A south Florida wedding in late December left me only a two and a half hour flight from the coasts of Colombia, a destination that foreign travelers through Latin America I have met consistently rave about. Given my lack of any set deadlines or New Year’s plans, I found this distance too close to resist and booked a flight to Cartagena directly after the wedding. I also convinced another attendee of the wedding and one of my oldest and best friends, Cabell Rosanelli, to make the trek down with me to this crown jewel of Latin American tourism. And as is the case with any great team, we had a name to rally behind on this audacious journey. We were Dos Bandidos, “Two Bandits” with little regard for the law and a strong inclination for swashbuckling adventure. Below is our story.
Day 1 – Sunday, December 31, 2017 – Cartagena
We arrived in Cartagena late in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve with little clue on what one does in Cartagena on New Year’s Eve. After checking into our hotel in Bocagrande, a skinny peninsula that extends southwest from central Cartagena into the Caribbean covered with numerous oceanside high rises, we made our way to the beating heart of Cartagena: the Old City. The Old City is what remains (and plenty does) of the walled Spanish city built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Once inside the walls, we quickly found out what goes on in Cartagena for New Year’s — nearly all of the streets are closed to auto traffic and each block is transformed into a street restaurant, complete with seating and live music or a DJ. And these street restaurants, would go from empty (around 7 pm) to packed with local families enjoying a New Year’s Eve Dinner together (around 10 pm) to Latin music dance parties (around 12 am – ??). Cabell and I did not have a reservation, so we ducked inside an open restaurant for an early dinner (8 pm is early for NYE here apparently) before strolling the streets of Cartagena with local beers in hand (with no open container laws and Colombian beers priced at about a dollar a pop, this was an obvious move) doing our best to blend in with the locals (our gringo-fied Spanish and questionable Latin dance moves did not appear to fool many). Exhausted from travel, we made it back to the hotel a little after 2 am, noticing that the citywide party in Cartagena showed no signs of flagging even as we trudged home well past midnight.
Day 2 – Monday, January 1, 2018 – Cartagena
Having attended a wedding on the 29th and then enjoyed a Colombian-style New’s Eve on the 31st, Los Dos Bandidos need most of the first day of 2018 convalescing. We did find some delicious Colombian cold brew coffee at Juan Valdez Cafe (the Colombian Starbucks) and spent some more time meandering the city streets and visiting the Fort San Felipe de Barajas, which offered some beautiful views of the city. After dinner in the Old City, we finished the evening at Cafe Havana, drinking mojitos and shouting over the live Cuban band before retreating back to our Bocagrande hotel.
Day 3 – Tuesday, January 2 – Cartagena and Minca
Dos Bandidos were on the move this day! We scheduled a shuttle to pick us up from our hotel in Bocagrande at 10 am. This pick-up never happened, which was not particularly surprising to me as I have found things often do not quite as one plans in Latin America. (In fact, I usually expect for things not to go as planned, so when they do, I am pleasantly surprised. Could this be a some kind of life lesson in happiness?). To continue our journey, Dos Bandidos ended up at a local bus station to board a shuttle bound for Santa Marta that, despite its shoddy appearance, beamed passengers a workable wifi network. (Colombia must have found some kind of loophole in modern technological adoption given that I have never had this luxury on a bus in the United States.) A four-hour ride brought us to the outskirts of Santa Marta where we took a taxi up the several miles and nearly 2000 feet of elevation gain to Minca, a backpacker crossroads in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Luckily for us, our taxi driver was attempting to set a landspeed record to Minca from Santa Marta, as evidenced by his need to make several multi-car, left-lane passes into oncoming traffic on turns that wound us through the mountains into Minca. From Minca, Dos Bandidos braved the pouring rain and hiked nearly an hour to our hostel (Mundo Nuevo), a surprisingly hard trek, as the 1.5 mile journey featured an elevation gain of roughly 1300 feet (400 meters). Our hosts kindly greeted us with fresh juice, a dinner, and a warm bed.
Day 4 – Wednesday, January 3 – Minca
Dos Bandidos began their day with a hearty breakfast at the hostel followed by an up-tempo hour and a half roundtrip hike to a mirador (“lookout”) that looked out onto Santa Marta, the sea beyond, and the surrounding mountains and jungle. After lunch and a nap, we then tackled the mountain roads and paths of Minca on mountain bikes, which we rented from the hostel. Luz, the main front desk operator at the hostel who spoke very little English and prefaced her responses to our broken Spanish with playful smiles, let on that very few guests actually rent these bikes given the intense climb back up to the hostel and, when tallying up our final costs for the hostel, she would compensate us for our pains by striking the bike rental line item from our bill, declaring it her “gift” to us.
After our four hour mountain bike ride which included a trip to the nearby hotspot of local Colombian tourism — the waterfalls and swimming holes of Pozo Azul — Dos Bandidos finished their day splitting a bottle of wine with Harriet at Mundo Nuevo, our new British friend who works in potentially the most British job you can imagine — advisor to Prince Charles.
Day 5 – Thursday, January 4 – Minca and Casa Santa Elena
Today, we set out from Mundo Nuevo on a new challenge — climbing Cerro Kennedy, a 3100 meter (10,170 ft) peak found roughly 15-20 miles east of Minca. We had heard rumors of a hostel, named Casa Santa Elena, that was a relatively short hike from the summit, at which we should be able to spend the night. However, given that the hostel did not have a webpage or phone number that we could contact (despite repeated attempts by Luz at Mundo Nuevo), we headed out from Minca, hoping for the best. The way to Santa Elena first involved a 18 km (~11 mile) motorcycle taxi ride up to the trailhead to Santa Elena, but the first few mototaxi drivers in Minca we inquired about getting a ride to the hostel trailhead had not even heard of Casa Santa Elena. (One even replied, “I do not know this woman!”) However, we did eventually find two trustworthy-seeming drivers who claimed to know of this fabled Casa Santa Elena, and shlepped us up over the mostly dirt roads (which at times were nearly impassably muddy) for nearly an hour to at a junction with a small stone path, which indicated “3km to Santa Elena.” From there, we headed up and, within an hour, arrived upon our “hostl.” However, Casa Santa Elena, situated on a beautiful ridge overlooking the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is more accurately described as a farm that has sleeping space for travelers. Despite the fact that our accommodations for the night were decidedly light on amenities, we were extremely pleased with the set-up as Anna, the farm caretaker and cook, and Jonathan (pronounced “Yon-a-thon”), her grandson and our guide up Cerro Kennedy, provided delicious food and entertaining company (Anna gave several long, rambling dialogues 100% in Spanish and Jonathan challenged me to a game of cards and then balloon volleyball). Dos Bandidos, thus, would contentedly close their eyes early as a hard, driving rain beat down on the tin roof above the farmhouse.
Day 6 – Friday, January 5 – Cerro Kennedy and Santa Marta
The day got off to an extremely inauspicious start for Los Bandidos as Cabell came down with a stomach bug that had him rising several times early in the morning to head to the bathroom. Although his stomach felt more settled by the time we left for the hike up to the top of Cerro Kennedy, Cabell was forced to turn back after only a few minutes on the trail given his weakened states. Jonathan, our guide, and I pushed own, accompanied by Seús, the consensus “favorito perro” among the inhabitants of Casa Santa Elena. It took Jonathan and I nearly 2 hours to reach the top of Cerro Kennedy, which we did mostly in silence that was punctured from time-to-time by Jonathan offering me freshly picked berries from the trail or describing the owners of the neighboring fincas (most of which were also family members). When we reached the top, the view was largely obscured, but, after a few minutes, the sky cleared enough for us to see all the way out to the tallest peaks in Colombia — Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar (5775 meters/18,700 feet) — both snowcapped and flocked by banks of clouds. Oddly enough, we left Seús on top to fend for himself as he had found a number of other dogs to play with on the peak (the peak of Cerro Kennedy is actually an active army base so there is quite a bit of activity). Jonathan assured me that his grandfather would retrieve Seús the next morning when he climbed up to the army base to sell his cheese. Jonathan and I returned to Santa Elena to find my fellow bandido strong enough to continue the descent off the mountain, so, after lunch, Dos Bandidos headed down to the road to catch mototaxis to take us back to Minca and then, from Minca, a taxi into Santa Marta, our home for the evening.
Day 7 – Saturday, January 6 – Santa Marta
Initially, Los Bandidos had planned to tackle the four-day, three-night journey through the jungle to Ciudad Perdida (“The Lost City”), the ruins of a recently-discovered ancient city built by the native Tayrona people. However, given Cabell’s weakened state, we decided to hold off on this trek in favor of exploring the Santa Marta area. The city of Santa Marta is the oldest Spanish colonial settlement in Colombia, founded in 1525 by the conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas. Although Cartagena, founded in 1533, quickly surpassed Santa Marta as the most important Spanish Caribbean port in Colombia, Santa Marta still retains much of its colonial character, particularly in the city’s historic district between Parque San Bolivar and Parque Los Novios. Cabell and I spent most of the day exploring in and around this area, commenting on how gringo-friendly it appeared despite its relative lack of gringos. “Underrated” was the word that consistently came to mind as we cruised this city for which travel guides set rather low expectations. We had probably our best meal of the trip at El Balcon de Ouza, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant, that, like Santa Marta, defied expectations. We ended our night on a hopping Santa Marta rooftop bar, sipping Club Colombia Doradas (which had proven itself to be the top national beer), and listening to the DJ expertly pull off the classic gringo bait-and-switch — lure them in with mixes of Justin Bieber, Maroon 5, and Beyoncé, slide in a Despacito, mix in Shakira, and, then, all of the sudden, you’re listening exclusively to heavy reggaeton, salsa, and merengue.
Day 8 – Sunday, January 7 – Santa Marta and Palomino
Dos Bandidos set new tracks on this day, as we ventured further east along the Caribbean Coast to the “vacant” beaches of Palomino. However, we soon found that this “undiscovered” paradise is now sitting firmly on the “discovered” side of the ledger as freshly-built hostels and restaurants crowd the mile-long road leading from the main road to the beach. We spent the afternoon finding our hostel (which took about 35 minutes too long), exploring the beaches of Palomino, and drinking some delicious lemonade at a restaurant (Sua) with laughably slow service (even for Latin America standards). Over dinner, we sat at the same table as a mother and her two teenage daughters from Bogotá who initially engaged us by cackling at our horrendous Spanish. Despite this discouraging start, we proceeded to have a very friendly Spanglish conversation with them, that covered American and British pop music, their impressions of Bogotá, what the older daughter was studying in college (international business), and our travels plans.
Day 9 – Monday, January 8 – Palomino
Having missed our four-day jungle trek due to unforeseen circumstances, Los Bandidos were eager to get out into the jungly Sierra Madre de Santa Marta, one of the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world. Therefore, we hired a guide to lead us on an 8-hour trek through these mountains that rise just off the coast in Palomino. Our guide, Jesús, was a nineteen-year-old local who, hilariously, guided us through the mountains on his horse while we walked. Jesús led us up a trail that followed the Río Palomino, passed through the indigenous village of Seywiaka, and then cut over to follow the Arroyo (“stream”) Mamaice. After about two hours, he stopped us in a beautiful spot to eat our breakfast by the Mamaice, during which time he disappeared to “find a friend” nearby. Along the trail, we met a lone Colombian man from Medellín who stopped with us for breakfast. Cabell and I did our best to determine if this man was a narcotraficante with intimate connections to the Medellín cartel (my recent Narcos binge inspired me to do my best Agent Murphy impression). However, he refused to admit that he had any “negocios” to attend to in the location deep in the Santa Marta mountains to which he was headed. We ended up spending nearly two hours at this spot, as Jesús certainly had his own business to attend to — he left us for about half an hour to visit a nearby friend then came back and spent another 30-minute taking a bath in the stream.
From our breakfast spot, the path branched off from the Mamaice and climbed up to the top of a ridge that offered breathtaking vistas of the surrounding mountains, jungle, and eventually, as the trail made its way back to Palomino, the Caribbean Sea. We arrived back in Palomino by mid-afternoon and spent the majority of the rest of the day engaged in heated card game of rummy (after my hot start, Cabell proceeded to bring on the fire and fury and bury me at our beachside dinner).
Day 10 – Tuesday, January 9 – Palomino and Santa Marta
The last full day of Los Bandidos’ expedition began on the beaches of Palomino for one last swim before we headed back to Santa Marta. By late afternoon, we were comfortably settled in Santa Marta, engaged in a game of rummy on the rooftop of our hotel. As the game wore on and Cabell’s lead grew, the trip’s last rays of natural light filtered down to us through a brilliant Caribbean sunset. The beauty of the moment prompted Cabell to walk to the edge of the roof to snap a couple photos while a silent prayer of gratitude bubbled up within me. Cabell returned to finish me off, but I was able able to hold off my inevitable defeat until darkness nearly enveloped us both. We spent the last few hours together reflecting on the trip over dinner and making tentative plans for the next Bandidos’ expedition, which, we agreed, must include us sitting on the tops of some high mountains. The next morning Cabell left early, and it was everything I could do to muster a “safe travels, brother” as he vacated the hotel, bound for the U.S. and his own next adventure in Richmond.