Must visit beach: Bahia Concha

When you put together the words ´Caribbean´ and ´beach´ it conjures up an image of beauty, tranquility and absolute relaxation. That´s what all tourism marketers behind those glossy holiday brochures want us to think. Colombia has 1,600km of Caribbean coastline and clearly has many opportunities to live up to the stereo-type.

My Spanish amiga raves about Bahia Concha. It is her favourite beach in the area, and so one weekday when mi novio was kind enough to cover my hostel shift for me so I could join my friend on her day off (he really is an awesome catch) we decided to spend the day there.

We´d sent messages via WhatsApp to arrange our self-catered lunch plans and meeting times. At the last minute, just as I was nearing our supermarket meeting point to pick up some more snacks, mi amiga called me and told me that we were able to take a van leaving from her hostel with some backpackers on their way to Bahia Concha. This option was far more economical than a $40,000 – $50,000 taxi fare because there is no public transport to this beach.

Whilst not far from Santa Marta, you travel through some suburbs on the outskirts where in place of leaves, trees have flapping plastic bags strung to their branches and along a bumpy dirt road between arid hills to get there.

Bahia Concha is technically part of Tayrona National Park, but it doesn´t incur the huge entry fee, instead you pay just $5000 to cross over the strip of privately owned land to a huge curving beach fringed with scraggly trees that provide relief from the hot sun.

There´s just one restaurant on the beach, conveniently at the entry point where you will be met with a menu to order lunch in advance to be ready at your time of choice, and few beachside vendors who won´t be as pesky or bothersome as the hundreds roaming the beach at Rodadero on the other side of Santa Marta.

Amigas Bahia Concha
Making the most of a quiet beach

The wide sandy beach curves around a bay bigger than the main bay at Taganga, but not as big as Rodadero. The sand slopes down into to the water and is gently washed with smallish waves. The aqua clear water quickly gets deep meaning it´s not the best to take toddlers for a splash at the water´s edge.

Politely declining the lunch menu, mi amiga and I set off to the right along the beach and nearer to the end of the beach we found respite from the wind and a nice tree to stay in the lovely dappled shade during the sun´s strongest rays.

I´m not normally much of a beach lounger, but with plenty to catch up on with mi amiga, we managed to spend the whole day chatting, turning over on our sarongs, cooling off in the refreshing water and snacking on the lunch we´d packed until late in the afternoon, when the light turned to magical dusk and it was time to take the van back to Santa Marta.

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Want to go to Bahia Concha?

What´s there: A beautiful curving bay flanked by mountains with a wide sandy beach. There´s one restaurant on the beach (freshly caught fish plate of the day approx COP$25,000)

How to get there: From Santa Marta or Taganga hire a taxi (COP$40,000 – 50,000 one way) and make a time for them to come pick you up as there is patchy mobile phone reception or ask at your accommodation for a shared van service, which should be more economical. It takes about 30 minutes from Santa Marta.

When to go: There will be fewer people mid-week and the busiest times of year are Christmas to mid January and Semana Santa (Easter week)

Entrance fees: COP$5000 per person

What to take: Sunscreen, sunglasses, bathing suit, bottle of water, towel or sarong. Take your own snacks or lunch if you are visiting on a budget.

The Photo Vault: Brazilian Coastline

 

A slice of Brazilian paradise
A slice of Brazilian paradise

Itacaré, Brazil, 2004

The small town of Itacaré between Porto Seguro and Salvador wasn´t listed in my Lonely Planet Shoestring Guide to South America. I ended up here tagging onto a group of travelling Brazilians and one Swiss guy who had joined up to form a sizeable group of eight people. Nine including me. One of the Brazilians spoke good English, and of course the Swiss guy, but I communicated with the rest of my new friends with exchanges of smiles, laughs and gestures and just followed them like a little lamb. It was fun!

Brazilians are great travellers in their own country, especially at Carnaval time when they will take a month off and travel. I loved this attitude and vowed to take this idea back home, where we usually plan out our domestic trips carefully and save the random wanderings for other countries.

I never would have discovered a string of breathtaking beaches and this coastline had it not been for my Brazilian friends adopting a little lost Aussie. I also wouldn´t have learned how to wear a Brazilian bikini, confidence most definitely required but any show of butt crack is unacceptable so instead you should forget about trying to modestly cover your butt cheeks and allow your bikini bottoms to creep into a wedgie.

This photo served as my screensaver on my old computer for many years. It is a beautiful coastline and it always makes me think about the friends I´ve now lost touch with, but who I will always remember for their openness, sharing and vivacity.

The Photo Vault is where I will be sharing my favourite photos (and their stories) that deserve better than being lost in the depths of my iPhoto never to be shared.

Tubing in Palomino

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.

After walking an hour through the jungle, we're happy to get to the relaxing, floating part of our adventure.
After walking an hour through the jungle, we’re happy to get to the relaxing, floating part of our adventure.

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.

This way to the river
This way to the river

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.

Doesn't this view just make you want to run away to the jungle?
Doesn’t this view just make you want to run away to the jungle?

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 finally found the river and this little sandy push-off point
We finally found the river and this little sandy push-off point

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.

This may not look so scary to you, but when you are 2 minutes into your 2 plus hour float down a river in a rubber tube, no one judges you for erring on the side of caution.
This may not look so scary to you, but when you are 2 minutes into your 2 plus hour float down a river in a rubber tube, no one judges you for erring on the side of caution.

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.

A river so still it shows beautiful reflections.
A river so still it shows beautiful reflections. Don’t trust this view. Up ahead are rapids.

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.

In relax mode after passing the scary rapids. In the distance behind us are the family of 6 who left us in their rippling wake.
Tubing on the Palomino River

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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.

I feel relaxed again just looking at this photo at Dreamer on the Beach
I feel relaxed again just looking at this photo at Dreamer on the Beach

Ducking next door to Venezuela

Arriving in Venezuela to collect D after his summer holidays with his mum I was struck by two figures hogging the limelight. Hugo Chavez and Simon Bolivar. One is dead and the other is potentially on his deathbed if the conspiracies prove true.

Simon Bolivar, plastered larger than life on a building wall

Simon Bolivar is an important figure in Latin American history leading the revolution and liberating Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Bolivia from Spanish rule. He is forever linked with Santa Marta because he died here 182 years ago but he lives on in Venezuela with incredible monuments, museums, pictures and in Venezuela’s official name of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, changed by Chavez in 2000. Just about everything seems to be Bolivar this and Bolivarian that.

Inflatable Chavez

Hugo Chavez, the much-loved and much hated president of Venezuela, is omnipresent. From the giant inflatable Chavez in the centre of Caracas to everyday conversations and the “I am Chavez” billboards you see evidence of him everywhere except in person as he’s currently convalescing from complications due to cancer surgery in Cuba. We arrived on the day of his supposed inauguration as President for the sixth time, but given that he hasn’t been seen publicly since before Christmas, the ceremony has been delayed until he is recovered.

I felt uncomfortable in Venezuela, and not just because we had to borrow money of D’s mum because we hadn’t changed enough at the border and didn’t know it was so difficult to change inside the country. I got a sense of great disorganisation. I looked around and saw election propaganda from the elections last year, but felt as though nothing flowed through to benefit those living around the painted walls. We were told that it’s not safe to venture out in Caracas in the dark of night or early in the morning and this was verified by people arriving by bus in Caracas pulling up seats in the terminal to wait for the sun to rise when they would start making a mass exodus to the taxi ranks. We bought skinny empanadas from a lady who told us that flour was being rationed and they could only buy 2 bags of flour. We endured more than 5 army and police checkpoints on the way in and out of the country, compared to just one on the way in to Colombia. I froze on the overnight buses that have the air conditioning locked onto a temperature even colder than Colombia’s overnight bus.

I might still be suffering from memory burn of our 11 day bus trip in October, but the 3 nights out of 4 we spent sleeping on buses and the good 16 hours spent in bus terminals were extremely uncomfortable. Thankfully we did have a lovely day at the beach near Caracas with D’s maternal grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins who were so welcoming and hospitable up to the point where D’s cousins started calling me tia which means aunt.

Neither mi novio or I am keen to return to Venezuela any time soon. I still want to go to Angel Falls and do the Simon Bolivar history trail in Caracas, but I think that can wait until I’m ready to tackle the challenges Venezuela throws up. Right now, I’m super happy to be back in Colombia. It’s like a breath of fresh air.

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Riding the ferris wheel

Riding the Ferris Wheel
Riding the Ferris Wheel at Santa Monica

I have to admit to having more adventurous tastes in show rides than the Ferris Wheel, but it was befitting of the spontaneous trip to Santa Monica with Michele.

Our original plan of doing one of those bus tours (specifically one targeted at the tragic side of Hollywood) fell by the wayside when there weren’t enough people for the tour to run. We vacillated over the Getty Center and then decided to trip down the 10 freeway to Santa Monica and see the beach.

As we know, I’m not a beachy person, but Santa Monica had the added bonus of the pier with the show rides to draw me in.

I made a wrong turn coming off the freeway, turning right instead of left, which meant that we started driving towards Malibu on Pacific Highway. It was quite pretty, but there was no way of doing a u-turn or even making a right turn for quite a-ways because of the cliffs that rose steeply up from the highway.

Peek through the struts
Peeking through the Ferris Wheel struts

When we finally got back to the pier, we weren’t disappointed. It was a beautiful clear 31ºC day and the beach and pier were busy enough, but certainly not crowded.

As we made our way up the steps to the pier, I marvelled at the age of the wooden steps. They were grooved and hollowed out from so much traffic over the years. I pressed my feet into the depressions which would turn into puddles on a rainy day. There is something in me that loves to see worn timber like this. I can think back to two specific experiences where it made an impression on me. One in Fray Bentos, Uruguay at the tinned meat factory, and the other time on a spiral staircase leading up to the belfry at the cathedral in Mexico City’s Zocalo. (Yes, this is now the third blog entry in six years that relates a story about well-worn boards, so there is clearly a fascination with this little detail)

The boards of the pier weren’t as smooth as I expected. They were rough, like rough-hewn timber with grooves running from side to side and had shiny silver dumps (bolts) fastening them down to the supports. They were really beautiful. The lurid show rides looked out of place perched upon these old boards, but they also added height and colour to the skyline.

Colourful Santa Monica pier
A giant octopus is growing out of my head

Seeing the Ferris Wheel circling above us, we decided we had to go for a ride on it and eventually found our way to the ticket booth which is cleverly hidden in the middle of all the rides so you can be tempted to buy tokens for more than one ride. We shared our gondola (is that what you would call a Ferris Wheel carriage?) with an English girl as there was a strict rule that there were no single riders.

The Ferris Wheel circled fast, not giving us much time to take photos of the amazing views it afforded of the beach, the pier and the distant mountains. At any rate, it was definitely worth the $5 fare to be child-like, snap-happy tourists and gave a different perspective to the beach.

Venice: not all it’s cracked up to be

Venice Beach, CA
Venice Beach

Venice Beach in California that is. My Lonely Planet Encounter guide says “Venice is just plain cool.” It then follows up by describing the oceanfront walk as “… a little bit crazy and a whole lot of fun.” I beg to differ.

Perhaps I should mention it right up front here, that I’m not a beachy person. Going to the beach has never really interested me. It’s a whole lot of sand that sticks to sweat and vestiges of salt water. It’s a whole bunch of waves pounding incessantly forming a tinnitus in my head. I just don’t find it a relaxing experience. I have seen a lot of beautiful beaches in my time and spent a good two months traversing the Brazilian coast where after a couple of hours at the beach, I was chomping for something more active and adventurous than lazing on a sarong. So for me, there is rarely anything charming about a city beach.

I went to Venice with Movie Lass to see the beach, walk the esplanade and observe the circus I had imagined it to be. I was kind of surprised to see the market stalls setting up as we arrived on a Saturday around 11am. That and getting a $15 park just one street back. I had been told to go on a weekend to see it at its craziest yet here we were in a relatively deserted place with crowds I would expect to find on a weekday, not a glorious 30°C Saturday.

Venice scene
Old guy rocking out in Venice

We started off checking out some stalls, for essentials like hats and sunglasses, but didn’t buy anything. In hindsight, we should have bought the hats when we first saw them because the sun started to beat down rays of redness. We wandered past Muscle Beach, an outdoor gymnasium where I saw a really toned chick with ginormous breasts giving instructions to two muscle-bound guys, but otherwise, it was fairly quiet and there weren’t any other dudes with thighs like huge hocks of ham working out.

It’s obligatory to dip one’s feet in the opposite side of the Pacific, so we crossed the wide stretch of sand to the shore where people were sunbathing, kids were building sandcastles and playing in the shallows, girls taking glamour shots of each other with the waves in the background and people running on the wet sand. Just your regular city beach. The water was freezing cold, yet there were still kids running in there.

Freebies
When they were handing out freebies, Movie Lass & I were there. Ping pong balls and free soft drink.

We walked north towards Santa Monica where the pier juts out ostentatiously and if we were so inclined, it would have been a good walk to go the whole way. But instead we had to feed our hunger so we walked back to the boardwalk and got a table at the Figtree Cafe, first in the burning sun, and then we moved to a table in the shade, although it wasn’t as great a place to watch the people go by.

I had been expecting it to be circus, with crazy people everywhere, weirdos, and glamazons, and fitness freaks. I guess I expected a lot more entertainment from the people watching than there was. Sure, there was a guy standing on a stool wearing a leopard print loincloth and holding real looking rubber snakes in his hands, and the guy spruiking tickets to see a two-headed turtle, but that was about it.

Venice canals
The beautiful canals of Venice, CA

Aside from the canals, which are really beautiful and peaceful, I didn’t find much to love in Venice. Maybe there’s some more charm for me hidden in the streets away from the beach, but since I’m not into the weed scene or beach scene, Venice is not my kind of place. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts about Venice Beach. What are your memories or experiences? Would you recommend it to your friends as a place to visit?