One of the best things about traveling with a huge group of experienced travelers is that there’s always someone planning the next side-trip. I’d gone on a few so far—camping in Neusa and visiting Havana. So when a few people started to talk about visiting carnival in Barranquilla (the second-largest carnival in South America after Rio’s), I jumped on board. I’d never done Mardi Gras (despite being in New Orleans for work the week just before and the week just after it, two years in a row). It seemed like one of those things you need to try at some point in your life, which is what this year is all about for me.
In actual practice, however, I could have given the carnival itself a miss.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed partying with the great crew of people who went. And a couple of other Remote Year groups wound up there as well, so it was interesting to meet members of those other Remote “tribes” and hear about their experiences this year. Their two groups were on months 7 and 9 respectively, so they had plenty of advice to offer us newbies just finishing up our second month.
But the parade itself was a slow, staggered affair. The stands were a mob scene, a press of humans that would rival Times Square at midnight on New Years’ Eve. Passersby felt free to throw flour in our faces and spray foam into our eyes, our hair, everywhere. Several of our friends had their phones stolen that way, slipped from their pockets while they were doubled over trying to wipe soap from their eyes. Personally, I was lucky that the guy who shoved a fistful of flour into my eyeball (literally, his finger went in my eye) didn’t have any malicious intent (unless you count flour-eye attacks as malicious, I guess). Because I was definitely doubled over pouring bottled water over my contact lens for long enough that someone could’ve nicked my phone, my wallet, half my possessions…
I’m glad to have experienced it, but by one in the morning on Saturday night, I was feeling ready to go.
That’s where having those crazy planner friends comes in handy yet again.
One of my friends booked a diving excursion for a few of us certified scuba divers on the trip. When she initially planned it for Sunday morning, leaving at 6am the day after the biggest party in South America, I thought she was crazy.
When I actually rolled out of bed at 5:30am, having lain away since 1am listening to the pounding bass of a street party just outside our building all night, I changed my mind.
Well, okay, not immediately. But the moment our cab rolled up to the beach in Taganga, two hours north of Barranquilla, I knew she had made the right decision. The beach itself looked like a scene straight off the Amalfi Coast—turquoise water, white sand, green mountains surrounding it.
At the dive shop, we met the British guy training for his Dive Master who would escort us. We also met Guillermo, a 70-something year old Colombian man who started diving in the Long Island Sound in the 1960s with a tank he bought for $12 at a pawn shop in New York City. Needless to say, he had some great stories about diving along the docks there, earning extra money cleaning barnacles off of oil tankers and skiffs in the Sound.
The dive itself was the best I’ve ever been on (though granted, I only have a handful of dives off the Florida Keys and a couple in the rock quarries of Pennsylvania to compare it to).
We started by circling a reef in the center of the bay, near Santa Marta. Thanks to my dad the marine biologist’s training early in life, I recognized a lot of the fish we saw—parrot fish, red snappers, butterflyfish, tons of tangs and damselfish, even an eel and a couple of leopard sharks. Me and an enormous angelfish had a fun moment, swimming alongside each other, her completely unbothered by my presence while she nommed some algae along the reef.
But the real treat was the second dive.
After a quick lunch on a beach nearby, whipped up by our intrepid dive masters, we loaded ourselves back into the motorboat to head to our second destination. I didn’t know until we were about to drop anchor and the dive masters casually mentioned: oh, this one is a wreck dive.
Wreck diving has been on my bucket list since I first earned my certification at age 17. Needless to say, I was pretty hyped to finally get to explore a shipwreck underwater.
I wasn’t disappointed. Visibility wasn’t the best, but even so, you could see enough detail through the silty water to make out the brightly colored coral and varied species of algae that made their home on the wreck, a fishing boat cracked neatly in half, its hull making an easy scoop to swim through. I could have spent all day circling that wreck, poking my head into little side caverns and watching baby blowfish and sand gobies go about their business on its surfaces.
When we made it back to shore, divested ourselves of our dive gear, and settled down for a fresh-caught fish dinner and some beers in a tiny wooden hut on the beach, we all agreed: early-morning wakeup and hangovers be damned. We made the right choice coming up there to dive.
I might have given Barranquilla a miss, but diving Taganga made it all worth it. Definitely my best side trip in Remote Year so far—and if you ever do head up that way, Oceano Dive Shop did a fantastic job.
Plus, it only cost $66 for a two-tank dive, including all of our rental gear. Probably the cheapest dive I’ve ever done!
Though it definitely won’t be my last one this year, so stay tuned…