Our arrival in Tolú was marked by the oppressively humid heat, a strong salty breeze and bicycle taxis clamoring for fares. We stumbled off the bus we had been on for 3 hours from baby chick’s chirping and babies chattering to ocean waves and bicycle taxis. In Cartagena you always get hustled, even on bus fares. Our “express” no-stop bus had picked up a colorful variety of passengers ranging from gaminos with double machetes to someone carrying a sack of baby chicks and well-dressed tourists escaping the city for the weekend. Plus one gringa. Long hot trip aside, we were finally here. Accommodations My husband’s friend arrived in short order and we had a short discussion about our “hotel budget.” It isn’t often you can roll up to the beach and pick the price you want to spend on hotels. Tolú makes this doable and easy by being slightly off the beaten path of Colombian coastal destinations. Add offseason to the mix and the world is yours for the right price. The price was right as I was able to negotiate a decent mid-range hotel for 45,000 pesos per night. A little less than $20 USD based on the current exchange rate at the time of writing this story. The hotel, named Hotel Montecarlo was a white stucco Spanish style building with large terraces on the front and a large breezeway reception which stayed open day and night. Our room was clean, simple and not particularly beautiful nor ugly. We had the basics without any extra fluff. History Tolú is one of the oldest towns in the department of Sucre, Colombia and was founded in 1535. Three hours from Cartagena by bus it can be reached in just over an hour and a half by lancha (or boat). A sleepy little fishing village, most of the year this town turns into a busy party place during the peak tourist seasons in June, July and December when most of the country is on vacation from school, work and the various nefarious activities that pass as normal day to day life here. For a family with a baby in the off-season it was the perfect escape from our normal routine. In pre-Colombian times this area was home to the native Indians from whom it’s name is derived, the Tolúes. Ironically enough the same shape and form of canoe is still used today by the fisherman as the ancient tribes and can be seen from the beaches in the early morning casting their nets. Food The food is typical Carribbean fare for the coast of Colombia. Red Snapper, shrimp cocktail, coconut rice, fried plantain, egg arepas, a type of cabbage salad with avocado and ice cold lemonade makes up the traditional food and flavors eaten in this area. Feeding an 8 month old baby was much harder with the options and I had to depend heavily on breastfeeding, mashed avocado and fruit. My lifesaver was a little baby feeder with a handle and a net where I can put any fruit or soft vegetable for Daniel to chew on without choking! The restaurant scene isn’t particularly fancy or gourmet like that of Cartagena but its simplicity is adequate for the family traveling on a budget. Attractions Many people are prone to question the “fun” in visiting a beach area with a baby. Tolú was the perfect place however, as the water is calm with no waves in the morning and a shallow sandbar-like protuberance allowing the beachgoer to walk far out into the ocean with a gradual depth increase. The beaches are composed of soft brown sand with minimal rocks and shells. The town sits in a small bay (Golfo de Morrosquillo) close to a group of islands commonly referred to as archipiélago de San Bernardo. From there you can take day trips on boats to reefs for scuba diving, fishing, snorkeling and island exploring. The basic cost for 1-2 hours of scuba diving is 110,000 pesos or about $50 USD. Though scared of the waves at first, by our second day Daniel was happy and content to float in our arms in the warm Caribbean water. The most exciting thing which happened that day was both me and my husband were stung by small bottom dwelling jellyfish which were blown in by recent hot/cold weather changes. They were a bit of a burning pain exacerbated by the saltwater and quickly remedied by a splash of foul looking liquid from the man who runs the scuba diving business next door to our hotel by the beach. Culture From the slightly slurred, word chopping accents of the coast to their slow meandering manner, the coastal people who live here are warm and friendly. They spend their days working and weekends on the front porch or in the yard under a tree talking, eating and watching over children playing in the street. Many are dark skinned Afro-Colombians and mestizo’s who trace their heritage back to the Spanish conquista. An evening stroll along the waterfront find youths swimming, men dancing to whatever is playing on the radio and women selling artisan goods. Jaime (who is a paisa Colombiano) found them to be quite lazy, he said it, not I. In the intense heat and humidity common to the region, I felt quite lazy too. Conclusion The coastal culture of Colombia is famous for their fun, dancing and lay-about appearance. Underneath appearances are people who are happy with their lives even as many of them live in abject poverty. Tolú is a step into Colombia’s history as bicycles are the most common form of transportation with bicycle taxi’s being the only option for transport around the city if you don’t have a car, motorcycle or donkey. At night on the river front you can watch guests take beachfront tours in large bicycle buggies lit up by neon lights and playing popular music from their sound systems which are powered by car batteries. There’s even a horse drawn carriage fully loaded with it’s own sound system. Amid the cacophony is the sound of the waves, the feeling of a salty breeze and the beads of sweat rolling down your back as you sip your nice cold $2 beer.
- Use Brasilia as your bus company from Cartagena to Tolu. It will cost about 30,000 pesos each way but you can save money by buying the round trip.
- Negotiate your bicycle taxi fares before hand to cut costs in half. Ex. 5,000 pesos from bus to beach. 3,000 pesos up and down the beach front and to el centro.
- Watch out for jellyfish! If you do get stung: 1. Stay in the water, saltwater makes it sting but has curative effects 2. Or, get someone to pee on you 3. Find a nearby “ocean tour” business and see if they have any remedy laying around (they do probably) 4. Accept it as extra stimulation to your nervous system.
- Be sure to order a fresh coconut to drink out of on the beach front.
- If you have sensitive skin (or a baby with sensitive skin) swim before 10 am to avoid full sunlight.