SANTA MARTA, Colombia- “Who couldn’t like Santa Marta?” Wade Davis spoke in a film about the Kogi indigenous people of northeastern Colombia.
My reply: “Me.”
Against my own position that a traveler needs at least three days in any location to be warranted an opinion on it, my visit to Santa Marta lasted less than a half hour before jumping a taxi and escaping to the bus terminal. Few places on this planet have struck me as being so awful, onerous, and, yes, dangerous, upon arrival.
The stories and travel warnings have been going out about Santa Marta for years, testaments from people who have been robbed at gun point in broad daylight circulate the traveler communities, but, like most of these scardy cat warnings, I could not honor them until it almost happened to me.
My wife, daughter, and I arrived at the market in Santa Marta by bus from Palomino. We were dropped off near Calle 11 and made our way for the hotels scattered on Calle 10C. On our map, these two streets run parallel to each other, so when I found Calle 10 right next to Calle 11, I concluded that it was our street — though it did not have the “C” suffix attached to it. Perhaps it turns to 10C farther down?
We walked toward the coast on Calle 10 with all of our baggage. With each block the scene before us grew worse — garbage, disrepair, defunct lowlifes sitting on curbs yelling out to us. The shit of Latin America to the tenth power.
“This area isn’t looking too good,” my wife commented.
“Maybe Calle 10 doesn’t turn into Calle 10C,” I admitted a possible error in my judgement.
But we were just a few blocks from being near where the hotels we were shooting for would have been, so we kept walking. It was the middle of the day — maybe noon — not a bad time for walking around most places on the planet.
Then a large, tough looking guy with a machete jumped out in front of us. But as he swung his large blade in our faces, he did not issue threats but a warning:
“You can’t walk here,” he spoke boldly.
Get the f’ck out of my way, I muttered to myself and kept walking. It is not often that I stop in my tracks and listen to men swinging machetes, but when I saw what he was referring to I stopped dead and stood at attention.
Before us, on the next street corner was a group of maybe 20 young men, they were shirtless, looked listless, and appeared to be waiting for us. I have to admit that they looked pretty f’cking tough, not the crowd I want to be walking through with all of my baggage, money, wife, and kid.
The big guy with the machete again jumped in front of me and held out his blade sideways as though it was a gate. He was nearly using force to prevent me from walking into eminent doom.
“You can’t walk here, they will kill you, they will rob you” he spoke in Spanish as he swiped his forefinger quickly across his neck. “Where are you going?”
I told him the name of the hotel we were making way for.
“It is on this street, right?”
“No, it is three blocks that way,” he pointed to the west. “Follow me, I will show you.”
The guy with the machete then led the way to the nearest street corner and pointed us in the proper direction of our destination.
“Walk three corners then turn right.”
We thanked him, and continued on. I admit, being saved by a street tough flailing a machete was a new experience.
We then found the street we should have been on. We looked down it and it did not look much better than the area where we were nearly assaulted. I looked at my wife, she looked at me.
“Do you really want to stay here?” she asked.
To be honest, I can go anywhere in the world, and, without a higher motive, I am not going to stay in a city where a wayward walk of only three blocks can land me in the middle of a street gang. We got out of Santa Marta.