There are very few places that have stuck in my mind the way my experience at El Rio has. I met this gentleman in Seattle who shares my love for adventure. He mentioned wanting to travel Colombia, and just like that, my mind went back to El Rio. I feel a bit guilty writing about how amazing this experience was, it feels like sharing a secret that I should keep to myself. This particular place has an air of authenticity not found in all places. You won’t find a place like this in any touristy areas. Apart from individual articles like this, the only way to discover an adventure like El Rio is to hear about it from word of mouth. Let me take you on an adventure:
Traveling through Colombia is a bit like riding a bicycle with no brakes: It’s fine when you’re the only one on the road, or if you’re headed uphill. If Colombia is the proverbial bicycle in this analogy, El Rio is the soft patch of grass you’ll land on when you jump off the bike. By the time I dropped my sopping wet bag off at the open-air check-in, I had been in 2 car accidents, seen a few burglaries, heard about many more first-hand, turned down many offers for drugs, and had been followed through the streets by a few large men. Phew. I would highly suggest using a helmet when riding any “bicycle” in Colombia. And kneepads. And wrist guards. Maybe even consider a longboard instead?
(Please don’t let that scare you away from visiting Colombia in any regard….you are bound to see quite a few things when traveling any country for over a month!!! I just happened to have terrible luck with motor vehicles….and personally felt quite safe in many places. Not Bogota, but many places in Colombia!!)
Accessing El Rio
The road to El Rio is accessibly only by local bus (or taxi, but lets be honest…you want the adventure. so take the bus.) There is no address. You will be dropped off at a handmade sign along the lone coastal highway, probably after making a friend or two on the bus. From Santa Marta, it takes roughly two hours to the lonesome stop and gravel road near El Rio. If you happen to be traveling during the wet season, expect the 20 min walk to the hostel to be an experience all of its own:
When the bus sputtered off and I shouldered my pack, I wasn’t quite prepared for the road ahead of me. A torrential rain shower had just begun, and the droplets were rippling through large puddles that dotted the dirt road. A single hand-painted sign pointed me in the right direction, and I began a careful trek into the jungle. Howler monkeys hid in the high-off branches, shielding themselves from the assault of rain. I came upon a flooded area of the trail, and began to wade through the water, trying not to allow the mud puddle to enter the tops of my boots. It was a battle I was doomed to fail though, as I highly misjudged the depth of the water. A few steps in, I was knee deep and a few curse-words short of a dictionary. It’s just my luck that only after I soaked my boots, the bobbing lights of a few motorbikes came into view: El Rio staff headed back from town to begin preparing dinner. They took one look at my muddied self and had quite the chuckle to themselves. Great. (Ohhhhh hey gentlemen, it’s just me, your average ditsy, uncoordinated white girl. )
Experiencing El Rio
Have you ever seen the movie “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio? Thats the best way I can describe the vibes of this unique place. There is NO wifi. You will be forced to hang out and make real connections with people. Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner are always served family-style, and though most people come for a party weekend night, only to discover that they want to stay for weeks. I’m not so much into partying, so I came on a Sunday, but was so hooked by my check-out date that I extended as long as I could. Each morning, the owner or one of the long-term Rio-ists will hold a yoga session before the sun peaks over trees and bathes everyone in humidity.
Hostel Events and Activities
Daily events include surf trips, river floating (its not called El Rio for nothing), volleyball, kayaking, paddle boarding, ping pong tournaments, hiking, horseback riding and motor bike/ATV rental. If I haven’t got your attention yet, maybe you aren’t the right person for this kind of trip. (You can’t sit with us!)
Tuberia El Rio
My personal favorite day was spent 4 beers deep in an inter-tube. You begin by following a staff member up a neighboring trail that follows the river, usually assisted by a few of the hostels’ perros. Our staff leader, Juan Carlos led us 45-60 min walk up the trail while explaining about the indigenous people that still live in the mountains, as well as the recent dark history about the area, and how it’s finally safe to explore and hike. According to him, the hills used to be riddled with coca plant farms, which the government has torched in recent years. He described it as poverty or prison for the farmers, but said that now the tourists are coming and life is getting better for the coast.
Our brief history lesson ended in a drunken afternoon of floating (with and without a dog friend on my lap), rope swings, and listening to the howler monkeys play in the treetops.
Day Trips from El Rio
This hostel is situated in one of the best areas of Colombia. Buritaca is coastal, and secluded in the jungle. Buritaca is also not nearly as touristy as neighboring Cartegeña or Santa Marta, and happens to be surrounded by national parks to the West and SouthEast. The northern edge of Colombia has the potential for just about every single activity the average adventurer could dream of, and El Rio is by far the best way to experience coastal Colombia
Surfing in Buritaca
The nearby Playa Buritaca has a few options for surfing, though the waves are very seasonal and depend greatly on the weather-fronts. It’s definitely more of a beginners beach, so if you feel like catching a bit of a harder wave, signal that local bus for a few pesos and ask for Hostel Costeño or the area of Guachaca, both of which have bigger waves with a heavier barrel (again, dependent on tropical storms that tend to roll in).
(If you have to have to get your dose of surf, after exploring the north, head to the Pacific Coast of Colombia, where you can find some of the best conditions a surfer can dream of…but that’s for another post!)
Cliff jumping Cascada Valencia
The best part of this waterfall-day trip was looking around and realizing that not only did we practically have the place to ourselves, but the hostel crew and myself happened to be the only gringos in the entire area.
Cascada Valencia is certainly the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever seen, and its just a 20 min motorbike ride out of El Rio. For about the equivalent of $4 USD (roughly 11,000 pesos) we got to cliff jump off the lowest waterfall into the deep pond below, and hike up the 500+ foot tall rocks as we played in various pools on our way up. This is the waterfall that never seems to end.
Traversing, Snorkeling, or (kinda) enjoying Tayrona Park
If you happen to be visiting during the wet season…I would consider heavy caution before deciding to hike through Tayrona if you aren’t ready for knee-to-thigh deep mud. Mud mixed with horse shit. Mud that stinks, fills your shoes, and forces you to go barefoot due to how heavy your boots get. Mud that covers sharp sticks below and might cut or stab you from beneath. Mud in places you don’t want to think about.
Other than that….there are some seriously beautiful places to see in Tayrona! It’s just getting to them thats the issue. You need to leave early in the morning, and reserve a spot in a camping ground if you choose to stay overnight. You cannot camp alone, as there are Pumas and other wild animals that tend to think of mud-covered humans as the equivalent of a BBQ slathered rib. Yum.
Thinks to check out while you are there:
Other Colombian Experiences…
While you’re in the area, theres a few noteworthy places to visit. Seriously, Colombia has been one of my favorite countries of all time to visit just because of the vast amount of AWESOME it contains. Here’s a complete backpacking guide, and make sure to check out these 2 places on your way to El Rio:
Hiking Cuidad Perdida
This hike is NO joke. Make sure to wear long socks, at least halfway up to your kneecaps, lest you enjoy looking like a flea-bitten disaster of a human. For 7 days and 6 nights, you will traverse the Colombian wilderness to reach Las Cuidad Perdida, or the “Lost City”. Abandoned after the Spanish Conquest in the 1500’s this archaeological wonder has been kept secret for centuries, until now. Many tourists make the strenuous hike into the jungles to experience Cuidad Perdido. Theres only one way in, and one way out…and due to the seasonal floods, that would be solely (ha!) on foot.
Home of the largest hammock with a wicked view of the cloud forest, Minca is a backpackers’ dream. Hostel Elemental has a netted balcony roughly the size of a cabin stretched high over the treetops. It beckons views that stretch on for miles and a 360 view of the jungle. After a quick afternoon siesta on said hammock, you can tour the coffee facilities, check out waterfalls and hike the jungle. Go on a cacao (not coca!!) tour, and drink a few craft beers with the locals. It’s a great place to chill out and disengage from the constant bustle of nearby Santa Marta.
(Coming Soon!) Check out my post on Santa Marta for all the hotspots and awesome experiences more to the west.
While you wait, check out this blog post about Minca from Practical Wanderlust
Though I could continue with how amazing El Rio and Northern Colombia truly is, I’ll leave you with this: Rarely are there places in the world that I would sprint back to. Once I’ve visited once, I feel like there are SO many other destinations begging for exploration that I find it hard to justify a second time…..Colombia, El Rio, and the Caribbean coastline are not one of them. I am anxiously waiting for the opportunity to head back and experience these places again. Thats how special this was for me. I hope you too have similar feelings.