Posts Tagged With: palomino

(Not) Sleeping Around Coastal Colombia

When you sleep around Colombia, here are three guarantees:

  1. You won’t sleep
  2. There will be no hot showers (or, lukewarm for that matter…but, you might be able to bird watch from the convenience of your shower)
  3. Sometimes you’ll have to request a toilet seat

Poor Kim. Even with ear plugs and enough rum to kill an elephant,  the crashing waves of the Caribbean were just too crashy. The coconuts also crashed during the night and even the tiny little lizards peeped and barked from the palm frond roofs above our heads. And of course we had a few requisite heat-seeking missile mosquitos trapped inside our mosquito net, and an off kilter rooster (from Australia?) who cockadoodled at 3am onward. There were howler monkeys, street dog choirs, horny neighbours having (apparently) amazing sex in the outdoor shower adjacent to our room, salsa lovers with music CRANKED at dawn, Fred Flintstone snorers, farters and trickling toilets. Kim didn’t sleep for 21 days.

But, sleep aside (I’m in charge of sleeping for two), here’s where we crashed around Colombia.

Zaguan Boutique Hotel, Cartagena

$129.35 CDN, 2 nights incl. breakfast

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We weren’t supposed to sleep here. Despite having made a reservation with booking.com, our ‘original’ hotel, Casa del Mango, had no room for us. Via Google translate, the receptionist awaiting our arrival typed in “Hello nice lady of the night, we have no room but will send you somewhere else.” GREAT. Our introduction to Spanish charades began that night as we guessed that our cab fare would be covered by the first hotel and we would be shuttled off somewhere else. She showed us some convincing pictures of Zaguan, and we hopped in another cab and headed back directly to where we had just come from, via the airport.

In the historic centre of Cartagena, this hotel was actually closer to where we wanted to be. In minutes we were atop the walled city, walking the fort (which we soon learned was where everyone under the age of 30 came to make out on the cannons).

The room itself was contemporary and had a King bed. After we unpacked most everything on to the single bed in the room, the receptionist knocked on our door. She needed the single bed for another room. A mild annoyance, less so than the waterproof child who continued to cannonball and splash about the courtyard pool until almost 11pm. Oh, and supervising dad? He had a nice marching band mix pumping out of his cell phone—placed on our bedroom window sill. Around 2am, a group of three (probably the ones who needed the single bed) clomped in and shared their life stories above us until dawn.

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We made our way to the courtyard, bleary-eyed, for our first day (but not last day) of crappy, muddy coffee, white bread, eggs and papaya.

Highlight: our shower curtain rod was an old mop handle and we had some type of insect with a 12 hour lifespan in the bathroom. Each morning, 150 dead miniature flies would be left tits up all over the sink, soap and floor.

Dumaga Hostal, Taganga

$67 CDN, 2 nights, no breakfast (but free coffee and convo with Anna!)

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For $33 bucks a night, I loved this place. Owned by a recently retired Colombian American Airlines flight attendant, Anna, it was authentic, rustic and Tiny House Nation-cool. It even had a flat screen TV! However, Taganga, a formerly sleepy fishing village, is also home of the “crazy breeze.” This breeze is like a gale-force wind that whips towards the ocean, and I thought for sure our tiny cabana was going to blow right off its tiny stilts into the sea. Our bed shook, the whole structure leaned with the wind and creaked and threatened until sunrise. Oh, and then the rooster started in. This set the Rooster Richter Scale at an all-time high. It was like waking up in the middle of Old Macdonald’s Farm.

Anna compensated though with her tall tales, hatred for the neighbour’s rooster and plied us with better coffee. She helped us arrange our hell ride (see previous blog) to Playa Blanca with her rooster-owning neighbour and found us a private cab to Minca for a steal. She was the only English-speaking person we had found in Colombia in four days.

Dumaga is .8km to the beach and not entirely flip flop friendly. Kim banned me from flip-flopping down due to the terrain and my tendency to skid out or lose a flop. It’s rocky and more of a trail than a proper road. Even the taxi refused to climb the hill to drop us directly at Dumaga. At night it’s a steep crawl and one that is only done confidently with the aid of several happy hour drinks to dull rational senses.

Highlight: Sundowners at the beach. This actually ended up being our only sunset in Colombia and it was fun to park ourselves on the seawall and watch all the activity. Fisherman carrying Chihuahua-sized lobsters for sale, kids hoofing soccer balls and an odd and surprising collection of homemade circus acts. As Kim said, “It’s the place where everyone who didn’t make the Barnum & Bailey’s cut come to live.” We ate very cheaply here (and without diarrhea), sampling deep-fried arepas stuffed with guacamole and cheese for 75 cents. Beer was the same price. We also discovered what we dubbed “Colombian poutine”—the heap consisted of Crisco-saturated fries, three hunks of sausage, shredded lettuce and carrot in a mayo dressing with tomato and salty cheese. Mojitos made it taste better. I’m not sure if I would rave about it as much midday, not under the influence.

El Dorado Bird Reservo,

$230 CDN including a paltry dinner and breakfast (and 136 hummingbirds)

PLUS: $82 hell ride on the back of motorbike, to and fro from the reserve

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Well, we ruined ourselves by staying here. See previous blog for the full account of hell ride #2 to access the bird reserve on motorbikes. But, wow. Soundtrack? Wattled guans and holy cacophony of green parrots! Hummingbirds, fifty at a time, circled the feeders. This place just oozed birds. At 1,700m, we were truly sleeping in the clouds. Standing on the balcony of our room, clouds would swallow the canopy below and soon envelop us, then part again.

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At night, Cartagena and Bocagrande appeared like a distant Lite Brite set. The stars were bigger and brighter than those of the city far below. We were above the coffee plantations even! It was like waking up in a treehouse with toucans. Kim and I both sounded like hyped-up versions of David Attenborough, spotting birds at all angles and thumbing through the Encyclopedia-sized Colombian bird book on hand to identify the orange-eared tanager, tawny headed swallow and yellow-legged thrush.

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At dinner (no other options in this remote reserve!), we chatted with the other guests. Two Americans, four Canadians and a Brit. The Canadians were also herpetologists—they couldn’t eat dinner fast enough. “When the birds end, the herps begin!” They even travelled with snake hooks! They were like sugar-high kids, finding ghost frogs and anoles that made their voices even higher than before. In two weeks they had seen 267 species. The Americans bragged about how many endemic species they had seen before breakfast–18. Kim and I privately rolled our eyes and opted out of the conversation to check out the superb collection of neon lime and orange moths and katydids that had gathered on the window of the treehouse where dinner was served.

Dinner was a pure flop—but, not why we came. I’m not even sure what it was. Tuna pie with a cold pile of mashed potatoes? It was all very beige and something a grade 7 home-ec class would prepare.

Highlight: Take the trail to El Mirador for a stunner of a view. You won’t cross paths with anyone else on the trail. And, fill up your coffee cup with hot cocoa in the morning ( a nice departure from the coffee slurry) and take a perch below the treehouse to watch all the birds that come to the “take-out” window. Those lovely moths from the night before make for a quick breakfast!

Tayrona Tented Lodge, Costeno Beach

$310.00 CDN for three nights, all-inclusive (no booze)

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After walking 30 minutes through an old banana plantation, we weren’t entirely sure if we had turned the right way. Yes, we were parallel to the beach but we saw no signage for the tented lodge. The sun was like molten lava and our packs like Sumo wrestlers on our back.

We found a surf camp first and the cool dudes had never heard of the Tented Lodge. Even though it was DIRECTLY beside them, just 75 meters away. Alas, we were happy to drop our bags and find that we had booked three nights on a perfectly isolated beach. The surfers couldn’t be heard or seen unless they took to the water—but, most of them were surfing the internet or hanging out high in their hammocks. We had the beach to ourselves.

The Lodge consists of three self-contained cabanas and, again, due to the remoteness, an all-inclusive package is necessary. We ate like kings—spaghetti Bolognese, coconut rice and tilapia, chicken in coconut sauce with plantain fritters. Each meal we were presented with a new mystery juice (enhanced by our in-room vodka)–strawberry, guava and tamarind.

It was so peaceful here and our morning ritual was lazy outside of my 5k run to the end of the road. Kim would follow behind, with binoculars and camera, chasing pileated woodpeckers and parakeets around.

The beach was littered only with coconuts—obviously we were well off any boat or steamer pathway.

On our first night, the owner welcomed us with a complimentary bottle of champagne (which we think was possibly perfume blended with gasoline). He had built a Burning Man-esque effigy on the beach and invited us to join him on the beach that night. There was a cooler of beer and marshmallows even! The fire was over five feet and with endless driftwood and coconut husks, we fell into a lovely trance for hours.

Tayrona proved to be one of our faves with its isolation. We both plowed through our books, nursing drinks on our balcony, walking for hours on the beach like it was our new-found occupation.

La Sirena Eco-Hotel, Palomino

$645 CDN, 7 nights seaside casita, incl. AMAZING breakfast and one cute cat

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The seaside casita we booked at La Sirena was a Pinterest page, for sure. Located right on the beach, it oozed serenity. We had an open-sky shower! We chatted with one of the massage therapists on-site and learned she was from Nelson, BC. She said she was looking for another “Nelson” somewhere warmer, and this was it. She had found it. Having been in Nelson in the fall, Kim and I agreed. It was zen, granola, yoga-centric and had groovy on the GPS.

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Marta, the Colombian owner, charmed us with her genesis story. She had bought the property years ago, when her children were young. She was living in Toronto then, and, after purchasing the land, couldn’t afford to fly back to see or enjoy it for years. Her patience is evident in her plan and what she has created. The bungalows, casitas and permaculture gardens embrace and enhance the land instead of stealing the show. It’s eco-conscious all around with herbal mosquito repellants and honey for sale. The menu is a showcase of the garden (the ginger pumpkin coconut soup is the grand prize winner) and the local bakery. Unlike the rest of our travels through Colombia, when we groaned at the thought of having to eat again, La Sirena was a pure treat with the likes of dense fruit-studded French toast, lentil burgers with red cabbage slaw and plantain chips and hefty black bean burritos.

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We enjoyed “bat o’clock” (at 5:55pm the bats begin to flit about and circle the palms) with bottles of red and watched the pink sky settle into night.

Though we were nearly vegan converts by day 7, we didn’t yoga—not even once. Though, we watched a lot of classes while drinking beer!

Highlight: One adorable cat named Emma who will gladly help you out with your French Toast and an endless beach that you can walk to Venezuela on. And, you can pay for your stay via paypal.

Palomino Breeze, Palomino

$35.77 CDN including breakfast and five snoring farters

We had lofty plans to go to the desert region via 4×4 but axed the idea when full logistics and cost were considered. We still had nearly a week to plot out after La Sirena, so we decided to cut costs and have a cheap sleep just a 15 minute walk from the beach at Palomino Breeze.

We had passed by the hotel every day on our way to ‘town’ on our grocery run. It was well-manicured with a pool and gorgeous golden retriever. We couldn’t believe the price either. Oddly, no one was staying there it seemed. That is, until we booked a night. Directly above our private room was a dorm with six bunk beds. All night long a group of Colombian students jumped in and out of bed, sent text messages and hosed themselves with citronella. They chatted, farted and carried on, oblivious. The couple beside us did the same—the walls were maxi-pad thin and we could hear everyone from all angles. The toilet trickled until Kim shut the water valve off. The pillows were made up of lumpy bits of leftover Q-tip cotton. The bed was like sleeping on a panty liner with springs. The hotel owner watched TV in the open-air commons room until 11pm at a blaring level. Even though the extensive document we signed said the commons room would close at 9pm, there would be no loud noise after this time—and absolutely no psychotropic drugs. We needed some serious psychotropic drugs!!

We tried to calm ourselves by turning the experience into Camino training. Walking the Camino de Santiago’s greatest challenge for Kim and I will be the other people—not the 600km walk. Sharing a hostel with no walls? Ugh. This was close. The walls here didn’t go to the ceiling and shit was falling from the ceiling as the frat party upstairs bounced around.

Not worth the savings or a picture.

Posada Jasayma, Tayrona National Park

$153 CDN for two nights, including 4 breakfasts, 4 dinners (incl. $15 deduction for bitching

about the noise levels from the neighbours listening to accordion music at 6am)

$38 CDN (park admission for two)

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I missed the booking.com disclaimer that this hotel had no electricity. Or, toilet seat! It was a version of a farm shed, something like the three little pigs would have built. A combo of wood scraps, brick and cement, the water in the shower and sink smelled like a swamp—but, you could birdwatch from the shower. The screened window was at the perfect height to look for titi monkeys and parakeets.

Amazingly, the bed had no mosquito net—despite being in prime yellow fever territory. I suppose the curtains on the window were the equivalent?

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The worst coffee we had in Colombia was here. The chef roared in the back of a motorbike every day to prep breakfast (day 18 of eggs and white bread, hurray!) and dinners that were actually impressive given her makeshift kitchen with pots and pans nailed to a palm tree. She made a super sweet lemonade that we tempered with rum.

Despite being inside Tayrona National Park (the world’s largest coastal national park), you are still 35 minutes to the trailhead, and another 8km to Cabo San Juan.

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Highlight: At night, watching the fireflies emerge with the stars. Waking up to howler monkeys! And, finding out that we could dial-a-bottle. Because the ‘hotel’ had no bar service or drinks/snacks for sale, we could request the motorbike driver to pick up beer for us, for no additional cost (leaving the park means you have to pay admission to re-enter to the tune of $18US). Also, there is a pet parakeet here that you can have up close and personal moments with.

Yuluka Eco Hotel, Tayrona

$184 for 3 nights, Mountain View Bungalow, King Bed incl. breakfast

$59.80 for 2 mojitos, 4 mango shakes, 2 beers, 2 waters, 1 spag bol, 1 chicken quesadilla, 1 salad and 1 whole snapper with coconut rice (not all in one sitting)

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Visually and architecturally impressive, the bungalows at Yuluka are built in and around massive boulders. A winding stone staircase is a real heart-thumper, but the mountain views from the rooms are uninterrupted and worth the price of admission.

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As lush and manicured as an Oscar night attendee, Yuluka is a traveller’s oasis with a palatial bedroom, King bed and hammocks on the balcony. The bathroom—again, open sky (check out the conch shell shower head!) with a tub that would fit twenty of our friends was a knock-out. I loved that you could just drip dry on the hot stones—like a Turkish spa.

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Esther, one of the amiable kitchen staff made the best thick and foamy mango coconut milkshakes. We even convinced her to switch up the smoked salmon quesadilla (smoked salmon in Colombia??) to chicken, and, it was the best thing we ate in three weeks. Served with mango salsa and stuffed with stretchy cheese, Esther has found her calling.

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After tromping around Tayrona park, we were happy to be supine poolside with the above-mentioned mango shakes. Just watch out for the dive-bombing iguanas that suddenly belly-flop off the trees. Yuluka has built a living wall by the pool—one that we want to recreate. Hiding the concrete cinder blocks, it was a real marvel.

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Unfortunately, the hotel is right on the major highway through Tayrona and trucks and motorbikes like to gun it down the straightaway. It’s the only negative I have for the property and really, once we were in the groove and sucking up the last of the Colombian sun, we tuned it out.

Highlight: A few chapters in the hammock before dusk, though you will be distracted by inevitable mountain staring.

Yes, we were largely sleepless but well-satiated by the rhythms, guaranteed sun, unexpected entertainment/hell rides and fauna of Colombia. If you are a resilient traveler open to some roadblocks, bouts of diarrhea, zero soundproofing, hiking through banana plantations to solar powered hotels, long hauls on public transport and of a steel gut, Colombia will suit.

If you’re looking for good coffee, air-conditioning, sanitation, English, ice cubes, hot showers, satellite TV, reliable internet, culinary delights, a wine list and cockroach-free suites—nope. Not here. Try somewhere in North America

Next stop? Maybe Fogo Island Inn, Newfoundland, where the hotel rooms have switches to turn on white noise if the silence becomes too unbearable.

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The Ms. Adventures of Kim and Jules in Colombia

Contrary to popular belief, Kim and I don’t actively search out adventure. The most innocent intentions somehow end with us sleeping in our 4×4 during a 180km/hour windstorm in Iceland, in the belly of a cave in Belize with a guide on the lam from the police (who made the BBC news), or in a near fistfight with a cabbie in Alexandria, Egypt who wouldn’t let us have our backpacks until we paid him double the price.

Of course we had misadventures in Colombia. Such as, let’s go to Playa Cristal by boat.

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Hell Ride #1

Boat captains in Taganga had been after us for two days to see the most beautiful beach in Colombia. White sand they promised. The Taganga beach was clogged with twentysomethings downing cheap rum and cans of tuna. Soccer balls whizzed by and there were wayward circus acts—jugglers and someone playing a kazoo-thing while balancing on a ball. Playa Cristal was tempting, just for temporary relief from the hippie commune of Taganga’s inlet. For $130,000 pesos ($65) we not only had transportation to Playa Cristal—we had a white water rafting-Niagara hydroplaning jet boat HELL RIDE. I was as white knuckled as my Grandmother on the 401. I really thought my bicep was going to blow as I held on to the side of the boat through Perfect Storm-sized swells. From the inlet, as we boarded the boat and were offered ancient broken-strap lifejackets (more likely to sink us than save us), the sea looked like glass. Of course.

As we rounded the bay and cut out to the open waters, Jesus. The swells were 12 feet high. The guy behind me had his head between his knees in no time. The guy in front of me flew completely out of his seat and smacked back down, shaken but not stirred. The boat sat three to four across on bench seats designed for Smurf bums. We had about 16 in our flimsy boat, all suckers for this white sand paradise. I knew already that I wouldn’t enjoy a minute on the beach, knowing in just a few hours we’d have to return to Taganga through the tsunami.

It was terrifying. Level-headed, rational Kim, was even a bit blanched. Seated beside me, she had my other bicep to hang on to. Our bags were saturated after the first wave—and it was nearly impossible to hide the camera from the breaching whale-like spray. We couldn’t talk—I tried once and nearly bit my tongue in two as the boat mounted a wave and dropped down again with a vertebrae-crunching smash. However, my neck audibly cracked during one of the smackdowns, and it’s the first time I’ve been able to properly rotate my neck to the right in months.

The constant, pummeling tidal waves of salt luckily left us half-blinded for 98% of the ride. When I could see (half-genuinely crying, half trying to squint out the salt burn), it was a complete horror. As we edged closer to the rocky shore I told Kim, “Don’t look now, or until we arrive.” Instead I stared at the guy’s crack ahead of me, also aware that I may get a sudden elbow to the head.

The sheer terror was compensated by temporary bliss. The boat first stopped at Playa Concha, a closer beach, and a second beach called 7 Olas. I wanted to bail at beach one and take the jungle route back with a machete. Screw the pre-paid boat ride.

By the time we reached Playa Blanca, we all looked like we had been on a roller coaster that had flown off its track and crash landed onto the beach. The water was calmer here, and remarkably turquoise. Worth the death-defying, nerve-fraying $130,000 one hour of self-talk? I’m not sure. Our adrenalin levels were off the Richter scale—we couldn’t even walk properly, our quads had stopped functioning. It’s probably one of the first signs of shock.

We dropped our bags and shakily set up camp. To quell our jitters we climbed the hill to the El Mirador for a tranquilizing view of the bay and much needed liquid courage. I could barely wrap my fingers around the beer bottle—I was still all jitters. Kim and I could hardly speak—our wide eyes and head shaking communicated all we needed too.

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Exhausted, we passed out on our blanket. It took a few hours to calm down again and be able to properly walk the length of the beach. We drank more beer and were nervous to eat—we could just imagine the boatload back with everyone chucking up fried tilapia and rice. We figured eating would be wise as we had gut rot from the cow patty-sized cookies we bought from a woman plying the beach. Made of sugar, pineapple and coconut, they could have doubled as body exfoliants. We ordered chicken and coconut rice with fried plantain and suddenly saw our boat captain giving us the “come on!” signal. What? We looked at our watch—we weren’t supposed to depart until 4:00 and it was just 3:15. I explained the situation to our server in Spanish charades. He promised in would be ready in a few minutos. Pacing, he finally packed it up and asked for $45,000 pesos ($23 for a beach shack resto operating over an open fire with Styrofoam coolers for refrigeration). Grossly overpriced by about three times for the shiny white tourists. Oh, we battled. An expat jumped in and we made off with one chicken and rice lunch and two beers for $20,000 ($10). We ran for our boat and joked that we could eat it on the way back to Taganga. Right. I could just imagine the rice in the hair of everyone behind us. It was probably best that we didn’t have an opportunity to eat. I’m sure it would have been barfed up over the side twenty minutes in.

And, that was our innocent little day trip to the not-white (but ‘light’ sand) beach at Playa Cristal. Not recommended.

Awesome Idea #2–A 1.5 hour Motorbike Ride Up a Mountain

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Back in December, I had come across an intoxicating site for the El Dorado Bird Reserve. It’s known as the “Holy Grail” of the birding world and that made it a no-brainer. Colombia has over 1,700 bird species (Canada sits around the sub-500 mark in comparison). The subtropical montane forest sits in the clouds at 1,900 meters. The site bragged about the “Treehouse” where you could take in the snow-laden Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Caribbean coastline.

I read off the pertinent details to Kim—it was an expensive sleep at $160 (as we had already booked $32 cabanas and a beachfront casita for $90/night), but, you could wake up in the clouds! With toucans! I copied out the directions—it would be quite simple, just two hours from Santa Marta. In Minca (550 meters), the site suggested we could easily find 4×4 transport to the bird reserve.

Right.

We arrived in Minca and learned that no, we wouldn’t be able to find a 4×4. Only pre-booked groups travelling with an agency had that luxury. We would have to go by motorbike. With our packs. At that point, early in our travels, our bags were clocking in at 23 and 31 kilos. The drivers didn’t have extra helmets—of course. Even the Sons of Anarchy wear helmets! Kim was an even whiter shade of pale (and, that takes effort as she is brown as a coconut from just an hour in the sun)—and she had even owned a motorcycle years ago! If she was nervous, hell, I was done for. But, I did grow accustomed to kamikaze moto taxis all over Uganda and Kenya. The Playa Cristal boat was my personal hell, at least we were on land.

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We negotiated $40,000 each, one-way, thinking maybe we could hitchhike back down the mountain with other guests possibly in a 4×4. Re-jittered we asked the motorbike dudes to give us 10 minutes to grab some snacks (some cooked ‘sausages’ which are Colombian code for wieners and a block of salty cheese). “Let’s get a beer,” Kim said, focussed. I looked at my watch—it was just 10am.

We chugged our beers and mounted the bikes. Luckily the guys balanced our packs on the front of the bikes, giving us a little more freedom to hang on to the bike for dear life.

The ‘road’ up to El Dorado was merely a suggestion. It was full of meteorite-sized potholes that could swallow the entire bike. The ‘road’ was washed out in several places as mountain streams gushed and bled without boundary. We passed coffee pickers, Wagyuu Indians—and probably a lot of other things but I could barely see as I was getting whipped with so many ferns and low-lying branches.

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Kim had already roared off into the ether and I couldn’t believe we had 90 minutes on the back of a bike to endure. Halfway, hip flexors well-seized, our drivers pulled over to a shack selling gas in Coca Cola bottles—and, actual Coca Cola. Local men were doing shots of something clear (possibly also gasoline) and had music blasting into the jungle at rave levels. Kim and I shook our heads at their primitive houses—all rigged with Massey Hall-worthy sound systems.

Once we got into the we-probably-won’t-die groove, the ride was a cool and intimate passage through verdant tracks. I thought of Ewan Macgregor and Charley Boorman and their 30,000km ride around the world—albeit on tricked out BMW bikes, but still. Neon blue Morpho butterflies flitted across our path and I craned my head to see a pack of Santa Marta parakeets take to the sky.

Arriving at El-Dorado with Jell-o limbs, we were thrilled. Now this was worth the bum chafe and compressed vertebral discs. As our drivers took a break from the Thighmaster workout, I let my teeth unclench. Yes, more beer. It had proven its worth as our magical calming elixir so far.

As we waited for our room key, Kim and I stepped on to the balcony of the Treehouse. Sharing notes on our journey up, the fear factor and anxiety exited the moment we trained our eyes on the hummingbird feeders at El Dorado. There were over fifty hummingbirds in our sight. A hand’s reach away! It was like a hummer flash mob, with eight different species lining up at a time.

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El Dorado was electric with sound, the buzz and twit of the hummers, distant birds in the canopies…this misadventure was awesome. Oh, and  we couldn’t hitch a 4×4 ride out, we had to call upon our motorbike dudes again–and had to wear our packs down to distribute the weight and momentum better. As top-heavy as we were, at least we had spine protection on the return trip.

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Brain wave #3: Flamingo Stalking

Again, it all unfolded so innocently. We were sitting outside our casita at La Sirena in Palomino, watching the sky turn cantaloupe with dusk. Bats had begun to swirl about as we closed our books and opened wine. A woman approached us with a broad smile. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you find that wine?”

We told her the secret location of the only red wine available in Palomino. At 13,000 pesos ($6.50), ithe Chilean G7 surprisingly didn’t taste like cough syrup or perfume. We chatted about our Colombian route, comparing itineraries and soon met the rest of Joanna’s Polish crew—her husband Lukas and daughters, Caroline and Natasha.

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Three days later we somehow convinced this lovely Polish family to join us on a flamingo expedition. Kim and I had found a tour operator who dropped his price handsomely with talk of more participants. The flamingo sanctuary was only an hour and fifteen minutes away, near Riohacha. We could have jumped on a local bus to Camarones and hired motorbikes and found a boat captain for a few bucks cheaper, but, the deal seemed sweet. For $70,000 pesos ($35), ECOAndes would take us to the reserve, arrange a boat (a traditional wooden boat we were promised) and include lunch (to take advantage of the local delicacy—the camarones. Shrimp.

We wondered how seven of us would fit in his vehicle—a 1979 Sierra Nevada. “No problem, it is perfect for seven.” Actually, it was perfect for nine. After picking us up near our hotel we stopped in front of his business—to load up his wife and son. “If they stay at home, they are boring.”

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When Andres loaded extra cushions into the back of the cab, Joanna joked that “It’s for the victims.” After just five minutes, we all felt like we had gas poisoning. The old Sierra vibrated like one of the Niagara Falls honeymoon suite heart-shaped numbers that you added quarters too. Kim pointed as Andres took out the key from the ignition and the truck continued running—as he added more gas! Illegal gas at that—found all along the roadsides in plastic bottles from Venezuela.

I was certain that after an hour in the truck, we would be hallucinating flamingos if anything.

What was advertised as a “sail” in a boat ended up being a push. Two kilometres out and two kilometers back. Did I mention that it was 1,008 degrees that day? The traditional wooden boat was not traditional at all. The sail had seen its day in the sun, but, was not the dhow I had imagined. Nothing was as imagined. The boat scraped bottom the entire way as our captain pushed us around Flamingo Lake.

Our guide was rather unhelpful in the narration. When I locked our binoculars on the first flamingo in the distance Andres said, “That is not a flamingo. It is a pink duck.” Pink duck? As we grew closer I realized it was a roseate spoonbill! Pink duck my ass.

We found more spoonbills, eating shrimp like Pacman as we cruised past, unnoticed. There were a few egrets and gulls, but, largely, it was us, the Polish family and the broiling sun. We exchanged fun banter and swapped recipes and talked about swapping houses even. The girls were little Nat Geo photographers in training, and were as enthused as us about the approaching pink blur. I asked Andres if he was taking us on a wild goose chase—and then had to explain the expression. When he pointed out where the flamingo puppies could be found, well, we needed an explanation. Poopies? Flamingo shit? “No, puppies. Like babies.” Oh.

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The stretch of cotton candy pink along the mangroves turned into nearly a hundred flamingoes, picking their way elegantly across the placid lake (a huge contrast to the Caribbean swells to Playa Cristal). They walked in synchro, largely undisturbed by us, on skinny legs that could double as chopsticks.

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When they took flight, it really was a moment of awe. The stuff and footage they make astounding documentaries with. But, we were really hot. And thirsty. And, we all smelled like gas. If somebody lit a match, the boat would have exploded and landed in Panama.

The shore was like an oasis. We were all delirious and dreaming of cold beers and this much bragged about lunch of traditional shrimp. Joanna had the same vision as Kim and I—big tiger shrimp on the grills with just a squeeze of lime juice.

Reality bites. The shrimp were indeed shrimp—almost impossible to find in the rice. They were the babiest of baby shrimp. Possibly even Sea Monkeys? Lunch was a lunch bag letdown. Order a beer, skip the camarones.

But first. The shore. 1,008 degrees. I’m not sure if it was huffing gas for an hour, the sizzling sun, dehydration or what—but, I suddenly had to shit my pants. My stomach churned and clenched. I thought I might barf too. Now, remember, we were in a tiny boat with a nice Polish family, in knee-deep water. What was I to do? Hop off the boat and squat in the water and say, “cover your ears?” What’s that expression? Dance like nobody is watching? Or, in my case, crap like nobody is watching? Oh, my stomach was sour. I tried self-talk and didn’t dare broadcast my concern to anyone. I looked through the binoculars and saw a turned over boat on shore that I could probably go behind.

As we slid in, the last painful stretch, I didn’t know what end to cover. As we stepped out of the boat I said to Kim, “I have to go shit behind that boat.”

“Babe, you can’t! There’s nowhere to hide. Everyone in the village will see you.”

I was delirious and stepping so cautiously over the parched earth. Wearing shorts, I knew one misstep would reveal all. Kim talked me off the cliff. “There will be a toilet up here, just walk slow. You’ll be okay.”

I was drained of colour and self-talk. The Polish family was far ahead now and I saw the door with Bano scrawled on it. And $1,000 below. I pushed open the door and hovered. There was no seat, just that nice hot sewage smell. I had sweat trickling down my ribs, on my brow and upper lip. As I hovered I could see the bathroom attendant looking at me through the crack in the door. Nice. Crap like nobody is watching.

I made it just in time. Barely. I came out and sat at the table with everyone in a cold sweat. Beer. Kim silently gave me the look and I reassured her that I survived. But eating shrimp and rice? The plate arrived with fried plantain cakes as heavy as hockey pucks and some sickly tomato slices. I tried one spoonful of the shrimp and rice and sat back, trying not to look at the plate. So much for an authentic camarones lunch.

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On the ride back I hung my head out the gas mobile. We stopped for a few more bottles of gas, just to add to my hallucinations. It was touch and go for the rest of the night but, I gathered myself to have our nightly G7. Joanna and her family made their way over to La Sirena’s restaurant and raised her glass—she had found the coveted red wine.

We chided each other over the flamingo expedition. I smelled gas deep in my nostrils and bangs for days. We’ll never look at flamingoes quite the same way. Though, I’m ready for shrimp again.

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Special thanks to the Polish family for comic relief—and the G7 wine you couldn’t finish before leaving La Sirena.

Worth it? Well, in our world yes. Though, we might suggest skipping the boat and walking across the lake to see the flamingos instead.

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