Upon departing Cartagena last Tuesday, I boarded a collectivo (shared bus) to Santa Marta, a small city situated on the Northern coast of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. The definitive northern point of the South American backpacker trail, Santa Marta is a juxtaposition of contradictions. At the popular "Dreamer Hostel” where most travelers stay, one can check in, drop their heavy bags in one of the dormitories, grab a beer and lounge poolside for days at a time. With its English-speaking staff and Western food, the Dreamer is an oasis of comfort and relaxation in an otherwise hot, dirty, and developing town. Upon stepping outside the hostels doors, I was confronted by a challenging combination of a lack of tourist infrastructure and a general disdain for helping gringo travelers find their way.
On the afternoon of my arrival, I began to get to know my new surrounding by ingratiating myself with the other inhabitants, an eclectic mix of long-term backpackers from all around the world. Everyone was seemingly headed North through Central America or headed on the reverse trip down the Western coast of South America. For not the first time on my journey, I found myself as the only American in sight and was actually able to make my heritage useful by providing advice to a group of Europeans eventually headed to Miami for a winding road trip across The United States.
As we relaxed in the sun, wagered beers on games of pool, and partook in a surprisingly intense game of pool volleyball, it easily became apparent how one could spend a week in Santa Marta without venturing far from the idyllic environment of The Dreamer, which was voted Colombia’s best hostel in 2014.
The following day I grouped up with a small army of fellow travelers over breakfast who were all planning on heading over to the nearby Tayrona National Park for a day trip to the beach, the main attraction in the nearby area. The long hike to the shoreline was sweaty and arduous, but luckily complimented untouched jungle wildlife, spectacular views of the coastline below, and great company as our group got to know each other.
After soaking all of our attire completely through with sweat while trekking through the steamy Colombian jungle, we arrived at Cabo San Juan, an outpost of civilization deep into an otherwise devoid stretch of gorgeous beaches. The beach here is lined with tents and hammocks, tempting travelers to forget their meticulously planned itineraries and post up on the beach for a few days, leaving the troubles of the rest of the world behind. We spent a few hours swimming in the calm cove and soaking up the sun’s rays before hiking another 10KMs back to the starting point and finally collapsing back at the hostel with a few hard-earned Club Colombia cervezas.
One of the biggest differences in the traveling circuit between Southeast Asia and South America is the modes of transportation. Whereas flights are expensive and infrequent across most of Southeast Asia, I was able to book a flight from Santa Marta to Medellin for just $50, $10 cheaper than a bus and 13 hours faster. The following morning I set off for the airport with three others from the Dreamer hostel on the same flight. Along the way we were lucky enough to receive advice and a brief orientation from Carlos, a Medellin local who scoffed at most of Lonely Planet’s recommendations and prepared us for all the city has to offer.
As complex as it is chaotic, Medellin stuns the eyes with a dizzying array of high rises, towering mountains surrounding the city on all four sides, and a never-ending expanse of brick pueblos with tin roofs across the valley floor. Combined with its gorgeous modern and classic architecture, a world-class above ground public transportation system, and local paisas, the most outgoing and friendly people in all of Colombia, Medellin immediately sucks you in. I’ve been here just three days so far, but I get the impression that I could live here for three months and still just begin to scratch the surface of all there is to do and see in this charming city.
For a growing industrial city of almost four million, Medellin is unexpectedly green and filled with massive open-air parks and rivers running alongside major thoroughfares. Although bars and restaurants pave the streets in the popular neighborhoods of town, nightlife in Medellin consists of stepping into a minimart to purchase a bottle of rum or a few beers and posting up in one of the city's many plazas, sitting back to observe as the social scene of locals and travelers alike develops all around the outdoor squares. Yesterday I made my way over to the city's free Botanical gardens with a crew of entertaining British backpackers I had met the night before, enjoying the opportunity to experience some of the country's diverse wildlife while surrounded by all the trappings of a major city.
This morning I set off to explore a completely different section of the city, stumbling across a multitude of crowded plazas, beautiful cathedrals, and the Museo de Antioquia, which housed a collection of paintings and sculptures from Fernando Bortero, Medellin's most famous artist and the namesake of the Borterismo style.
One of the most unexpected and enjoyable pleasures of traveling has been that regardless of where I am in the world, there always seem to be friendly and outgoing people who share so much in common with me. The similarities cross disparate areas of interest and span oceans and cultures. Here are just a few of the times I felt right at home on another continent in just the last week:
- During the hike in Tayrona National Park, our group debated topics as disparate as the best music festivals and our favorite episodes of Vice, all the while comparing proposed itineraries with destinations that others had already traversed during their journeys.
- Immediately upon arriving at the hostel in Medellin, I was thrilled to see a group of basketball fans preparing to watch game 1 of the NBA finals, including a British guy with an encyclopedic basketball knowledge who "got hooked on NBA 2K5 and never looked back."
- While strolling through the botanical gardens yesterday, three of the backpackers I was hanging out with revealed that they were at various points of working through the Game of Thrones books, which instantly launched us into a spoiler-free discussion of speculation and theories of how both the books and TV series will end.
It’s been barely a week since I departed left the United States behind for a second time, but traveling never seems to disappoint in its ability to distort the normal realities of time. When each day is filled with the possibility of another adventure, meeting interesting people, and experiencing another culture in a unique way, time seems to expand, stretching hours into days and days into weeks.