Smugglers Along The Colombian Caribbean
Clear blue waters and white tranquil beaches against a lush green mountain range, this is the cliché that describes the Colombian Caribbean coast best. Whereas parts of this coastline were inaccessible in the past due to the guerilla being around, nowadays many parts are safe to wander around, to hike or to camp. You may find the numerous police controls around a bit intimidating, but don’t forget this is Colombia. Here the presence of police is usually a good sign, a sign that the area is largely cleared and being watched. Unwatched territories may still fall in the hands of the guerilla again.
Mind you, the guerilla is not the only reason for the Colombian police having its eyes on this region. Its proximity to the Venezuelan border – with among others its cheap gasoline prices – makes this area an attractive route for smuggling, as we experienced when ending up in a bus full of smuggled gasoline and other goods.
When embarking on one of the most worn out buses we have ever seen in our lives, smelling this unusual penetrating, headache giving odor and being told different easily negotiable bus fares, we should have realised something was not fully right. It was, however, only after some passengers moving restlessly to the back of the bus when it was occasionally being halted by the police and facing the -to Colombian standards- unusual rudeness of bus personnel, that we got more suspicious.
After being stopped by the police for the umpteenth time and suddenly having to get off, the bus being inspected from all sides, our suspicions of something not kosher going on got confirmed by the police inspectors. This bus was full of smuggled gasoline! Over to another bus!
But let’s get back to this beautiful region now and leave this incident for what it was.
One of the most visited national parks of the Caribbean coast is Tayrona National Park. This park is only 34 km from the city of Santa Marta and can be visited easily on a day trip from the city. To see the park well we do recommend you to stay overnight and camp in the park, either in your own tent or in a hammock at one of the campsites instead. Provisions may be a bit spartan, but hey, isn’t that just the charm of it sometimes?
In case you don’t like camping and you are neither a fan of staying in a city, but you search for a more quiet, romantic spot, Palomino is your place to be.
This little coastal village, just an hour drive from the main entrance of the national park, is still fairly unspoiled and undeveloped compared to other parts of the coast. Kilometers of stunning coastline and lack of internet access made it a perfect place to relax for some days. Actually, you quite easily get stuck if you don’t watch it.
Time will certainly also change in this area, as already seen when visiting neighbouring hotels, but as for now Palomino ranks high on our list of favourite beach places in South America. And yes, it could easily compete with the many beautiful Brazilian beaches we have seen…
Ps 1. As for bus travel in Colombia, your best bet is to travel with the more reputable bus companies that are generally not allowed to stop for everyone waiving them down. This may be more difficult in small villages like Palomino – the reason that we ended up in the above story -, but as a tourist you may be a bit more lucky to get on if there are some free seats left.
Ps 2. If you like to read more about the changes Colombia has gone through to arrive at the stage it is now, read: ‘No lost causes’ by former president Uribe. It’ll make you understand the Colombian situation a lot better.
Having Chicha At Pisac’s Sunday Market
Although the Sacred Valley in Peru is mainly known for the different Inca sites scattered around, the Andean villages in this area are definitely worth a visit, or more.
Pisac, only 33 kilometers from Cusco, is one of these villages. Besides a visit to the Inca fortress Intihuatana close to the village, its Sunday market is definitely worthwhile a visit for tourists and locals alike.
It is an ideal chance to see the locals – mainly women – trade and do their groceries, to shop for some nice souvenirs and occasionally accompany the locals when they are drinking a chicha or two to close of the day before they commence their sometimes hours’ long walks back home.
Chicha can be found in many other South American countries, can be alcoholic or non-alcoholic and tastes vary depending on the fruits or plants used.
In Cusco and surroundings chicha is mostly brewed from corn. These days the locally brewed corn beer is mostly brewed mechanically, although homemade chicha still exists and is actually nicer.
Want to try out some homemade chicha in this region? Look for colored plastic bags tied to a pole above the doors of the houses in the village. Perhaps some locals will be awaiting you.
When the height hits in, the question is will you do it, or better put, are you able to do it.
Travelling in a mountainous region is no joke, at least if you are speaking about the Cordillera Blanca, Peru and many other regions in Peru and Bolivia. It is surely different in the European mountains, in which you are generally only high up for a short time and transported by chair lifts and the like. But let’s set that aside.
This year of travelling we have been faced with altitude sickness quite often, for example on Lake Titicaca or in Huacachina. It is something your body does not easily adapt to and is unpredictable over and over again. Yet, to see certain things you have to make sacrifices, right? The expression ‘no pain, no gain’ doesn’t come out of nowhere.
The Cordillera Blanca – or more precisely Parque Nacional Huascaran – is, however, worth all efforts. After all, your mind often seems to forget the pain, but remembers the beautiful views it has seen. It is remarkable how our brains work every time again.
There are many one- or multiple day treks possible in the park. We chose for the one up to Laguna 69. For those who wonder where this name comes from, I am sorry to disappoint you… no juicy story here. While mapping all the beautiful lakes in this region, this lake was simply the 69th lake they numbered. At least that’s the story we have been told …
While hiking up to the lake, the views of the surroundings are pretty impressive. Waterfalls, high snow-peaked mountains, little streams, wild meadows and some lost cows. The ultimate treat will be waiting at a height of 4600 meters: the turquoise coloured Laguna 69.
Up Close With Cóndors
Encountering animals during my travels often gives me that happy feeling not many other things give. Were it the street dogs following our paths everywhere in Chile and Argentina, the dolphins playing around with us at Praia da Pipa or our highlight of the Galápagos wildlife, every time I am surprised how animals touch our hearts.
To see that some people choose to dedicate their life to take care of homeless, injured or maltreated animals is therefore always heartwarming and good to see. Luckily we encountered a number of people like that while travelling through South America. Hostel Alto del Aguila in Puerto Nariño where one could play around with wildlife was one of the nicest examples.
Parque Cóndor close to Otavalo, Ecuador, is another rehab centre that left a very good impression. The rehabilitation centre, which is owned by a Dutch foundation, gives shelter to raptors, vultures and other birds of prey that have been injured, maltreated or for other reasons cannot survive in the wild by themselves anymore. Apart from being in a stunning setting, with a view over the valley where Otavalo lies, the park is well designed and the birds seem to have sufficient space to still fly around a bit.
Twice a day free flight demonstrations are given, something which is a must-see when visiting the park. It will give you a great opportunity to see fantastic birds, such as Andean condors, hawks, eagles, owls and falcons up close and in action. If you are lucky one of them may even land on your arm or shoulder.
Parque Cóndor is some 4 kilometres walking from Otavalo through a beautiful landscape. Alternatively you can take a taxi from the city and ask at the park to call for a taxi back.