A day in the life of a backpacker in Colombia

I tend to romanticise travel. On this blog I write about the all highlights, while conveniently skipping over the days spent on over air-conditioned buses, or on Skype to family while feeling dreadfully homesick. They are the flipside of the travel coin – for every gorgeous Instagram photo you see, there are hours of transportation boredom, language barriers to navigate, scams to dodge.... And as any travel junkie will tell you, the good outweighs the bad each and every time. But what about the in-between days? The days that show what long-term travel is really about?

Here’s a throwback piece to when I travelled Colombia – just an average - mundane even, peek into life as a long-term backpacker.

December 27, 2014

It’s 7am and I don’t need to look at the forecast to see we’re in for another hot-as-hell day on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. I’d sleep in if I could, but the neighbours blast the most unlistenable music from dusk till dawn from within cheap housing structures. Like trying to sleep between the feet of a Colombian jazz band. While my partner Jack can sleep through it, I struggle.

We’re currently in that stretch of no-man’s-land days between Christmas and New Year where time has no structure. People party as one day rolls into the next – but that’s the same the world over. Today you’ll find us in Taganga, a small fishing village near the major city of Santa Marta. It’s rustic and small, and a pleasant place to wait out the busy festive season.

Also we're uncomfortably close to running out of money after six months of travel across South America. At the beginning of our trip it felt like the money would last forever. Rookie error. Now we’re scraping by on $50 a day between us. Not easy, but we manage.

Getting off the firm and thin mattress that’s a staple for hostel beds worldwide, I throw on whatever clothes still look decent after 6 months of wear and tear on the road. I have a pair of jean shorts and a few t-shirts left, the rest I’ve thrown out. The hostel looks like any other budget accommodation you can find in South America. Small, brightly painted rooms in what was once a house. We’re paying 70,000pesos/$25 a night for a private room with a single wall fan. The electricity cuts out daily, but you get used to it.

On this morning, like most others, I’ll walk down to the nearest convenience store and buy a 2L bag of water for 3,000pesos/$1.50. I’ve just rounded the corner when I’m approached by a diving and snorkelling guide with the usual spiel. The thing is, I really want to join. I haven’t done any snorkelling since Peru three months back, but my budget won’t allow it. I also grab breakfast: an avocado the size of a melon, and a half dozen eggs for about 4,000pesos/$2. We sit to eat as close to the electric fan as we can.

After breakfast, you’d find me at the beach. The ocean is disappointingly murky, but refreshing. I have that feeling again, that one you get when you have no schedule to adhere to - nowhere to be and no one to answer to. I always travel with the loosest plan possible – sometimes it bites me in the ass, but usually it gives me the utmost freedom to travel on a whim, next up is Minca for coffee farms up in the hills. It’s about this time that I wish I’d bought an e-reader. English language novels are scarce and what I do find are fluffy vacation reads, lots of Maeve Binchy and Danielle Steel.

I feel lazy, like I’m wasting a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore Latin American culture, but here I am, on the beach and doing nothing. The feeling sits like dead weight in my stomach until I remind myself that not only is it Christmas, but what better way to celebrate local culture than to siesta each afternoon. Although, I never completely shake off that western obsession with staying busy.

The afternoon passes much the same as the morning. One minute I’ve just woken up, the next thing I know it’s getting cooler and the sun’s light is angled from the opposite direction. I grab a mango smoothie from the same stall every day, from the same lady with her kids running around. It’s funny when you find routine while travelling, when you’ve gone to such lengths to escape it. I take the mango smoothie and walk the trail up to the same sunset lookout point that I’ve gone to every day this week. A few times on the way up, locals have warned me to be careful up there, so I make sure I return to town before the sunlight completely disappears.

It’s cool now. People are out, the bars that run along the stretch of beach play a mix of Spanish and English language music. Dealers sell cocaine openly on the street, approaching everyone. Food stalls have popped up selling kebabs, arepas, hamburgers and hotdogs. We’d practise our Spanish and the locals would tell Jack he sounds Colombian, leaving me feeling envious.

There’s not that many international tourists in Taganga. Too small? Too far off the beaten path? We’ve gotten to know a few other backpackers here, Norwegian and Australian, an American or two. All twenty-something, all on a budget. Most of the people about are locals, enjoying the break from work, the sunshine, the beach. But that’s how I like it.

We return to the hostel, ready to live the day again tomorrow.


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The Travel Natural

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Hey, I'm Emma

Fuelled by wanderlust, curiosity and a little restlessness, a natural at budget travel, so naturally, a travel blogger. An experienced chef, a proud kiwi, and a burgeoning photographer. And my old friends reading and writing? We go way back.

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