We reached Santa Marta, on the northern coast of Colombia, just in time to miss the Caribbean. A moon rose like a gold doubloon in the darkness to the east, but six travelers stared at black humid countryside in weary silence. The coastal road, it turns out, doesn’t always follow the coast. Three Castros and this gringo sat in the back seat of a pickup king cab. Two other Castros sat up front. Good salsa music from coastal radio stations kept our hearts beating.
The day’s journey had begun in Cartagena, 225 kilometers south. Google maps suggests that the drive north to the famous beaches at Palomino takes four hours. We’d been sardined into the pickup five hours already, and the clock hands pushed 9 p.m. Our destination lay another 40 minutes northeast, up the Guajira Peninsula. Our last leg would take 90 minutes.
When the moonlit sea finally appeared, spirits lifted. We could see that parts of the coastal drive had spectacular views. In daylight, stretches resemble a tropical Big Sur, craggy, thick with banana trees and tall palms. Still, on our night drive, we caught only glimpses of combing white waves as they broke.
The road to Palomino didn’t exist a few decades ago. The big trunks of the mountains that form the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta rise here directly from the Caribbean to form the highest coastal mountains on earth … and the only snow-capped peaks anywhere that rise straight out of the sea. It took a lot of dynamite and determination to turn the coastal trails of indigenous people and campesinos with burros into a winding black-topped two-lane.
Now and then on our journey, a roadside settlement flashed past. One looked like the next—a row of open-fronted stores, tiendas, with a few beaten chairs around a few beaten tables, idle youngsters flirting with one another, a few older folks drinking Poker beer straight out of brown bottles. Wood-fire grills glowed by the road, and roasting meat flavored the air. Music from accordions accompanied the communities.
At last, two forevers down a night road, we turned at one of those little settlements onto a trail to the sea. We noticed immediately, all around us, a small moving army, something like gigantic snails bearing possessions on their backs. Backpackers appeared by the dozens, by the scores, along the washboard dirt road. They came and went from tents and hostel-style structures, sometimes numbly wandering into the headlights of the pickup. A good number of the night people sported dreadlocks, nose and ear piercings, tattoos.
We had arrived just in time to witness a natural phenomenon—the seasonal migration of the Beachpackers. During holidays, here and all over the world, a young, carefree, little-to-lose subculture ritually roams from one cool international beach to another. The Beachpackers search for perfect surf, perfect weed, perfect mates.
This year’s destination, Palomino, has it all.
Our hotel, Primaluna, supplied the basics, no more. We occupied six bunk beds, each with mosquito netting. We shared a shower with cold water and a working—if sometimes laboring—toilet. Rooms along two-story corridors had a lot in common, mostly lively conversations audible from several units away. It was a good idea to turn on a radio at times.
The owners of the lodge put a friendly smile on service. They came to Colombia from near Genova, and they ran Primaluna helped by a fluent knowledge of Italian, plus English, Spanish and Beachspeak. Anyone who thinks owning a hotel isn’t hard work should ask these two innkeepers their thoughts on the matter. I never saw them not working.
About 200 meters down the road, the great Caribbean crashed ashore. Big signs warned of treacherous currents. The waves came hard and fast. Body surfers were often planted nose first in dark gray sand that looked like concrete set to dry. Swimmers staggered out of the waves with stunned looks.
The beach collected … not driftwood, but Beachpackers. Many locals came too, folks parched brown through the generations who drove down from the Sierra Nevada to cool in the sea. Beach vendors passed bearing fruit bowls atop their heads, and other hawkers sold sunglasses, chips and little fried things. Palomino’s not like those other beaches. No frills here. No snobs. No looks down long noses.
A strange thing somehow goes on among those who surf the world. An annual rumor leads them like a pheromone to some hot new gathering place. Somehow, certain surf-psychics intuitively know a beach has got ‘it.’
In one year, the Beachpacker nation convenes at Puntarenas in Costa Rica. Kids stream in from Australia and Brazil, the U.S. and France, all over the networked world. The next year, they migrate under their back packs to the new place with a buzz, a beach in Peru or Panama or Mexico.
Beachpacker means basic … so basic that the conveniences of our own hotel came to seem opulent, like swan-shaped tubs at a Ritz-Carlton. We saw leaky tents and lean-tos. Some kids simply slept in cars, or on the beach, where the tide rose up to eat the sand from under their toes. Beachpackers took meals in outdoor cafes, often six or eight crowding one table to grab fresh juices and hot grilled arepas.
In such a place, the kitchen of the Primaluna seemed a five-star affair. It possessed a pizza oven that baked late, and the restaurant overflowed with eager eaters, hair bleached and noses sunburned. Wunderkinds from Germany shot pool under the open pavilion. Argentinians drank Poker and played poker. Mornings, hot coffee and fruit bowls—papaya on the bottom, melon layered over that, sliced yellow circles of banana topping it all—brought the dead back to life.
The sea kept coming in, all day, all night. So did the Beachpackers. Some will remember Palomino as the stuff of legend. Some won’t remember anything.
Image: J@YGS, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.