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
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.
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.