Colombia Calling (Part One)
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Maybe secluded bays and pristine beaches aren’t the first things that pop into people’s head when they think of Colombia, but a trip to Colombia’s Caribbean coast reveals just that. And the best part? No tourists.
By Matt Stabile
AS I LOOKED OUT THE BUS WINDOW AND INTO THE NIGHT SKY, I could see flashes of lightning igniting the dark, colorless clouds lingering high above the Caribbean Sea, portensions of things to come. It was Friday night. Cumbia music was blasting from a radio hanging by a wire above the driver’s head. Behind me a teenage girl was meticulously applying makeup with the aid of a small compact mirror. Two seats in front of me, a group of young Colombian men were drinking from an open bottle and joking around with each other. I peeled my shirt away from my chest, damp from a combination of a slight drizzle and the tropical humidity that had blanketed my body the moment I stepped off the plane, and I couldn’t have been happier. I had traveled here to Colombia’s Caribbean coastline to visit its famously beautiful and remote beaches — beaches whose mythic-like images were planted enticingly in my mind by travelers during cold, rainy nights in Bogotá hostels and Medellín cafes; usually described in hushed tones, like the disclosure of the whereabouts of a lost city that few had seen.
It was only fitting that the rain began to fall the minute that I stepped off the plane. At first it was a light drizzle, but as the hours wore on, the rain progressed into what I would soon learn was an once-in-a-decade “weather phenomena” that, during the course of my stay along the coastline, would cause rivers to overflow, shantytowns to flood, city streets to become deluged and hidden beneath torrents of water flowing from the nearby mountains, and for me to seriously question what vendetta had I with the gods that was causing this storm to strike during the exact period of time that I was staying there.
The good thing about rain, particularly the kind that falls in the warm, humid months of November and December here, is that it’s still far better to be caught in than, say, a snowstorm in the icy, frigid streets back in New York where, had I been at that exact moment, I would certainly not be wandering around in a pair of swimming trunks and sandals, stopping into various shops, and lounging on the beach with a concoction of freshly squeezed coconut and orange juice served in a plastic mug shaped like a coconut shell.
“When do you think it ends?” I asked a bored barista the next morning, shortly after I had ordered my third straight cup of coffee.
“The rain,” I added, as if to clear up any misconception as to what I was referring to, despite the near biblical-like scene unfolding just outside the mall’s doors.
After checking into my hostel the night before, I’d woken up to the downpour, and, after getting bored hanging around my newly swamp-like neighborhood, I decided, against my better judgment, to heed the advise of several locals and take a taxi the short distance to the BuenaVista Mall, a large, entirely out-of-place structure that looked like it had been heli-vac’d from Southern California and dropped incongruously in the outskirts of northern Colombia. Given the rarity of these types of large, commercial ventures in the less populated areas of the country, everyone here seemed to be oddly proud of what would be pedestrian in other parts of the world (including Colombia’s own larger metropolitan areas).
To add insult to injury, I arrived wearing what I had put on that morning: a pair of blue swimming trunks, t-shirt, leather sandals, and a bag strung over my shoulder containing a beach towel, snorkel mask, and a newly purchased bottle of sunscreen lotion, all eagerly packed at the crack of dawn in the anticipation of my sojourn to the beach.
“It’s a weather phenomena,” the barista answered in a defeated manner. “It happens once a decade.”
“Yes, I heard,” I mumbled to myself in English.
In fact she was roughly the sixth person that day who had used the word “phenomena” to describe the weather, including, but not limited to: the manager at my hostel, the tinto-man outside my hostel (men who roam the streets during the early morning hours dispensing dixie-cup size coffees from a basket of thermoses), a clerk at a tour company around the corner, the cab driver who had taken me to the mall, and a maintenance man here in the mall who was changing light bulbs outside a greeting card shop with whom I had desperately struck up a conversation after making my third pass through the closed food court.
And that pretty much ended our conversation about the weather. We discussed Colombian coffee (she informed me that the best of it gets exported out of the country, so don’t expect to find great coffee readily available as I travel the country), and she told me about what it was like working there (the pay was steady and there was air-conditioning, two factors that made her job at least tolerable until she finished school).
Needless to say, it gets very hot in Colombia. The Equator runs through the southern portion of the nation, but the country’s most populous cities — Bogatá, Medellín — are high in elevation and vary between spring-like conditions (particularly Medellín) to rainy, cooler conditions (Bogatá). But a short flight or a day-long bus ride north to the coastline brings you smack in the middle of a truly Caribbean, tropical environment. A popular vacation getaway for Colombians, the stretch of coastline that runs from the border with Venezuela to the historic port town of Cartagena — located roughly halfway between the borders with Venezuela and Panama — contains some of Colombia’s most popular beaches, as well as some of its most scenic getaways.
After countless recommendations from other travelers earlier in the trip, I decided to come to Santa Marta, a medium-sized town located in the northeastern part of the country. Santa Marta is a convenient and popular place to stay for those heading into Tayrona National Park, the vast, mountainous national park covering roughly 300 square kilometers along the coastline that stretches deep into the mountains. Once home to the Tairona people — a native group that dominated the area before the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century — the park was considered too dangerous to visit up until a few years ago due to the presence of the various militant groups that Colombia is all-too-famous for.
But, in the last few years, just as the rest of the country’s security situation has drastically approved, so too has safety in the park, and the number of visitors has increased precipitously. (In fact, I was advised the only dangerous parts of Colombia visitors should avoid are in the southern portion of the country where the wild jungles of the Amazon are ideal hiding grounds for militants.)
Unlike the other, more well-known beaches and resort towns along the coastline, the park itself is almost entirely undeveloped, except for the few dirt roads that begin about 30 miles on its outskirts and wind their way to one of the ten or so beaches accessible to travelers. On the western part of the park are Bahía Concha and Bahía Neguanje. Though physically closer to the cities to the west, the beaches on this stretch of the park are actually the hardest to reach, requiring an hour-long drive on dirt roads and usually involving boat connections. To the east are the more accessible but much more visited beaches. Most travelers usually find there way to Playa Cañaveral, where it’s a short hike one beach over to Arrecifes and then an even shorter hike over to gorgeous Cabo San Juan de la Guía, a small beach village where hammocks are rented out for a few dollars a night and the day can be spent hiking inland to Pueblito, the remains of a Tairona village.
To get to the less-visited beaches in the west, your best bet is to shell out the money and sign-up with one of the many tour operators that have set up shop along the coastline in Santa Marta for, at the very least, the hassle-free transportation.
On my first full day in the region, after stopping by El Rodadero — a touristy beach-town south of Santa Marta, home to tall, pastel-colored hotels towering over the bay, and where I had eaten lunch under the protection of a grove of palm trees as the rain fell on the water — I wandered along the strip of shops along the Santa Marta beach where I came across a company that was organizing a trip to Bahia Neguanje early the next morning.
“Do you think it’s going to clear up by tomorrow?” I asked the guide behind the counter, looking out the window at the gray sky, hoping the trip wouldn’t be canceled.
“It’s a weather phenomena, you never know,” she replied. Yes, I had heard.
The next morning a beat-up Daihatsu van pulled up to the corner, packed full with a group of visitors from Medellín. We exchanged pleasantries — “Come estas?” (Bien, un poco frio); “De donde eres?” (New York City, Medellín) — then made our way through the narrow streets and out of town, slowly gaining elevation as we drove further into the surrounding mountains.
“How do you like my town Matchieu?” Julian, our guide, asked during a lull in his telling of the city’s history.
“Very much,” I replied. “But too much rain.”
“Ha! It is not always like this. Only once in a decade!” he shouted and slapped me on the back like I had just told a hilarious joke. He paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts, then launched into a recitation of the famous Colombians who were born in Santa Marta.
A half-hour later, we suddenly veered off the highway and onto a dirt road leading into the park. After a short stop at the park entrance where we ponied up the entrance fee (and where I loaded up on the various sweets sold by the women with baskets of homemade treats balanced precariously on their head), we pushed further on into the park. A steady dose of year-round rain and the warm, humid climate combine to create the perfect conditions for dense vegetation, and looking out the window I could barely see a few feet beyond the beginning of the jungle’s edge before the deep greens dissolved into blackness.
Julian described the wide variety of species of mammals, birds, and reptiles that call the park home, including various monkeys, toucans, and blue crabs that like to travel in masses, oftentimes causing cars to wait patiently as the crustaceans make there way from one side of the road to the other.
We crested a hill and began to descend downward in the direction of the sea. We were constantly forced to veer from side to side to avoid the many trees and plots of land that littered the road as a result of the previous night’s torrent. At one point we had to stop as the driver got out and moved a giant branch that was too big for us to drive around. As we were watching him tug the fallen branch to the far side of the road, a woman in the car shrieked and pointed out the window. Sitting contently on the side of the road, a small monkey had appeared, apparently enjoying the show as much as we were.
“Matchieu!” Julian cried out, slapping me once again on my back. “I bet you don’t see that very much in New York. Ha!”
We continued on down the road and, 20 minutes later, escaped out from under the canopy of brush that had been towering over our heads. Before us emerged a large bay beyond a mushy beach, where the fresh rainwater was collecting into newly created pools.
“This is where we catch our next ride,” Julian announced, pointing to several small boats that were sailing in the opposite direction from us. “But for now, we wait.”
We emptied out of the stuffy van and huddled together beneath a thatched hut near the edge of the beach. We watched as giant drops of rain fell into the steamy bay. A half-hour later our transports returned and we loaded into the rickety, aluminum boats and headed out into the bay and out around a cape. The wind was blowing steadily across the water and the waves were picking up the boats like invisible hands and slamming them back down against the surface, spraying large sheets of water over us.
In my boat sat a large family consisting of two sets of grandparents, a brother-in-law, a young couple, and sitting next to me, their five-year-old son who, by the look on his face, seemed busy mentally storing this experience in his mind so as to be able to relate it to his therapist later in life. He shuddered underneath a giant life preserver that covered his entire torso down to his knees, his head barely emerging from the mass of orange foam that surrounded it. He stared down at the puddles of water collecting beneath his sandals as drops of rain streamed down his face. I picked up one of the extra life preservers and held it above his head for a little protection from the rain.
As we rounded the cove, the pounding rain suddenly began to let up and the clouds thinned, revealing sloping, jade-colored mountains surrounding us. The small hilltop peaks were shrouded by low clouds crawling across their faces.
“Welcome to ‘The Beach of the Dead,’” Julian announced as we jumped out of our boats and into knee-deep water. “Or what the local government has tried to rename, ‘Crystal Beach.’”
I later learned that the original name was derived from the fact that the Taironas once used the beach as a sacred burial location for their dead — hence the name — but the beach was officially renamed to a slightly more palpable moniker in an effort to promote tourism. I suppose “Beach of the Dead” doesn’t have the same allure for prospective tourists as “Crystal Beach.”
A woman from the small village that called the beach home was eagerly waiting for us at an open-air hut. The beach is home to a group of residents who make their living from groups like ours, preparing large feasts while the visitors frolic in the water. As each of us emerged from the boat, we waddled over to her on our sea legs and placed our lunch orders, choosing from a selection of freshly caught fish laid out before us on a wooden table. I picked one out, then asked Julian where the best coral was. He pointed towards the end of the beach and I scurried away.
I dove in and quickly found myself transported to a different world. All around me was a colorful forest of elk horn, giant brain and star coral. A variety of fish were excitedly swimming about, diving in and out of the nooks and crannies created by the underwater growth. A yellow-spotted French angelfish swam lazily by my face, then became engulfed within a large school of tiny minnows heading in the opposite direction. I sank to the sea floor and watched as a blue surgeon, a blue-colored fish roughly shaped like a large dinner plate, passed overheard, its yellow perimeter outlined by the sun rays creeping through the water’s surface.
I floated back to the surface and let my body bob like a piece of driftwood, letting the tide gently toss me back and forth along the beach like an eager guide showing me the underwater sights.
Two hours and several large lacerations across my exposed feet later, I trotted back to the collection of huts where a large plate lie, piled high with freshly grilled fish, rice cooked in coconut milk, and fried plantain. I sat down next to a couple from Medellín who were now living in London. She had just given birth to their third child and her husband had taken her here as a sort-of postnatal celebration.
“What do you think of our country?” the husband asked me after taking a slug from a bottle of Corona.
“Amazing. Beautiful,” I answered, running out of cliched adjectives. “But, a little too much rain.”
“Yes, it’s a phenomena,” the wife said. “But I never seen it happen before. You are lucky!”
How right she was. I dug my bare toes into the sand, took a drink, and looked up at the now empty beach. Our boats were riding lazily up and down on the incoming waves and the sun, now on its afternoon trajectory downward, was now shining furiously down upon on the bay as if making up for lost time. All was forgiven. No hard feelings.
About the Author
Matt Stabile runs TheExpeditioner.com. You can read his writings, see his videos, purchase the book he co-edited or contact him via email at any time at TheExpeditioner.com.