La Barra is a fishing village hidden amongst palm trees. It has wooden shacks for outhouses, one-storey cabins for locals, and bigger buildings, probably best described as hostel barns, built for tourists. The village is spaced out in pockets of houses connected by a well-trodden dirt path that runs parallel to the beach (the one at 01:37 in the video above).
Lily told our drivers to take us to Oralia’s, a lady who she’d read about on the internet. They rode us over to the southern most tip of La Barra and we dismounted, paid our £6 to the drivers and Oralia greeted us. She was in her 60s, stocky, unhurried and not very talkative. If the larger and more modern a city is the faster its people walk, then Oralia was very much a product of a nearly-off-the-grid fishing village.
Our hotel was a wooden two-storey barn, run by Oralia and her family. For £10 per night, she gave us a room and three meals a day. There was a buck-toothed wooden stairway against the side of the barn. Oralia led us up it, then across a large, empty central room off which there were six small bedrooms. Ours had a bed, mosquito net and a lightbulb on one wall that you turned off by unscrewing it by hand (as quick as possible to avoid burning). The mosquito net had holes in it, the mattress was covered in a plastic protective sheet and the walls were just unevenly slatted wooden boards that did little to block either light or noise. We dumped our bags, changed and went exploring.
Restaurant Hola Ola, where you can get the best fish in La Barra.
The only toilet was in an outhouse, flushed by using a bucket to pour water into it. It turns out that I’m a prudish pooer – I didn’t go during our entire stay in the village. That’s more impressive than it sounds; for four days we ate crispy deep fried arepas (thick corn pancakes that swell up in hot oil), eggs, fried fish, ceviche and sweet coffee.
All running water in the village was hosed in from a nearby river. The shower worked much the same as the toilet. To rinse off, we had to stand naked next to a large barrel and use plastic bowls to scoop water onto ourselves. It’s not great for getting rid of sand, but it’s beautifully refreshing after a hot night’s sleep.
What could be described as “town” was perhaps a dozen more wooden boardhouses of different sizes, twenty or so residential shacks where the locals lived, a couple of bars and a small convenience store all lined along the town’s single sandy path. Our boarding house was at the south end of the village, at the other end were a few spots to eat and drink. Otherwise it was all sand, coconut trees and stray dogs.
Every evening all the teenage boys in the area, around 20 of them, got together for a kickabout on the beach. Kids on holiday splashed in the shallow ocean, chatted to tourists and generally played unattended. Some of the younger ones ended up in the arms of travellers in an “I’m with a brown toddler on Instagram” kind of way. Fishermen turned up with mostly empty boats. Dogs scavenged food and play fought each other. The odd chicken wandered around clucking tentatively, the odd cock pranced and crowed. And all day during all but the highest of tides, a dozen overladen motorcyclists, like the guys who’d brought us here, went back and forth from La Barra to Ladrilleros carrying sacks of food, travellers and messages. They are the real kings of La Barra. Almost everything depends on them and their motorbikes.
My new Tinder profile photo, if Lily and I ever break up.
The beach is located in the Valle Del Cauca region, inhabited from 1,500 BC onwards by the Llama tribe. Their economy was based on textile weaving, metallurgy, hunting, fishing, and agriculture, with gold and ceramic artworks and a plethora of gods. The Spanish, when they arrived 3,000 years later, brought two gods of their own (Profit and God with a capital G) – and quickly set about murdering and enslaving the natives. By the 1520s Africans were being shipped in to replace the already rapidly dying local population.
This is going to get a bit dark, but it’s worth it. La Barra is 98% black. The reason why is both a horrifying story and one of incredible resilience.
The 1.1 million Africans that survived the trip to Cartagena were bought to mine gold and farm sugar cane. But many slaves either escaped in shipwrecks, fought for liberty or purchased it by panning for gold or renting themselves to other masters on Sundays (say what you want about the Spanish, but apparently not even their slaves worked on Sundays), building up personal wealth with which to buy their own freedom.
The dense jungle, difficult climate and constant threat of the Spanish military trying to capture them again made gathering together essential for survival. Free slaves formed well-defended “palenques” (stockades) and more politically accepted “free towns”. Both types were intentionally set up near enslaved populations (i.e. near mines and plantations) with the express intent of influencing other slaves to join them.
Through the 17th Century more Africans were shipped in, more Africans rebelled and larger areas of Colombia became “free”. They revived the traditions of their homelands and adapted to those of the Native Americans, learning how to use local plants for medicines and to hunt. These African communities lived symbiotically and in solidarity with the surviving native population.
During the war of Independence against the Spanish in the early 19th Century, more than half of Bolivar’s army were black, but the win did not mean liberty for Colombia’s black population. Despite their role in the war, it took another 30 years for slavery to be abolished, by which time an official policy of miscegenation (the cross-breeding of races in an attempt to erase traces of Black African or Indigenous descent) was in play. Emancipation also hadn’t stopped militia groups attempting to seize land from free Africans for their own use.
Africans pushed back even deeper into the jungle for safety, creating isolated all-black communities, in part to preserve their racial heritage and in part to defend themselves. And that, finally, brings us back to La Barra, a remote, isolated, nearly 100% black town in El Pacifico, the descendants of free slaves from Africa.
Just a couple more things, then I promise we’ll get back to beaches, food and palm trees.
Like all areas mainly populated by Afro-Colombians, the region has been left largely underdeveloped. Many believe this is thanks to leftover prejudices from colonial times, prejudices that stem from the utterly sickening “hierarchical system of race classification” (Casta) the Spanish set up before leaving. Spain didn’t just loot the land, enslave everyone, force subjects to forget their native tongue, spread apocalyptic diseases and convert them all to Catholocism.
Here’s how Cultural Survival, an organisation that advocates for the rights of indigenous people in South America, talks about the enduring impact of racial prejudice in Colombia:
“Although historical isolation of the sort romanticised by Gabriel García-Márquez has aided the creation of distinctly Afro-Colombian…cultures, official neglect, deep-seated racism in both the highlands and major ports, and general political disenfranchisement have been among the many negatives…. Western Colombia [is still one of the] least developed regions of northwest South America. Roads, railroads, and other transportation networks are slipshod or nonexistent, electricity unavailable or sporadic. The difficulty of the terrain is often blamed for these infrastructure shortcomings, but there is no excuse for the appalling State of health care, education, water treatment, and many other basic services.”
Let’s all look at a beautiful a photo of a beach:
That’s not an island, that’s a 180º panorama shot of the Colombian mainland, standing on the beach.
Okay, back to the holiday.
It was a lazy few days. Highlights included seeing a huge, live iguana dragged down the beach by an 8 year old who’d hooked its legs behind its back. He was on his way to present the dinosaur to his parents for dinner. Athletic men snared coconuts from trees, lopped the top off with machetes, then handed them to someone who’d turn it into a coco loco (meaning “crazy coconut”) for Lily and me, a delicious rum filled cocktail drunk straight out of the coconut shell.
Then there was the sea, which was easily the calmest and most annoying ocean I’ve been in. A vast shelf of land just under sea level means that not only does the sea recede annoyingly far when the tide is low, but when it’s high you have to wade for ages along the shelf through flat water for several minutes before you’re even shoulder deep. Much further out, a reef repels the ocean waves, meaning what we got to enjoy of the sea was much like a warm, barren lake. Lily and I would wade out every day until we got bored of walking.
On the plus side, not many people live here, and not that many people want to come here. “But the Pacific is ugly”, Lily’s friends said when we told them our vacation plans, “and the sea is cold”. Neither is true, but don’t tell anybody – getting away from humans on a sandy beach next to the jungle is a treat.
It’s still wonderful being able to travel around beautiful destinations with waterfalls and beaches and coconuts filled with booze, without endless signs in English stating “cold beer” and “breakfast served all day” and “more inside”. English is the language of modern colonialism, of opportunistic investments, of homogenised expectations, of “flat whites” and “dial 0 for reception” and “we aim to please”.
Here, locals use these shores to launch fishing boats, snare coconuts and play football. They’re also erecting large wooden barns full of beds for tourists (like me) and cleaning our communal toilets. How soon until resorts move in and make service industry automatons of them all, under signs reading “we speak English” and “Spa open 12-3”.
At least La Barra’s transformation is FUBU (for us, by us), and not fuelled by Kuwaiti VCs or hotel chains. There is, so far, no grand design for La Barra, no fenced off areas, no private beaches, no hiding of resident accommodation, no security, no coaches full of snapping geriatrics. The downside is that there is also no-one employed to pick up the trash that litters the paths and beach. Although, even the garbage comes with the kind honesty you wouldn’t find in a resort.
An alcoholic “coco loco”, filled with rum and coconut water, among other things
This secluded paradise offers other treat; little satellite connection. I.e., no social networks. On day one we struggled to keep conversation going in the absence of distraction. But by day two our brains were warming up, and by day three idle chit chat seemed normal. Remember when you focused 100% of the time on the people you’re with?
Our digital detox also afforded us enough time for books. I was reading Ground Control by Anna Minton, about the antisocial poison of gated communities and the privatisation of public space in the UK and USA, and made me wonder – “who owns the coconuts in La Barra?” The answer, refreshingly, is nobody.
From 2012 to 2014 La Barra was destroyed by winds and high tides. They rebuilt further back from the beach, sheltering in the relative protection provided by the trees. When they moved, politicians offered them actual deeds to the land, to make their ownership official. Free land! And yet they refused. They decided that everyone and no-one owns the land (or, by extension, the coconuts). It’s nice to entertain the idea that this solidarity and integrity stem from the lessons learned escaping the hell of Spanish “ownership” mentality.
Collective ownership of the land, freedom from oppression, economic slavery, state neglect, political impotence, the damage of an imposed class system… with a history like this in rural Colombia, is it any wonder why there are guerrilla groups here?
Well, not here. On these beaches, there’s nothing but sand, sea air and tranquility.