If I were to believe the rumors I heard about Taganga, I was about to arrive in Colombia’s version of Ko Phi Phi—a once-charming island in the Andaman Sea filled with 20-something backpackers who roam the island’s trash-filled streets as they suck cheap alcohol from buckets. Needless to say, I was not happy in Ko Phi Phi. A small fishing village just 15 km from Santa Marta, Taganga is also getting a bad reputation. Unsustainable tourism, mainly the “Middle Eastern” kind as one tripadvisor reviewer wrote, had changed this beautiful cove for the worse.
I was especially apprehensive about staying in Taganga since we had just spent two peaceful nights in Parque Tayrona, sleeping outside in hammocks with the sounds of the Caribbean as a lullaby. For the past two days, I had been starting my mornings with a walk on the Arrecifes Beach, which stretched for kilometers without another soul in sight. For the first time since my arrival in South America, I didn’t have to answer whatsapp messages from members of my family who seemingly never tired of worrying about me. “No reception for two days at least, sorry Dad!” (Of course that didn’t stop him from trying to text me anyway.)
Tayrona was a true vacation as all we did for two days was lounge around either in the Piscina or Cabo San Juan beaches, play Frisbee, or read in our hammocks. It takes about an hour hike from the park’s entrance (where you have to pay a hefty 40,000 pesos) to reach Arrecifes, the first beach where camping or lodging is possible. At Arrecifes, there were two hammock options: One for 13,000 and the other for 30,000. We were confused; how is one hammock so superior to the other to warrant more than twice the price? Apparently, not all hammocks are created equal and we chose the Four Seasons of the hammocks. It had prettier nets, bathrooms with toilet paper, and its own restaurant with delicious food and uniformed wait staff. The lowly hammocks had a sad little tavern where a lady with a cigarette hanging from her mouth asked: “Que quieres?”
In Tayrona we met Rafael, a Puerto Rican guy who had been traveling since 18 months with a 10-kilo backpack whose contents included the above-mentioned Frisbee. I was envious as my bag seemed to be getting heavier and heavier with frequent visits to the pharmacy (mosquito repellent without deet, mosquito repellent with deet, pink post-mosquito-bite lotion, post-mosquito-bite cream that comes in a tube…) Rafael spoke French, Spanish, and English, and had been working as a tour guide in Paris before embarking on his journey. “I want to be a better tourist so that I can be a better guide,” he said when I asked him about his reasons for traveling. He gave me lots of tips on saving money and packing light. After observing me change into a dry bathing suit after a swim in Cabo San Juan (ask any Turk: it’s not healthy to stay in wet suits!), he concluded that the only way I could reach 10 kilos was if I were to get my bag stolen.
Thankfully, when I arrived back in Masaya Hostel in Santa Marta, my bag and its contents were waiting for me in the storage room. Reunited with my possessions, I got into a cab and 10 minutes later the car was winding down from the hills towards Taganga’s beautiful cove. After we checked in at Casa de Felipe–which is a great hostel besides its lack of air conditioning–I walked into town to see why this place that had gotten such a bad reputation. Instead of hordes of drugged and bearded hippies wasting away, it was a group of school kids dancing to the sunset who welcomed me to Taganga. After the kids it was the adults’ turn to dance to Rumba, Salsa, Hiphop, and even some African-sounding beats. Dancing around South American women is not exactly an ego-booster, but so much fun!
Taganga is tiny. It doesn’t take long to walk around the entire village, which only has one quirky ATM machine with a temper—if it doesn’t like you, you have to shlep over to Santa Marta to get cash. That the town caters more to its tourists than to its fishermen is clear—in almost every block stands either a scuba diving school (it’s even cheaper to get a PADI license here than in Ko Tao!), a restaurant, or a bar scattered among the dilapidated homes of the locals. While it may not be as authentic as it once used to be, I enjoyed my sunsets in Taganga and Casa de Felipe felt like home as I got my Advanced Open Water diving certificate and discovered that Parque Tayrona is as peaceful underwater as it is overland. Taganga may have it’s problems like lack of rain, a beach crowded by locals and tourists alike, and general neglect, but it is still nothing like Ko Phi Phi Hell.