Palomino is a beachside destination for backpackers who are looking to kick back rather than party. Taking it easy is the de facto mood.
Due to the rough waves in Palomino, my time in the ocean consisted of standing in ankle-deep water for a grand total of a few minutes during my three-night stay. This was totally fine with me; instead of going into the water, I walked up and down the beach and read on the sand.
Tubing is an option for backpackers who want to be more “active.” On my first morning in Palomino, I booked a tubing tour (40,000 COP or about $14) through my fabulous hostel Casa Chapolin, and a van picked up me and three other guests just a couple of hours later. After stopping in the center of town to sign waiver forms, we grabbed tubes and took a 30-minute walk in the forested hillside. Part of the walk was uphill, but it wasn’t strenuous; I was able to walk in sandals, while everyone else in my group was barefoot.
Once we reached the river, I hopped onto my tube. Although the water was chilly when I first got in, I quickly adjusted and thought the temperature was perfect. The river had a few tiny rapids, but most of the ride was peaceful—all I had to do was float. Birds flew overhead, and our guide gave us info about the indigenous people living by the river and local fauna. After about two hours on my tube, we ended at the beach.
I can’t emphasize how nice my hostel was. It had hammocks and clean and spacious dorms. Chantal, the owner, was a fantastic cook. Breakfast consisted of homemade bread (all the guests would battle over the last piece), eggs, and fruit (pineapple!). Chantal made dinner for guests every few nights for 26,000 COP (about $9). On my first night at the hostel, she made a fantastic spaetzle with pumpkin mash. I normally don’t love gourds (don’t even get me started on cucumbers) or mashed anything (not even potatoes), but I licked my plate clean.
After more than 11 months of traveling, I was smug that I hadn’t gotten food poisoning. I realize this is a weird thing to brag about since it’s not like this happened due to any skill I possessed, but I get prideful about inconsequential things. (Who won her fourth-grade spelling bee? That’s right: me.) In Palomino, karma decided to strike with a vengeance. [Spoiler and NB: If you don’t like reading about bodily functions, I recommend skipping the rest of this post.]
At the end of my second night in Palomino, my stomach started twisting. I had eaten pizza at a restaurant close to the town center just a couple of hours earlier, but I thought the writhing might be due to hunger. I ate a Kit Kat to try to calm my stomach, but the chocolate didn’t help anything. I tossed and turned throughout the night due to the discomfort.
After a sleepless night, my stomach continued to churn in the morning. I could get up only to brush my teeth and crawl to a hammock right outside of my dorm. I dozed in the hammock until the moment of reckoning, when I had to sprint to the bathroom to spew my guts out. My streak was over: I had food poisoning. None of the other hostel guests had symptoms, so the culprit wasn’t anything I ate at Casa Chapolin. Since WebMD tells me that food poisoning symptoms can surface as soon as one hour after eating tainted food (and who am I to question WebMD?), I blamed it on the pizza I had the previous night.
Vomming didn’t make me feel any better. I couldn’t do anything but remain prone on the hammock for the day. Chantal was making another homemade dinner of lasagna that night, but I had zero appetite; white rice was the only thing that sounded remotely palatable. At around 5 PM, I forced myself to hobble into the town center to buy a Sprite and a couple of rolls and then returned to the hammock. I managed to choke down one of the rolls at around 9 PM and then flopped onto my bunk to sleep.
Thankfully, I felt a lot better when I woke up the next morning and was ready to tear into Chantal’s breakfast. (As much as my stomach had hurt the previous day, I was more agonized that I was unable to eat Chantal’s bread.) After shoveling down a couple of fried eggs, I hit a wall—my brain was eager for food post-poisoning, but my stomach was not into it. I could only pick at Chantal’s wonderful bread and fruit. I finally waved the white flag and reluctantly handed the remainders of my bread to a gleeful Swiss couple.
PALOMINO TO SAN GIL
San Gil was my next destination after Palomino. To get there, I had to take a bus from Palomino to Santa Marta and then another bus to San Gil. Palomino to San Gil is not a common travel route, and even Chantal wasn’t sure of the best way to get there.
After I got on the bus from Palomino to Santa Marta, a young woman boarded and spotted me. She immediately introduced herself and asked where I was headed. When I said I was going to San Gil, she said she was heading there as well, which set off alarm bells. I’m always wary of random passersby who stop me to ask where I’m from or where I’m going and then say they—oh-so-conveniently—happen to be from the same place or are headed in the same direction. I might have been unjustifiably paranoid, but I was especially cautious with the woman on the bus since Palomino to San Gil is not a common route. It seemed like too much of a coincidence for her to claim we had the same destination.
Even though the bus was mostly empty, the woman took the seat next to me, which only made me more apprehensive. I kept my guard up and was curt as my seatmate said she had an Airbnb in Cali and wanted to open a hostel in Minca. Although my seatmate seemed kind, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was…not quite right. While falling asleep on moving vehicles is my jam, I forced myself to stay awake during the 2.5-hour bus ride. (Let me tell you, this was an accomplishment.)
I might have been imagining things (as a psych major, I—unsuccessfully—try to monitor my confirmation bias), but I felt like my seatmate kept a close eye on me whenever I touched my daypack. As a result, I was reluctant to unzip my bag to check the map on my phone and missed the stop that was closest to the Santa Marta bus terminal. My seatmate didn’t get off at the stop, only feeding my suspicions about her.
When the bus finally reached the Santa Marta market at the end of the line, only a few passengers were left, including my seatmate. I hustled off the bus to collect my backpack and noticed that my seatmate swooped in on a couple of disoriented backpackers who had been on our bus. While my seatmate was occupied with the other backpackers who seemed confused about where to go, I hailed a taxi to the bus terminal.
I never saw my seatmate at the Santa Marta bus terminal. To be fair, she may have decided to take another bus to San Gil, but the terminal was small, and there were only a couple of buses per day from Santa Marta to San Gil. Chances were good that I would have seen her if she did in fact plan to go to there. That said, I could have just been looking for fuel for my narrative that my seatmate had nefarious motives; if I’m real with myself, I never got affirmative proof that my seatmate was anything other than a nice person who liked to connect with travelers.
SAN GIL: THE STOMACH STUFF
During the 11.5-hour, overnight bus ride from Santa Marta to San Gil, I woke up at around 6 AM due to an unsettled stomach. Figuring these were just hunger pangs, I ate part of a chocolate bar. (I thought chocolate would come to my rescue this time, even though the Kit Kat I ate in Palomino didn’t ward off stomach pains. Hindsight, 20/20: it’s clear that I’m incapable of learning from past experiences and that I use chocolate as a crutch.) Besides the early morning discomfort, I made it through the bus ride without a serious stomach-related incident, so I thought I had recovered from food poisoning.
My stomach still felt off when I checked into my hostel in San Gil at around 10 AM, but I continued to attribute this to hunger pangs. To satiate my “hunger,” I walked to a nearby restaurant and ordered a sandwich with fries for an early lunch. After I took a few bites, I realized I had made a huge mistake; my stomach launched a counterattack at the onslaught of food. I couldn’t even finish my fries, which was the first time this had ever happened to me.
After hastily paying the check for an almost untouched lunch, I beelined back to my hostel and crumpled into bed. I was grateful I had the clairvoyance to book a private room with an ensuite because I had to stay within 10 feet of a bathroom for the rest of the day. (Don’t worry—I’ll spare you from the goriest details.) My intestines rioted whenever I shifted on the bed, and they even ached when I sipped water. In the late afternoon, I got so shivery and achy that I could only curl into a ball on my side and rock back and forth like Gollum. My hands and feet were chilled to the point where they got a little numb, so I burrowed into my fleece and blankets. I wanted to sleep to fast forward through the agony, but my aches and chills kept me awake. I finally closed my eyes for about an hour in the evening. The power of sleep is real: the nap miraculously warmed my limbs and quelled my chilliness.
I was able to step outside of my room the next morning, which was an immense improvement. Sadly, I couldn’t finish a piece of banana bread for breakfast, but I was optimistic enough to book canyon paragliding for the following day. I still had almost no appetite, but I got ginger ale (hallelujah) and ate a couple of fistfuls of cereal for dinner.
SAN GIL: THE ACTUAL TRAVEL STUFF
Now, for some travel info that’s not related to my stomach: thrill seekers love San Gil due to the abundance of activities like whitewater rafting, paragliding, and mountain biking. I visited during mid-April, and the water was too dangerous for rafting tours to go out, so many were canceled.
On my third and last day in San Gil, I met up with a Swiss traveler in my hostel’s common room to go paragliding over the Chicamocha Canyon (180,000 COP or about $63). The Swiss guy had gone on the paragliding tour a couple of days earlier and decided to do it again since most of the other tours had been canceled or didn’t have enough people signed up.
We were picked up for our tour at 9 AM. After signing waiver forms, we began the hourlong drive to the canyon. Once we arrived, we were briefed on safety and the takeoff process. (“Run” was the main instruction for takeoff.) I was clipped into a harness, and just like my last time paragliding, my guide and I were in the air before I was even sure we were taking off. Can’t win them all—at least I ran a little this time and wasn’t just dead weight.
This ride involved more thrills than my relaxing one in Iquique. My guide and I kept spinning to the point where it felt like we were on a rollercoaster. Hawks and eagles flew next to us, which was incredible. We had great views of the Chicamocha River and Canyon and a nearby amusement park.
After returning to San Gil, I got a 3 PM bus ticket to Barichara, a lovely, preserved colonial town that was about a 40-minute drive away. Several chapels were interspersed throughout the town center.
At the edge of town, I stopped at a mirador, where I could see Río Suarez—the site of many whitewater rafting tours—and surrounding hills.
The mirador was by the trailhead for the 9-km Camino Real to Guane. If I had had more time—or hadn’t been recovering from food poisoning—I would have loved to have done the walk.
I spent about an hour walking through Barichara, which was quiet during my visit. It was a nice stop that gave me just the right amount of activity for my food poisoning-addled body.
Unfortunately, food poisoning symptoms are my most vivid memories of San Gil. They really limited what I could do, and I couldn’t even finish a brownie or piece of banana bread during most of my stay. My proudest moment in San Gil was stomaching a portion of pasta without catastrophic side effects on my last night. Like I said earlier, I brag about the lamest things.