Jenn writes on 2014-03-11:

Hola from Cartagena!  Today is our first full day back on the grid and it’s been grand!  Cartagena is a beautiful city perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in the Caribbean, and we spent this morning exploring the walled city, and its fantastic colonial architecture, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Old city

We arrived in the city on Sunday afternoon, sort of by chance.  Over the past few weeks we have been making our way north from Bogotá and while we had it in our minds that we would like to visit Cartagena, truth be told, as we neared the Caribbean coast we weren’t really feeling the city vibe any longer.

Colombia has a lot of cities, and as we have griped before, our GPS-es like to take us through the heart of each and every one of them which is surprising a) since I repeatedly check to make sure that I have it set to the ‘fastest route’, and b) that Colombia doesn’t seem to have grasped the concept of a ‘by-pass’ – assuming that the GPS is always truly selecting the fastest route. We had grown weary of fighting the tangles of traffic in the oppressive heat.

By chance, however, as we left Minca (I will get back to our adventures in Minca shortly) we passed by a fellow motorcycle traveller parked on the side of the road just outside of a small fishing town.  We stopped to say hello and David, who had arrived in Cartagena via the Stahlratte (the boat that we were going to take but was running a different route when we were ready to depart Panama) a few days ago, told us that the city was beautiful and that it was a “do-not-miss”.  He also gave us the name of the hostel that he had been staying at with the other motorcycle travellers who had also come to Colombia by boat.  As we found, three or four in total who were still at the hostel.  As we exchanged contact information, said our “see-you-laters”, and went on our separate ways, we decided that we would go to Cartagena after all.  It was actually a lot closer than was apparent on the map.

To back track a little, lately it’s been a little rough for me on the ole motorcycle traveller’s road.  I have been feeling quite homesick, missing my family and friends, and many of the comforts that come from being stationary and not living out of a duffel bag.  When we left Palomino and arrived in the beautiful and isolated mountain village of Minca, my only thoughts were of how quickly I could turn around and get back to Bogota in order to catch a flight home.  While the idea of this type of travel sounds exciting and adventurous – which it is – it is also a lot of work.  It’s a nomadic lifestyle that often results in many compromises in terms of comfort level, which can become tiring.  I’m not sure if Colombia represents a bigger leg of our journey (i.e. the realization that I am just that much further from home), or if I am truthfully getting tired of the travel lifestyle, or if we just started South America off on the wrong foot (cold and wet weather, a head cold, intermittent stomach ailments, and increased tension between us), but ever since we landed in Bogota things have been slightly miserable for me.

As I eluded to earlier, we spent three nights camping on the beach at Finca Escondida in Palomino, then packed up and headed to Minca which is roughly fifteen kilometres from Santa Marta, a major beach and tourist destination, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta.  We pitched camp at San Souci (a Life Remotely stopover), from where we could see Santa Marta on the coast (the view was particularly nice at night with the city lights shining in the distance).  We were greeted by Chris, the owner, who showed us around his property which was lush and dense jungle with great groves of bamboo and mango trees towering above us.

Lots of bamboo in the area

What we thought was a rain shower turned out to be male cicadas leashing forth their liquid pheromones in order to attract female cicadas (yes, thoughts of being swarmed by female cicadas passed through my head, as I stood their dripping with pheromones, as I surely appeared to be the most attractive and largest cicada in the jungle).  Apparently we had arrived just in time for the height of cicada mating season, and as we were soon to find out, the evenings, nights, and mornings would be filled with dodging juices from above, avoiding their kamikaze flight paths, and trying to ignore the shrill squealing that is their song.  It was seriously loud but at least we had a nice view.

We shared our tent space area with Masa, a fellow from Japan who had been touring the world on a Honda Africa Twin motorcycle for the past five years.  We had first caught wind of Masa in Villa de Leyva while we were staying at Hostal Renacer, where he had been staying for a few days prior to our arrival.  It was nice to catch up with him finally.

Masa:  5 years on the road on a Honda Africa Twin

The village of Minca (just below us along a broken dirt road) was quite small, but seemed to be on the verge of a breakout in terms of tourism.  Amongst the town’s offerings (though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the outside) were many hotels and restaurants including a cafe where you could get a cafe latte, a few shops, and a market on Saturday.  As we had been lucky enough to arrive on the weekend, we decided to check out the market.  The market turned out to be two stalls on the church grounds, one of which was manned by another guest at Sans Souci.  He (Gin) told us that the previous week there had been six stalls, so it was a little disappointing that only two had shown up and no patrons.  We did, however, sample a couple of cups of “hot chocolate” which was made from locally produced cacao, sugar and water (no milk).

Tenting in the jungle

Alright, back to the camping… Our tent space was down a little pathway into the jungle, perched on a hillside overlooking the flora and fauna of the trees.  It was idyllic and quite something.  Fortunately, Chris had reassured me that creepy crawlies were few and far between and that cicadas were probably the worst of what we would see during our stay.  The area was a bit of an “island” and, as such, snakes and scorpions were fairly rare.  This turned out to be true (*phew), aside from the sand fleas, which I thought we surely would have left behind at the beach at Palomino.  My legs were already covered in bites from these nasty little buggers but I was soon to discover that they have no qualms about feeding off of sites already bitten by other sand fleas.  I no longer have to worry about mosquitoes, it seems, as sand fleas seem to have the market cornered in terms of itchiness and annoying-ness.

Water a little crisp?

On day two of our stay in the hills of Minca we decided to go for a swim (not in the swimming pool at the campsite since it looked a little murky) at the natural pools and waterfalls, a short hike away.  On the way we stopped for lunch at Asadero Camarita En La Sierra – where we dined on roasted chicken, smoked pork, chorizo, yucca, and potatoes in the company of some very nervous looking chickens, and one large and exceedingly handsome rooster. The owner, who reportedly is seventy years old, slaughters and smokes his own meat, and did a great job of it, at that.

Rickety old bridge

The view from where we ate was one of the most spectacular places that I have ever eaten lunch.  The hike to the Pozo Azul (blue pools) was along a dirt jungle road that dipped and twisted down the mountainside to the river.  When we arrived we were greeted with what appeared to be a family reunion, about thirty people of various ages swimming, and cooking lunch in a big pot over a fire.  I was a little turned off to see a woman cleaning a raw chicken in the river that I would be swimming in, but since she was doing it down stream, apparently that made it alright.  The swimming hole wasn’t very big and with so many people at it, it was definitely crowded.  It was quite beautiful though with a waterfall emptying into the pool.  The water was pretty cold though (think a swimming pool in May in Ontario) and we didn’t end up staying too long.

Our meal

The evening ended on a bit of a high note though with a sighting of a pair of keel-billed toucans in the treetops, fallowed by a visit from a group of Colombia spider monkeys at nightfall (Adam missed the monkeys).  Despite these great wildlife encounters, and great sleeping in our tent, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.  It was a beautiful place, but the constant barrage of biting insects (despite long pants and bug spray), the swarms of cicadas from above, an upset stomach, and a feeling of a lack of privacy all put a damper on my mood.  I was itching for a bed in a room with a door, and a phone call home.

Traditional cooking

As we left Minca, and headed back down the dirt road to the highway (and the one and only by-pass we have seen in Colombia – around Santa Marta), the mood was pretty low.  Being out of touch with back home for almost a week, not feeling great, and now covered in bug bites, we weren’t sure what direction our trip was taking.  Would this be the end for me??  Was I truthfully ready to pack it in and go home? In some ways, doing so would be admitting defeat and giving in to my fears, which I didn’t want.  Also the complaints that I have been hearing on Facebook about the snow and cold don’t really sound appealing, and as much as travel is work, it’s not sitting at a desk and I am certainly not ready to go back to that type of work just yet.  So we pressed on and now we are in Cartagena.

The ride here, along the Atlantic coast was marvelous.  The roads were flat, paved, and fast, and took us through some amazing landscapes.  One great thing about Colombia is that motorcyclists don’t have to pay tolls, of which there are many.  We have our own by-pass lane to the right of the top booths that allow us to cruise through without having to struggle with taking of helmets, gloves, and find change – it’s incredibly convenient and something that ought to be adopted in the rest of the world.

We arrived at the Amber Hostel on election day – traffic was light, but unfortunately alcohol sales are banned on election days, so that beer that we were craving was not to be found at the end of our ride day.  There wasn’t any obvious parking but the owner brought out a plank of wood to lay across the steps and curb in order to get the bikes inside the hostel, through the lobby, and into the courtyard.  As promised, there were already two other bikes there: a BMW F800GS belonging to Sheldon (Australia) and Eve (Poland), and a Triumph Tiger 800XC belonging to Johnny from Alabama.  It was great to be amongst other motorcycle travellers and feel a sense of connection, and to finally be able to swap some of my own stories with theirs.

Johnny, a southern gentleman – complete with his Cajun accent, is fairly new to motorcycle travel and sounds like he is having the time of his life.  Sheldon, and more recently Eve who joined Sheldon a year ago, has been to dozens and dozens of countries and had many stories to tell and a wealth of knowledge.  Jeffrey Polnaja, a man from Indonesia, also made an appearance having gone for a quick trip up the coast and not present the first night.  Being probably the first and only Indonesian to ride around the world on a motorcycle, Jeffrey had many interesting stories to tell as well.  We hope to keep in touch with them all, and see them down the road.

Bikes at Hostel Amber

Speaking of roads, city had decided to start tearing up the road in front of our hostel, so Tuesday morning was spent hucking all of the bikes, except for Jeffrey’s – who couldn’t get his bike to the hostel in the first place – over the concrete rubble with a gradual bunch of send offs.  Seeing off our new biker friends, we also realized that we had lost some strong biceps and opted to move our own bikes to a local secure parking lot rather than risk being stuck at our hostel due to road work.

All things be ing said and done, our room is comfortable with air conditioning (which is greatly appreciated in the 30 degree heat) and we have a private bath.  It is definitely nice to recharge after being outside in the elements for a week (I know, where has that Girl Guide in me gone?).

Minca photos
Cartagena photos