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Bewitched in Santa Marta

Santa Marta isn’t widely known as the second oldest colonial city in the Americas, and it certainly doesn’t look or feel like it. It’s the poor man’s Cartagena. Away from the restored pedestrian street that offers a small sensation of going back in time, there are decaying and empty buildings in place of a beautifully preserved old city. Many of the dilapidated, charming-in-their-own-way buildings offer a peek through wonky shutters to a gutted, skeleton of a building with holes in the roof and pigeon roostings. Wrought iron balustrades on balconies are barely held in place by splintered and rotten wood, old coats of faded paint and the odd sickly looking bougainvillea vine. In other places, concrete monoliths and walls of grimy shop windows displaying skimpy, neon-bright clothes strip away the heritage of Santa Marta’s historical centre.

The great Liberator, Simón Bolívar, died a sick and frail man in Santa Marta, riddled with tropical and venereal diseases. Vestiges of this historic period exist in the marble plinth where his last address is carved, and in the glorious statue of Bolívar astride a rearing horse, which exaggerates in an artistic sense – ever so slightly – how he met his end.

While the city of Santa Marta is anything but magical in the sense of transferring you to a timeless past, the people of Santa Marta, samarios, preserve the notion of the inexplicable and divine in everyday actions, and it’s where I, too, found a reality full of magic.


I snuck into Colombia on my first, fleeting visit a decade ago. It wasn’t a devious or underhand act. I wasn’t Carmen Sandiego being chased around the world by Interpol. It was simply how you entered the country in that remote and forgotten corner, a walk across an invisible border with no passport control. I wasn’t sure how long I would stay, a couple of hours, a day, a week. In those days, time was of no consequence as I had forever stretched out in front of me.

I had spent two weeks strung up in a hammock lazing away time while the chugging boat struggled upstream against the Amazon’s enormous pull out to sea. I watched, silently, as the endless and impenetrable green wall of jungle rolled past and observed the families travelling many days to get to their destination, mothers scrubbing their children clean, combing hair and putting on their best clothes as they neared their port of call. My arrival into the river port of Tabatinga in Brazil wasn’t such an important event. I concerned myself less with my unwashed hair and sweaty clothes and more with preparing my belongings and packing my bag to leave Brazil as swiftly as possible.

Colombia was the first Spanish-speaking country I was to visit and the colour, friendly people and idle rhythm of the tropics in the border town of Leticia lulled me into a dream-state that I couldn’t seem to break, until one day after a rainstorm the Amazon and more new adventures finally called me back to continue my journey.

As I tied a blue, yellow and red macramé bracelet around my wrist I made myself a promise, ‘I’m not taking this off until I return to Colombia.’

Something had captivated me.


It would be another seven years before a series of cataclysmic events and circumstances finally led me back to Colombia. In the intervening years, the pull had not abated, and although I had broken my vow and taken off that promise bracelet, now a filthy string adorning my keyring, I still had it with me. Every time I touched it, I was reminded of my promise to myself and to Colombia.

In an effort to appease my growing desire to return to that country of many contrasts, I had, in those seven years, read four of Gabriel García Márquez’s books, living vicariously through his magic realism and submerging myself into his sumptuous descriptions of the land that was beckoning me. My own sense of Western rationality and logic couldn’t understand magic realism beyond being an enigmatic method of story-telling. I didn’t understand how such incredible and improbable tales could possibly be true or even have a truthful element. Not until, that is, I lived Santa Marta.

Santa Marta was only meant to be a tourist stop on my itinerary, the gateway to Ciudad Perdida, the Tayrona’s lost city of Teyuna in the Sierra Nevada. Instead, I found love, and it became my home and where I found the every-day truth in the magic realism of the novels I had read.

I had started my trip studying Spanish in Bogotá, and I was enthralled with and loving learning the beautiful language and living in La Candelaria, but for seven years I had longed to visit Ciudad Perdida. I wanted to compare it to all the other ruins of pre-colonial civilisations I had visited, and I wanted to prove that I could stick out the infamously arduous trek to get there. I headed to Santa Marta with every intention of going back to Bogotá for more Spanish classes, but destiny stepped in the way in the appearance of the love of my life. My story of falling in love more closely resembles a fairy tale than a passage from a García Márquez novel, but it warrants a mention as my most magical experience in Colombia.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the assistant guide, except for noting a pair of fabulously muscular arms, until I made it to the grassy lookout at the top of the first hard climb. I was the last of our group to arrive and—for silly reasons—instead of arriving puffing and panting, I arrived laughing my head off. Edwin, the owner of the muscular arms, looked at me in surprise and with a smile so wide and eyes so warm I suddenly felt the need to get to know him better. A couple of days later, I was again being silly, this time at the terraces of the Lost City. I was playing the role of the princess and had to have my photo taken, with one leg raised in instinctive romanticism, kissing the frog-shaped stone placed by the ancient Tayronas at a sacred part of the city. I swear that after kissing the magical frog stone, my handsome Colombian prince appeared, and that was that. I had arrived at the sacred and glorious place where the universe had been directing me to find the man who I would share my life with.

Eleven months later, we left my hometown in Australia together with four large suitcases, two smaller daypacks and another bag containing all the things I would need to start our life together in Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast.


Samarios are a superstitious lot. Stories in Santa Marta abound of mystical happenings, things that my family and friends in Australia would slowly nod their heads at with their eyebrows raised in that kind of ‘Okaaaay, riiiiight, whatever you think’ way. A day did not pass that I would not hear of some story or tale, often repeated, that mocked my logical thinking and showed me just how broad the cultural chasm is in acceptance of magic and miracles.

For example, playing the lottery is a favoured activity and lottery numbers are very important. If you should dream of a series of numbers or happenstance across some other sign, you must buy a lottery ticket or cast your numbers in the twice daily chance draw. The story I am repeatedly told as lucky numbers are discussed, is how an entire village in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada won the lottery. Locals had caught a fish that, when sliced open, exposed a series of numbers in its gut, prompting everyone to run out and buy a ticket with those winning numbers.

Another sign from Mother Nature was the finding of a frog with lucky lottery numbers inscribed on its belly. This led to a hunt for animals bearing these prophetic signs that could bring riches to their finders. After a number of these events occurred, with villagers winning the lottery at incredible rates, I’m told the system had to be changed, and the same numerical sequence could only be sold a certain number of times.

Dreams are another important avenue for receiving signs, and while I had often noticed the dream analysis books while wandering through bookstores, I have to admit to being the kind of person who rarely remembers their dreams. I don’t think my own family does either, because we never had breakfast chats or discussions about our dreams. It was quite an eye-opener to then live in a house where the spirit of my late father-in-law supposedly walks the nights and the sub-conscious of the inhabitants is awakened in highly detailed dreams every night. Every morning, I would receive a long, descriptive recount from my mother-in-law about her multiple dreams and all their possible meanings, or hear the fantastical and imaginative tales of my stepson regaled in childlike wonder or be told that Edwin had visited my family in his dreams overnight.

Edwin often asks me if I believe in witches, ghosts, aliens and the like. It’s because he does. The supernatural is something that fascinates him, and he has respect for it, although he wasn’t always a believer. At the start of his military service, he was skeptical of his fellow soldiers’ accounts of being spooked by witches. But one night, watching guard over his troop in the jungle of the Sierra Nevada, in a place so dense and dark he could hardly see his own hand in front of his face, all that changed.

Alone at the post, he sat crouched upon his rolled up sleeping mat, leaning onto his rifle with its butt pressed in the ground for balance, staring into the still and silent night. After a short time, struggling to keep his eyes open in the early hours of the morning, a stone came flying out of the darkness, hitting him in the back. On alert, he called out ‘Who’s there?’ thinking his compañeros were making fun of him. Another stone whistled through the air and landed with a thud on the ground. He swivelled around, although there was nothing to see. His fear rose when he heard another sound and he leaned forward slowly, raising himself up ever so slightly from his sleeping roll with the help of his rifle. After a moment of listening keenly into the darkness, he sat back down, only to land on the humid ground. He felt around for a second. His sleeping roll was gone. Jumping up, he shouted out the command for soldiers in his troop to respond and identify themselves before being fair game for open fire, but all around him remained still.

Scared witless, he desperately awaited the change of guard and, with minutes still remaining on his watch, he ran to where his replacement was sleeping and told him about the stones. His fellow soldier, also frightened, begged Edwin to stay on watch with him for the rest of the night. No more stones were thrown during the night, but following this incident, all the soldiers refused to stand watch alone at that place, so they were sent in pairs and had no more problems with the stone-throwing witches. Edwin’s stolen sleeping roll never re-appeared.

In another part of the mountains, Edwin’s troop was stationed for some time in a village where, apparently, many witches lived. The captain was knowledgeable in the world of witchcraft and used this knowledge to advise his soldiers. One day, a girl in the village took a liking to Edwin and he returned the interest. As he approached the date he was to have home leave, she gave him a woven bracelet and tied it onto his wrist with a series of firm knots. When he told his captain about it, the captain advised him to not take it off because the girl was a witch and the bracelet meant she could visit him wherever he was. So it stayed tightly bound around his wrist during his time back home in Santa Marta until one morning he woke up and it wasn’t there. He asked his mother if she had found it cleaning or somewhere around the house and she suggested, quite calmly, that the witch had probably visited him during the night.

Back in the mountains, his captain confirmed the mysterious disappearance of the bracelet was the result of the girl losing interest in him. She had somehow travelled miles to Santa Marta and crept unseen into his locked and barred house during the night to untie the knots to take back her gift.

Edwin has many more stories of witches and magic from his time as a soldier, involving inverted teacups and soldiers thrashing about in their hammocks at night and waking up with lovebites all over their necks. These stories make foreign eyes widen in astonishment but for the samarios, they are stories they can all understand, relate to, or respond with their own version of the same magic.

My mother-in-law, claims that one of her son’s girlfriends (thankfully not me!) is a witch. It took me a little while to understand that her description of bruja wasn’t just calling her names, but that she actually believes her to be a spell-casting witch. She uses this to explain the power the girlfriend has over my brother-in-law, how she was able to make him leave his wife, who was also her best friend, and why he suddenly lost a lot of weight. One Mother’s Day they gave her a rose-scented hand cream. My mother-in-law smiled, thanked them for the gift and set it to one side. Later she told me there was no way she was going to use that cream, because the girlfriend had probably put a spell on it and she wasn’t about to suffer any nasty consequences by trying it out.


It’s been some time now, since those stories, beliefs and superstitions were part of my daily life. Things are different in Bogotá where the gossip doesn’t hit my ears, where I live wrapped in a scarf and jacket rather than in the pockets and business of everyone in the barrio. It’s not important whether this innate acceptance of the supernatural stems from Catholic mysticism, indigenous beliefs, or the African rituals that landed on the coast with the slave ships so long ago. In the suffocating humidity and fecundity of the Caribbean coast, magic is real and it’s there for all to find.

Camille Mansell

With her sights squarely set on returning to Australia and settling down with a nice Aussie bloke, Camille didn’t really pay much attention to the psychic in Sedona, Arizona who said she wouldn’t always live in her home country and would fall in love with a younger man. Now that she has lived in Colombia for more than two-and-half years with Edwin (who just so happens to be younger than her) and his son Daniel, she has a little more faith in magic and is wondering if the creative passion the psychic said she would discover is speaking Spanish, dabbling at writing or taking up the addictive craft of crochet.

Photo credit: El Amanuense Libros Y Cafe

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