Santa Marta, between the sea and the Sierra

“A la una y tres minutos de la tarde murió el sol de Colombia”. So said the official statement of December 17, 1830 when Simon Bolivar, the Liberador, who was the architect of the process of independence of part of Latin America from the Spanish yoke, founder of Colombia and Bolivia, who takes his name, died in Santa Marta now embittered by the political defeat and by tuberculosis that had weakened him to the point of seeking a better climate facing the Caribbean Sea. He was buried in the cathedral where a plaque commemorates the tragic event and the subsequent transfer of the remains to his hometown of Caracas. The bronze monument dedicated to him is placed in a large square that bears his name and has a greater prominence than the one on the promenade that recalls the founder of the city, Rodrigo de Bastidas; who had been part of the crew of Christopher Columbus during the second trip to the Americas and who later obtained permission from the Spanish crown to explore this coast by founding numerous colonies. He was stabbed by a conspiracy hatched by his lieutenant – who would have liked to share the huge wealth provided by the gold trade – and died in Cuba from his injuries.

Today Santa Marta looks like a holiday town for Colombians, who come to spend their holidays on the Caribbean coast which has a dry and windy climate, as well as offering beaches and a crowded nightlife. In the morning I went to visit the city high school, where a local English teacher led me to the institute; which was once a prison, in fact why the doors of the classrooms still have the bars that have been left is not clear, if only for intimidation purposes or to keep the memory of the place! The cathedral is in Spanish colonial style, like all the buildings in this part of South America; noteworthy is the fact that the crucified Christ is always represented with black skin and there are numerous altars dedicated to the Virgin, who intercedes according to the different dedications, as well as Santa Marta, to whom prayers are addressed during all hours of the day. I find time to shave in a local barber shop that doesn’t skimp on special shaving creams and colognes. The city cemetery is considered a monument – although it is not like London’s Highgate – and is kept clean and orderly because the cult of the dead is also very much felt here.

For me and Valerio – who landed in South America for the first time – everything seems to be discovered, even if we recognise a way of life that we have approached over the years through literature and cinema and perhaps some personal experience. But let us reflect on the fact that even today the attitude of Westerners who come here – starting with ourselves – is to impose their culture, their way of life made up of tourist places to visit, restaurants to reserve for the evening, experiences to live to feel satisfied. While here it seems that life flows according to a culture different from ours, towards which we should show a deeper interest, trying to understand more than to flee. This is why I like to go into bars or stop someone on the street, talking with my broken Spanish, asking for advice, asking for opinions. I always find great kindness and helpfulness, wonderful smiles, even from people who live in poverty. And there is too much poverty here in Santa Marta, you can see it as much in the streets of the centre as on the waterfront. In a place where I have made friends with the owners they have two slender dogs who have been trained to bark at the beggars who continually approach the tables. We ask ourselves, but how do they recognise beggars from customers? Youth prostitution seems to be widespread and many cripples asking for alms in the morning. But there are also many who work with dignity and strive to sell small services, improvise small vending coffee shops, sell handicrafts that come from the Sierra. A group of guys do Hip-Hop dance shows on the street, they are fantastic and earn good money. Just as there are many artists who paint large murals, one more beautiful than the other.

What I think is that all the travel literature on South America that I have read, as well as the great literature – the library here is a huge building with a mural dedicated to Gabo, that is, Marquez – or the stories I have heard from travellers who have lived here long periods, are only part of the truth of these places. A truth that perhaps is not found in historical monuments or in local attractions, but in the eyes of the people I meet and in the nature of a land that is in some ways miraculous, which has borne fruit in a culture as profound as the sea in front of us and high as the mountains behind us.

The monument in Bolivar
Bolivar’s tomb in the cathedral of Santa Marta
The monument to Rodrigo de Bastidas
The cemetery
The school
A sunset at the marina
The black Christ