Northern Colombia: The final days in South America


Day 58-60: Rincon Del Mar

On Sunday morning we bid our friends farewell and caught a cab to the local Montería bus station. Chelsie and Kon had taken the bus to Rincon Del Mar the weekend before and raved about it as one of Colombias best kept local secrets.

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We’d been long overdue for a beach fix, so we booked a couple nights there on our way to Cartagena.

After a successful negotiation with the bus company who tried to rip us off, we were placed in an old van in a parking lot. In front of the vans was a window that appeared to be an alcohol testing station for the drivers. Not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that.

As anticipated, the van had a broken AC and made multiple stops, with the driver running personal errands on the way. Eventually we were dropped off on the side of the road, bombarded by men yelling “Mototaxi! Mototaxi!”

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There’s only one way into Rincon Del Mar from the bus stop, and it’s via a 30 minute ride down a dirt road, typically by motorcycle. With heavy bags and a bruised tailbone eliminating mototaxis as an option, we managed to track down a car to take us there for $25k pesos (around $8).

Rincon Del Mar is a local fishing village—though village may even be too generous a word as it consists of a single dirt road lined with a handful of houses, two hostels, a few restaurants and two tiendas (aka windows selling some fruit, liquor and junk food).

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Like Montería, it’s off the beaten path, but there are a few people who visit after recommendations from other travelers. Many of them end up staying for weeks.

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Apart from the handful of travelers, the village is full of friendly locals who work as fishermen, run their tiendas, sell fruit and give rides into town. The children play futbol on the beach all day every day and hang out with travelers in the hostel, captivated by our smart phones and fancy devices. There is no crime, no one trying to sell you anything or rip anyone off—it’s perhaps the most simple and peaceful coexistence we’ve ever witnessed.

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At sunset on our first evening, we joined a few others aboard a small fishing boat headed toward an island off the coast. A storm was beginning to form in the east, and ten minutes into our voyage it turned a dark gray and took over half the sky, creeping towards us. The driver seemed a bit concerned, constantly looking back as lightning became more frequent. Lucas and I were getting soaked by the waves and I immediately regretted my decision to bring my camera, wrapping it in every dry thing we owned to protect it.

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The nervousness subsided for a moment when we approached an island with thousands of birds swarming overhead. They call it Bird Island, and it’s a sanctuary in the middle of the sea where they go to roost. The sight was even more dramatic with the ominous storm on the right, and fading pink sun on the left.

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At this point the eye of the storm seemed to be moving parallel to us, so we continued to our next destination as night fell. As it was too dark to take photos or video, you’ll have to use your imagination here with me on this part.

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The boat continued for another thirty minutes or so, until we pulled up to an empty shore lined by thick trees. We were instructed to hop off, not knowing what the plan was, until the driver shined a flashlight to a pathway with shallow water, just big enough for his boat to squeeze through. Ducking under the trees, we dragged the boat through the sand until the water deepened, and suddenly we were in the mouth of a lagoon.

After floating to the center of the still waters, our driver jumped in, inviting us to follow suit. We grabbed our masks and as we hit the water, dozens of tiny specks illuminated around us—it was bioluminescent plankton. A phenomena found in certain parts of the world. Lucas had experienced it in Vietnam and I also encountered it in Cambodia, but nowhere near this extent.

We floated in the lagoon for almost an hour, splashing in the water as glowing orbs covered our skin like a scene from Avatar. Bolts of lightning lit up the sky around us, providing a spectacular show as they formed spiderwebs across the clouds every few seconds. It was the most unforgettable, magical night of this trip.

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The following day we took another boat out to a group of islands 15 miles off the coast. The tour included a snorkeling stop in the middle of the shallow ocean, a glimpse at the worlds most densely populated island (1247 inhabitants on 3 acres), and a few hours on a beach sipping drinks out of a coconut.

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Even with sunscreen on a cloudy day, our faces were lobsters by the time we returned—have I mentioned how intense the sun is here?

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While the quiet days at Rincon Del Mar were a nice break, we were anxious to see more of Colombia before our time ran out. Sandy and sunburned, we went straight into town to catch the next bus to Cartagena after returning from the islands.

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Hoping for a legitimate bus this time, our bubble was burst when we found out it wouldn’t leave for another two hours and we were left with one option—the same sketchy van we took to get here.

Already mostly full with locals, we squeezed in to wherever we could find a spot, and another unfortunate traveler was given a plastic crate with a tarp to sit on next to me for the two hour journey.

Each bus driver here seems to be crazier than the next, and this one must have topped them all. Driving in the oncoming lane while honking his horn half the way there and easily going triple the speed limit, it was a white knuckle ride from start to finish. I felt worried for the mother in front of me with an infant on her lap, though I didn’t sense any concern on her end—I guess she’s used to it.

Unlike Brazil and parts of Peru, we feel as safe here as anywhere in the US—except when it comes to transportation.

Taxis and buses drive like they’re playing Gran Turismo, honking at pedestrians to get out of their way and swerving around cars into oncoming traffic. Families with infants squeeze onto motorbikes (helmetless, of course) and young children wander around the highways alone—a stark contrast to the highly regulated US standards. Seatbelts are rare and traffic signs and signals are merely a suggestion, not a rule. There have certainly been a few adrenaline packed rides on this trip (bruises included) but it’s all part of the adventure.

The upside of having a driver with a death wish is that we arrived 30 minutes early, even with his stops to refuel and buy mangoes off the street. He made us get out on the side of the freeway nowhere near the bus terminal and pay for a cab into town, but we were just grateful to be on solid ground alive.

Day 61-62: Cartagena, Colombia

The first thing we noticed about Cartagena was the epic pink sunset on the way in. The second was the suppressive heat. When people tell you about Cartagena, they speak of the vibrant colors, culture, people and food… and it always includes a “but it is so hot!” disclaimer.

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During our first full day in Cartagena, we wandered the streets of the old town in the afternoon, making sure to walk only in the shade and frequently ducking into banks and shops to avoid seeing spots from heat exhaustion. There weren’t many people outside, understandably—this may be the hottest place we’ve been.

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But man, is it a beautiful city.

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After drying the sweat off our clothes back at the hostel, we returned before sunset when it was cool enough for more people to come out of hiding. The old town is separated from the rest of the city by a 17th century wall built by the Spanish for protection.

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The buildings are loaded with charm, painted in pastels and saturated hues with massive wood and iron doors I wanted to steal for all of my future houses.

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Locals and tourists congregate along the wall to watch the sunset over the ocean, with a view of the skyline often accompanied by an afternoon thunderstorm. There’s a unique energy at this hour that seems to capture the spirit of Cartagena here—a city that’s warm and vibrant in every sense.

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Our flight back to the states was departing from here in eight days, so after just two nights in the city we made plans to visit a couple more places in Colombia during our final week.

Day 63-65: Minca, Colombia

A sweaty four hour bus ride north from Cartagena, Minca is a small town known for its coffee plantations.

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Nestled high in the mountains with limited paved roads, the only way up to our lodging was by mule or motorbike (or an hour uphill climb—not an option with our luggage in 100° humid heat).

We chose the motorbikes, and immediately began to question our decision when the path turned into vertical rocks, Lucas almost fell off the back and we nearly collided with a large snake.

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Drivers in South America are crazy but they’ve got some serious skills, and we were thankful for ours for keeping us injury-free before we crossed the river and hiked the rest of the way up to our hotel.

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Exhausted from the hike, we finally reached our destination and slid the bags off our sweaty backs. From here you could see the ocean behind the Santa Marta skyline, and we admired the view while wondering where everyone else was.

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Minutes later, a lady came out and served us fresh watermelon juice, smiling and welcoming us in Spanish with no further information. We sipped on our juice and wandered around the small building for a while, confused about the apparent lack of an owners presence.

The juice lady eventually came out again to bring us to a room, without asking our names or if we had a reservation. At one point we thought we may have been at the wrong place, since there were multiple names and locations on the map, and this B&B seemed to be out of business.

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Turns out, the owners went out of town for a couple days and the juice lady was a sister that lived there and helped run the farm. It’s all a very casual operation with no formal system, as typical with a family run business. What began as confusion turned into the awesome realization that we had this entire place to ourselves—an organic coffee and cocoa farm and undiscovered paradise for $40/night.

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Oh, and hands down the most amazing food we’ve had in months. Better than most restaurants back home, even. All organic homemade fish, quinoa stuffed peppers, avocado salad, chocolate cake from their cocoa beans, fresh fruit and juice and of course, delicious coffee on tap 24/7.

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Pure heaven, I tell you.

Even the outdoor bathrooms were special. How often can you reach out and pick a lime while on the toilet?

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The view was worth having centipedes, lizards and spiders the size of your hand stare at you while you pee.

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With only two days to enjoy this getaway, we decided to walk down to Pozo Azul—one of the local waterfalls. Since we were quite a trek from town, our hostess explained there was an alternate trail from the back of the hotel to the falls which should take 45-60 minutes. I made sure that there would be signs to lead the way, and felt about 75% confident that we understood enough of what she was saying to figure it out.

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At first it seemed easy enough, then the path began to split a few different directions and we found ourselves in someone’s yard with a machete wielding child. He ran up to us, waving his weapon yelling something we couldn’t understand. “Pozo Azul? Cascada?” we asked, noticing the machete was just a saw. He pointed to a direction and we continued that way for a while, until running into two more children with saws who told us we were going the wrong way.

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Their directions didn’t seem right, but they probably knew better than us, so we took their advice and turned around.

Some time later we came across another building with a local woman who told us we were also going the wrong way, and turned us around onto a different path into the the jungle.

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Moments later, I heard the bark of an angry dog growing closer and my heart dropped. We turned around to see a dog running straight at us, and suddenly a second one came behind it at full speed with its fangs out, ready to attack. Lucas told me to run and lunged at them with his fist before they could bite as I ran for my life. Fortunately, they were startled and backed down, and I could hear Lucas behind me yelling that we were safe. But I continued to run like Forrest Gump through that jungle until my flight mode calmed down, then picked up a big branch and kept it with me for protection the rest of the way.

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After our scare, we took a couple more wrong turns until finally coming across a makeshift bamboo bridge with a path that lead to the main road.

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Two hours after setting off, we stepped into the cold waters of Pozo Azul, relieved to have made it.

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But the journey was not over yet—we still had to get back.

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Clearly we weren’t going the way we came, so we began walking to Minca.

Once in town, men yelling “Moto! Moto!” approached us, but we decided we’d had enough danger for one day and would rather not relive our motorbike experience. So, we hiked for over an hour up the mountain back towards our hotel. Did I mention how hot is here?

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That day was the most physically exhausting we’ve had during this trip. But the more challenging the journey, the more rewarding the payoff…

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Day 66-67: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

With just a few days left in Colombia, we caught the early morning bus to Tayrona National Nature Park.

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As the main attraction in this part of Colombia, the park is 150 square miles of jungle that hugs a stunning rocky Caribbean coastline.

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It’s just as hot here, and our campsite is a 2 hour hike through the jungle and beaches. But we’re used to this by now.

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After stopping to hang out with a family of monkeys, admire fluorescent lizards and take photos of a stunning coastline, we made it to our beach by lunchtime.

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The day goes by way too fast here… with no electricity, wifi or entertainment of any kind, you’re forced to spend your time swimming or sleeping. It was the perfect way to end our South American adventure.

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There are a million reasons to love Colombia—the beautiful landscape, weather, friendly people, cost of living—but more than that, there’s just feeling you get that can’t be explained. Something in the warm air that welcomes you and feels like home. It’s a place we could see ourselves buying property in one day and staying for extended periods of time.

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Much like Southeast Asia, life here is much more laid back, less structured, often disorganized and illogical. It’s a different mindset and way of living that while at times may be frustrating, it instills patience, understanding and gratitude long after you’ve left. I was given a huge dose of this new perspective in Asia, and after going back to my normal routine at home, the unmatched feeling of freedom and peace has returned. It’s not something you experience after a week—it takes time to really settle in and change something in you.

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Today we fly back home for my sisters wedding, to briefly reconnect with the life we left, before landing in Portugal in ten days. These nine weeks have felt like their own lifetime, and I can’t believe it’s already over.

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What I realized some time ago holds true now more than ever—the only way I’ve found to add life to your years is to travel.

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There’s a whole world out there, and seeing it from another’s perspective will change you. We are so fortunate (yes, including you) to have the freedom to go to these places and have these experiences. There are plenty of sacrifices along the way, but you can choose it—and I highly implore you to do so.

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Our Colombia video is coming next, and I’m really looking forward to sharing this one! You can get caught up on our previous videos on my channel.

Thank you if you’ve read this far—it was a long one, but I don’t want to forget these details so we can tell our future grandchildren and relive all of these moments when we’re 80 😉

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Stay tuned for the video to go along with the stories…

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8 thoughts on “Northern Colombia: The final days in South America

  1. I love reading about this amazing adventure. We’re planning some similar travel for next year and I’d love to hear what types of clothes you packed and how you got the most out of them. We’re going to be limited on backpack space so I know I have to focus on a few hard-working essentials. Any recommendations?

  2. “The upside to having a driver with a death wish…” literary genius! I enjoyed this so much. One day, I’ll do more than live vicariously through you… one day.

  3. I’m so enjoying your trip. It’s so easy to forget just how large this world in which we live. Looking forward to resuming “our” travels…….:) Be safe.

  4. Although we travel a fair amount, I don’t often (ever) get caught up on travel blogs. However, I have enjoyed your travels very much! You have made some wonderful memories together. Looking forward to your Portugal posts as we are head there soon.

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