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Walking around the headlands near Santa Marta I heard the distinct “poooop poooooop” of a trains whistle. I stopped, rooted to the spot, “pooop pooooooop”. I wondered for a minute if my ears were playing tricks on me, but then the sound came again. It was without a doubt a train.
So far I had only been in Santa Marta for a day and had yet to locate the station, the debilitating heat was stopping me from thinking never mind moving, but all of the people I had asked told me there was no train, one even told me this as we were standing next to the train tracks.
Santa Marta had not inspired me, I had been there for only a few minutes when I stumbled on what I like to think was a man sleeping in the street, he was also bleeding, heavily. Only centimetres away from him were people sat around on their plastic chairs, drinking beer. I shuddered and felt torn between trying to help the man and running away, I chose to walk away, swiftly. An uncomfortable feeling descended on me which I could not shake so I decided to stay just outside Santa Marta in a fishing village named Taganga.
Once a sleepy place Taganga had suffered an influx of tourists in the past five years and the plethora of hostels, dive schools and eateries reflected this. Despite this Taganga was a very pleasant place to stay, on a picturesque bay surrounded by tropical green mountains and speckled with fishing boats.
After a stroll around the town which involved negotiating the rubble piles that passed for roads and trying my utmost not to trip or stub my toes, I discovered a cosy café which sold great coffee and chocolate muffins. I got talking to it’s Swedish owner: “The train is just for cargo now, bananas and coal I think.”
I asked him my chances of being able to perhaps bribe my way onto the train.
“Not a chance, I really don’t think so, why don’t you just take the bus or fly?”
The Swede, who had already annoyed me by trying to tell me exactly which places I should and shouldn’t visit in Colombia and then regaled me with tales of his drunkenness made me even more determined to get on the train.
I decided to head to the station to investigate for myself. I approached a taxi driver, who looked rather sinister with a side parting that started at his ear and sunglasses which said ‘police’ on the left lens, he looked confused when I explained where I wanted to go. After a fair amount of persuasion and haggling he agreed and we were on our way. A bumpy ten minutes later the driver pointed at some tall concrete walls, topped with razor wire and a guard tower.
This was the most heavily guarded train station I had ever seen.
I strode purposely towards the office and bent down to speak to the guard through a tiny space between the glass and bars.
“Excuse me, is it possible to take the train from here to Bogotá?” I asked.
The huge security guard and his friend starting laughing and when he had recovered he slowly started shaking his head. “Mucho problemo, mucho problemo. Los siento, no.”
I went on to explain I was a writer and about my blog, but these explanations fell on deaf ears. I asked if I could go into the station and take a picture and received the same answer but with a grumpier and more forceful tone.
Finally I asked if I could take a picture of the station from the outside, it seemed this may have tested the guards patience.
“No, my boss, the president will not allow this and neither will I, mucho problemo, mucho problemo.” he almost shouted.
All of this time out of the corner of my eye I had noticed more and more armed security guards appearing out of nowhere, looking interested in my conversation.
I decided that whatever was inside that station I was not going to get to see or photograph, so before anything of a scary nature occurred I cut my losses and jumped back into my waiting taxi. The sinister driver seemed to be enjoying the debacle and took great joy in speeding away from the station and on the way out I snapped a couple of illicit pictures praying that the huge security guards and his armed friends had not spotted me.
I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to take the bus to Bogotá, as the “Lux” Tayrona, with sleeper, diner, 1st class coaches and motorcar transport (as described in Cook’s Timetable in the seventies) certainly no longers exists. As we drove through the streets of Santa Marta the taxi swerved to avoid a man sprawled out on the road one shoe on, one off, looking less than healthy. It was the second time in 48 hours that I thought to myself: Is he napping? Or is he dead? I hoped this was not going to turn into some sick game on my long journey through Latin America. My uncomfortable feeling reappeared and I felt obliged to retreat to the nearest bar for solace.