Adventures and Reflections with El Partido de Tres In Colombia

As I scanned the hectic intersection near the India Catalina Monument in Cartagena, looking for a bus to take me to the airport, I noticed that one of the raised medians at this intersection was packed with motorcyclists, soliciting rides around town by way of a chorus of shouts — “Mototaxi! Mototaxi! Mototaxi!” Having seen that mototaxis do not seem to be governed by the same traffic laws as other vehicles in Colombia, I realized one of these traffic-weaving, sidewalk-hopping machines might just be the fastest way to get to the airport. Therefore, after a few minutes of negotiating, I found myself darting through the roads and freeways of Cartagena, racing towards the airport to meet my next set of travel companions: Justin and Isaiah.

After roughly four months traveling through Latin America accompanied by various companions (from old friends, to my brother, to fellow Spanish school students, to friends I have met along the way, to people I wished I did not meet along the way), I have grown comfortable adjusting to the various travel styles and interests of whomever I am with. However, this next set of travel companions added a new twist: my friend Justin is in a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from the chest down nearly two years ago in a skiing accident out in California. I was equal parts nervous and excited to be joining him on his first foray outside of the United States since this accident. Naturally, Justin, never one to shy away from challenges, chose the developing country of Colombia, a nation that has only recently emerged from decades of violence instigated by aggressive drug cartels, a fierce left-wing armed resistance, and right-wing paramilitary vigilantes. During this time, it is safe to say the country was not particularly focused on wheelchair-accessibility. However, over the next 16 days, as we made our way from Cartagena to Medellín to the mountain town of Jardín, I would be pleasantly surprised and impressed by how much we could do together, by the generosity and kindness of the Colombian people, and by Justin’s unflappability in the face of various situations involving hilariously inadequate accessibility.  What follows are the adventures and experiences of this party of three in Colombia, or, in the beautiful Spanish (which we spoke fluently throughout the trip), this is the story of “El Partido de Tres.”

January 11 – 16: Cartagena, Colombia

We spent our first two nights in Cartagena in the Hotel Fegali, a quaint bed and breakfast in the neighborhood of Getsemaní in Cartagena. The owner, Jorge, a grey-mustachioed man in his 50’s or 60’s who was usually stylishly adorned in a white, v-neck t-shirt with jean shorts and flip-flops, was a kind, spastically attentive host that did everything in his power to make sure we were taken care of…to a fault. Jorge’s hospitality went so far as to include surprise “pop-ins” to our room to make sure that we had clean towels, that the air-conditioning was off/on, that Justin could make it to the dining room for breakfast at the table — which he insisted really was a better experience than eating alone in the room, or, God forbid, eating no breakfast at all. On our second night in Jorge’s spot, however, El Partido-Jorge relations hit a nadir when we were coming back into the hotel after a late night out. It was 2:30 am, and I was repeatedly pressing on the doorbell to wake Jorge (Jorge did not trust us with a key of our own), while Justin was attempting to muscle himself up a step to bring himself even with the door. However, as Jorge approached the door, Justin lost his balance and fell out of his chair onto the street, prompting Jorge to burst through the doorway to try and drag Justin up off the ground. Isaiah and I tried to reassure Jorge that Justin was okay (as evidenced by Justin’s laughter), but a worried Jorge, still shaken from witnessing the fall, could only muster a stern warning to us — breakfast ends at 9:30 am sharp, a mere 7 hours from that moment. Jorge’s shaking head indicated to us that he did not believe we could make this deadline.

Interestingly enough, Justin was not the first person to fall at a doorway our second evening in Cartagena. That honor, in fact, belonged to me. Several hours earlier, we had veered a few blocks off of the gringo-filled bar scene of Getsemaní to explore a street that looked decidedly more authentic. As we strolled the street, our ears caught the sounds of Latin music spilling out into the street from an open doorway. I glimpsed inside the open doorway to see a bar filled with locals, many of them dancing and singing. The scene was too tempting to resist, so we decided to go inside. However, the approach into the bar involved scaling one sizable step through which Isaiah and I would need to lift Justin. As I was backing over the step and pulling Justin up from the back of his wheelchair (Isaiah had the front), I buckled under Justin’s weight and tumbled butt-first through the door and onto the floor of the bar, causing five Colombian men to rush to the rescue. After these men helped us to successfully overcome my literal shaky knees, Justin rolled into the heart of the bar where, within seconds, roughly a dozen Colombians were dancing in a circle around him. Justin promptly responded by spinning in his chair while rhythmically moving his arms, shoulders, head, and flowing brown hair to the reggaeton pumping through the bar’s speakers. Over an hour of dancing there followed by another half an hour of hobnobbing with some more locals at a young Colombiana’s birthday street party on the way back to the hotel left Justin with the momentum that had him muscling up Jorge’s front step that would, only seconds later, lead to his fall. (Enthusiasm cometh before the fall. Or something like that.)

On our third day in Cartagena, sadly, we moved on from Jorge’s spot. However, this was not before successfully repairing relations with our newfound Cartagenian father figure who was pleasantly surprised both to see Isaiah make it up in time for breakfast and to see us pay for room in full. Our next location was an oasis of wheelchair-accessibility and chilled-out rooftop vibes in the middle of the Old City of Cartagena: The Townhouse Boutique Hotel and Rooftop. The Townhouse was run by a friendly quartet, comprised of two Brits, a New Yorker, and a Peruvian (the chef), who were all eager to please given they had opened up the hotel less than a month before our arrival. The positive energy they put off would lead us to spend several hours a day on the rooftop (which conveniently also had gorgeous views of the Old City), where we would meet other travelers, trade our most ridiculous travel stories, cool-off in the rooftop pool, and sip on delicious cocktails. When not on the rooftop, we cruised the bars and restaurants of Old City and Getsemaní, befriending other travelers and becoming honorary locals at La Malagana (known for their fish tacos) and Casa Venita (known, to us at least, for their ridiculously kind waitress Wendy).

Unfortunately, our two days at the Townhouse were cut short a day shy of our flight to Medellín as the hotel closed down for a week to perform some renovations. Therefore, our last night in Cartagena was spent, depressingly, in a cramped room in the Hampton Inn, an experience over which the hospitality professional Isaiah could only shake his head and left all three of us ready to head to Medellín. However, before we could call our trip to Cartagena officially complete, Justin tried out his freewheel on the sands of a Cartagena beach. The freewheel, a third wheel that affixes to the front of his wheelchair to give it greater “off-road” capabilities (think of it as four-wheel drive drive for a wheelchair), allowed Justin to effectively balance his weight as he rolled through the bumpy, sandy terrain to the ocean’s edge where we conducted a successful Justin Beach Model Shoot (photos are currently being considered by several freewheel manufacturers for their next ad campaign).

January 17 – 24: Medellín, Colombia

Our voyage to Medellín was largely without incident — the highlight of which was our airline allowing us to cut the 4 million person baggage check line in the departing airport (Barranquilla) because of Justin’s wheelchair (Justin’s initial response to the offer — “No, we’re okay!” — was interrupted by Isaiah saying, “We actually WILL take the favor. Thank you very much, kind airline!”). In Medellín, we found ourselves in a classy, business-traveler friendly Hotel San Fernando Plaza. Although the hotel itself was basically a part of an American-style mall that had been plopped into the middle of Medellín (albeit with Colombian-owned stores and restaurants), the hotel was near where all the cool kids hang-out in Medellín, El Poblado. El Poblado is an upscale, trendy, hip, and generally safe area of Medellín that attracts the bulk of Western tourists, as well as some wealthier Colombians. Over the next week, the three of us would use this location as our base of operations for exploring the city.

The first night in Medellín, we met up with some friends I made during my time in Guatemala who happened to now be traveling through Colombia. After a delicious pizza dinner (pizza, for some reason, is ubiquitous in Colombia), we headed to La Octava, a dive bar that distinguishes itself by the grown-up sized ballpit located in the back of the bar. Upon seeing this masterpiece of bar ingenuity, Isaiah and I dove in and found that the pit not only was large in width and breadth (maybe 8 feet wide and 15 feet long), but also in depth (nearly 5 feet!). As we played with boyish enthusiasm in this pit of joy (throwing balls in the air, bellyflopping, chucking balls at innocent yet cute bystanders), I made a grave miscalculation in my own fitness to pull-off a selfie amidst the chaos…and dropped my phone deep into the pit’s abyss. Terror overcame me, worsened when the two Colombian girls beside me in the pit told me that no one…ever…had recovered their smartphone from the bottom of the pit. I looked at Isaiah, who was on the other side of the pit, and yelled to him, “Dude! My phone! Is at the bottom!” Isaiah responded calmly with ROTC-inspired rationale, “It must be here. We can find it! Let’s divide the pit into quadrants…and dive for it!” We started on either side of the pit and methodically moved through the first quadrant, “swimming” through the pit with our heads submerged and our hands running across the bottom. When I would come up for (better) air, I couldn’t see Isaiah but could see a ripple move through the balls on the surface, indicating his position. By identifying his progress in this way, I was able to stay in my lane and, thus, we worked through the pit with dangerous efficiency. After nearly 15-minutes and with the bevy of pitside onlookers mostly shaking their heads at what they perceived to be the Sisyphean nature of our efforts, Isaiah shot up from the midst of the pit, right arm raised high, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “YOUR PHONE!!” And there it was, my phone held high in his right-hand, a huge grin on Isaiah’s face. I yelped with joy, “Amazing!….I love you!” as cheers and applause rose up through the bar. We then proceeded to dance in the ballpit for one full American ’90’s pop-rock song (likely played ironically by the bar at our expense) before carefully climbing out of the pit. Needless to say, this high stakes rescue mission proved to be the highlight of our first night in Medellín.

The next few days, El Partido explored the nature, restaurants, and bars of Medellín, caught up in the energy of a city that makes it difficult to turn in for the night before 3 am. One evening, we scaled to the top of Nutibara Hill to watch the sun set over this massive, sprawling city that is roughly the size of Chicago, the tranquility of the scene causing our conversation to turn personally reflective. Another afternoon, Justin and I tested the wheelchair accessibility of the surprisingly modern metro system, which includes a cable car that took us out of the city into the green, vast Parque Arví  located in the mountains above Medellín. The metro passed the test for accessibility, although there was a laughably slow electronic platform to carry Justin up and down the stairs outside of the El Poblado Metro Station. The platform was slow enough, in fact, that  a locally elderly man descending down on the platform shouted to us “¡Como una tortuga!” as we stood waiting for the platform at the bottom of a metro station staircase. We also tested out Justin’s freewheel again, this time in the hills south of Medellin, in Parque El Salado, where Justin flawlessly executed a wheelchair river crossing that solicited a much more heartfelt round of cheers from the audience of onlookers than the one Isaiah and I had received a few nights before in the ballpit. On the way back from this adventure, we shared empanadas with a mother and her curious daughter of nine years old who quizzed us in Spanish on what life was like in the United States and told us of her ambitions to learn French and English. And each night, we sampled the Medellín nightlife with other travelers we had met along the way.

On Sunday the 21st, Isaiah returned to the U.S. — unfortunately, painfully sick from the unavoidable, ubiquitous Latin American-itis that has struck each of my guests down in Latin America — leaving El Partido down to just two (“dos”), Justin and I. We mourned Isaiah’s departure over plates of a massive, typical Colombian meal at Mondongos. Each plate included a fried plantain, an arepa (a small, firm tortilla that is typical in Colombia), a bowl of beans, a bowl of mondongo soup (a meat and vegetable soup), a scoop of ground beef, a scoop of rice, a fried egg, half an avocado, and a banana. It was enough food for each of our nonexistent pet horses. (There are pictures below to convince the unbelievers.) That evening, exhausted from the nonstop nature of our traveling and full of heavy food, I crashed early while Justin, man of boundless energy, went out for the evening with with a new friend of ours — Anna from Germany whom we had met the night of the infamous ballpit rescue mission.

With Isaiah gone, we changed sleeping locations from San Fernando Plaza to the Soul “Lifestyle” Apartamentos, a short-term rental apartment complex in El Poblado managed by a cheerful, smiley, metrosexual Canadian named James who seemed to put off the “Lifestyle” vibes this new, luxury apartment complex was going for. Coincidentally, two other friends we had met in our travels (Eleanor from Australia and Kate from Canada) happened to be staying in the same building after having to vacate their AirBnB after finding a webcam creepily pointed at their room. The four of us, along with Anna from Germany, dove right into the Soul “Lifestyle” by grilling on the rooftop one evening. The BBQ came complete with grilled meat, grilled vegetables, and, towards the end of dinner, an older gentlemen from the States named Craig who proceeded to direct the conversation towards a topic more to his liking — himself. This beautiful rooftop BBQ would wrap up our week in Medellín as Justin and I would depart on our next adventure the proceeding day: Jardín and the mountains of Colombia.

January 24 – 26: Jardín, Colombia

Three and a half hours from bustling Medellín is Jardín, a quaint town perched high in the Colombian Andes that features a vibrant central square lined with busy outdoor cafes, a beautiful church, and surprisingly few tourists. To reach it, Justin and I navigated our way through the Medellín bus terminal to our means of transportation: a large, public van that proved to be quite simple for Justin to hop into while stashing his chair in the back. The winding ride up to Jardín, however, was quite a bit more difficult — not just for a top-heavy Justin (the weight of his head combined with his paralyzed midsection caused him to slide in his seat as we hit bumps and turns on the route) but also for the other passengers, many of which made full use of the vomit bags that the driver passed back upon request.  And once in Jardín, our journey was not yet finished as our hostel required a roughly 25 minute climb up out of town on a bumpy dirt road. Despite the rough journey, upon our arrival at Hostel Patio Bonito we knew we had found a special spot. We were greeted by the owner Juan (a young man from Bogota in his late 20’s), his girlfriend Emma (from Belgium), a miniature three-week old cat named Yahtzee (named after Juan and Emma’s favorite board game), Pete (a friend of Emma’s who had been volunteering at the hostel for a month and whose primary responsibility seemed to be keeping guests thoroughly caffeinated with local coffee), a German Shepherd named Rasta (all bark, no bite), Antonio the donkey (known as the “clock” given his habit of bleating roughly once an hour), and some roaming peacocks. The hostel itself was better defined as a mountain farm, with its variety of animals, crops (mandarins and bananas), and its location on the side of a mountain that provided stunning views of the surrounding coffee farms from its porch (hence “Patio Bonito”). We would spend the rest of our first day soaking in the magic of the place by drinking fresh coffee (purchased from the plantation next door), playing with Yahtzee, enjoying a BBQ dinner grilled by Juan, and gazing up at a clear, night sky densely cluttered with bright stars.

Initially only planning to stay one night in Patio Bonito, Justin and I decided to stay on for two given the idyllic location, surprising wheelchair accessibility (the porch’s hammocks were a pleasantly surprising addition to Justin’s “doable” list), and pleasant company. On the second day, we even went so far as to explore a dirt road up into the mountains above Jardín (at the advice of Andrew, the amicable Canadian and Jardín enthusiast that we met at a cafe in town). We reached the terminus of our journey, when Justin, veering to his right to avoid a tuk-tuk speeding past him, toppled out of his chair onto the road. (Luckily, I had the camera rolling to capture the theatrics of the fall.) Unscathed and in good humor, Justin looked further down the steep, rocky road and suggested that this might be a good place to turn around and face the picturesque sunset coloring the sky above the road back into town. I agreed, and we returned to Jardín and a surprisingly delicious pizza dinner at Cafe Europa, one of the few locations in town targeting Western backpackers. After dinner, our way back to Patio Bonito allowed Justin to add another item to the “doable” list: tuk-tuk riding. Antonio, the tuk-tuk driver, kept us distracted from the uncomfortable bouncing and careening of his vehicle up the winding, dirt road by peppering us with facts about his family, stories about climbing in the Sierra Los Nevados, and his enthusiastic endorsements of our hostel (“¡Patio Bonito! ¡Que lindo! ¡Que lindo!”).

January 26-27: Medellín, Colombia

After our second night in Jardiín, Justin and I made our way back to Medellín for one last night out in El Poblado before Justin’s flight out the following day. We met up with Kate and Eleanor for Justin’s farewell dinner complete with Argentinian steaks, red wine, and a poetry reading (the poem was kindly printed out in English by our colorful server who claimed to have worked in each of NYC’s Michelin three-star restaurants before landing in Medellín and the slightly less prestigious La Pampa Parrilla Argentina). We spent the rest of the night dancing to the mix of reggaeton and American pop beats at Vintrash, a crowded club filled equally with backpackers and locals, where at one point Kate looked over to me as Justin rolled away from the dance floor to grab a drink and perfectly captured my sentiment with a matter of fact, “You are going to miss him.”

And the next afternoon, El Partido officially abandoned for the foreseeable future with Justin’s departure for the airport and mine for the bus terminal. In only a few hours, I would be in a hostel in the mountain town of Manizales, prepping for a three day trek into the Sierra Los Nevados, while Justin would be gearing up to get back to his routine in his Denver, Colorado, apartment. However, during those few hours in transit, we would both be suspended in that “in-between time” that traveling so beautifully affords. A time where the mind dances to and fro between thoughts of reflection and expectation as the body is physically transported from the past to the future.

As is so often the case when writing about my travels, I find that just summarizing the facts of who, what, when, where, and why only partially capture the experience. And in many cases, it feels as if my written account only expresses the hollow shell of a much fuller, more vibrant experience. The richness is found a few levels deeper than the mere facts of the day, although where I find this deeper, more rewarding side of the story can vary. For instance, in my solo travels, I have at times, unexpectedly, felt a sense of belonging in foreign places surrounded by people from a variety of different countries I have only recently met. Going from a feeling of amicable camaraderie with new companions to a deeper sense of belonging is difficult to pin-down in a narrative arc, but it has been one of the more rewarding experiences I have had in my travels.
In my time with Isaiah and Justin I experienced something different but equally rewarding. By committing to spend nearly most of our time together for 2+ weeks, in addition to having time to do a lot of things together, we had ample time to allow for meaningful thoughts and conversations to bubble up. One conversation that will stick with me is Isaiah and I’s discussion over breakfast prompted by David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” commencement address (yes, we read this over breakfast), where we agreed with Foster-Wallace’s argument that real freedom is found in choosing to live unselfishly and marveled at the literary skill at which he brought this point home (if you have ~15 minutes, the linked transcript is well-worth the read). We talked about how difficult making that choice daily can be and some tactics around how to get there. However, Isaiah pointed out a flaw behind Foster-Wallace’s anecdote of how spiritually draining a normal routine of, say, going to the grocery store may be — there are many people who would love to have an ordinary, uneventful daily routine where they have the opportunity to make healthy choices regarding their inner monologue. Isaiah’s point made me recognize and be grateful for the relative privilege we both had to be discussing how to best deal with life…when life gets boring.
Another conversation that stands out to me is hearing about Justin’s reaction to the book and movie Me Before You. (Spoiler alert: The story involves a young man who is paralyzed from the neck down and decides to commit suicide a year after his accident even though he and his caretaker have a romance of sorts.) Justin’s response to the main character’s decision to commit suicide was visceral: the character made a narrow, uniformed choice on life, where he overemphasized his new limitations over what he could still experience and what limits could be questioned or stretched. Justin’s passionate argument for life gave me a glimpse into his own conviction of how profoundly worth it life is, even with a loss of some his physical ability, and put a fine point on one of the primary challenges of living in his post-injury world: Staying grateful for what he can do, while maintaining a spirit that constantly challenges and tests assumptions behind his “limits,” and, through that process, having the wisdom to acknowledge that although some of his limits are, in fact, real and final, others are merely vestiges of fearful, faulty thinking that can be steamrolled with a healthy dose of grit and gumption. Justin has been intensely focused on fighting — and winning — this battle since his injury, and it was my pleasure to join him as he dove headlong into this challenge for 16 days in Colombia.

Dos Bandidos in Colombia: Ten Days on the Caribbean Coast

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.