Colombia: A Butt In A Chair Or Hammock In Taganga

Returning to Santa Marta, the coke haven (for others) I had experienced before held no appeal to me. Instead of looking for another spot in the unappealing old district I immediately decamped to nearby Taganga. That part of town (considered its own town by most) was a well-known hippie hangout well on its way to grand commercialization. For the moment, though, the idea of handy fruit juice, beer, and hammock sounded pretty good.

I quickly made my way to the French hostel Divanga, soon having my own dormitory room for the price of a bed by sheer luck. That'd last for four days, too. I'd have to enjoy it while it lasted. With high season approaching, the rates would double - and I'd have to find somewhere else. It'd be hard to pay double, only getting the same thing from one day to the next.

Now having done my one chosen tourist activity known beforehand for all of Colombia - The Lost City - I looked now to establish a rhythm for reading and trumpet in this gringo town. I was, after all, in the coastal land of vallenato music, a soft-sounding mix of German beer hall accordion, calypso, plus Latin romance. That could help as a quieting backdrop, no?

Now I took to reading with a vengeance, too, if only to drop my backpack's weight in reducing my horde to two or three books. I had read Huck Finn in Ciudad Perdida, rediscovering a gem. It was time to take to other classics like Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, or Sun Tzu's El Arte de la Guerra (The Art Of War). Then, of course, it'd be more of Mark Twain in the form of his trio-ed collection of Pudd'nhead Wilson, The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg, and Those Extraordinary Twins. The pick of the litter was the latter.

A score, found in town from the slim pickings available, was Outliers, however. Here was yet another fascinating Malcolm Gladwell book, too quickly over with when I read it in practically one sitting. That one would be in and out of my hands before two moons graced the sky. Sigh. On its account, in any event, I mused on how on the one hand there was something to be said about large and spacious print in books... while on the other it wasn't satisfying to carry around a book that wouldn't last but a day.

Taganga, this town or suburb adjoined around a promontory with Santa Marta, was a place of only a mere 5000 residents. They spread themselves out chiefly among a 10x4 grid of rought streets, with more dusty roads trailing back toward the hills. The headcount advertised both did and didn't correspond with the look of the place, though.

It didn't matter - it indeed WAS the gringo town it was said to be. Taking heed of this, and any according economic benefits, the government in Santa Marta now was subjecting its waterfront to a massive and fast facelift. Cruise ships were now migrating from Cartagena to Santa Marta for the first time - surely the hippies had stumbled onto something that could turn into big bucks.

Thus numerous industrial-strengthed indigenous huts being erected along a new boardwalk, complete with brickworked pavement, would transform the look appropriately. These were the last days of the "old" Taganga, in other words. Although the project had been plodding along behind schedule for some time, the pace had changed by the time I hit town. With Christmas and the high tourist season approaching, a multitude of workers now had been scrounged up.

Off the waterfront's mayhem, the paved roads were currently few. I surmised that they would likely - quickly? - change next. For the time being there'd remain an impressive amount of rubble about all of them. This detritous was often seen stacked up to clear the road, demarcating dusty yards by default or design. When the wind picked up, howling as the day progressed, these alleys would see whipping dust in every direction.

Based on the waterfront, and the offshoots of construction into the neighborhood, it looked like any roads repaved would be of brick soon enough. I was interested to know where all the rubble had come from on the streets in the first place, though. The rocks and boulders were obviously deposited originally by Mother Nature on her rounds, but the chunks and chunks of construction material? That was less easy to figure. Did the town have many buildings torn down to make way for all of the current lodgings? An earthquake? It was odd.

My pondering would only continue over the week and a half I'd lounge in T-town. The fishing village of Taganga's history still was here, but that was obviously being pushed further and further aside: tourist dollars overwhelmed the handfuls available from fish. I also noted the many piles of trash heaped here and there, in defiance and ignorance of the many signs pleading for care. At least THAT would eventually be heeded in the crush for tourism, too.

Reasonable prices for lodging, still found during my stay? They'd likely jump up accordingly as backpackers would mostly disappear. This was the typical reward for backpackers in popularizing a place. That looked likely to take only a few years from the look of things - the costly waterfront project could only be hoping for a quick return on such investment.

In the meantime I'd enjoy the streetfood, accented excellently by the fruit juice stands. Each had a multitude of delicious and varied offerings of juices offered from all of 2000-2500 pesos ($1+). About ten choices each was typical, but one could mix any and all. The merchant running the stand was often good for a suggestion or twenty, too.

Juices were mixed with sugar (you could request less, as I did), plus milk or water - your call. I only ever chose the latter, thanks to my stomach's longstanding argument with la leche (milk.) Beyond the beauty of that, a ñapa was a (literal) bonus. Generally you'd be offered the rest of what was in the blender when you finished about half of your drink - that was the ñapa. Hell yes!

One great surprise for me on this Caribbean coast was that I had entered (what could only be described as) a desert area, lacking both rain and cropsoil. My prior image of this slice of the Caribbean, of lush jungle and palm trees, gave way to a reality of the cacti and mesquite trees that actually littered the place. In fact, there was a general shortage of water that would only get more acute - a planned waterduct was still three years away. I'd experience a few cuts of the water supply at inopportune times during my stay.

At least the septic systems seemed already in place; the telltale waters of the town's shore were quite clear. That was even with all of the traffic of little shuttle boats constantly taking people to nearby diving spots. Primarily those were the adjacent Playa Grande (the beach around the next bend away from Santa Marta) and the famed Parque Tayrona (usually illegally.)

In such desert conditions I soon took to looking for shady places to play my horn, a difficulty in such a very exposed place. The huts under construction on the waterfront - plus the hillside to one side of the bay - provided the best respite early in the morning. After that the pickings were slim.

Trumpet in hand, I soon met a few locals each time I played. They always gave me a thumbs-up and on I'd blare away... softly. I desperately wanted to get back into a music groove, something allowed to happen only when my motion between towns stopped for a spell. It always seemed to improve as the books thinned down and I reconfigured a lighter pack, too. Apparently I had to lighten my load to lighten my mind for music work. I had plenty of music, anyway, two folders worth of tunes to learn and practice.

Not that there was much to do within the confines of Taganga outside of eating and sitting around with hobbies in tow, to be honest. One attraction, however, was Playa Grande - all of twenty minutes away walking around a promontory toward Parque Tayrona. Walking the cliffs with their sheer dropoffs was a dusty and potentially dangerous affair should one make a mistake - but THAT was pretty manageable to any but an idiot.

The Playa itself was a questionable goal, nothing more than a dirt/sand strand on a clear cove. Every square meter of land set back from the beach was occupied by estaderos (open patio-ed restaurants) offering seafood and drinks, each sporting equally about four or five meters of frontage to the beach. Jammed wall to wall, there was no longer any path between any two of them to go behind, nor were there any empty lots available. Although otherwise an "unwired" beach, a host of generators noisily provided their energy. That racket likely completely shut down once evening hit - few people if any seemed to live there fulltime.

Meanwhile the Colombian tourist brigade was arriving in full force, many headed to Playa Grande themselves by taking the boat shuttle around the bend from Taganga. The brief high season was now underway, annually translated into a big party of a month-plus. After that the state of tourism would return to the hands of the odd gringo for the rest of the year. Me. In any event, as soon as I hit the beach of Playa Grande and its multitudes, I was ready to move on.

Soon I was walking another thirty minutes along the cliffs along numerous fishing coves, each often with at least one or twenty fishermen. Unfortunately this rustic scenario also meant that they used the pathway behind the coves (which I was walking on) as the place to shit. This didn't make for a pleasant encounter, nor an escape to nature. I stepped high and lightly... and quickly.

I continued to look for mostly nonexistent shelter ahead. Finally, success: I found a lonely spot to swim in, a refreshing thing. Once there, though, I remained a bit uncalmed a bit - I discovered that I had carried much more cash with me than intended. I thus stayed near to shore, instead taking in lizards of astonishing green sidestriping - they littered the place. Then, on my way back to Playa Grande, I scared a fat snake of a meter or so. This flash of a beast instantly blazed its way downhill right in front of me. Twenty meters down in two seconds, I estimated.

The original reason for Taganga's charm - beyond being laidback and all - was its proximity to the Lost City, quality SCUBA diving, and the supposedly amazing beaches of Parque Tayrona to the east. No wonder it would be growing beyond the pioneer hippie backpackers who found it first. For me, with the Lost City done and no longer having any interest in SCUBA (snorkeling, yes), I synthesized the information of people I had met who had been hanging out at Tayrona's beaches. Yes, no, maybe so?

Termed by guidebook and visitor alike as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, a white sand-abutting, palm-treed wonderland, it also would cost CP33000 ($15) to enter. Steep for a beach day, I thought. I knew that there were already piles of people there, too, hearing that on some days they closed the gates on account of overcrowding. Did I want to join the masses?

Yes - eventually one succumbs to the overriding logic of tourism: "When will I be here again?" I asked myself. Thus I decided to go to Parque Tayrona after all, a daytrip that soon became a CP80,000 affair. Ouch - I crossed my fingers that it would be worth the effort. That in itself was not a promising sign.

A first attempt became stillborn, however, when the daily charter shuttle took a good while to leave town. Various hostels and hotels paid a man with a van a premium to leave every day at 9a.m., then leave the park to return at 5p.m. This was a convenient way to do the trick of day-tripping Parque Tayrona, leaving and dropping you off right at your hostel door and avoiding the three-transports method otherwise necessary.

That's not saying that it was otherwise efficient, or even all that early a start on the day, either. The schedule didn't take into account our taking something on forever to collect a dozen or so passengers. Nor how, in making matters completely maddening, our vehicle stopped almost as soon as the last passenger had been gathered and we had moved for ten minutes.

At the crest of the bend to Santa Marta, our driver decided to take a phone call. Chatting furiously, he soon pulled over and stopped at the side of the road to get the details. This didn't look good, and it wasn't: we needed to return to Taganga to pick up another passenger, something rated by all concerned as beyond stupid - we are already full.

Back at the latecomer's hostel the engine was next cut for the umpteenth time as our latecomer eventually deigned to appear. Arguing ensued between him, the driver, and a few of the passengers about where this large man would sit. Any thoughts of a leisurely day at the beach had by now long gone out of the steaming van window. The rest of us looked around at each other; murderous intent toward this obnoxious man was palpable. Dadgummit, my Swiss Army knife didn't have a fixed blade!

Finally, I had enough of sitting around, watching the day disappear in sweatball heat (10:30a.m. and counting...) - I jumped out. "Enjoy the fucking park!" I offered to the newbie as I walked away disgusted. Harumph - I beelined my way back into town. Some ten minutes later the van caught up to me, then passed me by on its creep to the fabled sands.

I didn't look up; I withheld my finger. Perhaps Tayrona was a great beach, but for the hassle - and my having fortunately visited hundreds of great beaches - I'd pass for now. I'd use the money saved on my palate instead: always reward yourself immediately after a controversial decision!

Being so well known as a place to hang out for a spell, and very small with an obvious focal area (the beachfront), Taganga was one of those places where you'd bump into many people you'd met along the way. Such was the case for me: practically each day brought another surprise of someone met in Bogotá, Villa de Leyva, San Gil, or Ciudad Perdida. The British girl with pink hair, the romantic Aussie couple with their red suitcase, Swiss Pieter, the annoying Dutch girl... well, you win some, you... try to figure out what comes next.

Comfortably in a Taganga holding pattern, the only quandry of any consideration was where to go next. I'd stay eyeball deep in fruit juice in the meantime. Should I head west to Cartagena, or east to Cabo de Vela? The latter had been alternately described as some beautiful isolated beaches with an interesting indigenous people... AND a slog of an expedition under the blazing sun mostly spent in transport. Hmmm - already on the Caribbean coast for a spell now, more sweaty beach heat wasn't what I was looking for... nor did two full days of riding in a jeep appeal to merely enjoy one day of sand dunes (however magnificent.) Contrasting US$50/day versus relaxing in Taganga at US$20/day made putting off a decision easier to boot.

Finally I filtered enough info to come up with NO. The clincher was hearing of masses beginning to descend on the Caribe and particularly Cabo for the upcoming holidays. My eyes now turned westward, toward Cartagena and its multitudes similarly beckoning me. Would I find a little place there to hole up with my trumpet, not paying a small fortune for the privilege? This might prove impossible, too. I gave up thinking about it for the time being, instead turning my view back to town.

For example, from a sheltered cove spot (to play the trumpet) I got to witness an unusual drug bust. I had been noticing this one (literally and figuratively) shady spot where various pairs of people often headed. I tended to play just where they'd either smoke a little pot, do a little coke, or deal either.

It didn't long to notice a pattern, either. Often one person was obviously local, almost always very dark - I had noticed that the Afro-Colombians had a lock on the drug trade in Taganga, at least at the street level. The other would almost always conspicuously be a fair-skinned gringo. A cultural exchange? Nah, didn't appear so. The police were unquestionably aware of this sidetrade, too - it probably supplemented their salary.

In this case, however, two officers approached the local man with his blonde gringa, hanging not far from me. As I had seen numerous times, the officers took only to questioning the local as the gringa stood idly by tapping her feet. First they went through his knapsack; next they took to patting him down. In this case the local made a good show of putting his hands high into the air and spreading his feet, allowing leisurely access by the cops. THEY never seemed in much of a hurry, anyway. Suddenly, however, something different: our hero bolted! Straight into the water. Hey! This was getting interesting!

Surprising the law, the scofflaw took only a few quick plunging steps, dove in, then hurriedly surfaced with some deft strokes as he made for Cuba or thereabouts. Soon 30m out to sea, he stopped and looked behind him - just another contented bather in the sea. I expected him to break into a backstroke and squirt a fountain from his mouth next.

Meanwhile the officers were less sanguine, taken to yelling at him to come back. Another ten officers appeared soon from nowhere, running along the beachfront to their aid... or the show. Things were slow in Taganga. When next our protagonist took to swimming along the shore (at a growing distance), an ever-larger group of uniformed tourist police trailed him. For my part I only wished I had a video camera for one of the first times ever.

This lasted some dozen minutes or so, with tension and foregone conclusions racheting up... until a shuttle boat, returning from the direction of Playa Grande, was hailed by our waterborne hero. The boat suddenly arced its path, picked him up like a cork shooting from a bottle, then made for the far side of the beach. Faster than I could contemplate it, in a matter of a minute, they disappeared among the idling fishing fleet. The getaway was complete. Now THERE was a surprise ending.

The police resignedly trudged off in complete and public defeat. I'd hardly have wanted to be in their path then. Mocking them minutes later, and beyond their watchful eyes, a couple of other locals next walked my way. They took all of ten seconds before openly offering to sell me the marijuana in a bag in their hand. Or they'd happily deal coke, if that was my pleasure - they weren't picky, if I had the money. Beyond them I only saw retreating backsides of the uniformed troops. Uh, no thanks.

What about the blonde, you ask? SHE merely watched the entire incident, completely absolved of her involvement. I ruminated that if drugs truly became legal, the world would only lose a form of entertainment for the likes of her and me. Lives lost in jail and violence, wasted opportunities for tax money? That discussion would have to wait.

In the meantime, however, the lay of the land was clear again in my immediate surroundings. The cops continued to move on, back to their usual task of trumping up charges on tourists swimming without paperwork or whatnot. That ruse typically happened more at night, to be fair - to lone gringo drunks able to remember their ATM code. They'd do that, or end up in a scary jail experience. Such would be the punishment for not having their wits - or a copy of their passport on them.

As I had heard THAT scam went, most preferred the option of going US$400-500 lighter for their trouble. Indeed it was the case that the informed tourist feared the tourist police come sundown more than trusted them. Drug dealers fell somewhere reasonably behind in the pecking order of scary people. The criminal element - of all stripes - always turned to the moon for shadowy comfort, true since time and place immemorial.

It should come as no surprise that I had been taking in this drug-dealing scene every day of my stay in Taganga. It was impossible not to, not if you at all looked like a potential client. I was certainly scraggly enough in my beaten dress code, my hair growing out as a curly, defiant statement to a combover of my receding forehead locks.

Slacking about all the waterfront of Taganga meant resignedly (sometimes hourly) put up with the constant pleas of "My friend!" This often included unwanted handshakes and fist-touches (hygiene didn't strike me as first and foremost on the Caribe)... before being ever followed by two-sentence, seemingly-innocent conversations that quickly turned to business. Sigh.

I mused, too: why was it that only the very blackest of the dudes hanging out at the shore were all of the drug dealers? It didn't make great sense - there wasn't that great a difference in their appearance to other Colombians in the area, certainly not with the hodgepodge of bloodlines prevalent in the country. Neither did racism generally seem a real issue at all - Colombia was a notably tolerant place in that regard, as with homosexuality as well. Both of these attitudes, true, were in contrast with most of the rest of Latin America - but they were real enough.

I reasoned as best I could, but... who knew? Perhaps this was one of those subtleties that a tourist such as I didn't ever get access to, or not for a while. I'd be around the neighborhood of Colombia for several months to find out, anyway. It's good to have travel mysteries: was Colonel Mustard in the closet with the candlestick? Seemed so.

Another constant was the scene of artisanal vendors, found at many a turn on the beachfront promenade. They produced bead necklaces, woven armbands, flutes of wood, etc. For the vast majority of them, selling on the street without a license was completely illegal. This wasn't the industrialized West, though, so... they congregated where business was deemed best.

THE chosen spot was the wide entryway of the one liquor store with the best prices, naturally. At night a number of peddlers and hippies would play music of a meandering fashion, creating a sort of mild party scene. This would trail off into each night as others came by to pick up a beer, sit for a bit, or possibly buy something presented on the rugs (or wrapped around large pieces of bamboo, as the wristbands and such were.)

That's how it went until a random raid occurred, anyway. While the tourist police took a blind eye on a daily basis to these ad hoc markets, such laissez-faire disappeared completely should a higher-up official come by. Fortuitously obvious, he'd be surrounded by a horde of attentive officers each time. The marketplace would instantly scatter to the wind, and with good reason. Confiscation of goods, followed by a spell in jail to ransom against parents or loved ones, was a typical result.

The motley crew knew what the what was, however, rarely caught flat-footed. The sham seemed a shame, as if armband-selling for 50c was causing any problem in the first place. It likely wouldn't matter much longer, anyway: I guessed that this scene would be entirely run off once all of the construction was done. Hippies and cruise ships didn't speak the same language, not even hand signals. Money would talk loudest in the end: if anything was certain, that was.

For the time being, the (often dreadlocked) hippie scene at the liquor store made for good people watching: the passing dealers (all well known), drum beaters, dancers, artisans, squabblers, their semi-naked offspring playing in the dirt, the mendicants asking for change (or booze outright)...

Many of these characters had a host of accompanying shticks. For example, a local who did the handshake-psyche(!) move, with his hand zipping to his hair, got old quick. The "bottle" man (who picked up empty bottles as soon as the last drop was drunk), on the other hand, proved an upright citizen even for his quirks. Conversation with either was nigh on impossible, though, usually descending into gibberish from the start. Bottle man seemed particularly prone to flashbacks... perhaps to his rumored wealthy childhood.

A number of going-native Europeans were curious novelties to this bunch. Most notable during my Taganga time were a number Americans, Israelis, and a pretty Slovak girl. One couldn't help but think that this was only a phase for them, perhaps lasting a year or two before returning home. Then they'd as likely as not be welcomed with open arms by a wealthy mom and dad. This dressing-down-to-get-real way of life was a common hippie thing, I'd found - a reaction to middle/upper-class, often suburban life.

Not that some didn't embrace the ethic completely, of course. One such man who always caught my eye was the fast-walking Jesus-lookalike with the bearclaw/shark tooth necklace. While also reminiscent of Bigfoot when he wasn't wearing a shirt, I was most impressed with his determined, erect stature as he flew by each day in a blisteringly straight line. I never got his story, unfortunately, nor even a good one made up by us who noticed him - a rarity for me.

Less interesting was being pestered into donating something by the street musicians, particularly when you hadn't even heard anything yet. One drummer repeatedly tried to get me to give him 200 pesos, yet I found his stylings of music annoying. Outside of paying him to disappear, perhaps, I couldn't understand how he should receive anything from me as a reward. And this is coming from me, a sometime street musician!

One one particularly annoying occasion he mocked by giving me 35c (U.S.) that he had no use for. (There seemed a fair amount of U.S. change from Panamá and Ecuador, two dollar-ized economies.) What he hadn't noticed by then, though, was that coincidentally I had already given more than his desired donation to the communal musician's hat. I happily took his begrudged money, figuring that I had come out ahead in more ways than one on the karma scale. I vowed to spend my boon of spare change wisely.

Pondering future plans envisioned by the community builders, thinking beyond their earthworks in progress, I wondered about the wild packs of dogs I'd been seeing. They both roamed the construction zone and everywhere else in town. At turns frightened and fascinated by them, they shouldn't have been that much of a curiosity - when didn't one find wild dogs in small-town Latin America? To Colombia's credit, though - and something which couldn't be said of the majority of other Latin American countries - the rabble of muttdom seemed all reasonably fed, not likely rabid a one of them.

That didn't mean that they didn't show signs of... collateral damage, however. An ear might be chewed mostly off, or an open wound might be bleeding. Such was the reality and result of alpha dog squabbling. There was no doubt who was king - the big brown one that strutted about. Such posturing didn't translate into not having to constantly redemonstrate his authority, though. There were numerous, nasty tangles I had the misfortune to see.

It was all about getting the girl, of course. The pack would follow any and all female dogs moving through - the numbers seemed to vastly favor the males - sniffing for estrus. When the bitch was detected as in heat, mayhem would begin anew: any males in the area took no time in getting to fighting over her. Alpha would always win, I noticed. This didn't leave much doubt to the source of the relative uniformity visible in the many dogs running about.

One time I witnessed a particularly odd - if not spooky, or eerie - event. Eight male dogs formed a silent head-to-butt circle around a lone female, each standing erect in carraige and attention as the alpha male proudly mounted the lass. It struck me as ceremonial, even ritual in its obeisance. If for only that I supposed these animals were serving some purpose - education for the likes of me.

Regardless, I didn't think these dogs were long for the earth. The same tourist investment that would chase the hippies away from the beachfront would likely euthanize them. Confirming this, I questioned one of the tourist police about: he assured me that they were being slowly removed, when a five-dog carrito (wagon car) came by at times and collected them steadily. He said they were being taken to a caretaker facility in Santa Marta, but I could only wink and nod to the reality of bullshit - the chance of money being invested to care for wild dogs in Latin America was about nil.

For the most part, my experience with the dogpack in the heat of the day was limited to finding individual members lying in the streets asleep. It was that or maybe they were actually dead - I couldn't tell. They might soon be statistics regardless, as they often were barely missed by moving vehicles paying them not much heed. Otherwise, there was the random snarl, or humping each other earnestly, to break this inert monotony. Sometimes the latter was practiced on unwary humans in test runs, probably only when no female's netherparts were handy to withstand their constant surveillance. Enough mongrel meanderings...

Outside of the solo trumpet racket I was making, music played an unsurprisingly large role for interactions as I lolled about town. One time I found myself playing the horn at a popular sunset point, which turned into playing along with a Slovak on Pink Floyd and Clapton tunes. That was a first.

More promising, a bar with Mojito in its name - a well-made mojito always being a draw for me - allowed me to play some tunes there on occasion. Unfortunately I never consumated a "dance" with a local group I chatted with there, even though they had happily given me the okay to play with them eventually. An American sax player and I did a similar tango, expressing to each other on multiple occasions that we'd eventually play together - while probably neither of us really intended to do so. The vibe just wasn't there, at least not to me - lacking in humor, he never broke a smile once from his contemplative look. In exchange, I probably smelled bad. There ya go.

Palate-wise, Colombia had been proving a good turn in contrast to other Latin American countries. First and foremost, water in the mountains was actually drinkable from the tap without getting sick - even if one was warned not to touch the stuff now here on the coast. Unfortunately, my hiking water filter showed it wasn't up to the task when called now to perform in Taganga. Fortunately, switching to purification tablets was a quick solution to that problem. My body's digestive system passed the test with flying colors.

A gorging on the local seafood stew, a cazuela of at least six types of sea critters that I didn't fully recognize, made for a singular and questionable moment of concern, however. Still, what a stew - surely it was worth any price! A turbulent number of hours in the belly passed relatively without incident. Whew.

While at a pharmacy, picking up the purification tablets, I decided on a different test altogether, too - I picked up a dozen or so dust masks. I had noticed that the workers in abundance up and down the boardwalk area were cutting concrete, shoveling piles of loose dirt, and generally wreaking havoc with the air quality - particularly their own. Each was covered from head to toe in a fine silt that couldn't have been anything but bad for them. Tourists like myself had given them wide berth when they got going on these dusty labors.

I decided to experiment. Choosing the group nearest one of my coffee holes, I handed out masks to the surprised workers. A few refused at first, but when others came from further away to happily take them the rush was on. I was quickly out of masks, but at least the group nearest me was uniformly covered - I went back to my coffee cup. For the next hour or so everyone was wearing masks, making me feel good about the gesture. Time would tell.

Later, when I came back to the area in the afternoon, only a few were still doing so. At 600 pesos each (this was not an expensive gesture, admittedly), I doubted my first instinctual guess - of their having sold them as soon as I walked away. They just weren't worth much apiece. No, it was probably just too hot, and they couldn't be bothered. I wondered how much they were shortening their lives in ignorance of this toxic intake. Was their normal work environment, beyond this rush job? They were grown men, in any case. Undoubtedly they had heard by now repeatedly that it was bad to inhale the stuff - I left them to their battle.

Perhaps they had more immediate concerns - actually, I'm sure they did. For one thing, I had heard a number of times that Taganga was the AIDS capital of Latin America. THAT was pretty impressively awful for a town of 5000, but it was true that this place was a hotbed of prostitution - sometimes started "innocently" enough by tourists going for a quick local pickup at the bars.

A gringo would pay for his (or her) new friend's evening entertainment and, well, the rest was the rest. Based on what I soon came to know, specifically regarding some of the guys from my Lost City tour's activities, I soon believed everything I had heard regarding the speedy spread of disease from sexual transmition. Ick.

Probably the next place where such bugs would freely move around was approaching near on the time horizon: a couple of ravefests were scheduled around New Year's down the coast. The pink-haired Brit I had seen again in Taganga (met in Bogotá) was busily working the promotion of Piratek. This would be a 2-day free techno (and more) fest for New Year's, immediately followed on its heels by a 5-day (pay) affair a day later. It would take place at a beach camp halfway between Cartagena and Barranquilla, generally free of the intrusions of Johnny Law.

It wasn't hard to read in the casual sex parade that would follow the free-flowing drugs, the rock, the roll. Indeed, that was the biggest draw for some. Ah, free love in an aura of electronica, reggaetone, drum-n-bass, etc. - without having to wear an iPod!

Such raves no longer (generally) possible in the U.K., I had heard, so various British bands of a local degree had decamped to Colombia. Of course! "Everything goes" in Colombia was the thinking, even if not nearly true but true enough for those who took the merest of precautions. In any event I immediately knew which fest-apocalypse I had no intent in attending even if it appeared that it would be well-attended regardless of my haughty snub. Word was spreading fast. No, I'd much rather find an intimate club with music of a jazz, latin, gypsy, balkan, fado, flamenco or tango flavor - which just probably meant that I was too old.

Stepping Into Santa Marta

It didn't take terribly long to run the length of all the streets of Taganga to my heart's content. Really, there was just the one of note - the beachfront - and some few, tiny offshoots. I knew where to get the good coffee (at the Ballena Azul, where I entertained the energetic waiter Luis with trumpet to accompany the vallenato he put on the stereo system), a hearty cazuela (seafood stew, at the place near the left end of the beach), and who made the biggest fruit juice (and gave the ñapa.) I was done guessing where all the dusty rubble in the streets would go, and all my friends that could have passed through Taganga had, too. It thus seemed time to make a couple of forays back to Santa Marta, effectively erasing memories of jackasses holding pot lids for cutting cocaine at 4a.m.

Santa Marta was the area's city, not geared toward tourism yet but only in the slightest of efforts. It housed a more working-class beach scene than Taganga, yet with all the same silly Christmas light displays expected of a city in Colombia. These included cutouts of cardboard, plus huge inflatables of primary colors.

The vendors working the beachfront seemed a throwback to smalltown life, meanwhile, with cotton candy and the like coming from streetcart machines looking straight out of the early industrial age. The ice cream cart might be pedaled about behind a bicycle; bees would swarm the displays of pastries and sweets. There was indeed a sweet, innocent feel to this throwback of a scene, all ironically occurring in the shadow of the large port.

Having sniffed the commercial and (particularly) tourist success of Cartagena down the shore to the west, Santa Marta now was in the process of a glossy uplift, too. Its colonial district had substantial size, with the main plaza's facelift nearly complete. Now that cruise ships were just beginning to make stops in Santa Marta, the city was trying to create more reasons for them to stick around.

For one thing, a Museo del Oro - the gold museum ubiquitous to a large city in Colombia - was open for business. It'd even open on Sundays specifically for any cruise ships that stopped through. Yet, for all that, it was but a twenty minute affair of good quality.

Those would be twenty minutes well spent, though: the Gold Museum had some intricate gold removed from the Lost City, an intact and opened tomb from the same, plus a large and lovingly detailed model of the Lost City covering several square meters. I learned things that had been glossed over while I was in the Lost City itself, such as bats representing love to the Tayrona people. That connection was made since they flew out of the caves where lovers went to have sex. Thus they were well represented in Tayrona culture, at least in gold.

A unexpected bonus for my visit, too, was a temporary exhibition of the oldest maps ever made of the South American Caribbean coast. These ancient drawings focused on the Santa Marta area in particular, some quite humorously off-target in their shapes of coastline. Then again, this was done in the age before satellites and GPS: boats traced the coast, map-makers with sketchpad in hand and only stars to guide their way.

Conveniently located outside of the Gold Museum (in its temporary quarters; its large colonial residence was being restored, meaning I had possibly seen but an abbreviated version of the museum) - was a Juan Valdez Café. I had quickly come to realize that JV was the one guarantee of good coffee in Colombia, at least when a local place couldn't be found of good repute. Since the latter would often be true, I'd come to seek them out: the tinto ("black" coffee) of Colombia was such a sugary affair, and of low grade, that my taste had vastly surpassed them some time ago. Like in the first day: with coffee, as with other fine tastes, you can't go back.

JV's also sold El Tiempo newspapers, the best thing going in that regard in the country, regardless of their rightward leaning. El Tiempo would be hard to read in this instance, though, not after the most-burned man ever sat down not far in front of me. Most of the side of his head was covered with a piece of skin perhaps removed from someone's backside, a sign of some horrific import in correction. He was eerie and alone, the sad hallmark of people who are ironically a struggle to keep your eyes off of. I was glad when a friend of his soon came by and engaged in conversation - probably the last thing he wanted was my pity.

Another day found me four kilometers from Santa Marta's main square, at La Quinta De San Pedro. This is where Simon Bolivar spent his last years and died. A large parcel of land, my first impression of the place was bo-o-o-ring. All I initially beheld were broad open areas with some trees and many a statue of the same guy, Señor Bolivar himself. Enough, already, I told myself within five minutes of entering.

But La Quinta would grow on me with time and discovery. The first several buildings of the estate were found in good exterior condition, but with only dirt-filled interiors. Finally an exception of small interest came in the form of the main house, a moldering museum to Bolivar's era and the man himself. There were a few rooms with collections of ceremonial things plus numerous oil paintings almost completely exposed to the humidity and heat. Fading and cracking was already evident in a number of items; it seemed only a matter of time before they'd all be claimed for eternity. Just in time, I thought.

The few rooms of Bolivar's actual stuff seemed in better shape, likely because they were of more durable materials. His desk, containing built-in chamber pots, piqued my interest considerably: I tried to imagine the actualization of its use. Similarly an Italian marble tub and his tiny sarcophagus were pause-worthy. This was not a big man, certainly not in his physical dimensions.

Any diminutive scope in size would be made up in the memorial tribute complex, though, where a main temple-like building was reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial on a smaller scale. Nevertheless, it held a much larger statue of Bolivar - attended by a host of angels, no less - inside. No great speeches or quotes from the man, this was merely a place to genuflect - so it appeared.

Outside of this temple of sorts was a great collonnated pantheon to Bolivar as well. This apparently was open for additional offerings, by any group willing to pay and place a suitable plaque of bronze or marble in his honor. Groups like historical societies, firemen's brigades, or youth groups had posted any number of items, often with a line or two dedicated to the greatness of Bolivar. These seemed both odd but possibly more personal in tribute.

The area around this pantheon yielded a few gems, too. Some botanical gardens, inauspicious at first with their tiny clusters of flora dedicated to each departmento (province, state), steadily yielded ever more bright birds and numerous iguanas of different types. Some of the latter were quite large, and it was the case that the longer I stayed still the more I saw. Since I'm quite capable of not doing anything rather well, as a consequence I saw a splendid variety of avarian examples of which none I could name. This pausing also gave more time to take in the unusual display of botanicals by cordoned-off departments, anyway. My eye trailed from one to the next in search of fauna hiding among the trees.

More hidden in the complex was a series of air-conditioned salons, each holding collections of modern-ish art from the countries of the Libertador (Bolivar's appellation, the countries being Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, and Perú) - a nice gem. These were arranged around well-tended courtyards, and each had a theme generally undescipherable to me. In the largest and most impressive of these, I found a young man thundering classical music on a grand piano - what an odd and fortuitous discovery! His scale riffs piled one upon another, in totality providing an atmosphere to pleasantly take in some pretty impressive art. As usual, almost no security appeared to exist to protect all of the art.

La Quinta had slowly revealed itself to be a bit of a work in progress, but with its surprises I found it worth the effort. Besides, the massive trees had proved a welcome and shady respite from the heat. Indeed, two tamarind trees lived on near the main house, the very ones which had held Bolivar's famous hammock back when. I couldn't help but think of Garcia Marquez's masterpiece about the final days of Bolivar, The General In His Labyrinth. In tribute perhaps to the man, then, I stayed an extra while at the Quinta to read a book under a pair of large, twisting, cypress-like trees. Shaaaaaaade!

Suffering a bit from the oppressive heat, and having made my rounds of the Santa Marta area at a langorous pace, I finally made the snap decision to leave Taganga behind. The rent was now going up a bit in my second place, even after having moved on from the first for the same reason. The crowds were growing dramatically as Christmas neared, too: I was losing the will to stay. Taganga had been a very convenient place, and tasty to m'gullet, but what did that speak to in the end?

My mood changed now, thinking more of hiding than anything else. Oh where to go? I asked myself. Cartagena? Ugh, I thought as cruise ships came instantly to mind. How about... Mompox? Yes, Mompox! By all accounts that would be a perfect place to disappear as the first of the two big holidays quickly approached.

But wait, wasn't I forgetting something? Ah yes, Parque Tayrona. How could I leave without going there? Yes, I finally succumbed a second. This time I was mindful of the first occasion, vowing to make my way there under local transport. Fortunately the two wildlife biologists I had met in Villa de Leyva showed up - just in time!

Some said Parque Tayrona's beaches were the most beautiful in the world. They certainly were stupendous, when and where they could be appreciated in solitude. Unfortunately it was near Christmas, so that would translate to the least amount of solitary contemplation available for the year in the park.

Over a long day us three misplaced Americans took in the alternate beauty and overcrowding of Tayrona. One stellar beach was followed by a forty minute walk through dense mule shit to reach the next. THAT offal matter came about because of the three hundred tents we saw erected there, plus the two restaurants and more... which law just beyond a natural bathing area that was stunning to behold.

Probably the best thing to do is let pictures tell the story - the good one. I angled the camera to cut out any and all miscreants swimming on top of each other or crowding the beaches. Enjoy:

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