It’s fair to say that few travelers would visit Santa Marta if it weren’t for its proximity to Tayrona National Park, Cuidad Perdida, and the beach town Taganga. Like most foreigners, I go to Santa Marta thinking of it only as a base to get to somewhere else, and I leave little room in my itinerary to explore the city. When I arrive, I quickly see that I’ve misjudged it. It’s a city that sneaks up on you with nothing spectacular, but that’s precisely what makes it so appealing in the end.
As I walk through neighborhood I’m staying in on the edge of town, I see people sitting on their porches, doing nothing and watching the day go by. If it weren’t for the tall iron gates in front of their yards, I could almost feel like I was back in Cuba.
It’s a strange juxtaposition, those iron bars and the casual way people are passing the afternoon behind them. It’s a hint that rougher days in Santa Marta aren’t that far in the past and have possibly seeped into the present. It also hints at charming persistence of people who are going to live how they want to live, even if they have to put up iron bars to keep doing so.
One man sitting on his porch waves at me. He’s obviously curious about the newcomer. He asks me a string of questions, and my ability to give him basic responses in Spanish surprises me. Eventually, the language barrier puts an end to our small talk and I continue walking to the main street.
Cars zoom by and it’s the kind of street where you need to walk side by side with a knowing local to make it across. But when a few of them point to the traffic and throw up their hands in frustration, I can tell that even the residents are troubled by this road.
I finally make it other side and catch one of the cabs that line up in front of the mall. As I step inside the taxi, I realize that I’m not sure where I want to go and I don’t have my guidebook. I request to go to el centro, hoping that there will be a distinct town center where I can wander around.
We reach the small colonial section of Santa Marta where the streets narrow and the buildings take on more vibrant hues. It reminds me of the candy-colored historical center of Salvador, Brazil — an effervescent place that sparked my passion for Latin America.
After failing to say exactly where I want to go, the cab driver drops me off somewhere near the ocean, and I realize that I probably should’ve asked to go to la playa in the first place. The sun is just beginning to sink behind El Morro, a small island off the coast, and the beach is busy yet swathed in evening calm. This is the perfect time to be here. I walk along the sea wall and once again, Santa Marta feels familiar. There are a few highrises in the distance and waterfront ends at hills that impose upon the ocean. It feels like a more industrial and less glitzy Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro.
I visit an artisan market on a pier and have my first glimpse of Colombia’s tropical aesthetic. There are woven hats and colorful beads and hammocks to laze away in on hot days. Cacti line the pier, piercing through the humid air with the ocean as a backdrop. For a moment, I feel like I’m on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
Families and friends have gathered on the waterfront to watch the sunset or take a dip in the fading light. It’s so relaxed here and it seems like a city that’s used to tourists, but doesn’t rely on them in the same way that more touristy places do. Santa Marta welcomes the foreigners who arrive on their way to nearby destinations, but it doesn’t cater to them. It feels like a place where you could let go of your list of things to see and just be part of the city for awhile.
On the morning I leave Santa Marta, I take one last walk to the mall to use the ATM. My new neighbor is outside as always, and I stop to chat with him one last time. He introduces me to one of his real neighbors and asks me what I’m up to. In broken Spanish, I explain that I’m leaving for Cartagena in a few hours. As he says goodbye and wishes me well, I get the sense that he’s used to the constant coming and going of people who never stay for long. Another day, another traveler.
I’d rather not be that kind of traveler, and many things about Santa Marta feel right. It’s welcoming and there’s a lot of warmth in the way that people interact with each other. I like the city’s simplicity and how it feels like an unpolished amalgamation of other places I’ve loved. I think could stay awhile here; be more than just a transient and get to know the city and its people better. But while I have more time in Colombia, it’s not enough time. So like most travelers in Santa Marta, I just keep moving along.