Taganga is paradise lost

I’m sitting in the roof top bar as I write this, a few hundred metres up from the beach. I’m drinking a coolish Aguila beer. Beers are rarely ice cold on the Colombian coast, as that would take preparation. Dust is swirling up from the unpaved roads below. I’m sitting next to two Americans (I later find out one is from Toronto — near enough). They are debating historical hypotheticals, and diving into Dr Google periodically to clarify aspects of their various scientific debates. It’s is like they are auditioning for a part on Big Bang Theory. They also have that unfortunate verbosity that plagues North American English. This just drifted over to my table:

Man 1: “I don’t mean to be harsh buddy”
Man 2: “Oh my God! If you say you don’t mean to be harsh, like you are so going to be harsh!”
Man 1: “I know I know, if I have to qualify my statements, you know it’s going to be harsh!”
Man 2: “I know, like so harsh!”
Man 1: “I don’t mean to be harsh but you look a bit like______”

Now, if this conversation was happening between two Englishmen, or in some of their former-colonies such as Australia or New Zealand, it would proceed as follows:

Man 1: ”I don’t mean to be harsh mate”
Man 2: “Bullshit”
Man 1: “You look like______”

I’d heard mixed things about Taganga, four kilometres out of Santa Marta. I met some guys in Santa Marta who had a disagreement with a local which involved a 1.5 million peso payment, a gun to the head of their bus driver and police directing the tourists to pay the gangster. The dispute arose over a broken piece of furniture and unpaid bar bill from the night before. Whether it was a straight hustle, a case of mistaken identity, or the tourists were guilty of the accusations I don’t know. They claimed they did nothing wrong, others said they were being obnoxious.

Taganga has rapidly grown from a fishing village to a backpacker hang-out as Colombia has emerged back into the mainstream tourism scene. Terrible rocky roads run perpendicular to the beach. Fish restaurants and convenience stores run along the beach road, the only paved road in town. After checking-in, I was given the usual briefing on the town. I was handed a map, and provided the following instructions:

“We are here. Here is the ATM. Here is the police station. Don’t go to any of these areas at night because…[low pitched mumbling]…yeah just don’t go to these areas I’ve shaded black. Walk back to the hostel from the beach this way. But don’t worry, it’s safe”.

I came Taganga to go snorkeling. I went with Reef Shepherd to an island in Tayrona national park. Thirteen of us piled into a narrow boat and were given life jackets with “Baby Christie” written on the back. The journey to the island is only 10 minutes or so. The fish were surprising plentiful given the desolate ocean bottom: parrot fish, trumpet fish, trunk fish and small glowing electric blue fish. There was coral, but most of it was damaged in a recent storm. Those that went scuba diving were treated to moray eels, which are evil looking snappy beasts. One of the instructors picked one up, no doubt trying to impress the stunning Colombiana he was diving with.

After dropping my snorkel gear back at the shop, I went to find a snack. I stopped at a food stand and bought a meat empanada. I was putting the change into my pocket when my arm started violently snaking. I’m not sure when “electric shock” morphs into “electrocuted” — when you start smoking? In any case, the young Afro-Caribbean lass behind the counter just shrugged her shoulders and said something about not touching the empanada cabinet. I fished the empanada out of a puddle, deposited it in the bin. The Americans are talking about Star Trek now.

Bemused by the nonchalance to my near electrocution, I walked down to the main swimming beach. The coffee vendors serve premixed coffee out of the thermoses which you get during offsite meetings and conferences. I bought a coffee off of an old lady sitting on the malecon wall. I asked for a black coffee without sugar. She emptied the thermos into the Styrofoam cup, which was only enough for a quarter-cup. I said it was fine, just put some milk coffee in it. None of that was available either. I ended up with a shandy of sugarless black coffee with sugary tea, the old lady barking at me in rapid fire Spanish about how great the mix is. Right. The Americans are now talking about the difference between trigonometry and geometry — “statistics is awesome”. They might be auditioning for a remake of The 40 Year Old Virgin as well.

The next morning, as I was walking down the street towards the beach, side-stepping broken bottles and observing a teenager soaping up on the porch for a bucket wash, I was still putting together the pieces from the night before. The night started blandly enough, drinking a few rums on the roof of the hostel with three Englishmen. Our low key discussions were interrupted by a drunk shaking a door and shouting something to his “love” on the street below. Not surprising, as drinking is the number one pastime in Taganga. Also, the power was out in our section of town, so drinking by candlelight was really the only thing to do. The door shaking finally stopped when a motorbike pulled-up. We assumed it was a Good Samaritan coming to take the drunk home. Instead the old dude on the motorbike started remonstrating with the door shaker and punched him in the face. “Mi casa’, “Mi amor” — blah blah blah — the message wasn’t getting through until a hard open hand slap to the face was delivered as well.

We ended up at a club on the top of the hill. As we walked up the fifty or so steps to get to the top, passing the infinity pool in the corner and out onto the deck, all I could think of was The Great Gatsby. I’m not sure why, it wasn’t very plush. The building looked like the skeleton of a mansion under construction, with the roof up supported by concrete columns. The place was heaving, with a mixture of backpackers and locals from Taganga and Santa Marta. The locals dancing seductively and face sucking, the tourists dancing like tourists do in Colombia after regular trips to the bathroom. The open air dancefloors provided a stunning view over the partly-lit horse shoe bay below. A ginger Englishman saw a guy walk down some steps which ended with a significant drop. This further indicates it might have been a partly built mansion. “He made a lot of noise…broken legs” was the ginger’s diagnoses.

I spent the next 3 days milling around the beaches in Taganga, and walking across the cape to Playa Grande. The electrical company were doing some maintenance of the grid, which resulted in my hostel not having power (and therefore water) for three out of four nights. One night the entire town was without power, which effectively made all streets ‘shaded black’ as far as safety goes. We chanced walking down to the beach that night to get food and alcohol supplies, with the intermittent blasting of firecrackers not helping the nerves. At least the power outage provided a reprieve from the torturous repetitive Regaetton blasted twenty hours a day from giant speakers perched on the sliver of concrete in front of a nearby family’s home.

As I was leaving Taganga, the locals were getting agitated about the power cuts, shouting puta at the electrical company’s cars as they drove around trying to fix whatever was going on. I’d heard a power cut had lasted for months three years beforehand. I asked a café owner if this was true, she said “I’m not sure, I’ve only been here 18 months. But if that happens now with peak season approaching, the locals will go into Santa Marta and someone will get killed”.

The power cuts did illustrate how soft western society is. People were checking out and demanding discounts. Three days without a proper shower and for some of the travellers it seemed the world was ending. I dearly wanted Heath Franklin’s Chopper Reid character to stroll into the hotel and dish out a few “h-h-h-harden the f*&k up”.

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