In the mid-1950s, a group of 11 or 12 Afro Colombians purchased a small plot of land, not far from Cartagena de Indias but isolated enough that they and their extended families lived a peaceful existence relatively separated from the rest of the world. Tucked away on a spit of land with the old city in view on a clear day, the days, months and years passed with very little change. Families grew so they just moved to another small plot of land and constructed a home or hovel, whatever fit their needs. There were no property titles. Everyone knew where Tio Alberto lived or Tia Marta. The doors of the houses were open or non-existent. Kids wandered in and out of the doors, along with the local dogs and pigs. Burros wandered the streets and life passed on through Manzanillo del Mar.
I was invited to this idyllic spot in 2005 to pass a pleasant Sunday afternoon. We ate fish by the ocean and watched the waves dance along the shore. As we walked along the beach, I could not help feeling that this was a special place. Between Manzanillo and the highway to Cartagena, besides a few large homes was virtually nothing. There were a few half-hearted local hotels and a large hotel project that had been halted for a great deal of time supposedly due to environmental concerns.
I could visualize this village with cobblestone streets and beautiful little ocean side homes interspersed with cafes and specialty shops. I made some discreet inquiries and discovered a number of properties were for sale. They were small albeit but inexpensive – 10 K US – 15 K US. I recruited a number of friends to consider buying but then we hit a bit of a snag. None of these properties had titles. At the time this seemed mind-boggling. Those of us from a European or North American background find it inconceivable that this could happen but it was true.
At this point my little dream evaporated as it seems everybody and their brother had a property to sell. The question was, who really owned these little plots of land. To obtain the title was going to be a 2 to 3 year process in court with no guarantee of success. A multitude of people were going to have to be involved and paid and even though the investment was small my friends were not willing to take the risk.
Eight years later, not much has changed in the village of Manzanillo, there are a few new houses but pretty much everything has remained the same. Up the beach towards the highway, is another story completely! The abandoned hotel is now exclusive condos and part of a world-class golf resort. One of the largest Colombian hotel chains owns an all-inclusive resort just at the edge of the beach and a little closer to Manzanillo is an exclusive spa offering ”relaxation, reflexology and well being.”
Not so long ago I read and responded to a review of Manzanillo in Trip Advisor. It said that it was a sad and poor place and if you look at it through foreign tourist eyes perhaps it seems that way, but it is not ! It, with a few changes, is the Afro Colombian village that was founded there almost 60 years ago. The children, though some have access to ‘’fancy’’ cellphones, still make games with stones and bottle caps. They spend part of their afternoons playing on the beach. Life continues in Manzanillo as it has for years and years. Perhaps the difference now is the internet has finally arrived and satellite TV is available.
If you want to truly experience a Colombian beach, free of a lot of foreign tourists, then go to Manzanillo but remember this is a Colombian experience. The village is not the cleanest. For some reason, this culture has not yet come to terms with ways to handle our disposable society. The beach is brown sand and you will find some garbage as you walk along the waters´ edge as this is not a tourist area so it is not groomed. The mornings are delicious. I stayed at a new, slightly unfinished hotel right at the beach. The room had a modern bathroom and a clean bed. All one needed to enjoy the beach. The hostess was a charming Caribbean woman who looked after us like family.
In the early morning, the beach is virtually uninhabited. Walking along the shore, with the water lapping at my feet, at least part of the beach is clean as the ocean does its part in cleansing the debris that has been disposed of carelessly. It is not difficult to experience a serene peacefulness with only the sound of the ocean and the occasional runner to keep you company.
Heading up the beach from Manzanillo towards Cartagena there is a prominent outgrowth of rock. Passing around it or over it, one finds a lovely, sandy beach, sheltered on the other side by a similar protrusion of rock. Playa de Oro, shelters a number of ramshackle restaurants that having been inhabiting this section of beach for years. Their construction is primitive but the locals still understand that without a moment´s notice the weather may consume their locale so why invest in something that is temporary?
This is a lesson that we have to seem to forget on the Eastern Seaboard in the US. There was a time when the homes were made of wood and easily replaced. Now the insurance companies and we the insured, bear the cost of replacing expensive homes that will inevitably face the wrath of nature, at some point.
This lesson will soon be lost at the Playa de Oro – Beach of Gold. The restaurant owners will be replaced by something more modern when the beach becomes the home to new and exclusive condos. This is very unfortunate as some of these families have occupied this site for 50 years.
In the meantime, you can enjoy a very Colombian, family beach. There are fewer vendors to harass you and the beach is protected and calmer than Cartagena. Here you can also enjoy some of the best ´´Sancocho de Pescado´´ anywhere.
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I passed many delicious Sunday afternoons at Playa de Oro. My favourite restaurant is owned by Alberto. By the way, here most restaurants do not have names. As you arrive at the village of Manzanillo, the dance begins. Many young locals will surround your car and try to direct you to a particular location, very probably their own family´s facility. Don´t get sidetracked. Follow the road past all of the huts along the Manzanillo beach until you reach Playa de Oro. Just as you hit the beach and enter Playa de Oro, on the right-hand side is Alberto´s cookhouse. Here, one of his many children or grandchildren will direct you to a parking space closer to the water.
The tables are of crude construction, as is everything. The tablecloth may not be spotless as it is tacked to a table sitting on the sand. Shelters from the sun are constructed from palm fronds and protect you from the sun and the heat.
Don´t be easily diverted to a restaurant along the Manzanillo side or Playa de Oro. I have been eating at Alberto´s for over 8 years and for local food, prepared for a Colombian clientele I always leave satisfied.
Recently I was in Manzanillo through the week and Alberto is only open on the weekend, in slow periods sometimes only on a Sunday. My Colombian companions and I stopped at a spot just before the road curves to lead to Playa de Oro. I had an excellent meal of Mojara prepared in a coconut sauce – Mojarra con leche de coco. When we received our bill, we or at least I had been targeted as ”Papaya”.
There was a charge for the table !! Now, what were we to do? Sit on the sand and eat ? All of our drinks were 2 1-2 times the average price on the beach. These facilities don´t have menus. The choice is fish, fish or fish. We should have asked the prices of the drinks but 8 years of experience, unfortunately, made us too confident and victims of our own assuredness.
If you prefer 5-star spotlessness and pristine hygiene then the village of Manzanillo or the Playa de Oro are not where you should go. Life goes on in Manzanillo with or without us. Why not be part of the experience?
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