Intrepid Den: Santa Marta!

Had a manic month thanks to arrival of new baby and also moving house, hence no posting for a while, but Intrepid Den is back now with a diary entry set in Santa Marta.

The road north east to Santa Marta kisses the shore of the Caribbean for 200 miles. Mostly to the east, it is dry scrub land where nothing much grows, interrupted by miles of shanty towns. It could be Africa. The dwellings are built of breeze blocks or wood, with corrugated iron roofs and open lattice work metal doors. To the people here, it is home. In our Mercedes mini-bus, we thundered through, whipping up the dust, and all of us on board, were glad, I am sure, that this is not where we were getting off. We idled through the traffic choked town of Barranquilla which, apparently, has a carnival to rival Rio, although you just can’t believe it. And once, through, we were on a toll road and picking up speed. This is the land where if a vehicle will start, you can use it. Cars, buses and vans in varying degrees of decay roll alongside super trucks and coaches – the vehicles, just like the people, reflect a massive discrepancy in wealth. And you know what, I just don’t think they care. This is Colombia!

Finally, the land to the east rises into brown hills and we began our descent, past a little favela, rising up into the hill, dotted with little brightly painted cubes of houses, into the oldest town and port of Colombia – Santa Marta. In the north, along the beach, there are high rise apartment and hotel buildings, built for the tourists from Bogota , whilst on the other side of the road, there is the usual chaos of buildings in varying degrees of construction. I wondered if this is what Spain looked like 50 years ago when the first package holidays flew people to the Costas and Majorca?

I’d reserved a room in the Hostel Miramar and I thought I knew exactly what to expect. I was dropped off outside and entered an airy courtyard. Pedro, the very helpful, tall, Argentinian receptionist showed me to my room. I know it only cost £6 a night but even I was shocked. The window was the size of an A4 piece of paper high up in the wall ( to quote Wilde: “that little tent of blue, which prisoners call the sky”) and the door looked out onto the brick wall of the kitchen. It wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t do at all. He knew I was a writer and I think he thought it might be bad for the reputation of the hostel, so he quickly showed me another room upstairs that opened onto a terrace. It was better. It was much better. He even carried my huge bag up the stairs for me, gave me a toilet roll, a sheet, a towel and a tiny bar of soap and said that it even had it’s own bathroom! Notwithstanding that the shower and toilet are IN the room at the end of the bed… Never mind, it is mine and I just thank god that I am not sharing. I turned on the ceiling fan that only has one speed – helicopter speed and unpacked. There is no where to hang or put anything. All my clothes are lassoed on a length of ribbon, so I just hauled them out of my bag, hooked the ribbon over the shower pipe – that’s all it is, no shower head, just a pipe, draped it over the wall and voila, I was unpacked.. With the ceiling fan whirring frantically around, everything in the room is momentarily lifted in one long perpetual Mexican wave.

I went out to explore – about 100 yards away is the black stained beach. I’m not sure what the black is, but suspect it might be coal dust rather than volcanic sand – there are no volcanoes. But there is a lot of coal.. Kids were swimming happily enough but it is not the crystal waters which apparently, lap ashore nearby. Santa Marta looks a bit like Cartagena except it’s shabby and a bit dilapidated. I’ve never seen buckets and spades in this country, but if they had them, this is where they would be. The old “historic” part of town is where the travellers stay; in hostels and slightly upmarket hotels whilst the rich stay in the new development uptown and I presume, there is no interaction. I’m happy to be in this part of town – it’s chaotic, it’s frenzied and there are people everywhere – just what I’ve grown to expect. On carrera 5, the main street, there is the cacophony of street sellers, the smell of food frying on multitudinous stalls, the stink and rumble of traffic, shops selling everything from sweets, to medicine, to shoes (lots of shoes…), crazy brightly coloured clothes, bags, mobile phone covers (they all have one, far more sophisticated than the old banger I’ve got with me) and hundreds of Colombians doing what they do best – partying.
I’d asked Pedro where I could get a “set menu” meal – I think he misunderstood me and thought I wanted something like a western restaurant and he directed me accordingly. I ignored his advice, and not having eaten all day, to eat, was my priority. I wandered past a doorway that once again, led to an airy courtyard and so I wandered in. A lovely, tall, stylish, woman greeted me, spoke English and said that yes, they had a set menu. She is from Medellin, in the centre of the country, which she says is in a valley, has a climate like Spring all year and is very beautiful – never mind that in the drug lord Escobar’s time, there were frequent drive by shootings and a £1000 bounty on every policeman’s head. I wished I was going there (things have changed), but I’m not. She sat me down, under the obligatory ceiling fan and served me possibly, the best meal I’ve had in Colombia. As usual, it starts with soup, which is like a meal on its own, followed by a plate of steak oozing blood (just the way I like it), crunchy fried plantain, rice and salad washed down with a freezing cold glass of sugar cane water. And once again, everyone was so
helpful – showing me how to use the olive oil dispenser when clearly, I had no idea, bringing me a little bowl of super hot chilli and lime dressing (stupendous) and finally, bringing me the bill – more expensive than usual at £2.25 but of course, worth every penny; to sit in such a stylish restaurant and eat from china, drink from a proper glass rather than a plastic cup and even to have cutlery that didn’t bend when you used it!

Replete, I returned to my tiny room to commandeer the communal terrace table, drag it to my doorway and in the light from my room and with the fan whizzing overhead, I sat on my red plastic garden chair and wrote. OK, the hostel Miramar isn’t the greatest place to stay, but with the whiff of ganga drifting over from the boys from Minnesota, the clink of beers resounding from the Germans and my own slugs of rum, I couldn’t image being anywhere else.

DAY 2

It’s hot. It’s real hot. Too hot to sleep, so at 7.30, I wandered down to the deserted kitchen with my trustee stove top coffee pot (god, how I love it!) and made my coffee as the hostel woke up and the little ladies who run the kitchen arrived for work. They came laden with bags of food, unlocked the fridges and cupboards and even supplied me with a cup rather than the plastic beaker I’d been forced to use – they obviously understand the importance of coffee as much as I do!

I’m not sure where my travels should take me. The boys from Minnesota said that Taganga, where I am booked for a week, in what might be a very ropey airbnb home, was awful and that where I should be going is Palomino. My tiny laptop is my best friend and constant companion – obviously, I’d prefer a real person, but the virtual world, these days, seems omnipresent. I spent ages trying to find information about both places and also to find a proper map of Santa Marta. My Rough Guide is, in fact, bloody useless. The maps are hopeless and it is ridiculously out of date – and this is the most current edition! In the end, I gave up and in the strong midday heat – only wild dogs and Englishmen…, I went out in the midday sun. I was desperate to swim and change the colour of my skin.

Running alongside , but just back from the beach, is a purpose built, palm shaded, promenade and that is where I walked. Little, shiny, milk coffee coloured kids played in the water, beckoning me to join them. What was I to do? I found a woman who was there to take in the rays, asked her in sign language to look after my bag, whipped off my dress and plunged in. The Caribbean doesn’t have the gargantuan waves that the Pacific has, but the water was cool and clear. I swam on the surface, I swam underwater and I swam with the kids – getting them to put their tiny feet in my hands and flipping them backwards. They couldn’t get enough and swam alongside me like little ducklings with big grins on their exuberant faces. It was almost impossible to leave them, but leave them I did, to lie in the sun and feel the baking heat of the sun trying to permeate my factor 30 and it just felt so good! I hadn’t been on a beach since San Agustinillo and I can’t even remember how long ago that was – Mexico City, Bogota, Cartagena – too long.

From there, it was food time again. Earlier, I’d spotted yet another leafy courtyard and retraced my steps. The streets here are supposed to have numbers but this being Colombia, they don’t. It’s just trial and error, all of the time. It should be simple – you just count them but then they will sneak in another one – 1c for example, and then their whole grid system goes to pot. Anyway, I am getting the hang of it and found the little courtyard from earlier, just as the young girl was taking in the sign. No matter, if I wanted to eat, they were open – I was the only one in there and once again, there was that language barrier. But not for long – she had a phone (they all have a phone) and she bade me listen to it. It said, “fish, chicken or meat!”. I said chicken, she shook her head, they didn’t have any left and so I opted for meat. The surroundings weren’t as opulent as yesterday and the fork bent when I used it but you know what? The soup was outstanding – a kind of ossobucco with vegetables and the steak, if anything, was better and for half the price. What can I say? The more time I spend here, the more I love it! They are always so pleased when in my rubbish Spanish, I say “muy bien”. They break into huge smiles as if I have payed them the best compliment, but the funniest thing is, that I have – I really mean it! All of the time.

I finished the evening by putting on some eye makeup thus accentuating the fact that my eyes are blue, to tremendous effect. Suddenly, I was like a VIP. I walked around town like a different person, visiting the local supermarket which just bamboozles me by the things that they have to sell. I bought myself a proper glass and a bottle of 2013 Chilean wine (a mistake – I should have bought the 2014 – it just bakes in the bottle – mine was like sherry ) and then retired to my terrace to write and drink in the delightful company of three young French boys, who in their turn, guzzled rum – or agua diente, which I am told, means water of fire, or sex, which ever way you choose to interpret it – this is, after all, Colombia. We talked until 1pm slagging off Parisians for their arrogance, amongst other things.

DAY 3

The Parisian couple (oops) were up early, talking to their daughter on loudspeaker and so we were all up early too. I presume she overheard our conversation the night before… I decided to explore the beach and walked all the way to the end, past the swish development until, finally, the beach ran out. There are loads of statues to the indigenous tribes – what does that mean – wipe them out, stick up a few statues and everything will be forgiven? My Rough Guide said that tourist money is flooding into the area and that soon, everything would change and improve. All I could see was a tacky casino and the aforementioned luxury developments which all seem fairly deserted. The sand, I noticed seemed to glisten in the sun as if it’s full of pyrite. I couldn’t help but think that pyrite is also known as “fool’s gold” and with the empty buildings and deserted marina, I wondered if this was an example of foolish investment. I also noticed two great big blue tubes running across the beach into the sea. I wasn’t sure what they were, but they were like giant snakes, with reverse peristalsis, heaving their guts out into the water. Obviously, they are they effluence pipes, but what exactly are they disgorging? I couldn’t say, but from the stink of them, what else could it be?

I declined to swim there and headed into town to take in all of it’s heady cornucopia. The same rubble and stink of traffic, horns blaring was my sound scape. Salad was what I wanted and salad is what I got. Big lollo rosso lettuce you could bury your face in, massive peppers, beetroots and everything besides and for next to no money. I was happy, I was very happy. Nevertheless, I returned to the family restaurant of yesterday, had a similar stunning meal and carted my booty home for later. I waited until the little ladies had vacated the kitchen – I’m afraid I get on their nerves by wandering into their domain, and I probably do, even though they just smile at me and appreciate that I wash up after myself, and made the biggest salad I’ve had since leaving England – I miss them!.

I’d been searching for two days for another hostel which was supposed to be much better than mine and as if by magic, I finally found it. All the websites said that it would be more expensive, but I just thought it would be worth it – there’s only so much time you can spend in a tiny room with the whiff of a toilet at the end of your bed. I went in and with my trustee dictionary, said I wanted a room for two nights. He showed me upstairs to a lovely room, with a window and a breeze and a proper bathroom, the rooftop terrace which didn’t look like a building site (like the Hostel Miramar,), a little courtyard and communal kitchen for the use of the guests and when I asked how much, I was completely staggered when it turned out to be exactly the same as what I am paying for my stinkhole! I booked for the two nights

Later, I looked once again at Taganga – I still don’t know if it will be the place for me but in a moment of hysteria, I’d clicked the reserve button and it seems I will be there next Monday for a week in a hostel, again, much better than this one, followed by a week in an airbnb house. I just hope that it is what I think it is – a bit like Goa, with like minded people and maybe, just maybe, a new best friend to match Andree from San Agustnilllo…

DAY 4

I couldn’t stand the suspense. By 10am, I was standing in the middle of the road flagging down the beaten up bus to Taganga. I paid the 35p fare and off we went, passing “houses” that you wouldn’t believe existed or even stood up. And then the beautiful horse shoe shaped bay appeared and we rumbled into the village. I wanted to check out my options. I thought the streets in Santa Marta were haphazard – in Taganga, they just run out and at best, are rubble strewn thoroughfares. I wandered into the hinterland of half built buildings, creeks with no water, ragged plastic bags strewn from wires and trees and an awful lot of dust… As if by magic, I found the Hostel Mandela. The photographer who takes all these pictures for websites, should be given a medal or arrested under the Trades Description Act. It all looked immaculate on-line, but in reality, it was sheer Colombian chaos! No matter, this is where I had booked for £5 a night WITH breakfast (how is that possible?) and she showed me a couple of rooms – the one I chose has three beds but which, apparently, are all for me in a bright airy room with a SEPERATE bathroom. I could feel myself morphing into Goldilocks…

I wanted to check out the more expensive option as well, but this village is simply a warren. A tall, older man spotted the lost tourist and called to me. I showed him the address and he got someone to walk all the way up the hill with me to the property. It was truly lovely and affordable but had no kitchen – I just couldn’t image walking all the way down the hill for coffee and then all the way back up again, so sadly I declined. My next quest was the airbnb place I’d
reserved weeks ago By chance, I bumped into the same man who turned out to be the owner! So we both walked, puffing, up the hill – him more than me, and he welcomed me to his lovely home “Casa Italia”. He poured me a glass of cool, clear, water and proudly showed me the lovely double room. I had to explain that that wasn’t my room. For the money I paid, I was told, by email, rather curtly, that I would be sharing a room with one other girl. Not what I wanted and clearly, not what the owner wanted either. I wonder if providence will work that one out… He walked me back down the hill, introduced me to some of his friends, pointed out a good restaurant and told me that his name was Michelangelo and that he was from Bogota.

Left to myself, I ate in the little restaurant he’d recommended (outstanding) and then wandered the beach front. It’s not as makeshift as Goa, probably because it doesn’t have a monsoon to cope with, but the people are vaguely similar in a timeless, “we’ve got all day” mentality. It had a relaxed feel to it even if it isn’t particularly Colombian. It’s definitely geared to western or at least western orientated travellers than Colombians and one tiny, slim girl, I couldn’t help but notice, had the most enormous breasts with the tiniest bikini top which just about covered her nipples. All I could think was that it looked like a couple of Space Hoppers (if anyone remembers those bouncy things from years ago) sat abreast (excuse the pun) a couple of tiny hammocks. Her boyfriend seemed happy enough so that’s the main thing…

Back in Santa Marta, I thought it just might be too long in Taganga so returned to the hostel of yesterday, booked another two nights with him – he was overjoyed – he calls me Deneezzee – I call him Fabio and then I realised, I haven’t seen a sunset in a long time. I went to the beach, sat and waited, and as it set, the black kids who dive for tourists’ pesos just happened to be in my shot. 

One thought on “Intrepid Den: Santa Marta!

  1. Hi Den, a scintillating read as usual!
    I've been hitting 'refresh' for four weeks now without any luck. Finally the next installment is here!!!

    Can we get a picture of the famed coffee pot in the next post?

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