Santa Marta, Taganga, and Parque Tayrona, Colombia
South America 2010
Colombia — Medellin, Santa Marta, Taganga, Parque Tayrona
Not done yet: Cartagena, Amazon, Lima, Cusco, Salkantay/Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, La Paz.
Tip: Use j/k to move up and down.
After a week in Medellín, Colombia, I took an
overnight bus to Santa Marta, a 17 hour drive north to the
Caribbean coast of Colombia. Unfortunately for me, I had been getting
a little sick, and the harsh air conditioning on the bus sealed the
deal. Why the buses are kept at 60°F when outside it's 90°F is
beyond me; my Colombian busmates wearing winter jackets and blankets
didn't seem to know either.
When I took a taxi into Santa Marta, I met with another Colombian
idiosyncrasy — nobody has change. All I had to pay the 4.000
COP fare was a 20.000 COP bill. The taxi driver said he had no
change, so he had to park with his flashers on while we ran over to
ask at a couple stores/restaurants if they could change a 20. None
had any or would give us any, so we had to get some drinks at a
restaurant just to get some smaller bills. I wanted a water anyway,
but I felt a bit bad for the taxi driver nervously eying his car and
losing fares because he didn't have 16.000 in change.
A couple drinks bought just to get change.
It was fun talking to the taxi driver anyway and only took a few
minutes. In conversations with others since, two theories have been
put forward as to why nobody has change, with supporting anecdotes for
each. First, some merchants might say they have no change with the
hopes that you'll just let them keep the larger bill out of
frustration. Second, some vendors might not want to keep very much
cash on hand for fear that it will be stolen.
Santa Marta is a cute little town and — founded in 1525 — one of the oldest surviving European cities in South America.
I didn't stay in Santa Marta long, but quickly made my way to Taganga, a tiny town one beach over from Santa Marta. My goal there: go scuba diving. As the highlighted text in my Lonely Planet guide says, Taganga is one of the cheapest places in the world to go diving and take PADI classes. Perfect.
I was still a little sick from the epic bus ride in. This normally wouldn't have bothered me, except that you can't scuba dive if your ears are clogged, because the air behind your eardrum would be unable to equalize in pressure with the surrounding environment. So the only part of the class I could get started on was watching the introductory video, a 3.5 hour affair with at least a solid 20 minutes of content.
In Taganga I initially stayed at Casa Holanda, which often had great dinners: for example, this fish with coconut rice and mango juice.
A very typical meal in Taganga: fried fish, fried plantains, salad, and coconut rice, served at one of the restaurants on the beach.
The view from one of those restaurants.
There are quite a few street dogs in South America, most not quite as cute as this one.
In the evening everyone hangs out on the beach, which proved an easy way to meet many colorful characters. In the background is the Taganga grocery store, which I later realized is just a liquor store that happens to sell cereal.
A few girls from Bern, Switzerland. For some reason I met many people from the northern Swiss-German speaking part of Switzerland, but only one from the southern French speaking part.
Of course, the real reason I went to Taganga was to
go scuba diving. I took the PADI Open Water scuba course
at Aquantis dive
center for 580.000 COP, about USD $290. The course includes five
dives and the necessary class time and materials for the PADI Open
Water certification, which can be used to dive around the world.
Unfortunately my camera doesn't enjoy diving as much as I do, so the
only pictures are from a couple dives with the school's underwater
An eel and some brainy-looking coral. I learned that coral is closed during the day and only opens to feed at night.
A Lionfish. Somehow nobody told me that these are very poisonous.
Lobster that I mercifully did not eat.
Crab that I mercifully did not eat.
Perhaps a type of Sea Ameneomnomee?
I took the scuba class with one other student, Choco, a guy from Texas. Here Choco demonstrates the fin pivot, a maneuver where you pivot up and down only by changing your buoyancy. On a dive you set your baseline buoyancy by inflating and deflating your BCD (Buoyancy Control Device), and you control your differential buoyancy to ascend or descend simply by breathing.
Me and Choco.
Rather large (2.5 ft) Porcupine fish.
Eel. Made me want some sushi.
Thumbs up actually means ascend, but some habits are hard to break.
Choco and I with the Aquantis boat.
The PADI certification requires one to demonstrate both practical diving skills and knowledge of diving theory. Here our awesome diving instructor, Niko, endeavors to make the latter as interesting as possible, an effort only helped by the use of these candles during a power outage.
Fun diving note: to avoid decompression sickness
("the bends") after a dive, one must be careful to ensure that the
level of dissolved nitrogen in the blood and other body tissues is not
so high that it will come out of solution when returning to
atmospheric pressure at the surface. The level of nitrogen in
solution may be estimated by integrating an ODE describing the amount
of nitrogen absorbed or released per time. Because iterations of the
trapezoid rule would be fairly cumbersome to work out at 20 meters,
this ODE has been boiled down to a set of three lookup tables printed
on a plastic card called
Dive Planner (RDP). Alternately, most divers use more convenient
computers, which measure one's depth and constantly integrate this
equation to provide an estimate of the amount of nitrogen dissolved at
any given time. Dive computers are also preferred to the lookup
tables because, not suffering from large quantization errors, they are
able to allow for longer dives.
After passing the Open Water test, Choco and I both decided to head to nearby Parque Tayrona.
Hiking was fun, but riding horses down the mountains to the beach was more fun. Especially because the horses were constantly running to try to be in front.
Ahh, misty Colombian mountains.
Hearing that food in Parque Tayrona was scarce and expensive, we brought some food from the grocery store. My favorite was this can of Vienna sausages in some red sauce best left unknown.
One of the huts on the beach where hammocks breed.
The hammocks were nice enough to allow me to join their colony for the night, and with far more comfort than I had imagined.
Also: one day on the beach this happened, forcing me to walk a couple miles wearing my shirt where my wayward bathing suit should have been and, more problematically, nothing where my shirt should have been. Oh, I also simultaneously lost my sunscreen, the combination resulting in my worst sunburn of the trip (yet).
Taxi ride through part of Parque Tayrona, memorable because I couldn't decide which was funnier: the fact that driving through rivers in taxis was completely foreign to me, or the fact that any of the obvious Oregon Trail references would be completely foreign to the taxi driver.
Back in Taganga, I decided that no amount of sightseeing in the next city would be more fun than doing some more scuba diving, so I decided to stay a few more days and take the PADI Advanced Open Water course. One of the lessons I could have learned anywhere, but didn't until under the simplified tutelage of long-term travel, is that when a hankering for something pops up, nothing stops you more than yourself.
The last of the five dives for PADI Advanced Open Water was a night dive.
Turns out being 60 feet underwater with nothing but an impotent flashlight is exactly as weird and scary as it sounds.
One of the ubiquitous jugo fresco (fresh juice) stands around Colombia. You tell them what to put in the blender, and USD $1 later it's yours.
At some point I moved to La Casa de Felipe to save some money, and I couldn't have been happier. Among other things, they have a heavenly third floor shaded rooftop patio with hammocks that looks over the town, mountains, and ocean.