Beaches Meet Carnaval on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast
Santa Marta, Colombia
The warm sea breeze hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane – we knew we had arrived on Colombia’s Caribbean coast before having yet seen it. We had been told to expect a laid back “Caribbean rather than Colombian culture” up north and were more than happy to oblige. For the following two weeks, Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest city, would be our base and launching point for the various destinations in the area.
Santa Marta’s best days were behind it – its beaches are next to large shipping boats, and its nightlife is limited to a few restaurants downtown. The closest beach worth visiting is at Taganga, a small fishing town now overrun by tourists. Taganga’s shore lies in a picturesque bay lined by hostels, bars, and dive shops. Even though gringos outnumbered locals, we still attracted their attention and a few came up to us to practice their English. But Taganga was small and crowded, and we felt that one afternoon was enough.
Colombia’s best beaches were rumored to be two hours east in Tayrona National Park, named for the indigenous Tayrona people that once lived there. The region was no-go paramilitary territory during the worst of Colombia’s violent years, but has since been cleared to become the country’s most visited park for both domestic and international visitors.
Unlike Taganga, we needed to expend some effort to get there. As the park lacks roads, visitors are limited to either walking or riding horseback along its miles of trails. After bussing to its entrance and being thoroughly searched by a soldier for “alcohol, drugs, and guns” we set off on a two hour walk to the beach. The trails were well marked and shared with horses. Although the park was home to several species of wildlife, the only animals we saw were a few birds and a handful of monkeys. (On the other hand we didn’t encounter any of the park’s poisonous snakes.)
Campsites were scattered throughout the beaches, with accommodations ranging from hammocks to pricey eco-lodges. We opted for hammocks near the beach La Piscina – but as the sun was setting we failed to notice that its mosquito nets were riddled with holes. That we discovered the hard way. Neither of us got much sleep and we woke up unrefreshed and covered with bites.
We tried to make the best of day by spending a few hours on the beach. Most of the park’s beaches had very strong currents that made them unsafe for swimming, but Capo de San Juan was the exception. Its waters were calm and crystal clear against the backdrop of palm trees and rising forested hills.
As nice as the beach was, we didn’t want to spend another night donating blood and returned to Santa Marta. Our hotel receptionist was surprised to see us back so early, but after we showed him our swelling bites he understood.
One of the world’s biggest Carnaval celebrations is held at Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth largest town two hours west of Santa Marta. We had looked into attending, but had scrapped it after finding the town booked solid except for a few expensive options. But on our bus back from Tayrona we met a few other travelers who were to partake in the festivities as a day trip from Santa Marta. That sounded like an even better option, and we signed up to join thirty others from their hostel.
We had been told that costumes were mandatory, but had no idea what that meant as Carnaval was no Halloween – only a few select outfits were for sale. Not seeing a future need for wigs or shiny rayon shirts, we instead bought festive t-shirts. Mine was emblazoned with the logo “Oy me llave” – apparently a catch phrase uttered by a Colombian soap opera star. Sarah had hers cut up, tied with ribbons, and covered with glitter for the occasion.
Our caravan of thirty people made it to Barranquilla around noon. Streets were closed down for the impending parade and people were already out and about getting hammered. Vendors sold rum and beer and empanadas and shish kabobs at every corner. Our group leader convinced a traffic cop to allow us near grandstands where others had paid big money.
Many people sprayed foam at each other and random passersby from high pressure canisters.
Sarah and I initially refused to partake – we just minded our own business while avoiding the fracas. Then some kid who was wearing the same shirt as me thought that was an invitation to spray in our direction.
I acquired my own can, and from then on it was a free for all.
The parade had floats, bands, dancers in costume, and dancers displaying a lot of skin.
We never did get an explanation of the two most common costumes: women in red polka dot Minnie mouse dresses with black wigs and men with colorful elephant masks.
Barranquilla doesn’t get many tourists aside from Carnaval, so the local kids were very excited to speak with us. Teenagers spoke slowly and patiently listened to our broken Spanish, asking where we were from and how many people we had come with. A bubbly, high-pitched six year old thought she was having a detailed conversation with Sarah, never realizing in a half hour that Sarah couldn’t understand anything she said.
Five hours later as the parade ended, we left for Santa Marta, again physically exhausted, where we were to remain for a few more days to recuperate.