What was your inspiration for going to Colombia?

My family is Colombian and a cousin was getting married in Cartagena. Always looking for an excuse to travel, we ended up taking an extra week to re-discover places I visited when I was much younger. We spent a total of 10 days in there and began our trip in Cartagena, on Christmas Day. We made our way up the Caribbean coast through Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Minca, Parque Tayrona, and ended up at a small beach bungalow close to Guachaca on Colombia’s northern coast. We originally wanted to make it as far as Cabo de la Vela, the northernmost tip of South America, but decided we’d be rushing it. We’ll save it for a return visit soon.

My wife, Maria, and the last sunset of 2015 on a secluded beach close to Guachaca, a town at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
My wife, Maria, and the last sunset of 2015 on a secluded beach close to Guachaca, a town at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Your video felt very personal, almost like you inviting the viewer on vacation with you. Was that the intention?

Sort of. As we get older, the daily grind wears us down, and begins to make us cynical, maybe even jaded, and we begin to lose that curiosity and wonder we all had in our youth. Travel is the only thing I’ve found that helps me experience that spontaneity and freedom of my youth when anything felt possible. I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities for travel through work and my own desire, and I only wish I could bring more of my friends along. While I make videos primarily to remember my journeys, it’s a way for me to share the experience with my friends and allow them to travel with me, even if only for a few minutes.

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What were some of your favorite spots you got to travel to while on your trip?

Cartagena is one of the oldest cities in this hemisphere and an UNESCO world heritage site. It’s a must for anyone that’s planning a trip to Colombia. It’s colorful, incredibly photogenic, and a fun place to get lost in. There’s also El Parque Tayrona. It’s another one of those places where photos and video are hard pressed to capture all it’s jaw-dropping beauty. Imagine clear blue water and palm trees in the foreground, snow-capped mountains in the background. It’s surreal.

What was one of your most memorable experiences you had while there?

We spent New Year’s Eve on a sparsely populated beach surrounded by banana and coconut plantations. We walked about a kilometer down the beach from where we were staying to a small hostel where we ate dinner and made some friends. When we were ready to go home, we walked up the beach with a couple of our new friends. Our commute home was illuminated by more stars than we’ve seen in ages above us, and below us, twinkling bioluminescent plankton that appeared as we dragged our feet through the wet sand. As usual, the photographer in me wanted to capture the moment somehow, but knowing all-too-well that no photo would ever do it justice, I savored the moment and decided that memory would live in our minds.

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An accordion player and his vallenato band start an impromptu dance party atop 16th century stone fortifications that surround the colonial city of Cartagena.

What was it like interacting with local Colombians?

If you ask anyone who has traveled through Colombia, they’ll tell you – Colombians are very warm and approachable. While staying at a secluded bungalow on the beach, Walter, a former banana farmer, drove me on the back of his motorcycle to the nearest ‘town’ to do some grocery shopping. On the way back, when I asked if I could bust out my GoPro, he enthusiastically said “Claro que si!” and we took the “scenic route” down a sandy path through a dense coconut plantation.

This might be a little biased, but Colombians are as polite as they are friendly – if you just ask permission and throw in a smile, that should do the trick. As a photographer, whenever I’ve received an assignment to make a portrait of someone, I like to spend some time getting to know them before pressing the shutter. This helps build a little trust and makes the situation comfortable enough so that when I eventually pull the camera out, it’s not as intimidating for either of us.

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Maria stretching on the bank of the Guachaca River, with the Sierra de Santa Marta in the distance.

What type of gear did you use to capture your stills and video?

A Canon 5D Mark II, with a 35mm f1.4, 50mm f1.4, and a 135mm f2. I also packed a GoPro3 just in case.

What are some tips for getting the type of footage you got?

As someone who’s self-taught, I’ve learned (and am still learning) the importance of paying attention to even the tiniest of details, because those small observations are what help paint a more vivid image for your viewer. Oftentimes, there’s a tendency to point our cameras at the biggest, most impressive sights, but we forget about all the little things that help capture the essence of a place.

We’ve all had this experience: seeing stunning landscapes and fleeting moments, shooting them, and later realizing that, what you captured on your camera is nowhere near as incredible as what you experienced. There’s a range of subtleties and feelings that don’t always appear in a photograph and I’ve begun to make my peace with the fact that, sometimes, the photographer in me needs to relax, set my camera down in the grass, and just take it all in.

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What’s your editing process for piecing together all the footage you’ve shot?

For me, it all starts with the music. To quote Empire Records, “music is the glue of the world,” and it certainly is what holds a video together. During our trip, we listened to Bomba Estereo’s latest album, Amanecer, on repeat more times than I want to admit. I knew then that I wanted to use it. They’re a Colombian band that combines traditional Colombian instruments and styles with more modern electronic beats—it just felt right. Once I’ve found a song I like, I start to slowly whittle away at the footage and if the clip doesn’t push the video forward, I toss it. For me, the process of editing involves a lot of chipping away at the larger marble block to reveal the sculpture hidden inside.

I think a successful travel video captures the feeling and energy of place and brings the audience along for the ride. If your viewer forgets where they’re sitting, even for a minute, then I think the video did its job.

view from our place
view from our place

What were you hoping to capture after you finished making this video?

Colombia is a place that’s very dear to me. Growing up, I often resented the negative associations that people held about the country. I wanted to show a small slice of our short trip that captures some of the energy, the flavor, and the beauty I know to be true of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Five minutes isn’t enough time, but if I can convince a few people that it’s a country worth visiting, I’m confident they’ll enjoy it and I’ll just let Colombia take care of the rest.

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A giant Colombian flag waves atop El Castillo de San Felipe with both modern and colonial Cartagena in the distance.
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James Bernal is a freelance photographer currently based out of Chicago. When he's not spending his summers abroad teaching photography workshops for high school students, you can find him riding his bike around the city and daydreaming about travel. See more on his Instagram, Website, ,Vimeo and Tumblr.

1 COMMENT

  1. James , excellent video and your words invite you to go there . I’m in colombia , but in cali a non coastal city and even though I’m in the same country the video makes me want to go there , to gena and santa marta to disconnect from the world . I’ve been there are its magical . I’d say Cartagena is ramping up to be the most desired travel spot in Latam , it’s just a blend of old, new and surprise that makes you feel at very different plances just a few meters from each other , it’s an absolutely complete city .

    Hope to travel more with you as a partner , I know it will happen .

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