03 Jan Adventures in Palomino : Colombia’s Secret Paradise
We were sitting on the coast of the Caribbean, trying to plan our next move. When you’re traveling, or backpacking in this case, you heavily rely on other traveler’s recommendations. Aaron, my then-boyfriend, and I were staying at La Brisa Loca Hostel in a beautiful colonial-style building right in the heart of Santa Marta, Colombia. It was something you would expect to see in an old Spanish village. Marble floors, intricate details, a colorfully tiled swimming pool in the courtyard, and ceilings that were as tall as the palm trees. Hammocks filled the massive rooftop deck that overlooked the entire city. You could order poolside cocktails served in fresh coconuts, a delicious Mexican restaurant was next door, we were steps from the ocean, and even closer to the street markets. This place checked all of our proverbial boxes, it seemed perfect.
Aaron and I were reluctant to leave and decided to seek the advice of some locals on what we should do next. Our initial itinerary called for us to leave the following day and head east to camp in Tayrona National Park. As we discussed this with fellow travelers around the hostel bar, we realized that our plans needed to change. Apparently a recent surge of ‘frat-packers’ had turned the pristine and peaceful Tayrona Park into a never ending rave brimming with all-night debauchery and wild full-moon parties. While this still seemed like an entertaining option, we didn’t know if it was worth leaving Santa Marta. We asked if there were any other attractions or towns that we absolutely had to visit.
Palomino. If you were looking for natural beauty, undeveloped paradise, and a peaceful retreat, you had to go to Palomino. We had heard this from several people and decided to chew on the idea for a bit. The next morning, we walked down to the reception desk and asked the young volunteer if she knew how to get to Palomino. We had tried looking it up, but it wasn’t on the map. A Google search turned up zero results. This place didn’t exist online or in our trusted guide book. Our intrigue over this secret town was becoming obsessive. Where was it? What was it like?
By this time, we had already been on the road for a few months and had quickly learned that the best places were the ones you’ve never heard of. The locals and the more experienced travelers usually knew about the hidden gems; the secret places that haven’t been gobbled up by mass tourism. If you’re lucky enough, and you gain the trust of these wise people, you can learn all about the hidden havens. People have a natural inclination to help and share their knowledge, especially in the travel realm. We decided very early on, that we would use this to our advantage. That, whenever possible, we would wander from the tourist track and do as the locals do.
The young girl behind the desk was eager to help. She informed us that Palomino was beautiful, relatively close, and easily accessible by bus. It was located just past the national park we had already planned on visiting. She explained that there were only a handful of places to stay, and she offered to reserve us a room at The Dreamer Hostel for a few nights. We jumped at the offer, since we knew nothing about where we were headed.
The next day, we began our adventure to Palomino. Our detailed instructions went something like this: Go to the Central Mercado, find the bus to Tayrona, get on, and tell the driver you want to get off in Palomino. It seemed simple enough.
We hoisted our overstuffed rucksacks on our backs, fastened our straps, and started walking toward the Central Market. We weaved our way around tables filled with knockoff designer bags, colorful kitchen gadgets, and piles of flip-flops. We wandered deeper and deeper into the market, walking past street food vendors, locals selling cigarettes and gum out of their backpacks, and street side cafes serving up impossibly strong cups of coffee. Eventually we made it to an intersection lined with a few buses. This must have been it.
We quickly walked around each of the buses. None of them were labeled. I always talk about the charm of Latin countries because everything seems to work perfectly, but for no apparent reason. Buses aren’t numbered or named, sometimes a city will be scribbled on a sheet of paper taped inside the front window, all the while, lights on the front of the bus flash ‘out-of-order.’ That was precisely the situation in the central market.
Trying to find your bus in a Latin city generally comes with an overwhelming sense of urgency. Schedules, departure times, and arrival times are all merely a suggestion and missing your bus could mean waiting hours or days for the next one. Having been victims of this common misfortune, we ran from bus to bus trying to decipher which one would take us to Palomino.
A young boy hung from the side steps of one bus shouting what we assumed where the names of cities, the Latin version of a scrolling sign announcing the next stops. We asked if the bus went to Palomino, he nodded and motioned for us to get on. We walked to the back of the bus and sat directly next to the open door. The heat in Colombia is crippling. It weighs you down, slows you down, and you’re constantly soaked from the extreme humidity. You break a sweat sitting down.
The bus wasn’t running, so the only air was a tiny breeze that would whip through the rear door and the open windows every few minutes. We were excited to have secured the best seats on the bus; an easy task considering we were the only ones on the bus. We settled in and watched the hypnotic transactions of the market surrounding us. A short while later we started to worry, when was this bus supposed to leave? We never asked. We could be sitting here for hours.
In his best Spanish, Aaron asked the young boy outside our bus when we were supposed to leave. “Soon.” That was our departure time. Aside from the unlabeled bus and the nonexistent schedule, there is one more thing you have to be weary of when catching a bus in a second or third world country. They will tell you whatever you want to hear to get you on the bus. Even if they’re route doesn’t include your stop, they will tack it on at the end, just to make an extra few dollars. This was one of those inevitable situations where our trust, our plans, and the rest of our day was in the hands of 15 year old Colombian boy.
Eventually more people started climbing onto the bus. A woman with her children, a man carrying burlap bags full of live chickens, and an elderly woman carrying a plastic tub full of tamales. The bus started up with a loud rumble, a little shaking, and a lurch forward. The driver quickly tuned the radio to his favorite station and cranked the volume up to a slightly offensive level. As the bus sped up, the breeze from the windows, and the loud engine played in perfect harmony with the music.
We sat back and watched as the backroads of Colombia passed outside of our window. I’ve always had a fascination with bus rides. You get to experience a place in a unique way. You hear the locals talking on their way to work, you watch as children hop on and off after school, you get a view of the small villages and towns that you never would have known about otherwise. I feel like it’s a poor man’s documentary of your destination. There is always a soundtrack in the background that forces you to feel the place you’re in. In this case, an elderly woman sitting across the isle from us continued to sing in Spanish, the man standing by the backdoor held the bags of chickens that added occasional squawks, and there was that incredibly loud salsa station on the radio.
The door next to us never closed. In fact, we realized that it didn’t exist. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to it. Perhaps it had flown off on one of the sharp turns over the mountains between Santa Marta and Palomino. Maybe the driver had taken it off, making it easier for the city-shouting young boy to hop off and on each time the bus stopped. Wherever that door was now, we were glad it was gone. The intense smell of saltwater and the fresh air made the long ride that much more memorable.
These things could have been a distraction, an unwelcome backdrop on a hectic commute. Instead, the warm ocean breeze, the occasional pitstops so the driver could buy a banana or a Coca-Cola from dusty roadside stands, the large sacks of potatoes barricaded next to my seat, and the constant cadence of the bus engine speeding up and slowing down blended into a whimsical orchestra of unintentional adventure. One of those rare situations I would probably never experience again.
Months later, I would learn that this was common practice in Latin America and these bus rides were more predictable than I ever would have imagined. They are even a point of pride in some countries, so much so that drivers decorate their repurposed school buses with anything sparkly, colorful, or obnoxious they can find. They’re called chicken buses, because, well, there is always someone carrying chickens.
After a few hours on this beautifully chaotic bus ride, we heard the driver shout “Palomino.” Nobody moved. The driver was looking at us in his massive rear-view mirror, a small plastic Jesus hanging from the center. This must be our stop. We grabbed our bags and jumped off the back of the bus. Our feet landed on a muddy street, there was a tiny tienda selling bananas, coconuts, and tomatoes on a partially flooded corner, and a small building across the street. This didn’t seem like much of a town, nor a must visit paradise. We started walking toward the lady working at the small fruit stand to ask for directions to The Dreamer. Before we made it across the street, two dirt bikes slid into a dead stop directly in front of us.
The two drivers eagerly greeted us with an amount of enthusiasm that seemed oddly suspicious. In their best English they asked where we were going. To someone like my mother, this probably would have seemed like a shady encounter. I bet she would have forbidden me from taking this transaction any further had she been there. But she wasn’t.
The two men motioned for us to get on the back of their bikes. I hoped on one, Aaron on the other. The drivers sped off in opposite directions. This immediately triggered my adrenaline and my anxiety. Maybe this was a bad idea. Perhaps my mom’s voice in the back of my head had been right. Maybe we shouldn’t have trusted two young strangers on bikes to take us into the jungle. But here we were, doing that exact thing. So, I did what I assume most travelers do in these situations. I held on and I smiled. This was definitely a situation I wouldn’t be in again. I might as well try to enjoy it.
A few seconds later my driver started laughing and shouting some playful banter. I looked over; Aaron and his driver were coming up a dirt track that met with ours just a few feet ahead. My driver leaned forward and our bike let our a loud roar. The two Colombian teenagers were racing each other. I laughed, and started cheering for my driver. Aaron did the same. Mud was flying up on our backs, we crashed through puddles, swerved around fallen trees, and eventually arrived at our hostel a little muddy, but thrilled from our two minute dirt bike adventure.
We had done it again, we survived another one of those hair-raising experiences. The moments that seem so terrifying, the ones that cause your heart to beat in your throat, those are the ones that that make you feel alive. The seconds go by slower. You feel every moment of it. When you survive it, when you come out on the other side, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Like you’ve earned some sort of real-life survival badge. For us, this was intoxicating. We had slowly become addicted to earning these badges.
We paid our drivers the predetermined $2 and walked into our hostel. This one, more beautiful than the last. A crystal clear pool set in the center of the compound. Small huts with thatched roofs lined the pool and there was a large communal area with a wooden bar and large booths filled with colorful pillows. We dropped our bags, then walked the short sandy path to the beach.
The water was calm, soft shades of blue, and sprawling. The sand was powder white, palm trees lined the beach, and coconuts littered the sand. There only thing in either direction was a hostel and a few large pieces of driftwood on the shore. No wonder this place wasn’t on the map, it didn’t exist. We settled in, shared a pizza on the beach, and waded around in the water for a few hours.
The sun started to set and we wandered back to the hostel. The world felt a little different here. It was so quiet. There were no speakers blaring salsa music, no bus horns, no women trying to sell you bracelets or handmade pottery. You could hear the breeze through the trees, the waves crashing, the birds chirping. As the afternoon gave way to the night, a storm rolled in, and a cool breeze whipped through the grounds. First it rained, then in poured. Thunder shook our wooden hut, lightning cracked through the sky. We ducked under the awning on our porch and stood there, watching the rain.
The storm was so loud and so violent. The power went out, all of the lights flickered, then permanently dimmed. It was black. We watched as the other travelers quickly ducked in their rooms to retrieve flashlights, candles, and lanterns. We did the same. Then everyone ran around, offering each other candles and supplies. There is a fierce sense of community among those that are pleasantly stranded in non-existent places. Everyone looks out for each other, tries to help each other. Then another one of those ‘traveling’ things happened. Instead of ducking inside and seeking shelter, everyone stood under their awnings, watching the storm. Candles lit up the horizon, our neighbor played music on his porch. Everyone pored outside, wanting to take in the moment.
Eventually, the rain lightened up and we walked back down to the beach. A large tree had washed up on shore and now served as a bench with front row seats to the ocean and the night sky. We sat on the damp wood, looking out at the storm hovering over the ocean. We watched as lightning cracked overhead. White and purple veins ripped apart the sky, spreading out over the horizon in an epic display of power. We watched the hypnotic show until the night turned to early morning and everyone retreated back to their rooms.
The following days played out like a practicum from a survivalist’s guide to the Caribbean. One morning was spent searching for and engineering a way to use a five gallon bag of water. There was a frightening encounter with gun-toting, fatigue-wearing men hidden in a patch of dense palm trees, and an entire afternoon was dedicated to earning our fire starter badges while meticulously lighting soggy sticks in an attempt to cook our dinner.
Palomino was a constant adventure. It was so desolate and detached that you were forced to survive. Sure, we could have just ordered another pizza from the hostel bar, or asked for a glass of water, but where’s the experience in that? When you travel, each day feels longer, it’s contents are more memorable, and the insignificant moments become life changing stories. Traveling forces you to survive, to slow down, and to become obsessed with moments that mean more than they’re supposed to.