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On the Road – Colombia: Choosing Colombia’s Best Beach II

Travelers heading to Colombia’s eastern Caribbean coast have three towns to choose from for their stays. Santa Marta is the principle port and the oldest town. In fact, it was the first Spanish city founded in South America, officially established in 1525 by Rodrigo de Bastidas. El Rodadero is the youngest, coming into being as the port’s balneario (seaside resort) in the 1950s. Taganga’s past is lost in the mists of time, but erupted onto the international backpackers’ circuit in the 1990s after being “discovered” by two mochileros.

The three destinations appeal to different types of travelers. V!VA Colombia takes a look at what each town as to offer to vacationers and wandering backpackers.

Playa Grande. Photo by Andrea Davoust

Taganga is one of the lost popular international backpackers’ destinations on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It has not only a small, pleasant beach in town, but also Playa Grande a short walk or boat ride away. Taganga also is the place to go for scuba diving shipwrecks and coral reefs. Travelers can also spend the day with a local fisherman to learn the tricks of his trade.

Santa Marta's beach on a Sunday afternoon. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Admittedly, Santa Marta’s beach isn’t as glamorous, but it is very popular with locals. The history of this first Spanish South American city seeps to its very core, from its colonial cathedral, to Simón Bolívar’s deathbed at Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino, to the 20th century Bananatown. A bevy of museums and cultural centers also lures visitors. Despite being Colombia’s second-most important Caribbean port, the city feels like a village with close-knit neighborhoods. It also has that slightly gritty edge that harbor towns often have. In crannies of the night, young women work the corners, a scuffle might happen between sailors at a rundown bar. Nonetheless, safety is good in Santa Marta, making it a favorite port-of-call for international yachts and cruise ships.

El Rodadero beach, edged by highrise hotels and apratments. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Despite El Rodadero being the most popular with Colombian families, backpackers will find much to do as well. This resort has the area’s longest beach, stretching for more than a kilometers. Another premier strand is Playa Blanca, accessible by boat. On the way is Rodaderos’ aquarium (the first in Latina America) and sea museum. Water sports, like kayaking and banana riding, are other popular pastimes in El Rodadero.

Lodging costs about the same in Santa Marta, Taganga and El Rodadero. All three towns have backpacker hostels; El Rodadero and Taganga have camping. An attractive option in El Rodadero is renting an apartment for a week or so. The trio all offer local and international cuisine, with seafood specialties. Either Santa Marta or Taganga can be used as a stepping stone to Tayrona National Park or to Ciudad Perdida. Most tour operators now have offices in both towns. It’s important to keep in mind that busetas between the three only run until mid-evening, which can put a cramp on backpacker’s agendas. No matter where you decide to stay, you’re guaranteed a perfect sunset view.

Taganga sunset. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Check out V!VA Travel Guides for the most comprehensive, up-to-date information to help you navigate through Colombia—no matter your budget or interests—and to help you choose which is the best destination for you.

El Rodadero's aquarium. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of the book. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

On the Road – Colombia: Choosing Colombia’s Best Beach I

During the journey to Colombia’s Caribbean coast, I pondered the topic of this next blog. By the time the air-conditioned bus stopped at our destination, I knew what it would be: Why do travelers choose Santa Marta or Taganga or El Rodadero to stay? When I stepped into Santa Marta’s mid-afternoon heat, I felt like I had slammed into a humid wall.

But one Sunday afternoon, my quest for an answer meets a familiar specter: a blockade.

Our buseta’s journey is stopped cold. Orange cones form a loose chain across the road heading to Taganga. Word passes: There is no electricity. A man carries a guanábana-sized rock, to lay it in the street. A fist fight almost breaks out between police officers and the neighbors.

Our driver’s insistence in getting through the blockade doesn’t get us very far. Around the bend, local people are piling more branches across the road. Traffic on the other side extends up beyond the brow of the hill. These neighbors are frustrated with the electric company. It still had not come out to restore service.

A group of foreigners, bowed beneath knapsacks, climb over the blockade. What is the draw of Taganga, that they are ready to walk four kilometers (2.5 mi) in this day’s 36°C (97°F) heat?

Legend says that in the early 1990s, two backpackers “discovered” Taganga, a sleepy fishing village just over the hill north of Santa Marta. Through the mochilero grapevine, word spread about a cheap, laid-back, authentic Colombian pueblo with great beaches.

And word still spreads. Sitting together on Taganga’s beach watching the sun set, Lauren (from Canada), Steve (UK) and Cassie (New Zealand) tell me they came here because other travelers recommended it. Taganga has better beaches than Santa Marta, which is a boring, dirty port town. Also, it is the stepping stone to Tayrona National Park. Pat (UK) said, “Taganga … is much nicer for travelers than Santa Marta. It has more nice restaurants, more of a back packer feel, on the beach.”

But it was just that atmosphere that turned Chris and Emma, also from England, off from staying there. We met in our Santa Marta hotel. They explained Taganga is too hectic, with too many foreign backpackers – too much like a European resort town. They came to know Colombia, not hang out with a bunch of foreigners. And too many people are constantly trying to sell stuff. Santa Marta is definitely more chilled.

A surprise was to find foreigners at El Rodadero, a traditional Colombian-family resort just south of Santa Marta. Anja and Nikki, both of Norway, are staying at a hostel on the outskirts of the port city; the location attracted to them. Anja says, “We’re trying out different areas on day trips.” On their agenda are the beaches at Taganga and El Rodadero and Tayrona.

In truth, each of the three towns appeals to a different type of traveler. V!VA Colombia can help you to decide which would be best for you. In part II of On the Road – Colombia: Choosing Colombia’s Best Beach, we’ll take a look at what each town as to offer to vacationers and wandering backpackers.

In the meantime, drop us a line and tell the V!VA community which you chose: Taganga, Santa Marta or El Rodadero.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of the book. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

On the Road – Colombia: Sacred Times

Sometimes blockades are caused by landslides, earth and rock loosened by torrential La Niña rains. Other blockades are created by trucks pulled across highways, in protest to new laws. A third blockade is comes in the form of holidays.

There are three sacred times in Colombia: lunch, Sundays – and holidays. Don’t expect to find anyone in offices or shop. All is locked up tight.

Colombians are very business-oriented. So when these times come, all is put aside to concentrate on life’s other important facets: family and friends. They seem to emphasize taking time out of busy schedules and hard work, in order to enjoy good food and good times. Or, as Louisianes say, “Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!”

A three-day holiday weekend (called a puente in Colombia) is upon us. Nobody seems to know what it is celebrating, but they are definitely ready to let the good times roll. (For those who are dying to know, it’s San José day, when Latin cultures have traditionally observed Fathers’ Day.  But like many countries in the Americas, Colombia has followed the lead of US culture, and now celebrates it in June.)

What is important is to plan for this pure R&R. Tickets and rooms must be booked far in advance. For holidays, travelers are advised to avoid super-popular Colombian vacation destinations close to the capital, like Villa de Leyva. Everyone, though, who can afford it heads for the fine-sand beaches and warm sea of the Caribbean coast that Cartagena and Santa Marta have to offer.

International travelers – unless you’re ready to get fully immersed in Colombians’ hard party-down and battle for a hotel room, you’re advised to go elsewhere. You can always go there another time, when things are, well, less mad and cheaper. Colombia is a big country (officially, Latin America’s fifth largest). There are plenty of places that have yet to make the vacationers’ radar screen. Near the coast are Valledupar, with incredible swimming holes and indigenous villages to visit. Not too far away is Aracataca, famed author Gabriel García Márquez’ home town. Both villages now have affordable hostels.

Colombians spend Monday rushing back to their hometowns. They all will have to report to their jobs bright and early Tuesday morning. They’ll get down to serious work, until the next holiday. You have about a month to prepare to be someplace else. The next big one is Semana Santa, this year slated to begin April 17th. The most famed celebrations are in Popayán and Mompós. Valledupar also has some noteworthy processions, which this year will be followed close behind by the Vallenato music festival, Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata. For all of these, hotel rooms have been booked since December, but you might have some luck. The beaches, of course, will be insanely crowded and prices inflated.

But someplace in this great expansive country, you’ll find the perfect place for you to be. Relax with a copy of V!VA Colombia on your iPad, and browse to see where the wind might take you for Colombia’s next holiday.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of the book. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

On the Road — Colombia: Along the Río Magdalena

Some days the news from travelers coming down from the North isn’t good. Apparently the rains that have been soaking Bogotá have also been affecting other parts of the country. Trips are taking several hours longer than normal. Indeed, the continued possibility of roadblocks — in this case, landslides on the highways between the Cordillera Central and the Cordillera Oriental.

But travel on I must. Rocinante (my knapsack) and I await buses heading North and further North, in search of dry, warm weather. We do have luck, encountering only remnants of the destruction. Sometimes road shoulders no longer exist, having caved into the depths far below. Only a guardrail protects us from the abyss. Sometimes the highways have stretches of rough wash board. Broad earthen ripples vibrate beneath the bus’ tires. Dregs of a landslide recently cleared.


Some of those travelers coming down from the North have other tales to tell, of an adventure they undertook that proved to be the highlight of their stay in Colombia. They had never heard of it before. The most commonly used guide makes no mention of it. Not until they checked out V!VA Colombia or talked with Shaun of Macondo Hostel in San Gil, did they know of the possibility of taking this historic highway. No, this thorughfare is not paved, nor in danger of being blocked by landslides. It was the road the Muisca nation, and later the Spaniards and Simón Bolívar, used to the coast: the Río Magdalena.

Paseo por el Río Magdalena. Photo by Talaigua Nuevo municipality.

I know their excitement. For years, I also dreamed of slicing the muddy river. But when I came to Colombia in May 1999, there already had been over 200 kidnappings on the river meandering through the country’s then-Red Zone. I would have to delay my dreams until mid-2004.

Investigating, asking every town-step along the way — in Cartegena, Mangangue, in Mompós and finally El Banco — I felt I could do it. Every one (including the Policia Nacional) assured me it was safe. In El Banco, I hopped a launch heading upstream to Barrancabermeja. For 7.5 hours, we stopped at every port village along the way. Cattlelands and savannahs stretched along both banks. Over the years, I passed the word. Even still, not many foreigners carve a wake into the earthen waters of one of South America’s greatest rivers.


Northward we travel, Rocinante and I. The weather is such a relief after weeks of Bogotá’s chill rain. Even though the sun sets at the same time as in the capital, the days seem longer. By noon, the heat swells, driving people inside for a post-lunch siesta on a hammock in interior courtyards. Walking around the cities and pueblos updating V!VA Colombia, I must take care against sunstroke. It isn’t all about hotels and restaurants, banks and internet cafés, however. I also search out the cool river balnearios for a dip, searching tree tops for howler monkeys and colorful macaws. The calm, warm waters of the Caribbean, though, are yet kilometers away.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of the book. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

On the Road — Colombia: Into Bogotá

The truckers had also surrounded Bogotá. For a week or so, roads radiating from Colombia’s capital were blocked by semi-rigs and tarp-covered straight trucks. Nothing and no one could get in or out — including me.

Finally I did make it, arriving early in the morning.

The ride to the Candelaria neighborhood took longer than usual.Calle 19, Avenida Jiménez and other major thoroughfares are torn up with the renovation of the Transmilenio (Bogotá’s answer to an above-ground metro).

Bogotá's endless roadworks. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Anato, Colombia’s annual tourism fair, is being held all week at Corferias. I get my pass on the last day, wandering through the massive convention hall. This is an insiders’ only event, where hotel and hostel owners, tour operators and tourism offices have

Gone to the Fair. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

come from every corner of the country.

I walk up to the Islas Providencia and Santa Catalina booth. Upon seeing V!VA Colombia in my hand, the woman behind the counter yells out, “But that’s the guide all the French sail boaters show up with!” She calls to her co-workers. Their responses are like an echo, confirming what this Islander has told me.

As I approach the Guajira stand, a voice calls out to me. It’s Andrés Delgado, co-owner of Kaishi, a tour agency in that magical peninsula. From region to region I wend through this fair. More and more people greet me, including Oscar and Ivonne Gilède of Colombia Highlands in Villa de Leyva. I am shuttled  around, old friends introducing me to new ones who have joined the V!VA community, like Cristina of Provincia Hostel in Valledupar and Tim of the Gypsy Residence in Aracataca.

It seems everyone wants to check out this relative new-comer to the bookshelves. Many are amazed to see V!VA has gone to deep recesses of Colombia, where other guides have feared to tread. A common refrain I hear is, “¡Es muy completo! — It’s very complete!”

My visit to Bogotá, though, isn’t about fairs and visiting old friends. With my V!VA Colombia in hand, I have much to update.

& Bogotá's endless rain. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

But every day it rains in this city. Clear skies greet the dawn, rising hopes this day will be dry.  Within a few hours, the clouds build to the East. By early afternoon, commuters pop their umbrellas open against the showers. I must plan everything around the drizzles and downpours. I have many blocks to walk. Nothing is worse than a drenched map and a cold soaking to the skin. I enviously watch as the other guests of Platypus grab a taxi to the bus terminal or the airport, boarding for the great Carnaval party in Barranquilla.

Ah, but Rocinante and I have much ground to cover before we arrive at the Caribbean’s white-sand beaches and clear sea. I take another look at the sky, hoping to hoof much more pavement before today’s rain.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of the book. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

On the Road — Colombia: Running the Blockades

This Sunday morning, I take a break from packing Rocinante (my faithful knapsack). Tonight we shall be traveling north to the border. The paper crumples in my hands as I focus in on one news story: Striking Colombian truckers have blockaded the international bridge at Rumichaca. Nothing and no one are able to cross.

With the rush of getting ready to update V!VA Colombia guide, I haven’t had time to catch up on the news. For months, I’d read about how the La Niña rains were causing landslides throughout the country, blocking roads. But I had totally missed this development.

Monday morning I arrive in Tulcán. When the sun paints the eastern horizon and cock crows echo through the streets, I head to the plaza. An unmoving line of border-bound combis line one side. We wait for over an hour before the van is full. The border is quiet. For once, no long lines jam the immigration posts.

Ipiales is the same city as it’s always been. The streets buzz with traders from both sides of the border. It seems hard to believe there is a siege. It turns out the truckers have agreed to park near another town, while waiting for negotiations. The crux lies in the government wanting to lift tare fare controls, leaving them to the mercy of the market. Truckers fear they’ll lose a lot of money, without those guaranteed fees.

I am free to head down the road to Tumaco, on the southern Colombia coast. In the three years since I’d been there, much has changed – and yet not much. Houses tightly packed along narrow boardwalks still cram Barrio Puentes, in danger of tsunamis. There is yet a strong military presence, with planes returning back to base after a day of spraying coca cultivations. It is said great strides are being made in combating the narco-traficantes and guerrillas. New hotels have opened, especially out at Playa El Morro, and new tourist agencies are ready to swoop people away to Bocagrande and the region’s other natural wonders. The tourism officer tries to convince me to stay around for Tumaco’s Carnaval, highlighting regional Afro-Colombian music, dance and cultural traditions. But as tempting as Playa El Morro’s beaches and tranquility may be, I must be moving on.

But not so fast, Pachamama seems to tell me. The night before I plan to leave, it rains. A landslide is blocking the road inland. But the next day I am able to head down the road. Just before Nariño Department’s capital, semi rigs line the highway.

Pasto now seems to wear a solemn face. Because of the truckers’ paro, food and gas supplies are running low. Commerce is at a virtual stand-still. My last day in the city is a whirlwind, and Rocinante must be ready to leave early next morning. I forgo watching the news before I go to bed, and awaken in a flurry. The urge to move on is burning at my soles.

I arrive at the bus station. No, there are no buses today because of the strike. Since the previous afternoon, the camioneros have been tightening the noose around the city. The highway south is totally blockaded. Trucks are moving into position in other directions. Soon there will be no exit to the north, either.

But one company is willing to send minivans out. Studying the maps, it has found an alternative route leading to above Laguna de la Cocha and into the Sibundoy valley. The way is safe – and still unbarricaded. Should I take the chance or resign myself to holing up in Pasto until this blows over? I plunk down the cash for my ticket and board the combi.

Ah, the thrills when a paro is declared. This experience joins the ranks of when I got stuck in one town after another during Bolivia’s 2005 nation-wide strike. Or that time, back in 1999, when a strike blocked highways throughout this very same Colombia. The only way out was some dirt road going deep into the zona roja. Still, even after all these years, I have not been able to find that track on any map. Well, the adventure out of Pasto wasn’t that much of a trip – some day over an Águila beer, I’ll tell you the tale.

But for now, Rocinante and I must get back on the road, savoring Colombia’s multi-faceted natural and cultural beauty.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of the book. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

Dream job: travel writer. Busting the myth (part 2)

By Andrea Davoust

Aspiring travel writers, you already know from my first myth-busting post that no-one will offer you as much as a glass of water (let alone free cocktails or, dream on, cruises), as you stagger around sweating like a horse in 35-degrees heat, asking at least five people for the same information because all the answers are going to be different and you need to triangulate. And that is the easy bit. Still not put off? Then let’s bust the biggest myth of all: that it is a real job.

Mother of all myths: you get paid to travel and write.

Unless you are Bill Bryson – and he raised his children on his salary as a sub editor – then you do not actually get paid. At least, not real money, not the kind that turns into a down payment for a car or even just keeps your electricity and phone line from being cut. If you do land yourself an official writing assignment, and once you have completed it, having wrung your credit card bone-dry in the process, then yes, you will probably receive some petty cash at some point. Probably enough, say, to recoup the cost of that last empanada and Sprite in Guatemala City airport. But forget about making a living out of it. And while you are at it, write off any hope of going “all expenses paid” – or if you find an employer who does that, please tell me their name right away. Until then, you are on a budget tighter than Speedo trunks and must fit the travel expenses’ equivalent of an obese bottom into it.

Where travel writers go for coffee

Where travel writers go for coffee

Corollary of the mama-myth: you rough it to the limit.

So you are on a shoestring. Well, so are lots of other travelers, and they don’t whine about it, right? Except they can choose to skip the top (expensive) tours and far-flung (expensive) attractions. You can’t, because you have to cover them for your guidebook. Well then renounce the comfort of a private room for a shared dorm at the Doorslam Hostel! Except that regular (loud) backpackers are not usually on the same schedule as you, who have to crawl out of bed at the crack of dawn to start working. Stretching your meal allowance by grabbing greasy street food would not be so bad either, if you did not have to check out the fancy restaurants in town, drooling over the tempting menu, writing down prices, and walking out. I could go on forever ringing off examples.

Yet in spite of the frustrating wild goose chases, dodgy boat rides, late-night ass-to-chair writing moments, and the many “what the hell?” moments, travel writing is a very rewarding experience. You just need to accept that it will never make you rich. On this zen note, I am off to apply for a position as a sub editor, which may fund my future trips and, who knows, my future bryson-esque fame and success.

V!VA’s Travel Writing Boot Camps

Still interested in the life of a travel writer? Why not join one of V!VA’s Boot Camps: five-day-long travel guidebook writing crash courses.

2010 Boot Camps:

Ecuador: January 4-8
Perú: January 18-22

Students hit the ground running with assignments, learn how to write guidebooks and have their work critiqued by seasoned professionals. This is a great opportunity for aspiring writers to gain hands-on travel writing skills and experience and get paid!boota

Upon successful completion of the course, Boot Camp graduates have the opportunity to stay on assignment as field writers and be compensated. Works will be published in the upcoming guidebooks for each country.

V!VA is looking for a select army of talented and adventurous writers to train out in the field and jump start their travel writing careers.

Learn from the pros what it takes to be a travel writer, start writing, get published and get paid!

V!VA Travel Guides launches unique travel writing Boot Camps in Latin America

V!VA Travel Guides is offering aspiring writers and photographers the chance to partake in several intensive week-long travel writing crash-courses in various exciting cities in Latin America.

V!VA’s pilot Boot Camp will take place from November 26th to the 30th in Quito, Ecuador. In 2008, a Boot Camp is also planned to take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from January 6th through 12th. Boot camps are also in the works for several other Latin American countries in the early summer of 2008.

Students of the crash-course will hone travel writing skills under the guidance of seasoned professionals and will be given tips on producing quality digital photography for the internet to accompany their stories. Students will be advised on what editors want, how to deliver, get published and get paid, and writing will then be critiqued by established travel writers and editors.

Attendees will also have the opportunity to stay “on assignment” in Ecuador or Argentina after the course and may be compensated, and works will be published in upcoming guidebooks for these countries.

For more information about V!VA’s bootcamps and to send in applications, please visit the Boot Camp section of V!VA’s website.