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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.