The story starts off the way many do when it comes to recounting a road trip through South America. There are the names of capital cities, the scattered archeological sites from Tayrona to Macchu Picchu, and an obligatory Amazon journey.
Like many of the foreigners who pour into Colombia for the first time carrying backpacks, 31-year-old Ryan Dore, a Californian who grew up in Lafayette and a town near Berkeley, calculated two months in Colombia before heading overland to Lima, Buenos Aires, Bariloche and Rio de Janeiro. “Those two months have turned into five years,” says Ryan as we grab iced coffee in the old center of Santa Marta, the first known settlement of the Spanish conquest of the Americas and home to his ‘Brisa Loca’ hostel.
When Ryan drove off with his brother Evan in a Volkswagen Combi to the southernmost latitudes of the continent with the objective “to do as much camping as possible,” he didn’t seem too concerned about life after college. “I wanted to be on a beach,” states Ryan, as the morning heat begins to climb and a warm Caribbean Sea breeze sweeps through a colonial courtyard renovated into a Juan Valdez café.
Ryan was drawn to Santa Marta from the very start because this sleepy town, in his words, “seemed rough on the edges.” The young Californian was also drawn to the fact that the town had survived for centuries in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the ancestral home of Colombia’s indigenous Kogi, Arhuacho and Kankuamo. But it wasn’t until he awoke one morning on the empty beach of Palomino near Tayrona National Park and gazed up at the snow capped peaks of the Sierra that Ryan was fully convinced that Santa Marta would be part of a business plan which seemed to come together every time the Volkswagen Combi ground to a halt along an empty stretch of South American road. “We spent a lot of time under and behind it,” recalls Ryan of a vehicle, which endured a crossing of the Amazon and eventually blew its engine in Venezuela.
“Brisa Loca” is the local catch phrase Samarios give to a sudden change in wind direction and temperature when cold currents sweeps in from the Sierra Nevada and refresh the afternoon in the port city. Translated as “Crazy Wind,” the climate phenomenon makes Santa Marta popular with visitors, as the temperature along this stretch of coast rarely gets as humid as nearby Barranquilla and Cartagena.
Envisioning the potential of Santa Marta as a backpacker’s paradise given its proximity to Tayrona National Park, Ryan also realized the potential of a renovated city center in keeping visitors charmed by colonialism and its collapsing Republican architecture not far- but a world removed- from the all-inclusive package tourism of nearby Rodadero beach.
With the Mayor unveiling an urban renovation timetable for Santa Marta called “Plan Centro,” Dore decided to get going on his first business in Colombia: creating a large, comfortable hostel on three floors of a dilapidated Republican-style house.
“What I like about hostels,” says Ryan “is that they allow travelers to socialize. After getting a loan in the United States (as Dore had no credit history in Colombia nor means by which to raise capital) the travel entrepreneur set out to renovate a 140-year-old building. Ripping up decaying floors and laying new pipes, the renovation process as Dore describes was “pretty toxic” given the dead pigeons and nesting bats.
After six months of paying carpenters, electricians and dozens of other laborers, Brisa Loca opened its doors in 2009 to the first travelers needing a place to stay in Santa Marta. Word of the Dore’s hostel quickly spread from the Bali-esque beach of Taganga, and its reputation continues to grow with South America-bound backpackers. While many hostels offer limited perks, preferring to pack travelers into crowded dorms, Ryan wanted his hostel to be a place where travelers would socialize, have a pool to relax in, decent home cooked meals and internet access. “Traveling can get stressful. Once you step out these doors, you get the chaos of life.”
In a city with plenty of orderly chaos and “not one good hostel” to chose from, according to this businessman, Brisa Loca is now an obligatory part of a “gringo trail” which extends from the beaches of Santa Marta to Patagonia. According to this hostel owner, part of their success has been their capacity to build trust among the many travelers through good word of mouth. Looking back on the paperwork and banking red tape, Ryan optimistically states: “it wasn’t too hard, but it could have been easier.”
Lodging up to 85 guests in 14 rooms (including four private ones for couples willing to pay a little extra), Brisa Loca is one of several start-ups breathing new life into Santa Marta’s historic district. Along with the hostel, Ryan also convinced a friend from New York and Michelin star trained chef, Michael McMurdo, to open a Mediterranean seafood restaurant overlooking a Santa Marta landmark: Parque de Los Novios. As one of the highest ranked restaurants in Santa Marta ‘Ouzo’ is a happening place on any night. Dore and partners now want to keep the momentum by launching another hostel in the colonial city, this time focused on an older age group, “without losing the level of socializing.”
After five years in Santa Marta, Ryan Dore has been busy and “entertained” with coastal life. Although starting a hostel and overseeing several restaurants was never going to be an easy task, Dore is grateful that he isn’t “stuck in a cubicle,” and that he still can take time off to kite surf in a place known for its crazy wind.