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February 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Santa Marta, Colombia

the colonial town is more scenic than the diving

from the February, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Back in the good old days, whenever the weekend weather forecast was favorable, four of us loaded our dive gear into my single-engine Cessna Turbo 210 and we'd fly to San Carlos, Mexico, Baja's Punta San Francisquito, or sometimes as far south as Loreto. We'd rent a panga and off we would go: no divemaster, no ladder and no first aid. If I told you that in those days, we were taught to follow our bubbles to the surface, and during our surface time we would down a few beers, would I be dating myself? Dive rules have certainly changed, but what has this got to do with diving in Colombia?

My December trip offered 21st Century basic diving, but with today's rules, at a destination prized by Colombians but unknown to Americans. Santa Marta is a quaint town, located on Colombia's southern Caribbean coast. While it is no place for divers in search of exotic creatures, it brought back fond memories of laidback diving in the Sea of Cortez, with its multiple boulders blended with patches of soft and hard coral. While I saw no dramatic sea life, there were small schools of batfish, barracuda and squid -- and, unfortunately, an occasional small lionfish, apparently just getting a "fin-hold" there.

Quimera Divers' BoatSeveral hours after arriving at my hotel, Diego Ávila, owner of Quimera Divers, arrived to meet with us. He shared his marine conservation philosophy with us, took our dive gear, and said he would send a taxi ($5 each way) to pick us up at 7:45 a.m. the next morning. Though there are no other operations in Santa Marta, 13 shops in nearby Tayrona National Park, where we did most of our diving, carried scores of divers there daily. Santa Marta's ultra-modern marina is closely guarded with a swinging gate and armed guards. The boat run to the park was 20 minutes (we were required to wear life jackets to and from the marina). Sleek looking, the 25-foot, high-sided fiberglass speed boat with two 95-hp engines had benches on both sides, 20 tank holders in the center and a partial canopy. Diego, who speaks English well, takes no more than four divers, but even that would be a crowd. He offered two morning dives ($95 per person); afternoon must be siesta time.

At Calichan Isla Aguja, the sandy bottom was surrounded by a fringing reef. During this Colombian version of a muck dive, I spotted a small frogfish, a redlipped batfish and a "red robin," or small red flying gurnard, not to mention beautiful flamingo tongues, snake and tiger eels, lobsters, sergeant majors, batfish (you don't see these all the time), filefish, arrow crabs, lobster, a seahorse and other Caribbean characters. At El Cantil de Granate, we descended down a 60-foot healthy wall, where I watched a school of sardines in a swim-through so small, my tank banged the ceiling. On one dive, I watched Anhini dig into the sand. Up popped a snake eel, which slithered to another spot where he buried himself, tail first. After the dives, I would take off my gear in the water and climb the narrow ladder. Diego and Anhini, both in their 20s or early 30s, kicked up and over the six-foot side.

Santa Marta, ColombiaGranate is Tayrona National Park's first bay, which is protected from the winter's northwesterly trade winds. We had at least 50 feet of visibility in the 77-degree water. Between dives, we went to a beach and climbed to the ramada of a private home to relax. Diego brought homemade cookies and mangoes. He showed me how to squeeze the mango to soften it, then bite off the tip to suck out the sweet pulp and juice. He brought water in handy sixounce plastic bags.

Truth is, I was perhaps more attracted to the charming town of Santa Marta than I was to the diving. A couple of decades ago, it was infamous for its fields of "Colombia Gold," the finest marijuana, but Mexico is now home of the drug cartels, and Colombia's guerrillas are no longer an issue. So backpackers arrived, now tourists are trickling in and Colombia is becoming a hot new destination, especially for foodies.

I stayed at Casa Verde, a fine old 1920s colonial mansion, with six rooms and a tropical shaded courtyard where guests can lounge on hammocks or take a dip in a small plunge pool. Located in Santa Marta's historical district, it's close to excellent restaurants, nightlife, parks, cathedrals, and the Caribbean is within walking distance. My second-floor room was simple, with a view of the cathedral, which only chimed on Sunday, but then for most of that day. A colorful hammock hung on my wraparound balcony. The pebble-tiled bathroom had a large walk-in shower with low-pressure hot water. The AC was either too warm or cold. No matter. The staff was friendly and the price was right ($125 a night for two, with breakfast). The front door, like other streetside inns, was barred with a tastefully decorated, wrought-iron gate that remained locked with a padlocked chain, but I never felt unsafe anywhere we walked. Santa Marta doesn't have a level step on any of its rundown streets, yet the architecture and warmness of the residents make it charming. Many restaurants surround Plaza de los Novios (Lovers), serving primarily fish (robalo, or snook, was popular), seafood and beef, all excellently prepared. My favorite dish was ajiaco, a soup brimming with shredded chicken, corn on the cob, golden and red potatoes, with capers, heavy cream and avocado to mix in. While someone at each hotel speaks English, you'll be pointing your finger at the menus if you don't know a little Spanish.

Santa Marta, ColombiaTo summarize the diving, most of the terrain appeared similar, though on different dives we might do a wall, swim-through or bottom dive. While there was the Caribbean variety of fish and critters, none was in great abundance and there were no surprises. The one unique dive was on a small cargo ship intentionally sunk at 100 feet and protruding 30 feet above the surface. Safety-conscience Diego ran a line to the ship's bow and also hung a tank at 15 feet. Descending at 7 a.m., there was no current. While the boat has no defining features, coral is just beginning to cover it, and it was teeming with schools of small grunts.

While I was exploring with Diego, my spouse flooded his mask on his first dive. He panicked, lost his regulator, and started to bolt to the surface. Anhini was on him in a flash, put his regulator back in his mouth, and took him gradually to the surface. After that, he snorkeled, and stopped giving me grief for lugging my own dive gear.

I admit to being a spoiled diver, with plenty of logged dives in the Indo- Pacific. Yet I enjoyed every minute of this very basic diving with Quimera Divers. It was not easy to book this trip, and my ability to speak Spanish was very helpful. Using a travel agent would be much easier.

-- N.M.

Santa Marta, ColombiaDiver's Compass: Getting to Santa Maria requires a plane change in Bogata, and both Copa and Avianca, code share airlines with United, fly the 90-minute leg there; we also flew to Cartagena, which was jammed with cruise ship passengers . . . Unless you are eager to see Simon Bolivar's resting place, visit the coffeegrowing village of Minca or go trekking in the mountains, there is nothing to do in Santa Marta but merge into the culture . . . Crazy northwesterly trade winds whip down the Sierra Nevadas from December to mid-February . . . Ironically, Diego asked us to bring medical permission from our physicians but never looked at our certification cards . . . The closest hyperbaric chamber is on San Andrés Island, requiring an air flight . . . I used pesos rather than credit cards, and stopped frequently at ATMs . . . Websites: Quimera Divers -- www.quimeradivers.com ; Casa Verde - www.casaverdesantamarta.com

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