Getting Sick in Santa Marta

Santa Marta, Colombia
Downtown Santa Marta
Downtown Santa Marta

I spent the first two weeks of June exploring Colombia’s Caribbean coast from Santa Marta to La Guajira Peninsula (the northernmost tip of Colombia, and South America).  Rarely have I had intestinal issues in Medellin, let along Colombia, however getting sick in Santa Marta made up for all that healthy time.

During my trip to La Guajira (and I’ll write more about the whole trip in the coming weeks and months), I was staying at a fairly remote beach lodge. We slept in hammocks woven by the local indigenous people, the Wayuu, and dined on fresh lobster (langostinos) and snapper (pargo).

I made the mistake of brushing my teeth using the running water from the sink in the bathroom, which didn’t taste fresh, and was probably collected from rain, or a local well. But it was easier than using bottled water so I threw caution to the wind.

On the drive back to Santa Marta, after two nights at the beach lodge, I started feeling uneasy. Luckily, I kept myself together for the one and a half hour off road portion of the drive. We stopped back at the travel agency office in the coastal city of Riohacha, where we switched to a shared taxi for the 3-hour ride to Santa Marta. In the taxi were an older Colombian couple from Bogota, an Italian tourist, and yours truly.

The taxi was faster than either the larger buses, or a shared minivan, but not fast enough. We were still a few hours from Santa Marta when we stopped for gas, and I destroyed the station’s toilet. From that point on, I knew it was a race against time.

Courtyard at La Brisa Loca in Santa Marta.
Courtyard at La Brisa Loca in Santa Marta.

Arriving back in Santa Marta, they dropped me off first knowing that I was unwell.

I had already reserved a private room with air-con at La Brisa Local hostel where my larger bag was being stored. I got the room key, got my stuff, and proceeded to enter my own personal bathroom hell.

I knew I had to stay hydrated, and I knew I needed medicine, so I ran out to a local pharmacy (later I learned there was one just next door to the hostel) and got some Immodium, water, Gatorade, and Pedialyte (a drink formulated to prevent dehydration in children).

Back at the hostel, for the next 36 hours, I only managed to shuffle from the bed to the bathroom, often hourly, but sometimes 2-3 times per hour.  I missed my flight to Bogota, and appealed for help on Facebook and Twitter. I received a flurry of responses, mostly along the lines of “get thee to a doctor.”

I asked the hostel receptionist, a Colombian, for the name of a health clinic in Santa Marta with English-speaking doctors. She referred me to Clinica El Prado (Carrera 5 Calle 26 esquina), but I decided to give the pharmacy another try.

Returning with my tale of woe, they gave me a $20 bottle of Floratil (200 mg x 6 capsules) with instructions to take one every 12 hours. I kept the receipt, because even cheap travel insurance can pay off when health-related expenses start adding up.

With each dose of this new probiotic, my body began to return to normal. Within two days I felt well enough to fly back to Medellin, but I still wondered if it was addressing the underlying cause of my illness.

A few days after finishing the Floratil, I was still feeling cramps, and headed to Clinica Las Vegas in Poblado, where I was immediately referred to an English-speaking doctor in the urgent care unit.

He checked me out, and prescribed two new drugs, Sertal Compuesto (125 mg) and Ifaxim (200 mg), both of which I continue to take as I write this in the hopes of feeling back to normal sooner rather than later.

Here’s what I learned from this most unpleasant bought with Traveler’s Diarrhea:

  • Go to a doctor as soon as possible for a proper diagnosis. Relying on a pharmacist alone, especially if there is a language barrier, could delay your full recovery and result in unnecessary expenses.
  • The major hospitals and clinics in big Colombian cities have English-speaking doctors. Do not let a fear of communication problems prevent you from seeking help.
  • Stay comfortable. If you get sick, especially on the coast where it is very hot, spend the money on a private room with air conditioning until you are feeling better. Not only will you appreciate the privacy, your hostelmates would prefer not to have you writhing in agony in a shared dorm room.

Do you have any other tips for dealing with illness while traveling or living in Colombia?

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  1. I have traveled to many places in Colombia for 12 years and never had a problem such as yours. I did have a problem in Kenya and felt terrible. I carry Cipro for these emergency situations where Imodium gives me no relief. Yes and then if no relief immediately to the hospital. I love Colombia!!

  2. Dave, the caribbean coast is notorious for having bad water. We took two 5 gallon bags on our trip to Cabo de la Vela. As you experienced, even with a little bit of water consumed, you can get a very serious illness. I met an Italian lady that got typhoid fever in Palomino. Other than the water issue, and if you make sure to be prepared for that, the caribbean coast of Colombia is a wonder land and very much worth the trip.

    • I think I made the mistake of equating Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta with La Guajira….and of course the water in the cities is going to be better than the more remote places. Oh well, I’m on the mend now and need to be more careful if I want to avoid that situation again.

  3. I feel your pain ! I was in Santa Marta and had the same problem, not a enjoyable experience. I went to the doctor’s, told them my story, but even after taking the tablets it still took me a month to feel 100%. The locals new more then the doctor, they told me to get anti parasite tablets or it will come back every few months. I followed the advice !