Passage Note #65 Part II: Colorful Colombia - Caribbean and Cartagena
Goodbye Andes, Hello Caribbean Coast
Taking a little bag of Barichara fat-bottom ants with us, we backtracked to the adventure capital of San Gil and sat in the town’s main plaza people-watching for a few hours until “Gringo Mike’s” opened its doors for dinner. We planned to enjoy a nice meal before going to the bus station and catching a long 12 hour overnight bus north to Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast. Seems like everyone in the restaurant had the same idea. There were a lot of familiar faces at the bus station - a young British couple, a Dutch family of four, two Swiss girls, and the French backpackers we had hiked with in Barichara.
The bus left at 7:30 p.m. and was comfortable enough, certainly comparable to most other executive buses we have taken around South America. Here’s a new twist - with Colombian buses, you can gently bargain the price down - which we were able to successfully do. We slept fitfully as the bus twisted and turned descending from the heights of the Andes and the canyon of Parque Nacional del Chicamocha, dropping in elevation by way of truck-choked switchbacks (trucks are limited to driving at certain hours). Supposedly very scenic and “cliff-hugging”, it was too dark to see anything except the caravan of vehicles in front and behind spiraling up and down into what looked like a bottomless abyss.
When we awoke at daybreak we were in the warmth of the Banana Zone - and in the ugly strip town of Cienaga - in order to change buses for the one hour ride to Santa Marta. Cienaga is the site of the 1928 Banana Massacre, a significant event involving striking United Fruit Company workers that changed the national politics and was fictionalized by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in "One Hundred Years of Solitude". It's always interesting - and too often upsetting - to learn about United States' role in Central and South America.
Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park
(elevation of Santa Marta: 12 meters, population 500,000)
There’s nothing much to recommend the city of Santa Marta itself except that it is on the Caribbean coast and is a jumping off place for nearby Tayrona National Park with its splendid beaches and famous Cuidad Perdida (Lost City) 4 day trek to indigenous ruins. Tayrona Park lies at the foot of the Santa Marta mountains, the world's highest coastal range.
Staying in Casa Leda, one of 3 beautiful boutique hotels owned by the Kali Group, was a lovely recovery from the bus ride and we enjoyed meeting Jacob, one of the owners who is from New Jersey.
We decided to forgo the Cuidad Perdida trek because of the time and expense but did book a few nights at the fabled Barlovento Lodge in Los Naranjos just outside the eastern edge of the Park - a spectacular architectural cliff-hanger. An early project by one of Colombia’s now-famous architects, Barlovento was designed as a private home precariously perched on huge beach boulders and has three bedrooms that are cantilevered out over the breaking sea to deafening proportions. It was an exhilarating place to stay but we found the roaring soundscape a bit unnerving since surf is to be avoided when you live on a boat. The front faces a long expansive playa and view of coastline formed by an ocean that has currents too dangerous to swim in (although there were a few tough local surfers out there); the back of the building faces the mountains and the pretty Rio Piedras estuary that empties into the Caribbean at low tide. Bird life - kingfishers, herons, vultures and pelicans - was abundant. But so were caimans. We met the owner’s daughter, Natalie, an artist living in Bogota whose young daughter had been bitten by a caiman the week before we arrived, fortunately not too seriously.
(elevation 165 meters, population 350,000)
Natalie drove us into Santa Marta to catch a 6 hour bus to our next destination on the other side (west) of the Santa Marta mountains close to the Venezuela border - Valledupar, a small town that is the birthplace of venerated accordian-driven vallenato music, beloved by all Colombians. This is also cattle and cowboy country. Off the beaten tourist track except for the Vallenato Music Festival held each April, the only outsiders we saw were the few staying at our hostel. While there we became big fans of vallenatos (songs) ourselves. But the reason we were interested in going here was as a base for reaching Nabusimake, the spiritual center for the Arhuaco people, one of four indigenous tribes that still inhabit the highlands.
The journey to Nabusimake, high in the misty mountains above the small town of Pueblo Bello proved to be pretty rough and more difficult than we understood and entailed a minimum of one overnight stay outside the indigenous village. We miscalculated and were unable to arrange it.
However, as consolation, Linda did take a one hour bus from Valledupar to Pueblo Bello, the gateway town to Nabusimake, and poked around for an afternoon - enjoying the exploration, people watching, and observation of daily life there. She was invited to sit and talk to two women who were making their traditional woolen mochila bags, observed indigenous people shopping for supplies and packing them on their mules for the journey up the mountain, and watched Arhuaco men in casual conversation with each other. They are stunning in their all white dress with conical hats, long black hair, carrying their beautiful mochilas. Always chewing a wad of coca leaves, they mechanically dip into their poporos (gourd containers) for the lime that, when mixed in their mouths, activate the coca. The lime comes from crushed seashells that they collect on the coast. Arhuacos shun being photographed so Linda respectfully and unobtrusively snapped a rare few.
"All is united like a breath" (Arhuaco Mamo)
According to their beliefs, we were now in the "Heart of the World" within their sacred Black Line. The Arhuaco are peaceful, spiritual people who call themselves the "Elder Brothers" and feel responsible for keeping the earth in balance. They have recently ventured forth from their mountain sanctuary because their rivers are drying up and their glaciers are disappearing. Knowing that something is amiss in the world that is beyond their traditional powers, they have been appealing to us, their "younger brothers" to change the way we treat the earth. Watch the first part of a video about their beliefs and concerns for the world. Part Three has some especially poignant moments.
On the way to Pueblo Bello, Linda passed a roadside community consisting of crude makeshift homes, each covered in the front by a bright green plastic tarp emblazoned with huge numbers - 62, 63, 64.......Suspecting that it was a refugee camp for people displaced by Colombia’s civil conflict, she asked the bus driver who confirmed that “yes, they are victims of ‘la invasion’”.
Not so long ago the Santa Marta mountains were controlled by guerrillas in warfare with paramilitary groups, triangulated with the military.....indigenous and civilians caught in the middle of violent clashes were virtually held hostage in their own villages, victimized in massacres, and made homeless when their land was illegally seized from them by both sides. Seeing this camp was sober tangible evidence of the shocking statistics we had read about: “More than 3 million have fled the violence since 1964, making Colombia home to the second largest internally displaced population in the world” - just behind Syria.
From the dry cattle country and mountains of Santa Marta we returned once again to the Caribbean - to Cartagena.
Cartagena - Romancing the Stone
(elevation 34 meters, population 900,000)
The Jewel of Colombia. The Belle of the Ball.
Ringed by 400 year old fortress walls embracing atmospheric colonial streets and buildings, Cartagena is all fairytale romance. Colorful and hot and steamy! Its significance as “the most important bastion of the Spanish overseas empire (which) influenced much of Colombia’s history” has been preserved through the centuries. Sir Francis Drake’s house, rusty cannons, stone ramparts, slave market squares, old sailing ships.... a rich past to explore.
This tropical gem of a seaside city on the Caribbean, is justifiably overrun by tourists getting lost in the vibrantly colored cobblestoned alleys, being transported back into history, visiting stunning colonial churches and mansions converted into museums and upscale boutique hotels, sightseeing by horse carriages lit by candlelight in the evenings, socializing, dancing, and eating in the crowded public plazas at night, or flying kites from the promenade atop the fort walls. You can beat the heat by playing on the beaches or cooling off with a cold drink of coconut lemonade or some tropical fruit you have never heard of before (lulo or nispero were favorites).
We took a bus tour for orientation. The bus is not allowed inside the historic center behind the old walls so it trundled through the chaotic area outside, taking us to the massive Castillo de San Felipe, through the vivacious working class quarter of Getsemani which holds more affordable lodging and backpacker hostels, past the Marina where we had had many cruiser friends stop, and the upscale Miami-like high rise area called Bocagrande.
Cartagena is now on the foodie map with all kinds of great restaurants and we really enjoyed all the fresh seafood - especially the ceviche at La Cevicheria where we joined the crowds generated by Anthony Bourdain’s recent celebrity visit.
Our hotel fronted on the sweet Plaza de Fernandez de Madrid where we could listen to the street music from our balcony in the cooler breezy evenings. We not only had a view of the greenery of the park and all its activity but also of the house that was the setting for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera”, one of many buildings in Cartagena that he spun into his fictions. The house of Colombia’s most beloved author was a few blocks away.
Cartagena is a stunning treasure! And with all its charm and sensuality, we can forgive that the movie “Romancing the Stone” never really took place here but was shot in Mexico instead.