Sunshine, coconuts and white sandy beaches – and wild crocodiles – and armed robbery – oh, Colombia.
I just returned from twelve glorious days on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. To say it was a tropical paradise would be no exaggeration. Cartagena de Indias is the home of the largest Spanish fort in the world and an old walled city reminiscent of a quaint European village, while powdery beaches and aquamarine waters are just a quick boat or bus ride away. But because Cartagena and Santa Marta are real Latin American cities, not resort destinations geared to tourists, there were also headaches and hardships. Obvio que si!
After swimming in this heavenly cove in Parque Nacional Tayrona, for example…. we stumbled into a six-foot crocodile creeping across the beach towards the sea.
(Being so close to this animal in the wild – without warning – was kind of shocking. We saw a park ranger and said ‘there’s a crocodile on the beach!’ And he said ‘si, viven en el parque.’ WELL. That wasn’t mentioned at the ranger station or in the Lonely Planet guide.)
Meanwhile, in Cartagena, one’s view of the sunset….. is often obstructed by the endless parade of persistent vendors selling ceviche, jewelry, foot massages and jet-ski rides.
I fell asleep under the palm trees in the Miami-style Rodadero of Santa Marta….
…. but heading back to the hotel, I walked right into a trap. While one guy threatened us with a knife, I felt another one running up from behind. No one was hurt, but it was frightening. After all, it’s been awhile since I’ve been robbed at knifepoint. Reminds me of my days in Nicaragua!
I guess your luck can change quickly in Colombia.
Heart-pounding encounters aside, here are the things I loved unabashedly about Colombia’s Caribbean coast:
The old walled city of Cartagena and, just outside it, the immense Spanish fort of Castillo de San Felipe -
Traditional coastal Colombian cuisine – arepas, plantains with beans, rice and fish, jugo de maracuya (and jugo de lulo, my favorite new tropical fruit) -
Lively streets -
Exotic marine life! -
On a more serious note: although I’ve been living in South America for years, this was my first time in Colombia, and it was an intriguing travel experience. The place felt both familiar and foreign – it’s another colorful, irregularly shaped piece in the cluttered patchwork of Latin America that I’m slowly coming to know. Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize in 1982, the year I was born; I remember reading a transcript of his acceptance lecture, entitled ‘The Solitude of Latin America.’ He talked about how the ‘rest of the world’ viewed his culture:
I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters… poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude… it is understandable that the rational talents on this side of the world, exalted in the contemplation of their own cultures, should have found themselves without valid means to interpret us. It is only natural that they insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest of our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them…
When I first read this speech, I didn’t understand what he was talking about.
Now I do, and I’m amazed by how, exactly thirty years later, his assessment of Latin America’s place in the world seems to hold true.
It’s worth your time to read his Nobel Lecture. (You can thank me later when you’re on a dance floor somewhere, culturally contextualizing Shakira, or raising an eyebrow at the Colombia jokes on Modern Family. You’ll be the hit of the party!)