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Colombian surf champion Sergio Navarro is willing to help newbies learn how to ride the waves. (Nick Senior for The Globe and Mail)
Colombian surf champion Sergio Navarro is willing to help newbies learn how to ride the waves. (Nick Senior for The Globe and Mail)

Caribbean

A surfer girl takes the plunge in Colombia Add to ...

I stand on the edge of the pier at Puerto Colombia, the Caribbean rising and falling rhythmically below me. I have my surfboard tucked under my left arm, and despite my pounding heart I concentrate on the instructions being hollered from below.

Colombian surf champion Sergio Navarro, who has made this leap a thousand times, is straddling his surfboard, coaching me from the water. Even though the drop from the pier is more than a storey, it's the easiest access to the surf at this sweet spot, appropriately known as el muelle (the pier).

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A small crowd of curious locals has gathered to see if this foreign girl is actually going to jump. As a wave passes under the pier, Navarro yells, "Remember to throw your surfboard away from you - NOW!" Filled with terror and adrenalin, I step off.

Colombia is fast gaining ground as an international tourist destination, thanks to its recent increase in security. While foreigners are discovering some of the more traditional tourism spots, the surf scene on the Caribbean coast remains a largely undiscovered gem for surfers and adventure travellers seeking an authentic experience.

Surf tourism in Colombia is in its infancy, and here it's a grassroots movement. Foreigners are cherished, not resented, and the few who make their way here are given royal treatment - including, in my case, free personal coaching from a pro champion.

The famed Colombian friendliness was clearly visible the first weekend I went to Pradomar - the hub of the surf scene in Puerto Colombia, on the Caribbean in the country's northwest.

The day I arrived, the sea was flat as a pancake. Just one surfer hung out on the beach, eating, not surfing. When I asked him if this was the place for surfing, he said it was, but not today. Come back tomorrow, he said, maybe the surf will pick up.

So I did, but it hadn't. The sea was the same Old Dutch pancake it was the day before. (Colombians, I've found, often prefer to tell you something unrealistically optimistic than something realistic but disappointing.) However, this time the lone surfer had an entourage - which was perplexing, because when the surf's down, contrary to popular belief, surfers work. Interestingly enough, they all seemed to know who I was, la canadiense, and were all eager to make me feel welcome and to know more about me.

That weekend set the precedent (for friendliness, not surf) for the remainder of my surf time in Colombia. From that moment, I was under their wing.

They told me about all the surf spots, inviting me when they could. And, non-surfers, that's no trivial matter: The stereotype of the mellow, peace-loving surfer dude is highly misleading. In all surf communities around the world there is at least a sub-population (if not the entire population) of locals who hoard the good spots; they certainly don't tell outsiders, and sometimes not even insiders, about these coveted breaks.

But not the Colombians. They are patriotically proud of their beaches and even prouder to share them. Unlike in so many other places, I was always welcome to join them on their surf outings even though I hadn't put in years to "earn my spot." (I also think 40-plus years of civil war may have taught them that life is too short for hoarding.)

The port city of Barranquilla is an ideal launching point for the more popular surf spots on the Caribbean coast: Puerto Colombia, the Cartagena area and Tayrona National Park.

Puerto Colombia is a 30-minute cab ride from Barranquilla ($12 if you bargain well) and offers a number of small bays, making it one of the most consistent places to find surf. The fact that you can park at the beaches also makes Puerto Colombia the most accessible surf.

The waves in Cartagena (an hour southwest of Barranquilla) are much less consistent: The conditions have to be just right. But the backdrop is spectacular. The historic old city is arguably the most beautiful and well-preserved colonial city in Latin America.

My favourite surf spot was Tayrona National Park - a beautiful reserve northeast of Barranquilla. Here you can find big, peeling surf and there are 35 kilometres of pristine beach offering a variety of point, reef and beach breaks.

Most beaches require some hiking, and the most popular accommodation in the park is your hammock, which is easily carried wrapped around your surfboard. There's no shortage of trees for hanging it - although it's best to assess the ripeness of the coconuts before committing. I'm told that more surfers die from coconut bombings than accidents while surfing.

Special to The Globe and Mail

* * *

Getting there
Air Canada and Avianca fly from Toronto to Barranquilla.

Where to stay

Hotel Versalles Carrera 48 No. 70-188; Barranquilla; 57-5-3682183; www.hojo.com. From $95.

Where to eat
Street stalls sell tropical fruit juices (jugo de lulo is like drinking candy) and local cuisine (arepa de huevo - deep-fried corn dough with egg inside).

When to go
Surf on the Caribbean coast year-round except fall.

Surf supplies
Tavarua Surf Shop
57 (5) 378-1174; tavaruasurfshop@gmail.com.

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