The Rough Road to Santa Marta, Colombia

by Ekua on October 9, 2013 in backpacking,Colombia,d.i.y. travel

Bananas. That’s all I see for miles as we drive though some unknown location in Northern Colombia as day begins to gain strength over night. Bananas. That’s how I feel after about a dozen hours cramped up in a night bus with the air conditioning inexplicably blasting on us while we shiver. One member of my group is so desperate for warmth that he’s clutching his carry on bag to his chest and using it as a last resort blanket.

We sleepily stare out the window at a forest of banana trees that looks just organized enough to pass as crops rather than a wild banana tree jungle. Between expansive fields of tropical produce are villages that are already awake and alive and adorned with little stands that hold exploding rainbows of fruits that are waiting to be juiced.

Juice. My throat’s dry, my stomach’s grumbling, and I’d like a fresh cup of juice right now. But I can’t think about liquids. I don’t want to go back to that bathroom on the bus. I’d used it once in the middle of the night even after one of my travel buddies had come back from it and warned me with widened eyes, “I don’t think you want to go in there!” But I had to.

Just walking down the aisle from the front row to the back, I’d fallen into about five people’s laps when the bus hit bumps in the road. As I stepped inside the tiny bathroom stall, the light flickered on and off, then stayed off for good. In the dark, I’d tried to locate the toilet seat while I was violently hurled from side to side of the stall whenever we rode over potholes or rounded corners.

I won’t use that malicious bathroom again. Juice and any thought of sipping anything will have to wait until I can exit this wild ice box in motion.

We’re finally able to get off the bus in a town called Cienaga. It had been winter inside the bus, but outside, it’s resoundingly summer, already hot and humid in the early hours of the morning. We peel off whatever layers we can as we are herded over to our next vehicle.

We part ways with a member of our San Gil group who’s continuing on to Cartagena, and board a smaller bus that’s waiting to take passengers to Santa Marta. It’s nowhere near big enough for all the people and luggage it’s supposed to carry. I’d read stories about travelers getting left behind at this exact moment during the trip from San Gil to the coast and having to find their own way to Santa Marta. But not today — the driver and his attendant make it work, even if some people have to sit sideways or on makeshift seats; even if they have to fill up the narrow aisle with luggage that spills into the seats and legroom.

I notice a poor little girl across the aisle throwing up (motion sickness is common on bus rides in Colombia) in plastic bags her mother is providing for her.  Her mother then ties up the bags of puke and tosses them out the window. I can’t believe it. My travel buddies can. Two of them had been sitting near this family on the previous bus and they’d seen the girl vomiting all night. But because the windows on that bus didn’t open, the mother had just left the bags in the aisle near their feet.

When we arrive in Santa Marta, the only thing on our minds is the bathroom, and we head straight toward it after collecting our luggage, walking as quickly as our bags and tired bodies will allow. With that taken care of, we find a cab to take us to our hostel. It’s still early morning when we arrive, so our beds aren’t ready yet and they won’t be ready for a few hours.

I’m glad I have great company to pass the time with while I wait. I can tell that I’m not the only who’s feeling a little bananas; we’re all in that state and we fill the lobby with loopy laughter. Just when the heat and lack of sleep are threatening to drive us into delirium, we discover the hostel’s free supply of coffee. A lifesaver. And when the kitchen opens, I sit down for a breakfast that begins with passion fruit juice, a bit of heaven in a glass.

I flip through my guidebook while I eat breakfast, looking at information on Parque Nacional Tayrona which I’ll be visiting the next day. As I read information about entrance fees and getting to the park, I am oblivious to the wonder that I’ll be experiencing beyond these practicalities 24 hours from now. Soon, I’ll find out that the rough road was not for naught — paradise is waiting.

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