I hold my lifevest tightly across my chest feeling the cool spray from the waves crashing against the boat. I turn around and take in the amazing panoramic view of Santa Marta and the Sierra Nevada drooping down behind the city.
It’s a Saturday morning and I am on my way to explore the huge innocu- ous rocky island that sits in front of the Bahía de Santa Marta. As we get closer to El Morro, I can see the lighthouse and the ruins of a building with gulls circling above. There is nothing to be heard but the whistling of the wind and the movement of the sea bellow. I jump into the water and go under. A magnificent scene comes into view; a magical world of different colors, shapes and lively existence. This, I realise, is the real soul and spirit of El Morro.
Anyone who visits Santa Marta will surely take at least one photo of El Morro, adding a touch of romance to already dramatic surroundings. The island, which rises out of the water to a height of 65 meters, was believed by the local indigenous to be a sacred place and to which they sailed to watch sunsets. According to pre-Columbian beliefs, the sun and the moon loved each other deeply and during twilight the sun and moon met; leaving the fruit of their love: the stars and constellations.
Throughout history people always placed importance on the outer surface of this rock and didn’t care about what existed beneath. However, in my exploration I discovered that the real magic is a mix of the two. Just below the sea’s surface marine life explodes with the colors of a rainbow, including enormous sponges and corals that make one think of how incredibly old this environment must be. No matter what immense changes occurred above, life has thrived here. If these lively aquatic spirits could talk, we would hear incredible tales of beauty, bravery and of wars against cunning pirates.
Since Santa Marta was founded in 1525 by Rodrigo de Bastidas, El Morro has been used as a reference point for the town for incoming ships and later was strategically used to defend against pirate attacks. The first pirate to hit these shores was Frenchman Robert Waal, who posed as a Spaniard, confusing the inhabitants and watchmen, and easily gained access; invading the city and government’s house. Over eight days he, and his bloodthirsty gang, wreaked havoc: burning houses and churches. It is thought that during these days of occupation the city’s founding document signed by Rodrigo de Bastidas disappeared.
Over the next 100 years countless fierce and unruly pirates arrived looking for treasures of pearls and gold, and leaving the city in ruins. To help protect Santa Marta, a fort was built on the island of El Morro, equipped with heavy canons and guns with the intention to impede a skull-crossed pirate ship from moving closer. When piracy lost its lure and the struggle for Colombian independence was stirring, the island’s ruins were converted into a prison for creole rebels; it was then forgotten and left in ruins once again.
Despite years of abandonment, this rocky outcrop is still protecting Santa Marta by providing the base for the lighthouse that illuminates the way and warns incoming ships as they enter the Puerto de Santa Marta. The allure and enchantment of El Morro has not been lost to the business of marine transport. In recent years, the natural beauty and location of El Morro provided the setting for the soon to be released movie, ‘El Faro,’ by director Pacho Bottía and it’s possible to take a trip around the island on boat tours that frequently leave from the Bay of Santa Marta or book a scuba diving trip from several dive centers in town.
The future for El Morro lies in the hands of a group of passionate locals and influential businessmen who want to convert it into a cultural museum. Graphic designer Jorge Enrique Mendoza Manjarrez has created a brand, Santomarto, which intends to recover and recuperate this chunk of nature. The idea is to create public awareness (through tangible and intangible ways) that El Morro is more than just a cinematographer’s prop, but instead a national cultural heritage that every Colombian and tourist should know about; and the real spirit of El Morro, the marine life that perseveres, is recognized and that its essence is appreciated as something worth protecting, supporting and exploring.
Several Dive Companies offer trips to El Morro: Quimera Divers and Tienda de Buceo El Rodadero