Right, so we decided to take the cheap option and find the bus station in Cartagena to take us up north. It took us aaaaages to locate the bus from the Getsemani area to get our bus to the Terminal de Cartagena (which is a good hour from the city). We just asked a chap with ‘Transito’ printed on the back of his shirt and he showed us the way. Very friendly chap he was too. We chose Expreso Brasilia to take us to Santa Marta for $25,000COP each. There’s another company called MarSol who pick you up from your hostel but I hadn’t read many favourable reviews and sure we’d never choose the easy option! The bus wasn’t full, the air-conditioning was lovely and there was no crazy loud Schwarzenegger action movie dubbed in Spanish – definitely what I’d call a result! We did stop in Barranquilla for about an hour on the way up (two half hour stops) but the entire trip only took about five hours. Not much to see in terms of scenery on the way up to be honest. You do get to see a lot of local life, however it’s tough to see the poverty some of these people live in – hundreds of shacks on the sides of the road with so much rubbish everywhere.
Once we arrived in Santa Marta we hopped into a taxi ($7,000COP) to take us to our new abode, Aluna Casa y Cafe. Obviously we weren’t going to set up shop anywhere else if we had the option of Irish hospitality. Patrick Fleming from Dublin runs it (and is the architect behind it) and his brother Jim and lovely wife were there for the duration of our stay. We couldn’t have chosen a nicer place…although we did chose a room without air-conditioning which was perhaps a mistake on our part as there are mosquitos everywhere in Santa Marta. Everywhere. Our latest defence against the buggers since our DEET spray ran out is pharmacy bought Nopikex spray (it’s about $11,000COP and if you put it on after a shower it keeps the feckers away). Ok, so we actually ended up staying in Santa Marta proper for 8 nights. I have literally no idea how. There’s absolutely nothing to do! It’s typically the starting off point for La Ciudad Perdida/Lost City trek but more on that in the next post. We ate many, many times in a little spot called Cafe Lulo (closed on Wednesdays) in Santa Marta. They have amazing wraps and their fresh juices are divine – I must have had about fifteen of their Aloha Hawaiis. We also ate in Agave Azul, which is under the city’s most popular hostel, La Brisa Loca (which I hear has a pool) and was pretty darn tasty. La Pizzeria was another stop for us (they have BBC beers which aren’t that easy to come by in Santa Marta). We had some drinks on the rooftop bar of Hemingways just off Parque Santander – delicious rum punch was had here. Although John now thinks I’ve caught diabetes from it. Ahhem. Anyway, Parque Santander is actually a really lovely place to sit and relax for a while in the evenings with the locals – there’s a lovely gelato spot on the fringe of the park which has lovely almond (almendra) gelato. Tasty.
They could do a lot more with Santa Marta – it might be nice in about 15 years but it’s quite dirty at the moment. The beach here is nothing short of disgusting. There’s a little sliver of better beach on the far end of the newly built marina nothing to write home about. There’s a huge port here so there are ships in and out all the time – I imagine a lot of work is done with the ol Panama Canal across the pond.
The Cathedral is worth a look; I read somewhere that it’s the oldest building in South America which is pretty cool. Juan Valdez (the coffee chain) has taken up residency next to the Plaza Bolivar – there’s such a lovely breeze in there!
We took a day trip to La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the hacienda where Simon Bolivar passed away. The taxi drivers say it’s $7,000COP but they said yes to $5,000COP for the trip. Getting there was funny actually – we hopped in a taxi and of course he had to stop for petrol on the way and proceeded to put the wrong fuel into his cab…queue us being stuck in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, another taxi driver needed a gas stop too (and also tried to charge $7,000COP – I’m like, dude, come on, we’re already half way there. Pup). The Quinta is a lovely place to spend an hour or two in the shade watching iguanas and wandering around (they have English speaking guides if you want too). It’s not huge by any means but they have some art in a few of the buildings which is worth checking out. There’s a shopping centre across the road from the front entrance if you needed anything too (you could buy hiking boots here for the Ciudad Perdida or Lost City trek if you decide to do it last minute). Good air-conditioning here, a huge Exito supermarket (although there are two huge supermarkets in the city too) and you can easily get a taxi back to your accommodation from here.
We took a little day trip to the lovely Minca which is only a few kilometres uphill from Santa Marta but takes about an hour to reach. I know the potholes in Ireland are bad…but seriously, you ain’t seen nothing! To get to Minca one could of course hop in to a lovely air-conditioned taxi, but not us. We did it the local way. You have to go to Calle 11 and Carerra 12 which is within the maze that is the local market (by the by, the smelliest market I’ve ever come across. Not sure I’d buy meat here…) and find ‘La Estacion de Minca’. You then get a collectivo (some chap’s car basically) for $7,000COP – this won’t leave until there are enough passengers. We ended up sharing on the way up to Minca with a women (fine) and a 70-something year old man next to me with his Page 3 newspaper. Laughing away. Crazy.
We called into the ‘Emerald Green Guest House’ and met Limerick born owner, Niall (who, hilariously, worked in the exact same job in the University of Limerick as John did when we were studying there – I believe about a year apart. You can’t go anywhere). Anyway, Niall is still mid-build with his guest house but he’s built it from the ground up himself – and he doesn’t speak Spanish which is amazing. He’s putting his heart and soul into it. We didn’t stay but we definitely would have if we wanted to get away from it all for a few days. Niall lives there with his Colombian wife and a few cats and a dog. It’s overlooking the river with huge iguana-filled trees at the back. I think you’d be treated like family if you stayed here. It bloody had hot water too, sigh.
Anyway, our main reason for visiting Minca was to check out the La Victoria Coffee Farm, which I had read is an hours walk from the main village area. No problem. Niall told us to get a moto-taxi up ($7,000COP – sensing a theme?) but we thought we’d be fine, an hour wandering through the countryside would be just lovely. Not so however, as we neglected to bring our rain jackets and it absolutely POURED out of the heavens. It took us at least an hour and a half to walk up there and once you see the sign for the farm it’s another 10-15 minute amble down a bamboo lined avenue. The road on the way up is hilarious; there may once have been road but now there is just rock, some mudslides and trees which do not shelter one from the thunderous downpours of the Sierra Nevada! So we eventually arrived to La Victoria like two drowned rats. Fetching. I also wore flip-flops on the walk up which was less than ideal (didn’t want to get the lovely new Nikes wet but I put them on for the trip back down in the rain. Lesson learned). There are some houses built up on the hill next to the farm (I guess farm workers and their families and some absolutely beautiful flowers in the vicinity). So we had a tour with three others and it was great. They’re still using a 120 year old machine which is pretty awesome. The tour was kind of in Spanglish and German but I think we caught most of the process. Our lovely guide had some English too thank God. They export 70% of their beans – she said mostly to Germany but I think she may have had a little crush on the German chap in our group so I’m not 100% on this stat. We had some coffee tasting at the end of the tour and it was actually lovely. This is coming from a non-coffee drinker so I’m not sure what that says. My coffee fiend of a fiance bought a kg of coffee though so I guess it’s not too shabby. We wandered back down to Minca (took about 40 minutes downhill and hopped in another collectivo back down to Santa Marta). There is a lot more to see in Minca but I think perhaps more so in the dry season – there are waterfalls which are supposed to be pretty spectacular and lovely nature walks with hummingbirds, monkeys and toucans. We saw a red squirrel. Ha!
Next stop: La Ciudad Perdida/The Lost City, Colombia.