Why you should care
After decades of armed conflict, Colombia is drawing tourists with sustainable experiences.
The drive east from Santa Marta is reminiscent of California’s Route 1, with breakneck curves, roads with no shoulder and daredevil drivers. The road snakes along the Caribbean coast, cutting through blue stone that slants at severe angles, with the steep peaks of the Sierra Nevada on the horizon.
At first, Palomino, the beach town on Colombia’s northern coast, appears to be nothing more than a strip of bodegas selling rum, fruit and contraband gasoline shipped in from Venezuela. But it’s the stretches of virgin Caribbean beaches and the towering mountains cradling the shoreline that are sure to put any modern, work-battered soul back into harmony with their natural self. Turn off the main road and meander down a dirt stretch. The town fades and cabañas, often nestled behind tropical hedges on sprawling lots, spring up.
Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on the planet after Brazil, and Palomino is a portal for accessing that richness.
Two decades ago, ruthless paramilitaries ruled this strip of coastline. Long before that, though, Palomino was the center of the world for the Kogi and Arhuaco, with the health of the Sierra determining the balance of the universe. Farther up the mountains, deep in a rugged national park, these indigenous tribes preserve their way of life — a large part of which is a profound respect for nature — and fight to keep elements of modernity out. The Kogi and Arhuaco stuff wads of coca, the raw ingredient of cocaine, inside their cheeks to combat the altitude. In Palomino, brewers put coca in their ale.
Palomino looks a lot like Mexico’s Tulum used to, and what increases its specialness are people like Olivier Fernandez, the 53-year-old hotelier who runs Chez Oliv. He and others borrow architectural and design elements from locals to build tourist-friendly cabañas and offer a low-impact, sustainable tourism experience that contrasts sharply with how Tulum has ended up. When Fernandez, who hails from the south of France, arrived, “there were hardly [any] hostels, just a few right on the sea. But he eventually thought it would be nice to have a cabaña — ”not necessarily for tourism … but to enjoy nature.”
What Fernandez loves about living in Palomino? The winding trails and long walks through the Sierra Nevada, the small discoveries of flora and fauna, the whispers of birds, rivers and waterfalls and the beautiful roar of Caribbean surf crashing into the shore. He’s right — the best way to experience Palomino is to strip away modern trappings and move closer to nature. My cellphone? Turned off and stowed away.
If you’re looking for a quiet escape with romantic vibes, Palomino is paradise. Solo travelers who come to Palomino often seek it out as a spiritual harbor. Meditation and yoga classes are available at a few hotels; some visitors find a patch of empty beach and do their own meditation routines or luxuriate in the sunny quiet. Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on the planet after Brazil, and Palomino is a portal for accessing that richness.
However, the village’s unspoiled beauty is threatened by the impact of travelers. For one, water supply problems loom. “It’s worrying me a little,” says Fernandez of the recent tourism boom. “Palomino is developing way too fast. Where does all that water come from?”
Colombia has launched an initiative to promote ecological and sustainable tourism in areas scarred by conflict, but the Tulum effect is powerful. Virgin Caribbean shoreline is a scarce resource. It’s up to the people of Palomino to choose whether they let big tourism in or fight to protect a lower-impact way of seeing the world.
Go There: Palomino
- Where’s it at: About a two-hour drive dead east from Santa Marta. Rent a car or do it on the cheap by grabbing a van (less than $10) at Santa Marta’s bus terminal.
- Where to stay: Chez Oliv charges $35 per night for two people. Options on Booking.com range from $20 to $250 per night.
- Pro tip: If the sea is your thing, swim at your own risk — the undertow is severe.