Taganga: Colombia’s Coastal Backpacker Ghetto

by Dave on June 28, 2011 · 27 comments

Welcome to Taganga

Welcome to Taganga: land of peace, and free of corruption, discrimination, drugs, and violence.

It was obvious when I awoke my first morning in Taganga, a small fishing village on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, that the beach would not be joining the illustrious list of other tropical paradises I’ve been lucky enough to visit.

The heat and humidity had me sweating from the moment I stepped off the plane, and that was after the sun had already gone down. I’d spent the first night in a 6-person hostel dorm room, and by the following morning, was ready to find myself a private room within reach of a sea breeze.

Backpackers in Taganga

Backpackers nurse hangovers with fresh fruit juice from street vendors in the early morning.

The main strip of Taganga looked downright depressing. Hungover. In the same way Koh San Road in Bangkok looks hungover every morning as the streets are cleaned of the garbage produced from the partying the night before.

I sat down in one of the few restaurants that was open for breakfast, and took a look around.  A couple of travelers were hanging out by the beach, drinking fresh tropical fruit juices. I guessed they were up early to go diving.

There were lots of dive shops, as Taganga has a well-deserved reputation for being an inexpensive place to get your PADI certification. My friend Marcello from Wandering Trader got his certification there a month or so earlier. The cost for open water certification is about $250 – $300.

Beach at Taganga

Taganga’s beach looks much more appealing when the sun is shining.

The beach itself was small.  But the surrounding mountains were not covered in lush jungle like I imagined. It appeared more like scrubby bushes. It felt dry and desert-like. The beach was dirty, yet served its purpose for allowing visitors to sunbathe.

I wondered if this was what it was like in February 2009, when I’d met a group of Irish backpackers in Barranquilla who’d spent an entire month in Taganga. Because I didn’t see the appeal.

Maybe the beaches of Thailand had spoiled me, or my expectations grew out of control over the two years it took me to finally visit. Whatever the case, I was disappointed with what I found, though there were a few silver linings.

Dive boat in Taganga

A dive boat in Taganga prepares to take a group of scuba divers into the sea.

Reasons to Visit Taganga

  • Nightlife. What the village lacks in terms of daytime atmosphere, it makes up for at night with beach bars and a few discotecas. It turns out the nightlife is better in Taganga than Santa Marta, which doesn’t say much for the latter. I went out dancing at discoteca Sensation one night, and it was bringing in a mixed crowd of Colombians and foreigners.
  • Cheap diving. Go for a few days to get certified, and then get the heck out. That said, there are plenty of other inexpensive places in the world to get certified, and they offer much prettier beaches (and I bet much clearer views underwater too). Gili Trawangan and Koh Phi Phi come to mind if you want to go diving in Southeast Asia.
  • Base camp for exploring the region. Taganga may not be an idyllic beach, but for many it will hold more appeal than staying in the nearby city of Santa Marta. You can book the same activities from either location, including transport to Parque Tayrona, treks to Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), and package trips to La Guajira.
  • Fresh seafood. Available at all the restaurants. I highly recommend the pargo (red snapper) if available.

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Categories: Colombia, Features

27 Comments

Richard McColl June 28, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Nice piece, Taganga needs a good clean up in my opinion. I wonder how people stay there for so long.

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Dave June 28, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Hi Richard, thanks for reading. I think Taganga could be a lot nicer but of course it’d take some investment and effort on the part of locals and businesses.

I was in a bus on the way back from Santa Marta when we encountered a roadblock by some locals living up on the mountain. They were protesting the lack of electricity to their homes….I just so happen to hitch a ride with a chef at La Casa de Felipe who lived on that road and he said his home had gone 10 days without electricity! “criminal” he said.

So I don’t expect to see a makeover anytime soon.

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Richard McColl June 28, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Completely agree, Taganga needs a good makeover. I cannot understand how people stay there for so long.

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guest June 28, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Being Colombian but living abroad, I often follow blogs about the old country and when it comes to this region I always wonder why people opt to stay in taganga, rather than say el rodadero or santa Marta?. Did your friends recommended you went there?. My query is mainly as el rodadero is where, as far as I know, colombians would stay so it always strikes me as odd that independent travellers would choose to stay at a backpackers getto.

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Dave June 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm

I’m guessing because it’s cheaper, and a little closer to Parque Tayrona. Also I think by this point it has just developed a name and reputation for itself, and backpackers often like to go where other backpackers are.

I ended up enjoying my time in central Santa Marta, but if I go back, would try staying in Rodadero.

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John October 22, 2011 at 3:59 pm

No offense, but even though Taganga is a dump, it has a unique addictive quality to it. El Rodadero is a Colombian version of Benidorm in Spain, stupidly overdelovped and sickening. Taganga is a backpacker ghetto, but it is fun, and it is unlike anywhere else.

P.S. I was based in Taganga for four months. I would go back, only I am worried about a makeover. Taganga was cool as it was back then, dusty streets, lots of backpackers and a great atmosphere! If I want a Rodadero experience i’ll bugger off to Lloret de Mar durin low season.

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Dave October 23, 2011 at 11:11 am

None taken. I think Venice is one of the prettiest cities in the world, while I’m surprised to hear some think it smells like an open sewer, and don’t much care for it .

I’m all for staying in the places that make you happy.

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Daniele June 28, 2011 at 8:29 pm

I wasn’t impressed by Santa Marta so I quickly moved to Taganga and use it as departure for Ciudad Perdida, where i got injured on the last day :)
this forced me 3 more days in Taganga.
It’s very very touristic and even finding local food can be challenging!
But a relaxing place with option for nightlife, so i can see why folks like it :)
i compensate the lack of “colombia feeling” visiting Barranquilla afterwards…

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Dave June 28, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Hola Daniele, how’d you get hurt on the Lost City trek?

And what did you do in Barranquilla? Aside from the nightlife and Carnival weekend, I don’t know of much to be going on there.

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Rick July 10, 2011 at 10:31 pm

@Being colombian: Good good points. Well my friend, to be honest… the author dont bring up the REAL issue why “backpackers” go to taganga because its not political correct to say it. Most backbackers go there to do drugs, cheap high quality cocaine from the plantations of Sierra nevada. Its sad to say it but Colombia attracts diffrent crowd of “backpackers” compared to the cool people who went there 5-7 years ago. Todays “backpackers” are more “openminded” which means they buy prostitutes & drugs instead of boring cultural souvenirs. Medellin, for instance, has become THE PLACE for buying prostitutes and drugs. Im not talking about the old fellas who are there as sextourist, no, im talking about the young single guys in their 20′s – “the sex-backpackers”… really sad….

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Rick July 10, 2011 at 10:31 pm

@Being colombian: Good good points. Well my friend, to be honest… the author dont bring up the REAL issue why “backpackers” go to taganga because its not political correct to say it. Most backbackers go there to do drugs, cheap high quality cocaine from the plantations of Sierra nevada. Its sad to say it but Colombia attracts diffrent crowd of “backpackers” compared to the cool people who went there 5-7 years ago. Todays “backpackers” are more “openminded” which means they buy prostitutes & drugs instead of boring cultural souvenirs. Medellin, for instance, has become THE PLACE for buying prostitutes and drugs. Im not talking about the old fellas who are there as sextourist, no, im talking about the young single guys in their 20′s – “the sex-backpackers”… really sad….

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Dave July 11, 2011 at 12:48 am

Hola Rick, you’re right, I did hear Taganga has a strong reputation for drug use, which might explain why some backpackers seem to get stuck there partying for weeks at a time. Since I’m not into that, I can’t speak of it too well (which is not a bad thing in my book).

And I also agree about the sex tourism side of travel to Colombia. I’ve heard several travelers who’ve stayed in hostels in Cali and Medellin mention all the talk of prostitutes that goes on in there. And we all know the hostel crowd skews toward the late teens and twenties demographic.

Part of why I immediately stopped in my tracks to start living in Medellin back in 2009 is I knew that sooner or later, things would change. My worst fear would be Colombia goes the way of Thailand with regard to sex tourism. As prostitution is legal here, that doesn’t help matters (still illegal if woman is under 18 though).

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John October 22, 2011 at 4:03 pm

hi rick,
don’t mean to be racist, but I believe you are refering to the Israeli crowd?
Or rather the exsoldier crowd (I think they are idiots because they’ve been through sistematic brainwashing in the military, rather than where they are from).

I agree with you though, when in Colombia I sometimes had to leave certain hostels because I didn’t feel like doing coke or partaking in an orgy with prostitutesl

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Abc July 11, 2011 at 11:57 am

Santa Marta

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Wade | VagabondJourney.com October 8, 2011 at 10:22 am

Right on, Dave,

Must agree with this summary of Taganga completely. I give you much props for your honesty and trying to find the good side of it though. I tried to do the same but found my list ending with the first entry: SCUBA diving. I think the word is getting out on Taganga though — WAY TOO many people are being robbed there and having otherwise negative experiences for much of the backpacker and tourist crowd to keep coming. Palomino and some other beaches on the other side of Parque Tayrona are beginning to open up more an more to travelers, and, I must say, they seem to be a world away from the crap of Taganga.

As you stated, there are pretty much only three reasons to go there: diving, sex, drugs. If that’s someone’s thing, well, have fun. It’s not for me though.

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Dave October 8, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Thanks Wade. Have you been to Montanita, Ecuador?

I recently spent a few weeks at that growing little surf beach, and felt it was safer, and had a much better vibe and scenery. It’s the kind of atmosphere I wish upon Taganga.

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John October 22, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Dave
opinions are curious things…I much preferred Taganga to montañita, but I thought they had a very similar vibe about them.

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yoli August 21, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Montañita is a thousand times better than taganga. Soft sand, big beach that is not contaminated and a good party vibe in town. So disappointed in taganga. Got here last night and I’m ready to leave. Was also told not to swim at the little beach apparently they get a lot of dead fish and strange smells.

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Dave August 21, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Now that I’ve been to Montanita (last September) I can totally agree with you on that. Montanita is what I wish of Taganga, but I don’t see it happening.

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Maria Juliana February 6, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Hi, Im from Santa Marta and Im closer to this trouble than many of you. Im really concerned because this is a problem thats affecting the people, security, economics and the image of the city. I know that none of you wants to be from a place which its known as the best place to do drugs and prostitution. Well, this is a service created by you and for you, whoever has come here will notice that the business isnt controlled by any native “tagangueros” or colombian people, and the ones you see there have been brutally induce to this business. A lot of human traffic, young girls that are been drugged and used for prostitution. PLEASE DONT SUPPORT THIS KIND OF TURISM. Its affecting everyone of us.

check this page:
http://www.eltiempo.com/justicia/ARTICULO-WEB-NEW_NOTA_INTERIOR-11069801.html traduce it if its the case, Im not making up all of this.

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XYZ August 6, 2012 at 10:32 am

I’ve been to Taganga twice, one time last summer, one times this summer. It is always the problem what you expect from a place and how you want to see a place. So Taganga did not fulfill your expectations of a tropical beach, fair enough. But since it didn’t, you wrote it off immediately.

Unfortunately for you, you didn’t take the time to get to know the locals, talk to the fishermen, hang out with domestic tourists (there are a lot, not all of them can afford Rodadero). It is a real shame. Taganga has, for example, the second oldest church in Colombia. Have you been in there?

The way how the local fishermen fish is super interesting (though very old-fashioned). Did you also talk about how Taganga used to be a matriachy until recently with one of the older locals?

Despite not living up to your expectations or to you Western standards, you, as a “travel blogger” or “oh-so-open minded backpacker” should give a place a chance and look behind the facade that is created BECAUSE of the tourism. I am not excluding myself from that describtion, but I think I realised some things while travelling…

A lot of the businesses in Taganga are owned by Colombians, especially paisas. The drug and prostitution claims have been filed against the Israeli business owners, however, some mothers would like to see their daughters get impregnated by a foreigner in the hope for a better life for them (as seen in other developing countries).

The business owners and worker, and locals I got to know were all wonderful and hard-working people that wished those problems would not affect their village. The muggings have gone down significantly since there has been more police on patrol for the past 10 months. All those weeks that I have been there I never heard of a mugging happening during that time.

And cleaning up the village should ONLY happen if the locals want to (I am not talking about providing electricity etc., but cleaning up the village to make it more appealing to tourists), not because some foreigners would like to go on a cheap holiday, but expect Western standards.

Sometimes you people should think about WHY you are travelling and how you affect with your superiority thinking the host country/community.

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Colombian October 10, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Dont really see the point on describing only bad thing about this place, if you wanna go to some place with all kind of luxury things and no Colombian crowd , stay at your country adn you will save some monay too. Next time if you dont wanna get dissapointed ask first, make some research and be sure about you rellay want anout a backpacking trip, otherwise go to monaco, get on a cruiser in the caribean or maybe stay in south easr asia,where are no protitutes, or drugs or filfthy food or crowded places. Please be real and lear how to enjoy a trip even if it is to the park next to your home

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Dave October 11, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Colombian – I’m not a luxury traveler, I’m a backpacker who stays in hostels, often sharing a room with several other people. I spent my first month living in a dorm room at a hostel in Medellin, so I don’t think my expectations are that high.

By the way, there are TONS of prostitutes and drugs available throughout southeast Asia. I’m not looking for either, but their presence doesn’t change whether I will visit a place or not.

I’ve been promoting tourism to Colombia for almost 4 years now, but Taganga is the one place I’ve visited so far that I didn’t find appealing.

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lucas October 13, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Avoid Taganga and enjoy a much better places in S.Marta like B.Concha, 15 min ride from S.Marta’s Bastida, or get to Cinto, playa Cristal, Chengue probably some of the nicest beaches in S.America…also Los Angeles, Valencia waterfalls up to the paradise of Palomino, Kms of empty, white beaches from where you can see the snow capped of the sierra Nevada, Santa Marta has a unique ecological conditions that cannot been realy enjoyed from Taganga where even the hotels keep the secret and do not say anything to tourists…

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elisabetta December 27, 2012 at 12:13 pm

PLEASE Help!!!!
I am a student of the Master in International Tourism at the University of Lugano, and I need your help for my Master Thesis.
I am analyzing the potentials of Colombia as a new, successful destination for backpackers.
I believe this Country may represent the perfect destination for this kind of tourism thanks to his natural and cultural diversity.

If you have ever backpacked Colombia, I would kindly ask you to complete this short survey. http://fs25.formsite.com/spug/form1/index.html?1355301060030

Thank you

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Daniel December 28, 2012 at 12:39 am

He Dave, first of all i’d like to know where are u from? Im telling you that I just visited Taganga yesterday, and you know I also got dissapointed with that town (im colombian).
I teally expected other stuff as paradisiac beaches and stuff like that but I found dirty and cold beaches, lots of people and annoying sellers.
By the way tomorrow Im going to Tayrona Park and my expectation is quite high. I know it must be much better than Taganga.
Actually i dont recommend Taganga, but also i know that os really sad because it could be better but they have all of those troubles that you all have mentioned.
So i’ll tell how was Tayrona park and Cabo de la vela where im going as well!

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Dave December 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Hi Daniel,

I’m from the USA, originally New York. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree it could be a lot better. When I visited the surf beach of Montanita in Ecuador last year, I felt like that’s what Taganga could be like, but alas, the vibe around dive sites isn’t the same as surf beaches.

Tayrona Park is beautiful, and Cabo de la Vela in La Guajira is worth the effort to get there. Enjoy!

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