14 March - 24 March - Carribean Coast, Colombia

Santa Marta Travel Blog

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14 March -24 March 2008


It has been 10 days since I last wrote and I will try to recount some of the events of these last days.  Angry departed for New Zealand.  He consumed a fair level of Aguadiente and Aguila and tried to escape back into the wild from Finca los Girasoles, like a scene from one of those 1950s films like Ape Man. 


Sam and I travelled cattle class by bus for free back from the coffeelands to Bogota, whilst the remainder of the wedding party flew.  This time we had a much more sedate trip and travelled during the day.  We were treated to some stunning Colombian scenery as we crossed the huge mountains back to Bogota. The mountains never seem to stop going up.  The cavernous glacial valleys plummet bottomlessly from the edge of the roadside. 


The small cottages of the rural mountain dwelling Colombian peasants dot along the edge of the road, hanging precariously as if they might fall.  These Colombians eek out an existence by selling crappy corn snacks, cokes, water and other assorted items to the endless stream of heavy truck traffic that crawls itself over the mountainside, taking produce from the coffeelands to Bogota, then on to ports at Santa Marta and Cartegena on the Carribean coast. The numbers of huge heavy trucks on the road is incredible.  I would estimate that there are at least 10 trucks, 8 axels per truck, for every one car.  The railways here went broke a long time ago and the Colombian peasants stole the steel from the tracks to make other things.  The trucks travel in convoys and roar and grind their way up the steep mountain slopes.  There are no passing lanes in Colombia.  In fact, often there are no lanes at all.  The combination of the above makes for some truly reckless driving as the faster traffic attempts to do battle, fighting and squeezing for space between and past these huge behemoths, like a fleet of Second World War fighter planes attacking a squadron of bombers. Often overtaking occurs on completely blind corners.  Our two Colombian pilots screaming, what sounds like ´sucker, sucker, sucker!´ in Spanish which means something like, ´take him, take him, take him´ or élla! ella! ella!, which means something like ´go!go!go!´.  If anything is coming the other way, the only recourse is to the horn or the breaks.  There is no such thing as being bored on a bus in Colombia.


I recall looking out the window on one occasion and seeing three young men in plain attire, about 17 years of age, all squeezed onto a 50cc scooter.  The one on the back was carrying a large machine gun. 


Later Rafael explained the problem of FARC, the guerrillas in Colombia. It is obvious that Colombia is a country with a strong economy and vast resources, especially in the agricultural sector, but the instability created by the guerrillas, estimated by Rafa, to be a force of 40,000, causes enormous damage to the economy and well being of the average Colombian.  It seems with a little stability the economy would thrive and there is potential for significant growth. 


The guerrillas force farmers off what would otherwise be productive land.  They blow up the trucks carrying the produce. As a result there is a lot of land that is not productively farmed as no-one wishes to invest resources to develop the land or hold the stock, as soon as any sign of wealth is shown, the guerrillas seize the land.  They are influenced and motivated by dear old Fidel Castro, who is in all respects, from what I can gather here, a communist dictator of the highest order. 


The rural peasant in the past 10 years or so has been caught in a catch-22.  You produce goods and gain economic wealth and the guerrillas attack you. You don’t produce goods and gain economic wealth, you and your family starve.


But the problem is much worse than economic troubles.  In conjunction with indoctrination of Marxist ideas, the guerrillas also use intimidation tactics which go something like this:  Guerilla group arrives at Colombian family´s house and tells teenage son, Jose, that if he does not join the guerrillas then the guerrillas will execute his family.  Naturally enough, Jose joins the guerrillas and indoctrination begins.  In response to insurgent activity, such as the above, past governments establish a form of ´community watch´.  This involved arming people in the villages for protection and training them to report guerrilla activities in the local area, like a type of community police.  Well that was the idea, but unfortunately the community watch groups took their jobs and new found power a bit too seriously and became a law unto themselves. They began going to Jose´s family and others like him and asking Ma and Pa Jose, whether or not Jose was a guerrilla.  If the answer was yes the community watch shot Ma and Pa Jose. So again, young Jose is caught in a catch-22.  If he doesn’t join the guerrillas, the guerrillas kill his family.  If he does join the guerrillas, the government organised or disorganised community police kill his family.  Fortunately, more recent governments have recognised this problem and have abolished the community watch groups. 


We have spent effectively four days, 10 hours per day, travelling by car which we hired from Bogota to Barichara, to Bucaramanga, to Santa Marta, to Taganga, to Cartegena and to Tyrona National Park.  With 5 people in the car conditions were cramped.  Thankfully we had air conditioning as without it the heat close to sea level would have killed us.


The Colombian government is making a concerted effort to stamp out the guerrillas from import road routes and economic areas between Bogota and Cartegena. There is a heavy police and military presence on the roads here, stationed every 30 or 40 kilometres.  We were treated once to being stopped and the car searched by the Colombian Police.  Although it crossed my mind to question this police officer about his powers of search and his invasion of our civil liberties, the M16A1 style machine gun, with a 50mm grenade launcher attachment, encouraged simple compliance.  Lower Hutt police would love this power. No pissing about.  But besides, the military and the police here go out of there way to be very polite to people they stop to security check.  It helped that Rafa used to be in the Colombian army, but the New Zealand police could learn a thing or two about manners from these young men.  Perhaps it is because these guys have real problems to worry about, rather than petty summary offences or traffic offences.


Barichara is a very pretty Spanish Colombian town situated at 1336m above sea level.  The temperature there was about 25-28 degrees C.  The landscape surrounding this area is very dry and a lot like how I imagine Spain, or northern Italy, with its rustic colours of orange and brown.  It is quite a change from the lush greens of the coffee lands and Bogota. 


Bucaramanga was a sprawling metropolis, as chaotic as other large cities here, with poor roads, lighting and signage.  We arrived at night. We spent an uneventful evening in a dingy hotel. It had a TV and a fan.  Neither worked. We heard on the news that four motorcyclists were killed that night in Bucaramanga.


On the 15th of March 2008 we drove to Santa Marta on the Carribean coast, then on to a small fishing village named Taganga. Another 10 hours in the car.  Taganga was a small dusty, run down, fishing village where we had the displeasure of staying with an extremely irritating French woman from Paris.  She was not doing the Parisian French reputation for being somewhat arrogant any favours.  Although Rafa had booked this accommodation 3 months or more earlier, and had rung to confirm the booking a week or so before we arrived, she announced on our arrival that she had not kept our reservation because she thought we were Colombians, who, in her opinion, are unreliable, and the hostel was full.  Despite obviously blatantly insulting Rafael, he calmly explained to her that we had travelled all the way from New Zealand, that it was his honeymoon, and that we had just been in a car for 10 hours.  She did back down a bit at that point, but didn’t stop to breath through her nose for 10 seconds.  Rafa should have said to her, ´I´m sorry but if I´d known you were from Paris, I wouldn’t have come´.  No one seems to pick up rubbish here or put it in the bin.  At least breakfast and coffee here was good.


The highlight of Taganga was the beautiful and cheap seafood, the marinated raw fish in coconut cream and lime juice, wonderful tropical fruit juices, prawns, and a boat trip to Santa Marta and back with an old Colombian sea dog, ferryman and his daughter in an old fibreglass longboat.  When the sea got rough, and we all got wet, his daughter could not watch the waves, and buried her head in his hands.  She was about 12.  He explained that his son was hopeless and wouldn’t help him on the boat so his daughter had volunteered.  Here I was nicknamed ´Marco del a barco´, in other words, ´Mark of the Boat´.  (Incidentally, Chris Dellabarca, in Italian, means the same, I think) 


On the beach near Taganga, an well muscled black Costenian masseuse offered massage services, rubbing carrot oil into the skins of the men and women on the beach who wanted it.  There seemed to be many more women.  In particular there were two very beautiful young black women from Cali that seemed to get plenty of attention. 


There is a much stronger African influence in the people on the coast that does not appear in the complexions of the people from Bogota.  The ´Costenians´ are quite different in appearance and speech.  Costenians speak Spanish with a particular accent.  I guess it is a bit like calypso English, but in Spanish.  It is also 36 degrees here, which makes for quite a different lifestyle. 


From Taganga we drove to Cartegena, again at night, again 6 hours instead of 2 as we took a wrong turn and got waylaid in the depths of poverty in Barraquilla, another chaotic and enormous metropolis. Cartegena is a beautiful ´pirate´ city.  Unfortunately we did not get a lot of time to explore the city as a result.  Instead we travelled by boat, about 1.5 hours to Isla de Rosario, a small carribean island where we spent the day at a resort type hut setup, with a swimming pool.  We did some tropical snorkelling, I saw my first monkeys and toucans, before we returned to another beach where I was instantly surrounded by 100 beach hawkers, who quickly convinced me to try the local oysters and equally quickly relieved me of twenty thousand pesos ($15 for 5).A quick lesson learned.  I hope that it will help feed this guys family for a week. People never leave you alone here and are always trying to sell all manner of trinkets and junk. 


Following Cartegena we travelled back to Tyrona Park, which is a beautiful national park, where the mountains covered by dense jungle, come down to the gorgeous Caribbean beaches. We had nice accommodation here and spent two days on the beach in the sea and trekking up to Pueblito, an indigenous Inca village that used to support about 2000 people between 400 BC and 1400 AD.  It was a pleasant walk where Sam and I saw many colourful lizards, butterflies, and a troop of small black and white faced monkeys that leaped from tree top to tree top.  I also saw my first red squirrel.  In Pueblito we inspected the visitors book for an idea of tourist numbers here.  We were the only kiwis in the book.  Out of every 200 Colombians there were maybe one or two tourists from the West. 


On our last night in Tyrona we walked around the camp where many Colombians were camping, cooking dinner on open fires, and made our acquaintances, with some Colombians in there 20s on their Easter Holidays.  We played some guitar for them and them for us. The locals are all very interested in us and those that could speak Spanglish did so. We were offered much whiskey and freshly brewed coffee from the fire.  The night ended singing La Bamba, loudly on the beach and collapsing on the beach next to a large friendly and warm Costenian woman, who proved to be an excellent Spanish teacher, and heater.


Yesterday was an uneventful day but pleasant.  We drove the long road back to Puente de Piedra.  I am now comfortably relaxing in the sun listening to Don Rafa´s classical music.  Don Rafa had a stroke a year or so ago and, although he is fine, is enjoying a relaxed life after many years working as a lawyer in Bogota. 


Tomorrow I fly to Ecuador. 

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Santa Marta
photo by: AndySD