JOE Backpacking Diary #11 - Exploring the amazing country of Colombia 7 years ago

JOE Backpacking Diary #11 - Exploring the amazing country of Colombia

The week's diary is about a guy getting busted buying cocaine, experiencing the passion of Colombian football fans and trekking to the most northerly point in South America.

My name is Joe Harrington; I'm travelling through Central and South America for the next eight months, here's what happened on week ten.


Cartagena, Colombia (continued)

The day after we arrived in Cartagena was the start of Copa America and it was Colombia versus USA in the opening game. Perfect.

The city was awash with that famous yellow jersey, we went for lunch and around 70% of people on the street were wearing a Colombia top. The atmosphere around the place was electric.

There were big screens in the local convention centre but Myself, Floris (Dutch), Suz (Dutch) and Daniel (English) wanted a more traditional experience so we found a small square in the city that was busy.


It turned out we were actually in one of the more high-end parts of the city so the atmosphere was a little more tame than we hoped for; the crowd exploded for Cristian Zapata and James Rodriguez's goals though.

We all bought Colombia jerseys for the occasion, a bargain at €9.

(L-R, Me, Floris, Suz, Daniel)

The city was hopping after the game but I was still feeling sick with flu so I had to go home to the hostel. FML.


The rest of the gang went out and had a deadly night in a club with locals and backpackers while I was busy sweating out every bit of moisture in my body. Moist times; very moist times.

The next few days were a bit of a write-off to be honest. It took a good 48 hours to shake the flu so to sum all that up I could post a picture of me dying in my bed but the double use of the word 'moist' in the last sentence is as disgusting as I'm going to make this week's post.

When I did moister muster some strength, I walked around the old town which is absolutely beautiful.

The Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is the main tourist attraction in Cartagena. It's an impressive castle fortress located on top of a hill in the city looking out on the ocean and over the surrounding area.


The tour cost €8 and there's a brilliant short film which explains the history of the place including how the Spanish defeated the English in a famous battle there in the 1700s.

I've developed a big thing for huge flags on this trip. Not in a weird way - I'm not stripping and draping myself in flags over here or anything - but there's something about them.

The people in Latin America have such pride of place and the national flag can be found on every street in every town in these countries, it's so noticable compared to home or Europe.

Here's the monstrous one at Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.

There's cocaine everywhere here, every other guy on the street is selling it for as little as €7 per bag. I was offered it dozens of times on my only night out there. That was my experience.


On my final night in Cartagena I met a guy on a balcony in my hostel and he was pretty distressed. He had just been royally fucked over by a dealer.

He told me he went to a local bar and a guy offered him cocaine. He wanted some so he bought two bags. The dealer was acting all buddy-buddy and asked the English guy to go outside because he couldn't really hear him in the bar.

They were chatting for two minutes when the dealer suddenly started nodding in his direction. Next thing, two police officers pinned the English guy against a wall, searched his pockets and found the coke.

They took him away to their police car and that's when the negotiations started. Well, it wasn't really a negotiation, it was Colombian jail or one million pesos (€320)? He chose the latter.

A cautionary tale if there ever was one.

Accommodation: Media Luna. A party hostel in a good location for €13 per night.

The beds are good, the kitchen is solid and there's a nice pool.

Food: Espiritu Santo to eat with locals, Woko Woko for Asian food and street vendors are ace.

Drink: Hostel, Havanas.

Highlight: Watching the Colombia versus USA game with locals.

Lowlight: Being sick as a dog for two/three days.

Next stop: Rodedero, Santa Marta, Colombia

Floris, Suz and Daniel moved on to Santa Marta before me because I was sick and had to stay in Cartagena so I transformed into a giant third wheel and I made the trip north with a couple, Blair (Tazmania) and Nora (New Jersey).

They found an amazing-looking hostel in a town just south of Santa Marta called Rodedero. The hostel, Calle 11 Hostel Santa Marta, is one of the nicest places I've stayed in during my trip.

The place was built by an old drug cartel boss from Medellin who vacationed in Rodedero back in the day. It's stunning.

Rodedero was an exclusive location in Colombia in the '70s and '80s with the richest of the rich visiting the place, you'd apparently often see Colombian cartel bosses in white suits and Americans looking to buy gold in the area.

The house was eventually bought by one of the three richest families in Santa Marta and the owner is a cousin of Carlos Vives, one of the most famous musicians in South America. It's all so random.

The hostel was opened two years ago and it's currently being run by a French girl called Anouk, who has been there for 18 months. She gave me all of the information and told me an Irish electrician named Tom helped wire the place properly. Good man Tom.

A very cool experience staying in a place with a backstory like that.

There's so much to do around Rodedero and Santa Marta. On our second day myself, Blair and Nora went to Playa Blanca, a beautiful beach close by. You can buy a €4 return ticket to get there by boat. Bring lunch though because food is expensive unless you buy ceviche for €3. Delish.

Colombia's second Copa America game was that night and we watched it with locals in front of an off-licence. It was 100 times better than Cartagena because it felt so authentic and the game was a cracker, Colombia beat Paraguay 2-1.

The following day was a hiking trip to Tayrona National Park (entry €13), it's one of the gems of northern Colombia. Myself, Blair, Nora and an Irish guy called Shane set off early in the morning to reach the park.

The park is a made up of amazing jungle trails which lead you to various stunning beaches along the way. The place is beautiful but we started hiking from the entrance instead of getting a shuttle for €1 to the halfway point.

Don't do that, get the bus.

Our hike eventually led us to Cabo San Juan which is a place you can swim and sleep overnight if you like, one of the coolest places I've been to.

The following morning was a 4am rise to start our three-day trip to Punta Gallinas which is the most northerly point in South America.

The place is hundreds of kilometres off the beaten track and only a couple of dozen tourists go there every week. I was so intrigued and excited to see the place.

Myself, Blair, Nora, a Dutch lady named Els and two girls from Medellin named Stephanie and Manuela crammed into a 4x4 with our guide Franco and set off on the adventure.

Here are Blair and Nora with some leftover spaghetti bolognese which we used for our creatively named Spaghetti Bolognese Breakfast Sandwiches on the first morning.


The first stop was at a place called Manaure to see the local salt flats in that area. I was blown away when we reached them because the flats were pink in colour.

They are that colour because of a certain type of bacteria in the water, I think it's the most surreal thing I've ever seen in my life.

We got back in the 4x4 and set off for El Cabo De La Vela where we'd stay for the night. The drive was through vast desert, I'd never been in a desert before so it was a fantastic experience.

We reached Cabo at lunchtime and we're shown to our accomodation for the night, the nicest hammocks you'll find anywhere.

After lunch we got back in the 4x4 and headed for the famous Pilón De Azúcar in La Guajira. Once you get there you can hike up a small hill to get an amazing view of the surrounding desert and ocean.

Check out my back-acting or 'backting' as Will Arnett and Will Ferrell called it on a FunnyOrDie video one time. I am going for a mix of deep-in-thought and not falling off the cliff to my immediate death.

The second day was at 7am start to an action-packed day but first I want to tell you about a reoccuring situation that happened during our trip to Punta Gallinas.

In certain parts of the desert, our drive was interrupted by roadblocks. The roadblocks were basic, a rope held up in front of the 4x4, but the amazing thing was that they were made by kids from the local indigenous people called Wayuus.

The kids, some as young as two or three, stopped the 4x4 and ran to the doors looking for treats. We brought litres of water, biscuits and sweets which they were overjoyed to get. Here are two photos of the kids, I could've taken a hundred photos.


The first stop on day two was a place called Dunas De Taroa which is where the desert meets the ocean. Franco explained all of that to us before we got there but seeing it in person was mind-boggling.

I actually stood on top of the hill for 10 minutes trying to comprehend it all. There are very few places in the world like Dunas De Taroa and I knew it in that moment, I'm so lucky to have been there.

The Dutch lady Els took this photo of my walking back to our 4x4. Check out my front-acting or as I call it fracting, fronting, facting, frocting... Never mind.

The next leg of the trip took around two hours in the 4x4 and then we reached our ultimate destination - Punta Gallinas.

To stand on the most northerly point of South America was an incredible feeling. I've been fascinated by this continent for as long as I can remember and to be at that significant landmark was special for me.

There isn't actually much there except for a lighthouse and some stone statues built by travellers but that doesn't take away from the experience.

Our accomodation for the night was in a small place an hour away from Punta Gallinas. We were treated to a surprise when we got there as Franco informed us he'd organised a boat trip to see the pink flamingos in the local area.

We all hopped into a small fishing boat and weaved our way through mangroves until we reached a docking spot around 600 metres away from the flamingos. We thought that was it until the guide told us to walk up to them.

Myself, Blair and Nora waded through the shallow water until we got within 30 metres of the birds. It was amazing to be that close to one of the most exotic creatures in the world.

The seven of us had dinner together that night and myself, Blair and Els had lobsters. A full lobster cost €6, it was delicious despite this crap photo.


We passed the night speaking a mix of Spanish and English, playing Heads Up on my phone and watching Argentina and Panama with a few locals. A lovely way to end a perfect day.

Day three was all about commuting; it took nine hours to get back to Rodedero, which we reached at 6pm. Myself, Blair, Nora and a Danish guy called Jaoquin went out for the Colombia versus Costa Rica game.

We called it a night at midnight.

Accommodation: Calle 11 Hostel Santa Marta. €10 per night.

Fantastic staff, great location, excellent dorms with individual plugs and lights, they provide tours around the whole area.

Food: Hostel and food provided on Punta Gallinas tour is great.

Drink: Any off-licence on the street by the water. Always a nice atmosphere and cheap. €1 for local beer Aguila.

Highlight: Stepping out of the 4x4 in Punta Gallinas.

Lowlight: Not spending a night in Tayrona Park.

I'm heading to Minca tomorrow with the Dutch crew and then south to Medellin.

If you've any tips, advice or questions, let me know on Twitter at @ImJoeHarrington or Instagram/ImJoeHarrington.

Talk to you next week.

Read more:

Diary #2 - Miami, Guatemala City, Antigua
Diary #3 - Antigua, Lake Atitlan
Diary #4 - Entering El Salvador
Diary #5 - El Salvador, Leon, Nicaragua
Diary #6 - Volcano boarding in Leon, Laguna De Apoyo, Granada
Diary #7 - The volcanos of Ometepe and Sunday Funday in San Juan
Diary #8 - Monteverde and Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
Diary #9 - Bocas del Toro, Panama City
Diary #10 - San Blas Islands, reaching Colombia