I keep hearing about Palomino. It seems to be the destination on everyone´s lips at the moment. A beach paradise to get away from the crowds and party town of Taganga. When I was first in Santa Marta in 2011 I didn´t hear anything about it, but it is quickly earning a reputation amongst the backpackers and travel crowd as a must visit.
With a day off work and mi novio away, it was the perfect time to visit with mi amiga, a Spanish friend who also lives in Santa Marta. We decided we were both up for a little relaxation that wasn´t just lying on the beach, so we took up the option to go tubing on the Palomino River.
There´s really not much to tubing. You jump in the river with an inflated inner tube and float downstream. It´s gentle, calming and a complete de-stress; that is if you don´t get lost on your way to the river, almost lose your tube to the current, scrape your butt on rocks in the shallows or get toppled over backwards by an overhanging branch.
Our relaxing trip turned into somewhat of an adventure with plenty of laughs and excitement thrown in amongst the peace we were looking for.
We hired our pneumaticos, the tubes, from Eco Andes on the highway next to the ferreteria (hardware store) and got a lift to the normal starting point of Mamasanta. We were told of a second jumping off point that was a 30 minute walk from Mamasanta over a hill and to a small stream where we needed to turn right to get to the river. That sounded like a good plan to us as we would get to enjoy more of the river. We were asked if we needed a guide and we looked at each other with a “surely we can´t get lost floating downstream on a river” look and declined the offer.
With our pneumaticos slung over our left shoulder, to avoid puncturing them on spiny plants located on the right, we started the uphill climb on a narrow trail and were soon puffing and sweating.We conveniently took a breather at a place where you can see all the way out to the turquoise and azure of the Palomino shoreline.
As we descended the other side of the hill there were storybook views of a bend in the river with a wisp of smoke escaping the chimney of a thatched roof hut tucked in the elbow. That was where we were supposed to kick off on the pneumaticos.
We arrived at the stream and crossed it. I remembered we were told to cross the stream but completely forgot the next direction, turn right. So we followed the trail up another hill as that´s where two Argentinian guys – who somehow managed to zip past us after we left them back in Palomino to walk to the river whilst we had a head start with 15 minute jeep ride to Mamasanta – were heading.
About two-thirds of the way up the hill mi amiga looked at her watch and calculated that we should have been there by now. Conveniently a guide appeared coming over the hill and the Argentinians a few paces in front stopped to ask for directions. The guide said we´d missed the point which was were we planned to go, but that we could keep going and get to another launch point, we just had to turn right where a trickle of water crosses the trail and 20m later find the river.
Mi amiga urged me to press on. Her flip flops were not ideal trekking shoes and she felt the way down would be more treacherous than continuing on. The Argentinians ran off and we continued along the path, luckily finding the right trickle of water to lead us to the river after an hour solid of walking from Mamasanta.
We were excited to reach the river, put down our pnuematicos and get to the relaxing part but up ahead we saw an island in the middle and the white wavy water that identifies rapids on both sides. First up, we figured out the logistics, how to carry our few, but important, belongings, slathered on some sunscreen despite the cloudy sky and improvised my scarf/tie as a rope to keep us floating together down the river.
We decided on our plan of attack for the rapids, which was complete avoidance. We eased our way into the oh-so-difficult art of tube floating by making our way to the island where we got off and skirted around the right side of the rapids. Unfortunately these weren´t the only rapids, there were more hiding on the other side of the island. Being two big chickens afraid of these really weeny rapids, we continued the tough going to walk around the rapids. I say tough going because it is difficult to walk in water with rocky bottoms and currents that want to sweep your shoes off your feet.
We were almost all the way across the top of the rapid to a little sandbar where we could launch off when we saw a family of 6 and a guide floating down the river towards us. They had taken the left hand side of the rapids and were riding them. I looked at my friend in open-mouthed incredulity. The two thoughts that raced into my head were, why are we so afraid of teeny little rapids and now we have to share our peaceful journey with this family.
Once finally back on our tubes we got to take in the beautiful scenery of steep, green mountains, rocky river bottoms and clear water. It did truly feel like peace on water with small interruptions of excitement for the rapids (which we now chose to ride instead of avoid). That was until we got to a rock blocking our path at the beginning of a rapid. I don´t quite remember exactly why we jumped out of our tubes into the shallow water instead of riding around it, perhaps it was a fear of piercing a pneumatico on a sharp rock.
Now Tubing 101 tells you that the tube is essential to the activity, and Understanding Rivers 101 tells you that rivers flow with a current. So by way of logic if you let go of your tube, the river will take it away and there will be no tubing and a big problem of how the heck you will get out of there. When we got out of our tubes mi amiga thought she´d lost one of her belongings and was looking around to see how it could have fallen out of her knotted sarong. Meanwhile, the river stole her pneumatico and took off with it. When I, also distracted by mi amiga´s lost item, realised that the tube was escaping I thrust my tube at her, jumped over the rock in the river and bounded on the uneven rocky bottom after it, hurling myself at the black tube, eventually coming up spluttering holding the pneumatico up in one hand and my bundle of soaked possessions in the other. Mi amiga stood in the middle of the river doubled over in stitches of laughter, but I´d saved her ride.
After about half an hour we arrived at the point where we were originally aiming to leave from and continued the float, navigating more river hazards of rocks and snags but with smaller rapids. The mountains started getting smaller and the river wider. The current also picked up a bit and formed a nice path, albeit one that took us closer to the steep riverbanks, rock walls and overhanging vegetation. This is where I took a most wonderful backsplat into the water.
We came quickly to a thick overhanging tree branch at head height. I pushed mi amiga in her tube to be further away from the branch and raised my feet while leaning forward to get a kick off and push the branch out of the way. It turns out the branch wasn´t as yielding as I´d expected and instead both the river and its strong current ganged up against me with the branch. Instead of bouncing off the branch, the force of the impact flipped me backwards into the river and out of my tube. When I surfaced I had hold of my pneumatico and still had my cap perched on my head and my sunglasses on my face. Phew!
Calling a short time-out, I recomposed myself on the river bank, coughed up some water and opened my waterproof sack to find my camera still functioning. Thank goodness for drysacs!
With most of the excitement behind us, we managed to float the rest of the way without further accidents. As the clouds refused to let the sun shine for the whole day and with a breeze stirring up, we started to get cold. It´s quite unusual to get chattering teeth around these parts, so we decided that instead of floating all the way to the sea, we would get out at the bridge where the Troncal Caribe highway crosses the river and where a bunch of little kids were doing their laundry on the riverbank by pounding their clothes with a stick. Our rewarding day of peace and relaxation had turned into quite the adventure!
I can´t recommend highly enough tubing on the Palomino River. It is a fantastic break from the beach and takes you into a serene and beautiful part of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. I´m sure ´ll be back again with mi novio and D for more river antics, but perhaps slightly more prepared next time.
Want to go tubing in Palomino?
What´s there: Palomino is a small village near the beach and where the Palomino River meets the sea. The tubing adventure involves walking in forest and floating down the river in amongst verdant mountains.
How to get there: From Santa Marta the buses leave from the market on the corner of Calle 11 and Carrera 11 every half hour or so and are clearly marked. The same bus also goes to Parque Tayrona. The bus costs COP$8000 and takes around 2 hours. To catch a bus back you can flag down any bus on the highway.
Difficulty: From Mamasanta (the nearest start point) it is easy. If you chose to start further upstream, you just need to be prepared for walking on a hilly trail. At all times be aware of rocks and submerged trees in the river which could puncture your tube.
Time: Depending on your start point and finish point tubing will take between 2 – 4 hours. It took us 4 hours from when we started walking from Mamasanta to when we arrived to the bridge in Palomino.
What to take: Sunscreen, t-shirt, sunglasses, hat (there´s the potential to come back lobster-red if you don´t), bathing suit, bottle of water, sandals – preferably the type that strap onto your feet, a cord or something to use to keep you all floating together, camera, a waterproof bag. We also took sarongs which instantly became wet at the river but were good for keeping belongings tied together and for covering up because walking along the highway in a bikini is not advised.
Where to stay: If you want to stay in Palomino there are a number of accommodation options. I like the friendly new Dreamer on the Beach.