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xEurasia Odyssey

The Columbian Caribbean Coast: Tayrona to Cartagena

COLOMBIA | Thursday, 30 December 2021 | Views [282]

Centro historico

Centro historico

The Columbian Caribbean Coast

 Tayrona National Park is perhaps the most famous park in the country and for good reason. The rainforest mountainsides roll down like waves of multi-hued greens to meet the whitewater waves of the sea. The Santa Marta Sierra Nevadas form the backdrop of the park, with at least one peak over 5,000m. These mountains are reputed to be the highest coastal mountains in the world. The park is in the ancestral territory of four remaining indigenous groups: the Kankuamo, Kogui, Wiwa and Arhuaco. Many of their traditions are dying out, but they still have oversight over Tayrona and the El Pueblo archeological site, which was closed while I was there. There are a few different entrances to Tayrona, but the main one at the far end when coming from Santa Marta, has a trail to Cabo San Juan, the most famous and, therefore, most populous beach. Those who don’t want to walk can ride a horse, as there are places at various points along the way where stable hands offer their charges for service. Although, I love to ride I chose to walk as the path was filled with wildlife that I wanted to take my time to see.  The mammalian wildlife consisted of a couple of different species of monkeys, including the little white haired and breasted Mico Titis, but there were many more kinds of lizards, butterflies and, of course, birds. Of the smaller insect varieties, I saw leaf-cutter and army ants and avoided them both.  The trail starts off from the parking lot along a paved road, then goes up a wooden planked set of steps into the rainforest. The trail goes up and down, but is never steep or high. Along the way are wooden signs mentioning the ancient spirits of the region, including: Saldaui, the father of plants and the one who manages the relationship between plants and animals; Hatei tumu, father of the rocks, the creator and overseer of the differing kinds of rocks for constructing roads and for use in divination.  There is a tradition of tossing particular rocks to predict the future. Karlikukui is the mother of water; according to a tradition common among those of the Sierra mountains, water is the basis for all life, it is an expression of fertility in its various forms: creeks, rivers, waterfalls, rain and the sea. Monsaui is the overseer of wind, and was the first to encounter the sea, their union formed life millions of years ago. The last of the spirits mentioned on the plaques was Jalyintana, father of the sea. His sign is situated after a few rollercoaster twists and turns, a little over a half hour from the entrance, when the blue sea first appears framed by lush green vegetation.  The first beach one comes to, where swimming is not allowed due to rip tides, is lined with sea grape bushes. The first beach where one is allowed to go in the water is the appropriately named, La Piscina. There are places to spend the night, either in tents or small cabins, a place to rent horses, and of course, eateries. Just off the beach are a couple of large boulders on which hordes of crabs crawl around.  From La Piscina it is about another 20 minutes to Cabo San Juan. Many of the photos of La Tayrona are from this beach. There is a lookout hut on a spit between the two beaches and a small river inlet in between that is called Caiman Alley; the caiman it is named after died a few years ago and the area is perfectly safe from wildlife predators. There were more people on these beaches than at any of the others, probably because it is a stunningly beautiful area. The waves on one side were higher and there were, therefore, more children and families on the other side. Further on, the trail leads to a nude beach, which when I was there was filled with bathing-suit clad couples. I found the beaches to be beautiful, but the noise from the masses of people distracting, so Andrea, a local guide who was accompanying me, and I headed back to La Piscina for a swim. There is a natural break-wall there, which prevents the really rough waves from getting through, making it easer to actually swim rather than just bounce around in the waves. The water was refreshing after the very hot and humid walk. After the swim we had lunch at a beachside restaurant in the shade of a grove of trees. The lunch was substantial and delicious; it included coconut rice, patacon – fried plantain slices, salad, and chicken for me, fish for Andrea.  As the car was coming back by 3:30 to pick us up at the entrance, it was time to return the way we came.  The reason for the somewhat early pick up is that the sun goes down by 5:30 and it takes, depending on traffic, between 1 ½ to 2 hours to get to Santa Marta from Tayrona. Driving at night is not advisable anywhere in the country.

The day amid wildlife, diverse flora, the mountains and the sea in Tayrona was the opposite of what the next day brought, which was a look at Old Town Santa Marta and the Gold Museum there. The Old Town is relatively small for a city of over half a million inhabitants.  Santa Marta is the oldest town in Columbia, but almost none of the Old Town buildings are from the early 1500s. The city is open to the sea and was therefore invaded multiple times both by natural forces in the form of storms as well as by pirates and various invading military forces, not just the Spanish, but also the British and French.  The original location of the cathedral, for example, was near the waterfront, but the church had to be moved after it had been destroyed for the third time. The buildings that comprise the Old Town now are generally one story and quite colorfully painted with lots of flowering plants on the windowsills. There are numerous restaurants, pubs, and shops, all geared towards the tourist trade. The Gold Museum is well worth a visit. It showcases the local tribes and their traditions as well as gold artifacts.  The gold items are more or less the same kinds that are displayed in the Bogota museum, but putting them in the local setting creates a better understanding for the images.  For example, in Tayrona and along the coast many of the artifacts deal with bat figures as the bat is important to their local traditions. In Boyacá and the central portion of the country there are more bird-man figures, and in the south there are more jaguar-man images. Each relates to their natural environment and to the legends that spring from the surrounding terrain. 

From Santa Marta I headed along the coast to Cartagena, the last stop in my Columbian adventure. The new highway allows the trip to be made in about four hours.  Before it was built it probably took close to twelve. Coming into the city I was immediately struck by the difference between Santa Marta and this city, that was only a few years younger, but clearly more prosperous. It sits on a bay that can be protected, which is precisely what the Spanish did with their fortress on the San Lázaro Hill, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The fortress is quite large and was added onto over a number of centuries. The lookout towers provide a clear view of any potential danger from the sea; the backdrop of hills provides a natural protection from invaders on foot. The fortress is just outside the city walls on the smaller of the two hills immediately in the vicinity. The larger one in the back, La Popa, houses an Augustinian Monastery of the same name.  Today there are only a few monks left, but the site is visited by locals and tourists alike for the fabulous 360 degree views of the city, countryside, and sea. The main courtyard of the monastery is open for visitors as are a few of the rooms with Colonial era paintings. The courtyard has rose, pink, and peach colored bougainvilleas draping down from the sandstone balconies creating a light and airy feeling, unlike a Spanish monastery, which is typically quite dark.

Color seems to be an important element to Cartagenian life, as the houses in Centro Historico are often brightly colored, with blooming greenery hanging from the balconies or painted on the sides of the houses.  Street murals are common, but especially in the section of town called Getsemani, where local artists have covered most of the buildings with intricate designs, images of famous people or local legends. Their art is also offered for sale through outside galleries along many of the side streets. As Cartagena’s population is a mix of Afro-Caribbean, Colonial Spanish, Mestizo, and Indigenous heritages, local art often showcases this diversity. It appears in the music of the street musicians as well which brings out the dancer in those who pass by. Just walking around, I came across groups of people sambaing to the music of street musicians.  It didn’t seem to make any difference if they were doing the moves ‘correctly’ as just wiggling to the beat of the rhythm was enough to make the dancers, the musicians, and the audience happy.

Connecting the walled Centro Historico with Getsamani is Centennial Park, which was named for the one hundred year anniversary of independence from Spain. The park is a haven of green in a sea of concrete. Birds seem to flock to the park as their songs are heard even over the noise of all the surrounding traffic and people.  The park is also home to a solitary three-toed sloth that actually hangs from lower branches so that he can be photographed. I watched him ever so slowly climb down the tree he was on after what seemed like a lengthy photo-shoot, to try to traverse the hot pavement to the higher trees on the other side of the pathway. One of the park guards finally picked him up, then let me hold him, before helping him over to the other side and placing him on a tree trunk. The only other time I was able to hold a sloth was at a rescue shelter in Costa Rica many years ago.  This one didn’t hold on to me the way that one did, but it was amazing to have this wild gentle creature with such a happy expression in my arms. I wonder how he would get along with my dog????

Cartagena's Centro Historico is a beautiful Colonial city. It is also suffering from mass tourism – even during the pandemic. While I was there, it was difficult to get through many of the streets due to the number of people. On the one hand, this was perhaps a good thing as the restaurants, hotels and shop owners need the tourists to recover from the country’s recent lockdown, but on the other it may be too much of a good thing.  I did notice, however, that the majority of the tourists were from Bogota, Medellin or elsewhere in the country. It is entirely possible that during another month, it wouldn’t be as crowded. December is the height of the high season for the coast, and the city was decked out for Christmas.  The light displays were amazing works of art and rivaled the street art for intricacy.

For what I thought was going to be my final morning in the country, I booked a last minute tour to the La Boquilla mangrove lagoons just east of the city to see how the people there live. I am very grateful to have had this opportunity as it gave me a much different perspective on the coastal region and on the highway that brought me from Santa Marta to Cartagena that crosses over this region.  In the car coming to the city, I was told by the driver that the people selling water and chips along the highway were from the region and that they were lazy, didn’t want to work, their children weren’t allowed to go to school, and that the only way they supported themselves was through government assistance.  He also said that the area flooded regularly, but the people refused to move. This was the attitude/belief of my driver from Santa Marta. I experienced quite something different when I went into the lagoons. Yes, the area does flood, but it is because the mangroves were cut down to make way for the highway. Before, the mangroves kept the sea at bay, now nothing is in its way. The Afro-Caribbean people here have lived off fishing since Colonial times and continue to do so. They get up at midnight to go out in flat-bottomed canoes to catch a particular kind of fish that is only found in these waters and is quite expensive when eaten in a restaurant. To catch the fish, they climb out of the boat, stand on the mushy lagoon floor about knee high in water and cast a circular net. They then slowly gather the net together and shake it out in the boat. When they catch sardines, they keep them as bait for the crabs they catch in cages. These wire boxes are thrown from the boat with an empty plastic bottle attached. After the fishermen have fished for awhile, they go back to the crab cages, hauling them in via the floating plastic bottle. They do this a few times each day.  This is far from being lazy! Granted, the houses are a mess and trash lines the non-paved streets, but it seems that the community is in a fight with the government, who wants to remove them from their homelands to make way for more hotels.  The mangroves will disappear and with them the fishermen’s livelihood.  As it is, I could hear the non-stop hum of traffic from the highway bridge over the lagoon, even when I couldn’t see it, and that has to disturb the wildlife in the region. I was told that according to the country’s Constitution, the people of this region have the right to their homeland, which is the legal basis for their fight with the government. Whether they will win, however, is highly questionable as money talks, and they have none. The extent of how much they will lose, and with it the coast, was made clear to me the following day.

I was scheduled to fly out on Friday, but when I arrived at the airport and was in line to check in, KLM canceled the flight. There was no explanation given, but after learning what happened with others, suspect they didn’t have the enough crew. KLM did compensate for the delay, however, by putting everyone up in hotels and covering the transportation costs to and from the airport as well as meals. While I was at first a bit irritated with the delay, the hotel area provided an interesting and totally different perspective on Cartagena. This was what the lagoons were being sacrificed for and it was, to me at least, a frightening outcome.  The hotels sprawl along the coast west of the walled city hugging miles of wonderful sandy beaches that are covered with umbrellas. The hotel I was staying at was a typical Caribbean resort with a nice large pool and a tall tree garden with deer, toucans and parrots. The rooms were outdated, but clean. The hotel staff clearly tried to make a stay at their property a good experience for their customers. BUT, this was the kind of resort where people load up their plates at the buffet tables (the selection was actually quite good and the food well prepared for such large numbers) and then leave huge portions untouched for the dump. The waste was unnerving. The difference between this ‘vacation lifestyle’ and the struggles of the fishermen, who might have to give up their homeland for more of this, was glaring. I also wondered what will happen to these shores without the mangroves if the seas rise they way they are predicted to.  The walled Old Town Cartagena will be fine, but the coastal hotels, beaches and all that is associated with them may be in danger. 

 The diverse aspects of the Cartagena shoreline capsulize what I found to be some of the main take-aways from my time in Columbia.  The country is blessed with amazing natural beauty. The valleys and mountains are abundant with wildlife and flora that can sustain the population without doing damage to the eco-systems. The indigenous heritages, traditions, customs, languages, etc. are now being protected and fostered; there is recognition that the people who inhabited Columbia prior to the Spanish Conquest had highly civilized cultures. The Colonial era is central to the country’s identity as is Grand Columbia, which comprised Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama and portions of Peru. Simon Bolivar and the revolutionaries who fought for Grand Columbian independence from Spain are national heroes and honored with statues in the main plazas of the major cities. It is a country where the majority of the people respect both its diverse heritage and the natural world. It is a country where the visual arts, music and dance are embedded in its DNA. Yet, it is a country where the majority of those under 40 years of age told me they wanted to leave as they didn’t see a future for themselves if they stayed. With over 90% of the land in the hands of about 25 families, the young do not feel they have a chance to farm their own finca, though, many want to. They feel that because the government is so corrupt that unless one has connections it is impossible to get a good paying job. The fishermen are fighting to keep their way of life, their lagoons and mangroves from being bull-dozed to make room for more unsustainable hotels.  The farmers who sold coco leaves for cocaine are struggling to make the change to eco-tourism, as coco leaves are a lot easier to harvest and require a lot less upfront investment. Those who planted sugar cane, are now often switching to coffee as that is easier to produce than the cane. Date Palm plantations for palm oil and cattle ranches have taken over large tracks of virgin forest in the Amazonian Basin region. Tomatos grown for export cover large tracts of the lower Boyacá valleys and are fertilized with chemicals that seep into the rivers and ground water. Columbia is changing. It is no longer the drug capital of the 1980s and 1990s, and the dangers that exist are not those that impact tourists. They are those that impact the people of the country. Sustainable eco-tourism is the way a number of smaller communities across Columbia see as their way to a better future, but they are hampered by government regulations and by the oligarchs’ rights to the land. Next year’s election will tell if there will be a continuation of the current governmental path or if a new one will be chosen; although, when I asked, most people didn’t have any hope for a less corrupt government. In the meantime, the people continue to go about their lives, praying for a better future, hoping for tourists to come to help sustain their communities, while living in a very beautiful, diverse, and challenging country.

 I would like to thank Uncover Columbia, and especially Nidia Penagos , Daniel Rodriquez, Jorge Peña and my local guides and drivers for their help and for sharing their understanding of their region with me. I can wholeheartedly recommend Uncover Columbia as a responsible tour company.


Tags: beaches, cities, history, museums, national park, towns


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