Santa Marta was our home for a month and the base for a few thrilling inland explorations to other parts of Colombia. It was not a perfect home, yet one we will always remember with much tenderness.
Notorious for its violent winds gathering speed down the slopes of the highest coastal mountain in the world- Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta- the place was nicknamed “La Loca” (The Crazy One).
Santa Marta was extreme heat day and night, loud music booming until the morning hours from the terrace of the restaurant facing the anchorage, the trades carrying coal dust from the commercial port which is upwind from the anchorage, covering the entire boat in a thick black layer of dirt.
But Santa Marta was also a safe place to leave the boat at the marina and fly to Bogota or go hiking and camping in Tayrona for a few days, or even leave the boat at anchor for a few hours and go on a daytrip to Minca’s Waterfalls; a town with a big market and lots of shops within a walking distance where we could stock up the boat with provisions for the remote San Blas islands.
Santa Marta is the most ancient European settlement on the South American continent, housing the oldest church built by the Spanish colonizers in the center of the city. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was the most important port for the Spanish galleons landing here in search of gold, but after numerous pirate attacks, Cartagena de Indias became the main port on the Caribbean cost.
Santa Marta is also the final resting place of Simon Bolivar- the most important figure in Latin American history who brought independence from Spanish rule to the entire region. Bolivar liberated Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia from the Spanish monarchy and founded the first union of independent nations in Latin America, Gran Colombia, presiding over it from 1819 to 1830. He died on December 17th of 1830 in Santa Marta’s Hacienda Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino, today a museum and a botanical garden.
Santa Marta of today is a noisy busy town with crazy traffic and insane scorching-hot-windy climate. It is a major port where big cargo ships arrive daily to load tons of coal and tons of bananas – some of the region main products of export. The streets are populated by a mixture of locals, tourists and indigenous Arhuacos and Kogis, descendants from the Tayrona people who ruled the highlands before the colonization. They live up in the mountains in traditional communities cultivating potatoes, pumpkins, corn, beans, yucca, guava, oranges and coca (which they us for tea and chewing and for traditional ceremonies). They also make traditional bags knitted from wool and sell them to tourists. We got one for our collection of traditional bags from different places of the world. The Arhuacos and the Kogis still dress in the clothing of their ancestors, which they make themselves, and when they visit the city on business, they walk the streets proudly wearing an expression of disgust from modern civilization. I asked many if they would kindly allow me to take their picture, but except of a couple of rare occasions, they usually refused very annoyed and I had to steal a few portraits from far away.
Images from Santa Marta
There was one last place we had to visit while in Santa Marta before we continue sailing to Cartagena and then on to Panama. Aracataca.
Aracataca is a river town founded in 1885 in the Department of Magdalena, 80 km south of Santa Marta. In the late 19th century, the infamous United Fruit Company supported by the Colombian government colonized the land and started cultivating bananas in the wide region, exploiting and terrorizing the local workers, marking forever the history of the place with violence and injustice. After the downfall of the company because of the worldwide recession and the WWI, the town remained hidden behind a curtain of forgetfulness.
Aracataca also happens to be the birthplace of a monumental literary figure as well as the inspiration for the fictional metaphorical town of Macondo. Gabriel García Márquez was born in this hot dusty village surrounded by banana plantations in 1927 and grew up in his grand-parent’s big old house listening to the fantastic stories and superstitions of the ever-present Guajiro Indians employed there as servants. These stories, along with his grandfather ‘s tales of the horrors of war and his grandmother’s way of transforming the fantastic and the improbable into the irrefutable truth, left a great imprint on his mind and later influenced his writings.
Márquez became journalist in Bogota and wrote short stories and non-fiction works, as well as novels, which brought him international acclaim and immortal fame. He introduced a new style in literature labeled as “magical realism” – using magical, surreal elements in realistic or even historical situations and events, transforming the extraordinary into something perfectly natural. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982 and became one of the world’s all-time best authors and “the greatest Colombian who ever lived” (Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia).
He also became the reason why I learned Spanish and was finally able to read my favorite books in their original language. These books have had an enormous influence on my life, on the way I perceive the world and reality, and the way I feel. Nothing else has thought me more about myself than the stories and the characters created by Gabriel García Márquez.
I was 16, back in Bulgaria, when my mother gave me a book to read, her favorite book. It was a Bulgarian translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It changed my life.
The story took me to, a village consisting of “twenty houses of mud and canabrava, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs”, a place that didn’t exist in a world “so new that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point”–like a child. Like an early ancestor lacking language. A place I was drawn to ever since. I have been away from home and homeland for many many years, yet my most tangible nostalgia has always inexplicably been for Macondo.
So you can imagine what it meant for me to visit Aracataca. It was my personal pilgrimage, in search of the reality behind the magic. And vice-versa.
In Aracataca I didn’t expect to find blue dogs and very old men with very big wings. There is nothing extraordinary about Aracataca, except the unbelievable heat. The most surreal thing we encountered there was a 60-years old truck transporting tons of bricks and its 60-years-old truck driver both still in good shape. I just wanted to feel the dusty air, the extreme dry sun of many summers full of mangoes; to occupy and to go through the space of other times.
Inside the house-museum Gabriel García Márquez which was reconstructed after the original house has decayed, I cried in front of a quote on the wall from One Hundred Years of Solitude like someone who has found something only to realize it is lost forever. I wept until I felt a great burden had fallen off my chest and I was ready to go on.