Sporting what is quite possibly the worst beach I've ever sunned myself on, Taganga's flaws seem to wash away with a good sweat and saltwater swim.
I'm serious, I've seen gravel roads that are more appealing than what passes as a beach in this town. The Taganga playa is composed of scolding hot dirt, stone, discarded cigarette butts, and large amount of pyrite (very unusual). I swim in the somewhat questionable, although refreshing, water because my only other alternative is to charter a boat to take me up the coast and into Tayrona National Park (where there's plenty of tasty coastline to enjoy).
Parque Nacional Tayrona is one of Colombia's most popular national parks, and is host to a jungle trek that every backpacker I've met mentions: Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City).
Ciudad Perdida is one of the largest pre-Colombian towns discovered in the Americas. Constructed in the 11th century, the city disappeared inside the dense jungle vegetation after the Spaniards wiped out the inhabitants (until tomb robbers accidentally stumbled upon it in 1972). Today, a strenuous six-day hike through the jungle takes you to the city and back (three days for the ascent, one at the city, then two down). US$200 takes care of all the details.
I've seen people several days after they've hiked to the Lost City—exhausted, their legs are still swollen and bruised from hundreds and hundreds of insect bites. Not a pretty sight. Umm, I'll pass.
Taganga sports several scuba-diving shops that undercut the certification price in Honduras by about US$50 (a four-day open-water course with six dives is about US$200). The water around town isn't much to look at, but the majority of the diving takes place to the north, near the lovely waters of the park. I hear good reviews from travelers picking up their open-water or advanced PADI certifications here.
The equatorial sun blazes down on this town (and my bare skin) during the day, but the evenings are very enjoyable. A good breeze gently rocks my hammock, while keeping flying insects at bay. Sunsets are fantastic. I like the place I'm staying at, Techo Azul (Blue Roofs), quite a bit.
I'm situated up on a small hill at the far end of Taganga's horseshoe-shaped bay. The little complex of rooms and apartment suites is recently built, sports a fantastic view, and has been constructed in a fun and functional manner. Tiled stairs run this way and that; most rooms are on slightly different levels. Pay a little extra and you can get a amenities like a kitchenette and mini-fridge.
I arrived with an Israeli, and together we negotiated the nightly price for a basic room down P$15,,000/person (US$5.75). This place has been one of the best parts of Taganga.
From a hill overlooking town, the city reminds me a lot of those found on the eastern coast of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Nestled in the foothills of mountains, the town is topographically constrained to a particular size. It's very arid here. The air is hot and the soil is dry; cactus is common.
Taganga hasn't been completely decimated by tourism yet, and is still holding onto its fishing village reputation. Every so often a breeze will carry the strong odor of caught fish past your nose. City streets are still mostly unpaved, save the main road that connects to Santa Marta—which is visited often by locals and travelers, as the town doesn't have the infrastructure to completely support the needs of the population (there aren't any banks, the Internet cafe is just fast enough to do e-mail but not upload photos, restaurants are limited, and the nightlife is pretty tame).
Today I hiked on a trail over the northern mountain foothill to another bay. Playa Grande, accessible only by foot or boat, boasts the same crummy beach as Taganga, but has something the main town shore doesn't: droves of Colombians.
The segregation is surprising. Speedboats shuttle dozens of vacationing Colombian couples and families back and forth between town and the bay, each spilling its contents onto the beach and zooming away—Normandy with inner tubes instead of rifles.
I think the segregation has less to do with what country people are from, and more to do with the effort level folks are comfortable expending. Most Colombians are staying in Santa Marta, taking a bus—and hey, why not a quick ferry ride as well?—to get to the beach for their day(s) off, while backpackers are generally content to just roll out of bed and onto the "beach."
My time in Playa Grande was entertaining, as I was being chatted up for a few hours by two (fairly unattractive) vacationing prostitutes from the inland town of Medellin. I welcomed the friendly company and conversation though.
Other beach encounters this week include two girls who were also aboard the infamous boat that sank en route to Colombia from Panama, many friendly Israelis, and a Dutch fellow who was an extra in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie for three months in St. Vincent (I've been to the town where this was filmed and he was perpetually intoxicated).
I think I've had about as much sun and lackluster beach as I can take for the moment, and will take a bus inland tomorrow evening. I've been asking backpackers about Pacific beach towns south of Colombia, and have uncovered what is said to be a good spot in northern Peru—probably my last decent chance to satisfy the beach bum part of my personality until I reach Brazil (early next year?).
Why do I have a feeling I'm going to be sunning myself on a concrete rooftop in Bolivia…