Friday, 23 August 2013

Palomino and Cabo de la Vela; the lighter side to Colombia's Caribbean

For self-confessed inlanders, we do manage to spend a relatively nice amount of time on the coast when it comes to getting some rest and relaxation.
A typically impressive sunset in Cabo de la Vela
Sunset in Cabo de la Vela

So after taking in parts of Colombia's secluded Pacific coastal region* for our last 'voluntary' travels i.e. outside of visa renewals or specific events, this time around we headed back to the Caribbean, a part of Colombia we like to think we know very well. That's largely based on the fact that we've been to the 'highlight' city, Cartagena, on three separate occasions; taken in Sapzurro, Capurganá and Turbo (for more on the latter see http://bit.ly/SVtkWW); visited Santa Marta and stayed in Taganga; alongside travelling from Turbo via Cartagena to Maicao (that city's 'delights' are detailed here http://bit.ly/VG94Ho).

This time however we took in what might be described as a more tranquil side to this part of the country (the bustling port city of Santa Marta and the calmer Riohacha apart that is - not that there is anything wrong with both places. They’re just bigger cities but have their own charms too).

A pleasant encounter on the beach in Palomino
Nice surprise
That more tranquil, 'lost' side consisted of, firstly, Palomino and after Cabo de la Vela – where the desert quite spectacularly runs into the ocean. And for some peace and quiet, while at the same time getting that sense of adventure, neither location disappointed.

Palomino is described by many as Taganga of the 1990s; laid-back, reasonably priced and not very crowded with tourists. Of course, there is a risk that this could all change, especially as more people discover its treasures. What might keep some people away though is a constant strong ocean current, meaning a relaxing dip in the sea is not an option. However with two river estuaries a short distance away, there are natural places to have a cooling-off swim, along with gentle tubing on offer down said rivers.

Being able to relax on a beach without a host of people constantly trying to sell you things was enough for us; throw in an unexpected photo shoot of a Colombian model right next to ‘our’ sunbathing spot and we were more than happy with our time there.**

Main street, Cabo de la Vela
Downtown Cabo de la Vela
In fact, we enjoyed ourselves so much that we had two stints in the village, stopping in for a second time on the journey back from Cabo de la Vela. For our first stop there we rented a hammock by the sea for $10,000COP (roughly €4) per night while on the return visit, a chance encounter with a hostel employee saw us spend four nights in a small dorm room in newly opened lodgings about 10 minutes walk from the beach, closer to the actual village. That cost $13,000COP per night, with access to a modern, clean (very important that), well-equipped kitchen. ***

Now while Palomino is certainly a chilled out spot, the fact that it is just off the main road between the cities of Santa Marta and Riohacha ensures that it never feels completely cut off from ‘the real world’. The same cannot be said for Cabo de la Vela. To get here is less straightforward, where asphalt roads give way to desert expanse making everything look pretty much the same. But like many of these secluded locations, the extra bit of effort (not that it’s that difficult) to get there is worth it.
Making friends at Cuatro Vías de Maicao
Amigos

For our own journey, even the required transfer stop at the nondescript Cuatro Vías de Maicao turned out to be an unexpected delight – four free beers (we’ll never say no to that) from the street vendors there while we waited for the next leg of the trip were well received in the hot midday sun.

The town of Cabo de la Vela itself is, unsurprisingly, quite basic with that ‘tumbleweed style’ feel to it. There are, we estimate, a few hundred residents – after a day it feels like you know all of them and they know you – and it gets plenty of tourists passing through, mostly in December and January. However this is still very much Wayuú territory; unlike some other remote Colombian resorts we’ve visited, the indigenous here are the dominant force and haven’t been pushed to the margins. Indeed Spanish plays second fiddle to the Wayuú native tongue in these parts.

En route to Pilón de Azúcar
A desert stroll
On the ‘what to do’ front, relaxing while taking in the scenery and stunning sunsets are pretty much the chief activities. Pilón de Azúcar, a sacred seaside hill overlooking golden sand beaches, is a must to take in. It’s about a 40-minute walk from the town if you fancy stepping it out in the heat, just make sure you take plenty of liquid and cover yourself up well – our nonchalant approach to this was almost our downfall. Alternatively, there are plenty of guys in ‘Cabo’ that will bring you there and back on a motorbike for a small fee.

The sport of kite surfing has found a suitable home here, with a never-ending strong gale blowing. There is also the option of taking a trip to Punta Gallinas, the furthest point north in South America. It’s approximately a two-hour jeep ride to get there and relatively costly; hence, on our tight budget, it was something we passed on this time. We like to give ourselves an excuse or two to return to such places.

The view from the top of Pilón de Azúcar
Atop of Pilón de Azúcar
We found a couple of nights in Cabo sufficient on this occasion – perhaps with a partner in tow it might be worth sticking around a bit longer. Our early morning journey back to the transfer town of Uribia – the nearest urban centre – was memorable for the fact that it seemed to be goat-slaughter day. Thus we were joined in our packed jeep by a few crying goats, all four legs tied together, ready to be dropped (and chopped) off in Uribia. A man’s got to eat we guess.

Returning to our inland abode of Bogotá was nice – we’re not going to disown it just yet – but this latest coastal adventure certainly gave us food for thought. Just more examples of the plethora of treasures Colombia has to offer.

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* See 'Lesser-spotted Colombia: Bahía Solano' at http://bit.ly/X3lWpV.

**For more on that photo shoot, visit http://www.revistadonjuan.com/galerias/andrea-escobar-el-angel-colombiano-de-victorias-secret/12993587/0.

***Hostal Urbe is the name of this place. It's located about three blocks off the main road heading towards the beach, down from the tienda 'Donde Leopoldo'.

Friday, 9 August 2013

San Gil; taming Suárez

Our first visit, over two years ago, to what's seen as Colombia's adventure capital, San Gil, was very much a relaxed affair. On that occasion we had a thoroughly enjoyable time wandering about the rolling Santander countryside, which included taking in the quaint, period village of Barichara.
San Gil from the hilltops
San Gil from the hilltops

This time around, with the help of a good Dutch mate, we cranked up the adrenaline levels a few notches and sampled some of the reasons why the place is renowned for its extreme side. This started with an afternoon of getting a brief taste of varied activities including canopying and rappel, amongst others. For the price we paid (45mil, roughly €20), it wasn't a bad deal.

The main event however was a rafting 'sojourn' down the famed Río Suárez; rated by many as second only in South America to Chile’s Río Futaleufú for its wild rapids. We had been forewarned not to over-estimate our talents mastering this waterway and that perhaps the gentler Río Fonce would be safer, less taxing and thus more enjoyable for all concerned. We’d also been told that those selling the excursion mightn’t be too bothered about our abilities, or lack thereof, in such an activity – Suárez costs more to do, so why scare people off and miss out on more ‘plata’ (cash that is)?

Added to this, the day we tackled Suárez coincided with it being, according to our guides, in one of its roughest moods so to speak.

Now, as oft mentioned here, our ability in deep water is about as good as a handicapped cat. Yet this doesn’t translate into any big fear of doing various aqua sports, especially when we have the safety of a life-jacket tied tightly around us. So we approached this undertaking with relative calm. Throw in the fact that our four on-raft guides and accompanying canoeist where ‘putting their minds/senses at ease’ before we even started – something they also did mid-way through and at the end – made us feel that this wasn’t anything to get too worked up about. Perhaps that was all part of their plan.
Getting ready to tackle Suárez; it looks easy from here
'This will be easy'

We did though do some head-scratching when a luminous wristband containing an emergency services phone number was put around us before the off. We wager this was to be of help to some passer-by in case they found our unconscious, battered body – ‘a one-step guide on what to do if you find human remains’ in a sense. It was, however, valid for just one day; sure you can’t be bothering emergency services with cases more than a day old, can you?

That aside, after a brief dry-run through the various call instructions by our ‘skipper’, the real action got off to a steady start. Although the lads’ persistent criticism of our rowing ability was a little annoying at times – they were lucky they didn’t get an oar in the head at a few stages.

In any case, a little further on we all had greater things to concern us than getting hit in the head by somebody, accidentally or on purpose. That’s because Suárez began to show its teeth. And that meant us taking a ‘dip’ – well it was more like being in a washing machine on its final spin we imagine – on more than one occasion. It certainly got the heart racing – the key being just to go with the flow and hope you don’t smash your body on a rock.

Having ‘gone over’ a number of times, it was with a little trepidation that we approached the infamous ‘La Fantasma’* (The Ghost) section of the river. This is a decent sized stretch with powerful rapids where if you were to fall out early on, you’d be waiting some time and would have encountered a few hefty rocks before you floated to calmer waters.
Working our way through 'La Fantasma'
Steady as she goes...

That our guides stopped to assess it before we went through and had the canoeist do a solo run also got us thinking; should we pass on this one? We’d already had a good thrill, so why quite literally ‘push the boat out’ further for something that looked like it could dangerously get the better of us? Heck though, we’d gone this far, we might as well make the final push – get our money’s worth (you know how important that is to us).

If there was any doubt in our minds about how rough this part was, the sight of one of the guides blessing himself before we got going put it firmly into focus. His plea to the gods worked anyway – well maybe it was more a case of lots of luck mixed in with us working a bit better as a team that saw us through in one, whole piece.

So a few minor bumps and bruises apart and conveniently overlooking our earlier mishaps, we like to think we ‘tamed’ Suárez.

We certainly survived it anyway. Alas there’s a lack of a t-shirt proudly proclaiming so.

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*For a look of us in action on 'La Fantasma', see http://youtu.be/J6T_BDVucJk. And for one of our 'overboard' moments, see http://youtu.be/pTBK0qqCa_g.

**More information on rafting and other activities in San Gil can be found from ‘Adrenalina’ at www.adrenalinasangil.com or by emailing adrenalina.sangil@hotmail.com.

***One pleasant budget accommodation option in San Gil is Hostal Le Papillon, hostallepapillon@hotmail.com. They also organise tours and various adventure sports.