Within an hour of leaving the Colonial city of Cartagena we were in the countryside and our truck was surrounded by small, frantic yellow butterflies and it felt like being inside a Gabriel García Márquez novel: eery, fragile, pre-destined. It got even more surreal as our full day of travel took us to the crater mud pit at Totumo Volcano, the city of Santa Marta and on to Taganga Beach.
The muddy miracle of Totumo Volcano
We were still surrounded by yellow butterflies when we arrived at Totumo Volcano. Totumo is a tiny little volcano, just 50 feet (15 meters) tall. Rickety wooden stairs lead up its flanks to the crater which is filled with milk-chocolate-colored mud. The story goes that a local priest was offended by the hell-like fire and brimstone that came out of the crater and started sprinkling the thing with holy water until the fire and brimstone turned into thick mud. Improvement? You be the judge.
Now visitors pay a couple of dollars to climb into the Totumo crater and bob around in the mud like strawberries in chocolate fondue. This is appealing to some because, hey, you’re bobbing around in a volcanic crater and because the volcanic mud is full of minerals that have medicinal properties. No word on the current holy water content and whether or not that’s good for your skin.
The air temperature was about one million degrees celcius when we were at Totumo, however, so the idea of getting into hot mud was completely unappealing as was the idea of the long, dusty walk from the crater to the nearby lagoon where the mud is washed off.
Skipping Santa Marta
From Totumo we drove to the city of Santa Marta but despite the good things we’d heard about it (coastal location, laid back vibe, South America’s second oldest surviving Colonial city), we found it hot and dusty and mostly un-Colonial and wholly uninspiring (if you disagree you’re welcome to do your best to change our minds in the comments section, below).
One of the things we value most about our peripatetic lives is the freedom we have to stay or go as we choose so, after a disappointing and pricey lunch and a visit to the (closed) cathedral in Santa Marta, we moved on to nearby Taganga Beach.
We did ultimately discover a fantastic budget breakfast place in Santa Marta. It’s called Merka Welcome Restaurant and it’s on Calle 10C No. 2-1. For 5,000 COP (about US$2) we got huge plates of eggs, etc. Another 4,000 COP (about US$1.50) got us an enormous pitcher of amazing fresh made fruit juice. The only weak point, literally, was the coffee.
This simple restaurant (fans, mismatched tables and chairs) is famous for well-priced seafood dishes as well so we returned one night for dinner and Carlos, the night-time waiter, assured us that the food was “fucking good”. He was right and we feasted on huge plates of tasty, fresh fish for 15,000 COP (about US$6). Carlos hugged Eric when we left.
Do NOT confuse Merka Welcome Restaurant with a place in Santa Marta called Welcome Restaurant. It’s much more expensive. And you should probably skip the place called Pizza Vomito. We did.
Taganga Beach bums
Though Taganga is less than three miles (5 km) from Santa Marta it seemed like another world. The drive there, up and over the undulating coastline, felt a very small bit like driving along the Amalfi coast with impossible drops, blue water below and buildings clinging to hillsides.
The beach town of Taganga itself, however, feels nothing like the Amalfi coast. Beach front eateries, people selling handicrafts from blankets and hostels and hotels in all shapes and sizes give Taganga the look of a burgeoning traveler ghetto but it still, thankfully, attracts Colombian travelers, especially on weekends. Taganga was a must-visit years ago then fell into disarray but new construction and lots of travelers gave Taganga a comeback vibe when we were there.
After checking out a lot of different accommodations we made a real budget hotel find in Casa D’mer hotel. Located right on the beach at the far end of the malecon, this hotel has clean, spacious private doubles with fans and good mattresses for 70,000 COP (about US$27) including free coffee, free ice water, great staff owners and use of a small but satisfying plunge pool. The furnished roof deck has great sea views.
Fish-based meals can be had from simple vendors on the beach in Taganga for around 10,000 COP (about US$4) and there are an increasing number of international eateries in town too. Intifada Cafe serves up great falafel, if you can stomach the anti-Israel propaganda on the walls, and Pacahamama is an actual French restaurant with an actual French chef.
A shop called Casa Amarilla has tailors who will make you a custom swimsuit in 24 hours and another shop in town was cleverly incorporating bright, handmade, traditional mulas (or molas) made by the Kuna people into modern handbags, shoes and more.
The curved bay and beach in Taganga itself is nothing spectacular. The water is murky and the shoreline is cluttered with fishing boats. But a 20 minute walk along a trail that takes you up and over a bluff delivers you to Long Beach with snack shacks, chairs and umbrellas for hire and a much more inviting beach and clear water. Add in cold beer for 3,000 COP (about US$1.50) and you’ve got yourself a nice day. Water taxis make the short trip to and from Taganga too.
One warning: muggings, sometimes with machetes involved, are an increasing problem in Taganga, so be aware. However, we liked it in Taganga so much that we used it as a base for a long day trip to Tayrona National Park which we’ll cover in our next post.
Colombia travel tip
Despite their generally dismal condition, many roads in Colombia have tolls. These tolls are particularly frequent and costly in northern Colombia. We paid more than US$25 in tolls just to drive the 145 miles (233km) from Cartagena to Santa Marta. You have been warned.
Read more about travel in Colombia