Palomino – beach combing & river tubing

24 May

Sometimes the best kept secrets were made to be broken. Those who were already familiar with Palomino would regularly tell others it wasn’t worth visiting or deny all knowledge of its existence, just to keep its beauty and peacefulness all to themselves. But now the word is out and curious travellers are starting to arrive. This simple hideaway has some of the best beaches in Colombia, pristine jungle to explore, good accommodation and tasty food. And to top it off, it’s completely crowd free – but be quick – it can’t stay like this forever. As if Colombia’s Caribbean coast hadn’t already made us chilled enough, we headed to Palomino for a few days to unwind and let time pass.

This idyllic stretch of golden sand is set between the San Salvador and Palomino rivers. The beach is separated from the main highway linking Santa Marta and Riohacha by a 500 metre dirt road, meaning the only sound you’ll hear from the beach is the ocean lapping on the shore. It makes a great stop over on your way east along the coast to Punta Gallinas or enroute to the Venezuelan border crossing.

Activities during the day stretch to beach walks, bathing in the warm turquoise waters and swinging in hammocks, so you’re guaranteed to relax to the full. Beautiful wooden boats used by the Wayuu fisherman dot the shoreline and it’s not uncommon to see them chest deep in the water setting their large nets to secure a good catch.

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There’s a good range of accommodation from rustic campsites to designer B&B’s. Restaurants along the beach have tables in the sand lit by candles. They serve up delicious baked or grilled fish and stews with garlic, prawns and squid. For a cheaper eat and a couple of beers, head up to the main road. Several places serve roasted chicken with rice and salad or arepas stuffed with cheese and pulled pork.

We laugh when we recall returning from an early dinner one evening and becoming stranded in a small kiosk as the heavens opened. We decided to wait it out, and luckily they served beer, but after 30 minutes it was still pouring, the shop wanted to close and we were thrown out onto the street. We found some more shelter but ankle-deep rivers of water were running down the street by this point. To make matters worse, a sudden bolt of lightning hit an electricity pylon and plunged three blocks, including ours, into total darkness. We stood in the blackness cuddling for warmth and giggling with a solitary weak torch between us for a further 20 minutes. When all looked lost and we were contemplating bog swimming our way back to the beach, a local guy driving down the beach track offered us a lift home. Once again, we were impressed and eternally grateful to the kindness of the Colombians.

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Be sure not to miss the sunrises or sunsets. It’s an incredible twice daily show that draws the crowds. Pull up a pew on the sand and watch the great spectacle unfolding before your eyes. The sea becomes still like glass, the palm trees are framed by a wealth of rich colours and the cloud’s hover on the horizon like immense zeppelins. Times stands still and a feeling of well-being washes over you.

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If you can drag yourself away from the beach for a few hours, by far the best activity in Palomino, and perhaps even the whole of the Caribbean coast, is tubing down the Palomino river.

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The river’s source can be found in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range and flows right down into the sea. The mountain scenery is spectacular and the rapids are hair raisingly good fun. Hostels or B&B in Palomino can set you up with local agencies who offer guided tours on the river or simply hire out the inner tubes for half a day. Then it’s over to you.

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Don your swim wear with some shorts and a t-shirt you don’t mind getting mucky. Flip flops are useful as the walk takes you into the mountains and can last anything from 1 – 2 hours depending on how far up the river you’re prepared to start. Take only the bare minimum with you – perhaps a drink and your waterproof camera. Remember to cover yourself in sun cream to avoid getting frazzled on the river.

The directions are simple but be prepared for a hot walk with that awkward shaped tube. Find the garage on the main road and cross to the other side so you’re facing the mountains, with the beach at your back. Take the small dusty track with residential homes along the side and just keep on walking. The trail eventually turns into hilly forest and becomes a narrower path.

Along the way, look out for the indigenous Kogi Indians who still live in the Santa Marta hills as they have done for hundreds of years. They live at peace with their environment – each family living at a different altitude in small huts made from stone, mud and palm leaves and farming different crops to satisfy their needs. They are striking to see in the green forests – both the men and women only wear pure white clothing which represents mother earth and the simplicity of nature, with splashes of colour added by traditional woven bags and long beaded necklaces. The Kogi’s believe that these mountains are ‘The Heart of the World’ so always remember to show respect when walking along these paths. We found them to be very friendly and a great source for directions.

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After about an hour of walking, we discovered a small river crossing our path from left to right and followed this downstream to the main river. The enclosed jungle opened up and we found ourselves on a sandy bank with the wide, crystal clear river in front of us. The scenery looked like something from the Lost World and we half expected to see a prehistoric vulture circling around the dramatic mountains covered in jungle. From here, ease yourself into the water, sit back on your tube and prepare for the ride of a lifetime.

The river is only waist deep and the rapids are reasonably tame but look out for the odd tree trunk sticking out above the water’s surface and use your flip-flops to paddle like crazy to avoid them. Further down the river lookout for shallow sections if there’s been no rain, or you could end up wedged on a sandbank shuffling on your bottom in a rather undignified manner like I had to! Apart from that, sit back and relax. Hold hands, spin each other around and point out unusual looking birds or monkeys in the high trees.

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The flow passes under the main road leading to the village and then out to the sea. Try to get out of the river just before you arrive at the sea as currents can be strong and there are a few small waves. Then simply pick up your tube and walk to the right, along the beach for 10 minutes back to your accommodation who will return the rings on your behalf.

With activities this good, idyllic beaches, and ‘relax-to-the-max’ vibes, this place isn’t going to stay hidden for long, so go now, and share in the sense of smug satisfaction that you’ve discovered a hidden gem.

3 Responses to “Palomino – beach combing & river tubing”

  1. infused exposures May 24, 2014 at 10:49 pm #

    Love it guys! We just added this to our itinerary! We would’ve loved to go en route to Venezuela but unfortunately we can’t go there now 😦 You guys went at the perfect moment. It’s just too much there right now with a heated situation similar to the Ukraine. We met a guy who is living here and originally from there and he said he wouldn’t even go! All the colombians we asked said not to do it. Too risky for these 2 gringos, sadly! But Palomino looks great! Thanks again for all this continued timely advice! We just can’t seem to leave the Caribbean coast! Hope Dan made it there safely. Miss you both xoxo

  2. latinchattin May 26, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    We always try to time it just perfectly for you guys! It’s a shame that Venezuela is so volitile at the moment. We’d recommend you still consider entering Venezuela from the Brazilian size, via Boa Visa, to do the 6 day trek to Roraima (just across the border) – one of our top highlights in of all of South America. Keep safe, stay happy x

    • infused exposures May 26, 2014 at 3:53 pm #

      That’s great advice guys! Once again, a big thanks. When we get into Manaus, we will inquire if it’s safe. We think it could be. We would love to do it, I remember you guys telling me about it. Sounds like it could work! Fingers crossed! Thanks again 🙂

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