We decided that we were long overdue getting in the Caribbean Ocean and had heard great stuff about Palomino, a small beach town on the highway 70km east of Santa Marta.
The bus took us two hours along the coast and I watch the conductor as we go, gathering folded notes in his fingers and weaving down the bus to deliver change. He takes his top off and spins it against a rail to slap off the sweat, and gestures at us when we need to get off. We find ourselves on the tarmac main road, buffeted by the sudden heat and the wind from the bright buses that weave from side to side of the road. We set off down a dusty track which slopes gently downwards – its quiet, except for two little boys ride bareback on a chestnut horse as we walk. There are painted signs for hostels and bars on both sides and the white haze of the sun ahead. You know that feeling when you know the sea is ahead, but you can’t quite see it yet?
We’re staying in a big hostel, built from timber and with a thatched roof. All around are printed hammocks and people hanging out. We dump our stuff then head for the sea: down the track a little further, then along a thin path which turns into sand beneath our feet and then opens out into the beach.
The currents here are strong and we’ve read that it’s unsafe to swim properly here so we bob around in the water up to our hips, feeling the tug of the water pulling us off our feet. In each direction are big waves, and palm trees leaning out to the sea. It’s busy – it’s the run-up to the weekend – but if you walk along a bit further you can find your own spot. A guy selling water from a freezer box passes us, playing a solo game of football with an old shell along the shoreline.
The first morning we’re here, I head down to the beach to do some yoga. It’s good to stretch again, but I’m hot and sweating in the sun and it’s not even 8.30am. I head back to the hostel for coffee and juice and eggs with Moz. The town itself is really just the restaurants and bars that line the highway, and a couple of dusty streets leading down from the tarmac towards the ocean. Colombian towns are built on grid systems so they are easy(ish) to navigate and we spend an hour or so walking along the roads, stepping over sleeping dogs and trying to catch glimpses inside houses where radios blast out. I think of my friend Han, a vet, whenever I see a dog here: they all look like they’ve been through the worst kind of war.
On the Friday evening, after a day on the beach, Moz and I play cards in a beach bar, barefoot in the sand and beginning to feel the sunburn kick in. There is a white haze on the beach, the sea beginning to get busier with people who, we guess, have come to the coast for the weekend. There are Colombian families and people on dates, girls in tiny bikinis and guys selling bracelets and bags.
The food here is great: empanadas from a stall, so good that we go back to next day, with a super hot salsa from a plastic cup, fresh fish cooked in a kitchen that’s open to the street and with wooden planks for tables.
After two nights, we decide we’re not ready to leave so find another hostel for a final night: a sweet little place run by a Frenchman called Fred who chats to me in French. It’s nice for once not to feel like I’m stumbling over Spanish words and verbs, and can have a conversation – and a reminder of how I need to practise more with my phrasebook Hannah gave me.
One day we decide to do “the” local activity: tubing – something I’ve never heard of before. It’s essentially sitting on a rubber ring and floating down the river. We’re with five gorgeous girls from Madrid and our guide, 17 year old Davir, looks like all his Christmasses have come at once. I stand alongside them in my oversized life jacket looking particularly British and cumbersome. We walk through the forest with our large rubber rings looking like god only knows what until we reach the wide River Palomino. Davir lashes our rings together, we climb on top of them and off we go – floating down the river with Davir occasionally hopping off into the water, planting his feet on the river bed to guide the course of the seven of us against the strong current. Around us, the forest is close, green, with huge birds circling overhead and dragonflies flying close to the water. The girls sing Colombian pop songs, then we all sing Oasis and Davir tells them about his many girlfriends. Little kids play in the water and women wash clothes on the riverbank. It’s not the most adrenaline-fuelled activity but it’s a great way to see the river from a whole new angle.
Later, we head to a nearby hostel where there is a travelling circus putting on a show. It’s 50p entry and there’s a little band, a girl with zebra print leggings spinning hoops, a tiny guy dancing with spangled cloth. The main man has silver face paint across his eyes and performs on his unicycle with spinning balls and juggling batons. It’s sweet and not very slick but we laugh and clap along, and a lush thing to do on our last night.
Two lovely things happened while we’re here:
– Mozza’s sister, Jane, celebrated her 35th birthday. HAPPY BIRTHDAY JANE! we can’t wait to see you in Feb for fizz!