After a month here, I feel this is a place I could live, that I could sink into the rhythm of these days of fruit juice and writing. But in typical sailor style, we leave soon for Cartagena. I hope that it will have the feel of Santa Marta, that it too is a real place we can settle into for our last month in Colombia.
There’s a well traveled tourist track in Colombia. You fly into Bogota or arrive by bus from Ecuador. Some people go to Cali, but most head right to hip Medellin where they travel down to the Zona Cafetera, usually hitting Salento and the Corcora Valley. Then, on to the hot nights of Cartagena where they hop along the Caribbean coast, eventually, accidentally ending up in Santa Marta.
They don’t come to Santa Marta for the city, they come because they switch buses here on their way to the next place they’re going: La Guajira, Tayrona, Palomino, or the Lost City. In the hostels, everyone shares their stories, we swap notes on places we’ve accumulated with the arrogance of a few days spent wandering under mango trees. My story is always the wild card. There’s the weirdness that I’m traveling with my parents, the confusion of what it means to live on a boat, and the fact that I haven’t come from the south like everyone else, but from the east. Most of all though, they seem perplexed that I’ve been in Santa Marta for a month now. They all give me this look that says, you clearly don’t know what you’re doing if you have all of South America to see and you’re just staying in Santa Marta. It’s a look of sweet condescension, of sour concern.
The truth is, I love Santa Marta. I wasn’t expecting to. I read the reviews of the city and dreaded it — too much traffic, not much to see, mediocre beaches, urban sprawl. I looked at pictures of the city skyline and saw skeletons of half built skyscrapers and too many people on the beaches. Now we are leaving in just a few days, and I’m not ready to go.
I love the very ordinariness of this city. It’s a lived in place, not a restored version for the visitors, but a space of peeling paint, of morning arepas, of hawkers selling cheap leggings and necklaces, of Sunday beach days, of the shoe-shine man on the corner. It’s the kind of place that after a month here, I always see someone I recognize on my way along the broken brick streets. I love that when I’m in any of the plazas, if I look one way I can see the ocean, and if I look the other, I can see the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Santa Marta is a city of yellow butterflies, of afternoon thunderstorms, of crumbling colonial apartments painted papaya and lavender simultaneously. It’s a city where everyone complains about the heat. It’s a city of fresh green limonadas on the Malecon.
Here, I have grounded myself in the ritual of tracing geography. In the morning, I get up late and head to my favorite Colombian restaurant, Mi Oficina, where I eat an arepa con pollo with picante on top and drink freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast. I wander back along Calle San Antonio, pause in the Plaza de Simon Bolivar to people watch, and then back along the Malecon. In the afternoon, when it becomes so hot I can feel the sweat dampening the back of my hair, I walk to La Canoa, a pasteleria with a countertop built from a canoe, high white ceilings and flowering vines growing up the windows. There, air conditioning mixes with classical guitar notes, and I eat a croissant and drink a fresh strawberry and passionfruit smoothie while I write. Around four, when the heat begins to dim, I head home for drinks at the marina and dinner. We’ve been eating out a lot because food is so cheap here, and to give Mom a break from cooking. Our favorite place is a fabulous Mediterranean restaurant, called Ouzo, in the Parque de los Novios (the Plaza of the Lovers). There, we sit under almond trees where mosquitos bite our ankles and we watch the city come awake in the coolness of the dark plaza.