the days when the cartels only dealt with marijuana and contraband and then talked about how it's later owners were dealing in cocaine. There are also rumours surrounding the house, one being that Pablo Escobar hid out at the house when he was being hunted by the police. He was meant to be hiding in a secret 'apartment' in the house, but Gabe's not found any evidence of any such secret room.
He also mentions that lots of cartel houses, including regular houses in Colombia, contain caletas, secret hiding spots built into the houses. There are lot of rumours of people finding cars, money and gold in them and getting rich quick (unless they are stupid enough to report it and then the police get rich quick!). Gabe has found a few and smashed them open, an incredibly hard task, as the walls are about 4 bricks think and the caletas are covered in a lot of concrete, but hasn't yet found anything in them (or so he says).
Next came a tour of the house, which shows where a few of the caletas were, where the old communication satellite used to be (it blew down in a recent storm), the main living quarters (which are the size of a normal house), and the entrance to the escape tunnel built into the house. Unfortunately you don't get to see the servants quarters, as it now houses the staff.
Lastly Gabe invited those that were willing back to the bar to listen to the ghost story. We grabbed another beer and waited eagerly. Gabe doesn't believe in ghosts, but he tells the story as different guests have reported to him seeing exactly the same ghost, the ghost of a young girl. The story behind it is that during a party, involving lots of drugs and alcohol, one of the servants daughters ended up in the pool and drowned before anyone saw her and could rescue her. So now she roams the house, in particular the garage, now converted to bathrooms. So if you need the toilet in the night...