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Polaroid Of The Week: Colonial Beauty in Cuenca, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador cuenca

When my mosquito bite count reached one hundred and my laptop’s cooling fan started making noises as if it was trying to tell me ‘I can’t deal with this heat anymore‘, I decided that it was time to get away from the beaches for a while and give both my laptop and my itching limbs a break. The beach had been nice, but I needed to get somewhere high enough for the mosquitoes to not get there. And so I headed to Cuenca, at 8,370 ft (2,550 meters) too high for mosquitoes to continue to feast on me and cool enough for my laptop not to overheat.

Cuenca is a popular expat destination, with 5,000 mainly North American expats living there, and it is easy to see why. Life in Cuenca is pleasant, cheap and tranquil. Mountains surround the city, and you can walk everywhere in the center. Cuenca has 52 churches and the best preserved colonial architecture in Ecuador, so much so that UNESCO declared the city center a World Heritage site. It was a city that I liked immediately – the first time I had this feeling during my time in Ecuador!

Without many ‘must see’ landmarks, I adapted to Cuenca’s slow pace and got into a nice routine of a daily morning run along the river, followed by a tasty breakfast in one of the coffee shops in the city center. I’d work for a few hours on my laptop and then head out and just wander the streets, curious to see what I’d find. I stumbled upon gorgeous colonial buildings, quaint plazas and plenty of good restaurants. After eating mostly Ecuadorian food for the past few weeks, I was delighted to find Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern and tasty Italian food, including pizza (and I am a hard-to-please pizza snob!).

The only mistake I made? I waited too long to do a couple of things I had on my to-do-list, most importantly climbing the bell towers of the impressive Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, Cuenca’s main church, built in 1887, whose domes of sky-blue Czech tile (pictured in the Polaroid) are visible from almost anywhere in town, and where the view from the top over the city is supposed to be fantastic. Instead of heading up there on a sunny day, I felt lazy and decided to ‘do it later’ – only that the blue skies never returned. Instead, I experienced a couple of rainy and grey days, making it also not worth it to go to ‘Turi’, Cuenca’s best viewpoint, to get a view over all the city’s red-tiled roofs.

However, I was still enjoying my time here, even though I didn’t make it to all the places the guide books recommended. Instead, I experienced Cuenca like a local, with a nice routine, slowing down my travels, and appreciating the laid-back atmosphere, before my action-packed next stop, where many adventure activities would await: Baños, aptly nicknamed Ecuador’s adventure capital.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Beach sunset in Montañita, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador montanita
After my week in hot and sticky Guayaquil I couldn’t wait to get to the beach for a fresh ocean breeze. I had heard great things about Montañita, a small village on the Santa Elena Peninsula on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast. Montañita is the country’s number one surf spot, and, as I learned when I arrived there, a prime party destination for people from all over South America. Think South America’s answer to Ibiza, only with less mega clubs, but with loud music right on the beach instead, blasting from several discos right along the shore.

The problem with that? I was just not in the mood for a mega party, and I had also been warned about walking around town at night by myself. A couple of backpacking girls from Argentina were brutally murdered in Montañita less than a year ago, and I didn’t get a good vibe from the village. The beach was okay, but nothing special, and the waves were so insanely high that there was a red flag on the beach every day, warning people that the surf was intense and the current was strong.

I ended up preferring the two beaches south and north of Montañita – Olon to the north was much more charming, with seemingly nicer accommodation and cuter restaurants, plus several appealing beach bars and less tourists. Manglaralto to the south seemed like it lacked foreign tourists entirely – or at least I never saw any when I ventured down there.

What all three villages have in common: the amazing sunset spectacle the sky put on for us every single night. I made sure not to miss a single one – Pacific sunsets never disappoint.

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Searching For My Inner Demons In The Colombian Jungle: A Date With Ayahuasca

ayahuasca vines

I held the little bamboo cup with both hands and quickly gulped down the thick, dark liquid. The bitter taste in my mouth was repellent, and I tried to wash it down with some water as soon as I sat back down on the wooden floor of the ceremonial hut in the Colombian Amazon.

“You should be feeling the effect of the ayahuasca in about twenty minutes,” the shaman named William told us in Spanish. “If you don’t feel anything then, I’ll give you some more.”

He then pointed to my left, where on one side of the hut, the wooden wall was only chest high, above that it was open until the ceiling, like a window, but without glass.

“You’re very likely to throw up when the ‘medicine’ begins to work. If you feel it coming, throw up out the window.”

He then turned his headlamp off, the only source of light in the hut, and the four of us were suddenly sitting in the pitch black dark, cross-legged, waiting for the ‘medicine’, as William called it, to work.colombia amazonAyahuasca. A plant that grows only in the Amazon and which, brewed into a tea, is famous for its ability to open a door to another reality, to access a part of your brain that is normally not used. In the countries where ayahuasca can be found – Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia – the plant has been used for centuries by shamans to cure sicknesses and to open your mind to another dimension.

The brew, for which the ayahuasca vine is combined with the DMT-containing chacruna leaves, is a very strong hallucinogenic. Because it contains DMT (a psychedelic tryptamine compound found in around 60 plants on the planet, and which is illegal in the U.S.) and is highly visionary for some people, ayahuasca has become somewhat of a cool way to ‘go on a trip’ over the past few years.

Now you don’t need to fly all the way to the Amazon to attend an ayahuasca ceremony – you can also experience it in an apartment in Brooklyn, San Francisco or Berlin. Indigenous people, however, regard the calling of ayahuasca as a drug derogatory.ayahuasca experience summed upI was not looking for some sort of hallucinogenic trip, having never experimented with DMT-containing drugs in my life and apart from a couple of times in my early 20s, I have never felt the urge to try drugs in general. When my friend asked me if I wanted to partake in an Ayahuasca ceremony, I was equally as intrigued as terrified. But the fact that I was intrigued and even considering it made me realize that something inside of me had shifted.

The first time I had heard about ayahuasca was when I had traveled in Peru in 2014, and back then, I found the whole thing just frightening. Never in my life would I do something like that, I thought to myself back then after reading a few first-hand experiences of other travelers and the short rundown of ayahuasca in my guidebook. Peru in particular is famous for its ayahuasca ceremonies, with people flying down from the States for weeklong ayahuasca cleanses. Because that’s what the brew, also called Yage, is supposed to do: cleanse you. Not your body, but your mind. From all the emotional baggage you are carrying, from traumatic experiences you can’t let go off, even from mental illnesses like depression.

I am certainly not suffering from depression, but as most of us, I’ve got a fair amount of emotional baggage. Several of the articles I read about ayahuasca mentioned that one night of ayahuasca would equal ten years of therapy – how could I not be intrigued? Other articles called ayahuasca a life changing experience, a way to overcome fears you believe impossible to overcome, a way to face your biggest demons.ayahuasca experienceIn one of the best articles on ayahuasca I’ve read, Kira Salek writes: ‘All those self-destructive beliefs, suppressed traumatic events, denied emotions. Little wonder that an ayahuasca vision can reveal itself as a kind of hell in which a person is forced – literally – to face his or her demons’.

While I was reading about it (I must have read every article on ayahuasca on the internet, and watched every documentary I could find on YouTube), I came across the statement that you shouldn’t be looking for ayahuasca, but that the medicine will find you when you are ready for it.

And that’s when I decided I would take part in the ceremony. I hadn’t been looking for it, but the opportunity presented itself to me. I was willing to do it, no matter how bad the demons were that I would be facing, no matter how deeply upsetting the experience could be.

Because you simply don’t know what the plant will reveal.

Some people said they were reliving moments from their childhood they had long forgotten about, some even said they were experiencing their own birth from the perspective of an onlooker. Where would my ayahuasca journey lead me?ayahuasca experience colombia daniThe first place it led me to was William’s hut in the middle of the jungle, somewhere outside of the small town of Leticia in the Colombian Amazon. My friend and I had taken a local bus for half an hour, asked to be dropped off on the side of the road where a small dirt path led into the jungle.We followed the muddy jungle path until the last houses disappeared out of our rear view, walking deeper and deeper into the jungle, the path narrowing more and more, and getting muddier the further we went. After nearly an hour, we finally reached William’s jungle home: a couple of wooden huts, a large circular structure with a thatched roof where the family cooks and works – like is common in this part of Colombia – and a covered area with a few hammocks where we would be sleeping after the ceremony.

William introduced himself, wearing regular clothes, including big rubber boots, and I couldn’t help but think: That’s not how I pictured a shaman. He told us to rest until he would come and get us for the ceremony later that night. There were four of us: a German (me), a Spaniard, an Italian and a French person. An international group, two girls and two boys, all four of us from different backgrounds and walks of life. The only thing we had in common was that we were looking for answers, and we were hoping that ayahuasca would give them to us.

While we were waiting for the sun to set, I turned into a bundle of nerves. I tried to ignore my rumbling tummy, because you are not supposed to eat anything 24 hours before drinking the brew, to ensure the ‘medicine’ would have its full effect. In addition, you are not supposed to have caffeine, dairy, gluten, sugar, meat, spicy food, alcohol and sex for a week before taking ayahuasca.amazonian skyI tried to calm myself: The plant had found me. I was supposed to be here. When I started my travels through Colombia I had no desire and no plans to visit the Amazon, and yet here I was, with someone I trusted, and I felt like we were supposed to cross paths just so that I would have this experience. I know how hokey pokey this must sound, because I am admittedly not a very spiritual person, but I really felt that the only reason I had boarded that plane to the Amazon – a spontaneous decision – was to participate in this ceremony.

These were also the thoughts that were running through my mind as I was sitting on the floor of William’s jungle hut later that night, waiting for the yage to kick in. ‘I am supposed to be here’, I kept telling myself, wondering what the plant would reveal for me. Would this be a life changing experience for me?

While we were all lost in our thoughts, William, who had changed into a more shamanic outfit with white pants and a white shirt before the ceremony, had started to sing shamanic chants accompanied by shaman rattles, mixed with shamanic drumming. These chants call upon healing spiritual powers, some of them are supposed to render the mind susceptible for visions, others are calling the plant spirits for healing, and others are calling the spirit animals for protection.leticia chickensThe music started to get louder and louder inside my head, and it now sounded as if there was was an entire village population playing instruments, and not just one person. I opened my eyes to see if there were other musicians in the room, but it was pitch black, I couldn’t see anything. I turned my head towards the open window, where I could make out the silhouettes of the trees and jungle plants, vaguely lit up by the moon.

A million things ran through my mind, and with every new thought I had I asked myself if I was thinking about this particular thing because of the ayahuasca or simply because I was sitting around waiting for something to happen.

All of a sudden, I felt sick to my stomach. At first, my hands were trembling, my lips were shaking, and then quickly, my entire body was shivering. I was freezing cold. This feeling was anything but pleasant. I was hoping that it would pass, but I couldn’t stop shivering. And then there it was: the urgent need to throw up. When it overcame me, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it over to the window, that’s how weak I felt. But somehow I stumbled over to the big hole in the wall, my hands reaching the ledge just in time before what can be described best as projectile vomiting began.colombia amazonI threw up vigorously, emptying my stomach out into the darkness of the jungle. I threw up over and over again, until there was nothing left inside of me.

The vomiting, politely referred to as purging in the world of ayahuasca, was part of the ceremony. I had read that this is supposed to clean your body completely, clean it from all the evil and bad and the toxins that has accumulated inside of it over the years. The thought of this being a cleanse was what kept me going through every puke spell, with tears running down my face, because that’s how fierce the throwing up was. There is only one thing in the world that tasted worse than ayahuasca, and that is ayahuasca thrown up.

I slowly made my way back to the middle of the room, but I was staggering so much that I decided I should instead lean on the back wall of the hut, giving my body additional support. I sat down, still shivering, still tasting the bitter taste of the ayahuasca in the back of my mouth. I was waiting for visions to start, to have some revelations, to take a journey into my sub-consciousness, or maybe re-live a traumatic childhood memory I had buried deep in the back of my mind.

But nothing happened.amazonian rainforest colombiaInstead, I kept feeling dead sick, and I started to wonder if I’d survive the long way back to the closest hospital, which was in Leticia. There were no rescue helicopters here that could get me there quickly. Nobody even knew where exactly I was. I pictured myself crawling on all fours through the jungle back to the main road, trying to get to a doctor. For a moment I was convinced I would not survive the night, and started to spend a lot of time thinking about my family and all of the things I felt I should have told them before leaving them behind.

All of a sudden, I heard the familiar sound of someone throwing up. It was now the Italian girl who was puking, but she seemed fine and sat back down quickly. After her, the French guy headed to the window. William asked the Italian boy if he was okay, since he was the only one who hadn’t thrown up yet. The shaman offered him another cup of the brew, but he declined. Nobody wanted a re-fill of this disgusting tasting drink.

William continued to chant and drum, and I continued to sit there and try to distract myself from feeling like I was dying. The feeling reminded me of how I felt when I was 21 and lived in Ibiza, and my friend fed me half an ecstasy pill on an empty stomach. That had been such a horrible trip that I had vowed to never take ecstasy again – something I’ve stuck to until this very day.path to shamans houseA little bit later, the Spaniard announced that he needed some air and that he would step outside for a bit. I remembered reading about a boy who had stripped off of his clothes during an ayahuasca ceremony and ran out into the jungle, completely naked, and gotten lost. We’ll probably never see the Italian again, I thought to myself, there are probably jaguars out there in the jungle, and poisonous snakes and spiders.

After what seemed like an eternity, the Italian guy still not having returned, the shaman announced he’d step outside as well to check in on the Italian.  The drumming and chanting stopped and the three of us were sitting in absolute silence. The sound of the jungle – crickets, birds, frogs and other animals – seemed to multiply ten-fold, just as the instruments and chanting had seemed to me earlier.

William returned after a while and announced that he had drunk a little too much of the medicine, asking if we could spare some water for him. That is exactly what you don’t want to hear while you’re on ayahuasca: that the person who is in charge of the ceremony is unwell. The shamans drink the brew as well in order to open their minds to a third dimension and to guide us on our spiritual journey, but their role is also to help us in case we encounter a particularly bad evil spirit, that we are unable to handle by ourselves.colombia amazonWilliam checked in on us occasionally, calling us by our names and asking if we were okay. The Spaniard returned to the hut, assuring the shaman he was fine. The Italian girl and the French boy were both quiet, I had no idea if they were experiencing any visions or felt the effect of the ‘medicine’.

I thought to myself that we had to be about halfway through the four-hour ceremony and decided to lay down on the floor, since I still felt terribly sick, almost like I was on a boat that was swaying from side to side. Instead of facing my inner demons or having a grand spiritual awakening, I was just lying on the dirty wooden floor, waiting for this misery to be over. This was not how I had pictured my encounter with ayahuasca.

Finally William announced it was time to conclude the ceremony. He came to each one of us individually, chanting and giving us blessings, thanking Mama ayahuasca for leading us through this journey.jungle colombiaAll four of us walked over to the hammocks, none of us talking. I tried to swallow my disappointment about the experience that had been so not what I had been expecting. I thought for sure that I would have a life-changing experience, battling demons, facing a long forgotten childhood trauma and coming out of it as a new, better, grown person.

As I was continuing my journey through the Colombian Amazon a few days later, I tried to get over the sadness about the non-occurring revelations and realizations by reminding myself that many people don’t have any visions during their first ayahuasca experience.

A few weeks later though, it suddenly hit me: Something that had weight heavily on my heart for a long time had disappeared. Before the ceremony, I regularly found myself thinking about a certain thing that gave me grief, but that I couldn’t do anything about it. But that day I noticed that I hadn’t thought about it for weeks. Maybe William had been right when he told me the morning after the ceremony: “Dani, you threw up so much, you had many demons inside your body. But you cleansed yourself entirely of them.”ayahuasca experience colombia

You want to try ayahuasca? Here are a few things you should know:

1 Do your research

Ayahuasca has become so trendy in recent years that it has caused a growing number of fake shamans who try to benefit from the increased interest in ayahuasca. If you visit Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon, you’ll see posters and announcements for ayahuasca retreats throughout town. Make sure to research the shaman or retreat provider, ask other travelers for recommendations. There have been several incidents, including deaths, during ayahuasca ceremonies in the past few years – see below.

2 The dark side of ayahuasca

Be aware that an ayahuasca ceremony shouldn’t be treated lightly. It can be a deeply disturbing experience, but there are also many reports of sexual harassment by female solo travelers, so if anything feels off, get out of there as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t have done the ceremony by myself, I only did it because I was with someone who I trusted.colombia amazon

3 Further reading

Read up on ayahuasca before simply signing up for a ceremony, only because you can now do them in major cities in the U.S. and Europe. This is NOT some sort of drug trip but is supposed to be a spiritual, cleansing, and sometimes cathartic experience.

I recommend reading:

(There are plenty of other good articles in publications like the New York Times, The Guardian, Elle, Vice, Cosmopolitan, LA Weekly – read as much as you can.)

ayahuasca experience colombia

4 The Amazon vs. the U.S.

No matter if you live in Brooklyn, Berlin or San Francisco, chances are that you can experience an ayahuasca ceremony there instead of having to travel thousands of miles into the Amazonian jungle to find a shaman. However, after reading a couple of articles by people who partook in ceremonies in the U.S. (see above), I cannot imagine the experience in somebody’s apartment or a yoga studio would have the same impact as a ceremony at the source of the vine: in the Amazon. I personally think that if you are looking for a possibly life-changing, healing experience, you should look into ayahuasca retreats in the Amazon, ideally retreats over several days with various ceremonies, in case the ayahuasca doesn’t reveal its full effect immediately, like in my case.ayahuasca experience colombia

5 Keep your expectations low

Since my ceremony, I’ve met several people who didn’t have revelationary experiences like Kira Salak had during her retreats (see article Hell and Back). But since I had read about her incredibly powerful ayahuasca journey, as well as several other, similarly cathartic experiences, my expectations for the night were very high, and weren’t necessarily met. I recommend keeping your expectations low in order to avoid disappointment.ayahuasca experience

*** Side note: I took most of the photos on the morning after the ceremony and they turned out completely blurry, which perfectly sums up how I experienced my first ayahuasca ceremony: in a blurry haze.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Taking In The Views Over Guayaquil, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador guayaquil

After cruising around the Galapagos Islands, I was in urgent need of a break to catch up on work projects and to deal with the hundreds of emails that had piled up in my inbox while I was on the boat (I get so many emails these days, I can barely handle the volume anymore!). I decided to stay in Guayaquil, the city where I’d flown to the Galapagos from, which happens to be Ecuador’s largest city, and one of the largest sea ports in all of South America. Beyond that, there’s not all that much to do and see for tourists though. A newly revamped river walk, the Malecon 2000, made for a great running track in the mornings, and for some good entertainment in the evenings (people watching, and an IMAX cinema that showed LaLa Land).

Just north of the Malecon sits Las Peñas, the city’s oldest neighborhood, where colorful little houses are built into the side of a hill, Cerro Santa Ana. The neighborhood used to be a slum, but a regeneration project transformed it into the tourist attraction that it is today. 432 stairs lead up to the top of the hill, each one numbered, so that with each step, you are painfully reminded you how many more stairs you still have to climb. Once you reach the top, however, you are rewarded with spectacular 360° views over Guayaquil and the wide Guayas River. There is also a little chapel on the top of Cerro Santa Ana, and a lighthouse which you can climb for even better views (including the chapel – see Polaroid). The brightly painted houses, little plazas with palm trees, and alleyways where cats were lounging in the sun and laundry was drying in the air made this my favorite part of the city – I even made my way up these cruel stairs twice, despite the relentless heat. That heat was what eventually made decide on my next stop: the beaches along the Pacific Coast, about 2.5 hours west of Guayaquil, seemed like a perfect place to escape the heat of the city for a while.

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Channeling My Inner Lara Croft: The Jungle Trek To Colombia’s Lost City

ciudad perdida dani1

The first time I heard about the ruins of the Ciudad Perdida, an ancient city hidden deep in the jungles of northern Colombia that is only accessible on foot on a strenuous four-day hike through the mountains, was in 2010, during my first visit to Latin America.
ciudad perdida colombia ruins“You have to do this trek,” a fellow traveler who was making his way north towards Mexico as I was making my way down towards Colombia through Central America, urged me, “it’s an adventure of a lifetime.” Back then I was skeptical, even though I was intrigued by this Indiana Jones-like adventure. But I had never done a multi-day trek, let alone in the jungle, let alone in the Colombian jungle. I didn’t even know if I could walk that far: a 32-mile (52-kilometer) round-trip.
ciudad perdida colombia2Fast forward six years and I found myself walking on a dusty unpaved road, braving the 90% humidity and heat of the Caribbean coast a few miles north of the starting point of the trek to the Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City. A mere fifteen minutes after leaving the village where we started the trek, we made our first river crossing – the first of about twenty river crossings along the way. Luckily I wasn’t doing the trek during rainy season, when the water can reach up to your waist. One hour into the hike, as I felt the sweat running down my arms, my stomach and my back, I was already regretting my decision.
lost city trek river crossing1Even though now, a few years later, I had a few multi-day treks under my belt, I still wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it all the way to the ancient city. The river we were walking next to looked inviting, and just as I was fantasizing about jumping in for a refreshing dip, our guide announced “We’re stopping here for a quick swim break. After this, the real hike starts.” All of us stripped down immediately and jumped into the water, slowly starting to get to know each other while cooling off.
lost city trek river bathThere were twelve of us, three couples, two friends traveling together, and the rest of us were solo travelers. Our guide hadn’t lied: The hike did become much more strenuous. Before our swim break, we had been slowly ascending into the mountains on a path surrounded by lush, green jungle. Now, it was pretty much uphill the entire time, and I was completely drenched in sweat within an hour. It seemed like this mountain didn’t have a top; a never ending ascent.
lost city trek colombia1Luckily, the scenery distracted me enough to make this hike still enjoyable, and around 4.30pm, several mountains later, we reached the camp where we would spend the night, conveniently located right by the Buritaca River, which follows the trail pretty much the entire time. We didn’t waste any time and went straight to the river where we found a refreshing pool and a cliff to jump from.
ciudad perdida dani dogThe accommodation was basic, a dozen bunk beds next to each other, right across from a TV in front of which the people who lived here sat, captivated by the telenovelas that were showing – they didn’t leave their chairs all night long. We sat down on wooden benches where we would be spending the rest of the evening, having dinner (fish and rice for the meat eaters, lentils and rice for me) and playing cards, getting to know each other better.
ciudad perdida camp lunchAll of the camps were open, with corrugated roof sheets, but no walls. Luckily the beds were draped in mosquito nets to keep out the critters of the jungle – we had been warned that there were several species of poisonous snakes and spiders in this part of the country, and the very next day, I would nearly step on a snake. This would be the last camp that had electricity, after this point, electricity was provided by generators. During the entire trek there were no phones, no power outlets, no cell phone signal.
lost city trek campThe next day, we were woken early: at 5am. After a filling breakfast that consisted of a big bowl of fresh fruit, yogurt and granola, we started walking an hour later, and just like the previous day we hiked up a mountain, down a mountain, up a mountain, down a mountain.
colombia lost city trekThe jungle scenery was incredibly beautiful, and we passed several villages that were home to the indigenous groups who live in this part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There are the Wiwa people, the kankuamo, the arhuaco and the kogi, all descendants of the Tayronas, whose ancient city we were going to reach a couple of days later.
jungle trek ciudad perdidaWe didn’t see a lot of indigenous people on the first day, but now that we had gotten deeper into the mountains, we passed them frequently on the paths – moms with their kids, whole families, or just guys, easily recognizable by their traditional white outfits. While the women and kids often were barefoot, the men wore big rubber boots and had long dark hair, always with a colorful handmade mochilla bag strung over their shoulder, similar to the ones I’d seen in the artisan markets along the coast.
ciudad perdida trek indigenous villageThe huts in their villages are still built the way the Teyuna people used to build them: in a circle, and from materials found in the jungle. The kids here don’t get to just go to the candy store and buy some candy for themselves, but civilization hasn’t kept out of the jungle entirely: they know of candy, and know that white people tend to have candy on them. I ended up trading a couple of candies for a photo of a young girl and her baby sitter before they disappeared into the jungle with a smile on their faces and I continued my trek through the forest.
ciudad perdida trek kidsAt 9am we reached our lunch camp, and while the two young girls who were cooking for us (and walking the trek with us) were preparing our lunch (which came pretty early at 10am), we swam in the river again. This would be the first of three (!) swim breaks that day.
ciudad perdida wiwa kidOnce we finished our extended three hour lunch break, we started walking again – but only for half an hour. Then it was time for another swim, again surrounded by the lush jungle scenery. We almost didn’t care about our destination anymore, because the trek itself was so beautiful.
lost city trek river crossing colombiaAfter all these swim breaks, I started thinking this day was actually pretty easy – but oh was I wrong. After our quick dip, we started a grueling climb up a steep mountainside, which lasted over an hour. By the time I made it to the mountaintop, I was panting like a dog and my calves were burning. Much to my surprise, our kitchen crew had already reached the mountain top and handed everyone a slice of watermelon as they arrived on the top, sweat running down their faces.
ciudad perdida pineapple snackAfter this tiring climb, the hike got slightly easier (less steep), and an hour later we reached our camp for the night. This camp, Campo Paraiso, is the biggest camp. While the several tour companies that offer this trek each have their own camps along the trail, here, all the groups come together, and the camp had just been extended to accommodate more hikers – showing just how popular this trek had become. However, compared to the one million visitors Machu Picchu sees every year, the 8,500 adventurers who make their way to the Lost City seem almost irrelevant in comparison.
lost city trek horses colombiaIt was only one kilometer, 0.6 miles, to the Lost City from Campo Paraiso, but we wouldn’t get there until the next morning. Some of us still had the energy for an afternoon swim, because luckily, the camp was next to the river again, but nobody had the energy for the 1,200 stairs we still had to conquer. By 8pm, we were all in bed, falling asleep to the sound of the jungle: birds, monkeys and other animals.
cody & daniWe were up bright and early at 5am again because today would be a long day: Not only would we finally visit the Lost City, but we’d also return to Camp 2, a three hour hike from Camp 3. The path we followed on our last morning followed the river, but we didn’t walk very far. Our guide suddenly stopped and we crossed the river. We had reached the steep mountain on whose top the Lost City sits. Only 1,241 stairs were between us and our final destination now.
stairs ciudad perdidaI couldn’t wait to finally see the Lost City, but anxious about the stairs. And when I say stairs, I am not talking about a proper staircase – the stairs we were climbing were centuries old, wonky and uneven stone stairs, carved out of rock.
ciudad perdida stairsSometimes, the stairs were so high that it took some serious effort to climb them. Considering the short size of the Wiwa people we met along the way it made me wonder how often they had to climb these stairs and how they managed to do it.
stairsAfter an hour long climb, we finally reached La Ciudad Perdida. It was an unforgettable moment when we finally reached the top of the stairs, and the jungle gave way to a plateau on which the first ruins of ancient houses sat.
ciudad perdida teyuna colombia1Teyuna, the name that was given to the city by archeologists, was built in AD 700, which makes it at least 600 years older than Machu Picchu. The site was abandoned in the 1600s and only in the early 1970s treasure hunters found the ruins and ransacked the then unnamed and undocumented city, emptying burial plots that were filled with golden jewelry and pottery. It took until 1976 for the news of its discovery to get out and for archeologists to arrive to the site. Over the course of the next six years, until 1982, Teyuna was excavated and restored.
ciudad perdida colombia carved stonesThe city was built high up on the mountain to be closer to Wymaco, the father of gods. For the Wiwa people this is still a sacred site, and for two weeks every September, descendants of the Teyuna gather here for ceremonies.
ciudad perdida colombia8It felt amazing to have the entire city to ourselves, basking in the mystical aura it emitted. There was only one other group of five people that reached the Lost City the same day as we did, and we only saw them once while we explored the city, and to think we were the only ones here, in this sacred place far away from any civilization, made this experience even more special.
ciudad perdida terraces2I was surprised when I realized how big La Ciudad Perdida was, since most of the brochures and travel guides only feature the same image:
ciudad perdida terracesBut there’s so much more to the Lost City – a myriad of staircases that lead to several terraces clinging to the mountainside, the foundations of houses still well recognizable everywhere. There used to be 1,000 houses here, and archeologists estimate between 1,300 and 3,000 people lived here.
colombia ciudad perdidaWe explored the city, which spreads out over 86 acres, for several hours, walking between the moss-covered old rocks, ruins of people’s homes, plazas and ruins of temples. There are 169 circular terraces, and rocks on which maps were carved, all surrounded by the dense jungle which had hidden Teyuna for hundreds of years.
ciudad perdida colombia la capilla1The highlight of the day was reaching the main terraces of the city, called La Capilla, which are sitting high up on a mountain top with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, all covered in lush green tropical forests. We sat down at the edge of one of the terraces and took in the scenery around us. Nobody spoke, everyone was lost in their own thoughts.
ciudad perdida colombia5The Teyuna were a community of potters and farmers, and the city was connected to other cities in the mountains through a network of stone paths. There are similar cities still hidden in the jungle in the mountains here, waiting to be discovered. Archeologists are not one hundred percent sure why the Lost City was left, but presumably because diseases spread after the Spanish arrived in this region in the 16th century. It didn’t take long for the jungle to grow over the stone buildings, hiding it under its thick vines and a layer of moss.
ciudad perdida colombia7Not everything here is a ruin, however: we also passed a couple of houses in which a family lived. From the shaman of their community we learned that he was the head of 160 families who were living in the area, and for them not much had changed since the times of the Tayrona. The same basic huts, and with them living pretty self-sufficiently off of what the woods provided them with (mainly cocoa, fruits and tobacco).
Wiwa colombiaWe left after receiving a protective bracelet from the shaman, but not without asking a dozen questions about his life and his family, curious to hear about life in the mountains.
ciudad perdida rock mapThe biggest problem for them at the moment? Climate change. The past couple of years have been very dry, the rainy season in June and July is not bringing as much rain as they’re used to, which in turn affects their harvest.
ciudad perdida jungle trek colombiaWe also learned the reason for their long hair: The Wiwa people don’t cut their hair because they believe the brain breathes through the hair, and cutting your hair means cutting the oxygen to the brain.
ciudad perdida carved rockThis might not be a Machu Picchu, but having hiked to Machu Picchu, I can say that this city was striking in its own way, and well worth the arduous trek.
dani ciudad perdidaAfter spending the morning exploring the ruins, it was time to climb down the 1,200 stairs and to grab a quick lunch before walking back to Camp 2, where we would spend the night. But since this trip seemed to be just as much about swimming as it was about visiting the Lost City, there was time for a quick dip in the river.
ciudad perdida colombia stairsThe trek back didn’t feel as grueling as the walk to the Lost City, because the one-hour climb from the day before was a much more enjoyable downhill hike now, and we even arrived in the camp early enough for a swim before sunset. Knowing we had another long day ahead of us, all of us were in bed by 8pm again, and I was asleep by 9pm.
lost city trek river crossingMy body was thankful to get a decent amount of sleep before another 5am wake up call. Initially, I was supposed to walk for five days, but seeing that most people in my group made their way back to base camp on day 4, I decided to join them. This meant doing the hike that is broken up into two parts (Day 4 & 5) in only one day – a seven hour hike.
ciudad perdida hike2For some reason, I had blocked out that there was a big downhill part on the second day – a part that needed to be climbed now. It was an exhausting hike and I was glad when we reached camp 1 after three hours for a break with some watermelon and cake.
lost city trek breakThe rest of the hike was mostly downhill, and my feet were thankful for that, they started to hurt quite a bit and I couldn’t wait to trade my hiking boots for my flip flops again. This part of the hike was also extremely dusty – my clothes, backpack, legs and shoes were all covered in a thick layer of dust.
lost city trek shoesAnd then, finally, we arrived in El Mamey, the village where it had all began four days earlier. It had only taken us six hours to get there, but I was completely soaked in sweat and ready to rest my legs. A six hour hike might not sound a lot, but this being the fourth day of walking in a row, and with the steep inclines and declines – it really exhausted me. I couldn’t wait to get back to Santa Marta to take a shower and have a good meal for dinner, after the fairly bland meals during the hike.
ciudad perdida colombia sierra nevadaWas it worth the pain? Absolutely. I can’t believe that I was hesitant about doing the trek – if you like multi-day treks and want to see a pre-Columbian city that not a lot of people get to see, plus an amazing hike through the jungle, with sweeping mountain views and lots of swim breaks, make sure to add this trek to your Colombia itinerary.
hikersIn hindsight, I couldn’t be happier about how my travel priorities had changed since the first time I was in Latin America all those years ago, because I am certain that I wouldn’t have done it in 2010 or 2011.
lost city trek

Practical Information

Which tour company to go with

There are only four or five tour companies offering the trek, all charging COP700,000 (around US$240). Wiwa Tours is supposed to be the best one – and a girl I met who did the trek with them told me that not only did their guide tell them about the ruins when they got there, but also pointed out all kinds of fruits and plants along the way, explaining what they’re good for and trying them. This is the only tour company that uses indigenous guides, a definite bonus. BUT: Tours are in Spanish only.

The other companies use English speaking guides. I went with Expoturs, and there are no complaints here. We had decent meals, and I always got a good vegetarian option (make sure to tell them about any dietary restrictions when you book your trek). We were provided with water and we got snacks along the way (fruit, cookies, lollipops).
lost city trek camp kitchen

The Camps

As for the camps – they’re all pretty much the same, no matter which tour company you go with. Plain beds, all lined up next to each other. If you don’t sleep well with other people, bring earplugs. Don’t expect hot showers or great bathrooms (some don’t have toilet paper) – everything is basic.
ciudad perdida camp beds
Packing essentials

The most important thing I brought for the trek: the local mosquito repellent I bought (Nopikex, only about COP10,000/less than US$3, and it worked extremely well), sunscreen, wet wipes, a headlamp (there is no light in the camps at night), and my Kindle for some reading at night. We wished we had a deck of cards but somehow nobody in our group had brought any.

You only need to bring a daypack for the hike, and you can store the rest of your stuff with the tour company until you return to Santa Marta (from where tours usually leave). Most hostels also offer to store your luggage, but some of them charge a fee, so check beforehand.
lost city trek banana trees
Other things to know

  • Depending on what time of year you are doing the hike, you might want to bring hiking sandals in addition to hiking boots, because the rivers fill up during the rainy season (April-May and September-November are the wettest months – expect downpours and bring a rain jacket). During the winter months (December – February) you don’t need any, but I was happy to have brought my flip flops to change into every night when we reached our camp for the night.
  • Bring some cash because the camps all sell cold drinks, beer and sweets, and there are some kiosks along the way selling refreshments.
  • colombia flagIf you’re traveling in Colombia between December and February, spots fill up quickly. Make sure to reserve a spot early or be prepared to wait for a couple of days in Santa Marta until one opens up.
  • The Lost City is closed every year for two weeks in September for ceremonial rituals.

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Polaroid Of the Week: Cruising Around The Galapagos Islands

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador galapagos

This week I went on a trip of a lifetime: a 4-day cruise around the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago  of 20 islands, 42 islets, and over 250 rocks in the ocean, a 2-hour flight of the coast off mainland Ecuador, is a nature and wildlife lover’s paradise! For four days, we cruised around some of the islands, with frequent snorkeling stops and island explorations. The boat would anchor in the ocean, and our dinghies would bring us to the shore. With the exception of one island, Santa Cruz, we never encountered any other people, it always felt like we were the only ones out there. Even when the boat was cruising in between islands, we often didn’t see another boat for hours.

The snorkeling stops were my favorite part – we swam with penguins, sharks, rays, seals and turtles. Something I never tire of! On land, we watched Giant Tortoises mating, eating and just being, we watched sea lions take over the ports of the two towns we stopped in, and we watched hundreds of colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs crawling around the rocks near the shore. I photographed iguanas, blue-footed boobies and other birds, I got up for a sunrise snorkeling session near a rock in the middle of the ocean which was a popular spot with hammerhead sharks, and I sunbathed on a dreamy, secluded, tropical beach.

It truly was a dream trip for all the experiences I had – but then there was also the boat I was on, which was a big part of it, considering that’s where we spent the majority of our time. Aptly named ‘Majestic’, it was a gorgeous 16-passenger yacht with a beautiful sun deck and a Jacuzzi. Our crew spoiled us with tasty buffet meals and snacks every time we came back from an excursion, definitely exceeding my expectations in terms of food and service. I couldn’t have been happier about doing this trip with Galapagos Luxury Charters, who put together personalized, all-inclusive cruises around the islands.

I can’t wait to share all the photos (well, maybe not all of them, considering I took well over 800) and stories of my Galapagos trip with you – I have yet to look at all the footage I took with my underwater camera but I will start sharing it shortly on my social media channels, so make sure to follow me on Instagram and Facebook for a first peek.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Quito’s Stunning Basílica del Voto Nacional

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador quito

I’m back in South America! And it strangely feels like I’ve never left, even though it’s been nearly eleven months since I said goodbye to Colombia. But considering I was in Mexico until mid-April and then again a whole month in November, it shouldn’t be too surprising that everything feels strangely familiar.

The Latin America traffic craze, the bustling markets and town squares, the noise (horns, speakers, megaphones), the street food vendors everywhere.

There were a few things though that made Quito, my first stop in Ecuador, feel different: 1) there are many women in traditional native dress, with long skirts and braids, hats and colorful shawls, which remind me a lot of the native dress in Bolivia.

And 2) The altitude! Quito is the second highest city in the world (only La Paz sits higher), and with an altitude of just over 9,200 feet I definitely felt the affects of it. I don’t think I’ve been to a place that high since traveling around Bolivia three years ago.

I’ll leave my thoughts on Quito for a separate article, but let’s just say I didn’t really connect with the city. That doesn’t mean I had a bad time here, but I didn’t see anything truly amazing and didn’t feel like I needed to spend more time here than the 4 days I had in Quito. I wandered the streets of the historic Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site), I visited several of Quito’s stunning churches including the Basilica of the National Vow, pictured, which is he largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. I went to the new part of town (where I had an amazing Ecuadorian hot cocoa!), I went to the city’s biggest park and roamed the central market, and while all of that was nice, it just didn’t feel very special. Maybe it was the chilly weather (temperatures in Quito are in the 60s year-round) and the fact that it rained every day (thankfully not all day), Quito just didn’t wow me. I will be back in Quito at some point to use it as a base while taking a couple of excursions (I am planning to take a mountain bike tour of Cotopaxi and to visit the famous Otavalo market) – maybe I’ll warm up to Ecuador’s capital then.

Next stop: The Galápagos Islands!

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Bogotá, Colombia: A Pleasant Surprise

bogota-cathedral3

I’ll admit it: Bogotá was the place I was the least excited to visit in Colombia. I even almost skipped it because I had read so many horror stories of muggings and I hadn’t found any articles in which people were raving about the city. It seemed like most people were rushing through Bogotá, hitting up the most important museums and moved on to the next place.Colombia BogotaThere were only two reasons that made me want to go to Bogotá: I had heard that it was the city with the best street art scene in all of Colombia and it happens to be home to El Theatron, the largest gay club in all of South America. I had to check it out, even though that meant leaving my hotel after dark, a thought I found somewhat daunting before I even arrived in Colombia’s capital.Bogota ColombiaOnce I got to Bogotá, however, my fear vanished almost immediately. The day of my arrival I was already meeting friends in Plaza del Chovorro De Quevedo in La Candelaria, Bogotá’s oldest neighborhood, which I had heard wasn’t very safe at night. Apparently this plaza is where the city was founded in 1538, and the surrounding neighborhood with its still intact and well-preserved Spanish-colonial buildings quickly became my favorite neighborhood in town. It was a drastic difference from the shiny office towers in the Chapinero neighborhood, where I was initially staying. In La Candelaria, I found myself surrounded by small, one-story, colorful Spanish-colonial houses, there were still some cobble-stone streets, and there were several colonial churches. I could barely put my camera down on my strolls through the neighborhood!Bogota La Candelaria neighborhoodWhat I found upon arriving in the plaza on that very first night was anything but scary – the square was filled with young people drinking beers and chicha (more on that later) that they had purchased in the nearby shops. The atmosphere was lively and joyful, and when I took a cab back to my hotel around 3am, I still didn’t feel unsafe.la candelaria bogota street art8The next morning, I started to explore the city, and I noticed two things right away: the altitude and the thick layer of grey clouds that would hover over the city on most days – blue skies were a rarity. The altitude – Bogotá sits at 8,675 feet, 2,644m caused me to huff and puff my way up and down Candelaria’s steep streets, and I never got used to it during my two weeks in the city. Combined with cooler temperatures I could see why Bogotá didn’t fare well with most travelers – especially when you were coming from sea level, tropical temperatures and perfect weather, like I did, coming from the Caribbean coast.bogota cathedral4I have to admit that I wasn’t too fussed about the parts of the city that were outside of La Candelaria, but I found this neighborhood so charming that I decided to move there from my hotel in Chapinero, despite the fact that I was told it wasn’t very safe.la candelaria bogotaI much preferred the Spanish colonial houses in La Candelaria to the high rises of Chapinero and Los Rosales, and La Candelaria was also where the majority of Bogota’ amazing street art was. If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I love street art, and just walking through these colorful streets, which resembled an ever-changing, mural-boasting outdoor gallery, made me happy. There were also several good coffee shops and restaurants (including a couple of vegetarian ones) right in this area, which is all this nomad needs to be perfectly content.BogotaDuring my time in Bogotá, I joined two free walking tours. The first one was a tour for which I had found a flyer in the hostel I was staying at and which made not only La Candelaria much more approachable to me, but also gave me plenty of insights on Colombian life, food, coffee and the complicated history of Colombia. It is run by Beyond Colombia, and I’d especially recommend it for those who only have a couple of days in Bogotá.bogota la candelariaWe started with a stop at a Colombian coffee place, sampling some exquisite Colombian coffee and learning about Coffee culture in Colombia, where for a long time, like in many coffee regions, the best beans used to be exported, before Colombians developed a finer taste for coffee themselves, resulting in small independent coffee shops opening and thriving. Later on we stopped at a chichería, a bar where chicha is served, a fermented corn drink that was a ceremonial drink with the indigenous people as well as the Spaniards when they started colonizing Colombia. The drink ended up being prohibited in 1948, believed to be the cause of a violent uproar, but made a comeback in the 90s – still not as popular as beer or other liquor, but students love it because it is cheap. We bought a bottle to share between our group, and while I didn’t love it, I think it’s worth trying while in Bogotá. For that, head to La Portal de Chorro near the foot of the alley with all the graffiti: Callejón del Embudo (between Calles 13 & 14).Bogota La Candelaria neighborhood ColombiaBeyond tales of chicha and Colombian coffee we wandered through the streets of La Candelaria and stopped at the main sights of the city, such as Plaza De Bolivar with Bogota’s magnificent cathedral and the Palace Of Justice, and we ended the tour with a game of Tejo, a game that is played in bars all over Colombia. The goal is to cause a noisy explosion by throwing a metal puck at little paper triangles filled with gun powder. I found this tour incredibly insightful – the sights we passed felt more like extras, the real star of the tour were the stories our guide told us, ranging from Colombian politics to Pablo Escobar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ poetry.Bogota Justice PalaceIf you have time, definitely check out the Museo De Oro, the Gold Museum, and if you are into art, the Fernando Botero Museum which is small but has some great pieces of Colombia’s most famous artist but also some pieces of his own collection, which contains a Picasso, Monet and a Dali and other famous artists. In total there are over 200 paintings and sculptures in a beautiful colonial building.la candelaria bogota courtyardA couple of days later I joined another tour – the excellent free street art walk. This tour gave me so much background information on the artists, whose murals I’d been admiring on my daily strolls around La Candelaria, the political messages in the pieces, and the most important artists – it was such a great tour that it ended up being one of my favorite 13 experiences in Colombia.Bogota Street Art La CandelariaSince 2011 laws against graffiti have been much more relaxed which is why the density of street art and murals is so high here now.Street Art BogotaDuring the tour I was introduced to the female Colombian street artist Bastardilla, whose massive murals cover several walls in Bogotá, like this one:bogota street artAnother Colombian artist named Guache, who aims to remember Colombia’s past and whose colorful work usually features indigenous themes, was another great artist to learn about:bogota street artbogota street art colombiaOf course there was also more street art by Stinkfish, of whom I’d already admired street art in Cartagena:Stinkfish BogotaAnd our group of street art fanatics also learned about Toxicómano, a punk band turned street art crew, who are known to create pieces with strong political messages depicting topics like capitalism, inequality, poverty and corruption.bogota street artI was excited to learn that there was another well-known female artist in Colombia, Lik Mi, and I would see her art around town on a daily basis after our tour guide pointed out the kinky, kamasutra inspired stickers.bogota street artAnd then there was Crisp, an Australian street artist who is currently based in Bogotá, and whose incredible stencil pieces I kept running into after taking the tour.
bogota street art crispIf you are interested in learning more about the artists behind Bogota’s many graffiti and murals – do yourself a favor and take this tour. It is free, tip-based, and leaves twice a day. I loved knowing the stories behind the various murals and who had painted them.Street Art La CandelariaWhen I wasn’t taking tours, I spent my days exploring museums, eating my way around the city’s veggie restaurants, worked in coffee shops, and expanded my palate by trying local specialties such as hot chocolate which is served with cheese here (and in some other regions of Colombia), or Changua, a breakfast soup with milk and eggs, or the ubiquitous arepas (thick corn cakes) topped with butter from one of the many street vendors.Bogota Colombia1Another highlight was Monserrate Mountain, the famous mountain that looms over La Candelaria, 10,407 ft (3,172 meters) tall, with the white 17th century church that sits on its top, always visible from the city beneath. I had looked forward to hike up the mountain, which is a popular pilgrims’ walk, but at the time of my visit the trail was still closed off after a serial killer had murdered several women along the way. After hearing this, I felt much more comfortable taking the cable car (COP14,000 /US$4,70 return) up the steep mountainside, who needs a workout anyway 😉
Bogota MonserrateWe had waited to visit the mountain until we had a sunny day with clear skies to enjoy the views over the city, which finally revealed how big Bogotá really is – it is home to nearly 8 million people after all! In my little bubble in La Candelaria Bogotá seemed almost like a small town, and only the long cab rides to go out in other parts of the city indicated how enormous it actually was.bogota from monserrateOn my last weekend in town, I ended up in the Chapinero neighborhood again, where I had started my Bogotá adventure. And that was for a very good reason: Here you find a number of bohemian bars and gay clubs, most importantly El Theatron, which isn’t only the largest night club in the country but on the entire South American continent. The former theater accommodates around 8,000 party goers every Friday and Saturday night, who spread out over 5 floors and 13 different rooms, including a salsa bar, an R’n’B club a girls’ room and a boys’ room, and even an outdoor terrace. I couldn’t believe how massive this club was. The other thing I found unbelievable? That we only paid COP40,000 (which was around US$13.50 during the time of my visit), and not only did that got us admission, but it also got us free drinks until 2am!Theatron BogotaWhen I left Bogotá, I was happy I had taken the time to explore the city in more detail instead of rushing through, and don’t think it deserves the bad reputation it has. Of course I am saying this from the perspective of someone who hasn’t experienced a mugging or was drugged here, but if you’ve read my thoughts on if it is safe to travel in Colombia you might remember that other people weren’t quite as lucky and were robbed. If you visit Bogotá – which you should – I recommend staying alert at all times, and to be safe, not to carry all your valuables around with you when you explore the city. Even on the tours I took I made sure only to take my phone and my camera out of my bag when I was using them.bogota street art

Practical information

Where to stay

I loved Masaya Hostel in La Candelaria. I had stayed at their sister property in Santa Marta which I loved so much that I extended my stay to nearly a week there and knew I had to check out their Bogotá hostel as well. It is a little pricier than other hostels (double rooms start at COP90,000 / US$30; 4-bed  dorms are COP40,000 / US$13.50) but I was happy to pay more for the top-notch facilities and the great location).bogota candelaria

Get around

Bogota has a pretty good public transportation system but the buses can be complicated to figure out. Taxis are cheap, best called via the EasyTaxi app. In rush hour taxis are in high demand – then, the higher the tip you offer via the app, the faster you’ll get a cab. Uber also operates in Bogotá and is about 25% more expensive than a regular taxi. Apparently it is not recommended to just hail a cab in Bogotá, but I only learned about the Easy Taxi App a couple of days before I left town and hailed cabs the entire time I was there without any problems (one driver even ran after me when my iPhone fell out of my pocket and was left on the backseat).Colombia Bogota Street Art

Have you been to Bogotá? What did you think of Colombia’s capital? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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Is it safe to travel in Colombia?

colombia-flag

Confession: I almost didn’t get on my plane to Colombia because in the days leading up to my departure, I got scared. I spent the last few hours before my flight departure in agony, going back and forth about canceling my flight. I had just read this article:

Solo Female Going to Colombia? Just Don’t.

I came across it the very day before my flight, and reading the headline alone made me wonder if I should read the article or not. It wasn’t just that article: a few days earlier during a travel meetup, a friend of mine offhandedly mentioned to me that her friend recently got back from Colombia where she and her friend had being robbed at gunpoint and lost everything.

I was scared, if not terrified.

dani ciudad perdidaWas I crazy for traveling to Colombia as a solo female traveler, just as many family members and friends suggested I was when I told them I had purchased a plane ticket to Cartagena? Even though the country has gotten considerably safer in recent years, there is still a government warning for travelers to Colombia in place, which reads:

Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellin, and Cali.

However, violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural and urban areas. Despite significant decreases in overall crime in Colombia, continued vigilance is warranted due to an increase in recent months of violent crime, including crime resulting in the deaths of American citizens.

And it continues:

… there were several homicides of U.S. citizens in connection with robberies, including armed robbery on streets and in taxi cabs, public transport, home invasions, and muggings…

(You can read the full travel warning issued by the U.S. Department Of State here:

Colombia Travel Warning)

The only reason why I did get on my flight the next morning was that friends who had been to Colombia calmed me down and encouraged me to go and not to cancel my trip. This reminded me why I had decided to go to Colombia in the first place: because everyone was raving about the country. Many of my friends who had traveled around South America declared it their favorite country on the continent, and everyone who had been to Colombia loved it. I hadn’t heard a single bad word from people I knew.

Before I get into details on how safe I felt in Colombia, I want to say this: Had I not boarded that plane, had I let those horrible experiences of other travelers discourage me from visiting Colombia, I would’ve missed what would become one of my favorite trips to date.cartagena dani

Everyone’s Travel Experience is Different

Travel experiences can vary drastically. The two female travelers whose experiences I had learned about just before I set off to explore Colombia, both had terrible, even traumatizing, experiences. And reading about those experiences  definitely made me more careful throughout my own trip.

I expected to get robbed and lose all of my stuff, so much so that I opted for the more expensive World Nomads travel insurance, the Total Explorer instead of the Standard Policy (because it covers more). After reading what was necessary for a claim, I even took pictures of the serial numbers of all of my electronics (camera, laptop, kindle, iPhone) and emailed them to myself. I made sure that I had a digital copy of my passport, and left an external hard drive with a backup of my laptop at my friend’s house. I was ready to hand it all over to some rebels who for sure would rob me on a bus ride through the mountains in which they were hiding out.

Spoiler alert: That never happened. I traveled through Colombia for ten weeks, visited big cities like Bogotá and Medellin, the sketchy border triangle of Peru, Colombia and Brazil in the Amazon, and the coffee region, where my friend’s friend had been robbed a few months before I got there.

villa de leyva colombia1
Ville de Leyva, hands down the place I felt the safest in all of Colombia.

Did I Feel Safe?

Yes. I was a nervous wreck at first, but I relaxed quickly. It definitely helped that I had a companion for the first two weeks, and that every solo female traveler that crossed my path who I bombarded with questions about incidents assured me that they felt completely safe. No incidents whatsoever.

That helped ease my mind before I continued my trip on my own. After a 14-day trip almost without any incidents (I explain the ‘almost’ later on) through Cartagena, Santa Marta, Minca and Palomino with my friend, I set off on a four day trek through the jungle, which has become so popular in recent years that not just one group of hikers heads out into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to discover the ‘Lost City’, but groups from four or five different trekking companies, accounting for 50 to 60 people on the trail every day! Sure, that’s still far from the numbers of the well-worn Inca Trail but the ever expanding campsites showed just how much tourism has grown in recent years.

dangerous creatures of colombia
The things I was most scared of most in Colombia: Being attacked by one of these.

Kidnappings in Colombia?

To show you how much safer Colombia has become: on that very trek, eight hikers were kidnapped by ELN rebels (Ejército de Liberación Nacional), a left-wing guerilla group, in 2005. Our guide’s tales of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, another left-wing guerilla group) coming to his family’s property and claiming it, forcing them to support them or they’d be shot, seemed like they came from another century, but these tales represented  their harsh reality and had happened only a few years ago. And now I was walking through the jungle there, sometimes all by myself for long stretches, but I never feared some rebels would jump out of the bushes to kidnap me.dani ciudad perdida hikeAs far as kidnappings go, they don’t seem to occur in touristy areas, if at all, now that the FARC and the Colombian government came to a peace agreement. Kidnappings have decreased drastically over the course of fifteen years in Colombia: while in 2000, over 3,500 people were kidnapped, the number had dropped to 213 in 2015 and continues to decline. And let’s take a closer look at the recent kidnappings of foreigners that made international news: a Norwegian guy was kidnapped by guerillas in 2013 when he was crossing the Darian Gap on foot (which is insane!), and an American was kidnapped by the FARC in the same year while trekking in the rain forest near the Ecuadorian border – against the advice of Colombian police and others, so go figure. As long as you are staying on the tourist trail, you probably  won’t find yourself face-to-face with the few guerilla groups that are still operating.

Traveling on Public Buses

You may encounter guerilla groups while on a public bus, however, or at least armed robbers, like Anne and Jaimee who were just six days into their trip when their bus was hijacked by six gun-wielding passengers who took everything from them, consequently not only ruining their trip but also leaving them deeply traumatized. I had emailed Anne prior to my trip and took her advice to avoid public buses and take planes whenever possible instead (luckily domestic flights are very cheap!). Anne also sent me the link to her guesthouse in Salento which has some information on bus robberies in that area on their website, stating that ‘in the past couple of months the last bus from Armenia to Salento has been held up twice by armed robbers.’ Even though the information is older, it is obviously still relevant and worth a read for the safety precautions they mention.

I ended up taking the bus from Pereira, where I had flown into, to nearby Salento, one of Colombia’s most charming and most touristy little towns. I decided, however, to stay in Pereira for a night instead of taking the bus in the evening since my flight got in after dark. I am usually okay with long bus rides, but after hearing about Anne’s experience I flew from Santa Marta to Bogota instead of taking the bus, and the few buses I took were only during the day, and I wore a T-shirt with a secret pocket (see below in safety tips). I survived all bus rides I took just fine and was more scared to be killed by the crazy driving of the drivers (which seems to be a problem in all of South America) than by hijackers. But again – this is situational, and Anne and Jaimee who were in the same spot a few months earlier were not as lucky as I was.

valle de cocora
The Valle De Cocora near Salento – I am glad I went because it is so beautiful

I would recommend avoiding night buses and opt for flights whenever possible.

As for inner-city buses: I took them several times and I never encountered any issues, but I read that pickpocketing on buses in Bogota is not uncommon, so be vigilant if you take the bus and always keep your backpack with you, ideally on your lap, never in the overhead compartment or under the seat.

Is Bogota Safe?

Bogota was the city where I was the most worried about my safety because the city doesn’t have a great reputation. I really wanted to stay in La Candelaria, the historic center, but had heard that this was the most dangerous part of the city, with muggings and robberies even in broad  daylight. The Lonely Planet painted such a black picture of the city that I even contemplated skipping Bogota entirely. You can read their take on Dangers in Bogota here.

Eventually, I decided not to skip Bogota but to stay in the Chapinero neighborhood for the first couple of days, right in the heart of Bogota’s financial center, where you find more upscale hotels and where global corporations have their offices – in short: a safer area of town. To check out La Candelaria, I hopped in a cab (more on cabs in a minute) and went there during the day to see how safe I felt about it and if I wanted to move into a hostel over there.Bogota la candelaria streetWhen I arrived in La Candelaria, I was a bit nervous, and probably a bit paranoid, and the presence of heavily armed police officers throughout the neighborhood didn’t help in calming me down. However, I loved the neighborhood with its colorful street art and Spanish colonial houses and moved over there a few days later. I thought to myself that the police presence was probably a good thing to keep the bad guys out of sight (ironically, the police men all disappeared as soon as it got dark though).

While my paranoia/fear never completely  faded, I felt safe enough to carry my laptop with me during the day, my dSLR camera, and my phone. However, at no time did I flash any of these items, and when I took photos I made sure to put my camera or phone back in my bag immediately after I took the shot. I ended up staying much longer in Bogota than expected and was glad that I didn’t let the Lonely Planet or other travelers’ experience scare me off visiting Colombia’s capital.

Two of the articles that made me super cautious about La Candelaria was this one by Britany:

Robbed in Bogota, and this one: Getting Mugged At Knifepoint In Bogota.

In it, Megan writes:

One of the main problems with traveling in a place like Colombia is the mixed information that you’ll get. Some people say it’s perfectly safe and that they’ve never had any problems. Other people have endless horror stories. The thing they often have in common? They were doing the same things in the same places and conducting themselves in the same way.

And I couldn’t agree more with this – I had heard so many horror stories about Bogota and especially La Candelaria, and yet, I was completely fine. I was walking around the deserted streets of La Candelaria at 2am all by myself, and during the day, I walked with my laptop in my bag to work in coffee shops, and not just once, but almost every day (I spent well over a week in Bogota). I hiked in the Valle De Cocora without any incidents but other people were robbed on that very same hike. I felt extremely safe in Medellin, especially in the upscale Poblado neighborhood, but only a few months before I visited, an American tourist was killed there when he refused to give up his valuables in a robbery. Like I said, it is all situational. The main thing to know about Colombia is: there is a chance that something could happen to you. And that’s the difference to a country like Japan, for example, where safety isn’t something travelers have to be concerned about.bogota cathedral1

Being Drugged

Another reason why I was so afraid of spending time in Bogota was because somebody had told me about a drug named Scopolamine (also known as Devil’s Breath and Burundanga) which is a powder that is usually blown off a piece of paper into a victim’s face, with criminals would walk up to tourists with a map in their hand pretending to wanting to ask for help. But instead, they are drugging you.

villa de leyva drinks
Always keep an eye on your drink!

Scopolamine makes victims completely lose control over their own thinking – they can be talked into walking to an ATM and withdraw money, or hand over their credit cards complete with PIN numbers, and so on. And the worst part: victims usually don’t even remember anything of what happened to them! Another way to get drugged with Scopolamine is by putting it in your drink, so not only was I on the lookout for people with a piece of paper in their hands, but I always made sure I didn’t leave my drink out of sight when I went out at night.

I wanted to mention this here because I had never even heard of this drug but reading up on it prior to my trip made me be more aware of my surroundings and apparently cases of Scopolamine druggings  went up by 133% in Medellin in 2015 – so this is definitely something to be aware of. Especially female travelers , because other than theft, rape is the most common thing the drug is used for.

WorldNomads has a good article on how to avoid getting drugged in Colombia: How to avoid getting drugged in Colombia – Stay safe!

Are Taxis Safe?

My very last stop in Colombia was Medellin, where I was staying with some friends. When they found out that I didn’t use UBER, but normal taxis, they freaked out. “This isn’t safe!!”, I was told, and then I was schooled on taxi kidnappings and robberies in which cab drivers bring you to a deserted area of town to rid you of all your belongings. Hearing that freaked me out, but then, looking back at ten weeks of me waving down cabs, I realized that not once did I feel unsafe in a taxi. I guess it helped that I speak Spanish and was always able to converse with the driver. In Bogota, when I took a cab from the airport to the hotel, the driver even ran after me to bring my iPhone to the reception, which had fallen out of my pocket in the cab.

Were There Sketchy Moments During my Time in Colombia?  

I’m not going to sugarcoat my experience in Colombia – while nothing bad happened to me and I felt safe there, even when I was by myself, there were three sketchy moments I should mention.

  1. Burglary in Palomino

For one, my beach bungalow in Palomino was burgled. I am still so grateful that I didn’t lose anything, because that happened only a few days into my trip and could have easily ended it right then and there.

It happened during the day, and the burglar(s) must have jumped on the chance of an unlocked window (even though my friend and I were sure that we had closed them), climbed in through the window and started to look through all of our belongings. When we returned from the beach later that day, we came back to find our room looking like something had exploded in there: all of our stuff was strewn across the floor.

palomino bungalow break-in
The break-in aftermath

Someone had emptied out little cosmetic bags and rummaged through all of our luggage. Everything except for the main compartment of my backpack, which I had locked up with a little padlock (mind you, the key for the lock was hidden in the room!). A real thief would’ve just sliced the bag open, or even taken it, which is why I think it was someone who simply saw an opportunity and got interrupted at some point, and so he/they left without our passports, cash, credit cards, laptops and other valuables. I know: I am incredibly lucky!

Even though that happened at the beginning of the trip, it didn’t change my mind about how safe I generally felt. Beach bungalow break-ins happen everywhere in the world, not only in Colombia. And we were assured that the sleepy beach village of Palomino was one of the safest places in the country, which I fully believed.

  1. Heeding a Warning in Medellin

The only time I felt a little tense about my surroundings was in Medellin. I had explored the city on my own and was ready to head back to my friends’ house. I typed the address into Google maps on my phone and followed the directions. Halfway, I was stopped by a guy on a pedestrian bridge who was walking in the direction I just came from. “What are you doing here?”, he asked me in Spanish. I replied that I was on my way home to where I was staying. “You really shouldn’t be here”, he said. “Why?”, I asked, since the area seemed perfectly fine to me. “It’s not safe”, he answered, and I immediately turned around with him, taking a longer way home. Even though that path seemed fine to me, I wasn’t going to risk it after being warned by a local.

medellin botero sculpture15
20 years ago, Medellin was everything but safe. 30 people were killed and more than 200 wounded when a bomb, placed in the base of this Botero sculpture, exploded. One of only many attacks during the time when Medellin was controlled by the Cali drug cartel.

And that’s my main advice: Listen to locals and follow your instinct. My instinct in that moment was to go back. In other towns I visited, like Pereira, a city I barely knew anything about, I asked the hostel staff if it was fine to walk around by myself at night, and whenever someone told me to take a cab, that’s what I did.

  1. Guerrillas in Leticia

Leticia is a small town in the Amazon, right on the border to Peru and Brazil. I wouldn’t have thought of it as unsafe, but then I happened to come across this short paragraph on safety in my Lonely Planet:

‘A longstanding military presence in the region tries to keep Leticia/Tabatinga and the surrounding region safe, but there are issues. Former narcotraffickers, guerrillas, paramilitaries and raspachines (coca-plant harvesters) who have been re-inserted into mainstream society and now live on the outskirts of Leticia and Puerto Nariño run poker houses, dubious bars and the like around the city. Don’t wander outside these urban areas on your own at night, especially on Leticia’s infamous ‘Los Kilometros’ road.’

leticia colombia1
Quaint little Leticia

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a border town in a region known for its drug production and trafficking is sketchy, but I never felt unsafe walking around there – until one day when my travel companion and I were on our way back to the hostel from dinner.

A motorbike with two guys passed us, the one in the back carrying a large rifle or some kind of machine gun. They looked at us, then turned around and drove back towards us. My heart dropped. I felt how my friend also stiffened up and pulled me behind a little wall. I was so scared that I started shaking, and all I could hear was my heart beating in my chest. I was sure we were going to get shot. However, they did not come back for us. I am mentioning it because this was by far the scariest moment I had in all of my time in Colombia (and the only time that I saw someone I’d identify as a guerilla).

Conclusion

As you can see, even though nothing happened to me personally and I didn’t necessarily feel unsafe, I never felt as carefree in Colombia as I did in Chile for example, where I never worried about being robbed or drugged. But in Colombia, where I had heard just too many negative stories, I never let my guard down. It can get quite exhausting to always be ‘on alert’, but being with another person helped me a lot to relax, which is why I tried to travel with someone as often as possible.

snake dangers colombia
Other serious dangers in Colombia: Very poisonous snakes, who are carnivores.

I had such an amazing time in Colombia that I wouldn’t think twice about recommending it as a travel destination to other independent travelers, including female solo travelers (I know that others will disagree here). Just don’t be stupid. Take precautions and be aware of possible threats to your safety, and inform yourself before you visit Colombia, for example with this article and the following tips for staying safe in Colombia:

My Tips for Staying Safe in Colombia

Dar Papaya: Do (not) give papaya

This is a very common saying in Colombia, and while it sounds strange when you translate it literally: give papaya, it means making yourself an easy target, setting yourself up to have something taken from you. Basically: if you flash jewelry or a fancy phone, it is your own fault when somebody tries to take it from you. Don’t ever flash your money or valuables.

dani and sloth
This is exactly what you SHOULDN’T do: flash both your iPhone and your expensive camera. But hey.. THERE WAS A SLOTH!!

Don’t carry any valuables

On that note, try to have as few valuable items on you as possible. I would only ever take my credit card with me when I was planning on taking out cash, and I had only as much cash on me as I was planning to spend. I rarely had more than $20 on me – unless I was traveling to a new city and had everything I owned on me. For which:

Be pickpocket-proof

With that I don’t necessarily mean wearing pickpocket-proof underwear (even though I wore my Clever Travel Companion T-Shirt with an invisible, hidden pocket every time I was traveling from one city to another), but just keeping your wallet and phone in a safe place where it can’t be reached easily. If you keep it in the pocket of your jacket, make sure you zip it up, if you carry a wallet, make sure it can’t be taken out of your bag or pocket easily. I usually just carried a bit of cash in my jeans pocket which are almost impossible to get into, especially without me noticing.clever travel companion tshirtBe prepared for the worst case scenario

And should the worst case scenario happen to you, be prepared. Email yourself a digital copy of your passport before you leave on your trip, and most importantly: invest in travel insurance. I use World Nomads, and as I mentioned before, I took down all the serial numbers of my electronics to make sure I’d get reimbursed for them in the case of theft. Read the small print of the travel insurance you are buying to find out what you need to make a claim. And most importantly: Make sure the travel insurance of your choice covers Colombia! Some travel insurances don’t cover countries for which a government travel warning is issued. Also know the numbers to call in case you have to report a stolen credit card and write down your credit card information somewhere.

Use only safe ATMs

I only ever took out money at ATMs in proper banks, not at ATMs in the street. I tried to always have someone with me, and if I was by myself, I was monitoring my surroundings for sketchy people extra carefully.

Trust your instincts

If something feels off to you, get out of the situation. That goes for a dodgy taxi ride, questionable travel buddies, or anything else that sets the alarm bells off in your head.palomino beach daniUse UBER or another taxi app

If you’re feeling uneasy about taking regular taxis, download UBER (iOS/Android) or one of the other two popular taxi apps EasyTaxi and Tappsi (download for iOS/download for Android). EasyTaxi (download for iOS/download for Android) is more prevalent than UBER in Colombia, but Medellin and Bogota both have UBER. It is affordable and worth the few extra dollars to have peace of mind, knowing your driver is registered with the app, so they will be less inclined to bring you to the outskirts of town and leave you there, driving off with your belongings.

Team up with other travelers

Team up with other travelers whenever possible. It is always easier to keep an eye on your belongings when there are  two pairs of eyes instead of just one. It is also safer to go out at night in a group, making you a less easy target than if you were walking around all by yourself.bogota friends

Inform yourself

I made it a habit to always read the safety section in the Lonely Planet before I arrived at a new destination to inform myself of the safety concerns in that area,  and I always read the entire WikiTravel for a place I visit, not just because it has generally very useful and comprehensive information, but the ‘Stay Safe’ section is usually more up-to-date than the one in a travel guide. I also googled ‘robbed in Bogota’ or ‘robbed in Salento’ for example, before I got there, because I knew it’d bring up Tripadvisor forum discussions or blog posts for these keywords, giving me the chance to find out if there had been any incidents lately.

Further reading:

…and finally:

My 13 favorite travel moments from Colombia

…to remember why it is worth it to travel to Colombia!

Have you been to Colombia? Did you feel safe or did you have any unpleasant experiences? Share in the comments below….

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Caribbean Vibes and a Giant Scare in Palomino, Colombia

palomino-beach-dani

I admit that until the very minute we hopped on the bus to Palomino, we weren’t sure if we had made the right decision to go there, and if we would actually enjoy the small beach town. We had read in travel guides and blogs that the current was too strong to allow for swimming in the ocean, and our hostel of choice, the Dreamer Hostel, was fully booked because we had waited too long to make a reservation.palomino pelicansHowever, when I saw photos of snow-capped mountains just behind a palm-fringed, white-sand beach, it looked too magical to skip.Colombia PalominoSo we ended up booking a bungalow right by the beach – pricey, compared to the Dreamer, but we came here for the beach after all, so we wanted to be as close to the beach as possible. And that was the only good thing about the place: that it was a beachfront property.palomino bungalows colombiaI eagerly tried to see the snow-capped peak I had seen in pictures as soon as we arrived, but I wasn’t lucky – the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s highest coastal mountain range, never showed.palomino palm treeThe true showstopper in Palomino isn’t the mountains anyway, but the tropical beach, which was postcard-perfect, begging to be put on the cover of a glossy travel magazine. And the best part? We felt as if we were the only people around – what a difference to Tayrona or Bahia Concha which both had been crowded.palomino palm treesWhen we went for a long stroll along the beach we passed a handful of restaurants, a volleyball net, and a few hotels – that’s all there was! And those hotels? They were hidden so well behind the palm trees that they were barely visible. Had there not been the occasional beach loungers, it would have felt as if there were no buildings at all, only the deserted white sand beach, which went on for as far as the eye could see.dani palomino beachIt was as if we had stumbled upon a secluded Caribbean paradise, and it reminded me of Little Corn Island in the sense that it was yet to be discovered, even though it had everything it takes to be a popular vacation spot (plus: with the current exchange rate between US Dollar and Colombian Pesos, it is super cheap!).dani palomino swingThe guidebooks hadn’t lied though: the water was rough, and the waves scarily high. Almost no one was in the water, and I only took a few dips in the ocean to cool off. Palomino might not be great for swimming, but it is a perfect place to get away from it all and to enjoy solitude and tranquility in a paradise-like setting.Dani caught by wavesAs we walked back towards the village, I was surprised to see several signs for yoga and even a vegetarian restaurant, La Sirena, where we had lunch later on. Even in this tiny beach town far off the tourist path you could pursue a holistic lifestyle. I guess that also means that the secret is out and Palomino is expecting to see an increase in tourists.
palomino colombiaA few years ago, I learned, there were only a couple of guesthouses and a few places where you could rent a hammock on the beach, now there were several eco-lodges and fancier hotels, but still only about two dozen, most of them further away from the core of the village.palomino dani wavesUpon returning to our cabaña, we had a surprise waiting for us: all of our belongings were strewn across the floor, everything had been pulled out of pockets, little bags, compartments of our backpacks and small daypacks. Somebody had broken into our bungalow. My heart dropped when I saw the mess: all of our valuables – credit cards, laptops, passports, camera gear and our Kindles – were in my backpack. I saw the contents of the bottom compartment of my backpack all over the tiled floor, but then I saw that the main compartment was still locked.

dani beach time palomino
I had no idea somebody was trying to steal all my stuff while I was blissfully reading on the beach

I couldn’t believe how lucky we were. Thank God I was carrying a small padlock with me to lock up my backpack – and that I had actually used it! Someone must have interrupted whoever had made their way into the bungalow, because it seemed like they’d left in a hurry. Our electronic chargers had been compiled on the bed but weren’t taken. All that was missing was an emergency $20 hidden in a small cosmetics bag. But another $80 in cash, also hidden in a small bag, wasn’t found, even though the thief had searched that bag.palomino strong wavesDespite the fact that our losses were minimal, I was shaken up. Just thinking about how differently this could’ve ended (and ended our trip!) made me feel sick to my stomach. I needed a drink.

Palomino JungleInstead of a drink, we opted for a late afternoon river tubing session. Because the current is so strong in Palomino, the popular alternative to swimming in the ocean is slowly floating down the river that eventually flows into the ocean.dani tubingArmed with two giant tires, we hopped on the back of two moto taxis (the only way to get around Palomino) and were dropped off at a dirt path in the forest shortly after. Little did we know that we had to climb a mountain first – it was a 25-minute walk to the river, up a steep and slippery dirt path, and then back down the hill on the other side. By the time we had made it to the river, we were covered in sweat and ready to get into the water.palomino tubingOnce we started floating, the stress from the bungalow break-in was quickly forgotten – the scenery was absolutely stunning! We couldn’t help but relax while we were slowly moving down the river, marveling at the jungle forests around us and listening to the sounds of the jungle.palomino river tubingUnfortunately we miscalculated how long it would take us to get down to the ocean, or even to the bridge we werepalomino tubing told to get off at should it get too dark. Suddenly, we were floating down the river in complete darkness, and the only light we had was the moon shining bright in the sky. A little hysteria panic ensued when we had to walk through the river in the pitch black darkness (river monsters are a real thing, no?) to find the path that would lead us back to the main road. The nerve-wrecking ending of our tubing adventure was something we could have done without on this already tumultuous day, but it didn’t take away from the amazing experience of our afternoon on the river.

I highly recommend tubing when you go to Palomino – that alone made the trip there worth it for us. A friend of mine who had been to Palomino a few months prior had told me she loved it so much that she ended up spending a whole week there, and while that would’ve probably been too long for me, I could see how she got sucked into the relaxed lifestyle of morning yoga, a reading session in a hammock, fresh fruit juices for lunch (they serve them in one liter buckets at the Dreamer Hostel!), and lazy afternoons by the pool before the obligatory sunset beers on the beach.palomino sunset

Practical Information

How to get to Palomino

Marsol offers a direct shuttle service from Cartagena (COP75,000 /US$26). If you don’t want to walk all the way to their office (quite far from the historic center), most hostels can book a ticket for you. If you take local buses you pay considerably less but you’ll have to change buses in Baranquilla and Santa Marta.

We took a local bus from Santa Marta which was COP10,000 (US$3.40) per person, and it took just under two hours to get there.

The buses let passengers out on the main road and from there it is either a twenty minute walk down to the beach or a five minute ride on a moto taxi (the fixed fee for that is COP3,000 /US$1).palomino beach oceanWhere to stay

The Dreamer Hostel – We spent the evening there even though we didn’t stay there, and it so made me wish we hadn’t waited that long to book our accommodation. It is right by the beach, has a great pool and good wifi.

The Tiki Hut Hostel was the other hostel in Palomino that came highly recommended to us.

If those two happen to be fully booked, like it was the case for me, check out a full listing of available hostels, hotels and guesthouses in Palomino on Booking.com

A brand new addition to Palomino’s hostels is the Italian-run Primaluna hostel which has a swimming pool, authentic Italian pizza and great reviews.palomino coconut

Cash only

There are no ATMs in the village, so bring enough cash.

River Tubing

palomino tubingRiver tubing is COP20,000 /US$6.80 per person (for as long as you like, so it makes the most sense to rent the tires in the morning). You might find cheaper tire rentals on the main road of Palomino, away from the beach. It takes about 1.5 hours from the starting point in the jungle down to the ocean.

Eating Out  

Most restaurants are located on the main road, and not on the beach, and I found every meal I had in one of the beach restaurants mediocre – except for my meal at the La Sirena vegetarian restaurant.

Safety

Despite having my bungalow broken into, I wouldn’t say Palomino is more unsafe than other places in Colombia. It seemed more like somebody had seized an opportunity, this wasn’t an organized crime or even an experienced thief.palomino beach colombia

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