The weather around the top of Colombia is notorious. The wind is usually strong and blows around the headland Cabo de Vela and the current is known to whip up the sea. It can be a difficult and uncomfortable passage so we were watching the forecasts closely. Fortunately we got lucky, found the perfect window and had a fairly comfortable 55 hour light wind spinnaker run from Curaçao to Santa Marta.
The other thing about Colombia is that relatively speaking it is still a fairly new destination for cruisers. Fifteen, even 10 years ago, the country was a violent and lawless place ruled by drug cartels and rebel guerrilla groups. So the infrastructure for cruisers is quite new. There doesn’t seem to be a clear customs policy but instead cruisers are treated much the same way as commercial ships – you must have an agent to clear you in and out of the country and it can be very expensive. This makes for plenty of pre-arrival discussion as yachties try to work out the best port of entry, the best agent, the best deal. We were very keen to explore inland Colombia so knew we needed a safe place to leave our home. We settled on Santa Marta Marina and fortunately they then handled most of the complicated customs and immigration procedure.
Colombia was our first mainland country since leaving Portugal almost a year previously and the excitement on reaching a whole new continent was immense. Santa Marta is apparently South America’s oldest surviving city but we were greeted by a skyline covered in tall high-rise apartments and a harbour filled with cargo ships. It felt so different to the string of Caribbean Islands that we had been visiting for the last year.
Santa Marta was a complete assault on our relaxed Caribbean Island senses. It is hot, loud, dirty, chaotic, and rather smelly. But it is also colourful, fun, vibrant, interesting – it oozes life, character and excitement. The sea around Santa Marta is dark and dirty and as we have been so very spoilt by the stunning water in the last year, we didn’t fancy a swim. The marina promised access to a pool but it is in the military based and unfortunately the day before we arrived, the ammunition store at the base exploded so no access to the pool. Instead in between exploring the chaotic hawker filled streets, we spent a little bit too much time in the air-conditioned “Captain’s Lounge”!
We soon found out that you could basically find anything you wanted in Santa Marta and you hardly had to enter a shop. Street vendors will sell you fresh fruit, cooked meat kebabs, the latest mobile phone, clothes and shoes galore, any remote control your heart desires, jewellery, phone credit, alcohol, sunglasses and a Spanish bootleg copy of the latest cinema release. You can also get almost anything fixed – guys on the side of the road have little soldering irons to fix almost anything electronic. The city seems to be conveniently divided into areas of expertise – all the cake decorating shops together in one street, all the hardware shops in another street – which makes it easy to find something as long as you know where to look or at least how to ask. We really enjoyed the vibrancy of Santa Marta but were equally grateful for the calm sanctuary of the marina and our refuge on Blue Zulu.
Perched 600m high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains above Santa Marta, Minca is a small mountain village famous for organic coffee and, perhaps more importantly, for much cooler temperatures than sweaty Santa Marta. There were two other families staying at the marina and together we decided to escape the chaotic town for couple of days and head into the mountains to explore the lovely little town of Minca.
As soon as we arrived we jumped off our bus in search of water – our poor fish like children hadn’t swum in almost a week and so blissfully spent a couple of hours enjoying the freezing mountain pools. A quick lunch and explore of the quaint but tiny town of Minca and it was time to head up to our eco-vegetarian hostel, Mundo Nuevo. We knew we had a bit of a hike ahead but after an almost two-hour uphill hike through the jungle, the cool of the mountain pools was totally forgotten to the sweaty mess of 13 brand new backpackers.
Fortunately our new home was stunning – basic but beautiful. We were surrounded by hundreds of colourful butterflies, weird and wonderful new insects, birds galore and a view to keep you mesmerised. And it was cool, blissfully cool. The kids loved their new environment and ran around wildly making friends with the dogs, dominating the hammocks and monopolising the pool table and fire pit.
We had two lovely relaxed days in the mountains. We did sunrise yoga looking out over the Sierra Nevada and lay in hammocks enjoying the cool mountain breeze. We went on a cacao tour, got chocolate face masks and learnt the whole process of turning the fruit into the treat. The kids made seed bombs to catapult into the mountain side and drank tea made with fresh herbs. We explored the indigenous village next door and learnt all about tiny meliponine bees and their magical honey. But mostly our kids just loved having space to explore and turned feral while we enjoyed meeting all the backpackers from around the world.
We all returned from the mountains relaxed and happy. We had made great new friends from the boats Juggernaut and Nomad. Quite a few had ‘interesting’ tummies but we had enjoyed our taste of backpacking and were hungry for more.
The next day we flew to Bogota…