It was hard to leave San Gil so soon but we were both in need of a bit of sun on our pasty skin so we hopped on an overnight bus up to Santa Marta. The journey was a bit of a nightmare: one of the seats was broken so we had to squeeze into the only other free ones, which were right at the back, had a pitiful amount of leg room and didn't recline. And this was for a 14 hour journey on a bus helmed by an absolute maniac with a particular fondness for overtaking at high speed at blind corners and on steep hills. It was pretty hair-raising stuff.
Driving through the night in Colombia was strange. Every so often we'd have to slow right down or stop for some reason and people would just appear out of nowhere trying to sell food and drinks. At one point we stopped in some godforsaken place to get petrol and there was some guy strolling around the forecourt with a pump action shotgun around his shoulder to ward off any banditos.
The change in scenery along the way was pretty spectacular, leaving the mountains behind to drive through enormous banana and coconut plantations. Everywhere we passed seemed seriously impoverished, with most of the towns consisting mainly of wood shacks and kids walking around in bare feet. As we neared the end of the journey there were some guys on the road trying to sell little monkeys to the bus passengers. It was suddenly very exotic.
We eventually got to our hostel in Santa Marta after being driven all over the place by some scam artist taxi driver who was acting like he'd never even been in the town before. Still, even after all his messing the cab only came to about $4 so we can't complain too much. Santa Marta is famous for being the place where Simon Bolivar died after failing to unite South America as a single republic, these days it's a bit of a dive but known in the area fro its great nightlife. It's on the Caribbean but it's a port so the beach isn't up to much, though apparently it's a really popular holiday destination for Colombians. They've been having freak wet weather here for the last while, with torrential rain every afternoon at around 3pm. The drainage system can't handle it and the result is rivers of foul smelling water flooding the streets every day.
The French guy who owned the hostel recommended a place for dinner in the "bad part of town", which he assured us was absolutely fine. It was, just quite run down, though we did see some drugged out of it prostitute having a screaming match with some guy who picked up a machete just after we walked past. Our pace quickened after that.
We headed to Taganga first thing the next morning, a little fishing village about 20 mins drive away that attracts loads of backpackers for diving courses and trips into the Tayrona National Park. The guy in the hostel had said some of the beaches in the park were absolutely amazing: crystal clear water, loads of fish, great for swimming, snorkelling and sunburn, with one in particular, Playa Cristal, the best by a long way. Loads of locals run boats out to the beaches from Taganga and after a bit of haggling we ended up on a boat with a few Germans who have lived in Colombia for years and one of their Colombian wives.
After having to hide out for half an hour beside some shack along the way to escape the coastguards who would have fined our guides for bringing us into the national park illegally, we ended up at another beach because Playa Cristal was closed on account of freak currents or
something... we were stuck there for ages with no food because the Germans were miffed about not going to the promised beach and were determined to get their money's worth and wouldn't leave until they were ready. We would have preferred to go much sooner but couldn't communicate very well with the boatmen so just said we'd do whatever the others wanted. It actually turned out to be great in the end because our trip buddies made the guys go all over the place in the boat until they found a spot that had a satisfactory amount of tropical fish in the water. All thoughts of hunger were forgotten then, snorkelling around some rocks with loads of amazing fish.
Later on that evening we were having dinner down at the beach and some old busker parked himself up and started doing absolutely incredible renditions of Buena Vista Social Club songs and some of his own tunes about the local area on an acoustic guitar. Normally that type of stuff is a real pain but the guy was so good that he charmed Paula into buying his CD.
Although the beach in Taganga delivers some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world it is more of a fishing port so the next day we struggled over the hill to the neighbouring bay, which is much better for swimming and is lined with shacks selling fresh fish. So there we enjoyed roasting ourselves in the sun and swimming around in the warm water for the day and then made plans to meet up with Karl, a friend from home who was on his way to Taganga to do the trek to Ciudad Perdida in Tayrona.
It seems that everything over here is like a mini soap opera played out in front of you, and we were treated to a memorable one that night while enjoying a few rums with Karl in an outdoor nightclub overlooking the village involving two Norwegian guys fighting over their new Colombian crush. It was warm and tropical with lightning bolts sporadically illuminating the bay below.
The next day was spent mostly on the beach before a boozy evening with a load of other travellers in some club in Santa Marta which lead to an extra night in Taganga, the four hour bus journey to Cartagena too much to face in such an infirm state. It's really hot and really humid up at the coast, which must account for the slow pace of life. One restaurant we went to served us our drinks 25 minutes after we ordered and our food another 25 minutes after that.