Palomino: Backpacker Paradise

After Couchsurfing for a night in Barranquilla, my friend Cammy and I took a bus to Palomino, a small town located about two hours west of Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

Our bus lurched to a stop where a dirt road crossed the highway, the driver shoued “Palomino!” and we grabbed our backpacks and leaped out into a dusty square surrounded by small shops and restaurants selling empanadas and the menu al día.

A bunch of guys were leaning on mopeds by the bus stop, and several wandered up to us and offered us rides to various hostels or inner-tubing trips. We chatted with them for a few minutes and learned that we could follow the dirt road down towards the beach or up into the mountains, and in both directions would find hostels.

We chose the beach direction, but decided to walk rather than take a moto-taxi. As we headed down the road the typical Colombian shops and restaurants quickly gave way to pizzerias, hostels, and vegetarian spots, everything decorated in the same hippie/backpacker rainbow pallette.

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A typical tienda
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The main drag in Palomino
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One of many, many hostels
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Y más

Once we were close to the beach, we chose the least fancy hostel we could find and for 28,000 pesos per night (about 10 USD) we got very comfortable beds in this sweet thatch building:

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Home in Palomino
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Outdoor kitchen at our hostel
Not a bad place to wake up

We spent our first night enjoying some cervezas on the beach.

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Playa Palomino

And making friends at a beachside bar:

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Meow!

Palomino didn’t have a crazy nightlife by any means, but there were plenty of little bars selling tropical cocktails and cheap beers, as well as friendly travelers to chat with while enjoying them.

The day after we arrived, we decided to do one of the main activities in Palomino, which is to rent inner tubes, ride with them on the back of a moto-taxi up into the jungle, hike a bit further into the jungle, and then float back down to the beach on a river.

Everywhere you go in town there are booths offering to rent tubes, so Cammy and I headed for the nearest one and for 20,000 pesos (about 7 USD) we were handed large rubber tubes and each whisked off on the back of a moto-taxi.

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A typical inner-tube rental booth in Palomino

The last time I rode on the back of a moped I ended up being driven off a (small) cliff onto a rather sharp rock and spending the next two weeks with a spectacularly black-and-blue butt cheek, so I didn’t feel entirely confident as a total stranger drove me at top speed up a mountain on an extremely potholed gravel road. Nevertheless, we arrived at the start of the trail without incident.

Cammy and I then took a way-too-short 20 minute hike along a winding trail through beautiful, mountainous jungle landscape, with massive trees towering above us and a cacophony of birdsong all around. I was disappointed when we got to the river and wished the hike could have been much longer.

Though we hadn’t seen another soul on the trail, there were a few people gathered at the edge of the river and we ended up floating down with a couple from Medellín ahead of us and a trio of British girls behind. Despite the other inner-tubers, it was a fantastic ride (and as it took almost two hours, we certainly got our pesos’ worth!). The river was cool and clear, and all around us were more incredible views of jungle-covered mountainsides.

I did regret that we did not think to bring beers for the ride, as everyone else seemed to have had done, because the one thing better than floating down a jungle river in an inner tube is doing so while drinking a cold Aguila – or so I imagine. I also regretted not bringing sunscreen, as I got a pretty nasty burn despite having practically bathed in SPF 50 before leaving the hostel. (Lesson of the day: “waterproof sunscreen” is a lie.)

When we finally got to the mouth of the river, we dropped off our tubes and stopped at a little beach restaurant that consisted of basically a campfire, some cooking equipment, and a few tables and chairs by the water. I had coconut rice and shrimp (a decision I greatly regretted later on).

In the evening Cammy and took a long walk down the beach. After walking past various hotels for about ten minutes we had the place to ourselves, with nothing but roaring surf on one side and lush jungle on the other. I felt like I was walking around in a tropical paradise calendar.

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Beachfront hotels
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Tropical paradise

When we were at least an hour’s walk away from any sign of civilization we suddenly came upon a group of French backpackers grilling meat and drinking at a “bar” (basically a little wooden shack in the jungle on the edge of the beach). It was quite a surprise but we happily joined them for a while.

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Surprise bar
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Nouveaux amis
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Grillin’

We left as it was starting to get dark, and on the way back got to see a spectacular sunset over the ocean, with, again, not another soul in sight.

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It was amazing.

I ended up staying in Palomino for a few days longer than I had planned, due to getting sick (damn arroz con camarones), but of all the places to recover from food poisoning, a hammock by the beach wasn’t the worst.

Palomino certainly wasn’t a place to go to get away from gringos and experience a typical Colombian town, but despite being somewhat touristy it was indeed quite tranquilo. While there were lots of hotels and restaurants, they were mostly pretty laid-back and in keeping with Palomino’s small-town feel. I also really liked that most of the businesses seemed to be owned by local folks – it’s not like there was a Marriott going up in the middle of town (at least for now, and let’s hope never).

Besides that, the beach, jungle, and river were all incredible, and it was wonderfully easy to leave the touristy part of town and have any of these natural wonders basically to oneself. I would go back just to do the inner tube ride again, this time with sunscreen and cerveza.

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