Saturday, July 18, 2009

Getting used to new maps.

It was now time to move on from Cartagena and since our guidebook was pretty useless we were basing our next destination on what other travelers had suggested. So we were heading towards the beach town of Taganga and the Tayrona National Park. Matt recommended we do our advanced diving there and Geoff said he loved Taganga. However, when we went to look for a place to stay, we weren’t having any luck and there were a few mixed reviews about the town itself – describing it as a dirty, dusty, gringo village. So we decided to stay just 5 kms away in the bigger city of Santa Marta. The hostel we found there had just opened a couple of months ago and looked pretty fancy. Plus they responded almost immediately and were very helpful with how to get to Santa Marta.

The hostel had recommended the express shuttle rather than the public bus so that morning we were off. Adrian thought he had a read that the trip took only 2 hours. But 3 hours in and we were barely halfway there according to our map. And it became apparent that he still had to work on his Spanish. It also became apparent that we needed to learn some new map reading skills. We had moved from the Lonely Planet Central America on a Shoestring guide to Central America to the Lonely Planet South America on Shoestring guide. And although the maps looked the same the scale was much different. Santa Marta looked just next door but this was South America and just next door on the map ended up meaning over 5 hours away on the dusty sea side highway. Gulp. What did this mean for those places that looked a lot further away? I guess we’d find out soon enough.

The shuttle let us off two blocks away from the hostel but it might as well have been miles away in the heat. Santa Marta was just as hot as Cartagena. And like Cartagena, the landscape was desert despite being right on the sea – there was obviously no rainy season here. Yet it was also very humid. And by the time we arrived at the door of the hostel we were drenched with sweat. It was an oasis after the some of the places we’d been in over the last 4 months. Clean and new and our room had air conditioning. The rooms on the lower floor were still being built but the top floor with rooms and bathrooms as well as the swimming pool (yes swimming pool) were up and running. The hostel was run by a bunch of young American and Aussie guys. I didn’t really see or meet them because they were too busy chatting up and partying with the single girls in the hostel - not totally cool.

Thankfully, there were a couple of workers who were friendlier and happy to help us out. One guy heavily suggested that we do our advanced diving in Taganga especially if we wanted to dive in the Galapagos. “Plus,” he said, “there’s not much else to do in Taganga except party with other gringos”.

The other guy had even more tips. Ollie, was a Brit who’d been traveling around Colombia for the last couple of months, and hadn’t even made it to Cartagena or Medellin. But he had lots to share about the south. We learned the bus crossing into Ecuador was easy and safe and he gave us a couple of other places to check out when we got closer to the border. Of course, we still had to figure out how we were going to get to the border. It was a long, long way as we were quickly learning.

Although the night in Santa Marta felt cooler and breezier than Cartagena we were still glad to have paid the extra $5 for the air conditioning. Not only did it cool us down it helped block out the music from the bar that kept going way past 12. The next day I discovered it was the party animal owners who kept the music going – oblivious to the door rooms located within ear shot. The hostel was really nice – but I wasn’t sure it was going to last with these frat boys running it. So we took full advantage of it, using the wifi to do some blog updates and research our route through Colombia.

In the afternoon, we decided to head to Taganga to look into diving prices and check out the town to see if it’s as bad as the one guy lead us to believe. The local bus was easy and just a 15 minute ride up over the mountain that separates the two towns. Although there’s a lot more that separates them. Santa Marta is a city and Tagaga is a tiny village. As we got off the bus, we were facing three dive shops. The rest of the town looked like a mixture of hostels and cafes with no evidence that any Colombians actually lived there. It really was a town full of gringos. Interesting.

We popped into the dive shop with which we had an affiliation (i.e. discount). Not only was the price right but the dive centre looked awesome – lots of new equipment and facilities far better than anything we’d seen in Utilla. Even the room and shared bathroom was great and included in the price of the course. So we decided to come back tomorrow and start the next day. The only issue was which dives Adrian and I would do as part of our advanced dive. Me being the scaredy cat was not looking forward to some of the options. Gerd, the diving instructor, told us there was no rush and to think about it over night. With that out of the way, Adrian and I decided to hit Taganga’s beach.

Hmm, unlike the dive centre, the beach was far from impressive. It was packed with people and filthy rather than sandy and the water didn’t look much better. In fact the beach in Santa Marta (photo above) looked like paradise in comparison. Oh well, maybe we’d just read under a tree, except for the small fact that there were no trees or shady bits. We were just about ready to turn back to Santa Marta when someone said hello.

It was Tamara from the bus on Ometepe!

We headed to a beach side cafĂ© for a beverage and to catch up. Her boyfriend had gone back to Australia and she was back to traveling by herself. Well not quite. Tamara met people wherever she went. Just walking to the table, she had to stop a couple of times to talk to people she knew. How does she do that socializing thing? She’ll have to give us some pointers. In the next couple of days she was off to do the Ciudad Perdida trek which was the same 6 days through the jungle that Geoff had done. Then she was going to check out Cartagena and San Gil. She had to go drop off her payment for the trek so she walked us to the bus stop but not before stopping to talk to a couple of other people she knew, one of whom was tending to a nasty gash in his foot that he got walking along the dirty beach. Told you it was gross. On the main street, the bus was waiting. Of course Tamara knew folks on the bus too. She’s unbelievable. So we said goodbye or more importantly hasta luego because we know we’ll see her again or at least people who know her.

Back at the hostel decided to cool off with a dip in the pool. Lovely and just what we needed. Talked with English couple Rory and Emma who are just here for a couple of weeks and an American couple Melissa and Graham who were on their way around the world. Rory and Emma were off for a night of fun and frivolity with friends at a salsa club. We decided to stay in and have some of the BBQ the Aussies were cooking up and hang out with the rest of the folks at the hostel. We weren’t seeing much of the town but we were having a great time.

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