This week I will be flying out to San Andres, Colombia. San Andres is a small island in the Caribbean Sea that is under the administrative control of the Colombian government. I had never even heard of the island prior to landing in Colombia, but according to many of the locals that I spoke to, it is and extremely popular vacation spot for Colombians. After googling the island, I just had to make a trip out to see its pristine white beaches with crystal blue water. I was fortunate enough to find an affordable hotel for the week through Airbnb as traditional hotels go for over $150 USD per night. The island is pretty small so there won’t be much diversity as far as activities go but I am sure it will be a memorable experience.
Arriving to San Andres Islands- After my last experience traveling to an island via ferry (here), I was glad that San Andres had an airport. I bought my plane ticket to the island about three weeks ago making it pretty affordable. The ticket cost about $40 USD for a one way flight. Unfortunately, I had to come back down to Cartagena to take advantage of the deal. I left Barranquilla around 10:30 A.M using the Berlinas shuttle. The trip to Cartagena took about 2 hours and I was back at the Cartagena International Airport by 1 PM. I had to wait about 3 hours for my flight but the airport was pretty comfortable especially once I made it through security. I almost had a repeat of my Mexican nightmare (seen here). As I was going to board the plane, the airline employee stopped me and said “Señor, no puede abordar porque no tiene la tarjeta turística”. To translate, I couldn’t board the plane because I didn’t have a tourist card. Turns out, in order to get to San Andres, you have to purchase a “tourist card” from the airline company which supposedly goes towards the islands upkeep. Fortunately, unlike my Mexico experience, I did not have to go all the way outside security to purchase the card. However, the $33 USD price for the card was extremely expensive by Colombian standards. After buying the tourist card at the gate, I was able to board the flight. I arrived in San Andres at 5 PM, about an hour after takeoff. The San Andres airport was extremely small and could barely handle the heavy traffic which flowed through it. To make matters worse, all travelers were required to go through a customs check point. The windows were not that bad but there was literally one luggage scanner for everyone to put their luggage through. It took me half an hour to get out of the airport once my flight landed. Unlike my previous stops, I was staying in an Airbnb and not a hotel. While cheaper, Airbnb’s are often harder to find because they are at someone’s house and not a commercial property. I put what I thought was the address in Google Maps only to end up at an intersection in the center of town. Luckily, I had just enough power in my phone to WhatsApp the owner to ask him to send me a map. Turns out, the place was less than 200 meters from the airport. The Airbnb was a privately owned hotel-apartment which had six separate rooms. After a long day of traveling, I was finally settled into San Andres.
San Andres-The island had the best of both worlds. On one hand, there were plenty of duty free shops, restaurants, and casinos. In addition, many of the beach front properties were run by five star resorts which provided their own forms of entertainment. Despite being very “touristy”, the island maintained a laid back vibe which took me back to being on the North Shore in Oahu, Hawaii. The main beach was in walking distance from my Airbnb, and I basically hung out there for the week. The water was crystal blue and the beach was well maintained. Outside of sharp rocks being underwater in some places, the beach couldn’t have been any better. Most days, I paid 7K Colombian Pesos (COP) or $2 USD for a beach chair and sat on the beach for hours on end reading and swimming. The only thing that stopped me from actually living on the beach that week was the weather. Unfortunately, it did rain for a good part of the week which kept me from exploring more outside of the city.
Playa San Luis- One the things that I did do was take the public bus to the southern tip of the island to visit Playa San Luis. Given the island’s size, the public transportation is simple and efficient as there were very few places to see outside the central area. I paid a little under 3k COP (.80 USD) to go across the islands. While the buses were not luxury, they were comfortable enough for the short trip. Outside the central area, the island was very rural and consisted of long stretches of trees and trash. However, there were also great views of the Caribbean Sea to balance it out. It took me about 45 minutes to get to Playa San Luis. The beach itself was right off the highway and very isolated. I also went early enough to were I got my own beach chair after paying 5k COP ($1.75 USD) for a coconut. The views were the same as the central beach with less noise and traffic. I enjoyed the silence for about 3 hours before hopping on a passing bus back to town.
This week will be a little different because I will be in two different places along the northern coast of Colombia. I will spend my first 4 ½ days in Santa Marta, a northern coastal city flanked by the Andean mountains. I wasn’t originally supposed to come here but after talking to some locals in Cartagena, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Santa Marta is really popular amongst backpackers and locals alike because it is surrounded by so many national parks and cultural sites. I will only be in the city for 4 days, so I am hoping to squeeze as much excitement as I can in that time frame. Following my time in Santa Marta, I will head back up the coast for a few days in Colombia’s fourth largest city, Barranquilla, which was my original destination and is home to world renown Latin pop singer, Shakira.
Arriving to Santa Marta- Because of its popularity, getting from Cartagena to Santa Marta was fairly easy. In fact, there was a bus terminal right outside of El Centro (Berlinas-Marbella) which is specifically dedicated to the Cartagena-Santa Marta route. It was even more convenient because the main bus terminal is actually 40 minutes from the main tourist area. The ticket to Santa Marta cost 44k Colombian Peso (COP), or $13 USD. It takes a little over 4 hours to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta. The ride was comfortable as it was in an air-conditioned shuttle bus with great Wi-Fi. While the bus was initially filled to capacity, 80% of the bus got off in Barranquilla which made the trip even more comfortable. The arrival was a little tricky, because the bus stops in Rodedero which is a town right outside of Santa Marta so I had to triple check with the bus driver that Santa Marta proper was indeed the last stop. The bus dropped me off at a mall about 2 miles from my hotel. Once arriving at the hotel, I had to wait for my room to be cleaned so I chatted it up with the pretty receptionist for about 20 minutes. Part of the reason I ended up coming to Santa Marta was because I got an amazing deal for accommodation on Booking.com. I use Booking so much that I’m part of the “Genius” club which allows me to get 10-15% off of certain hotels with the occasional upgrades. I was able to 4 nights in a respectable three-star hotel for $23 USD. It got even better because, once I arrived, the hotel upgraded me again to their platinum suite because they were having issues with the plumbing in my original room. Nevertheless, there is so much to do in so little time.
Central Santa Marta-Given that I only had a few days in Santa Marta, I needed to make the most of my time. After checking into my hotel, I immediately headed to the center of the city. While my hotel wasn’t close to the main tourist center, it very easy to get there. One option is to take a cab for about 6k COP ($2.5 USD). However, I decided to be more adventurous and take the public bus for 1.8k COP (.60 USD). Santa Marta is such a small city that there is only one main road (La Avenida El Libertador) which most of the buses use. After walking about 5 blocks, there were buses literally passing me every 20 seconds. It took me about 10 minutes to get to La Bahia, which is basically the boardwalk at the edge of the city. La Bahia was very lively but also had a laid back vibe (unlike Cartagena). The area consisted of a commercial port, a marina filled with yachts, and a small beach. While people (mostly kids) were swimming in the water, the water looked pretty dirty and had trash strewn about it. As I went further back into the city, I found the main tourist corridor. Historical Santa Marta was a mix of Spanish colonial style buildings and modern restaurants and clubs. In fact, many of the buildings were actually still being used for governmental and administrative purposes. There were also several parks (Parque Bolivar and Parque de Los Novios) to relax. During my time in Santa Marta, I was able to eat dinner at several of the restaurants given the ease of getting back and forth from my hotel to the plaza. While there really wasn’t much to do or see beyond the dedicated tourist zone, it is definitely a nice area to take an evening stroll.
Minca- Located in the jungle south of Santa Marta, sits the tiny town of Minca. Once known as a leftist guerilla strong-hold, the town has opened itself up to tourists and backpackers over the last decade. On Tuesday, I decided to take a day trip to Minca in order to hike up to Casa Elemento, a hostel located atop of the mountains which supposedly contained picturesque views of the city. I woke up at 7 AM and took the bus to the public market. Even early in the morning the market was buzzing with people. It took me 20 minutes to find the bus to Minca as I was looking for a van when I should have been looking for a ticket office. I eventually did find the office and paid 16k COP ($5 USD) for a roundtrip ticket. The van was comfortable enough despite being packed with people and luggage. Given that Minca is located deep in the jungle so it was pretty cool to experience the transition from the hustle and bustle of Santa Marta to the peace and quiet of the jungle. The ride to Minca took a little over an hour and I was dropped off in the middle of the town. I immediately began my hike to Casa Elemento in order to get it done as soon as possible. I started out with two groups of people, but found myself way ahead about a mile in. The hike takes about 3 hours for those that are in moderate shape. Everything was going great until I literally got ran over by a motor taxi. Part of it was my fault because I had my headphones on. However, I was hugging the side of the road and the driver could have easily avoided me. Fortunately, it was an indirect impact and I was only left with a few minor scrapes and bruises. Had the damage been worse, I could have been in real trouble because we were deep in the jungle. Despite not being in the best of shape, I didn’t find the hike to be terribly difficult. It was much harder mentally given that I was by myself for except for the occasional motorbike. Most of the trail was uphill but the road was paved and easy to navigate. There were a few good photo spots but most of the route was a combination of rocks and trees. After 2 and ½ hours, I finally arrived at the hostel and had to pay 10k COP ($2.75 USD) to go inside for the day. While the price did include a drink, it was basically a tourist tax imposed by the hostel’s new management team. In the hostel, there were these cool trampoline nets that overlooked the town, but so many people were on them that it diminished the experience. I took a few pictures, got my mediocre drink, and charged my phone. I will say that I got more satisfaction from the challenge of finishing the hike than my experience at Casa Elemento. I paid 20k COP ($6 USD) for a ride back to town. While the ride wasn’t the safest and way overpriced, it beat the alternative of a 2 ½ hour walk back down the mountain. As I was going down, I felt bad because I saw the two groups I started with and they weren’t even at the halfway point. While there were plenty of other things to do in Minca, I was so tired I headed back to Santa Marta.
El Parque Tayrona- On Wednesday morning, I woke up super sore from my trip to Minca. In fact, it would have been the perfect day not to leave the comfort of my hotel bed. However, as I said before, time was not on my side during my visit to Santa Marta and I had already booked my ticket to the region’s most popular tourist attraction, Parque Tayrona. Because I am a foreigner, I had to pay 54k COP ($15 USD) to access the park. While pretty cheap in US dollars, it is about four times the rate than that of a Colombian citizen 16k COP ($4 USD). Fortunately, I did not have to use my stash of cash as I bought my ticket online with my visa credit card. To get to the park, I went to the same place that I caught the shuttle to Minca and hopped on the public bus. It cost me 7k COP ($2 USD) and took under 2 hours to get dropped at the main entrance (Taquilla Zaino). I was able to show my pre-purchased voucher and copy of my passport but still had to pay 3k COP ($.80 USD) for daily “insurance”. Honestly, the insurance was pretty pointless as the trail was 10x safer than the one I hiked in Minca. Once I was in the park, I was able to take a shuttle bus for 3k COP ($.80 USD) to the actual entrance of the trail. I would highly recommend this as there really wasn’t much to see within the 5kms that the shuttle bus covered. I found the trail to be extremely easy with only a few “challenging” parts. There were a few uphill climbs that were assisted by stairs and two points where I had to waddle through soft beach sand in the hot sun. The views and the environment were amazing and I couldn’t stop taking photos. There was even a part in the middle of the hike where I could actually touch the howler monkeys that were hanging out in the trees. Throughout the trail, I saw camping grounds and local venders. However, food and drinks were extremely expensive throughout the park. This point was hammered home when a local woman tried to charge me 6k COP ($2 USD) for a dixie cup of papaya juice. After about 2 hours, I made it to the most populated part of the park, Cabo San Juan. It was a picturesque camping village that had a private beach. Even though it was touristy, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by other people. I found my own spot in the shade and hung out for 3 hours transitioning between swimming and reading. As more people started to arrive, I decided it would be a good time to hike back. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a shortcut back to the entrance and it took me another 2 hours to arrive back at the gate. Overall, this has been my favorite experience in Colombia thus far.
Barranquilla-From Santa Marta it took about 2 ½ to make to Barranquilla via the Berlinas shuttle bus with the trip costing 22k COP ($7 USD). My original plan was to stay in Barranquilla for a week. However, after four days in the city, I realized how big of a mistake that would have been. Barranquilla is a nice city, but its not really a tourist city. Instead, it is more of a stopping point between Cartagena and Santa Marta. The main “tourist” area of the city is known as Centro Historico and has two of the city’s more popular attractions-El Museo Caribe (The Caribbean Museum) and La Plaza de San Nicholas. Unfortunately, I could not go to El Museo Caribe because it was closed on the day (Monday) that I decided to explore the city. However, I did make it to La Plaza de San Nicholas amongst other attractions in Centro Historico. Unlike other cities in Colombia, Barranquilla does not have a designated tourist zone most of the tourist sites are spread throughout the city and getting to them can be a pain using public transportation. While La Plaza de San Nicholas creates a great photo opportunity, the area itself is underwhelming as it is surrounded by vendors selling knock off merchandise. I hiked for about 2 hours in 95 degree weather and saw two other places that I deemed to be photo worthy as most of the area was a commercial zone. I’ve concluded that the best way to experience Barranquilla is through a guided tour which costs between $80-140 USD.