Northern Colombia

Cerro Kennedy (10-20-17)

Our second backpacking expedition was bout to begin. Excited to get away from the humidity and up into the mountains, we had our bags packed with all the gear the night before. Tent, sleeping bags, prepped food, headlamps etc.. Cerro Kennedy was calling our names. We’d talked to several travelers who had done the hike already and we’d heard the views were stunning. We’d been waiting for our days off to align so we could experience the magic of the Sierra Nevadas at a greater level.

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We started seeing weird plants as we climbed such as these which appear to be blueberries.

After having a little scare from a random person banging on the hostel doors in the middle of the night, we woke up groggy and ready to get the daily fix of coffee. Breakfast came early followed by a few last minute additions and we were off, ready for a six hour climb to 1500m. The road is incredibly steep for the first half hour, eventually lessening to a steady uphill. The humidity is killer, you’re drenched and ready for water after the first 100m. The weight of the packs didn’t help. We’d gotten used to running and hiking these mountains with minimal weight, now it was time to test our endurance. We stopped periodically to rest, drink water or eat.

Watching the plant life slowly change was fascinating. The trees we’d been used to would eventually turn to pine trees. As we climbed, we passed “El Campano” which is a small village, “La Y” a point in the road where you hook a left ascending into the high mountains, and many family homes. We passed a small school with a stunning view over the Carribean.

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The view from “La Y” where the road splits between the high and low mountains.

Along the way people were incredibly friendly with groups of kids saying “hola” in unison and parents giving warm smiles.

Eventually we reached a point where there were no more homes. Only clouds slowly moving over the mountains. Momentary spots of sunlight were welcome, letting us know the rain clouds hadn’t arrived yet. Rain thunders down almost everyday between 1 & 3pm. Climbing through the rainforest with only the sounds of birds and water to accompany us was refreshing. Signs for the bird sanctuary we were walking through were our only signs of progress as we trekked up the road. 

After walking uphill for five hours we were exhausted and eager to arrive. The clouds were changing fast and getting darker. Just as we felt the first drops, a car came up behind us. The people driving the car were a family staying at Casas Viejas and they offered us a ride for the last bit of the hike.

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The back of Jean Claude’s (the Dad’s) shirt.

As we loaded up the packs and hopped in the rain really started to come down. It couldn’t have been more perfect timing. The father used to own a farm in these mountains until a paramilitary group drove them out. He knew these mountains pretty well and was happy to give us a lift.

We drove over rough roads for 45minutes until we got to a shack called Monchos Hostal or Monchos Place. It really doesn’t have a name, nor is it an official hostel. It’s more like a structure with a room where backpackers can sleep and people take refuge from the rain.

When we arrived there were some moto taxi drivers starting a fire in the back to warm up. Moncho was in Santa Marta. We waited out the storm with various tourists and locals taking shelter, sipping coffee and chatting. The rain turned to a light drizzle and we reserved a campsite (30,000 COP) for the night with the trabajador at the TV station. Monchos place is directly next to a cell tower used for Santa Marta.

 

After a cold meal and a beautiful sunset, we passed out early. The sun rises around 5am here and we weren’t going to miss the clear view of the snow-capped peaks.

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The sun greeted us at 5am with a view beyond words.

With a bit of luck we woke up at 4:30am to find the tent dry and the sky turning a vibrant red. Red to yellow to orange leading to a deep blue almost as dark as night. I’ve never seen a sunrise like it. Emerging behind the mountains, the sun was showing the beauty its light can create on this earth. We both felt like we truly understood why the indigenous cultures hold the mountains in such reverence. They looked like they held the blood of the earth in their layers.

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We watched the colors changed quickly in amazement.

After staring for a couple hours, we finally turned away. After packing up, we were jazzed to get started back down. The buzz wore off after a while, especially when we dropped down far enough in elevation to submerge ourselves in humidity again. Alainas cold was kicking in and the wool socks I was wearing were getting hot. Finally arriving to Casas Viejas was a relief. A hot meal, shower and 2 hour nap provided the recovery needed. After so much exercise we were exhausted, but the experience had been worth it. That’s usually the case while traveling. Pushing yourself to do the things that sound daunting may be hard but in the end you’ll be happy you did it.

The Life We’re Livin’ (10-18-17)

The days are filled with hiking and chugging coffee. The nights are filled with laughter and lots of talking. If there is one thing we have learned, its how much Colombians love to talk. They are the most friendly people that just want to stop mid way up the hill on their motorcycle to see what you are up to. They will join you on a hike and fill all the silences with more questions and stories. Its quite fun.

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Alaina picking her way through deceivingly deep ruts.

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We met Juan David randomly on a hike and ended up trekking with him for over an hour. Colombians are so nice.

We have spent the last few days exploring the area around the hostel and oh me oh my its pretty amazing. The vistas vary greatly. Looking in one direction you see the ocean divided by the “Troncal del Carribe”, with skylines of half developed buildings, and cargo ships that look like little ants off in the distance.

In the other direction mountains peak above eye level, boasting every shade of green, and massive white puffy clouds building as the daily storm brews.

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There are birds, butterflies, and flowers of literally every color you can imagine. Our favorite so far is a butterfly that reps lavender on top and orange on the bottom. When it flies its like magic. its become our mission to capture a picture of one of these before we leave.

Taylor tucks me in every night. It’s not like a kid asking their mom or dad to tuck them in and read them a bed time story. I ask nightly so that he will proceed to tuck my mosquito net under my twin bed mattress so the large spiders that crawl the walls don’t end up as my bunk mate. Mosquitos are real here and man, their bites are itchier than ever.

As much as we are excited to see new places and explore more of Colombia, the mountains and comfort of new friends will keep us enjoying every moment for the next two weeks.

 

Theobroma Cacao (10-14-17)

Hiking from Casas Viejas to La Candelaria is no easy task. After an hour jog down the mountain, we arrived in Minca. Minca is the pit-stop tourist destination between the depths of the mountains and Santa Marta. It’s a quaint town with a hippy, mountain vibe and a heavy emphasis on tourism. The locals are friendly and welcoming, and the kids play in the street, stopping to stare at us gringos as we walk by yelling “hola” and “buenas”.

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One of the many shabby inhabitants of Minca.

After strolling through one of the two main roads in Minca dripping with sweat, we stopped at a small cafe to grab something cool to refresh ourselves. A pineapple and banana smoothie with milk did the trick. Refreshed and as cooled down as we were going to get, we took a side street towards La Candelaria following erroneously placed signs. After the previous jog, we weren’t prepared for the steepest hill we’d encountered yet.

Straight up hill for forty five minutes meant a calf burning workout. Three signs read “15 min -> La Candelaria” as we hiked up, giving us the impression we were closer every time we saw one. Alaina was not the least bit amused by this bit of trickery. After arriving to the entrance and hiking through the farm and more coffee plants, We arrived at a large yellow house where a tour was currently in lieu. We were greeted by the owners wife with coffee, three different kinds of bananas, and a view words cant describe. While waiting for the next tour, a woman painted our faces with a paste made of coffee, honey, and cacao. As the paste dried, we munched bananas, drank coffee, and felt the sweat dry.

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Cacao, coffee, and honey masks.

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The tour was simple and informative. The owner’s grandfather started the farm with nothing and it has been passed down through the generations ever since. The current owner went to school in Santa Marta during the week, spending his weekends and vacations at the farm. The finca (farm) is 40 hectares of coffee, cocoa, avocado, and fruit trees. They sell the coffee, cacao, and avocados to tourists and local shops in the area. There are few farms large enough to distribute their own goods, but locally owned ones such as La Candelaria must go through a distributor in Santa Marta.

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The cacao plant is fascinating. It’s many useful properties and functions make it a valuable crop. The tree produces thousands of flowers. These flowers have a 48hr window to pollinate before they fall from the tree and die. The flowers are not pollinated by bees but naturally by the wind. The farm is on its way to being organically certified and the owner treats his property with respect. This makes the Sierra Nevadas unique because many farmers take pride in respecting the environment in which they live. Large corporations run massive cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast (the Ivory Coast produces 18% of the world’s cocoa) and surrounding countries in Africa, forcing children to pollinate each flower of each plant individually. Small farms such as this one in the Sierra Nevada are doing their part to combat these monstrous practices we see in cocoa producing countries.

Harvesting the plant requires picking the fruit, slicing it open picking out the seeds and putting them through the fermentation process. Once fermented, they are roasted, and peeled.

 From there you can make them into nibs, powder, or blocks of pure cacao.

We made a pure cacao “hot chocolate” with hot water and milk, while munching on nibs, and chatting with the owner. Although it may be a touristy activity, taking tours such as these offers insight into how many locals make a living cultivating the land while respecting the mountains they inhabit. Encountering ordinary people who care about the land that supports them is refreshing and encouraging. It’s a reminder that people are moving in the right direction and becoming aware of the impacts they have on the environment through either consumption or production. 

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Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (10-8-17)

Coffee addiction is made easy in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The region boasts over 51,000 hectares of coffee farming with over 13,000 producers. One of those producers has a farm named “La Victoria” which is where the hostel we are working at is located. Tucked among the rows of coffee plants, Casas Viejas hostel is a sequestered paradise. La Victoria like almost all the other farms in the area practices sustainable agriculture, keeping in mind that much of the cities along the Caribbean rely on the Sierra Nevadas as a precious water source.

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A view from Casas Viejas. Behind the cloud cover lies Santa Marta and the Caribbean.

Taking a bus (actually a speeding four-wheel vehicle) to Minca is a quick rise of 650m into the mountains. From Minca, moto-taxis (motorcycles) offer rides for 20,000 COP (approx. $6) to Casas Viejas. The ride is perilous but exhilarating. Because October is the rainiest month of the year, the roads tend to be half mud, half broken up cement. When we arrived at the hostel, we got the walk-through from Rebecca (owner) and met the attending staff and co-owner Charlene. The kitchen is the hub of this polished hostel.

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The hostel bar.

Luis is the head chef and prepares fantastic meals (and sweets) out of an open air kitchen looking out over the mountains and the city of Santa Marta. A few beers on tap from the local brewery are an added plus to an incredible location. They boast a local pilsner, pale, and red ale.

The other day we went for a hike with Rebecca where we learned a wealth of information. We wanted to share some of this local insight about these beautiful mountains.

The 500 hectare farm we are on is owned by a man named Mickey. 200 hectares consist of coffee plants, which is harvested approximately between October and December. Mickey hires 80 seasonal workers to pick the beans. If you saw how many plants there are, you would understand why this seems like an outrageously low amount of people. All of the beans are picked and collected in large buckets, once a bucket is full, it’s brought to the closest dump station. Large vats at the dump stations lead into a large maze of pipes. These pipes eventually connect and end in the factory where the beans are roasted, fermented, etc. The equipment they use in the factory is originally from 1892 when an English couple bought and imported all of the equipment.

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The farm owner has planted tons of fruit trees everywhere in order to attract birds so they don’t eat the coffee plants. There are banana, mango, avocado, and papaya trees everywhere. Although banana trees are not native to the area, they’re use comes from sprouting fruit year around. As soon as a bunch is cut from a tree, they immediately begin growing anew. There are several nurseries in the area that consist purely of coffee plants. They replant 20,000 plants every year.

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Luis makes some damn good cookies.

While we aren’t working or hanging out with the staff, exploring the surrounding area really opens your eyes to the beauty of the landscape. Clouds consistently move in and out of the trees thrusting you into twilight zones that eventually break into brilliant views of the mountains and Caribbean below. Hiking is a daily activity, along with avoiding grumpy dogs and eating delicious food. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta offers a sense of tranquility and adventure around every bend.

 

Parque Nacional Tayrona (10-1-17)

The bus driver yelled Tayrona! and the bus came to a halt.

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Hiking through Tayrona.

A handful of women from Spain and ourselves collected our things and disembarked. Parque Nacional Tayrona is a preserved space directly on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. We backpacked in with only the essentials: tent, pad, sleeping bags, food and water. We were on the path to camp at a little spot called Arrecifes. The day was hot and humid. Not just your normal hot and humid but the kind where you see sweat pouring out of pores you didn’t know you had.

When we decided to do this backpacking trip it was literally the morning of and we didn’t know much about what was ahead. Needless to say, it was absolutely and outrageously beautiful. The dense rain forest gave way to the untouched looking coast line. Big boulders the size of small houses create unique points on many of the beaches. We spent the majority of the day hiking and swimming in the water that is nearly as warm as the air. Throughout our hikes we spotted many ants on a mission to collect leaves, lizards fashioning the brightest colors, and monkeys gorging themselves with fresh coconut. To end the day, we watched the storm clouds roll in and then proceed to light up the sky with lightning. It dumped rain and then lingered with flashing lights and intense humidity. While falling asleep, we came to the conclusion sleeping bags can be left behind while camping on the Caribbean coast.

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One of the many beautiful beaches.

Waking up to rain patter under the thatched roof where we’d put up our tent was a reassuring sound. Especially when a deluge of rain accompanied with thunder and lightning rolled in above us. We stayed in the tent a majority of the morning watching the rain fall around us. As we contemplated our current situation, we realized we had just enough funds to get back to Santa Marta, no ponchos, and a drenched rainforest to hike through. At one point, we could see the lightning directly above us, followed closely by snapping thunder that sounded like a chorus of cannons booming through the leaves.  Mother nature showing her force wasn’t encouraging for the hike back to the entrance.

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Rivers of rain ran by our raised platform.

Eventually we scavenged a couple spare trash bags from the camp manager and wrapped the essentials (passport, money, camera gear etc.). Stuffing the trash bags inside our packs with the pack covers over it all, we decided to sludge through the mud. After committing to soaked clothes, we got to enjoy a different path back, passing by the indigenous population of Tayrona. The rainforest canopy is so thick the sky turned from thunder clouds to a consistent green.

The wildlife is abundant in Tayrona (especially the mosquitoes). We were lucky to see a troop of Capuchin monkeys moving away from the storm early in the evening on the first day. Crocodiles, anaconda, and even a small family of jaguars are known to live in the park. Even though we had hoped to see all of these, luck wasn’t on our side in such a short amount of time.

 

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We watched a monkey almost hit a tourist with a coconut. #damnmonkeys

Although the park doesn’t do the student discount fee any longer, the adult fee of 42,000 COP (approx. $15 US) was worth the overnight experience. Visiting the park during the low season was a blessing because although there were still people on the trails, we would’ve been amongst the crowds if it was high season. We imagine high season being comparable to Yosemite Valley in the summer. Overall, Tayrona delivered on its expected jungle experience. The breathtaking beaches and jungle humidity pulled us away from the crowds of the city and into nature. It’s hard to find anything wrong with that.

 

To Start Off (9-27-17)

To start off our first day in Colombia we slept in. We are staying at La Guaca Hostel in Santa Marta. Its quiet, clean, and cheap. All the essentials we were looking for. We sipped on some freshly brewed hot coffee to refresh ourselves from the 80% humidity. Shortly after we laced up our running shoes and went for a jog. Little did we know the beach wasn’t as close as we thought. The majority of our run was spent dodging cars and weaving through the masses. Lesson learned, look at the map before you take off for a run.

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We must say though it was good to get further than walking distance from our hostel. Santa Marta has a very large port with anything from sailboats and fishing boats, to large cargo ships frequenting the area. We cooled off in a nice cold shower back at home and cooked up some eggs. We took a stroll to a nearby bus stop and flagged down the next bus we saw with signage reading ‘Taganga’. Within 20 minutes we arrived at a colorful little beach town.

 

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Beach chairs and sleepy pups line the shore.

Taganga is a tiny little town but it has more than you’d expect. There were several options for places to eat, sleep, and scuba dive. Boats of every color lined the shore offering to take us to nearby beaches. However, we found a great little trail that took us there for free and not much effort. Plus the views from the trail were stunning.

The neighboring beach is Playa Grande. Playa Grande has a single row of straw and aluminum roofed restaurants and bars. We kicked back in one of the many chairs on the beach and enjoyed the view. It seemed as though Playa Grande was a place for many locals to escape the heat. We watched many take out kayaks, get towed on tubes behind boats, or just soak in the water with a cold beer in hand.

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Looking back at Playa Grande.

We decided to continue on another trail that followed the bluff. What we found were tiny little private beaches with make-shift huts. What we later discovered after hiking down to one of these beaches is these little huts were shade structures for many fishermen waiting for a catch. One guy is out snorkeling waiting for the right time to yell to his buddies to pull in the nets. It goes like this: the snorkeler yells, then anywhere from 5-15 men rush out from their hammocks or chairs and start rapidly pulling in the nets they have set. We saw 12 men pull in close to 100 fish. They loaded them into crates and onto their boats. Our best guess is they take them to nearby towns to sell.

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Fishermen pulling in their catch.

We finished the day off with arepas de choclo con quesito in Santa Marta, which are essentially mashed corn cakes stuffed with cheese and then grilled. THE BOMB!

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