When I first looked at the theme for the weekly photo challenge, I was stumped. There has been so much change going on lately in my world that I couldn’t even begin to think about how to write about it. I feel worlds away from the environment that used to surround me when we were traipsing around Latin America. We were two souls bouncing around uncharted territories without a care in the world. Photography had become 2nd nature, and I reveled in taking mental notes on every detail that caught my eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. I think a lot of those feelings came out in my images. It was an absolute high point in my life. Some of the most surreal moments in our trip was the time we spent in Cuba. It was one of the only places where we constantly felt awed by every moment we experienced, and nothing ever felt normal. In a land the Hemingway called home we couldn’t begin to describe that magic that was engrained in the culture, the land, and the energy of the country. So what better way to reflect upon change than to speak on the experience and then sharing it with the world. Hence, this weekly photo challenge caught me off guard until I thought deeply about change.
2 weeks ago I was asked to participate in an art gallery opening to showcase some of my images I shot from my trip to Cuba alongside photographer extraordinaire Heather McGrath’s and her breathtaking landscapes of Iceland. It was held at the SOWA art studios on 450 Harrison Ave in the South End of Boston, a complete world away from the crumbly, dusty streets of La Habana. Heather and my better half Elissa helped to curate the entire affair, as I was completely engulfed in my new career of real estate to put together the event. I showed up the night before to help hang my images after an exhausting day of driving clients around the city to find a new home. Blah. We called the show Wanderlust, a word that’s influenced the way I look at the world and my insatiable curiosity for the unexplored.
It was amazing reliving the experience with the hundred or so strangers that wandered in throughout the day. The stories poured out almost faster than my mouth could move. I was transported back in time, thousands of miles away from Boston in the middle of the Caribbean watching the sun set along the Malecón. It was the first time I ever put my own art on the wall for everyone to see, and it was a big change in my life. It was something that I had always wanted to do, and it was a dream that had finally come true. There was a bit of vulnerability hanging your version of art out there for the world to see, but the reactions and feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive. It took away the fear of putting myself out there, a hurdle that always held me back from considering the idea of an event like this. In my head, I wasn’t sure how I was going to overcome that fear, but the way it all came together left me no other choice than to finally just do it. Change reigns supreme.
The change in where I was to where I am today is like comparing the differences between night and day. Change of surroundings, change in countries, change in lifestyle. Back to the working world, back to the grind, back to life in the States. Change: it’s what keeps life interesting.
The seed of Punta Gallinas was planted firmly in our head from a British expat up in the hills of Minca. By the time we returned back to Santa Marta, it’s roots had already buried themselves deep in the soil of our imagination and refused to stop burrowing down. What we initially ruled out as an idea that seemed “too far out of our budget” and “not worth the effort” suddenly had a new, insatiable appeal. From a seasoned Colombia backpacker-turned-permanent-resident, it was given a “Class A travel” review. We couldn’t shake the idea of living amongst an isolated fishing tribe in a truly unique desert-meets-the-Caribbean-sea environment. We had read that there was a booming a lobster population described as being so boisterous that the shellfish were practically crawling out of the water and onto your plate. The notion began gaining strength like a metaphorical hurricane, with wind speeds picking up as each fleeting though of what lay ahead marinated in our minds. We dissected travel guides, Internet forums, and every resource we could find to figure out how to do this trip affordably before setting off at 4:30 AM the next morning with one destination in mind: Punta Gallinas.
Our final destination for our first travel day (of 2) was a desert beach town in the named Cabo de la Vela. In order to get there from Santa Marta, we had to take a taxi, bus, car, and 4×4 truck. At first glance this just sounds like a typical Latin American travel day. What is missing from this picture is the fact that this part of Colombia is one big desert. The area is known as La Guajira, and is a stretch of vast, open sand dunes, salt flats, dried up lake beds, and not much else. The Wayuu Tribe settled in this area sometime around 150 AD from the Amazon when they were searching for less hostile territories. The harsh environment has left the tribe very isolated from the rest of the westernizing world, and they apparently had very little contact with conquistadors when the America’s were being stolen from it’s indigenous inhabitants in the name of glory, god, and gold.
Our last leg of the day began in the dusty, bustling trading town of Uribia. The Wayuu culture became omnipresent the minute we got out of our truck. Women wearing full length, brightly colored fabrics wrapped around their entire bodies were suddenly everywhere. I was amazed that their garb was completely spotless and all appeared to be brand new, given the dust and dirt flying around with each passing tuk-tuk. Bikes, trucks, and cars were whizzing around in a hectic fashion in every direction. My attire had already collected a pound of air born dust by the time our truck lurched to a halt in the bustling market crowd. We were instantly hustled over to a huge 4×4 pick up truck with a covered roof over the truck bed in the back. We were told it was leaving shortly (quince minutos, siempre) but we had been traveling far too long at this point to believe that old gag. We threw our belongings in the back and scanned the town, taking in the sights. The driver and his helper were constantly packing the roof with large boxes of food, rice, water, and general living supplies. When space ran out, they began packing the inside of the bed, exactly where we were going to be sitting. 55 gallon drums of gasoline and cooking oil, dozens of bags of dry mix concrete, and random packed cardboard boxes. The bed of the truck was filling, which naturally led to the other passengers forming a small crowd around eying what little real estate was left for seating. I started counting heads and realized this was going to be another classically latin “tight squeeze”. When the time came for departure we all sat in a human horseshoe formation, with all of our feet in the middle covering every square inch of what was left of the floor. We gave out some Penny Karma funded stickers to the kids in the vehicle, who understood some basic Spanish, and waited in our own sweat until the beat up truck roared away. The next 3 and a half hours were filled with hot, dry, unrelenting desert heat on back roads, through dried up lakes, and alongside the ocean. Each and every bump left a lasting impression on our rear ends while the heat fostered day-time delusional comas.
We drove across endlessly flat dried up lake beds that disappeared in the mid day heat in the distance just like a mirage. The scene was just like staring at a long, flat asphalt road on any sunny afternoon in late July; we could have been driving anywhere in the world, and we wouldn’t know if we were coming or going. Eventually I spotted the end of the lake bed in the distance, and the land began to grow from the tire tracks that guided our truck in the right direction. Little shacks popped up in between the bushes and barely living desert trees. It was hard to imagine daily life out here given the harsh environment. We made a few pit stops along the way to drop off big bags of supplies to houses that commissioned delivery of the goods. It was like Colombia’s version of PeaPod, only in with basic supplies in the desert. The teal blue ocean shimmered beyond the brown dirt, revealing our proximity to the deliciously crisp looking waters. We couldn’t wait to get in and get the sweat off our skin. Around noon that day our exhausted bodies we were dropped off in steamy, shadeless gathering of Cabo de la Vela.
After dropping our gear we grabbed an over priced fruit smoothy. Immediately we felt the wrath of isolation and it’s effects on consumer goods (food prices always inflate at least 100-200% the further you get from trading hubs). A deliciously cool dip in the ocean followed suit and helped drop our body temperatures down a bit under the relentlessly overbearing sun. The streets were dusty and barren. It was low season. Every building along the main strip appeared to be either a hotel or a restaurant, and every one except a handful appeared to be closed. Empty stalls, tables with chairs upside down on top, doors closed, shades drawn, and nobody in sight. It was too hot to explore around too much, but we eventually found a kid hanging out in a hammock who pointed us to one of the tiendas. We came across some Wayuu women weaving colorful rugs by hand in the shelter of the shade, and watched them work their strands of yarn into beautiful patterns. We decided that they had the right idea, for the middle of the day was best spent hiding out until the sun went down and the evening breeze picked up.
That night we took a stroll to the outskirts of the village and were more than surprised to see kites in the distant fading sunset over the water. The high wind speeds in this area have donned this destination as one of the best locations for kite boarding. There were 5 or 6 young men whizzing over choppy Caribbean surf, taking flight off the miniature waves and soaring up to 20 feet in the air at times! Flips, spins, and grabs blended into the drastic headland backdrop accompanied by a beautiful Caribbean sunset. We were almost as far north as anyone could find themselves in Colombia, and the world was showing us how surprisingly rewarding stepping into unknown territories can be.
Shortly after sunset we met up with some other travelers from France, Israel, and Colombia who were trying to iron out the details of visiting the delectably enticing northern tip of South America. They were not having any sort of luck. The effort was spearheaded by an Israeli man named Ofer, who spoke fluent Spanish. He was trying to get a reasonable price a growing number of tourists who came all the way up to Cabo just get to Punta Gallinas. When we joined the team there were 8 of us, and the amount of a round trip started to tally up to well over 100 dollars a head for a one day, one night adventure! This was starting to seem like quite the lucrative business. Eventually, we all walked away in disappointment as the hostel owner in Punta Gallinas refused to budge on her price. We still didn’t want to give up, so we retreated back to our hostel to ask our owner/business man (also named Daniel) if he could do better. He agreed to a much more attractive price for the group, realizing that something was better than nothing, and got us all to agree to get up early in the morning to set off. When morning came, we packed 8 bodies into a mid sized SUV complete with backpacks, food, and gear, and went further into the unknown.
We were brought to a cove that was sheltered by a man made jetty of boulders and rocks. Fisherman were were untangling their nets, and wading their boats to shore fully clothed in the morning light. Most of their wooden boats looked as if they were way past retirement, clinging to the last bits of fibrous pulp that kept them afloat. A young child was gathering up the silver bounty that him and his father had pulled out of the sea when a wave caught him off guard. His balance was lost as he missed his step and dropped what was certainly going to be dinner that night back into the ocean. Waves pounded the jetty, rhythmically spraying salty mist into the gusty air, relieving my hot skin for a short lived moment. Our boat eventually pulled up to shore and we soon were zipping through the Caribbean waters, headed north towards our prized destination.
The wind was strong that day. Our 3 hour boat ride turned into quite memorable experience. The boat we were riding was surely used for thousands of voyages to and from that cove. There was no padding on the seats at all, and this was felt with each passing wave. 4-5 foot crests and troughs came marching towards us when we broke away from some of the shelter of the coastline. It was exciting at first, but then just really hurt our asses. Clouds seemed to hang over the land to our east so we were exposed the entire time. We all anticipated getting to shore, and getting the hell out of that humming boat.
Then it became apparent that there was an end to this journey. Land rose up from the turquoise waters and the Caribbean sea became a narrow channel with mangroves on either side. Goats were standing tall on the cliffs that were about 10 meters tall looking down at half sunken ships that will surely live out the rest of their lives in the shallow, teal waters. It was good to see the green leaves and branches of the coastal forest after 3 hours of water and brown cliffs. Birds were now swooping and flying about too, adding to the mix. Very simplistic shanty’s made of mud bricks, thin trees, and spare metal parts revealed themselves as our chariot pushed along, pointing north somewhere. Our fiberglass vessel finally pointed towards a graveyard of boats that all looked their age, and were all happy to be docked on shore. We had reached the most isolated Wayuu territory at last. Bienvenidos a Punta Gallinas.
We were ushered into our hostel to take some solace from the shade. Bartering commenced on the prices of hammocks immediately, which were 50% higher than we all expected. The hostel itself was a compound, not at all like the mud brick houses we had passed in the boat. Generators were roaring away while the children and women who were running the place carried on in their house watching television or playing playstation. I noticed they had blackberries, and were punching away text messages as casual as the youth in any modern world would be. It became quickly apparent that this hostel had a somewhat of a monopoly on the tourism here. We were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, and had no other option but to stay here or wander off into the blazing hot desert. It had entrapment written all over it. But we came here to see what life was like, and we were promised a tour with our ticket price. After a heavy napping session, we all gathered into the back of their F350 and took off down the dusty paths between cacti and desert plants due north.
Our first stop was punta norte. It is as far north as you can find yourself in South America, and felt like it was as far away from anywhere as you could ever be. Donkeys and a few goats were wandering around, eating green desert plants that had spiny spikes all over them. The two boys driving the truck were enjoying their complete and total control over us tourists. Every chance they could they would accelerate hard around turns, speed up while hitting bumps, and generally driving like maniacs. We all got laughs trying not to fall on ourselves, all screaming “DUCK!” when a branch threaten decapitation. Huge, flying red grasshoppers 4 inches in length suddenly became another threat to deal with. The terror set in when one bounced off someone’s head while we were careening probably 50 miles an hour down sand and stone paths. We parted huge herds of goats that were using the road as a path, kicking up dust as they avoided the truck being driven by the two juveniles behind the wheel.
I saw some of the most beautiful, strangest landscapes I can remember on that dusty ride through the desert. Coves that opened up into miles of flat, shallow seas that disappeared into the horizon before our exhausted and sun soaked eyes. One of the Frenchmen was so moved that he began crying at the sight in front of him. He told me it was the most beautiful thing he has ever seen, and I couldn’t speak against that. Smooth, almost otherworldly golden sand dunes sat firmly on the surface with traces of ripples left behind from the wind blowing from the sea. We drove into the dunes and before long there was nothing but massive mounds of sand and ripples in all directions. Our chariot stopped the edge of a large dune with one lonely tree sat perched at the top. It was here that as our drivers told us to go play on the beach for about an hour or two while they changed a flat tire. We all began walking towards the tree at the top instinctively before we came across one of the most beautiful sights that my eyes have ever had the pleasure of viewing. We were standing on top of an active 60 foot dune that plunged acutely right down into the blue-green surf of the ocean. We played like little kids, running down the steep, loose sand as fast as possible and diving straight into the waves. I started a barrel rolling competition that toyed with the vulnerability of our bodies, as I was almost certain someone was going to walk away with at least a sprain. The sun was getting lower, but we were getting higher. We were free spirits all engulfed in the sensation of being alive and completely enamored with the beauty of the world. Our drivers soon hastily took us back from where we had came, chasing the sun as it lowered it’s position in the sky after gifting us with a memorable experience. We made it to the westernmost point on that spit of land just in time to wave goodbye to the day’s last rays.
When the morning came, most of our group was retreating back to Cabo, but Ofer, Merly, Elissa, and I had decided that we wanted to stay a few extra days to get a real feel for this unique part of the world. The family asked us if we wanted to go check out the salt flats on a across the channel. We jumped on the occasion, and were dropped off on a beach without another soul in sight. Our captains told us to walk south to find the flats. Once part of the shallow sea, the flats were just like you would image. Endlessly level, with a tiny bit of white salt crust that almost looked like snow. I damn near lost my sandal trying to snap a picture because my foot sunk into a thick, tar-like organic muck. We crossed over a ridge to get a better view of the flat to find a bizarre landscape that could have been passed off as martian. Clouds raced over our heads casting fast paced shadows over the spires of rock that stuck out from the earth with a blueish green backdrop of the sea in the distance. A large, white rock all grabbed our attention and we made our way over to it’s massive presence. The white part of the rock wound up being thousands of shells that sea birds gathered and feasted upon in one spot for some natural reason that I couldn’t figure out.
In the short time that I got to know Ofer it was easy to tell that he a natural born teacher. In fact, he taught Spanish back home in Israel on the side. Communication just came out natural for him. One afternoon we started playing with our cameras with the little girls that hung around the hostel. Ofer showed one of the girls how a digital camera works, and pretty soon they were creating images for the first time ever. It was amazing to watch photography act as an interactive platform between souls from very different walks of life. It reminded me of why I love taking images, and how similar we all when you boil it down.
The next morning we were dropped off at an inlet at 5:30 AM and got to experience the Wayuu way of life. Families bike and walk every morning to the cove to make their living off the sea. They fashioned highly effective fishing nets from nylon and tree branches, and would walk them as far out into the surf as possible, and then pull fish back onto the shore. A large mound of natural currency formed at the center of the stretched netting. Hundreds of floppy, slippery vertebrates and shellfish were picked through, leaving all the undesirable bounty behind for the wide-eyed pelicans and sea birds to feast on. It felt like I was living within the pages of a national geographic magazine. The scene showcased simplicity in it’s purest form; families working together to gather their nourishment from the ocean, an ocean that feeds their bodies and souls. They didn’t mind at all that we were staring enthusiastically and wide eyed at their way of life, watching them gleefully pick out enormous living shrimp and leave the stingrays for the birds to dine on. It was a scene that is burned forever into my mind, and I don’t mind the sting at all.
The Wayuu people have long ago discovered groundwater sources in their desert environment. A low spot in the thorny landscape revealed trees that were lacking virtually everywhere else. Large, concrete wells were fashioned with locking metal tops so that others aren’t tempted to draw from their only freshwater source. The people created homes made from mud-bricks wherever they saw fit, and it was nearly impossible to tell why some chose their plots in the most random locations. Some were perched on top of cliffs, looking over the land from their vantage point and into the hot, dry air over the sea. I witnessed my first real sandstorm in Punta Gallinas. Huge, opaque sheets of blonde sediment swirled in slow motion in the distance. Goats munched on parched plants atop the large, blocky headlands while we processed all the beauty.
We relocated the other hostel run by a guy named Chander, who set up an organized compound of sorts. The weird thing was there weren’t any other travelers around. We were the only ones there to enjoy hammocks, delicious food, and lots of good stories and laughter. As far away as this population is separated from the world they still love themselves some soccer. When a huge game between Colombia and Bolivia was on, a crowd of 15 grew at Chander’s house, presumably because he had satellite TV and a 24-hour generator. When space ran out in his modest dining room people spilled outside, grabbing whatever real estate the small window had to offer. After the game, Ofer organized a soccer match in the lifeless basketball court as the sun went down. Smiles, soccer, and memories ran deep into that night. There is a natural energy that kids latch onto with an almost impossibly effortless ease, and it definitely rubbed off on us. We played until we could barely see the ball anymore, loving every minute of being part of a game with strangers.
Life up in Punta Gallinas is simple. The ocean breathes life into the salty, dry air. At dawn, fathers take their kids out into the warm, choppy waters and pull massive fish from homemade nets. On the morning we left we sat perched on the cliffs at 6AM, while the sun was dissolving the thunderclouds that swept in the night before, watching the boats come back in with their bounties. The fish were almost bigger than the 4 year olds proudly carrying them back to their homes. I took in the entire vista around us as much as possible before our ride back to the mainland pulled in. We loaded the boat, and began our choppy ride back towards Cabo, and then onward to Uribia. The trip was exhausting, eye opening, and lasting. This was Class A traveling, through and through. I don’t know if we will ever get back to this tip of the continent again, but I’m sure glad that we were in that corner of the world.
Those that have been following this blog will notice that I am not in Colombia any more. In fact, I’m in a whole different ball game now. The Palm trees have vanished. Fresh tropical fruit used to literally be only a few steps away in nearly every imaginable situation. I can still see them hanging from tree branches and trunks, being pushed in a cart down the street, and being hocked by little old ladies carrying baskets brimming with natural treats. You could also always bank on the fact that a mercado was always within a 5 minute walking radius in nearly all organized communities. Now they are all memories, but they are amazing ones at that. No more days of complete and total freedom, no more open schedule, and no more Spanish interchanges with some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Actually, the last part isn’t true; I’ve been getting chatty with the baristas and with new clientele. Bueno.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel comfortable sharing the details of what cut the trip short, but I can tell you it was life changing. Family emergencies tend to have a lasting effect on us that just can’t be brushed aside. They often penetrate our tough skins and rattling our bones to their very core. This couldn’t have been more true for me this past winter. I’m sure many others have had been gifted equally unbelievable situations that didn’t have magic answer that will fix it all. For a whole laundry list of reasons, we now have found ourselves back in the ‘murrica starting our new adventures in an old haunt of ours: Boston, Massachusetts. We meet again.
Winter is currently fighting against it’s inevitable loss in the battle of time. This past week alone the weather has been sending baffling messages in the forms of baby blue skies, torrential down pours, and 12-inch thick blankets of New England fluffy snow. The end of winter in Massachusetts always laughs in your face before collapsing on it’s last arctic invasion. We can get graced with deliciously deceptive warm sunny afternoons and later play rocks paper scissors for garbage duty because of the sub-zero like temperatures at night. Spring hasn’t quite shown up yet, but the sun’s rays have started to feel intensely warm again. That is a much appreciated step in the right direction, in my opinion. I honestly can’t wait for these cold snaps to be run away for 8 months.
The newest chapter of my life is being written at lightening fast speeds. I’ve started a new job in a completely different profession. Things I like so far seem to involve exploring new neighborhoods, meeting new people, and taking lots of pictures. I’m capturing bits and clips of this experience and can use them like reference points to call upon. It helps me to remember every other connected memory because I can piece back the experience in a more detailed way. It has been fun coming back to a place I used to call home with a completely different view of it. When you live somewhere for long amounts of time the little details can get blurred because you are constantly surrounded by familiar things. Details can grab your attention less because they are always there. I noticed from the first time I walked back into town how different everything was. It’s a completely fresh slate for a new beginning with my city. And I’m glad to be back. These are some images from my “neck of the woods”, caught on my phone. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did living them. I also forgot to mention that I will keep the travel posts going until the end of our trip, in chronological order of course.
instagram = @drwanderlust
I’ve come to realize that the status quo for the weekly photo challenge always inspires creative thought. Lately I’ve been more busy than writing could possibly tolerate, and currently get granted only small bits and pieces of my days to play with words instead of the wide-open schedule that travel used to bequeath. The principles of nostalgia compliment the quintessential being of forward, in my humble opinion, and this portrait embodies that relationship. My semi-permanent hiatus from travel (aka: re-entry to the United States) was taking place, and I was in limbo between beds, couches, and futons of friends and family. I took this image amidst the shuffle between Upstate New York, Boston, and Newport that has been my reality for the past three months. This self portrait was shot in Newport, Rhode Island earlier this month at high tide on a choppy winter’s day. I chose to take this in the same exact location of a prior self portrait, which also was the former top banner for this blog. That silhouette was shot almost 2 years ago, when the idea of traveling around the world was just a seed planted in my mind. I had rediscovered the thrill of anticipation that wanderlust procured. I had no idea what I was in for. The experiences took me to places I could have never possibly predicted. My feet walked through rainforests, up volcanoes, down dusty cobblestone streets, to high alpine lakes, and through Caribbean desert beach sand. My legs carried me through an endless series of hikes into unknown territories, countless cavernous Latin American mercados, long lived moments of searching for a decent bed to sleep on, and around every corner on every street. I made friends with souls I could have never possibly met form the confines of my comfort zone at home, which can kind of feel like an un-comfort zone when you get back from a long, meaningful trip. My mind soaked in every moment of travel with an almost addictive attention to details. Hence, my habit of writing way too much continues to press on. My curious mind wanted to obtain the full picture of every place we came across, and it seems to have got what it wanted.
Wanderlust took me to places I would have never known without it’s friendship. In this new portrait, I’m facing the world in an old familiar place. I’m a different person now. I’m older, gazing forward, enjoying the virtues of the view ahead while at the same time reflecting on the past. This is a common practice in my mind. It is also a gift that I learned I can give myself to help relive the experience while I write about places I used to know in person. Forward is indeed uncertain, but it is one of the best ways we can grow.
Halfway up the Sierra Nevada’s hearty base in northern Colombia, the tiny gathering of Minca lies within a zone of flora and fauna that can only be described as a mash up between mountainous and tropical bliss. Only 45 minutes from the daily hustle of urban life in Santa Marta exists this tiny gathering of Colombians who chose the humming birds, cool climate, and quiet hills over the scorching concrete, modern life, and cargo ships. Getting there was not so blissful. Freshly tanned from our low-key beach tenure, we found ourselves once again waiting on Calle 11 and Carrera 11 for our collectivo to fill up with 4 riders before take off (a common prerequisite). We killed the wait time happily chatting with our driver on a listing street bench right next to his beat up Chevrolet. The dust from the ground lifted as passers by shuffled through the thick humid air of the city. Music blasting from a nearby TV gave the conversation a calm, relaxed pace that didn’t have to waste time worrying about the uncomfortable gaps of silence when our conversational Spanish ran out. We seemed to have enough people to leave but we had to wait for the delivery of goods purchased by a lady riding up with us. But it didn’t matter. We were having a blast chatting with our driver in Spanish, teaching him some English, and giving out high fives to the fresh limeade guy who, in my humble opinion, defined Colombian spirit and kindness. A cart eventually pulled up with huge sacks of rice, oil, and a Television, which we quickly determined could not fit in the trunk or on the roof.
So there we were, driving hap hazardously through the crumbly back roads of Santa Marta once again. There were 3 of us in the back of a an old Chevrolet with an oversize box television set bouncing off our knees. The lady who bought it had to have it on her lap the entire bumpy ride while Elissa did her best to not let it crush her legs. We went up the only road that cut the way to our destination through the zig zagged valleys of old, broken asphalt roads that had long ago been damaged by floods and rain. Minca came out of nowhere, and instantly took our minds off the efforts given to get there.
A pristine river carried water from the mountain valleys above from pure rain, snow, and glaciers straight through the center of town. This natural gauge in the land was stitched up by a large steel railroad bridge, connecting the two halves of the village. Our rusty old car dropped us off at the taxi stand, which happened to be next to one of the few places in town that made deep fried potato and chicken balls on the street. This is known in my world as finding gold. There is nothing that I love more than street food. A cozy church was just beyond eyesight where our rough instructions told us was the beginning of the path to our new home.
We were on the hunt for Casa Loma, which translates to “Hill House”. After a grueling 10 minute climb with all of our gear through switchbacks, front yards, and school houses we were panting, sweating, and dying at Casa Loma. The owner, Jay, greeted us with a hearty hello and offered us a mud and brick hut in the back side of the hostel on the cheap. Hammocks were hanging from the wooden beams in the open air communal hang out area along with tables, chairs, books, and an awesome array of music chiming away in the background. The scene was what every traveler looks for in a place, in my humble opinion. From the top of the hill, the view was absolutely stunning. We were informed that ethereal sunsets were the norm up here, and that thunderstorms often illuminated the sky. From our nest Santa Marta lay still in the distance, coming to life at night when the lights came on.
As promised, we were gifted an amazing sunset the first night we stayed. I remember we were roaming around enjoying the almost unnaturally quiet village when it began to happen. Quickly, we stormed up the hill before the show was over. Travelers already enjoying the natural postcard that was beaming deep pink, orange, and red light laughed at our panting bodies as we crossed the finish line. The sight was unreal, and worth every breath used to transport us there. A lightening storm followed suit, perfecting the night and carrying our new found love affair with Colombia to soaring new heights.
The town was inhabited by Colombian families who clearly knew what true, natural beauty was. There was also a small expat scene of those who held the same sentiments. It seemed like Minca was getting its initial dosage of steady tourism in small numbers. This was exhibited by the adventure activities advertized in the small booth at the town’s entrance. There were also several places to eat that were definitely not traditional Colombian enterprises, such as an organic coffee house, a pizza joint, and Chinese food eateries. Roads leading into and out of town brought you through forests of massive, leafy trees and bamboo clusters roughly 25 meters high. There were small, family run coffee farms nearby and plenty of watering holes to get wet in.
It seemed as if the heat that Santa Marta is famous for had tailed our brown Chevy through the winding hills and up to Minca. The sun was almost just as unbearable in town as it was beach side a few days prior. Contact with fresh, running water was the only answer to save us from its intense fortitude. Following some rudimentary instructions to a local watering hole brought us to one of the more popular local restaurants located right along the river. The meandering road ended at a stream that opened up into a full out Colombian birthday bash. Plastic tables and chairs were half submerged in the deliciously crisp mountain water. Music was pumping from the speakers at levels that could only be described as Latin American. Everybody was in good spirits. Splash fights, upstream swimming races, and musical chairs were all brushed onto the canvas of our afternoon in deeply saturated hues of contentment. It was enjoying seeing grown men acting like kids, especially since maturity seems move at lightening fast paces in the developing world. The heat was officially confronted, and I do believe it lost the battle.
The owner of Casa Loma informed us that he had stake in another hostel in the area called Los Pinos (the pines). To get there, ambitious travelers either had to hike four hours up a road up the mountain or pay to have someone drop you off near the entrance. There were also an assortment of waterfalls, organic coffee farms, and the notion of breathtaking views along the way. We chose to hike.
Just outside of town massive bamboo clusters shot out of the ground destined for the sky. They were like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They were like massive green fingers launching out of the ground, leaving a trail of organic water pipes behind. Later, we came across an old man drinking aguadiente (a Colombian liquor) with a friend in his shack by the side of the road. He kindly offered us some, and then asked all the usual questions. Afterwards, his friend gave us a lift in his pick up truck to the walkway entrance of a swimming hole we sought out. We thanked him and parted ways, meandering down a windy isolated path. After crossing a makeshift bridge, the trees opened up to tumbling falls that blanketed large, round monoliths of solid earth. The visual was breathtaking, as was the temperature of the water!
After leaving the falls, it began to rain. I had high hopes that this was just an afternoon shower that normally disappears into a subtle, sunny afternoon, but this was not the case. The rain didn’t stop for the next 5 hours. We trudged uphill, soaking in our clothes, wondering why on earth we decided this was a good idea. Our boots began having the dreaded “sponge” effect, making cringe-worthy, but laudable, squishy noises with each and every step. The road would occasionally turn from asphalt into mud, which we were told was indicative of close proximity of the turn off we were now desperately looking for. Many, many times the mud would evolve back into asphalt, killing all hopes our saturated bodies had. Time slowed down to a stop. We walked for what seemed like days, passing the occasional house that was planted in the absolute middle of nowhere. Clouds were soaring between the valleys; sometimes opening up for a taste of the view we were missing. Eventually we met a farmer walking down the mud road, who confirmed that we were close. The intersection between two dirt roads appeared right next to the only store that supplied the region. Police motorcycles were parked under the roof of the store while their owners sat at tables, large guns draped across their chests, drinking beers with their eyes glued to the glowing box hanging from the wall. We had to inquire about the entrance to the roadway we were looking for because we were losing light and couldn’t afford a mistake.
Onward we marched up the muddiest, least kept road encountered to date. It appeared that even a 4-wheel drive vehicle could not have handled the road we needed to traverse. Surface runoff, probably in the form of rain torrents washed away portions of the steep, unpredictable terrain leaving large gouges throughout. It was noticeably darker now, and we were grumpy to say the least. Then, like magic, the rain just stopped. Next the clouds diminished. We then found ourselves dumbfounded by the raw beauty that sat stoically in front of us. Green, lush mountaintops glistened below our muddied feet. Huge, leafy plants held drops of water on their surface and became illuminated as the clouds started to thin out. A short distance later we came across three gigantic pine trees in front of an old guerrilla post, aka Los Pinos Hostel. We damn near kissed the ground.
At first glance, the property looked as if nobody was home. A quick scan to soak in the utter beauty was in order. Wooden bench swings were connected to trees by rope and looked as if they were on the edge of the world. They were kept in good company by outdoor wooden tables constructed from chunky tree trunks. Fruit trees were stationed in the front lawn and clean, fresh air was in every breath. We heard the faint sound of music coming from the hostel and ventured over. We shouted a bunch of “Holas” until we finally heard a rustle. Enter Ed. Ed, an adventurous soul from England, occupied and ran the hostel that was literally the definition of “isolation”. He claimed that you could see the tops of some of the highest points in Colombia in the Cerro Kennedy range around sunrise, and we had no reason to doubt him. He quickly invited us in to his “work in progress” adventure hostel and gave us some warm, dry blankets. We instantly began trading life stories, adventures, hopes, and dreams with this high-spirited chap. Without notice, the thickest clouds and fog I have ever seen swept through, eliminating visibility and canceling our plans of trying to get back to Minca that night. Ed gave his friend Jay a ring and let him know that we were stuck up in the wild for the night.
Ed took care of our tired bodies by whipping up some delicious vegetable soup dinners while we took in an insanely beautiful lightening storm. Brief electric surges illuminated clouds in all directions, revealing every detail of our faces for small moments in time. After dinner, we pretty much had a triple date night watching laptop movies on the couch until we all couldn’t keep our eyes open. True to Ed’s promise, at 5am we saw the majestic snow capped peaks of the mountains in the early morning sunlight. Breakfast consisted of guava pancakes, Colombian coffee, and a hammock-induced nap. We watched the world unfold below us from our vantage point before making the trek back down. Ed gave us some rudimentary instructions on how to make it back and we started off towards Minca.
The walk back brought us through hillside coffee farms, the occasional house, and forests of bamboo shoots all along a curvy, jungle road dripping with citrus trees. It was a mountain bikers dream route; hairpin turns, cliff side sandy trails, and stunning views of the valleys from top to bottom. When we eventually leveled out to the valley floor, trees towered over us in all directions. It had the feeling of being a ladybug walking through a late season hay field. We were walking alongside a gorgeous mountain creek, and the soft sound of moving water followed us all the way home. When we arrived back at the hostel, we told Jay of our adventures and mishaps in some of the most breathtaking settings we’ve ever seen. After hearing about what kind of things we enjoyed, Jay convinced us that we needed to go check out Punta Gallinas, which is the northern most point in South America. We had been tossing the idea around in our heads but dismissed it because of the pain of getting there and the cost associated with it… until we had that conversation with Jay. We left Minca the following morning and began trying to assemble the pieces of how to put the transportation puzzle together.
For this week’s Photo Challenge of Unique, I chose to revisit an unrivaled destination that took my breath away. Colombia will most definitely become known for the treasures that she keeps tucked far away from the popular tourist destinations. One of these gems is El Cocuy National Park. It is approximately 10 hours away from the nearest transportation hub and is a hefty commitment for travelers to make. The pure isolation of this park is part of the reason it has been under the radar for so long. Historically it was used by the Guerrillas for their operations due to it’s pure ruggedness and natural barriers it kept with the outside world. The park itself has beautiful, glacier capped peaks with a wide assortment of pristine glacial lagoons that literally make you appreciate nature like never before. At altitudes ranging from 12,000 – 17,000 feet it will certainly take your breath away. At these altitudes unique plants sprout out of the ground in some of the valleys found in the mountains. One specific area was covered with thousands of these odd, martian looking plants called Frailejones. The local farmers who live within the park’s limits use them as building materials for their homes and buildings. Set against the drop dead gorgeous backdrop of the mountains shrouded with clouds it was one of the most unique places I’ve ever been to. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did!
Trekkers that find themselves in the Santa Marta and Taganga area of Colombia will almost always end up visiting the famed and gorgeous Tayrona Park. Located just 30 kilometers north of Santa Marta, this protected national park is comprised of miles upon miles of beaches with remarkable geologic features jutting out into the ocean, forests teeming with exotic wildlife ranging from jaguars to birds and monkeys, and in places is still inhabited by indigenous Koguis, who are direct descendents from the Tayrona Tribes that used to inundate the land. From the few pictures that we found of the park we knew without a doubt we had to see it for ourselves. The only hiccup was the 36,500 CUP entrance fee for foreign visitors, or roughly 40 bucks for the both of us. We had also heard tales of how pricey food and accommodations might be, and we foreshadowed how such added costs could sum up quickly. We had heard about an alternative while in Cartagena that allowed you to visit the area without having to pay the rather large (for us) entrance fee, but still enjoy some of the beauty that the pristine coastline had to offer. We took a taxi to the corner of Calle 11 and Carrera 11 in Santa Marta and grabbed a bus destined for Costeno Beach.
We were dropped off roadside at a dusty driveway that disappeared beyond a banana farm and into the forest towards the water. I remember how hot and sunny it was that day, mainly because I was carrying the big backpack with our combined belongings. We walked through the forest and followed the two wheel tracks until we reached a surreal, palm tree haven by the water. Huge, empty estate houses appeared to be slowly decaying in the salty breeze and filtered shade of the trees. The thick, humid air ensured total saturation of my clothes. I dreamt that the entrance of the surf camp would suddenly appear and save us from the heat. It felt like miles of palm tree forests had past before we finally found the entrance sign to the camp.
Costeno Beach Surf Camp was started by a couple of guys from Canada who fell in love with Colombia while chasing her waves years ago. It is comprised of several structures built from bamboo and other wood and topped off with palm tree branches. This is a classic and ubiquitous building style throughout Latin America where these basic materials are readily available. There are several outdoor bathrooms including the typical Colombian “exposed urinal”, which is a urinal without any sort of door for privacy. I personally really dig them. Water appeared to be collected in rain tanks and also pumped from the ground to provide working showers and facilitate cooking. Private huts with mattresses were located behind the kitchen/reception building along with a roofed hammock shack for beach bums like us. We reserved hammocks for 12,000 CUP a night and it would be the first time on our trip that we were going to sleep hanging above the ground. Coconuts fell from the sky nightly with a muffled “thud” that was audible from across the camp, and those that desired fresh water from them could take a swing with the machete provided near the campers’ kitchen. Dinner was served at 7PM every night in a big, family style fashion complete with a cowbell announcing it’s arrival.
This camp was designed and set up for surfers and catered to them as such. The young, shirtless proprietors offered daily lessons and board rentals for those that wanted to rip some rope in the precariously inviting currents. The power of the waves was visible in the daily chaos it left on the beach. Huge trees, obliterated branches, and pulverized coconuts could be seen for miles in each direction. They doled out lots of warnings to weak swimmers about the dangers of the waves here, and several Colombians told us before setting off to stay out of the water. This, of course, always makes me want to go in even more. The waves were small to medium sized (I’m not surfer, just observing) when we were there, and I found out from one of the guys running the camp that they have some good swells in different parts of the year. Swimming proved to be an enduring workout to say the least. The current swept you northwesterly down the beach no matter how hard you tried to fight the currents. Waves toppled over you and slammed you into the coarse grained sandy shelf if you didn’t pay attention. It had the feeling of the agitation cycle in a large commercial grade washing machine. I remember paddling my ass off, catching breaths of fresh air while viewing the definition of relaxation on the shore only 20 meters away. Girls and guys laying in the sun, reading books, swilling cervezas while I clung on to the delicate threads of life. For some strange reason, I enjoyed this game and it became my morning, noon, and nightly routine.
Bonfires were an evening affair at the camp. Hammocks surrounded the fire pit that was fed through the efforts of those that wanted to watch things burn. Sand flies were rampant by the pit, and were visibly torturing anyone who forgot to protect their lower extremities accordingly. When we arrived at the camp I remember seeing a young lad from England’s back that appeared to have a case of the chicken pox from the devilish beings. We chose to lather ourselves in a concoction of baby oil infused with a soap that naturally repels mosquitoes and other things that love to bite.
This part of the Colombia coastline has a very unique feature that adds yet another appeal to it’s already insanely ubiquitous beauty; this is the closest place on the earth where snow capped peaks live next to the ocean. On most mornings before 9 AM it is possible to walk along the beach and see the peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain ranges through palm tree leaves. Surfers there claimed it was one of the most enchanting surfing experiences looking at the gorgeous natural backdrop while riding waves. One morning we took a long walk easterly down the beach in total isolation from any living soul until we found that gorgeous scene I described above.
Since the camp was located just east of the boundaries of Tayrona Park, we decided to wander until we found its outskirts one morning. We took off our sandals and walked in the loose sand for miles. Along the way we came across a small river channel occupied by Colombians swimming and playing in the still, cool waters. The backdrop was thickly forested land that rose up into mountains. On the other side of the sand barrier the churn of the ocean was putting out some serious intimidation vibes, pounding the shore in a thunderous fashion. A small fishing village appeared and gave us a taste of real life on the shore. Boats filled with nets sat perched at the top of the sandy shelf while shacks sat under the cover of palm trees. Fish that were not part of the daily trade were left in a pile for the carnivorous birds to pick apart. After the village there was nothing but the sound of the waves and the winds for what seemed like forever. Once in a while a small resort was encountered. We walked into one to use its outdoor showers and wound up playing in it’s inviting freshwater pools for a while. But we pressed on. The loose sand was beginning to take its toll on our legs, but the headlands that separated the land from the park appeared to be a reachable goal. Houses became sparser and eventually disappeared. The smooth rock reaching out of the land and towards the sea stood in front of us and beckoned us to go in.
We had to wait until the right moment to make a dash around the receding waves that would no doubt get us completely engulfed in salt water. Once we walked around the physical barrier the beach opened up into a wide bay of sorts. This was no doubt part of the park. It took a little over 2 hours of constant walking to find this gorgeously hidden cove, but it was worth every effort. A fisherman and his son could be seen in the near distance, throwing out a hand line into the surf. Our tired bodies retired on the sand while my eyes and mind took everything in. The universe felt in alignment and we were completely in tune with the fruits that it offered. Travel at its simplest, and it’s best.
The day before we left I got to play with the mini ramp. One thing that had been missing from the entirety of the trip was my companion of 15 years; my skateboard. One of the surfers let me use his board and I got to skateboard in the middle of a tropical jungle, which is something that I never could have imagined I’d be doing. Costeno Beach surf camp could just be another ordinary place to surf, relax, and spend some of your life. Or it could be another magical stop on your journey that takes a place in your mind forever. That is completely up to you. But I would say it’s definitely worth a visit.
To get there from Santa Marta, take the bus to Tayrona Park at the corner of Calle 11 and Carerra 11. Tell the bus driver you want to get to Costeno Beach, which is about 15 minutes or so past the entrance. From there you can walk down the path towards the beach for about 30-45 minutes, following the path to the right when you get within sight of the water. You can’t miss the camp on the left hand side. Enjoy it!