The last leg of our nearly six-week long Colombian adventure came to close where we started off – on the hot Caribbean coast.
After several weeks in Medellin we caught a flight to Santa Marta to explore the best this region has to offer. And according to word of mouth, that was Tayrona National Park. While that certainly didn’t disappoint, my favourite place in this region – and probably Colombia on the whole – took me entirely by surprise…
Taganga vs Santa Marta
Travellers generally come to this part of Colombia to dive or to explore Tayrona Park. The old backpacker debate is, where do you stay? For most people, it comes down to Santa Marta or Taganga.
Santa Marta, I heard, is a “bit of a shithole”; a big, uninspiring, pretty dirty city. But according to the internet, Taganga, a small, unremarkable, also pretty dirty beach town, also isn’t an especially nice place – “unless you’re a hippy backpacker who likes drugs and selling beads”.
Neither option sounded too appealing. So what to do??
After a lot of research, we decided on Taganga. We’d just spent three weeks in a big city and wanted something different. While it’s certainly not one of the nicest beach towns we’ve visited, it’s also not the druggie cesspit others make out. It is a little dirty, but it’s also quite beautiful.
Also, Taganga is a traditional, no-frills fishing village. While this means nothing to me, it meant something to Tom. The seafront promenade is full of little hut-style restaurants where you can choose your fish from the day’s catch (poor fish) and get an authentic Colombian lunch of vegetables, rice and grilled fish for about $4. Even I can appreciate that’s a good deal.
There are several beachside restaurants but nothing really to write home about. If you find yourself in in Taganga, however, definitely head to Cafe Bonsai for breakfast. It’s air conditioned (a serious plus in this heat), has wifi and homemade sourdough bread! This has been a rarity since leaving the UK, and decent bread is one of the few things I find myself really missing.
Also, we’ve had some excellent coffee on our travels (so good I now drink it black, which would’ve been laughable back in May…) but at Cafe Bonsai I had the best cup of coffee of this trip so far.
While Taganga won’t win any culinary awards soon, there’s a good selection of street food snacks available on the seafront. Plenty of arepas (though they weren’t as good as the ones in Cartagena...) and lots of fresh juices, fruit smoothies, iced coffees etc.
Taganga’s beach, as well as the neighbouring Playa Grande, is a bit dirty. Not filthy by any means (Tom went swimming) but honestly, if you’re in this area and want to find a good beach, you head to the pristine beaches of Tayrona Park. It’s worth walking to Playa Grande whether you plan to swim or not, just for the lovely views of Taganga.
See… it’s really not that bad.
Tayrona National Park
“You have to go to Tayrona!”
I heard that from just about everyone. As Colombia’s most famous national park, Tayrona charges a bigger entrance fee: it’s about $20 to get in, but that includes the shuttle bus that takes you up a long dirt track to where the ‘real’ park begins.
(NB: You need to bring your passport or they won’t let you in. They also search your bags for anything they deem contraband – alcohol, drugs, pocket knives, certain foods etc – although they don’t search your person. Do with that what you will….)
Most people recommend you stay a couple of nights in the park, but we were pushed for time so decided on a day trip. And as beautiful as it was, I’m glad we didn’t stay the night. If you have a big budget you can rent little beach cabins which look nice enough, but most backpackers stay in hammocks right on the beach.
Maybe I’m more pampered than I think, but once I saw the hammocks I was glad we were heading back to our AirBnB. I get eaten alive by sand fleas and mosquitos at the best of times; sleeping in these hammocks, which hang mere inches off the sand, would literally be asking for it. As it was, I left the park with a few golf-ball-sized bites surfacing on my legs.
We hiked for an hour along a jungle path to reach what’s deemed to be the prettiest beach, El Cabo San Juan. Just as we felt we were wilting under the relentless heat we stumbled across a man selling ice creams. A mirage?! Nope – turns out there are guys selling ice creams stationed along the jungle track at 15 minutes intervals. Tayrona knows how to bring the money in.
El Cabo is a really nice, chilled beach, complete with talking parrots flying around. There are also little stalls selling food: more cheese arepas for me (they were okay, but no condiments!) and “delicious” fresh ceviche for Tom.
Tayrona was undeniably beautiful, but despite what I’d been told, it didn’t become my favourite place in Colombia. That accolade goes to…
Ahh, Minca. As well as being my favourite destination in Colombia, this tiny village also confirmed my answer to the old “beach vs mountains” debate. I’m definitely, unequivocally, a mountains girl.
There’s just something about mountains: the cool temperature, the feeling of isolation. But in this region of Colombia, the Sierra Nevada mountains and the jungle join. Walking through cathedral-dim forests, past mist-wrapped trees and fast-flowing icy rivers, makes me feel something the beach doesn’t: it’s exotic, and intoxicating, and different.
And as for the views – this entire region is just ridiculously beautiful.
Aside from admiring incredible views, if you’re in Minca there are a few things you have to do.
Swim in Pozo Azul
About an hour’s walk from the village are the icy waters of Pozo Azul, a series of pools and mini waterfalls. I’m ashamed to say the water was too cold for me (it was freezing!) so I just had a paddle, but Tom went in and recreated Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl video.
A lot of people seem to get a ‘taxi’ to Pozo Azul rather than walk (in Minca a taxi is a ride with a local on a motorbike), but the scenery is gorgeous and it’s far more fun to hike it. There’s one incredibly rickety old bridge you have to cross, with soft wooden boards that look on the brink of collapse… but other than that it’s safe and fun!
Las Cascadas de Marinka
One thing I’ve learnt from travelling is that you really can’t just take someone else’s opinion as fact. If everyone is saying the same thing then there’s probably some truth in it, but otherwise you have to find out for yourself. One example of this is that I read comments saying that Las Cascadas de Marinka isn’t really worth visiting; that it pales in comparison to Pozo Azul.
I totally disagree. The hike there is beautiful and, handily, there’s a little ‘country pub’ along the way, The Green Dragon, where you can stop for a drink pre-or-post falls. Incidentally, las Cascadas de Marinka also provided the best shower we had for the three nights we were in Minca.
Admittedly, bird watching is not really my thing. But Minca has toucans. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be awed by these creatures.
We were incredibly lucky to see them. Our friends Dave and Jess visited Minca before us, and got up at 5am in order to see them. They didn’t (sorry guys!). It was only by freak chance we saw them. We were having brunch at The Lazy Cat (it was about midday) and as we ate, Tom saw a flash of colour zoom past him.
I glanced up, and a toucan was calmly sitting on the branch right in front of the cafe balcony – a couple of metres away. It was genuinely thrilling. Tom was positively gleeful, although I think more at our friends’ expense than at actually seeing the toucans…
After a while, he hopped right over to the balcony too… Oh hi toucan!
Eat at the Lazy Cat
There aren’t many places to eat in Minca, which is why most people end up eating at The Lazy Cat. Thankfully, the food here is great: there’s Thai-style stir fries, quesadillas, veggie and non-veggie chillies – basically a whole range of international food that will delight long-term travellers.
And, as we discovered by chance, it’s also a great place to spot toucans. Take a seat outside over the river and keep your eyes peeled, as apparently they’re rather regular visitors.
The only other food recommendation I have in Minca is takeaway pizza from Santisabella. I wasn’t expecting great stuff in a remote mountain village, but the pizza was delicious and had the best tasting and textured dough I have ever had.
* * *
And there you have it – the end of our Colombian adventures. We’ve seen so many beautiful places since being on the road, but Minca touched something in me. It’s genuinely hard to imagine anywhere more beautiful than this.
(Edit: I’m proofing this just after completing the Inca Trail in Peru. Turns out there is somewhere more beautiful after all! But I’ll save that for the next post…)
Colombia, you’re a beaut. Six weeks was not enough.