Day 7 |
Oct 15, 2013

Santa Marta, Colombia

By Chris Cutler, Naturalist

Co-ordinates: N 11º14', W 74º12'
Weather: Sunny, few scattered clouds
Air Temperature: 29 °C / 85 °F

Santa Marta - along Colombia’s extreme northern coast - was our entry point into this new country for the voyage. M/V Silver Explorer eased into the deepwater port and custom’s officials ‘cleared’ us efficiently. We divided into two groups, one on a half day ‘Historic Santa Marta’ tour, the other on a full day ‘Nature & Indigenous Culture’ tour, the latter of which I accompanied.

We were guided by a Diva (her real name) who at Tayrona National Park led us on a fabulous walk through a forest with plants such as the ‘Panama hat palm’, and along a gorgeous coastline with massive wave and wind sculpted granitic boulders. The park, from sea level to 900 meters, protects a high diversity of animal and plant species, many of them endemic due to the fact that the isolated Sierra de Santa Marta provides an exquisite laboratory for evolution. The number of species called “Santa Marta” thus-and-such is remarkable and I felt very lucky to be able to visit this special place. Among the highlights: a caiman languishing in a forest pool; brightly colored ‘mangrove crabs’; electric blue and green teid & huge tegu, lizards; stunning morpho and Heliconia sp. butterflies; a calling striped manakin, duetting bicolored wrens, and a giant gecko resting on rock.

We drove past scattered villages with fresh produce stands and banana plantations to reach the Don Diego River where “The Mission” was filmed. Up a series of narrow roads and then on foot for half an hour through forest, we arrived to a lovely spot called Taironaka. After a delicious Sancocho, a stew of chicken, plantain, and yucca, we visited the small on-site museum. In a thatched-roof round house where two Kogi men were engaged in grinding coca leaves, we learned about their culture. Hearing of the ceremonial importance of coca was fascinating and it contrasted sharply with the strife surrounding its derived manufactured drug - cocaine, in a country that had suffered so much due partly to this drug in the not-so-distant past. The Kogi are an indigenous group descended from the Tayrona who have managed to keep their culture intact in the face of powerful outside influences. They consider the earth a great mother, for whom the Kogi feel reverence and respect. We walked up a hill to see restored terraces and stone paths made in the past in what had been a sophisticated infrastructure of stone-works. There were many birds here, the iridescent rufous-tailed jacamar but one. Three species of macaws, a carefree guan, a whistling duck and others made up the retinue of free-range pets that wandered about the beautiful grounds on the edge of the river.

The other tour had taken in some fantastic sights as well: people-watching in Santa Marta, a gold museum, a 17th century cathedral, (the country’s oldest church), and La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino where the great “liberator of the Americas” Simon Bolivar died on December 17, 1830.

On the way back to the ship our driver Edgar found us stuck in traffic so he maneuvered out of the queue out and deftly wove the vehicle through the sidestreets of the city, turning this way or that whenever a one way street was not going our way. At the port a final gauntlet was getting past the stacks of Dole banana shipping containers that a loader was moving – though a kindly motorcycle police escort managed to take care of that. All back safely aboard, at recap we met our local agent Brendan who fielded questions about Colombia, a country with a rather sad past yet one that is now in a full-swing revitalization and embracing many new possibilities for a brighter future. We found the place marvelous and the locals both friendly and pleased to have us visit. Our first day in Colombia had provided us with a great introduction to a wonderful land.