While backpacking in Colombia, I spent four days in Barranquilla, a city on the Northern coast, at a huge annual party known as Carnival. By the end of the fourth day, I was exhausted and needed a vacation from my vacation. I had heard about a hostel located farther up the coast in the middle of the jungle. I wanted to get away from metropolitan cities for a while. I thought it’d be a nice place to spend a few days regenerating before continuing on my journey.
The hostel was located in a small coastal town called Buritaca. Getting there by bus proved to be a little challenging. I had to ask several different people where to find a bus headed in the direction of Buritaca. Finally, I ended up at the “bus station” which was just a street lined with buses. I got on a bus I was 75 percent sure would take me where I wanted to go, hoping for the best. After about two hours, the bus dropped me off on the side of the road in front of a sign that read, “Rancho Relaxo”. The name threw me for a loop. I couldn’t tell if the name was a joke or not.
When I got off the bus I quickly realized I was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the lush green jungle on all sides. I could faintly hear the ocean far off in the distance. The only sign of life was a little house located across the street there fenced in by a plot of land. There was a dirt path next to the Rancho Relaxo sign leading from the road up into a jungle of various types of trees. I slowly made my way up the dirt path, not knowing what to expect. After a brisk walk, I made it to the entrance. I was greeted by the squawking of a large peacock sitting high in a tree. To my right, I could see a large outdoor bar covered by a handmade palm leaf roof. Tan, dirty, and mellow backpackers were sitting around a wooden bar with hand-carved barstools. The backpackers looked like they didn’t have a care in the world, sipping on beers and freshly made juice. A few people were lounging in hammocks hanging from the exterior of the shelter as well. Everyone was very friendly saying, “Welcome! You’ll never want to leave this place!” Uh oh, what was I walking into? A cult?
The hostel was a tropical paradise. It was located on a voluptuous piece of land covered in tropical plants, especially flowers and fruit trees. Rancho Relaxo had a very homemade feel, the type of look where everything there had been built by hand with lots of love. There were several different huts covered by palm leaf roofs on the property. One of them hosted a long hand-carved wooden table. Family style meals were served here. There was also a small man-made pond. Although the pond was only about seven feet by seven feet, it was deep enough to dive into. There was even a rope swing hanging over the center of the pond. However, the swing was impossible to get in unless someone possessed an ungodly amount of upper body strength.
My favorite place on the property was the mirador. The mirador was a lookout point, located at the top of a steep hill. It only took about ten minutes to reach by walking up a vertical dirt path. From the mirador, there was a panoramic view of the jungle and the ocean. All of Rancho Relaxo was so simplistic and serene. I felt like I had traveled 100 years back in time due to the lack of technology and the hand-made feel of the ranch. It was truly a place where one could get away from it all.
After being greeted by fellow backpackers, I checked in at the front desk of the hostel. One rule of thumb I learned while traveling is to never book a hostel for more than two nights. If you end up liking the hostel you can usually extend your stay. I got my assigned bunk and signed up on a chalkboard for dinner.
Rancho Relax wasn’t located right on the ocean but close to it. Just about a 15 minute walk away. Wanting to relax I decided to head to the beach for the rest of the afternoon to get some rest and relaxation.
By this point, I had been traveling in Latin America for five months and seen some very beautiful beaches. This beach was located on the Caribbean Sea so I was expecting it to look similar to what I had seen in Tulum, Mexico – white sandy beaches with turquoise water. When I arrived at the beach the sand was dark tan, almost black. The water was a dark blue color with treacherous waves crashing against the shore. I was afraid to swim in the ocean as I might get pulled out to sea, never to be heard from again. On the beach, there was another solo person soaking up the sun, a guy from Germany Bjorn, who was also staying at Rancho Relaxo. He and I laid on the beach for a bit and talked about our travels. After a few hours, Bjorn and I headed back to the ranch before it got too dark.
Everyone staying at Rancho Relaxo had a laid back and friendly vibe. It was easy to meet people, make friends, and find things to talk about. One of the pluses of being in the middle of nowhere is there’s no WiFi. No one’s cell phone had service. We were all forced to be unplugged and talk to one another. I met a beautiful Australian couple, Amy and Marcus, who were backpacking around Latin America, sleeping in a tent. They had a great sense of humor and really positive attitudes. I also met a guy named Mark from England who owned his own hot sauce company. He even made hot sauce for everyone at the ranch, using the local fruits guava and passionfruit.
After extending my stay twice at Rancho Relaxo, I had been there for five days and made a handful of new friends. I had heard about a place up the road called El Rio where there was tubing down a river. Thinking it sounded like a nice relaxing time, I organized a group of my new friends to head up from the ranch to El Rio for the day.
We caught a bus from the main road, the same place where I had been dropped off just five days ago, and headed up the road to El Rio. El Rio, nothing like Rancho Relaxo, was almost a resort. Apparently, the owners of El Rio had stayed at Rancho Relax and liked it so much they wanted to start their own jungle hostel. However, instead of El Rio being built with love by hand, the owners, having quite a bit of money, hired construction workers to build the resort hostel. It only took 6 months whereas, Rancho Relaxo has been a work in progress for over 10 years. There was a real difference between El Rio and Rancho Relaxo. Everything was white and sterile. Nothing had that lived in welcoming vibe. When we arrived none of the guests said hi to us, let alone greeted us. They all just stared as we walked by to the front desk. We didn’t care though, we were just there to go tubing.
All excited and ready to go, we took off our swimsuit cover-ups, kicked off our shoes, and grabbed inner tubes. We then met our guides who would be leading us to the beginning of the river. We followed the guides down to the river. We would first have to cross the river in order to hike up to where we would begin our river float. As the guides waded into the water before us they realized the river had risen dramatically and the current was very strong due to heavy rains. After they debated back and forth for 10 minutes the guides decided it was too dangerous to cross. We would have to find another way to get upstream.
The guides decided we would hike up into the jungle on a trail that would lead us to the start of the river. Barefoot, wearing our swimsuits, and carrying inner tubes, we hiked up into the jungle. Walking in the jungle barefoot is not my idea of a good time. Aside from sharp rocks, there are millions of bugs, spiders, and snakes to step on. I looked down the entire time, watching my feet, hardly looking up. We passed several large trails of giant black ants carrying green leaves on their backs, which I did not want to step on.
After about 20 minutes of barefoot jungle hiking, we arrived at the water. It wasn’t a river but a marsh of sorts with low water and plants growing out of it. We would need to walk through the marsh to get to the river. No one seemed to be bothered by what could possibly be in this water except for me. Snakes, strange South American bugs, caymans or even crocodiles surely lived in this area.
We finally reached the river. The current higher up the river was running even stronger than the current below that the guides wouldn’t let us cross. It was becoming more and more apparent we probably wouldn’t be able to go tubing. After our jungle hike and marsh trek we were hot, tired, and wanting to relax in a tube floating down the river. Members of the group tried pleading with the guides to let us go tubing, trying to convince them we’d be super safe, holding on to one another, and that we knew what we were doing. Caving into our pleas, the guides decided we would cross the river one by one by holding onto a rope. This way the current wouldn’t pull us downstream. Everyone got into their inner tubes and waded into the shallow part of the river next to the bank. We held on to each other so the current wouldn’t pull us downstream. The guides wanted us to stay where it was shallow and hold onto tree branches. The water closer to the bank was filled with this gross sludge that was getting into my swimsuit and all over my legs. It was a mixture of dirt, tree branches, and garbage and smelled awful. I wanted out of it.
One guide bravely crossed the river, holding a rope, while the other guide held on to the other end. Once the guide reached the shore of the other side it was time for the first person to cross. The first to cross got into her inner tube and held onto the rope for dear life as the guide on the other side pulled her across. After a few minutes of heavy pulling, she was on the other side. The guides then began yelling at each other in Spanish, debating on whether or not this was even safe. Latin America’s guidelines for safety are much different from the US’s. The use of seat belts isn’t something that is practiced often and life jackets are only worn if it is a necessity. So when our guides are telling us something is too dangerous, it’s too dangerous.
Some of the group began debating whether or not they would just go for it. Tubing down the river, taking their chances. We had come all this way to tube. Two hours had already passed. If we couldn’t go tubing we’d be forced to hike back to El Rio through the jungle. It would be such a letdown. After some deliberation, our guides decided the river was far too dangerous to tube down. We would have to walk back.
As we began walking back to El Rio, everyone hung their heads in silence. The day hadn’t turned out as planned. Part of the magic of backpacking or life even is, nothing ever turns out the way we think it will. Sometimes things can turn out better than imagined. Then other times you’re wet, carrying an inner tube through the jungle, barefoot.
On our way back to El Rio half the group decided to sit down on their tubes in the marsh to smoke weed. Something like this wasn’t going to ruin their good time. I was exhausted, hungry, and don’t smoke so I decided to continue hiking back to El Rio in a bad mood. The day’s events and disappointment made me realize it was time for me to move on from Buritaca and Rancho Relaxo. Although the majority of my time in Buritaca had been fun and relaxing, I was ready for a change of scenery. I was ready to wear real shoes again instead of flip-flops. I was ready to know what day of the week it was again. I will never forget my time at the ranch. I hope one day I’ll have the opportunity to return.
Photos in the post are courtesy of Evan Richards