TAGANGA, Colombia- I tried to walk down to the beach in Taganga but could only find the boats of tour companies and fishermen, restaurants and beer houses, comatose rasta men and clans of binder wielding touts blocking my path. I walked all the way down to the western edge of what would otherwise have been sandy beach, dodging the obstacles that sprung up between be and the glistening Caribbean beyond, and after an annoying search found a small clearing and access to the sea.
But my journey was in vain, as when I arrived I found myself in dire want for the clutter that once stood in my path, for the beach in Taganga, Colombia is thoroughly disgusting:
A cut in half and smashed flat toothpaste tube rolled up in the waves and struck against my foot, an array of potato chip bags, cookie wrappers, and soda bottles crumpled as I walked through the shallow surf, in the eddies swirled a virtual blockade of miscellaneous garbage. I saw a Colombian man and his two sons go floating by on makeshift rafts of white packing Styrofoam.
What the f’ck?
I walked up to a beach side restaurant and took shelter from the sun with a Coca-Cola. I looked over the beach, unable to believe that this town could attract so many tourists. I also could not fathom how I could not have been warned about this place prior to arrival. I initially took the gentle shrugs I would receive from travelers that I asked about Taganga to mean that the place was “alright,” but now I know that they were perhaps just embarrassed to tell me the truth, as Taganga is suppose to be a place that people enjoy visiting, a hip stop on the journey through Colombia — and there must be something wrong with you if you don’t like it there.
As I looked over the sea, to my stark surprise, a garbage collector actually appeared and called out to the family adrift at sea on the rafts of garbage. “Does it belong to you?” he asked while pointing towards their water crafts. “No,” one of the son’s admitted, and they returned their boats to their proper caretaker. I then watched the garbage collector pile up mounds of trash in a wheelbarrow and cart it away from the beach. It made only the slightest difference, as the trash just kept pouring in, but it did so at least some effort to keep the beach clean.
But this observation emboldened my wife and two year old daughter to brave a swim. They returned quick:
“A bag of syringes floated up next to us,” my wife stated with an exasperated laugh.
We moved away from the beach and sat on a bench on the main drag. The air smelled like shit. Not “smelled like shit” as in “a general bad smell” but smelled like shit as in feces. How can you look at girls on the beach while sitting in a miasma of poop?
I could not help but to ponder why Taganga was so awful. Outside of the unchecked tourist development, the unsavvy organization of the place, and the shit smell there was one major factor: Taganga sits right next to Santa Marta.
Beaches near urban centers are often bad
Taganga is a beach town whose economy appears to be nearly completely dependent on tourism, which is perhaps an unfortunate focus for a place within firing range of the problems of an urban center. The city of Santa Marta lies just over a hill to the west of Taganga, and the undesirable elements of the City have clearly toppled over the hill and into Taganga, rendering this beach town not only polluted but somewhat dangerous.
“We were robbed in Taganga,” an Australian told me in San Gil a couple of weeks earlier. He told me of how their hotel room at the Casa Blanca hotel was broken into at night while he and his girlfriend were sleeping in it. All their possessions, excluding their passport and credit cards, were gone when they awoke. The thieves actually threw the later items back into the room when they made their escape.
“So you didn’t wake up when they broke in?” I questioned, finding it difficult to believe that someone could break into a hotel room and clear out everything of value without waking up its sleeping occupants.
“I’m sort of glad I didn’t,” the Australian replied.
He was right, catching the thief in the middle of the act may have proved perilous.
The Australian then told me that there was a better beach called Playa Grande a short walk away from Taganga. “But a lot of people get robbed along the path,” he added.
Taganga is firmly on the backpacker and tourist trail in Colombia, and almost every traveler visiting the Caribbean coast calls in there. I must admit that Tanganga looks great from afar, as the photos of this beach shown in the tourist brochures, websites, and in posters on the walls of hotels all over Colombia show an idealic looking fishing port with open beaches and sunsets. In reality, I could not place the photos I’ve seen of Taganga with that which I observed on the ground. Taganga is a tourist net, the product of marketing and a current lack of rival beach towns in this stretch of the Colombian Caribbean.
“There was just too much unplanned development there,” an American traveler told me. But I had to take this statement one step further. There was not just too much unplanned development in Taganga, but almost a complete lack of municipal development of any kind. Huge hotels, restaurants, hostels, tour offices seem to have just sprang up out of the mud in every direction, leaving Taganga perilously sitting in mutual exclusivity:
Is Taganga a mass tourist beach town? Is it a Caribbean fishing village? Is it a Santa Marta spill over zone?
As of now, Taganga seems to be in the midst of a severe identity crises, and the opposing forces seem to be destroying the place.
Taganga seems to be an every business for themselves sort of place. The tour companies and boat charter services have choked the beach full with their boats and the restaurants and bars have expanded down to meet their hulls and rigging. Each company in Taganga seems to be striving to outdo the others, to cash in on the quick tourist dollar like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Everyone seems poised to force their hands into the pocket of each tourist, extracting as much as they possibly can. In this mania, the beach and the sea — the very reason why travelers go to Taganga — is sadly being crowded in this rampant pursuit of profit.
Like an invasive vine growing over a great tree, the tendrils of the tourism industry seem to be choking the life out of Taganga already.
I do not mind arriving at less than pristine travel destinations. I have found charm in a plethora of hell holes around this planet: border towns, industrial cities, highway villages, I have been through an entire array of decrepit, dirty, dangerous places without emitted a grunt. But Taganga is a lie — it is not the pristine little fishing village that it is sold to be –and this is what bothers me. If you are not in Taganga to SCUBA dive, rent a prostitute, do drugs, or get drunk, I have no idea what you are doing there.
It is my impression that so many travelers go to Taganga because they simply haven’t heard of anywhere else on the beach to go in this region. Colombia has just started to bloom as a tourist destination, and the potential for development on this stretch of the Caribbean is incredible. But the development has not yet grown to match the new found demand from tourist showing up by the plane, bus, and boat load. Likewise, there does not yet seem to be that many beach towns ready for the tourist hoards that have begun to pile in — so everyone goes to Taganga, perhaps from an apparent lack of options.
But this will not last for long.
“I don’t live here,” I heard an Argentine hippie say to a prospective customer as he sold his jewelry in the street of Taganga, “I live in Palomino.”
Palomino is the name of a beach two hours east from Taganga that is just beginning to open up to travelers. As of now, it is an idyllic beach area being enjoyed by hippies, bold eco-tourists, and a few errant travelers exploring a section of Colombia that few venture to. But this desolation will soon come to an end, as the word is getting out: the hippies are leaving Taganga, they have found a new base in Palomino and a few other beaches to the east. It is a bad sign for any beach town when the hippies begin to move on, as this is a clear indication that the bubble is about to burst — that prices have risen too high, that the development has choked out the natural essence — and the crowds will begin to go elsewhere.
One night in Taganga was enough for me, I moved on to Palomino.