PALOMINO, Colombia- After a day on the beach of Palomino I was not plotting an escape but a way to stay there forever. I looked over at the hippie colony that formed in the bushes which sit on the cusp of the surf as I floated by in the gentle waves. They were living in tents, and looked as if they had been there forever. I considered how difficult it would be to construct a shelter and join them — wife, kid, and all. It would have been a pretty simple operation to construct a thatch hut, and live on this beach for free — buying fish as the fishermen brought them in from sea, picking up vegetables and fruit in the nearby village, taking coconuts that fell from the trees, buying a couple hammocks, and etching out a simple beach bum existence, “flinging monkeys at the coconuts.”
Jason the bicycle traveler did just this when he rode into Palomino — he arrived and just camped on the sly on the beach for two weeks, and, upon my own arrival, I could see why:
The beach was just beach.
Sea, sand, palm trees, mangroves, a river, and little more was all that Palomino could boast of — but this is the biggest claim of all for the traveler looking for a stretch of raw, uncrowded Caribbean coastline. A traveler can go to Palomino and just be on the beach — just sit still and watch the waves come in, crash, roll out; watch the sun rise and set; look to the east and west and see little more than sand, sea, vegetation, blue sky, and the sun brightly scorching everything — a more perfect scene could not have been painted.
Add to this a canopy of palm trees which provide shade from the raging mid-day sun, and I am unsure if I have ever been a more livable beach.
“There are not even people selling coconuts here,” my wife commented.
Nor were there any big black ladies trying to braid my beard, no women trying to commandeer me into a massage, nobody was trying to sell me drugs or women; nobody tying to annoy me into buying their buckets of cook crabs, and the only jewelry vendors were the hippies laying back on their hammocks, digging the scene too much to bother shoving their wares in my face. I felt a giant gush of relief come over me after being in Taganga the night before. Palomino was what I traveled up to the Caribbean coast for: a beautiful beach and nothing more.
The essence of Palomino can defined by what is absent there. Take an overdeveloped beach, remove all of the giant hotels, kick out the vendors, bulldoze the snack shops and bars, disintegrate the surf and apparel stores, exile the cops and other urchins, and decrease the number of visitors by 99.99% and you are getting close to Palomino.
Some travelers go to beaches for the “things”– the amenities, the umbrellas, the things to buy, the girls in bikinis, the booze, the prospect of sex, the action — while others go to beaches for the “nothing.” Palomino is definitely for this second group of traveler.
Though this does not mean that this beach is without any development. Currently, there are around five hotels/ eco-hostels/ campsites operating on the beach of Palomino, and two more in its adjoining town which lays on the highway roughly a kilometer and a half away. They are mostly simple, modest affairs catering to eco-tourists, hippies, and nature hunters. The cheapest hostels are by the highway — currently charging 12,000 pesos per person — while there is no check on the prices being charged by the hostels on the beach — 75,000 pesos+. There are also a couple of fledgling tourist restaurants on the beach, which charge tourist prices.
But this development is currently not overtly invasive. Some of the hostels on the beach blend in with the native foliage while others are clustered by the path leading down from the town. The beach area is not completely without visitor services, but what there is doesn’t really get in anyone’s way. There is actually a lack of services on the beach of Palomino, as all but the money laden and expense ambivalent must hike twenty minutes back to the village to resupply. Not bad at all.
Palomino on the verge of change
Palomino has currently risen to nearly an almost optimal level of development. There are services available so travelers can go there and live well, but not so many that they mar the landscape and create an annoying visitor experience. You can come to Palomino and enjoy the beach, befriend the people who live there, and also have a roof over your head and get a meal that you don’t need to hunt yourself. The place is perhaps at the optimal point in the progression of tourism, fitting the balance perfectly between offering goods and services without commercially overrunning the place and ruining the visitor experience.
I had a conversation with a 30 something Canadian guy who was running an eco-hostel on the beach. The charge was a ridiculous 75,000 pesos per person to stay there in a strip bare plank board room which offered a sad looking bed and nothing more. I was about to jest about how hostels can charge 4X the going rate for a room just by putting the word “eco” in front of the word “hostel” on their sign, and then offering their guests the barest of services so they think the place is “natural.”
But the manager offered me a lower price — 40,000 per person. This was still way too much for me, but enough to make me keep my jests to myself. I continued talking with the manager about potentially cheaper accommodation options on the beach, when he began talking about how quickly hotels are going up there.
“You may want to check on the places towards the road you walked in on,” he said, “they just sprung up and I don’t know what they’re charging.”
He was talking about two hotels that were quickly growing up out of a shamble of building supplies. Local construction crews were working like ants, building up two plank board and bamboo eco-hostels in what appeared to be “overnight” fashion.
I was looking at the future of Palomino.
The crowds, hotels, hostels, and tour companies are rapidly stretching their tendrils east from Taganga to other far more pristine, less commercially dominated beaches that make up the bulk of the Colombian Caribbean. There are hundreds of miles of coastline between Santa Marta and Venezuela that are just sand, sea, and palm trees: fresh fodder for the impending wave of tourism.
And it is happening right now.
Tourism is a doomsday endeavor that is often fated to eventually eat itself. There is a balance in tourism which sits between places lacking resources for visitors and having too many. Except for the travelers like the hippies who were camping in Palomino in their own beach colony, there needs to be some sort of infrastructure set up in a place if it wants to attract visitors. So investors and/ or locals begin to provide these services to reap the financial reward, and a place grows.
Many tourists want the pristine while also wanting services, amenities, and comfort. This is the great contradiction of tourism, as one desire trumps the other. Too little infrastructure — too much “pristine” — and only the hippies and hard nosed travelers will show up, but too much infrastructure — too many hotels, goods, and services — the the pristine is choked out and gone.
Add a dozen restaurants, a half dozen bars, a night club or two, fifty hotels, a paved road, tourist shops, sunglasses huts, the hair braiding ladies, the coco-loco sellers, the jewelry vendors, the masseuses, the drug dealers, the tour operators, and the prime reason for going to Palomino vanishes — it would be just another Caribbean beach town.
Taganga has already been choked out by its own tourism, and the crowds are trickling over to Palomino. The investors and vendors will follow with “if you build it they will come” initiatives, and the crowds will arrive, and the essence of Palomino will be gone.
And the crowds will then trickle over to . . .
But, for now, Palomino is a truly clutch stop on the traveler’s road through Colombia. I cannot say that I cringe when I watched the new hostels being built on the beach, nor can I say that I despair in the future of this beach that is just becoming a “town.” This is normal, I will not cry preemptive nostalgia for the place. Where there is money to be made there will be people to make it. Palomino has just opened up, there are now enough services to attract visitors, and they are coming. More services will likely be needed in the future.
Travel is not just the pursuit of figuring out how the world works, but accepting it as well. I loved my time in Palomino — swimming, napping, playing with my wife and kid — and this will forever be enough. Everywhere in the world is changing always and forever, some places close down to travelers while new ones open up. There will always be a new horizon. Just take this advice: get to Palomino now.
How to get to Palomino
Palomino sits two hours by bus east from Santa Marta and Taganga on the other side of Parque Tayrona. Buses leave from the market in Santa Marta near Calle 11. The cost is 8,000 pesos, but the conductor can be haggled down to accept 7,000. If you are in another location on the coast east of Santa Marta, just step out on the highway and flag down a bus going in the direction of Palomino. Ask a local or a fellow passenger what the price should be.