Beauty and beasts
Tourism revival relishes natural attractions
CARTAGENA - Inspector Arturo Castiblanco had never heard the like in his three decades on the force. Before him stood an agitated fisherman, one of the hundreds who trawl for catfish and turtles in the choppy delta of the Río Magdalena, where Colombia’s longest river empties into the Caribbean Sea.
One morning, while maneuvering his narrow canoe precariously between rusty, ocean-going hulks, the fisherman noticed a strange object floating in the water. Thinking it a tree trunk, he sought to avoid any branches that might be hidden beneath the surface. When the object let out a savage roar, opened a cavernous mouth, and swam rapidly toward him, the fisherman rowed for his life.
Castiblanco was mystified. Within days, however, other fishermen plying the Magdalena delta reported similar tales. Their stories began to match, their descriptions to coincide. At last, the inspector deduced what the strange beasts must be: hippopotamuses. But what, he puzzled, had brought a brace of African hippos to this particular backwater of Colombia’s sultry Caribbean coast?
The hippos, it turned out, had escaped from a menagerie of exotic fauna once owned by Colombia’s late cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar. At the height of his power in the 1980s, Escobar had employed 1,000 men to carve out a private Garden of Eden at Hacienda Nápoles, a 7,400-acre ranch some 125 miles upstream on the Magdalena. After landscaping the farm with dynamite, Escobar shipped in hundreds of giraffes, lions, rhinos, and hippos, which arrived covertly on Russian transport planes.
Escobar’s dreams and delusions ended in a hail of police gunfire in 1993, and most of the menagerie was carted off to zoos around the country - all except the hippos, which were too big to move. Basking in Colombia’s intense heat and humidity, they thrived among the hacienda’s rich grasses.
Finally, two young males set off alone, driven by instinct to form their own pod. They were last spotted by the startled fishermen, wading northward up the Magdalena on a doomed quest for mates.
Such quixotic happenings seem two-a-penny in Colombia. All but closed off to visitors for two decades, the country’s isolation allowed a bizarre cabal of megalomaniacs, narco-traffickers, and guerrillas to rise to prominence. At times, the entire country became a theater of the absurd.
Now, in the wake of a dramatic fall in political violence, tourists are venturing back to appreciate Colombia’s beauty - quirks and all.
I had set out from Cartagena the previous day, heading east along the Caribbean coast toward Barranquilla, a raucous city whose annual carnival rivals Rio’s for excess.
The Magdalena estuary, which marks Barranquilla’s eastern limit, is so rich in wildlife that UNESCO has named it a biosphere reserve. Over the millennia, a natural causeway formed by countless millions of tiny seashells has bottled up two dozen lagoons and a mangrove swamp, now protected by the Isla de Salamanca national park.
My arrival at park headquarters caused a stir among the wardens. I snatched a glance at the visitors’ book: I was the first tourist to visit in a week.
Veteran warden Euclides Barrera was soon escorting me along a raised wooden walkway that laced through the swamp. We batted off butterflies the size of bats and admired an Amazon kingfisher that flashed past in a blur of sapphire and emerald. Our approach startled an iguana, which leaped from a yellow mangrove tree into a lagoon carpeted with water lilies.
In just an hour, Barrera showed me dozens of bird species. Yet the park’s most startling attraction was a half-ton manatee, brought in injured a decade ago and kept ever since in a large pool. A manatee’s appetite is prodigious: It eats a tenth of its body weight each day. With no budget for its food, rangers rely instead on local volunteers to deliver 100 pounds of aquatic plants each morning. “We don’t know what to do with him,’’ said Barrera. “We can’t let him go. You know how people are - they’d eat him.’’
I turned south from Salamanca’s seashell causeway, heading inland to the village of Aracataca, birthplace of Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist.
Márquez was born here in 1927 and his childhood was vivid. Márquez’s neighbors were desperately poor, and the encroaching jungle crawled with insurgents and warlords. The experience provided him with fertile literary material, which he later used in describing the fictional town of Macondo in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.’’
Márquez’s home was closed for restoration when I arrived, its contents on temporary display in the one-room telegraph office his father once operated. Odds and ends from the household - a sword worn by his grandfather, a steam iron used by his mother - sat alongside faded snapshots detailing the writer’s career. I found an image of him in his journalist phase, hustling to file a story in El Nacional’s Barranquilla newsroom; another showed him chumming around with Fidel Castro and Graham Greene.
The landscape east of Aracataca - and, indeed, as far as the coast at Santa Marta - is dominated by the world’s highest coastal mountain range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Its densely forested slopes rise directly from the ocean to the highest peak in Colombia, the 18,701-foot Pico Cristóbal Colón.
The range was once the territory of the Tayrona, a powerful indigenous tribe whose main settlement was lost after the Spanish conquest. Rediscovered in 1972, it is now known as Ciudad Perdida - the Lost City - and is accessible only by an exhausting, six-day, round-trip hike.
Today, most of the range is a de facto reservation for the Kogui tribe, the Tayrona’s descendants. Viewing Colombians as Spain’s inheritors, the Kogui remain mistrustful of strangers. Apart from a single trail to the Lost City, most of the range is off-limits to visitors.
Native tribes have reason to be suspicious. As early as 1499, Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda anchored off this same coast. Astounded by the ornate jewelry worn by the Tayrona and seduced by their stories of fabulous treasure, Ojeda’s reports established the myth of El Dorado.
By 1525, gold fever had gained sufficient hold over the Spanish that they founded the city of Santa Marta as a base for treasure-hunting sorties into the surrounding sierras. Before the century was out, the conquistadors had exterminated most of the Tayrona.
These days, Santa Marta’s main draw is San Pedro Alejandrino, the 17th-century villa where independence hero Simón Bolívar met his death.
Today, the Venezuelan-born Bolívar is venerated with near-religious fervor throughout the territories he liberated from Spanish control. Yet shortly after routing Spanish forces, he was hounded from office by fellow rebels and only narrowly survived an assassination attempt.
Abandoned, penniless, and tubercular, he was fleeing to exile in Europe when he reached Santa Marta. Too ill to board ship, he died there in December 1830.
The villa’s exuberant gardens of ceibo, acacia, and laburnum alone make it worth a visit. Successive governments have erected dramatic mausoleums on the grounds, but the surprisingly simple house has been left largely unchanged.
Gardeners still trim the lawns with scythes, while maids sweep with straw brooms. A scattering of books, an iron bathtub, and a sword lie near Bolívar’s deathbed. His carriage awaits, as if there were still hope El Libertador might continue his journey into exile.
The last stop of interest on the coast road is Tayrona National Park, an hour’s drive from Santa Marta. (The road itself continues for many more miles, finally petering out amid salt pans in the lonely Guajira Peninsula.)
The park encompasses 37,000 acres of humid, tropical forest. Lianas and epiphytes clothe every tree, and lizards scurry among the fern-carpeted undergrowth. Beneath the thick canopy, howler monkeys vie with hundreds of bird species for fruit, berries, and nuts.
An hour’s walk from the park entrance, the path emerges from a glade of coconut palms to a string of sandy beaches. Chatty locals sell ice-cold beer and grilled grouper to visitors who swing from hammocks strung between coconut palms.
Kogui tribesmen still live within the park boundaries, where they cultivate yucca, forage for nuts and berries, and strive to avoid contact with outsiders.
I was tramping a remote park trail when a Kogui family emerged from the crackling undergrowth. Two children led the way, barefoot, their white robes brightened by shimmering bands of beads, their faces lighted by shy smiles.
I can’t say whether I was more surprised or they; but the contact was a rare and memorable event.
The father, identically clothed and equally diminutive, signaled for the children to be silent. He chatted briefly in halting Spanish, asking the questions of any forest walker: Where have you come from? Where are you going? Then, abruptly, he gathered his brood and they vanished, silently, back into the jungle.
Colin Barraclough can be reached at email@example.com.