Santa Marta, Colombia; Glorious Beaches & Crazy Cab Drivers
It’s the afternoon when Dave and I arrive in the bustling city of Santa Marta. We’re still on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, having travelled east from Cartagena. It’s still ridiculously hot, which is not enjoyable when we are carrying thirteen kilos each and trying to find our hostel from the bus station. In the end, we opt for flagging down a passing taxi, which turns out to be the right thing to do as it’s at least a ten minute walk to where we’re staying. It also means we’re treated to our first taste of traffic and crazy cab drivers in Santa Marta. As far as I can make out, the general highway code here is:
- Do not stay in a lane, despite there being clear road markings to indicate them. In fact, straddle both whenever possible
- Beep your horn at every passing car, truck and bicycle
- Accelerate very fast at all times
- Slam your brakes on at the last minute when approaching traffic lights and other vehicles
- If there’s a gap in the traffic do your utmost to shove the front of your car into it and repeat number 2 until you can pass
- Overtake on corners
- Petrify foreign backpackers with erratic and dangerous driving, and do not give them seatbelts
Overall, getting into a taxi in Santa Marta is like stepping into a Grand Prix crossed with Whacky Racers!
Needless to say we’re glad when we make it safely to our hostel, which is actually more like a boutique hotel. It’s called La Villana and has the cleanest, nicest and most comfortable dorm rooms we’ve seen so far. We decide to base ourselves in Santa Marta for three days as although the city itself doesn’t have anything to offer (it’s a hectic, dusty and built-up city with a fairly dirty beach), there are lots of surrounding places to visit.
Bahia Concha – a beach in the bay
The next day we tick off the first on our list of to dos while here. We visit the Tayrona National Park, which sits about an hour north of Santa Marta. We pay for a tour through our hostel to one of its beaches, Bahia Concha, and are promised round-trip transportation in a 4×4 and entrance fee to the beach as part of the deal. The 4×4 turns out to be a taxi and round two of the pointless Santa Marta Grand Prix takes place, much to our delight.
Having said that, once we leave the city and start following the dirt track roads to the park, the drive becomes much more enjoyable. As we pass through small towns where the houses are generally made from thick grey concrete slabs, haphazardly thrown together and left unpainted, we get a glimpse into the life of rural Colombians. Everything about the towns seem makeshift. From the barely there pavements, to the restaurants set up under the shelter of wood and tarpaulin, with plastic chairs. Advertising is scarce, but the Coco Cola logo can be seen painted onto the side of numerous dusty buildings.
What strikes me the most, is the way everyone is outside. Groups of children run in the streets, as young as four or five and with parents nowhere to be seen, while the majority of residents just sit in the open air. Many sit on their own doorsteps, or on the pavement just outside. Some are alone and some with family. Some play card games, but others just sit and watch the world go by. I find myself in awe of how basic their lifestyles are and wonder, “Are they happy?”. It’s a sweeping thought of course, I’m sure some are and others aren’t, but with a lack of material possessions and technological distractions from each other, I can’t help but wonder.
After an hourlong journey we pull up at Bahia Concha. It is stunning. The beach is set in a bay lined by lush green rainforest. The water is still and the view unobstructed. What’s more, there are butterflies and crabs everywhere! Swarms of butterflies twinkle in the sunlight, while large yellow crabs scuttle amusingly across the sand. With not many people around, Dave and I are able to spend the entire day in complete relaxation, until our driver arrives to take us back to the hostel.
The downside of Santa Marta
Our relaxation continues into the evening, but a Canadian guy from our dorm room is not so lucky. Around 6pm he returns to tell us he has just been mugged at knifepoint only one block away. The muggers have taken his iPhone – luckily that’s all he was carrying. Dave and I make a mental note not to wander the streets here after dusk, nor carry valuables on us unless really necessary. We’ve heard similar stories from other backpackers in the area and in the nearby fishing village of Taganga, which a shame but not unsurprising given that we’re in places that we couldn’t have stepped foot in ten years ago.
I don’t understand Spanish rap
A lot of backpackers head to Taganga for its beach, diving and party hostels. Neither Dave or I scuba dive and we’re not overly fussed about hauling our stuff twenty minutes down the road just for a party hostel, so we decide to jump on a local bus for 300 pesos and spend our next couple of days on the beach. The local bus is …an experience. It’s humid, the roads are jammed with cars and there are no bus stops; you simply jump on and off wherever you like. The bus drivers also accept small change from local food sellers who jump on and try to sell you empanadas, water and grimy-looking local fruits.
This particular bus also lets a couple of young rappers on board, who crank up a boom-box and start performing improv rap, picking passengers as the victims of their punchlines. Of course, at 5″11 with blonde hair I stand out like a sore thumb, so within seconds I have the attention of one lad. He stands in front of me, rapping in Spanish, while the bus passengers look on. I try to avoid eye contact, but after a few sentences he stops, and waits. Shit, he wants me to answer! I panic and look at Dave, hoping he’s understood what was said. No luck, he’s as bewildered as me. I know basic Spanish, but at this moment I can’t even remember how to say, “I don’t speak Spanish”. The lad realises I have no clue what he’s said and continues rapping at me, causing the bus of locals to laugh. I’ve clearly been the butt of his joke but we tip him a few pesos regardless and hurry off the bus at Taganga.
The main beach of Taganga is nothing special. It’s quite small, with hard and litter-filled sand in most places. There are a few restaurants and bars that line the strip and most have sunbeds which are free when you buy a drink, including water. It’s the perfect place to spend our last couple of days on the Colombian coast, topping up our tans and preparing for the next leg of our journey; an 11-hour overnight bus to the adventure capital of the country, San Gil. Subscribe to this blog to find out what we get up to!