Words by Evan Quarnstrom
As this small, rickety taxi came within view of the ocean, I felt ready to surf whatever was on offer. It's been one of those scenarios where I hadn’t surfed in more than a month and was desperate for it.
I unstrapped my board from the taxi’s roof and stood on my tiptoes to get a better view of the waves, and... was pleasantly surprised by what was unfolding before me.
Travel guide: Where to Surf in Colombia.
Elegantly smooth waves wrapped around a jetty, gracefully gliding for hundreds of metres down a sand-bottom point. It was only waist-to-thigh high or so, but the way the swell lines could be seen bending out to sea reminded me of a mini J-Bay. And yeah yeah, that's an over-used term, but there it is!
As my mind began to wander about the potential of this jetty wave, my long-time Colombian friend Simon Salazar appeared on his motorcycle, pretty much right as I set my bags down.
“Let’s get out there before the swell dies,” he said, reminding me that these Caribbean swells can disappear as quickly as they arrived. Yeah, I didn’t need telling twice. I paddled out to shake off the drowsiness from a day of traveling by bus.
And after so much time out of the water, I was quick to fall in love with the surf scene in the village of Puerto Colombia. The waves were surprisingly fun, the locals emanated welcoming vibes, and the warm water of the Caribbean was therapeutic.
Having arrived without expectations, I was grinning from ear to ear while paddling circles around the point.
“Why have I never visited before?” I thought. And while I noticed how surfing was undoubtedly leaving its impression on this little community, I learned that it hasn’t come easy.
As we traded off waves, Simon told stories about surfing in his native country. He explained that even though surfing has grown leaps and bounds in recent years, many barriers still exist for Colombian surfers due to the consequences left by years of war and violence.
The town of Puerto Colombia has gone through a dramatic shift over the centuries.
Once, it was one of the most important ports on the entire continent. But the city has since dwindled to a sleepy fishing village, once the more practical port of nearby Barranquilla took over the shipping industry.
Signs of its more glorious past are easy to spot, seen in the dilapidated pier that juts out of the ocean offshore. In its heyday, it was the longest pier in the world.
“Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley used to visit here,” said Simon as he told me about the town’s colourful past. “But things have changed, as you can see.”
Despite the decline of Puerto Colombia over the years, the surfing community has started to reinvent the place, leveraging its most abundant natural resource; the waves.
With beachbreaks and jetties well-positioned to receive swell from the mid-Atlantic and into the Caribbean Sea, and an ideal location near an international airport, Puerto Colombia is becoming one of the central surfing zones in the country.
Simon's family moved to the town when he was 14-years-old, when they were in search of pastures greener. He picked up surfing rapidly and eventually ascended the ranks to become a five-time national champion.
After a few stints abroad in California, he returned to his roots in Colombia full-time, opening a surf school, a hostel, and a cafe on the beach of his hometown with a friend.
And while making a living outside of the bigger, industrious cities of Colombia is easier said than done, according to Simon, the positive effects of surfing can already be seen in their coastal village.
“Surfing is giving people another opportunity to choose from,” he said. “Before, the only way to make a living was living in Barranquilla. Some of the locals used to scrape by peeling onions all night, or driving motorcycle taxis. Now those guys are making a better living in the ocean, giving surf lessons and working in tourism.”
The intrinsic power of surfing to create social change is also flowing through the community.
I noticed that one surf instructor spent the majority of his time around the surf hostel, so I asked him why he never went home.
“Staying here is a safer place,” he explained. “Being here keeps me away from the drugs and violence of the neighbourhood I live in. I can focus on my studies and surfing.”
Despite the apparent paradise, trying to make a living through surfing still presents lots of challenges.
“We have great surfers, but in Colombia, you can’t be a pro surfer by just surfing,” explained Simon. “We are pros just because we hustle, whether through surf lessons, influencer gigs, tourism, or the chance to work with the government.
“Winning contests and surfing well isn’t enough. That’s out of the picture. Surfing in Colombia started just like everywhere else, but up until 10-years-ago we couldn’t even surf some of the best waves in our country due to the political war between the government and guerilla groups. For example, places with amazing waves, like La Tayrona and Isla Fuerte, were too dangerous to visit.”
“We have enough waves in Colombia. That’s not the problem."
And even when the years of war and drug violence subsided, the stigma that hung over the country still scared off visitors, brands, and investment. The industry that flows into regional surfing powerhouses, like Costa Rica, has been slow to enter Colombia.
“We have enough waves in Colombia. That’s not the problem,” said Simon. “The problem is the growth of the industry behind surfing. I also realised that in order to compete with the international talent, I had to have boards tailored for all conditions. I needed a brand new board at least every two months. Surfers in Colombia didn’t, and don’t, have that.”
Simon has only one high-performance board at the moment, and he’s afraid to try new manoeuvres for fear that he’ll break it – a practical example of how the lack of industry can impede the sport’s progress.
“If the best surfers can’t just focus on improving their skills, the sport won’t grow,” said Simon. “We don’t have access to equipment or travel. We are still a way off in that regard.”
“Most surfers didn't come here because they thought it was dangerous,” said Simon. “Then we had surfers like Natxo Gonzalez, Adriano De Souza, and Miguel Pupo come to show people that Colombia has beautiful waves and it’s not dangerous.
“That helps because in order to become a better surfer, you need to watch better surfers performing on the same waves you are surfing. That’s how we learn.”
Simple things that we first-world surfers take for granted are basic necessities that are lacking in Colombian surfing.
“We need more contests, more trainings, and more boards,” said Simon. “The industry needs to fall into the right place. But that’s hard. Brands need sales and Colombia has a really weak currency, which makes that difficult.”
Despite the challenges, the surf industry is starting to take notice of Colombia’s untapped potential. Many once blank boards are now starting to get slapped with stickers.
“Some surfers have clothing deals, which is nice,” said Simon. “But they need real support like salary, trips, and boards. Being a pro surfer has a lot of expectations, and it’s hard to meet them without money.”
The blueprint is in place. I saw it with my own two eyes. There are waves and an increasingly growing community of Colombians who are getting drawn to the unforgettable sensation of wave riding.
Simon, who I would peg as a glass-half-full type of guy, sees reason for optimism too.
“We need to understand that we are a big family. We need to be close together, and when this thing takes off, we can’t leave anyone behind.”