Wild Times in Colombia

Corroboree has been in Santa Marta, Colombia for three weeks now, and the single best word to describe this place is wild.

First, there’s the wind. Normally strong anyway at this time of year, the eastern trades whip around the northeastern shoulder of Colombia with special intensity, attributable, I think, to the looming Sierra Nevada Mountains. A separate range from the Andes and jutting 18,700’ into the sky, they form a majestic backdrop for Santa Marta and other coastal cities, but boy, do they stir up air. At night the wind blasts through the marina at a steady 30-40 knots, whistling around the masts and shaking the rigging like a ferocious dog assaulting a chew toy.

It doesn’t lighten much during the daytime either, and just walking along the dock gets you lashed and buffeted. It’s exhausting, and since the wind carries with it sand and dust from the beach and commercial port, keeping your boat clean is a Sisyphean task. Everything from the counter tops to the seat cushions to our bedsheets is repeatedly endowed with a coating of minute grit. “Just stop it already!” a frustrated fellow cruiser yelled at the elements. No boats will be arriving or departing while this tirade lasts.

Viewpoint from above Santa Marta. The skyscrapers of the city are left of center.

The second wild thing about Colombia is the wilderness itself. With over 300 types of ecosystems and geography ranging from ocean coastline to tropical rainforests to snow-capped mountains, it’s the second most biologically diverse country in the world after Brazil. It claims the most bird species of any country (over 1,800) and the most species of orchids. It ranks second in plants, amphibians, butterflies and freshwater fish. On maps, the green areas seem reassuringly vast. But mining, deforestation and illegal wildlife trafficking are severely threatening this richness. It makes me want to yell, “Just stop it already! Stop it!”

We’ve seen a tiny slice of this waning wilderness on two excursions inland. The first was to the mountain town of Minca, where we hiked through the forest to a rushing stream with small waterfalls, ate lunch at the guide’s bamboo-frame home, and visited a coffee plantation where the trees grow naturally in between the other vegetation. Our second trip was an all-day, 8.7 mile trek in Tayrona National Park. We strode, walked, plodded and, by the end of the day, limped up and down paths enclosed by dense foliage. We scrambled between trees and giant boulders, waded through and jumped over streams, and rested at a series of beautiful beaches.

Hiking in Tayrona National Park

In Tayrona, we also crossed paths with two groups of native people, the first at a forest clearing where a group of six or so had come to sell orange juice and coconut water to the daily line of trekkers, the second a family of five walking single file along the beach. The indigenous people have brown skin and straight black hair usually cut to shoulder length. They wear simple all-white clothing, pants and tunic for the men, a wraparound dress for the women. They live in a community within the park called Pueblito, and here and there along the main trail we spotted narrow paths ascending into the mountains. A world away, the past emerging into the present, then receding before our eyes.

The next wild thing about Colombia is the city life in Santa Marta. Home to more than 400,000 people, it sprawls from the ocean out to numerous suburbs. The major streets and avenues are lined with stores and jam packed with people, cars, buses, taxis and motor scooters. The two major stores we frequent resemble Walmart and offer complete grocery sections, clothing departments, toys, housewares and appliances. Smaller shops and vendors’ stalls sell everything from shoes, CDs, and leather goods to fruits, vegetables, ice cream and street food. The vendors’ stalls form a line along the outer half of every sidewalk, leaving pedestrians crammed between the carts and the bricks-and-mortar stores. Toss in roving vendors carrying stacks of hats or Styrofoam boards punched with sunglasses, and it’s bump and jostle all the way, not helped by the presence of two backpack-toting gringos.

Checkout lines at Exito, one of the big stores in Colombia where we buy groceries

Adding to the madhouse atmosphere is the noise. The usual rumble of traffic aside, driving in Colombia, as in many of the Caribbean islands we’ve visited, involves almost constant honking. Motor scooters honk to make pedestrians jump out of the way. Cars honk to pass motor scooters. Buses honk to merge in and out of traffic. Taxis honk at anyone who looks like they need a ride, especially, again, those backpack-toting gringos. On top of this cacophony, many stores employ barkers, armed with a microphone and amp, to stand in the doorway and bellow prices and the latest specials. Other establishments simply feel it is their duty to blast music at rock concert volume to entice and engage customers. We’ve had to cross the street to avoid hearing loss, while happy shoppers throng the same establishment.

36,000 Colombia pesos worth of groceries – $12 US

Finally, there’s one “wild” aspect of  Colombia that, once we figured out the exchange rate, truly amazed us: the astonishingly low prices of most foods and other goods. A six-pack of beer at 9,000 COP (Colombian pesos) translates to $3 US. Four tangerines from a street vendor at 1,000 COP equals 33 cents. Double-scoop ice cream cones are $1-$1.50. A new pair of cargo shorts for Eric was 30,000 COP or $10, and they are actually made in Colombia, not China. He paid a little over $4 at a tiny hardware for a ratchet wrench extension that in the US would have cost $12-15. Our dinner at a very nice restaurant with a delicious pizza of goat cheese, spinach and figs, an entrée-sized autumn salad with apples and walnuts, and a total of three beers cost all of $24. Some items are pricier, wine and imported canned goods for example. Never mind—we’re doing fine on ice cream and beer.

If you ever have an urge to take a walk on the wild side, come to Colombia.