We are separated from Tierra Bomba by a 50 yards of sand and a narrow strip of water and yet, elbowing our way through the boca grande crowds, beneath pewter sky, it feels like it may as well be on the moon. The tour company we booked our boat through responded noncommitally to our booking request and then burned their phones and threw their computers into the sea. We had no way of knowing for sure if there was a boat and if we would have seats on it. One of those problems that you dump into the later folder until you look up suddenly and realize that later is now and now you’re out of options. It’s either down to the beach with a pocket full of hope or pouting around the hotel. I’m not much of a pout-er.
So we are elbowing our way through the Boca Grande wildness, past a jingling parade of vendors and a swarm of tourists embedded in the sand. waves whump into the beach. The honking of car horns on the wind like birds in the woods.
“It’s up ahead,” Melissa says,” I think.”
She’s reading treasure map directions from the booking company’s website. Past the hospital, by the red tents, 26 paces, yo ho ho.
The beach spreads out wide and flat in front of us, skyscrapers jutting up into the sky beyond it. Past the hospital, by the red tents, we see a gaggle of alabaster people shuffling to the water. They look lost. They are caked with sunscreen. Some of them look drunk already. These are our people.
“You guys going to Tierra Bomba?” I call to them.
We follow them across wet sand to a line of boats positioned at the mouth of an inlet, men working them with the lean, sure hands of water people. Tying knots, pouring fuel. We line up at the boats and a man with a clipboard checks us off of a list that we’re not sure we’re even on.
They push our boat out into that hungry water and we heave ourselves into it in the shallows. The engine roars to life at the end of a rip chord and we are away. Beneath our red tarp, from our salty bench we watch warm water and dark skies slip past and then finally green trees and sandy beaches rise up out of the nothing.
Our boat pilot is a fucking surgeon. He drifts the boat into the shallow harbor backwards, firing off the motor in measured bursts, anticipating the rising and falling of the sea, the uneven ocean floor, the boats around us. Feeling it all, going with it. We disembark without a dock or a rope, off the back into the shallows while his boat hovers impossibly in spite of the jostling of the sea. When we are all off, he roars away and it is just our gaggle of alabaster drunks on a foreign beach until a woman comes to collect us.
“Welcome to Tierra Bomba!”
Tierra Bomba is a 9 square kilometer dimple of beach and trees across the water from Boca Grande. A quick scan of Tripadvisor leaves one with a general impression of roughness. Litter, they say. Muggers, they say.
This wasn’t our experience.
Sure, there was a bit of litter scattered around, but honestly, There wasn’t a single beach, street or park that we visited in our time there that didn’t have at least a little loose trash in it. This is a developing country with a corrupt government fighting its way out of decades of violence, not a Sandals Resort. If a little garbage sours your experience, then you might want to get involved with space exploration, because we’ve pretty much totaled this planet and the only reason you don’t see all this refuse on American beaches is because we’re actively dumping it into the sea, where it can become someone else’s problem.
As for the muggers, not only did we never experience anything like that on Tierra Bomba, but honestly, I didn’t feel even remotely unsafe the entire time we were in Cartagena. And I’m not really a false sense of security, kind of guy. I almost punched a gypsy in Strasbourg. I got kicked out of a haunted house for doing exactly what you think I did. Not in Cartagena, though. Night time found us wandering together down shadowy alleys under halogen lights to the sound of bachata music through open windows, totally at ease. I saw an old couple salsa dancing in a bodega. I saw a Jack Russell Terrier barking at an iguana. I did not see a single fight, fire or robbery. Not in the walled city, not in Getsemani and certainly not on our little slice of Tierra Bomba. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen, or that it won’t, but it’s not really safe to be in a kindergarten in America right now, so pick your poison.
Our slice of Tierra Bomba includes a shelter, a hanging bed, a bench, a table and a hammock. It includes the sun, the sand and the sea. It includes a couple of bottles of local lager. Most importantly, though, it includes the signature dish of Cartagena, fried fish, coconut rice.
I am fresh from a swim, drip drying in the steam heat of the Colombian sun, when they bring our lunch out. It taps into a very visceral part of me, sitting in a hammock with saltwater beading on my skin, muscles taught from swimming, and a lunch that I didn’t have to make brought to me.It takes me back to my summers in Southern California, splayed out on a towel in the stoney sand, working on a paper plate full of sandwich halves and chips. .
Only this isn’t wonder bread and deli ham. This isn’t American cheese and Lays potato chips.
Steaming on the table before me is nothing short of an island masterpiece. Fish fried in oil that must have been absolutely moving. Dunked in it, still salty from the sea, just long enough to put a rasp on it, some color to it. It’s fantastic. Crispy, faintly greasy, tossed in some kind of lime powder. I pick it apart with my salty fingers and drop it steaming into my mouth to the sounds of wind through the palms and water in the sand.The coconut rice is everything that the fish needs to make the meal round and even. Nutty, hearty, sweet. A fresh salad on the side and a mouthful of beer to wash it all down.
Bliss on a plate in a hammock I wasn’t sure I’d reserved, on an island I wasn’t sure I’d get to.