Sat at the mouth of the river Magdalena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and nestled between Cartagena and Santa Marta, Barranquilla is the home to the country’s oil industry. Whilst Cartagena and Santa Marta both receive a hefty amount of gringo footfall Barranquilla (pronounced Barran-kee-ya) remains for most little more than a 10 minute bus changeover between the two and few ever bother to explore the city except maybe for its annual festival when accommodation sells out and the streets apparently descend into beautiful carnage. Detractors assured me “It’s just a big city” or “Barranquilla is one long hot traffic jam” (Lonely Planet) and advised me to stay on the bus. (Yet funny how nobody ever says “It’s a just a beach, sandy, hot and crowded with red, saggy flesh” isn’t it?).
Barranquilla is the home of Shakira, the current Miss World (who had just been crowned Miss Colombia when I visited) and it is where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was schooled so considering the city’s connection with 3 out of the 5 world famous Colombians (the other 2 of course been Carlos Valderama and Pablo Escobar) I felt that the place must have something about it so decided to spend a night before I headed to the backpacker playground of Santa Marta.
I was only able to locate one hostel so made straight for the Meeting Point. Its set in a quiet, leafy suburb amongst detached, Miami style, houses set behind closed gates. The hostel is essentially an open, family home ran by the Italian owner and his Colombian wife. Its relaxed, welcoming feel provides a blissful respite from the harsh heat of the Barranquian afternoon. The hostel was quiet when I arrived, the only other two guests been a French poker player and a shell-shocked, mid-western American who had never left the States before and was here to essentially woo/vet a would-be bride he had met through an online agency. After a cold shower (running hot water is neither available nor necessary on Colombia’s Caribbean coast) I asked the owner what exactly there was to see and do in Barranquilla. His chief recommendation was that I check out “La Boca” (the mouth) near The Las Flores barrio, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of town built along the long peninsula where the river meets the sea. He advised that the barrio, whilst very poor was perfectly safe during the day. I therefore decided I would visit early the next morning to ensure my safe escape before darkness.
The next morning I awoke to find another guest had checked in so we took breakfast together. He had arrived late on a flight en route to along the coast and had no intention of staying in Barranquilla beyond breakfast before he caught his bus to Taganga where he intended to get stoned and scuba dive. He was on a year out “doing” South America, he had loved Bolivia yet firmly advised that there was “nothing to do in Argentina…except smash Coke in Buenos Aires”. Noted.
I took a taxi to the barrio and upon stating the address the driver had to triple check where I wanted to go as in bewilderment and disbelief. As we rode through Barranquilla I saw the spoils of the burgeoning oil trade, high rise apartments being constructed on every turn and scores of students sat in the cool café’s which clustered around the cities countless Universities. Eventually we reached the outskirts and the road abruptly gave way to a mud track; this was where the affluence and modernity ended. “Aqui” the driver gestured either unable, unwilling or both to go any further. I must say at this point I began to question my choice of activity for the day and did consider asking the driver just to turn around. It was a proper barrio, a shanty town settlement built haphazardly by displaced people using whatever materials they had to hand and I felt somewhat on edge. Nevertheless I paid the fair, got out and offered a prayer to whatever Saint I felt desperate enough at that point to believe in.
Some of the natives lazily hung around the one storey, breezeblock houses and tiendas. They eyed me curiously but without any hint of malevolence. There are 3 ways which one can access the peninsula. (i) On foot. However this is time consuming, no fun and furthermore deprives the area of one of its few income opportunities which are (ii) motor taxi (illegal motorbike pillion) or (iii) railroad car up the old, decrepit but still functioning track. Whilst (iii) is of course the most novel option the conductor could not justify the use of petrol for the sake of one passenger (besides that he seemed quite content to continue lazing in the sun) so directed me to his jovial & well fed nephew and his pride and joy in two wheel form. I hopped on the back of the bike without as much as a helmet and off we went.
We bounded along the strait, long, narrow peninsula following the old railroad line bouncing up and down as we made our way over and across the metal tracks; it was a bumpy ride and I knew my arsebone was going to punish me the next day. We sped passed derelict, decrepit old buildings be they houses or storehuts, which had long ago been abandoned by whoever had inhabited them after they ceased to need them to do whatever they had been doing in them and they had since fallen into absolute disrepair. It was like a land time had forgot, a quaint, little ghost town haunting a 20 meter wide stretch of land sticking out 2 miles into the sea.
On one side was the vast expanse of the Caribbean Sea casting slow waves with the city skyline distantly visible. On the other side was the wide and tranquil Magdalena. As we progressed further and further along, the sleepy river became ever wider and grander and its temperament ever more animated. Its currents stirred faster and before long waves began forcing themselves upstream breaking and crashing against its flow. Eventually the river became indistinguishable from the sea, it had become the Caribbean and before me there was only one great, big, blue expanse stretching out into eternity (or at least Cuba…). It was magnificent and forced me to question, “At exactly what point does a river become a sea?” and other assorted philosophical riffing’s on the concept of oneness. My driver stopped and went for a lie down in one of the derelict, flimsy shacks whilst I walked up and down the tracks taking pictures, watching iguanas & sea birds and wishing I had applied more sun screen that morning.
The end of the line
In one of the bombed out huts an enterprising young man had fashioned a little tienda dispensing cold beverages (even beer if you want it) which after a 25 minute ride exposed and wide open to the merciless heat was very welcome. I bought my driver a Coca-Cola (no way was he having beer, he had to get us back yet and the ride was bumpy enough as is it was) and I sat down to scribble in my journal. Whilst there was clearly enough visitor traffic to justify a few waiting moto taxi’s and even a little, makeshift shop I had hardly seen another soul all day. I reflected on how many bodies would at this moment be crammed like Hillsborough sardines onto Playa Grande 2 hours back along the coast in Cartagena whilst nobody came to see, to experience, this. But that made it all the more special; it was one of those unexpected perfect moments that are like little gifts from the heavens just for you (and now kind of for you my dear reader…).
After 30 minutes staring at the sea it was time to head back. I fastened my headphones, set the “Drive” soundtrack (which I had been playing relentlessly) back the start and off we went.
When we got back to the start of the track a teenage boy wheeled up with his rusty peddle rickshaw and offered to take me back to the main road for 5 mil from where I could try hail a bus and that was that. Well almost as I still had to get back to my hostel yet which was not going to be easy considering I had no idea whatsoever where I was. As it was I picked a bus (based on pure gut feeling) hailed it down and rode it until I got somewhere vaguely familiar. Fortunately the streets in Barranquilla, like in most Colombian cities, are numbered so by use of logic and simple numeracy (I did get a D in Maths) I was eventually able to find my way home.
Oh I never ran into Shakira or Miss World so I’m still single ladies. Get in touch.