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  • Writer's pictureGrace Rector

Escaping the Cold in Colombia

As I stepped down from the stairs coming out of the plane, the humidity smacked me in the face and laughed at the wool coat and scarf I was wearing. Feeling the tropical air made me smile and I was excited for the weekend in Colombia. We started in Cartagena at el viajero hostel. The hostel had a beautiful walkway covered with hundreds of colorful umbrellas. My two friends and I entered our dorm and flung ourselves on the bed for a moment before unpacking.

For our first night we decided to walk around the streets in search of food. We found music, people dancing, colorful buildings with stunning architecture and delicious food. We stopped at a restaurant in a plaza near our hostel and ordered different types of fish with plantains. It was amazing! The fish was fresh and the fried batter gave an extra crunch. Throughout dinner various entertainers came to perform from a guitar player to a belly dancer, to a Michael Jackson impersonator to an old man shaking his big belly to shakira songs. We wandered the streets some more, taking in the huge doors and dimly lit streets and moss growing on all the walls. It had been a long day of traveling from Chile so we went home and slept early.

We were told it was a strange weekend to be in Colombia. The presidential elections were on Sunday and so the city forbid the purchase of any and all alcohol after 6PM. We were craving margaritas but happily sipped in fruity lemonades instead.

I looked into the election the next day to read more about the candidates. One candidate, Hernandez, is a business type that is well known for bringing economic prosperity but that is conservative in most affairs including women’s place in society as child bearers alone. The other candidate, Petro, is a leftist that was once in a rebel guerilla militia that advocated for human rights and the end to corruption. Both vice presidential candidates are black women and thus, either way the next VP would be the first ever black Colombian female to be VP.

After reading about the election from my hostel bunk bed, we ate breakfast and headed out for a walk. We walked 3 miles around the walled city and tried to appreciate everything we saw. We found a beach with lots of Colombians swimming, and so we decided to join them. A little boy became curious and started interrogating the three of us about where we were from. We floated in the waves under the cloudy sky. We gobbled down some Colombian snacks while lying in the sand then began our trek back to the hostel.

At 4:00 we went to the reception to join a food tour provided by the hostel. I love going on hostel tours and participating in their events because I always meet interesting people! One girl from our dorm room from the Netherlands joined us along with guys from the US, Netherlands, England, and Germany. To start, we walked to a nearby stand to try out arepas with egg and meat. They were fried pockets of goodness, and with a little bit of spicy sauce on top, they tasted incredible. Everyone had different reactions but everyone seemed satisfied.

Next stop was a corner store near the hostel called Pan de Bono and holy cow, it was the BEST stop. The humid and hot air stuck to my skin and sweat glistened on my face. I wanted something refreshing, and at this stop the guide suggested we try cold Milo which is essentially slushy chocolate milk. It was perfect!! The cold drink against my hot lips made me feel like a new person. But that was not it! We also got a pan de bono which was essentially pan de queso as one would find in Brazil but this one was spongy and warm and fluffy! We sat on a curb on the street moaning in harmony about how delicious it was. Next we walked to a candy shop at the exit of the walled city. We tried a coconut treat but it was TOO sweet. The flavor was overwhelming and I could only have a bite before it was sweetness overload. After the brief sweet attack we made our way to a cafe for coffee. I don’t like coffee, however Colombian coffee is deciduous. I slurped up my iced cappuccino quickly and happily. We sat around chatting among the various travelers.

For one of the first times in my life I felt old. There were others there ages 18 and 19 and 23 feels like miles away. I gravitated towards travelers from the Netherlands and Germany to chat with. We then made our way to the last stop already full from the previous snacks. The guide stopped at a food cart on the street and encouraged us to try salchipapa picada which is basically a heart attack on a plate: French fries, chicken, beef, sauce, grilled onions, tomatoes, and more pilled on top of each other. I split mine with another person in the group because I have barely any room left in my stomach.

Back at the hostel 4 hours after the food tour began, my friends and I laid around soaking up the AC and resting. We wanted to go out exploring, however it was election night in Colombia and they were not selling alcohol anywhere nor were any clubs open. So my new friends and I went on an adventure to find a beer. We roamed the streets at 9PM and searched high and low. Eventually we decided to try asking the men selling sodas on the corners if they had any beer. One man we asked looked at me and raised his eyebrows and whispered something under his breath. I followed his gaze and he was looking at the military officer walking behind me with a gun. He held his gaze until the officer turned the corner, then he looked back at me and said, “cuantas cervezas quieres?” He tried selling them for twice the price because they were in high demand but we kept looking. Eventually we met a man who was selling some beers at a normal price, so we bought a few and wandered back to the hostel. My new friends from Germany and the Netherlands stayed up with me chatting about life, crazy travel stories, and other things until 1AM, at which point I could barely keep my eyes open. I dragged my feet to bed in the hopes of another great day.

The following day was incredible and unexpected. My friends Christy and Hyejee planned a trip to Tayrona Park located near Santa Marta, or 5 hours from Cartagena. We arrived in Santa Marta in the afternoon and instead of going straight to our hostel, Christy asked a taxi driver to take us to Minca. Minca is a place I’d never heard of before going to Colombia but Christy swore that everyone kept telling us that we HAD to go. I trusted her and jumped into this taxi. It just so happened that the taxi driver she found was an expert about Minca. He told us all the things we needed to do, and he offered us a motorcycle tour. We couldn’t help but say yes. The taxi made its way up the hill until all of a sudden the car stopped and the driver jumped out and lifted the hood. I couldn’t help but think of the worst case scenario. Hyejee and Christy and I waited anxiously in the back while he assured us everything was fine. He said the car had simply overheated.

Instead of waiting for long in the car, he called his motorcycle friends to come pick us up. We saw three motorcycles speed down the road and we wondered if it was safe. But we’d come this far and we wanted the whole experience.

I jumped on the back of a motorcycle with a kid named Dylan who seemed young to be driving a motorcycle, but I had no other option. The ride began normally along a paved road. But then the pavement turned to dirt and the dirt turned to mud - not just mud but thick mud that rose 1 foot above the ground. Watching Dylan expertly navigate the various terrains and ride through deep trenches of mud I felt admiration and also fear when I felt the motorcycle leaning too far to the side.

I held onto the motorcycle so tightly that my fingers started going numb. We screamed in fits of joy and fear as the motorcyclists weaves through the jungle around tight corners and down steep hills. Then after almost an hour, they came to a stop and told us “ya hemos llegado al restaurante.” We’d spent the whole day traveling so we were starving.

We climbed the stairs to the restaurant and were shocked with what we saw. A 360 view of the rainforest canopy awaited us at this hostel. We were so high up we were standing in the clouds. There were swinging beds hanging over the rainforest and giant nets for you to lay on while looking down and out over all the stunning nature. We were so captured by the beauty that the three of us looked at each other in unison with a face that said “we’ve arrived in heaven.”

I ran to the net and laid down happily looking out at the breathtaking view. There was a mix of clouds and mist lingering above the towering trees. Colorful birds flew above us on their journey to their homes. I could barely accept that it was real life. It looked like a compelling green screen.

We went for a swim in their rooftop infinity pool still savoring the most magnificent view we had seen so far on the trip. But our time was limited.

The sun began turning red as it started its descent. The motorcycles awaited us outside and we began the treacherous descent down the mountain. I could no longer just hold the motorcycle to keep myself from falling off. They told us to hold the drivers so we wouldn’t fall, so I clutched my motorcycle driver with a tight grip. The sun slowly disappeared until we were riding down the mountain in the dark only led by the headlights on the motorcycles.

The taxi driver awaited us at the bottom and took us to our hostel for the night. However upon our arrival at the hostel it was POURING rain. The rain felt like a high pressure shower and there was no use running because either way you would be soaked. We entered the entrance of the hostel and saw no one. We wandered in the directions of signs in the pitch black. Christy led the other two of us down a long road but I felt the ground move. Rather I felt the ground sway.

Christy yelled, “it’s a bridge!!”

We couldn’t see anything in the dark or the rain, but we figured we were on a long swinging bridge above some body of water. I was exhilarated and terrified. We ran the rest of the way up stone steps to lights and music. We finally reached reception where we could dry off and rest before sleep for the night.

I woke up with an impulse to itch every inch of my body. I looked down and saw red spots all over my legs. Bug bites. dang it. Being in the jungle makes mosquito bites inevitable, but they are still annoying. We examined each other’s bug bites and packed up our bags to prepare for the biggest journey yet: hiking in Parque Tayrona.

Entering the park was a little stressful because we had to choose where we wanted to sleep, pay the entrance fee, book the shuttle to the first hiking path, and exchange money. But once we were in, we were happy. The three of us tied up our tennis shoes and trudged through the Forrest. The sound of birds calling one another filled the air. The smell of sat wafting off the ocean hit my nose. Each tree we passed bore another fruit we couldn’t identify. The path at the beginning was a wooden platform made for tourists to have a more pleasant walk. But then the wood disappeared and it was simply dirt then sand then mud. Very wet mud.

We saw some people without shoes on squishing through the deep mud. We felt tempted to do the same but instead kept jumping from rock to rock to coconut to fallen tree branch to avoid falling into the mud. Then we came across a river we had to cross, and there was no other option than to remove our shoes. Tennis shoes in hand, three of us waded across the river with smiles spread wide across our face. We didn’t bother put our shoes back on. Instead we carried our shoes and intentionally sought out deep mud puddles to slide through. We splashed around in the mud and gave up on keeping our clothes clean.

As the sweat poured down our face, all of a sudden, the ocean came into view. We saw sand and ran towards the ocean. We dropped our shoes and ran directly into the ocean pleased with the cold refreshing feeling of the water on our sweaty hot skin.

After swimming for a bit, we walked to an arepa stand and ordered a meat, a veggie, and a cheese arepa. A woman made the dough from scratch and pan fried them then loaded them up like a sandwich. We also ordered hierbabuena which is a Colombian mint lemonade that tastes like heaven.

We continued our journey feeling refreshed and with full bellies. We walked from la piscina 45 minutes to Cabo San Juan where we planned to spend the night. We jumped into the water again to wash off all the mud. The sun shone brighter and we floated around for three hours feeling so grateful to be there.

Then we carried our bags up a long rock path to the top where there was an open hut with 10 hammocks. We located our hammocks and dropped off our bags. Christy and I practiced various sleeping positions in the hammocks in anticipation of the night ahead.

We climbed back down the rock path as the sun began to set and went to the one restaurant in the area. The food was overpriced and lacking flavor but we were hungry. We headed back to the hammocks pretty early because we were afraid if the tide rose too much we wouldn’t be able to get back. I’m order to get to the pathway we had to cross a knee deep river. We feared that we’d have to swim back if we didn’t leave early. At 8PM we laid in our hammocks trying to get comfy which was hard as a stomach sleeper. Christy and I occasionally bumped into each other on our hammocks but we fell back asleep. At a certain point other travelers came back and woke us up. We heard them arrive, we saw the flashlights appear, and we heard the sound of rain pouring down which was probably the reason for them coming back.

Throughout the night I felt mosquitos biting me so I tried wrapping myself in the hammock. I also tried different positions on my back and side. Then at around 4:45AM the sun came up and I got up with it. I wandered to the balcony of our hut and gazed admiringly at the sunrise and the ocean crashing against the rocks. Soon after Christy arose and we sleepily engaged in a conversation. Soon we realized neither of us had slept much consecutively so we headed down to the beach with our things and slept face down in all of our clothing for 3 hours!! I can’t imagine what that must have looked like to tourists coming early to the beach.

We had a long trek back and we were tired and hot. Nearby a horse neighed and we looked at each other in agreement. Let’s take the horses!! We rode the horses to piscina and took a couple hours to swim and explore. The clear water had flecks of gold in it and the waves gently carried us around. A local let me borrow his goggles so I could look at the fish below the water and it was breathtaking. The fish I saw were as big as my forearm and shone a stunning bright blue. There were also smaller striped yellow fish. In all the commotion of looking at fish I didn’t notice that there was a dog swimming in the ocean next to me. A big black lab doggy paddled confidently next to me and climbed up a nearby rock. I’ve never seen a dog swim so far out in the water.

Sunkissed and content we headed back on horses. Christy got a different feisty horse that almost threw her off and I couldn’t stop laughing. My horse was named Casique and would randomly start trotting fast with no warning and I loved it! However my friends were not big fans and I couldn’t stop laughing. There’s something so exhilarating about almost falling off. The horses ran through the mud we had walked through barefoot. They also crossed rivers with us on their back. They climbed up steep rocks and I clutched the saddle hard.

We survived the ride although we carried our sore bottoms for another day or so. We exited the park smelling like wet clothes and covered in mud. We were in desperate need of some TLC or just a shower. Lucky for us, we had decided to splurge and get a nice hotel for our last night in Tayrona. If you ever go to Tayrona, you MUST stay at Quetzal Dorado Eco Lodge. Not only are their rooms spotless, but their rooftop pool is stunning, the food is delicious, and their view of the jungle is spectacular. We couldn’t have been happier. During the 24 hours we spent at the hotel, we ate delicious plátanos and fish, we played pool and darts, we swam in the pool, and even got amazing massages surrounded by nature. We couldn’t have asked for anything better truly.

Then it was our last day together in Cartagena and we had to say goodbye to Christy! To celebrate our last night together, HYEJEE and I went on a sunset cruise provided by our amazing hostel, Selina. They took us out on a boat with drinks and good company, then soon after the sun reflected vibrantly off of the water. We scrambled to take photos with the stunning skyline but struggled not to fall over on the boat. American oldies played on the speaker and we danced around the space.

The sun continued to set until the sky turned black. Then, the guide announced we were JUMPING! He told all of us to jump into the dark dark water and although I wanted to, I couldn’t help but feel afraid. I went to the edge of the boat, climbed over the metal rod, took my friends hand, and jumped into the water! I awaited cold water that threatened to pull me down, but instead I was greeted with warm salty water that basically cradled me. We all screamed in exhilaration and swam around the hot tub of an ocean taking in the beautiful view of the city from the water. I jumped in three more times desiring to feel the adrenaline in the fall from the boat to the water.

This night was the perfect way to deal in my Colombia experience and I know that it was as great at it was because of my amazing travel buddies.

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