Cartagena served as an important port town during the early colonial era, and was subject to numerous attacks during this time. Money has remained in the city since those times through various trade and newfound tourism. Next to the shore, the renowned “Old City” is a beautiful district of cobbled streets, stacked with houses individually shaped and glowing with bright colour. By night, the colours fade and a seedier side to Cartagena is revealed, with north Colombia’s notorious drug scene becoming most transparent. Walking around as a solo male seems to be an open invitation to be sold drugs at every turn.
Now on the coast touching the Caribbean Sea, the air is warm and humid, even during the night. Although completely different to the cool weather that drifts through the centre of the country at slightly higher altitudes, the rain still falls with equal tenacity and randomness.
After a few days, it was time to leave the city in search of quieter ground. In a tightly packed bus, I headed east along the coast towards the village of Buritaca, and closer to the more remote areas of Colombia’s northern jungle. There had been rumours of a new hostel & camp nestled away from crowds and close to a small estuary, Rio Buritaca. After being dropped off at the bridge, we headed down a dirt track for 15 minutes to find a secluded spot cleared from vegetation and filled with open wooden structures with platted leaf roofing. Hammocks were dotted around with the residents chatting or dozing inside.
There was no space on my first night, so I was pointed towards a set of trees to string up my own hammock. With Colombia’s inevitable daily dose of rain approaching, I flung my two waterproof ponchos over the mosquito net, which just about covered the length of the hammock. I was able to weigh down my makeshift cover using several v-shaped branches with mangos attached on either end from a nearby tree. I clambered in and fell asleep. Upon waking a few hours later to the sound of large droplets against my poncho, I waited anxiously to see how effective my rain-cover was. To my surprise it actually worked, and I slowly drifted off for the second time to the patter of rain all around.
It’s never completely quiet in the jungle. The flow of the river, the buzz of insects, and even the occasional thud from a mango or avocado fallen from a tree. Nearby howler monkeys provide a natural alarm clock early in the morning, generally when you don’t want to be woken. During a rare time away from WiFi and any connection to the outside world, the hours serenely passed by meeting new individuals or resting on the shore of the river. On one brief excursion, we climbed up a gradual waterfall, where our prize at the top was an afternoon spent in an abandoned wood cabin. Apparently one that was previously owned by a famous Colombian TV star.
But I couldn’t remain in the private paradise forever – there was still much to see. At first, a group of us journeyed just a few kilometres to the nearest beach where I could enjoy a cool breeze and watch the Caribbean waves for two nights. We reconnected to the outside world and planned our next steps, before the five of us said our goodbyes and dispersed in different directions.
I returned along the coast before starting the journey inland towards the lumpy green Sierre Nevada Mountains. A short ride in a bus first brought me to the periphery of the nearest city, Santa Marta, where plenty of gesticulating and eager Moto-taxis were vying to provide a lift up the mountainside. On the heavily loaded bikes, we screeched up the road past the town of Minca, before readying ourselves for a 40 minute journey up a dirt road towards our destination. A combination of bad weather and non-stop vehicles carving deep ruts in the surface meant the road was ever-changing yet consistently terrible.
I arrived, re-stretched my legs and reset my face from the permanent grimace due to the bumpy ride. It was pleasant to finally be away from the suffocating humidity and heat of the coast, although it wasn’t long before a dense cloud blanketed the surrounding area, which then crashed onto us in a heavy downpour. With our view gone, a group of us decided that drinking and card games were the way forward. The rain continued the whole day, and hopes of anyone descending towards Minca that evening were quickly disappearing. Reports arrived of the already broken roads becoming impassable due to fallen trees and landslides. A jeep arrived at around 5pm to take a few down, although one drenched couple returned just 30 minutes later. Even the jeep was stuck.
The rain thinned overnight and eventually stopped the next morning, but I had managed to contract a devious stomach bug which brought continued frustration and complete lethargy throughout the day. Suddenly I wished for an air-conditioned room with a bed instead of my hammock, which is unsurprisingly a terrible way to sleep with an upset stomach. But what was worse was the impending journey downhill.
The following day, rather than commencing the three hour trek in my weakened state, I went for the motorbike option. At double the normal rate, a young Colombian offered me a lift. We started down the fractured road, passing the half-hacked fallen trees and shifted landslides. Deep mud caused the bike to skid and rattle, and we weaved from one side to another to find the (slightly) less dangerous route. My whole body was clenched (for multiple reasons). Occasionally I would catch the face of the driver in the mirror’s reflection. He looked more nervous than me.
Fortunately we arrived at the bottom with only a few near misses and no permanent damage. Somehow my wash-bag had flown out of my backpack, but the journey and sickness had left me so fatigued I couldn’t care less about some missing shampoo and toothpaste. I hopped into a collectivo and quickly re-entered the sweaty energy of Santa Marta. Upon arrival at my hostel, I slumped into my bed. The stifling heat was made bearable by a small bedside fan pointed directly at me, and my back finally relaxed on the cushioned surface.
I had a flight booked to Leticia, Colombia’s border town and gateway to the Amazon in a few days. Only a few thousand kilometres of rainforest separated me from Brazil’s east coast, where I would fly off the continent. And with that thought I closed my eyes and slept for the next 12 hours.