Week 4 - Aguachicha, Santa Marta, Palomino and Uribia
Updated: Feb 23, 2020
After leaving San Gil we stopped in a kind of transit town, mid-way between San Gil and Santa Marta, called Aguachicha. We had planned to stop a night in Floridablanca however on the morning we left they asked us to cancel our reservation as they had no water. Marvellous. We decided just to bypass Floridablanca and do a longer day to get more miles covered.
When we arrived in Aguachicha there was a young lad on a scooter who persued us saying 'hotel, hotel'? I politely declined and he stayed with us as we sailed straight past our booked hotel. A few U-turns later we managed to find our way back to the hotel (Hotel Los Castillos) and parked the bikes safely in the indoor car park. This was the cheapest hotel/hostal we have stayed in so far...for a grand total of £11.50 we had secure parking, a basic, clean double en-suite room complete with air con (woohoo!) and free wifi (which sadly didn't work but not the end of the world). The chap that ran it was also very cheerful...always a plus point.
The next day, we started the second half of our journey to Santa Marta. It was yet another scorching hot day, however I can't moan because I hate the cold, and the sun isn't someting we get a lot of in the UK! We could definitely feel the climate getting hotter though the further North we ventured. All along the route there were people randomly placed at the side of the road selling fruit and drinks and cooking on BBQ's. More often than not, vendors would wait by the entry and exit points to a village or town where there were often huge yellow concrete speed-humps accross the road. All of the cars, trucks and 4x4's would almost come to a complete stop, perfect for when trying to sell stuff. In the absence of the yellow humps, the vendors seemed to construct a make-shift 'hump' with thick ropes. Excellent ploy. I have to say the BBQ's smelt amazing. We were always stared at as we passed people, especially in the towns due to the amount of luggage we had, the noise and the size of our tanks. At several places we have been asked how big the tanks are by locals. In one place Kelvin and I were both a little nervous when we came to what looked like a makeshift road-block, we were surrounded by a few men, but it was an offical roadblock, and the men were just curious about our tanks and kept pointing at them. They were actually really nice, and I think our grumbling anxiety about safety still hasn't fully settled yet.
There were multiple 'peajes' on route that again were all free for motorbikes, bypassing the toll booth down a narrow slip road on the right (a la dereche) with concrete lining either side, and there were also plenty of police and military check points. Fortunately they only seem to stop big trucks and cars rather than bother with motorbikes.
On our travel northwards, there were quite a few yellow signs with various animals on them like ant-eaters, a racoon-like animal, cows, monkey's and a large rat-like animal...if someone who's in the know can educate me about the correct animals depicted it would be welcomed. Kelvin was fortunate enough to see a monkey. I didn't disappointingly and he rubbed it in all the way to Santa Marta. I did however see multiple goats, cows, horses and dogs just wandering at the roadside. Quite often, the goats particularly would just decide to trot out into the road, completely oblivious to the traffic. I'm glad we managed to miss them, goat vs motorbike may not have turned out so well!
Sadly, on this stretch of the journey the long sweeping bends were absent and had been replaced by very long straight stretches of road. It did make overtaking the masses of lorries (big American trucks often) and motorbikes carrying whole families on the way a lot easier, and it also meant less dodgy overtaking by locals on blind bends, but it didn't create quite the same buzz. Oh yeah, road markings don't appear to have much impact over here. If you are aware of that, you will be fine.
We finally got to the hotel that we had booked to stay at in Santa Marta; Hotel Santa Marta Real. The main reason for choosing it was the secure parking. Also, Kelvin had got us a nicer hotel for my birthday, which was lovely. Once we got our bikes parked we took off our bike gear and we were covered in sweat (or perspiration for those of you who prefer less minging terminology). We were getting accustomed to being drenched, and it was understandable why most local people don't wear anything but shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops, however that goes completely against what I've been taught from the first time I got my leg over a motorcycle so I think we'll be continuing our sweatiness! However, Kelvin is finding adjusting to the heat more challenging, so every time we return to the hotel room, before I can even say 'do you want a cold beer' (WARNING: CENSORED IMAGERY ALERT) he's completely bollocks-naked, starfished on the bed with air con on full whack! Once he has returned to being human again he then gets in the shower. To be fair it is bloody hot.
So, what is Santa Marta like? Well, what I didn't realise to begin with was that the day we arrived was also a public holiday in Colombia (May Day bank holiday in the UK), meaning a lot was shut. We went for a walk around the beach and the nearby streets and I have to say, my initial impressions were poor. There was a distinct aroma of urine on several streets and the beach was quite dirty. Kelvin also said that he felt the same and it wasn't what we had expected at all. Later on that evening, we ventured out of the hotel again and it was like Santa Marta had come alive. It had a completely different feel. Likewise, the next morning we went for a long walk on the beach and found some other beaches that were quieter and cleaner, the temperature was more bearable (about 32 degrees) and the whole place seemed calm and happy. Four hours passed swiftly by.
I think maybe when we arrived we were just hot and bothered and hadn't given the place a chance. The ambience was lively that first evening and there were lots of street sellers and artists trying to sell their wares, and if you say no, they don't persist. Street sellers seem to be quite well embraced here and actually sell snacks, lunches and drinks to people working in the shops or people travelling on buses as well as the driver. That evening, we were also treated to a steet dance by some kids from Venezuela and they were superb. One chap doing the rounds made a rose and a grasshopper out of reeds. I watched him make it and it was quite a skilled process. If he lived in Western society and could learn to make his models out of wood or metal he would be well-off. It's sad that so many talented and skilled people have practically nothing, and the other sad thing was that the next morning when we went for our walk he was asleep on the beach shaded by a wall, not in the manner that he was enjoying the beach or sunbathing. How true it is I am uncertain, but apparently a lot of people in Colombia are homeless where they have been moved out of their homes and off their land to make way for drug cartels, guerrilas, their Coca crops and harvesting facilities; not the kind of people you want to argue with I would imagine! Obviously it's not everyone but there's been a lot of issues in Colombia. I'm juso glad that now things appear to be settling it enables more people to discover this wonderful country.
During our stay in Santa Marta, it was my birthday and after breakfast we went for a swim in the Caribbean sea. It was just the perfect temperature in the water and we played catch with a random round fruit that we found in the absence of a beach ball. The only thing I would say it probably avoid swallowing the water, especially with a cargo ship harbour close by and several cargo ships moored in the bay. It was a lovely swim though and after we returned to the hotel later, they had organised a surprise birthday lunch for us, on the house. It was so yummy with chorizo, steak pieces, salad and fried squashed plantain, complete with fresh juice and a glass of red wine each which they even topped up! It's definitely worth mentioning your birthday! That evening we finished off my birthday with a couple of awesome cocktails just up the street...pina colada's and gin passion. I assume most people will know what a pina colada is?! The gin passion was gin (suprise, suprise), triple sec, lime and passion fruit all mixed together and blended with ice in a large glass...quality and quantity! I have particularly come to love everything passion fruit in Colombia and I think I am actually addicted to it. It's just so flavoursome, fresh and abundant. Also, fresh fruit juices cost peanuts and it's by far the most tasty, I've even got Kelvin loving it now. I will definitely miss it when we return.
I did buy myself a present for my birthday; a long-sleeve wicking top because my 'french-stick' suntan on my arms (courtesy of my airtex offroad armoured top) that has been increasing in surface area on a daily basis and it looking a bit embarrasing, as well as not great for skin health. Problem solved!
Besides passion fruit, the other thing I love here is their Hawaiian pizzas. They prepare the pineapple very differently and it's quite sweet but very flavoursome, and all their bread also has a sweetness in it that takes a bit of getting used to. Unfortunately cheese in Colombia isn't great. At least with a good pizza you don't notice it but otherwise it's a bit yuck. No mature cheddar in sight.
On the thursday (4th May...I will resist the urge to throw in the Star Wars line) we headed to Palomino. This is a GREAT place. It's not over commercialised, no ATM's, no shopping centres, nothing flashy...it's like the undeveloped, uncommercialised Byron Bay of Colombia. Yes it's 'touristy' but it is amazingly relaxed and the beach is wonderful. If you ever come here, walk down the main dirt road to the beach, turn left and keep walking along the sand until you reach the point where the river joins the sea...you won't regret it. Unfortunately our camera ran out of battery and no phones on us so no picture I'm afraid, but it's beautiful with sea one side, river on the other with a back drop of palm trees and greenery; not too many people bother to walk that far, which is a bonus. In Palomino we stayed at the Color Hostal because of it's secure parking, air con and price (sorry to keep mentioning price, but when you're on a super tight budget it's a huge factor). It was a good decision because it was easy to find, just off the main road and away from the hussle and bussle of the main route down to the beach, and it meant we walked a lot. Some of the hostals on the way down to the beach were quite expensive, however you could still go in and order food or drink there, which was great because for us it meant you could get the best of both worlds. Loads of structures were built from thick bamboo and reed roofs (I think), and there were several places under construction that looked like they would be amazing once completed.
On our daily walks in Palomino, we noticed several good uses of old tyres and inner tubes. Tyres are used whole to paint and write place names on, or cut and flattened to create speed bumps. The Colombian village equivalent of Kwik-Fit was interesting and probably provided a better service!
The main activity of Palomino is 'tubing'. Large, inflated lorry inner tubes used to float down the Rio Palomino (Palomino river) to it's mouth where it meets the Caribbean sea. Yes, we did it for our five year anniversary and it was fantastic, and only about £8 for the both of us (negotiated down from £10.50, in Spanish, by me...yes I'm proud!). So, what happens when you go tubing? Well a couple of guys on little motorbikes (no more than 180cc) indicate for you to jump on as pillion; yep, no helmet, no proper gear, just swim stuff and sandals! Then, they stop off on route to get their mate to hand you a large inflated inner tube which you have to hold onto tightly, while you are driven by motorbike about 15 minutes off road to the start of a path. The bikes did struggle up some of the bumpy hills with two full-grown adults on them, or maybe thats all the street food we've eaten?!?! You are then told to walk, go up a hill, back down and then the little river meets the big river. Get in with tube. Easy! What a walk! The hill was very steep and kept going, plus it was boiling, but what was cool was seeing all of the ants busying themselves and collecting leaves at several locations along the path. After about 40 minutes of slow walking as not to faint, we reached the river and it was very welcomed. The scenery was lush green, and the river had multiple mini beaches. There was no sound of cars, very few other people in sight other than a few scattered locals bathing in the river or collecting reeds, and loads of birds. It was blissful. We were fortunate as prior to our arrival it had apparently been raining heavily and the river had swelled, meaning you could relax for the whole trip and not have to pick your tube up and walk (unless you're Kelvin)...the charade from the guy explaning this to us was quite amusing to watch; like an ungraceful ballet dancer.
Palomino is also a good place to surf, although there were often strong currents so when the red flags were out the only thing on the water was the birds. The guy at the hostal had his surfboard strapped to the side of his Honda CB150. He was really interested in our trip and was a genuinely nice guy.
In the majority of places we have stayed at, breakfast has been included, and in Colombia that usually means coffee, juice, fresh fruit, toast or arepas and scrambled egg with ham and cheese or tomato and onion. You may go a bit hungry if you don't like eggs as there hasn't been another option available, but lucky for us we do, and it's a good filling breakfast. Quite useful when you have to take doxycycline every day. It is known for causing real hypersensitivity to the sun and awful indigestion, but so far we've taken it daily without a problem, and indigestion is something I would normally suffer from. If you have to take it as an anti-malarial or other issue just do what it says: take them with/after food, with lots of water and do not lay down for at least half an hour after - sit or stand only.
On the last evening in Palomino there was an almighty thunder storm, so much so I had to cover my ears on a couple of occasions when the roar of thumder came almost immediately after the lightning, and the rain pelted it down. The hostal also lost power, so my head torch came in handy for the first time this trip. Once it settled a little we ventured out to find dinner...another hawaiian pizza (about £2.50). It was cool sitting in a bamboo restaurant, looking out at the rain. The dirt streets turned to mud and the frogs were out in force...I never knew how loud they were but in one place in particular I couldn't believe the noise was just from frogs, it was immense. The cats all found refuge in the dry (there's three resident at the hostal) and came to eye up the food. Everywhere we go, Kelvin makes friends with the cats. We could never live in Colombia otherwise I think we would have a whole house filled with cats we had rescued!
Being a small town, the rules seemed to be a little lax in terms of age of motorcycle riders; I swear I saw some young boys that couldn't have been much over seven years old riding motorcycles around, and with pillions, on the road. They appeared safe-enough though. I wish we had some of the smaller bikes they have here in the UK and also, they keep things going; Things can still be worked on and fixed here (hence our decision to have DR650 motorbikes) not just thrown away and replaced, like so many modern things are designed to do. People work on their bikes in all sorts of places; in their front room, on the side of the street, in the middle of the street. Also, they fully embrace LED lights, in multiple colours, in multiple locations, flashing/non-flashing, different speeds etc...at least people are visible on their bikes however, especially with the cars, you can never tell if someone is flashing you or if there actually is a hazard ahead, and a lot of the police vehicles just have their flashing lights on when they are travelling, which is quite disconcerting when there's one behind you and you don't know whether to stop or not...then they overtake nice and chilled, no rush.
The locals, young and old, commonly sold the 'contraband' fuel bought over from the Venezuelan border (fuel is super cheap in Venezuela), as well as most other little huts and houses from Palomino eastwards. Not knowing the quality of the fuel we chose to fill up at the petrol station on the advice of the hostal manager.
After filling our tanks we headed to Uribia, situated deep in the La Guajira region. Palomino is only the very edge of it. During the first 2 km, the glorious sunshine turned into torrential rain and a thunderstorm so we stopped and I swapped my off-road top to my Rukka jacket. Then, within the next 5km a large tree had fallen accross the road. No problem! Out jumped some men from their trucks, machette's in hand and started hacking away at the tree until there was a path big enough for the vehicles to pass through, and then they jumped back in their vehicles and carried on. It was a bit slippery with all the leaves and branches but we both got through fine.
It only took about four hours of straight roads. It was the only road going to Uribia, so when you needed to turn off there was only one option so you couldn't go wrong - well that's if you can see the turn off with all the people in the road trying to sell food, drink and cheap fuel. When we got there it took us a while to find the hostal and we had to stop a few times. The kids were really friendly and smiley, asking where we were going and where we were staying. They beamed when we gave them a big thumbs up. The adults mainly stared at us, in an intrigued kind of way. The roads were a little confusing in the town and the market place was quite dirty, strewn with litter. We did eventually find the hostal (Hostal Villa Maria), and welcomed the air con. That evening we had the most disgusting burger we have ever attempted to eat in our lives, it was rank. Neither of us could face just trying to slowly consume it so I just left most of mine and Kelvin took out his meat (apparently that's what it was called), and gave it to a dog, however not even the dog would eat it!! We bought a beer on the way back to get ride of the disgusting taste in our mouths.
The La Guajira region is home to many of the native American Wayuu people, and the region boasts some amazing places consisting of predominantly desert: Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas being two popular destinations. Our mission is to get to Cabo de la Vela, however you ideally need a guide or larger group for Punta Gallinas, which is expensive and risking it alone isn't worth it, especially as I have no prior experience riding in sand, let-alone fully kitted, plus you need to carry all the water you need with you adding additional weight. It's a shame but we can't do everything and we have so much left to see of this beautiful, diverse continent. We will let you know how our desert travels went in the next blog.
Best buys: Delorme In-Reach Explorer and Kelvin's Garmin GPS. Worst buy: My Garmin Sat-Nav. It keeps over-heating and having a hissy fit (this started in the last blog) but now it's constant.