3 stops in the Colombian Caribbean

As much as I loved getting to know Colombia’s mountainous interior, too much time away from the ocean and I am a fish out of water. So I shifted my sights to the north and headed to the country’s Caribbean coast where tropical beaches, muggy weather, and even a bit of surfing awaited.

My tour of the Colombian Caribbean is somewhat of a last hurrah — the final leg of my 8-month jaunt in South America before returning home to California. It’s been a bitter-sweet moment of experiencing a new part of the world and reminiscing on all the pieces of memories that made the trip what it was.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed experiencing some of the various geographic zones of Colombia, from the chilly mountains to the humid coast, and the various people and accents of Spanish in between.

I’ve been here in the Caribbean for two weeks where I’ve got to spend some time in three locations that are all unique in their own way: Santa Marta, Minca, and Puerto Colombia.

Santa Marta

Before going to Santa Marta all I really knew about it was its place in Shakira lyrics.

As the proverb says:

“I want us to travel the area from Santa Marta to la Arenosa… If someday you show Pique Tayrona, he won’t want to leave for Barcelona.”

(If you are out of the loop on pop culture — not that I am in the loop — Pique is Shakira’s husband and professional soccer player for Barcelona.)

Anyway, inserting myself into a Shakira song, I flew from Bogotá to Santa Marta with my cousin and her husband, getting my first taste of Colombian coast.

Santa Marta turned out to be a quaint, yet bustling coastal town. It’s a port that receives container ships, so as a result, the city has a fairly busy commercial sector.

Its downtown has a lively nightlife teeming with mainly Colombian tourists from the country’s various inland metropolises.

As far as a destination for a beach getaway, Santa Marta itself isn’t anything special. There are some ok beaches, but mainly Santa Marta serves as a portal or launching off point to visit the more pristine beaches to the north in Tayrona National Park and beyond.

As my luck had it, I happened to be visiting during one of the few moments of the year when the park was closed, but we rented a car one day to explore some of the picturesque tropical beaches and nature nearby.

Santa Marta was worth a visit, but due to the city’s sheltered position from the prevailing swell direction, there isn’t any surfing there so I don’t think I’d last too long. A week was perfect.

Crystal blue water at Playa los Ángeles.
As chill as I look, I was actually getting bitten by ants.

Minca

One of the most impressive parts of northern Colombia, at least geographically speaking, is the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. These mountains are isolated from the renowned Andes, sitting just 26 miles off the coast and soaring to altitudes of nearly 19,000 feet. They are the only mountains in the world of this height in a coastal setting.

Nestled in the foothills of the range is the charming mountain village of Minca.

Everyone told me that Minca is a must-visit, so on a day when my work schedule was fairly light, I decided to hop in a van and head up into the mountains.

Even only at 2,000 feet above sea level, the heat and humidity are noticeable more refreshing in Minca. While the touristy parts of Santa Marta consisted mainly of Colombians with some foreigners sprinkled in, Minca seemed to be catering to a hipper, foreign crowd.

I looked around at the other visitors and realized I was just another hippy gringo wandering the streets of Minca. Nothing new here.

While you can find cute cafes with vegan options to cater to the bohemian crowd of Minca, the main attraction is the nature. Waterfalls, jungle, mountain tops, and even a lost city that outdates Machu Picchu are the main attractions.

I decided to forgo any machine assistance in my tour and set off on foot up the muddy roads to visit a waterfall and bag a peak.

I made my first stop at Marinka waterfall — a refreshing place to take a dip, but a bit built up and touristy for my taste. So after a quick pitstop there, I headed back on the road and trudged uphill to a lookout point some miles away.

The slight flaw in my plan, which I was very aware of, was that with my late start to the day (11am arrival), I was surely going to get caught in the afternoon rainstorms that hit like clockwork every day during the rainy season.

And sure enough, as I was trudging through the jungle a light drizzle slowly turned into a torrential downpour as thunderclouds belched bursts of deafening lightning overhead.

These muddy dirt roads, despite being so remote, had a reasonable amount of vehicle traffic due to some remote eco-resorts in the area, so I was never really too worried about getting stuck up there. Help was just an outstretched thumb away if need be.

As the rain reached its peak I ducked under a tin-roofed hut with some local motorcycle taxi drivers also waiting out the rain. They were nice enough to give me a ride to the nearest hostel where I could more comfortably wait for the rain to let up. I rewarded them with some nut bars that they absolutely loved. I wish I had taken a picture of their faces when I offered them food.

And while the rain did slow down a bit, it didn’t really stop. I committed to becoming soaked and pushed up to my destination which provided epic views all the way down to the ocean’s edge in Santa Marta.

Something about being thoroughly soaked, muddy, and alone made me feel particularly alive and in the present. As miserable as it can be to be cold and wet, I found some pleasure in my condition. This feeling is what I’ve been looking for after all, isn’t it?

Marinka waterfall outside of Minca.
My new moto-taxi buddies sheltering from the rain.
A much-needed breath of fresh mountain air.
Views from above Minca towards the coast.

Puerto Colombia

After my week in Santa Marta, it had been over a month since I last had touched a surfboard.

I didn’t realize how bad I really had been missing riding waves until I pulled into Puerto Colombia.

Just 40-minutes outside of the busy port of Barranquilla, Puerto Colombia is a little surf/fishing village where the pace of life is miles slower than that of the neighboring metropolis.

Puerto Colombia is curiously named (Port Colombia), but it makes more sense when you learn about the town’s history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was an important port for South America and the principal port of Colombia. It was eventually eclipsed by the better-situated port of Barranquilla, but the town’s historic past can still be seen by the decrepit chunk of the pier that juts out of the ocean. The pier was once the longest in the world in its heyday. Now it’s just an aquatic ruin and Puerto Colombia is just a little village.

I hopped on a bus to Barranquilla and when I got off a taxi driver game of tug-a-war ensued over my surfboard. It was like an 8-way battle. Eventually, one driver prevailed and I guess I had no choice but to go with him.

I arrived at my friend’s surf hostel on the beach in the early afternoon and took a look at the ocean. Knee-high waves were wrapping around a rock jetty and reeling down the sand bottom point for hundreds of yards.

I’m not much of a longboarder, but the conditions called for it so I paddled out on a log, and boy did I surprise myself with how much fun I had.

I was running laps around the point just catching the most meager, yet laughably long ankle-biters. I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear as I traded off waves with another local surfer.

Even as a deluge began to flood the beach and streets, I was still out there in the water enjoying one of those rare sessions that reminds you why you surf in the first place. When I am often surfing crappy, crowded waves, it can be hard to find that inner joy that once hooked me on surfing. But apparently a month away from the ocean and a baby point break was all it took for that feeling to resurface. Who would’ve thought surfing in the Colombia Caribbean was just what the doctor ordered.

Taxi set up from Barranquilla to Puerto Colombia.
Meeting up with the local legend Simon to go for a surf out front.

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