How to Camp on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

How to Camp on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

Here’s a breakdown of camping along the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, which is hands down my favorite country in the world. The landscapes, the people, the language, and relative affordability make this a great place to travel and camp.

This is my first time camping internationally with my one person Passage 1 tent from REI, which is light and has an excellent rain cover that has served me well as a tour guide who has camped all over the United States and its National Parks.

I started my backpacking trip two weeks ago by flying into Santa Marta, Colombia. This is my second visit to Colombia, and since I have already been to Cartagena, I decided to start my trip in Santa Marta. I plan to travel throughout the entire country, heading south, for the next few months on my 90 day tourist visa.

Before starting, I had no idea how accessible it would be to camp. Not only is it cheaper than paying for a dorm room in a hostel, I also find it to be quieter since there are rarely any people snoring next to me. I’m a light sleeper, so a quiet place to sleep is muy importante.

I hope these tips inspire you to camp in Colombia’s Caribbean Coast!

Santa Marta, Colombia

Hostal Chimila: $3/night including a light breakfast

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Day 3 of camping 🇨🇴

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I initially wanted to do the $350, 4-day hike to La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), but since I came to the country in the peak of the rainy season that lasts from September to December, I decided against it. I spent a week at Chimila, which costs $1 round trip via bus to get into the city of Santa Marta. They also rent out bikes for free for the first two hours, but since it’s so hot here, I only rode the bike into the city once. It also located a bit far from the Rodadero Beach, so taking a bus is also a good idea.

Pros: The pool and the many friendly, mostly Venezuelan volunteers/staff. The atmosphere was incredibly relaxing, too. I don’t consider myself a homebody, but damn, this place made me want to stay forever! When I talked to one of the awesome Venezuelan staff members, Kelly, over breakfast, she mentioned that this place had served as a spiritual retreat for priests who would come here. Their positive energy has definitely stayed. I definitely made use of the hammock and the lounge chairs by the pool.

Cons: Lots of mosquitos, so buy Nopikex bug spray. I ended up lending a bunch of my handy spray to the staff in the evenings! There are also no roofed camping areas which can be a problem if you don’t have a solid rainfly.

Santa Marta wasn’t my favorite city. It’s very hot and dusty and full of tourists who seem to be on the prowl for drugs and sex. There was a great natural food cafe in the Parque de los Novios, which had a killer ceviche made with green apples, and the street art was impressive, but I wouldn’t go back. Santa Marta is more of a jumping off point to explore the neighboring activities , like Parque Tayrona or scuba diving in Taganga.

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En el parque de los novios con mi novia, Ceviche. ❤️

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Parque Tayrona

Eco Hostal Yuluka: $11/Night for a dorm room (no camping), breakfast included

Since Yuluka doesn’t have camping, I went all bougie and boked a dorm room at this relaxing hostel a few minutes away from the entrance to Parque Tayrona, and I’m glad I did. I went hiking into the park to see if I wanted to camp there, but because of all the mud, I’m glad I decided not to.

Pros: Friendly staff, cooler weather than Santa Marta, the best patacones (tostones) of life, a refreshing pool, and a free morning shuttle to the Park Entrance.

Cons: No camping, pricer food, a tiny pool, very few Colombians stayed here when I was here. Most of the guests were Dutch so I didn’t practice much of my Spanish outside of speaking with the staff.

Parque Tayrona: This is one of Colombia’s most famous parks. The jungle borders the ocean and if you’re lucky, you can spot monkeys on your hike down to the beaches. Again, I went during rainy season, so I didn’t want to lug my gear through the mud pits to camp. The hike from the entrance to Cabo San Juan del Guia, the most popular beach for backpackers, took about 3 hours and I was almost knee-high in mud. It was an adventure but not one I’d repeat, especially not with my camping gear!

Cost for a day pass: 61,000 COP ($20 USD). Camping spots cost $10+ USD, depending on where you book.

Palomino

El Arbol Ecolodges: Camping for $5/night without breakfast

Palomino is an odd mix between a sleepy, agricultural town and mecca for partygoing backpackers. Not a place I’d return to because it’s tourist central, but it was a decent halfway point with a beach between Parque Tayrona and Riohacha. I ate lunch at Sua Restaurant, which has great salads.

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Después de tanta fritanga, viene la ensalada.

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Pros: The cutest, cuddliest cats roam the property. There’s a hammock and a roof over the camp sites. The neighboring little food stall sells great falafel and arepas de huevo. For all you yoga lovers, there’s 9 AM yoga in the morning. The beach is a ten minute walk away.

Cons: No breakfast and there were tons of mosquitoes.

Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira

Analaüli Hospedaje Y Restaurante: $2 for a roofed camping spot without breakfast

La Guajira is Colombia and South America’s northernmost point. It’s rugged terrain, where the resilient Wayuu people have resisted colonization from the English, Dutch, and Spanish for centuries. You can book tours from Santa Marta, Riohacha, and more places, but since I speak Spanish and wanted to save money, I decided to wing it and head out there on my own.

I took a shared taxi from Riohacha to the town of Uribia, where I waited for nearly an hour for a shared 4 x 4 jeep to make the 2-3 hour journey to Cabo de la Vela, a remote fishing village to the north. I began chatting with Reiner, a local who took my to his aunt’s hostel. A group of Colombians from Bogota were also making the trip. The road to Cabo was muddy, and our land rover got stuck in the mud multiple times that day, so we had to call other drivers to pull us out of the mud with a makeshift belt and hook.

Once at the hostel, I tried the lobster for $10 which was really good. Just ask for some lime to sprinkle on it since it’s a little dry. The hostel was bare bones- we had to ask for toilet paper and there was no running water. Bucket baths cost a little less than $1. I paid Reiner about $33 USD for an excursion that night to the lighthouse and surrounding beaches, and my fare would also cover the boat ride to and from Punta Gallinas, an excursion to the beaches there, and the ride back to Uribia. It was a pretty sweet deal considering the distances traveled.

Pros: The camping spot is right near the beach, where kite surfers of all levels are gliding on (or crashing into) the shallow water.

Cons: No running water and I wish I’d brought my own toilet paper, but hey, it WAS only $2 and we were in the middle of a coastal desert, yo. I also wish I’d brought more snacks. Shout out to the Colombians who shared their snacks with me!

Punta Gallinas

Hospedaje Alexandra: $3.50 for a camping spot, not including breakfast

Punta Gallinas is the stunning northernmost point of South America. To get there, we took a 5 am boat through the choppy water for two hours. Hospedaje Alexandra is pretty much the only place to stay and is right up the steps from the port. We had a $3 USD breakfast of an arepa with eggs around 9 am, then from 10 am to 2 pm, we went on an included tour of the surrounding beaches and view points.

On the way there, we passed by goats that weaved their way through the cacti to chomp down on the greenest grass the region has seen in five years, which is how long the area went without rain. Our guide told us that one farmer had 200 goats, but by the end of the drought, he only had 50 left. I’m glad the Wayuu finally had some much deserved rain.

My favorite part of the tour was the final leg, during which we were dropped off at the base of a massive sand dune we scaled, then ran down and plunged into the neighboring sea. It was magic.

Pros: Hammocks galore at the Hospedaje. The fried fish they serve is massive. I decided to try their vegetrian lunch instead, which turned out to be a tasty lentil soup with friend plantains and salad.

Cons: Bathing in stored seawater was not my favorite, but again, it is remote desert! It’s a small price to pay for stunning scenery.

I hope my tips for camping in Colombia’s Caribbean coast have been useful! If there’s anything else you’d like to know, drop a line in the comments.

-Charlie

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The Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls: What To Know Before Jumping In!

The Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls: What To Know Before Jumping In!

Ever since I was a kid, I have had vivid dreams of flying over the lush African landscape, and about flying over and around Victoria falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders”). Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in the world. The Devil’s Pool, at the falls’ edge, hadn’t been in the picture—yet.

Since I was homeschooled for a few years during my childhood, I’d wake up, eat my mom’s eggs with jitomate and tortillas, and watch Discovery Kids with my brother before our dad gave us his classes, ranging from French to the functions of the liver.

My favorite Discovery Kids episodes showcased Amazonian animals or the creatures you’d see on an African Safari. I grew up wanting to study and work with animals. Whether I’d be a veterinarian, or study marine biology, I didn’t know. Then I actually took biology in high school. Learning about the parts of the cell didn’t excite me as much as history class, so plans of studying life forms in far off lands went on the back burner—but thoughts of going to Africa didn’t. When my mind would wander during my classes, I’d stare at the globe we probably bought from Costco, wondering what it would be like across the world—what in the world is Africa really like?

I suppose being born in Mexico and having family far away made me aware of how big the world was and that I needed to see it.

Fast forward to September 1, 2017, when I was laid off unexpectedly. While it was a shock, I had been saving money in case such a thing would ever happen. I toyed with the idea of finding another job, but after speaking with my friend Damaly, who reminded me to live my truth, as scary as that may be, I made plans to find a subletter for a few months, and I booked a one way ticket from DC to Victoria Falls. I connected in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (since I was flying on Ethiopian airlines), and didn’t know what to expect of this continent I’ve heard of all my life but that I just had to see for myself. I’ve been couchsurfing and staying with a great host here in Zimbabwe named Martin for the past few days.

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🦄 🌈

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I’d always known I needed to see Victoria Falls. It was only until I arrived that I realized that it is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Not only did I need to see it, but I needed to swim in it—at it’s edge. This is where the “Devil’s Pool” comes in. The Zambezi River drops quite a bit during the dry season, and from about mid August to mid January,  one can walk along the falls’ lip on the Zambian side.

The Devil’s Pool is what you may think of as the ultimate infinity pool, as it formed on the very edge of the fall’s drop. Swimming in it was one of the top 10 most memorable experiences of my life, and I hope that if it’s possible for you to experience it for yourself, that you are even more prepared for it than I was. Here are some things you need to know before sliding in (I know, my title was misleading, but our guide didn’t let us jump)!

The cost of swimming in the Devil’s Pool

 

I don’t normally spend too much money on outdoor activities. I enjoy hiking and biking, but those activities have not been too expensive for me. The last outdoor activity I splurged on was to go ziplining near Puerto Vallarta, and that cost $50. Booking a tour from the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls (in the city named after the falls) was too expensive for me. Some tour companies charged anywhere from $110–$165, and the cheapest time slots were usually in the morning. These slots were booked up several days in advance.

I decided to cross the Zimbabwean border into Zambia on foot, which took about an hour. I paid $20 to enter Zambia with a U.S. passport, then paid another $20 to enter the Victoria Falls Park on the Zambian side. At the entrance of the park was a woman named Patience who was helping two young German men book a trip to the Devil’s Pool. I asked about the price, and it cost $75 to be taken up with a guide. I made it in time for the last slot at 2:15.

What to wear to The Devil’s Pool

During my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua, I wore my Teva sandals about 95% of the time. These, or Chaco’s are a sturdy brand, and are comfortable, especially for swimming and hiking in relatively flat areas. Since we were already at the level of the lip of the falls, we didn’t have to hike much uphill. We had to walk over rocks that are normally covered with water during the wet season, and there were some sharp rocks too. We also had to swim for about 3 minutes to get to the Devil’s Pool, making me wish that I’d brought my sandals or booties instead of my tennis shoes.

It gets quite dusty out here, which is why I didn’t want to ruin my only pair of sneakers any further by swimming with them on. I wore board shorts and a sports bra and was fine. You’ll be fine with a swimming suit, and you are given time to change.

Bring a waterproof camera if possible

I highly suggest this. While my guide, David, had a waterproof bag for us to put our cameras in, the Devil’s Pool area is full of mist and spray from the falls. I brought my Go Pro Camera in its waterproof case, and I’m glad I left my iphone out of the area.

Our guides are well versed in bringing groups out and in taking photos. We didn’t even really have to ask them to take photos of us. They suggested different poses and places where we could take our photos. If anything, I think they took too many photos of me….which leads me to my next point.

The Devil’s Pool swim only lasts about 15 minutes

At least with the guides we went with. Since there are so many groups going up to see it, the guides respect the other groups’ time and make it very clear that the swim is a quick one. Instead of worrying about if the photos were turning out okay, in retrospect, after taking 3 photos, I would have let the guides know that I didn’t need any more.

There are small fish that will gently bite you!

I’m glad I had read about this in preparation. I had no idea the fish would be so persistent. I never saw them, but I felt them. I am someone who can spend all day swimming in a lake, of which the bottom I will never see, but I’e never been greeted so persistently by fish in my entire life. These weren’t cute, little pedicure-type fish. These were the kind of fish that kept biting at my feet until I raised them up—which only made the water push me forward more easily, adding to the adrenaline rush!

You may tear up as you look over and to the bottom of Victoria Falls

I did. Through the mist, you could see dozens of mini waterfalls trickling down, each in their own world. It was like something out of The Lord of the Rings. Seeing this, along with having the feeling that the Zambezi River could push you over if it wished, was exhilarating. I trust water more than I trust humans sometimes.

I’m so grateful for this experience. For being a human living on the planet at this moment and for trusting myself enough to know that I would make it happen. It was as if all of those mundane, excel spreadsheet–filled days at the office had evaporated into thin air and provided me with this. I felt blessed and lucky to witness it.

David, our guide, grabbed my feet and tried pushing me even further along the edge as we were laying on our stomachs, but I said “Nope, I’m good!” He was very understanding. My life was in his hands. It felt like a huge lesson in trust. David and another guide who joined us at the pools, kept us safe, telling us which way to swim and where to sit the whole time. Hearing the deafening explosion of spray, and witnessing it as close as one possibly could without a harness or helicopter, was unforgettable. I’m proud of myself for being patient with myself and waiting for the right moment to let this happen.

When life didn’t work out at the start of the month, I ended up fulfilling my childhood dream. Not only did I see Victoria Falls, but I swam at its edge. I hope that one day you can experience the Devil’s Pool in Zambia.

 

Top 5 Cities (Besides Mexico City) to Study Abroad in Mexico

Top 5 Cities (Besides Mexico City) to Study Abroad in Mexico

Mexico City seems to have become the mecca of study abroad in México. While, yes, it is the birthplace of Frida Kahlo and is a microcosm of Mexico, let’s not leave the rest of the country out of the picture! There’s a lot more to fall in love with outside of the (former) D.F. Mexico in the world’s most populated Spanish speaking country; not to mention, each one of its citizens has a different story to tell about what makes the country special. Whether you study intensive Spanish in Cuernavaca or realize how little you knew about Mayan culture in the Yucatan Peninsula, studying abroad in Mexico will teach you that there is always more to learn.

My latest piece on Go Abroad is live. Check it out!

Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa

Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa

If I could describe hiking the cliffs of Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa in three words, they would be: misty, exhausting, and dreamy.

Peñas Blancas is part of a nature reserve that’s just a three-hour bus ride from my site. Despite it boasting some of the most beautiful views of the surrounding land and waterfalls, it took me nearly two years to make the trek. When you’re living in a tourist area, you tend to blow of the tourist options and hold off until the last minute to enjoy them.

Jen, my hiking buddy, and I boarded the El Cua-Bocay chicken bus ($2) from Matagalpa’s North Station (Guanuca) at 7 a.m. She caught me up on her recent half marathon near Liberia, Costa Rica, and I told her about the new sign language class I’m taking on Saturdays. Jen and I have hiked Cosiguina Volcano and we’ve cliff-jumped through Somoto Canyon, and I was excited about our new adventure.

We chugged along the windy road (the first two hours were paved) and I noticed how lush the outside of my city was. I live in the mountains, but with the amount of buildings, car horns, and smog, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels too domesticated. I do appreciate having more consistent access to wi-fi and air conditioning than many volunteers, but before joining the Peace Corps, I never imagined I’d live in a place I’d love but that I’d also need to escape from for some fresh air.

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Around 11 a.m., the bus dropped us off at the entrance to Los Guardianes del Bosque (The Guardians of the Forest), a coffee cooperative. There were only a handful of small, wooden houses and locals starting at Jen and I as we stretched our legs. We’d be staying with Don Chico (505-2770-1359), who I read about in my Moon Guide to Nicaragua. I’d reserved the day before over the phone with his wife, whose melodic accent was 100% norteña.

An old man with a fixed grin and dark, beady eyes came to us and extended his hand. “Buenas, I’m Francisco,” he said. This short, stout man wore rubber boots, jeans, a black quicksilver cap, and a blue and green plaid shirt. “Oh, so you’re the famous Don Chico!” I exclaimed, and he nodded, repeating what I’d said. He did this a lot. I didn’t mind the affirmation.

To call Don Chico a jack-of-all trades doesn’t do him justice. He’s a 77-year-old medicine man, farmer, tour guide, naturalist, great grandfather, trail builder, and musician. His neck sunk into his shoulders, and he walked with a purpose. I didn’t see him frown once. He seemed so happy to be alive. Continue reading “Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa”