Palomino is fast becoming one of Colombia’s must-visit spots for visitors to the Caribbean coast: the small, beachside town offers good quality hostels, a long, palm-fringed beach, a variety of restaurants, and unparalleled access to both the Colombian Caribbean coast and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. I first visited Palomino 4 years ago, as a stop off between learning to dive in Taganga, a few days in Tayrona and a visit to La Guajira – this route is now practically standard for many Colombia backpackers – tubing in Palomino even has a (solid) TripAdvisor page. Back then Palomino offered one hostel near the beach, a few fast-food joints, and not much else…besides the majestic scenery anyway – The BBC even wrote an article the same year I visited, calling Palomino “Colombia’s virtually vacant paradise” (needless to say, it’s slightly less vacant these days!). The activity I was there to do was tubing along the Palomino river – back then it was hard to come across a tube to float in; nowadays tubing in Palomino is big(ish) business, as more and more people realize how amazing the trip is…
So, for all of you planning to go tubing in Palomino (which you really should), here’s a complete “How To” guide to make your tubing experience go swimmingly (although hopefully not literally, that’s completely not the point!)…Costs, practicalities, timings, and, of course, some of those magic little tips from someone who’s been tubing in Palomino 3 times, and knows all the tricks of the trade.
How to organize tubing in Palomino:
This is now the easy part – it used to take a bit of asking around to secure the requisite equipment (a tube, basically), now it’s really easy – any decent hostel will be able to point you in the direction of tube-rental places, or you can just find the guys sitting next to the giant pile of tubes along the track between the road and the beach: they are usually set up on the roadside just behind the Tiki Hut and Dreamer Hostels (probably where you should stay anyway; the best 2 hostels in town for my money). They will rent you out a tube any time of day (assuming it’s not about to get dark…or still dark! They seem to arrive for work at about 7:30/8am).
Cost of tubing in Palomino:
This is also really easy these days: it used to be a matter of haggling, and, a year or so back, there was a bit of tension between all the operators and there were instances of people being massively overcharged. Now, however, the tubers union (NB. not a real union) have agreed upon a fixed cost for the activity: 25.000 COP. Don’t pay any more than this! What do you get for your fee: a good, sturdy tube, a mototaxi up to the trailhead in the hills behind Palomino, and a ‘guide’, who will hike with you to the starting point of the trip, and assist you as you tube down the river. See the later section “Tips” for my thoughts on the guide portion of this trip…
This fee is definitely reasonable for an activity that can easily take half a day (2/4 hours), and offers such a variety of experiences and environments in one trip. It’s certainly increased a little bit, but for that increase you’re getting a much better service than before, along with a guarantee that you’ll be able to set off tubing at basically any time of day…
Palomino Tubing: the Route
The mototaxi will take you (as you awkwardly clutch your massive tube!) into the hills behind the town for about 10 minutes. From that point the road ends, and it’s about a 20/30 minute walk further up into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada – this extra walking maximizes the time you’ll spend on the river, and also ensures you will be further into the jungle. In my hostel this past December I overheard a series of conversations bemoaning the ‘hike’ to the starting point – honestly, if this walk constitutes a ‘hike’ for you then maybe don’t bother, but you’d be missing out: the jungle walk at the start is a lovely additional chance to enjoy the startlingly diverse ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada. It starts with a steady uphill, and then gradually slopes back down to the river. Take your time and enjoy it!
It’ll be obvious when you reach the starting point – if you’re with a guide, they’ll tell you, and, if you follow my little tip, you also can’t miss it: the path reaches a rocky stream and then continues up the hill over the stream – don’t cross the stream, turn right and follow it down to the river (only 100m or so). Here there is a small beach: this is where your tubing experience in Palomino finally begins!
So jump in your tube and get floating: that’s pretty much it from this point! The first hour or so is along much faster river, and may require some minimal paddling to keep your tube from hitting the bank or getting caught in an eddy. Safety-wise however, there’s nothing to really worry about: the river is mostly quite shallow, and, as long as you can swim, you’ve got nothing to worry about. The latter part of the trip is when the river begins to widen and slow down, and you leave the thicker forest and enter pasture land approaching the coast. At times, if the water is especially shallow, you may have to jump out and drag your tube back to deeper, faster moving water. Check out this excellent traveler Youtube video of tubing in Palomino for a look at how stunning the journey is!
You will then approach the bridge that carries the highway along the coast between Santa Marta and Palomino – if the river is really shallow and you’re finding it hard going, then you can jump out here and hitch a ride on a moto back into Palomino for a few thousand pesos. If you still want more tubing then you can keep going for just under an hour until you reach the sea! Here the river meets a spit of the beach and curves around before reaching the sea. Make sure you get out of your tube on the riverside beach: where the sea and river meets is a devilish collection of currents and waves and isn’t that safe to float out into, no matter how good a swimmer you are!
Then just grab your tube and walk back along the beach to the turn-off back to towards town: this takes less than half an hour. Then just drop off your tube, say thanks, and get on with your day. See, easy!
The entire trip should take between 2-4 hours: from rental until dropping off the tube. If you choose not to stop then you could do it in less time, and you could easily stop off at a riverside beach along the route and enjoy a swim and a relaxing hour or so (which I did!) to stretch out the trip. Take your time, it’s nicer that way!
Tips for Tubing in Palomino:
- I’ve been hinting at it for a while…so here it is: don’t worry about the guide! Having done the trip before, I simply requested to go without a guide (once they realized I was happy to pay the same as everyone else, they were fine with it). You’ll still get the moto included to the trailhead, then simply follow the only path until you reach the stream where the tubing begins. If you’re confident with your navigational skills and have no difficulties in water, it’s much more relaxed without a guide – they often, with no ill-intentions, feel the need to justify your fee by chatting loudly throughout the trip. It’s not that I’m antisocial, it’s just the kind of experience that is best enjoyed quite peacefully, giving you the chance to enjoy the sounds of the jungle, and the river as you float on down to the sea.
- Get up nice and early – this would probably be my No. 1 tip for all travelers, but it especially applies for tubing in Palomino! Put simply: backpackers just don’t do really early mornings… I mean, some do (like me!), but most don’t – get up nice and early and head off with your tube by 8am and you’ll basically have the river to yourself. Sure, a couple of small groups might have had the same idea, but those groups are unlikely to be the beer-swilling, rowdy, frat boys you met at the bar last night: they’ll still be fast asleep. The added bonus of the early morning departure is that wildlife is much more active at this time of day…which leads me to…
- Keep your eyes up! It’s tempting to just doze off, or keep your eyes on the river ahead: big mistake! The vast trees fringing the river are home to a vast cornucopia of birds and animals that can definitely be observed by the alert tuber. Howler and Squirrel Monkeys are present (although hard to spot), and parrots, kingfishers, fish eagles and toucans are active and visible residents of the forests along the river. Toucans, always a favorite, are especially active in the upper reaches of the forest – listen out for a noise that sounds like a croaking frog in the treetops, this is the Keel-billed Toucan, and, once you locate the sound nearby, you can usually spot the birds. I was lucky enough to see a huge group of 20/30 toucans last time I went tubing in Palomino!
What to take for tubing in Palomino:
- A waterproof, dry bag: a sealable, waterproof bag is a great thing to have with you when you go tubing in Palomino – they are for sale in the town for between 5/10.000 COP depending on the size (although, personally, I always travel with at least one good quality, sealable dry-bag – they’re a life saver!) – you can use this to carry a few of the upcoming items…
- Sun block: even if you leave early, the sun is baking by 10am, and with the river and the black-rubber tube serving to absorb and reflect the heat, this trip is a recipe for sun burn! Either apply a strong, waterproof cream before you start and take your chances, or carry a small bottle with you.
- A hat and t-shirt: obviously you’ll be wearing a bathing suit, but take some extra clothes you don’t mind getting wet – at some point you’ll really want to be covered up from the sun!
- A camera (waterproof) – you will definitely want to capture some images of the stunning scenery. If your camera’s not waterproof, you can take the risk with the dry-bag, but on your head be it: you will get wet at some point!
- Flip-flops or sandals: the walk at the start will be a little trickier in flip-flops, but they’ll be much easier to hold onto during the tubing. I’d recommend a good pair of hiking sandals: they’re breathable, but you can walk comfortably in them, and there’s no chance of them falling off!
- If you do decide to bring any food or drink, please, please, PLEASE, hold onto the packaging and dispose of it properly back in town: everyone deserves to be able to enjoy this ecosystem and, above all, the wildlife that lives there would probably much prefer to live in an unpolluted environment!
So there you have it: How to go tubing in Palomino – from the start to the very end: all the details you could possibly need – costs, practicalities, the route, and what to bring! You couldn’t ask for much more! But if there is anything you want to ask, please make sure to leave a comment below, we’ll be happy to answer any queries you may have about tubing in Palomino.