Taganga, Colombia – No Thank You

Taganga, Colombia

After taking care of some business in Santa Marta such as finding a working ATM and admiring the first Santa Claus I have ever seen on a beach, we grabbed a 20-minute taxi across a sea cliff to the tourist village of Taganga, Colombia.

I gave the driver his $3 and paused for a minute to let my eyes drink in the scenery. Water the color of jewels, white-albeit-somewhat-dirty sand, and lots of travelers…this was the coastal paradise that had me burning up kilometers across Ecuador for the past week.

We checked into the Casa Blanca, a Swiss-owned hotel directly on the beach with incredible views, but perhaps the most murderous, unfriendly bastards they could hire to staff the front desk (yes, they were truly that bad).

There were cheaper and friendlier hostels such as the Dutch-owned Hollandia or the French-owned Casa Filipe where you can immediately smell the owner/chef’s latest culinary creation when you walk in, but they were quite a way up the hill away from the beach. If there is ever a time to splurge while traveling, your last week on the road in 2009 is the time to do so!

barbed wire taganga colombia

Even after eight solid days in Taganga, the place is still an enigma to me. I want to love it, but there are just too many reasons to hate the place. I want to hate it, but there are just as many reasons why I like the place.

After closer examination, Taganga seems to be a foul parody of paradise. One of those places that look picturesque from the top of a cliff — when you are still too far away to see the ashtray they call a beach or the condoms floating in the water.

Rusted bottle caps and gravel make up the beach rather than sand and seashells. POW-camp concertina wire and broken glass decorate walls rather than colorful murals. There is no reef, so you spend your swimming time looking at interesting rubbish artifacts on the bottom, and avoiding the plastic bags that drift around like ghastly, white jellyfish.

At night, even on weekends, there isn’t an abundance of nightlife. Strung-out travelers and locals mix uneasily in front of the shops in a sullen murmur, sitting on steps and drinking rum or eating hamburgers and hotdogs. Taganga is one of the few places I have ever seen where straggly backpackers beg for drug money just as much as the locals. Go Figure. There are cheap offers of cocaine hissed from every shadow while you walk.

If you have been to Taganga, go take another look before sending me my usual dose of flaming hate-mail when I write something the way I see it. The place has apparently changed radically in the last year from what my 2005 Lonely Planet calls “a quiet fishing village” into what will probably one day be the drug-raped Gili Trawangan of South America.

There is rampant construction going on all along the waterfront, and even the extra bricks of the new walkway and other construction waste still lay around in plain sight. It doesn’t take forensics to realize that things have changed here very recently. Trash is already piling up because apparently the barrel-drum bins are stolen as fast as the government puts them out!

Beach in Taganga

Tourism is new here. The fishermen are apparently long gone because a simple fried fish with rice bought right on the beach within eyesight of the boats can cost you $8! Needless to say, prices here for eating, partying, and anything between are brutal. The nearly poisonous food will sadly make you watch the clock in dread of lunch and dinner, unless you pay the price in one of the hostels listed above for something more edible.

I’ve been to some seriously unfriendly shitholes since 2006, and have eaten some disgusting, overpriced things, but Tanganga tops the list.

Now for the controversy.

My last and worst complaint are the locals. In 23 countries over the last few years, I don’t think I have ever encountered a more hateful, unfriendly, miserable bunch of people in my life.

Whether they be shopkeepers, hostel workers, waiters, or expats…I can honestly say that these people would rather stab you in the face than attempt to smile. I can’t put a finger on it. Before you lash out in anger, realize that I’ve traveled in far poorer countries than Colombia for many years.

Maybe the bad attitudes have something to do with the recent construction, or maybe there is a local mafia shaking things up. But with proprietors getting rich by local standards within eyesight of the Caribbean, it really is surprising behavior.

Pretty much every day you will be ignored in queues to pay — even with money in hand — or ignored by your waiter who will bring you the wrong order then run like hell. You’ll be given disgusted looks, shouted at, cursed, all but spit upon when you try to conduct transactions as simple as buying a bottle of water. So many times I busted someone giving me the wrong price or incorrect change. Expect to fight for the smallest amount of respect.

Playa Grande, Taganga, Colombia

Even though I am ranting, the place wasn’t all negative.

On the flip side, Taganga has a rugged charm that kind of grows on you — like a fungus. I enjoyed it because it was one of the first places I have been able to interact with lots of other travelers in Colombia. The weather was a perfect 90+ degrees every day, and the sunsets are impressive.

After a week here you either learn to start liking the place with all its rough edges, or run like hell from all the red-eyed backpackers that moved here for the cheap blow. I’m serious. Budget travelers pretty well only have one mission while here.

I spent an incredible and extremely lazy eight days here in Taganga, which after all the hurry-up-and-wait lifestyle of exchanging night buses for day buses to move around Ecuador and Peru, feels totally unnatural. Taganga was a great place to sit on the beach, get lost inside my own head, and absorb some of the things I saw in eight different countries this year.

This beach gave me time to get centered, prepare myself for coming home during a busy Christmas season, and to enjoy the end of my third year of vagabonding. For this reason alone, Taganga will always get a special place in my heart.

But I won’t be back anytime soon.

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18 Responses to “Taganga, Colombia – No Thank You”

  1. Such a pity. When we were planning our Colombia trip, I was really looking forward to getting our dive licenses in Taganga.

    Hope you’re doing well dude! Happy New Year!

  2. Hey Greg!

    Wow you had it rough! Although I notice this negative tone in all your writings on Colombia.

    Some people like some cultures better than other and I think, and please don’t take this bad, you expect everything to be the way it is in Thailand.

    I believe every continent/culture has its own vibe and rhythm, and South America is way stronger/aggressive/inyourface than South East Asia where everyone is under the Buddhist influence.
    Also the amount of time a country has been exposed to tourism makes a huge difference, and people learn that
    tourists are precious.

    Personally I don’t like Taganga, too many Israelies and gringos getting wasted in every way they can.
    I only go to Taganga for the diving, which is good if you know where to go to, and I don’t stay over night.

    Just personal thought coming from a traveler friend


  3. Greg,
    I was doing some research for a project and stumbled across your blog. I have been in Taganga now a little more than a week and I can not wrap my brain around your negative experience with the locals. I think that they are lovely people, and are dealing with the invasion of foreign tourists with as much grace as one can. I am sure that they can feel that their home is changing as the bus loads of tourists pour into the youth hostels. God know what will happen to the town in the next 10 years. Seems like in no time the Hilton will be trying to buy up the one little piece of public beach and make people pay to use it.
    There are probably just too many foreign jackasses coming to Taganga to exploit its people by buying drugs and sex and not to simply watch the sunset and swim.
    Try to understand where people are coming from and not just label them as a “hateful, unfriendly, miserable”
    That is just not fair.

  4. I’m glad you had a better experience in Taganga than I did…maybe it was the time of year (Christmas) or some other variable that I don’t know about, but I can assure you that when I was there (and other friends met there will confirm) that the people were anything but lovely.

    I don’t like writing negative reviews, but in a 5 year tradition of keeping this blog completely personal and honest, I have to stand by what I wrote. I went to Taganga with an open heart and mind and really was not received well. It wasn’t at all an “in your face” problem, I appreciate that attitude after traveling China, Egypt, and even places in the US. It was plain and simple rudeness.

    Keep in mind that someone speaking good Spanish, or in Simon’s case being from Colombia, probably makes a huge difference in the treatment. I did meet a lot of jackass gringo travelers there for the drugs, and no doubt they have jaded the locals.

  5. Greg,

    I am from Colombia, and i never comment on blogs or this internet things , but i’m shocked about your experience.

    I study Hospitality and i’ve been traveling all around the world, and it surprises me that you didn’t feel that you were treated good.

    Remember, Taganga is a fishermen’s village, they don’t have the same education or privileges as you do .

    Also , they are used that tourists usually go there to use their home as their drug and party playground.

    Give it a second chance, and there are MORE places to go in Colombia.

  6. Hi Diana,

    Thanks for commenting, I’m very interested in other opinions. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Colombia, but Taganga was certainly my least favorite place. When were you there last? It was apparent – with new construction everywhere – that this is no longer a fishermen’s village, it has become a place where even budget travelers are begging other travelers for money to buy drugs. A small, simple fish to eat costs $8 – unusual for a “fishing village”.

    My treatment there as a visitor was terrible, perhaps the local people are not accustomed to the tourists yet, or perhaps they pool all of us together with the rude backpackers who only come for cheap drugs. Unlike the rest of Colombia, I don’t think a single local in the hostel, restaurants, or shops ever even smiled at me once.

    I have heard the same thing from many people in response to what my feeling was in Taganga, it leads me to think that maybe the place has changed a lot – sadly, not for the better.

  7. If the people treated you unfriendly, you probably deserved it. Taganga has its own spirit and the locals are the most friendly people in the world. But you have to adapt (as travelers do..) or else don’t come here! Maybe you should learn spanish…
    Btw: I have been to Taganga in 1999, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2012.

  8. @Tom Based on my experience, I can’t even fathom returning there five times as you have; however, we are both entitled to our opinions. I have been to quite a few places in the world – and can appreciate “spirit” – but they sure don’t fit my paradigm of friendly. I went there very open minded, and if you were familiar with the rest of my blog, you would realize that.

    I agree, I should learn Spanish…as soon as I am finished with Bahasa Indonesian, Malay, Mandarin, and all the other languages I practice which apply more to my locale. How’s your Mandarin?

  9. Hi Greg
    I’m sorry, but how can you be so wrong about paradise? I have travelled all over the world since 1987, china and tibet included, and i spent more than two years in most countries of south america. I am married to a colombian women now and I have just bought some land in taganga.

  10. had a wonderful time in taganga. people were friendly, offered us free boat rides, even free drink and food. beach was clean. water not. but remember its a fishing village. took us to playa cristal and it was one of the best i have ever seen. didnt pay that much for our meal. one lady even made my favorite drink and brought it to me on the neach, panela…. remember these people feel invaded. they are making the best they can of it and are probably worried some foreigner will come and change it or take it all away…

  11. At first Taganga seems friendly and like great fun. I have been 5 times now and every time I go things get worse. Maybe its because I am married to a Tagangan now and locals dont like to see happy couples. People dont respect couples and when you are happy both women and men try to pick you or your partner up and seperate or destroy your relationship by spreading rumours. It is very rare to see older couples still married and happily living together and there is alot of domestic violence towards women. I also found it hard being there as a mother and in general a free thinking and free spirited women. People expect you to be at home all day serving your husband, without any opinions about how you should be treated even if your husband lives on the streets drinking and women in general should not have any opinion whether it is political, sexual, human rights or whatever. If you are outgoing with your child or even go out for a dance they think you are a slut and automatically start talking about you even to your partner. It happened to me and my husband and we fought the whole time we were there because he was worried about what people thought even though he knows me and trusts me. There is a lot of jelousy there and even my friends there tell me not to trust anyone. As for the beach, I have seen childern swimming and playing with condoms and menstruation pads while swimming. People throw rubbish everywhere and dont care about their land. Drugs have taken over the town and so has prostitution and people now get robbed all the time. Even locals who struggle get broken into and robbed.

    Overall Taganga is not a good example of Colombia or its people and there are so many beautiful people and places in this country. Taganga is shit but every country in the world has the good and bad areas. Don’t judge Colombia because of this trashy village and do remember that it was once a different place and tourism has actually destoyed the place and so has the governments lack of support to educate and give oportunity to locals and women in particular.

  12. I see negative comments along with positive comments. Many people come to Colombia with really high expectations of paradise and think it’s going to be a fully developed tourism attraction type place. There are many parts of Mexico and D.R. that are fully developed and can cater to that type of tourist. I’m a New Yorker with Colombian parents and I’ve been to the Colombian coast about 5 times now. I came to see Taganga for the first time in 2009 and loved it. Extremely rural, yet you see soo many foreigners that like that. It’s not for everyone, that is true. I love that fact that you can walk the dirt roads down to the newly done boardwalk and take a skif over to a beach or fishing. If you are into Scuba Diving say no more as there are plenty of dive centers with everything you need to go diving. The food is great and the atmosphere is amazing. The views are spectacular and if you want to rest and lay in a hammock there are plenty to go around.
    I loved it so much I also bought a piece of property there and will have a Boutique Hotel ready there by the end of 2012. I did take it a step further with NY style amenities inside, but it will have a very cozy colonial feel. (yes it’s a plug) but I won’t put the name in this post. Look for it towards the end of the year.
    To wrap things up, Taganga has come a long way since 2009 when I first visited and the government has done a pretty good amount of upgrading to the bay, streets, electric and now there is natural gas. So if you do want to enjoy an amazing time and feel detached from the world, I still think Taganga is the place to go…

  13. Cheap coke and rum! How do i get there?

  14. Agreed. As a solo American that speaks little spanish, I had a difficult time. If I was fluent, I think things would have gone much better. Or if I was with a companion or a group if friends this place would be really great. But that being said I’ll never go back to Taganga, alone. I didn’t hate it, and I think it’s basically pretty safe but the vibe is unusual and probably far more work than it’s worth to try to understand. They’re old school, they love Colombia and don’t really care for the PC lifestyle. The best way I can describe how I felt there was like an immigrant Mexican in LA circa 1950. From the fat hotel owner at Bahia Taganga being cold and unfriendly to every little shop owner making me feel very unwelcome, I just couldn’t wrap my head around how to interact with the locals there. One thing I’ll never understand is no one ever tells you the price for stuff. From buying food to cigarettes they’ll hand you your goods and then silently and awkwardly just stare at you, until you give them $ or ask “cuanto cuesta?” Strange place for sure but I don’t regret going. Yep the blow is cheap and really really strong. Be careful, cardiac arrest with that shit is no joke. Be prepared to hop on the back of a locals dirt bike and be taken for a dirt road ride to his shanty pad to score it however, 🙂 (Scary? -yes) Cheap ~$10USD/g. If I were to do it over again, I’d roll into town for a night get my ‘supplies’ and take a direct cab to the north coast like Palomino beach and chill out there.

  15. They feel like you are invading, just coming to bang-up their cousins, do drugs and that since you know nothing about the culture, they’re gonna get some payback and make a few bucks off you while they are at it.

    I look super “gringo”, but I’m fluent in Spanish and know the culture from my time here. They treat me super well and usually go well out of their way to help me or look out for me.

    PS- As a seasoned traveler, I’m sure you have found the same and realize that it’s a combination of who we are/what we are/where we are mentally that changes our perceptions of the world around us. I like Taganga, I don’t love it, but I’ve been back a few times. Always to scuba dive, never for drugs and seldom for more than a few days. They opened a nice cafe and a few other decent spots (Pachamama’s?). Does it compare to Thailand? Nope. Is it more genuine and more accessible to the working stiffs of the US. Sure is.

    There are more than a few hateful Thais, venomous Viets, thieving Malaysian (the Indians) taxi drivers, just as there are plenty of super honest and generous Colombians.

    Your next trip to Colombia, you should hit up Providencia island (near San Andres) and you’ll get huge value for money, cheap prices on most things and see a truly genuine people, “Just pay me later or whenever you get to the ATM machine… How long you here for? A week? Okay, pay me next week. Whatever.” My jaw dropped when I heard that the first time!

  16. Agree, and well said. I did enjoy other places in Colombia for sure and would like to return. My experience was in 2009, no idea what has changed there since. Thank you for the intelligent comment and happy travels!

  17. A great blog – I am glad I have found it. your impressions of Taganga mirror my own. As an expat who moved to Colombia, I visited Taganga first in 2004 (3 nights in Casa de Felipe) and have been back a few times since (just to check it out for an hour or two while staying at Rodadero due to friends wanting to see it) and each time it reconfirms my initial thoughts; a miserable place where I just do not see the attraction.

    One place in Colombia I have no desire to see, made much worse by the low class backpackers who frequent the place.

  18. Hi Greg,

    Today the first day here and explored the beaches. Taganga is a filthy dirty and absurd hole. I do not know where the garbage here comes from. Even in the hidden places in the mountains, there are endless, scattered heaps of waste and plastic bags and bottles. Is the place on a former landfill …? The people here are totally stupid. They sit at the beach and throw their fast food waste into the surf, including cutlery and plastic plates. I stood by and photographed. At night, heavy firearms are shot, presumably on dogs. Taganga is supposed to be the Caribbean, that I am not laughing. A place I will never visit again. Greg saw something good, I just saw bad things. Shit Taganga!

    BOLLWERK (the european gringo)

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