Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Colombia’s Caribbean coast is in the news big time this week, with article in both the Financial Times and the NY Times. Gone are the days when the region’s checkered history scared away tourists. Now, for better or worse (better if you’re a local depending on travelers), you’re more likely to run into a yacht-owning Colombian than a drug runner.

I’m not really sure what the significance of all the coverage is, other than the obvious fact that the face of travel to Colombia is changing, and changing quickly (as evidenced by the 17% uptick in travel there last year). A few years back the NY Times took a look at travel to Tayrona National Park, and this week they headed back to the region to stop in at Santa Marta, a sleepy coastal town who many would agree saw most of its best years back around the 17th century.

Many, that is, except those who’ve visited recently. I mainly remember flooded streets and empty beaches, but the city is starting to grow out of what many once saw, as the article points out, as simply “a stopover point for visitors looking to trek through Tayrona National Park or hike to the Lost City, a well-known archaeological site nearby.”

Now, steakhouses and coffee chains are opening up here. “’Until five years ago nobody would come here because of the guerrillas,’ said Michael McMurdo, a New York City-trained chef who recently opened a Mexican restaurant, Agave Azul, in Santa Marta. ‘While there is still some sketchy stuff going on, I like it here because it still feels real and Colombian.'” Which is true. I remember tinto men (coffee sellers) roaming the streets at the crack of dawn and fresh lemonade stands serving the morning commuters as they walked to work. There were scores of local mom-and-pop restaurants serving the amazing Caribbean-influenced food that people have been eating here for generations, and the some parts of the town felt like you had wandered into a colonial-era neighborhood at the height of Spanish power.

As an ex-pat is quoted at the end of the story: “The city is full of people going about their daily lives, going to work or selling things on the street with almost no interest in a foreigner walking around . . . Santa Marta is the real South America I was searching for.”

[image by Matt Stabile/Flickr]

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