Intrepid Den: TAGANGA – VILLA MANDELA

You may have noticed that Intrepid Den has taken over my blog…here’s the next instalment from Columbia!

I left the lovely Casa Familiar after a weird trip into town. My reading glasses had gone awry and needed fixing. I thought it was just a case of tightening a screw but no. It was more serious. The man on the street directed me to a proper glasses shop. Miraculously, I found it. He looked at my glasses, moved the arm alarmingly and spoke to me in Spanish. The dictionary came out – it wouldn’t take long and it would cost 10,000 pesos (£2.50). I handed him my very expensive glasses and took a seat. Shortly after wards, I saw him holding the broken arm, unattached to the glasses and feared the worst. Minutes later, he returned them to me completely repaired! Bravo! I then went to an ATM to withdraw cash. In these private booths, you get mere moments to complete your transactions, obviously to default fraud but as a foreigner, it just isn’t enough time. I thought I’d requested £150 but instead, only £75 came out. I thought of going into the bank to question the amount but what would I say – “I speak no Spanish but…”. I decided to leave it to providence and went to another bank which just spat the money out, no problem. I then went to the supermarket to stock up – Taganga, my next stop has nothing in the way of anything as far as I could make out on my recce a few days ago. I bought coffee, lactose free milk and a big bottle of rum to go with the 3 bottles of wine I already had – well I was going to be there for maybe two weeks!

I packed my bag, stashing the booze, a kilo of brown sugar (?), nearly a kilo of coffee (I drink a lot), fruit and salad – even I questioned my sanity and when it came time to check out, even the maids were alarmed at the apparent weight of my bag and offered to help me down the stairs with it. I thought that if it was dropped, it would look like a blood bath from the wine and smell like a drunk from all the rum…

Fabio rang a taxi for me, we took photos and he mimed crying. I mimed it too – for nearly a week, we’ve been miming everything and it has been such a laugh and a treat. He has been such a memorable host. The taxi arrived and it took two of us to carry the bag to the car. It took up the whole of the back seat – I had to sit in the front, and when we finally pulled away, waving as we went, the car could barely move under the weight. The taxi driver assured me he knew where Villa Mandela was but even so, at the first corner, he called to Fabio’s son for directions. I said, in a language he didn’t understand, that I knew the way – I’d already been there and as a Despatch Rider in London for four years, if I can’t remember the way, then no one can.

We set off, listing on the corners what with the weight of the bag, and retraced the route (for me) of a few days ago. Once again the beautiful horse shoe shape bay came into view and then the descent into the tiny village that is Taganga. We pulled in and he asked again for directions. Off to the left he was told. No, it is to the right I mimed. Somehow, he trusted me and within minutes, we pulled up outside Villa Mandela Casa Mojito. We BOTH carried my bag in, I explained to a young girl who had no idea what I was talking about, that I had a reservation and after a few minutes, she passed her mobile phone to me. The proprietor , Chico, was on his way!

On arrival, he showed me the pokey room his wife had shown me last week and told me that that was what was available for the price I’d reserved – here we go again, I thought. He then showed me the room that his wife had shown me and which we’d agreed a price on only last week. Except now it was more expensive… I opted for the cheaper room except on reflection, it had no real light and the bathroom was the size of a very small closet. I pulled myself together, got the girl to ring him back and told him I’d take the more expensive room with air conditioning, windows and LIGHT. He was so obliging, he told me that he’d take the bunk beds out so giving me more room which he did – well he didn’t but a lovely young man called Oscar, who’s involved in extreme sports, and who speaks English, did. I asked if I could possibly have the table and chair from the other room as well, on account of being a writer…, and they didn’t even raise an eyebrow. I offered to help, having once worked as an antiques removal person with my wonderful ex boyfriend Sean. He accepted my offer. We got it out of the other room but short of sawing the legs down which I was all for – they thought I was kidding but I wasn’t, we couldn’t get it in. We had to give up and instead, I was given a plastic chair – not quite the same, but what could I do – we couldn’t even get a plastic table through the door.

Never mind, I had a huge double bed, massive windows that don’t really lock and as it turned out, a room door that didn’t lock either. Security is just not a concern here. All the walls end before they meet the roof, the rooms just meet the garden/courtyard where there are no walls, simply open lattice metal frames, much like a garden gate at home and no one seems to ever lock the door – at least not during the day. I felt a bit weird being so security conscious as if
I was staying in some kind of crime centre but everyone had warned me that Taganga is full of thieves. In the end, it just needed a really good (noisy) slam and I was out into the street with no street lights…

There were two things moving in the shadows right in front of me – were they muggers??? No, they were acouple of donkeys – there can’t be a person on earth who doesn’t like donkeys. I turned the corner – not forgetting that people had also told me Taganga was full of drug addicts, only to find a floodlit football pitch with a load of little boys playing on one pitch and a load of girls and women playing on another and not a thief in sight! It just seemed to get better and better and as I wandered into town, there were people everywhere, just hanging out, having a drink, having dinner; locals and tourists alike and I just thought, I like it! And as for the whole place reeking of ganga, it simply doesn’t – in London, I smell it absolutely everywhere – I know what it smells like and it’s not what it smells like here! Notwithstanding that there are police everywhere. They all look about 16 years old and I doubt they shave yet – they scoot about on bright lime green motorbikes but to be honest, they look as if they are having more of a holiday than we are!

When I finally went back to my room, I unpacked and made it my own. Then I attended to the bathroom – if I was going to stay in this room, for a week, I might as well invest in it. The shower head was blocked with calcium so I got the little sewing kit I’d bought in Oaxaca, took out a needle and simply freed them up. I then adjusted the ball cock in the toilet cistern so that it stopped overflowing onto the bathroom floor, gave it all a good mopping and a good clean, opened a bottle of wine, tuned my little radio into a local station, directed the AC unit directly at me and sat here researching on my laptop whether it was worth moving any time soon to another part of Columbia’s coast when suddenly, all the lights went out, the air con stopped, my laptop went on to battery mode and apart from my radio, all went quiet and no one seemed bothered. They just went to bed and in the end, so did I. This is Colombia!

DAY 2

There are two little boys living in the house and just like all little boys, they get up early and make a racket, so I got up early too. The power was back on and strong coffee (just the way I like it) was on the go. Coffee and filtered water is free here, I’d forgotten that when I was lugging a kilo of the stuff with me… It was great to just wander around the kitchen, helping myself whilst people came and went. I don’t know who actually lives here and who is related to who, but it goes on all day.

I meant to make an early start and walk over to the other (apparently better) beach and back before the midday heat. But that’s not what happened. I don’t why I bother planning anything in this part of the world. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Oscar was at the door with the plastic table from yesterday, now dismantled. He carried it in, assembled it in the corner by the window and now my room really was perfect! Obviously, the table was filthy from being in the garden for god knows how long so I asked the girl who does the cleaning if I could borrow her cleaning stuff. She gave me a baffled look – but that might have just been because she hadn’t understood a word I’d said, or was it because she couldn’t see any need to clean it – never mind that it was covered in dirt and home to a hundred dead and living spiders. In moments, it was sparkling and wasting no opportunity, I quickly cleaned the sink and the soap dish that looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned – ever.

By then, it was too late to make it there and back to the other beach, so I walked to the town beach. It’s not tidal here for some reason, so the beach never gets a good clean and it shows. It looks a bit like builders sand mixed with gravel, dog ends, dog poo and other jetsam. No one seems to mind, so like them, I lay down and took in some rays. My factor 30 is too much and my factor 8 isn’t enough, so I’ve mixed the two together – in the shop it’s either factor 70 which I didn’t even knew they made or factor 3. And slowly, I changed colour. It’s too hot and too boring to sunbathe for long so once I feel my blood boiling, I go for a swim. The water is clear and blue and very very calm. There’s not a wave or current in sight so I swam out to the buoy and just bobbed about for a bit. Looking back at the town, I could almost imagine what it must have looked like a few years back when the first travellers arrived. Probably like a little piece of heaven – some brightly coloured fishing boats on the shore, a few tiny houses dotted up the hill – the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta hemming it all in, save for a little palm fronted beach. Today, those cliffs have little houses on them that almost defy gravity and away up the hill to the south east is the little road to Santa Marta with little blue buses rolling too and fro. In a way, it’s like San Agustinillo in Mexico – heavenly and alluring but once all the city folk arrive, buy up and take over, the original lustre vanishes. The original folk must look around their town and wonder what happened. Once upon a t
ime, it was theirs and now it’s full of strangers, hostels, hotels, dive centres, second homes and to them, weird looking people. I just hope they got a piece of the pie rather than just the crust.

It is also not dissimilar to Arambol in India where I stayed not so long ago. There are people who have made it their home, if only for the “season”, usually the winter of the west, and these people tend to lord it over everyone else, forgetting that they too, were once the new boys in town. So it was with some satisfaction that I returned to the simple café that Michaelangelo had told me about last week and sat down as their first customer of the day. When the be-hatted, irregular, regulars arrived, they regarded me with a certain curiosity – how did I know about this place – I’d only just arrived… I ate my menu del dia with smug aplomb, paid up all of 6000 pesos – £1.50 and wandered off as if I knew exactly where I was going. Of course I got a bit lost, but they didn’t know that…

And so back to Villa Mandela for a lengthy shower and general clean up and once I’d rubbed coconut oil in my hair and dried it in the sun, it actually looked like real hair again rather than a salt hardened coarse blanket. The afternoons are too hot to do anything – for me, although there were builders swarming over the house not even breaking a sweat. I retired to my bed, popped the air con on, fell asleep and woke hot and drenched – another power cut. I wonder if this is a daily occurrence and a warning to get all my writing done when the sun shines. I just thank god I packed a torch! I asked Chico, the Italian owner (he came to Colombia working for an NGO, fell in love and stayed) if I could stay on for Easter but he said no – the room was booked out for three times what I was paying. Looks like I will be moving further up the hill on Wednesday to Casa Italia – for good or bad.


DAY 3

Up with the boys, I was early enough to get to Playa Grande. It’s already hot at 9am although bearable. I walked to the end of the town beach and then followed the path up past a new hotel. The steps, in the beginning, are made of old car tyres with cement in the middle – quite natty, I thought and climbed up. When the path isn’t so steep, it’s back to rock, dust, baked earth, dead or dying trees and huge cactus rising like gnarled fingers into the sky. After about 10 minutes, the track branched in two. One led on up and over the cliff and the other, less daunting, which I took, led down to the sea. I’d read that for some reason, Playa Grande was underused. Looking at what was before me, I was not surprised, I was also mystified as to how anyone could even call it a “beach”. There was a shabby shaded area covered with torn and tatty gauze, 13 men lounging around beneath it and one woman. They eyed me with suspicion and I eyed them with alarm. I didn’t want them to sense my fear and prey on me like a pack of dogs, so I just said “buenos dias”, walked past them and on to the end of the very short beach pretending to take an interest in the rubbish bins – I was desperate – I even took a photo!.


Suddenly, a shout went up from the snorkeller out at sea and they all jumped up and began heaving on two enormous ropes. They weren’t vagabonds, they were fishermen! They hauled and they hauled and as their net closed in, fish leapt up and thrashed about but they weren’t going anywhere except ashore. They even invited me to take photos and when finally the haul was in, there must have been 20 big sea bass like fish and hundreds of tiny ones which they just returned to the sea. They threw the big fish into a plastic crate and congratulated one another on a good catch. How many times a day they land a haul, I really don’t know but I couldn’t help but think that with the price of fish here – ludicrously cheap, for all that work, they’d just earnt about £2 each if that. And European fishermen think they’ve got it bad.

Excitement over, we adiosed and I climbed back up the path and pushed on to where I didn’t want to go – up and over the cliff. But it was worth it. Far below me, I could see a kind of mini Taganga, or at least what it once was – a tiny bay, with bright boats and little palapas restaurants lined up on the beach. I walked down the path and was astonished to see, climbing up the cliff, an eco lodge “Jaba Nibu”. It is an architectural masterpiece – it grips the cliff like barnacles, has open thatched cabana style buildings with palm leaf roofs and balconies and you can only reach it by boat. Imagine the logistics of even getting food and supplies delivered. I googled it and it cost over £100 a night which is astronomical for Colombia but for once, I can see why.


I was early and the little beach had hardly woken up. Rows of deck chairs sat beneath the shade of small leafy trees and behind these, was the row of restaurants. I say restaurants, but again, nothing has a wall, just a foundation and a roof and a kitchen somewhere out the back. I found a spot free of chairs, laid out my sarong, took off my dress and settled down in ray mode wondering why such a lovely beach was so underused – I was one of the only people on it. But not for long…

Boats began pouring in, ferrying people from either Taganga or Santa Marta. They just cut their engines, drift to shore and the people clamber out. Some of them have food in huge polystyrene cold boxes, some have pushchairs and tiny babies, some are old and infirm and need a certain amount of navigation and pulling and pushing to get them ashore, some bring their own folding chairs and all are Colombian. And with each boat, the noise, colour and activity increases. Within an hour, the beach was filling up and gearing up. From somewhere came the massive inflatable called “Super Mable” – like a giant armchair which is towed at top speed around the bay by a speed boat. Similarly, there is the “Hot Dog” which people sit astride and lastly there is the round “Doughnut” which you just have to grip onto with white knuckle fists . And people just queue up for a ride. They can’t get enough. At one point, Super Mable had a family with 2 very young kids on board – when they got off, the youngest seemed in a stupor – I doubt he’d been so terrified in his life. Amazingly, they all wear life jackets but apart from old Mable, the whole point of the other rides, is simply to turn the thing over so that you end up in the sea and have to swim to shore. Health and Safety – what’s that again?

So what does the archetypal Colombian beach dweller look like? Body image is just not a priority here and it is so refreshing. Old, young, fat and slim wear the tiniest bikinis for that all over indispensable tan. Or they wear sheer leggings over their bikini bottoms and they all look fantastic. Just think of Sophia Loren through out her lifetime in all her gorgeousness and that is what these women look like. The men, similarly, aren’t bothered, but then, they seldom are. They are families at play, with children, parents and grandparents, all paddling, swimming or going on death defying rides. Until lunch time that is.

As the sun climbs into the sky, there is no shade. The beach faces east, the big ball of fire gradually glows right overhead and that is when it is time to hit the shade. Suddenly, the beach empties and the women restaurateurs carry around trays of fish so fresh, the gills are still flapping. You select the one or ones that you want and some time later, it arrives on a plate with rice, fried plantain and salad and is cooked to such perfection that there is not one speck of fish left. How do I know this? Because even I had one. I meant to just shelter from the sun in what I thought was an abandoned abode but it wasn’t. I was just the first one there. The bare tables aren’t laid or have anything fancy about them. You just sit and eat and that is exactly what I did. It was three times what I normally pay for lunch but hey, I’m on the beach, everything comes in by boat and it was still laughably cheap!

There was just one problem. I presume it works out very well for the business folk, but the boats ferrying people to and fro, suddenly vanish. I’d probably peaked too early in the food stakes. I was ready to go home but with no watch on I had no idea of the time. I thought it was about 3pm but it was only 1.30. All the boats back to town were gone and there was only one thing for it. And not for the first time, there I was, like a mad dog or an Englishman, out in the midday sun. I slathered on Factor 30, pulled my sarong over my head like (I presume, but I’m probably wrong) Benazir Bhutto in her heyday (obviously before she was gunned down…) and defying any sensible logic, began the almighty climb back up the cliff, heart banging away in my chest, panting like a parched dog and the only shade that I could see, was my own minuscule shadow. Fat lot of good that was! I imagined myself staggering into town, foaming at the mouth, lifeless with heat exhaustion and possibly being pronounced dead on arrival. Why do I do these stupid things? Because I can? Because I want to? Or is it just a constant test of my resolve and survival instinct? I thought about all of those things as I stumbled home and when I finally staggered up to Villa Mandela, sweat pouring in rivulets down my face and body, one of the little boys actually looked at me in alarm. Truth comes from the mouths of babes…

Peter Vincent commented that I didn’t look as if I had much of a tan – well I do now!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *