Colombia’s virtually vacant paradise
The miles of palm-fringed sand near Palomino, Colombia, are devoid of development. (Brad Cohen)
The walk from the Colombian town of Palomino to the beach took 15 minutes along a scorching hot dirt road. The anticipation of cooling off in the ocean kept my feet moving in the crippling heat, but the first sight of water temporarily stopped me in my tracks. It was not the miles of palm-fringed, white sand or the ludicrously blue sea that stunned me — the Caribbean is littered with beaches fit for postcards — it was the fact that there was virtually no development in any direction and hardly a soul in sight.
Fishing boats battered by years of storms, saltwater and sun were strewn about the beach like stranded jellyfish. Further down, where the beach breaks and the Caribbean meets the Palomino River at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range in northeastern Colombia, young boys were casting fishing nets to catch the night’s dinner. And white-clad, long-haired Kogi and Arhuaco Indian tribes — visiting from their villages in the Sierra Nevada — were searching for seashells to crush and mix with coca, which would activate the leaves’ stimulating properties.
The strong sea can be unforgiving at this meeting point, but deeper in the jungle the river is tranquil and provides excellent views of the Sierra Nevada, the world’s highest coastal mountain range. There is no sign of life other than birds swooping around the surrounding trees, and on a clear day you can see Colombia's highest peaks – the snow-capped Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar, each more than 5,700m high.
Inner tubes can be hired in Palomino, and after an hour or two of floating, just before the cool river spits you into the warmer sea, there is a rope on the right side that you can use to do your best Tarzan flip into the water.
Palomino, a town of about 4,000 people — many of whom work as fisherman, farmers or craftsmen — is not much more than one road. There are a couple of guesthouses, a few places to hire a hammock, and there is little to do but relax and bask in the solitude, which is rarely interrupted, except on Sundays when smiling local families come out to enjoy a game of beach fútbol.
For dinner, cooking freshly caught fish and savouring it under the stars was more enjoyable than eating at the relatively pricey beachfront restaurants that cater to the area’s few tourists, but in town, there are also several less expensive restaurants that sell empanadas and roasted chicken dishes.
For a more cultural experience, check with the owners of La Sirena ecohostel or ask the locals about arranging a trip by horseback to stay in a traditional Kogi or Arhuaco village in the heart of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta national park. Learning about the ancient religious traditions they live by – such as the belief that they alone are the true guardians of the planet, responsible for maintaining the world's balance — is an opportunity few people get to experience. You can also arrange guided trips into Colombia’s most rugged region, La Guajira, a region of arid deserts and scrublands, snowy peaks and tropical rainforests that spans 8,000 square miles. The most popular destinations in La Guajira — which are still difficult to reach and far from other major destinations — are Punta Gallinas and Cabo de la Vela, beautiful, nearly deserted beaches populated by a variety of indigenous tribes.
About 25 km from Palomino, 30 minutes by bus, is the Quebrada Valencia park, where bamboo forests, enormous banyan trees and an impressive series of cascades provide shade from the oppressive heat. After a two to three kilometre walk along the path at the entrance of the park, a steep and slippery climb leads to several refreshing swimming holes and cliff-jumping opportunities. From here, you can head back to Palomino or catch a bus south to the livelier shores of Santa Marta or Taganga, 70km from Palomino and popular for sightseeing, scuba diving and partying.
Not long ago, Taganga was a sleepy fishing village -- a seaside retreat where in-the-know travellers could to tie up a hammock for a few days of tranquillity. But as tourism to the neighbouring city of Santa Marta increased, backpackers discovered Taganga, and soon the number of gringos began to compete with the number of locals, dive shops opened up all over town, and the sound of thumping reggaeton began drowning out the sound of waves crashing against the shore throughout night.
Palomino’s proximity to the unfriendly border with Venezuela and the town’s contentious past — caught in the middle of Colombia’s illegal drug trade and armed conflict between guerilla groups and paramilitaries — can probably claim some responsibility for keeping the town so vacant despite being so close to Santa Marta. But if the surge in tourism to Colombia’s Caribbean coast continues, it will not be long before developers discover Palomino and its unpopulated stretch of sand.