The case of a little crash

On my way to work on the back of our motorbike today we were involved in a little scuffle with a taxi. No one was hurt, nothing was damaged, but this is what happens when you do have a little bingle.

After putting some air in the back tyre, we headed off along Carrera 19 towards Taganga, like we normally do. There is a bridge over a small river where I´ve seen people digging the silt out of the river to cart off to make bricks. This is illegal, but just the same as dumping used and broken concrete in whatever vacant lot is, it happens and most people turn a blind eye to it.

This bridge is just before a busy intersection, and what usually happens is the bridge becomes a traffic bottleneck. We hadn´t yet come to the bridge but had happened upon the traffic knotted in zero semblance of lanes. We were in the far left “lane”, next to a thin concrete median strip delineating the two directions and just before a gap in the median. We had come to a stop due to the traffic and the taxi beside us that had started to veer in our direction.

I thought the taxi would see us and stop veering, but no. While we were stopped, he turned over the top of us to do a U-turn. All of a sudden the taxi was brushing my leg and I put my hand out in front and banged on the back window because it was about to drive over the top of us.

The taxi driver stopped in the middle of the road and the turn, hopped out of his car and proceeded to start shouting at us. He said he had right of way, that he had his indicator on, that we weren´t allowed to pass on the left (last time I checked on this side of the world this is considered the fast and overtaking lane).

So mi novio started yelling back. “You didn´t even look before turning, you can´t do a U-turn here.”

Within seconds of the shouting we were surrounded by onlookers. People driving past suddenly pulled up their motorbikes and stopped to watch the argument. Colombia is a nation of sticky-beaks.

Another taxi drove by slowly and called out the window that the taxi had right of way. Other motorbike riders were throwing their two cents in saying the taxi was in the wrong. The taxi versus motorbike war had found a new site to battle on.

An unmistakable wine coloured stripe was smeared along the side of the taxi and further above that a longer black stripe that the taxi driver was claiming as our fault. Clearly the wine coloured stripe was from our bike from where the taxi had ridden over the top of us, but as mi novio tried to lean the bike away from the car, the higher black stripe was most likely not from our handlebars or bike. Needless to say, these stripes are easily removed with a slight amount of buffing and there were no permanent scratches to either our bike or the taxi.

The taxi driver wasn´t convinced, wasn´t happy and was in the mood to argue despite having passengers waiting to be delivered to their destination in the back of the taxi. He said he would call the police, although in these circumstances there is nothing the police can do; no one is hurt, nothing is damaged. The police just stand around and wait for the two parties to reach an agreement and direct traffic around the scene until such time.

As the taxi driver took down our number plate, I told mi novio to take a picture of the accident from our perspective on the bike. A photo to prove that the extent of the damage was only a washable transfer of paint and so that should the owner of the taxi come looking for us and ask us to pay for damages, we have grounds to refuse.

I´m extremely relieved that the little crash wasn´t any more serious. There are so many accidents in Santa Marta every day, and with the huge numbers of motorbikes on the streets, it isn´t surprising. Every day it is a struggle between cars, motorbikes and non-existent lane markings. Whilst we are in the motorbike camp and a motorbike is a much quicker mode of transport given that no traffic lights operate on a system giving the city good traffic flow, I do love every 10th and 25th of the month, when in Santa Marta it is dia sin moto. These are the two days each month where you can´t use your motorbike, and I relish the calm and peace in the streets.

I´m not a believer in the crack down and restrictions on motorbikes that are starting to come into effect for people, because I understand the importance of transportation in a person´s daily life and quite honestly, only a small percentage of people in Santa Marta can actually afford a car. We certainly can´t afford a car. But I do think that more efforts should be focused on making sure motorbikes have all the paperwork, including a license for the drivers, a roadworthy certificate and insurance. If all motorbikes met these requirements, I believe that the streets would be much safer, and maybe there would also be a greater respect for other road users and pedestrians.

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.

Colombia, the only risk is wanting to strangle your neighbours

I hate vallenato.

There, I feel better for admitting it. Despite how much I’ve tried tell myself “but this is Colombian culture, you’re not open-minded enough if you can’t embrace it” I will always intensely dislike this incessant, squeaky, loud, monotonous music that is only ever blared out of oversize speakers at a decibel warning level.

How did I finally come to confess this you may ask. Well, my day started like this:

Ahhh, Sunday, you beautiful sleep-in of a day with only relaxing things to do. Oh, except that I have to take D to a soccer game that starts at 7:50am. And we can’t go on the motorbike because it is waiting for my brother-in-law to fix it with his magical mechanic hands. So we’re up early. Although the funny thing is I didn’t need an alarm clock because the neighbour two doors down started the music up at 6:40am. Did I tell you it is Sunday?

Normal people (ie not costeños) would think twice before spinning the volume dial on their music up until it spins no more. Even more so you would expect this consideration when you live in a laneway that isn’t even 2m wide and every house is a terrace house, wall beside wall. But our fabulous neighbours have instead brought out their mega speaker to the front terrace, aimed it in the direction of our house and found the limit on the volume dial. Playing vallenato. That music I hate.

I couldn’t hear la suegra talking to me across the lounge room, and it wasn’t even 7am. I couldn’t even hear myself think. My brain started to crackle and frazzle with the fast accordion scratch and grate. Ooops, here arrives my bad mood.

I went to the corner store to buy breakfast supplies and my face withered into a sour, glowering scowl as I passed the neighbours sitting out the front of their house with their ears pressed up against the mega speaker. Perhaps the sound isn’t as loud as it is in their terrace as what it is inside my house. Maybe I should invite them to our lounge so we can shout at each other from the couch to the chair and continually repeat “que?

Unfortunately for me vallenato is the most popular music in Santa Marta. It screams at me from bars, shops, buses and of course the neighbours’ stereos. I long for a bit of Latin pop, the other neighbour’s old time ballads or even ranchero, Colombian country music mi novio sings along to badly, but the vallenato is escapable. Like the bad mood it brings on. I detest it so much I can’t even bring myself to search for a song to link to so you can experience it yourself and really know what I mean. Sorry but you’ll have to do it yourself (don’t worry, it won’t matter what song you find because they all sound the same).

I’m in serious need of a coping mechanism for dealing with the obnoxious sound, but can’t seem to find a calm space while it vibrates in my brain. I tell myself that if it is played at a normal volume it wouldn’t be so bad, but that’s never going to happen and I have to resign myself to living with vallenato.

Do you have any strategies for how I can accept vallenato and not end up strangling my neighbours? Or what would be the best annoying music for me to play at max volume on the terrace (assuming I had a super mega high wattage speaker)?

*Disclaimer: I don’t actually want to strangle my neighbours – it’s just a figure of speech – because except for the inconsiderate vallenato they are nice and always greet me with a buenas or adios when I pass with a non-vallenato-soured face.

Marinka Waterfalls – Minca

It’s amazing what you’ll find if you follow some random road.

Mi novio is in love with our motorbike and so when we had a Sunday with no plans, he suggested a trip to the beach. Being smack bang in the middle of high season with the beaches jammed with visitors and locals making a paseo, I suggested we head for the hills instead. So we set off in the direction of Minca.

On the ride uphill we passed a number of balnearios, or swimming holes in the river that are much like your local swimming pool. Some have been fortified with concrete and have restaurants and bars. All have loud vallenato music blaring and so it’s best to press on to find nature at its best.

Minca is a lovely and tiny town in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and sits at about 600m above sea level. The climate is fresh and the area abounds with coffee farms, forest and bird watching. If you’re looking for a place to chill out, Minca certainly offers that.

After crossing the bridge over the Minca River, we took the road to right and rode past the church and a few small market stalls set up under the trees. At the end of the strip of buildings, the road continued and was paved – or rather the two tyre ruts were paved. I asked mi novio what was up ahead and he didn’t know, so we decided to find out. We followed a 4WD ute with a bunch of Colombians in the back for a while and as the road got steep, bumpy (and unpaved) and too much for our little scooter with 2 passengers, we passed a group of people on foot. Clearly there was something worth seeing up ahead, but what, we had no idea so we asked. It turned out there were waterfalls.

I am a sucker for waterfalls. I really love them. Mi novio had no choice but to continue and I had no choice but to get off and walk a few of the steeper sections of road to avoid overheating our poor motorbike. After a good 20 minutes on the motorbike we came to the turn off to Marinka Waterfalls. A vendor was selling snacks on the roadside and as we stopped for a coca-cola I got bitten by tiny little mosquitoes which made me wish I had brought repellent as well as sunscreen. The mosquitoes only seemed to be at that one spot, and as we parked the bike and walked the last 400m to the waterfalls thankfully they disappeared.

As with most natural attractions in Colombia, you couldn’t just discover the waterfall in its natural setting. A couple of roofed huts have been added, with one serving a rustic set-menu lunch. I was pleased to be charged the Colombian entrance fee rather than that for foreigners. If I just keep my mouth shut and let mi novio do all the talking, I can often get away with this.

The waterfalls have two drops, a cascade of about 20m and a drop of about 10m, into pools that you can swim and relax in.

We didn’t really spend much time there, but had a bit of a swim and relaxed while marvelling over our random discovery because even mi novio didn’t know about this waterfall.

As we were leaving the site we came across four almost elderly people who we’d seen struggling at the turn off. They had walked all the way from Minca to the waterfalls and then refused to pay the entrance fee and so were turning back around. They argued that you shouldn’t have to pay to see nature and the guy collecting the entrance fee said that the site needed to be maintained. Whilst I agree with their sentiments,  I know it is common to have to pay. During my roadtrip in the US, I visited a lot of national parks and each had an entry fee (although buying an annual pass is much more cost-effective if you plan to visit a few US National Parks). However at the end of the day, I think if I’d spent an hour or more walking uphill in the heat, I would pay the small entrance fee to cool off rather than turn around in stubborn defeat.

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Want to go to Marinka Waterfalls?

What’s there: Waterfalls, swimming and a walk in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

How to get there: Take a collectivo to Minca that leaves from Calle 11 and Carrera 12 near the Mercado in Santa Marta between 8am and 5:30pm (COP$6000, US$3.40), a mototaxi or taxi (COP$40,000, US$22.60 from Santa Marta). Cross the bridge over the Minca River and take the road forking to your right past the church. Continue following this road uphill for about an hour. Just after you ford the river, you will see a stall and signs to Marinka Waterfalls on your left. If the walk is too much, you can also hire a mototaxi from Minca to take you there.

Entry fee: COP$2000 per person (US$1.10) for Colombians or COP$3000 per person (US$1.70) for foreigners

Hike difficulty: Moderate. The path doubles as a road but the walk to the waterfalls is uphill.

Walk time: Approximately 1 hour from the church to the waterfalls.

What to take: Sandals or walking shoes, water, sunscreen, snacks, money, bathing suit, towel and camera.

Roadtrip to Quebrada Valencia

We finally stretched the legs of our new motorbike with a day trip to the cascades at Quebrada Valencia.

With $3 worth of petrol in the tank, we headed east along the Troncal Caribe in the direction of Riohacha. I am not the best pillion passenger as I have a tendency to dig my nails in and yell into the ear of mi novio should we approach other vehicles too quickly, go over speed humps (or dead policemen as they call them here) without braking, overtake trucks or buses and I curse and scream “I don’t like this” when we weave in and out of traffic. But, after leaving Santa Marta’s city limits, we were suddenly quite alone on a well paved highway and riding under a canopy of green forest.

The air was cooler and the scenery divine. The wind blew all of the weariness and frustrations of the city away. Instead of screaming in mi novio’s ear to slow down or pay more attention, I was conversing with him, constantly exclaiming “This is so lovely.”

While I marvelled over the scenery and breathed in the fresh air (any odd insect or two), I realised that it must be quite tedious listening to me rabbit on about the scenery when he has passed by this same route thousands of times for his work but he told me that it was a completely different sensation on the motorbike where you really feel your surroundings to that of watching out the bus window.

50km and a bit over an hour later, we arrived at Quebrada Valencia, with an internationally recognised tourist attraction brown sign announcing the destination. The entrance to Quebrada Valencia is right beside the highway with a small pull-in on either side, a local store and a market stall selling aqua socks to the Colombians from the interior who can’t bear crossing the river in their sandals or bare feet.

Quebrada Valencia, with its impressive range of cascading falls, is a 20 – 30 minute walk from the entrance and our first task was to cross the river. During dry season, the river is clear, shallow and tranquil, making the crossing (and subsequent crossings) quite easy. On the other side we passed by vendors selling coffee and fresh cooked arepas and walked alongside a banana plantation for a little bit. Not far into our walk we came across an enormous tree blocking the path, forcing everyone to walk around it. The tree has great clumps of root-like vines dangling down, and looks rather like you would imagine a tree relative of Mr Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street.

We continued our easy walk in the forest and crossed the river another five times to reach the lower swimming pools and rocky cascades of Quebrada Valencia.

It’s a popular spot for tourists and locals who take along picnics, and even their own hammocks. The falls drop over a rocky vein that obstructs the river’s flow and creates pools at different levels and some great jumping points.

We were instantly enamoured, and climbed the rocks to find a little ledge under a shady branch to leave our belongings while taking a refreshing dip in the rock pools and a slide down rocks beaten smooth by the water current. It is a great spot to relax and unwind and enjoy the company of family and friends. I couldn’t believe when mi novio said he hadn’t been there before. Not even on a family outing with his parents or with other friends.

Further up were more water pools and great views of each waterfall and all the way down to the end of the cascades, but we couldn’t climb up to the very top as it was cordoned off with plastic ‘do not enter’ tape and had a guy posted beside to enforce the no climbing rule.

After an afternoon of bathing in the lovely rock pools, we followed the easy trail back to the entrance and our motorbike, all the while exclaiming that we will have to bring D and la suegra here one day. Quebrada Valencia really is an all-round great day trip for lovers, families and groups of friends.

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Want to go to Quebrada Valencia?

What’s there: Waterfalls, swimming and a short hike in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

How to get there: Take the Troncal Caribe from Santa Marta towards Riohacha by car or motorbike (parking COP$2000 – $3000 at the entrance) or by a public bus that leaves from Calle 11 near the Mercado in Santa Marta that also passes by Parque Tayrona (ask to be dropped at Quebrada Valencia) and then flag down any return bus.

Entry fee: COP$3000 per person (US$1.65)

Hike difficulty: Easy but must be able to cross the rivers, the walking path is flat and well looked after

Walk time: 20 – 30 minutes

What to take: Sandals or flip flops, water, sunscreen, snacks or money to buy from vendors along the way, towel and camera.

We have transport!

Our new motorbike
Red goes faster, but this colour in Spanish is ‘vino tinto’ or red wine. Let’s hope that means it’s a little more mellow than fast!

In Santa Marta there are more motorbikes than cars. As seems to be the case in many tropical areas of developing countries, the motorbike is the most prevalent mode of transportation.

Today mi novio and I join the ranks of transport owners after buying a second-hand Suzuki motorbike, or as I’m accustomed to calling it, a scooter.

Coming from a country where the majority of people have a car to a place where the most common forms of transport are buses, taxis and mototaxis (motorbike taxis) has been an interesting change. Not everyone here has their own transport and it is still a dream for many people to have a motorbike and even more so, a car. I’ve come to realise how important transport, and lack of transport, is to lifestyle and culture. For many families even a local bus fare stretches the budget very tight.

I can’t count the number of times I took for granted popping to the supermarket or shops only to come home with a heavy load of groceries or a armfuls of shopping bags. That was when I had a car to haul my goods. Going to the supermarket here for a ‘big shop’ to stock up on bulky and big essentials such as washing powder, sugar and rice means having to pay a taxi fare to get home as it’s too far to walk carrying plastic shopping bags. The taxi fare is dirt cheap by Western standards, but constitutes a fifth of the daily minimum wage. No wonder the vast majority of families sh0p daily at their local corner store, buying only the quantities necessary for the day.

Our new motorbike
Our new motorbike, yet to be named…

Having a motorbike now means we have freedom. We can go to the beach without having to catch two buses. We can look for an apartment. We can visit family and friends (when I make some!) and we can go to the supermarket without having to take a taxi.

Mi novio has such a big smile on his face today. He’s so excited to have a motorbike and our own mode of transport. I’ll still use the bus regularly to get to the city centre because it is

convenient, but I’m looking forward to discovering more of Santa Marta from the back of the motorbike.