With help from Felipe, the linguistically challenged pair boarded a real luxury bus that was everything we expected the chicken bus to have been. Arriving in Santa Marta at 0800 in reasonable order, our first impression was unfortunate and one of my pet hates in the form of that universal pest ‘the scamming taxi driver’. We have taken to using Uber bypassing having to deal with the chancing irritants but sadly they do not operate here.
After inadvertently booking us into a seedy Chinese knocking shop just off Soi Cowboy (Thailand), Sally is now reinstated as the accommodation’s booking manager, as she has a knack of reading through the blurb finding our preference of quirky. Casa del Escritor http://Bookings.com was no different. Clean, comfortable, air conditioning, attentive staff with great wifi. A book themed hostel complete with former street dog and various curio’s we were set fair, although not really sure about the saddle in the bedroom. Perhaps one of my equine friends could enlighten me!
Homestay’s where days begin with breakfast and the forgotten art of talking to people and chance interesting meets. This time a former German diplomat who, at the age of 18 was an au pair in Tavistock Devon, an area near our home town.
Santa Marta lays claim to being the oldest surviving Colonial town in Colombia. One Rodrigo de Bastidas first planted a Spanish flag here in 1525, deliberately choosing a site at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to serve as a base for looting the gold treasures of the Tayronas. As the plundering began, so did the natives’ resistance, with the Conquistadors doing their usual hearts and minds thing. It took them 50 years to completely wipe out the Tayrona’s, steal all their extraordinary gold objects and melt them down for rough material to chuck into the Crown’s coffers.
Today it is a working port that has a Cuba 20 years ago feel to it. The most striking observation being a large percentage of the locals have a more dark African look, the area being one of the first settlement areas for freed slaves explains this. Over the years enduring some pretty shabby treatment and despite a Government eugenics policy of ‘whitening’ in 1920, their distinctive features are still apparent, as is a really bad attitude.
To be honest after our first three weeks experience we expected more from Colombia’s first city. It has great Colonial architecture, premiere history, heritage and a stream of tourists from the cruise liners that should make it a winner. The problem comes from the locals apathy, urinating next to us in the main square in the middle of a walking tour pretty much summed up Santa Marta for us .
The town is a lot more touristy and that is where it loses the South American charm, attracting a higher percentage of beggars and street hawkers with a generally not particularly friendly feel. Catholic Church apart, it is neglected, run down, dirty, in fact honking compared to the charm of San Gil. On top of this a mass of displaced Venezuelans fleeing the socialist nirvana next door adds an air of desperation to the abject poverty. It is without doubt the dodgiest place in Colombia so far, day times are fine but at night you have to be vigilant and advised to take taxi’s after 10pm. Thankfully these days by that time we are mostly in bed listening to Desert Island discs or catching up with Gogglebox.
Our exploration of the Caribbean Coast has also left us somewhat underwhelmed, it seems everything is based around trekking. Santa Marta is the gateway to these beautiful places, so if trekking is your thing, the experience maybe totally different. Beautiful as Tayrona National Park looks the reality is a 2 hour yomp through a mozzie filled jungle to get to a beach full of sand flies overflowing with smelly backpackers paying over the odds to sleep in a hammock. Taganga a charming fishing village and also a hippie hangout and Minca is a 3 hour minimum mountain trekking loop. Just the thing for my knackered knees that are taking a while to knit back after the Mountain biking. Finding a nearby gym, the order of the week has been rest and get some physio through them, a couple of sundowners with a vain search for Papillons Santa Marta Prison where he was incarcerated on his 33-34 Cavalle.
Some excitement on our penultimate day as we sat eating an ice cream inside to get some respite from the heat. All of a sudden, a commotion started outside quickly escalating to a baying mob of over 50. The woman jumped over the counter bolting the door as we watched from behind bars the mob, in the blink of an eye, swelling up to over 100. The police then swarmed in from every direction smashing people with batons and shields, they really do not mess around. Carting several miscreants away and watching a small riot while locked in an ice cream parlour was a surreal moment, thankfully by the time we finished off our coconut and guanabana double cone the action was over. Door unlocked we carried on our way, hardly the Bogota riots of ’48, but a reminder that this is South America and things can go from zero to pear shaped very quickly.
Overall Santa Marta did not really work out for us, the planned activities all involved too much trekking, jungle, mosquitoes and sand flies. See Sally’s last jungle experience. The beach isn’t anything to get excited about, but Santa Marta is the gateway to Tayrona, Minca and the Lost City Trek, just not for us. The thought to hire a motorbike and cruise up the coast cancelled after watching four people get knocked off in two days sort of left us stuck.
With the Santa Marta Ice cream riot the highlight of our stay it is onwards to Cartagena.