Colombia’s sunshine coast: Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park

By Erin Hancock

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Colombia’s north is full of sunny coasts, beautiful beaches and lots of places for travelers to visit. Santa Marta is a popular destination for those wanting the white beach, sip drinks and take it easy kind of vacation. Not too far from the city is Tayrona National Park and transport to get there leaves every hour from the bus terminal in Santa Marta. When you arrive at the park gates, you’ll do a short hike. Once you get into the park, you can relax on the beach, do more hiking or set up camp for the night.

Parque Nacional Tayrona

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The weather seems to always be perfect (we visited in February) so it’s ideal for enjoying the beach and a cold beer. Hiking is a little warm if you’re not used to the hot climate, but you can take your time. It’s not a strenuous hike to get to the campsites (mostly level ground, no major hills).

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Cabo San Juan is probably the best campsite in the park. You cannot book your hammock or tent site ahead of time, but if you hike into the park early in the morning and then wait in line when they open reservations in the early afternoon, you’ll probably get yourself a spot. If you don’t like lines, book at one of the other sites at the front gate of the park and then just go to Cabo San Juan to enjoy the beach and the restaurant as you wish.

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The waves can be very rough at some of the beaches. Respect the “no swimming” signs. Too many people die every year because they think they can handle the waves. Stick to the designated swimming beaches. There are enough so you get variety without putting yourself at risk.

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If you want to get some freshly-baked bread (especially the cheese or the chocolate bread), be sure to go to La Panadería, a little family-run spot with a great view of the above lagoon. They have coffee and tea too, along with eggs and arepa (a sort of rice pancake). You can locate it between the Arricefes Beach (no swimming allowed there) and the Finca Don Pedro Campground shown below. Bread is also delivered fresh to your towel on the beach at Cabo San Juan so rest assured you will get all the carbs you want with little effort.

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If you party too hard, you can always hire a horse to exit the park instead of having to hike out. There is no cell phone reception….so people are social.

Santa Marta

This city is fun day and night. It’s the friendliest city I visited in Colombia by far. People know what customer service is here and they are great at it.

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The Masaya Hostel is an unbelievable place to stay. It’s downtown. The views are great. Be sure to catch a sunset in the rooftop pool and don’t forget your mojito (2 for 1 specials somehow perfectly aligned with the sunset ,which was a bonus). The rooms are nice and the price is less than a typical hotel, but on the high end compared to some hostels. You won’t regret it though. Plus you are not out of the city in the boonies by the other resorts, but rather near the town square (Parque de los novios).

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There is a great reggae bar in the Parque de los novios (which translates to “Boyfriend’s Park”) that obviously has pleasing music, good drinks and a great view of what’s happening in the heart of Santa Marta’s downtown after dark. Marley Caffee Bar is not to be missed.

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The eating options are plentiful. You can get salchipapas, a Latin American favorite consisting of sliced hot dogs on fries (with some type of mayo sauce) almost anywhere. However, I was more inclined to the somewhat ‘hipster’ places like the vegetarian restaurant and the 60’s inspired burger joint. The pic on the top left was taken in the Ikaro Cafe which has wonderful coffees, great fresh shakes, lots of vegetarian and vegan options as well as sweets. The prices are a little higher, but the quality and flavor kept up coming back (4 times in 2 days). The picture on the top right is in Radio Burger. This place has good burgers including fish and veggie options, as well as adorable decor. Their records and old radios provide lots to look at. Both of these restaurants can be found right around Parque de los novios as well.

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Whether you’re looking for some relaxation, good eats, great customer service, beaches or nightlife, Santa Marta has it all.

 

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A Colombian Gem: Salento

By Erin Hancock

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Colombia has a lot of popular tourist hotspots like Cartagena known for its colonial architecture, Medellin infamous for the rise and fall of Escobar, Cali celebrated for its hot salsa dancing and Bogotá, the capital. However, once you get your boots on the ground in Colombia, you quickly are recommended to visit some smaller, less-known towns. Take this advice. Salento, for example, is a gem located directly west of Bogotá.

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The adorable town is surrounded by gorgeous, green mountains. The main strip exhibits a full color palette of paints.

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If you follow the strip of shops all the way to the end (which can take some time with all of the distracting handicrafts and jewelry), you reach a bright set of stairs. The view from the top shows the town on one side and the hills on the other. You can take a moment to play on the monkey bars at the top too…a bit of a treasure at the end of the climb.

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The area is best known for its natural beauty, which is in generous supply. In particular, the Quindio wax palm trees found in the Los Nevados National Natural Park in the Cocora Valley make the area a destination all on their own. These trees can stretch to heights of 40+meters.

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The hike for the best views of the trees on the mountainside is peppered with many other breathtaking natural scenes as well. In order to get to the trailhead, simply arrive early in the morning to the main town plaza and get a seat on a jeep.

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And after a long day’s hike, you can grab some grub at a local restaurant like La Eliana or Brunch. Accommodations in Salento range from camping (as shown below at Estrella de Agua) to full-service hotels like Hotel de Mirador del Cocora.

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That’s a wrap on this one.

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If you want to plan other travels in Colombia, check out:

Bogotá on a budget

More coming soon

 

Bogotá on a budget

By Erin Hancock

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Bogotá is the capital of Colombia and has tons to offer any visitor. Despite the city’s rough reputation, most careful and aware travelers will have no trouble enjoying the city without running into any hiccups. If you’re traveling on a budget or trying to squeeze one more destination into your South American adventure, here are some ideas to consider.

Bogotá Grafitti Tour (pay what you want)

Some very smart locals have put together an excellent tour that not only showcases beautiful street art to dazzle the eyes but an excellent social and historical analysis of the city as depicted through the street art. Find the website here to get times, the meet-up point, etc.

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On the tour, you’ll hear about Justin Bieber’s contribution to the city’s graffiti scene … that was quickly covered by local artists.

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See a Kuna woman depicted below in traditional dress.

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The colors, designs and the messages behind them are sure to get you thinking and certainly entertain you for an afternoon while exploring a pretty funky neighborhood of Bogotá – La Candelaria.

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Botero Museum (free)

The neighborhood of La Candelaria is also home to the Botero Museum, a collection of Colombia’s most famous artist’s work. Fernando Botero is known for his rotund paintings where everything from the people to horses to the inanimate objects is curvy and slightly inflated. Other international artists are showcased in the museum as well. Hours found here.

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Gold Museum/Museo del Oro (free on Sunday, $1USD other days)

Colombia and much of South America loves to tell of their riches in the mining industry – gold, silver, etc. Most Colombian cities have a gold museum. The sheer number of gold pieces in the Bogotá museum makes this a great stop even just to take in the visuals without reading the history or details of how it is processed. However, history buffs would appreciate getting to know the changing social and economic dynamics of the country that are illustrated through the history of gold production, use and export.

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One room that is completely round is worth the visit all on its own. Music, lights and an immense collection of gold pieces of all shapes and sizes will turn a moment in the museum into a meditative and magical experience. Info on the museum linked here.

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Plaza de Bolivar (free)

The biggest and most populated plaza in the city is a great stop to take a rest. You can people-watch to your heart’s content, feed the hundreds of birds that call the plaza home and also grab a snack. More info here.

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Monserrate Hill (free if you hike or $5USD to take transport)

If you want the best view of Bogotá, Monserrate is the place for you. Those who like an adventure (or saving a few bucks) can hike up the steep hill (1.5 miles) on designated paths. Some travel sites warn against the safety of this hike but if you go in groups, it is now known to be relatively safe nowadays. There are two easier/faster forms of transportation which each costing around $5USD – the cable car and the vertical train. You can switch it up and do one on the way up and the other on the way back (your ticket works for either). Lines can be long so arrive early to get your ticket.

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Ice cream, food, beer and souvenirs can all be found at the top. More details on getting there, amenities and special events here.

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Sunday Market (free…well, that depends on you)

There are several in the city but if you like a good old-fashioned flea market with lots of random things all in one place, the San Alejo market is a good choice (located just off the septima in a pretty good location too).

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Salt Cathedral (less than $25 USD)

Zipaquira is located outside of Bogotá (50 mins – 2.5 hrs depending on your form of transport) and is home to a very unique cathedral. I know what you’re thinking …. “another church, I’ll pass on that”. However, this church is something special. It is located underground! The Catedral de Sal was converted from a salt mine to the cathedral you see today in 1991, although the first iteration on that location was dated back to 1932. The miners wanted a place to pray so they created a designated religious space in the functioning mine to do so. Today the mine is non-operational and has grown into a key tourist destination for the region. Taking a bus will cost $2-8 USD each way. Admission for foreigners is roughly $15 USD. Cabs or carpooling as well as group rates on admission can be negotiated. More details here.

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Lighting helps make the multiple cathedral halls even more spectacular.

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Special tours and climbing excursions can be arranged for those who want to do more than just look (or pray).

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And no Colombian experience is complete without taking in some of the world’s best coffee. Why not do it underground?!

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Enjoy your visit to Colombia. Free free to contact me for more information or comment below.

 

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