Playa Blanca

After a week in Medellin I moved on to Cartagena, which I’ll write about later – I’ve just taken a side trip to a beach called Playa Blanca that calls for an entry of its own.

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I can’t decide where to start telling this story, there’s so much that was new and weird and beautiful and awful all at once. Playa Blanca is a superficial, touristy place, and it was hard for me to immerse myself. I’m not opposed to relaxing on the beach, drinking and talking with friends, but after the first few trips to the bathroom took me past the splintering, tiny huts where the locals stayed, it was hard to enjoy the superficial beachfront. It gave me too much to think about and too many questions to ask, like why the tourist dollars that come in haven’t allowed living standards to improve, or if it’s even that simple; and most of all how I can feel okay working on a tan and not caring about the living conditions of the people 30 feet from me. Some people say I think too much. Maybe Playa Blanca is a place that it’s better to visit and not think too hard about.

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The white sand beaches and turquoise waters are as they look in the photo, too beautiful to be real. I traveled with two friends I met in the hostel at Cartagena, and we spent most of our days in beach chairs or on the sand, staring across the water and breathing the ocean air.

Being a tourist means being asked to buy things constantly. Among the things I’m offered are cabanas, fresh-cut fruit, bracelets, stone carvings, alcoholic drinks served in coconuts, fried fish, little fried cornbread balls, coffee, and massages. I’m sure I’m leaving something out – during the daytime hours not more than ten minutes went by before a vendor would walk by offering something.

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We arrived late in the afternoon on Thursday after the large bulk of tourists had gone (the last boat leaves for Cartagena at 3:30). The beach was pleasantly quiet, still populated enough with vendors that if I wanted fresh fruit every 15 minutes I would have had plenty of opportunities, but empty enough that we had our pick of places to stay the night.

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The palm huts that line the beach are charming, made of rough wooden beams lashed together and covered with dried palm fronds. However, the charm wore off a bit for me as I realized that behind them are filthy, crumbling shacks made of corrugated metal where the vendors live. Sometimes there are no roofs. Despite this, the toilets were surprisingly clean, though basic – in order to “flush” one pours a jug of water collected in a rotting rain barrel into the commode. At the bathroom where we stay, a strip of threadbare cloth serves as the door to the bathroom.

We slept in hammocks hung from a palm cabana. The hammocks are cheap – 5,000 pesos per night ($2.50 US dollars). We were so close together we bumped each other when we moved.

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For meals we would have a famous Playa Blanca dish – fish fried whole and served with rice, salad, plantains, or French fries. It’s fantastic, and cheap. I took great pleasure in eating the gills and fins, which were crispy and salty, and I also had no problem digging out and eating the eyeballs – squishy and delicious!

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On our first night we wandered back from a beach bar where we had sat in chairs a couple of feet from the ocean, drinking piña coladas out of coconuts and watching a Chilean guy fishing. As he caught fish, the bar owner Rey (“king”) put the live fish in his mouth and bit their heads to kill them.

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It’s cliche and silly, but I will never get sick of drinking out of coconuts. The beach vendors use machetes to hack off the tops, pour out the water, and mix a drink inside. It’s probably an impractical way to serve a drink, but I can’t stop getting a kick out of it. It’s one of the pleasures of Playa Blanca that I was able to immerse myself in completely.

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That first night was perfect until we arrived back at our hammocks to find the wife of the owner blackout drunk, stumbling around the sand with a mostly-empty bottle in one hand. She shouted at us in garbled spanish, barely able to get words out through the haze of alcohol, until our spanish-speaking German friend Frederick got the neighbors to help calm her down. She allowed us into the hammocks, but continued shouting to herself well into the night.

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On our second night she stayed in the nearby village, and I decided there was never going to be a better time to go skinny dipping in the ocean. The beach was lit with only the occasional candle, and as before very few tourists stayed the night. The water was warmer than the air, and home to phosphorescent plankton that sparked like tiny electric shocks when I moved my arms or kicked my feet. Sabrina, Robert (a local vendor we befriended), and I swam and watched a lightning storm in the south for hours. When I finally got out of the ocean, little blue streaks appeared as I dried off – plankton that had hitched a ride and died as I dried them with my towel.

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These stories are fun to tell. It was a complex experience – delightful and new and confusing and challenging. A bit like traveling in general, I suppose.

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