Santa Marta is not the most scenic or recommended of cities, but you know what, guidebook recommendations can shove it; they've steered me wrong enough times. Every time Lonely Planet has characterized a large city as “seedy,” it has usually been just fine for me (Puno, Peru being the most recent). It seems that in this case, seedy means no gringos and lots of locals, which is what I guess the majority of tourists want.
A long bouncy bus from Cartagena takes us to the beachfront of Santa Marta, oldest surviving city in South America and where the great liberator General Simon Bolivar finally perished. After a quick survey and several fan photos, it's obvious that we are the only gringos in town. After calling out some teen girls for clandestinely taking our picture, we give them a pose, feeling like celebrity tourists. Noticeably less are the swarms of street hustlers and prostitutes; well, there are some of both, but their services are geared towards Colombians meaning we are left alone. We get a lot of strange looks from people, but when we surprise a couple in responding to their “why are the gringos here” conversation that they think we don't understand and end up receiving praise when we tell them meeting Colombians for us is just as important as the sights.
Gone are the tourist police, who have been replaced by military national guardsmen. However, instead of simply standing around looking intimidating, these soldiers conduct a little Army Diplomacy. They stroll up and down the beach, giving candies to kids and talking with parents. I saw one soldier give a fist bump to an eight year old who one day may grow up to fill those very same boots. I wanted to take pictures, but I knew better.