On the Colombian coast, beauty and gritty charm

It’s not called the Parque de Los Novios – Park of the Newlyweds –
for nothing. Young couples lock arms as they stroll past rows of freshly
planted flowers. A Sinatra love ballad sung in Spanish echoes from a corner
dive bar. Aside from a few moustached, sombrero-clad men playing a board game,
it seemed as if everyone on this breezy August evening was on a romantic sabbatical.

Yet this square in the centre of
Santa Marta, a port city along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, was not always
a streetlamp-lighted refuge of romance. Just a few years back, the park was a
tumbledown area trafficked mostly by prostitutes and petty criminals.

Wedged between the sea and the
snow-capped Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta peaks, the city may be Colombia’s
oldest, but it has always been seen as the grittier and more industrial
counterpart to nearby Cartagena – at best, a stopover point for visitors
looking to trek through Tayrona National Park or hike to the Lost City, a
well-known archaeological site nearby.

“Until five years ago nobody would
come here because of the guerrillas,” said Michael McMurdo, a New York
City-trained chef who recently opened a Mexican restaurant, Agave Azul, in
Santa Marta. “While there is still some sketchy stuff going on, I like it here
because it still feels real and Colombian.”

The town’s transformation began
with a government crackdown on illegal drug and paramilitary activity in the
region. The efforts have paid off: Tourism has now replaced crime as Santa
Marta’s claim to fame. The number of international visitors to Colombia in 2009
spiked 17 percent from the previous year, helped along by the emergence of
former rebel hideouts like Santa Marta as new tourist destinations.

The Colombian government has also
spent plenty of money to revamp the city’s parks and convert streets into
pedestrian zones. But what the government started, a wave of polyglot
businesspeople like McMurdo – restaurateurs, hoteliers, real estate developers
and night life impresarios – has continued, helping to resuscitate Santa
Marta’s colonial centre. Shops selling religious iconography and smoky
billiards halls are giving way to Tuscan-style hotels and tapas spots that
double as jazz bars. Even the once-grimy boardwalk now feels more like a
smaller-scale version of Rio’s Ipanema.

Perhaps the perfect monument to
this city’s rebirth is a gleaming new marina that anchors the waterfront; huge
and visually spectacular, it wouldn’t look out of place in Dubai. The terminal,
which opened this month, can handle more than 250 yachts and super-yachts.

On a recent late-summer evening, a
stylish crowd of Colombians and expatriates mingled at Ben&Josep’s, a new
steakhouse run by a Spanish-Belgian duo, down the boardwalk from the marina.
The steakhouse is just one of the additions to the city’s seaside area, which
has been spiffed up in recent years with greenery and dotted with statues of
shapely, warrior-like indigenous women (also found in every souvenir shop
around town).

Away from the beach, the city
abounds with Spanish colonial charm. Among the streets off Parque Simon
Bolivar, wanderers will find a whitewashed cathedral that claims to be South
America’s oldest. It may, in fact, be a 17th-century amalgamation of architectural
influences, rather than the original structure, but the chandeliers and marble
altar are still worth a peek.

To stay cool, visitors can grab
some coconut water, sold just outside the cathedral, or rest in the shade of
the patio of the nearby Juan Valdez Cafe, Colombia’s go-to coffee chain.

Of course there’s more to Santa
Marta’s culinary offerings than coffee. The jumble of fare here is as
multicultural as the city’s mix of ethnicity and musical influences; African,
Caribbean, European and Latin flavours vie for space on menus. At Gourmet Plaza
Bistro, where the decor includes old TVs and typewriters, diners can sample
home-cooked pechuga ricotta, a Colombian-Mediterranean hybrid, as well as tasty
crepes. For gourmet ceviche, head to Donde Chucho, an upscale restaurant on a
corner of Parque de Los Novios.

The city’s reputation as an
up-and-coming party spot is also growing, with bars and clubs of all stripes
seeming to open weekly. On a late-night jaunt through downtown, one is as
likely to hear European techno as the native rhythms of cumbia or vallenato
music.

That Latin flavour is evident at La
Puerta (the Door), a chic dive bar with retro iconography plastered across its
walls of red, yellow and blue (the national colours), where the floor fills
with dancers gyrating to the sounds of Colombian rap and reggaeton.

Santa Marta also benefits from the
bounty of virgin tropical forests just kilometres from the city centre. For a
relaxing getaway, grab a taxi or mini-bus to Taganga, a laid-back oceanside
hamlet ringed by a horseshoe-shaped canopy of lush green hills. The strip of
sand in town feels more like a dirt driveway than a tropical beach. But the
sunsets are breathtaking, especially from the rooftop bar of the Mirador de
Taganga Hotel along the town’s southern fringe. The Caribbean waters there are
also perfect for scuba diving.

On the other side of Santa Marta
lies El Rodadero, a Cancun-like strip of stylish restaurants, open-air markets
and high-rise hotels along beaches that fill with well-to-do locals on
weekends.

But aside from the protected shores
of Tayrona National Park, the beaches around Santa Marta are not always the
best places to relax. There is the occasional whiff of sewage, and vendors who
can bombard tourists with offers of chairs, massages and – yes – drugs.

Though Santa Marta is no longer
plagued by the kidnappings and killings that kept tourists away for decades,
petty crime remains a problem. It’s not unusual to hear stories of police
officers planting drugs on tourists to exact bribes, or of pickpockets roaming
the boardwalk. But the city has made great strides toward putting its bloody,
drug-riddled past behind it.

Evan Dore, a shaggy-haired native
of San Francisco, remembers driving through this part of Colombia four years
ago with his brother, Ryan, in a 1981 VW bus. The pair left unimpressed. But
two years later they decided to return and restore an 85-year-old mansion, now
La Brisa Loca, a hostel and bar aimed at backpackers. They were attracted by
Santa Marta’s authenticity, which it has maintained despite the recent development.

“The city is full of people going
about their daily lives, going to work or selling things on the street with
almost no interest in a foreigner walking around,” Dore said. “Santa Marta is the
real South America I was searching for.”

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