We recently took a week trip to Cartagena, and while there we took a detour to a popular beach outside the city called Playa Blanca. It can easily be done as a day trip, but we decided to stay two nights. On the way back to Cartagena, I was shivering as I sat in a boat soaked from head to toe in salt water (because I picked the perfect seat for getting sprayed in the face the entire trip) and gasoline (because the attendant had spilled it all over me and not even apologized). I had waited for this boat for 2 hours in 90% humidity. I was sunburnt, and all my bug bites were itching like crazy.
Yet, I was glad I was sitting there. The wonderful young mom from Cali sitting next to me on the boat, who had displaced my boyfriend so she could sit in the back due to her and her little boy’s fear of boats was the nicest person I’d met on the whole trip to Playa Blanca. She taught me how to say boat in Spanish (barco), and I helped her little boy count to 10 in English. She also felt like the only one not trying to take advantage of us at every turn.
We stayed in Playa Blanca for two nights at a hostel called La Espanola. The folks running it were not very friendly; I felt like a nuisance being there, but we had actually booked it through AirBnB. We had thought the listing was created by the owner, but it turned out to be a middleman who just overcharged us for the cost of the hostel. They did provide the service of helping us with transportation to the beach from the city, but I’m pretty sure we could have figured that out on our own and saved about $40.
We bought lobster and fish for lunch; we had bargained the price down because we knew the "gringo" price was significantly higher than a local’s price. When we paid, we didn’t have exact change, but we were never brought back the extra. What happened next reminded me of the How I Met Your Mother episode when Lily uses her simple choices & consequences philosophy from her Kindergarten class to enact “Aldrin Justice” by stealing the boss’s autographed baseball until he learns to be nice. Except, this time it was “Aaron Justice.”
We waited and waited for our change, but it was clear the guy had disappeared. So Aaron went up to his food stand and grabbed his cooler and his knife as collateral and started strolling down the beach. I nervously followed him from a distance looking about as suspicious as possible, looking behind my shoulder every 10 seconds (I’m terrible at playing it cool). We continued down the beach, and then finally found the guy who had our change. Aaron talked to him in his broken Spanish, and the guy acted like he didn’t know what he was talking about. I stood about 10 feet away biting my fingernails wondering what exactly I should do in this situation. Eventually Aaron got the change and handed him back his stuff. We returned to our hostel and didn’t walk in that direction again.
I have a difficult time in these situations. My time working in a Title 1 school taught me that when kids are acting out by stealing, fighting, being disrespectful, there’s usually a heartbreaking reason behind it. So I wonder, what economic conditions do these locals live under? How do they feel when seeing my privilege, for simply having the dumb luck of being born in a different neighborhood? I’ve also programmed myself to think positively about my students; some might see this as naïve, but whether I’m right or wrong, I believe it helps more to believe in someone than assume the worst. It also keeps me sane. So I can’t help but wonder, did the guy do it on purpose or maybe he thought it was a tip? I tend to see a lot of gray in situations like these that make it easier for me to forgive & forget and just know to always have exact change next time. I also detest conflicts with strangers and well, bargaining in general.
Aaron, however, sees this as simple right and wrong and that if there is no consequence, it will only continue happening to more travelers. Let’s just say I’m definitely more prone to getting ripped off than him.
Playa Blanca was absolutely beautiful…but it made me never want to go to a popular “tourist” spot again. I came back to Manizales so thankful I lived in a small and nice city. I can show you the gorgeous photos, but the truth is…it wasn’t as glamorous as it seems. Maybe traveling never really is (unless you’re at a 5-star resort). Don't get me wrong, I loved devouring a science fiction novel on the beach while sipping on pina coladas and eating all the fresh seafood I could find, but it didn't come without a little struggle.
In the end, I felt relieved to get off that boat and step foot back in Cartagena. This was mostly because as I was getting off, about 30 people jumped on the boat almost tipping it over causing so much turmoil, the police rushed over. But did I die? No. And what’s the point of traveling the world if you’re not going to see it for all its truths – the good and the bad, the black and white and the grays.
Lessons Learned Traveling to Playa Blanca:
- Bring plenty of pesos (including lots of small bills); there are no ATMs on the beach
- Pack your own bottled water (or pay a fortune)
- Clarify the prices of what you're purchasing before hand (whether a meal or a cab ride) because there are no set prices anywhere or meters
- Choose a seat in the middle of the boat
- There's no need to reserve a hostel in advance in the off-season, just show up and bargain. During peak season, book directly through the hostels
- Bring your own rum and add your own to the much cheaper juices (jugos)
- Have a flexible schedule (there is no set schedule for boats to and from the beach or islands)