Colombia was the only country that I have to admit I had reservations about visiting. My pre-conceptions came from years of headlines about the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar, and drug trafficking. I had heard it was not safe for travellers, but a few google searches had me feeling a lot more confident. Government websites, both UK and USA, gave it the green light.
And honestly, it was wonderful. My favourite country, hands down.
I didn’t even feel unsafe in the large cities, including Medellin, which until ten years ago was notoriously dangerous and home to the drug cartel of Colombia. In fact, the 0nly place I honestly did feel unsafe was in the tourist beach town of Taganga.
First Impressions Of Medellin
Medellín, the countries second largest city, is known for it’s rocky past. Once known as the murder capital, it has since shed its previous coat and now attracts visitors and expats for with it’s cosmopolitan nature. Like any big city, especially one that was once the drug cartel capital, it has its moments. There are areas which aren’t recommended for travellers, and of course downtown you have to take care.
But I never felt unsafe here. In fact, I loved it.
The only time I had a reality check was wandering around one of the squares downtown. It was the square that hosts the Botero ‘Bird of Peace’ statue that was blown up in 1995, killing 12 people.
A kind lady observing us from her shop window approached us. She said I needed to hide my camera, and that I was a really obvious target for robbers. She then had her shop security guard walk us around so I could take pictures. He was so nice and friendly, and it was the kind of act that was common in Colombia – the people are just so welcoming to tourists. They know that a few ‘bad eggs’ can spoil a country’s reputation, and that tourism is something to treasure and take pride in. I was constantly greeted by random locals saying ‘welcome’ and asking how we were enjoying their country.
The Large Majority of Colombian’s Care For Tourists
But there is an dark underbelly to Colombia. This is no different to most Central and South American countries, or in fact any country in the world. I found that this ‘darker side’ met with tourism in one of Colombia’s beach towns – somewhere you wouldn’t expect to see such seediness.
Taganga – Colombia’s darkest tourist trap.
It is a dirtier version of Panama’s Bocas del Toro; a smaller, sketchier Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, and is the perfect example of how tourism can ruin a place.
Once a quiet fishing village, it was catapulted to fame on the backpacker trail when tourists began to head here for what seemed like a slice of Colombian beach-town paradise. The problems began.
So what makes Taganga unsafe now? The cheap drugs and the eager tourists meet in Taganga, and what remains is very much a party town with a shady underbelly. There is a lot of poverty, a large number of cheap and not-so-nice bars which attract a certain kind of person, and drugs are rife.
When I Visited
Firstly, I have to tell you what happened to me before arriving in Taganga that led me to already be in a bad place. I got second degree sunburn. This was possibly the worst place I could ever go to for recovery, as it a dusty beach town, with dirt roads (imagine that dry soil) and sticky heat. It did not help.
What I did Like About Taganga
Before I go on to what I didn’t like about Taganga, I will point out a few things which were good about it and that I did enjoy.
The Hostel I Stayed In – Case de Felipe
Casa de Felipe hostel was really nice, and had a lovely laid-back hostel vibe. Family style meals were available, and it was a quiet place to unwind. However once you leave the gates of the hostel you are on a back-street dirt road which feels unsafe at night. The gates are kept firmly locked for a reason.
A really cute restaurant hidden down a side street. It had a really nice backpacker vibe, and served delicious food. Definitely a highlight of Taganga for me, as it still captured that off-the-beaten-path hippie vibe that I can imagine Taganga once had.
Restaurante & Bar Babaganoush
Up overlooking the bay, this restaurant has second-to-none views. The coast is stunning, and from here you really get to see the appeal of Taganga from an outsiders perspective. Plus the food was excellent.
What I Didn’t Like About Taganga
The ‘type’ of tourist that was drawn here.
Taganga has a reputation as a party town, and this side of tourism is often not very pretty. I love going out and having a drink, but there are a lot of tourists that use being in a foreign country to act unlike they would act at home, and this is not the kind of traveller I associate with.
We had a few fun nights out in Taganga, and I am not going to pretend otherwise. However this was largely down to the group of people I was with, and did not stop me from feeing uneasy. It can be a fun place, but unfortunately it has got to the point where this hippy traveller vibe has been over-run by the kind of tourists who are totally ignorant. It is now the kind of place where backpackers come to get wasted and have sex with random people. This doesn’t make for a safe environment for backpackers in general.
The Drug Culture
The locals exploiting the tourists by selling drugs and pushing alcohol, and vice versa, tourists exploiting the locals by buying drugs and drinking too much.
Sadly the beach was really unclean and very crowded. Not at all desirable for a beach-worthy getaway, and a true portrayal of how the town has really diminished into disrepair.
The sketchy side roads were extremely dangerous to walk along at night alone. As far as my safety went, I just always felt a little on edge. From the people and kids approaching us constantly trying to sell things and ask for money, to being out at night time. The drink, the drugs, the dark roads. There wasn’t much about this town that left me feeling secure.
This trip advisor review is a really eye-opening account of an armed robbery of tourists in Taganga and is well worth reading before you make you embark on your trip to Taganga.
Where To Go Instead
After a few days we decided to leave Taganga. From here I checked in to a hotel in Santa Marta as it was the only place that could offer me refuge to get better from my burns. On doctors orders I lay in a dark air-conditioned room for two days straight, until my skin began to heel. I didn’t see as much of Santa Marta as I would of liked due to my burns, but from what I did see I really liked it, and much preferred the vibe over Taganga despite it being a larger town.
Once I felt better we went to Palomino which was everything you could wish for in a beach town. The hostels were amazing communities where you could easily lose a week or more. There was a great level of tourism, with locals and tourists interacting healthily, as it should be. The tourists ranged from families to solo travellers wanting to meet people, interact, and have a few beers along the way.
The beach was un-spoilt, the tourists were respectful. It wasn’t overcrowded. There was no visible signs of drugs. It was everything a traveller could hope for in an off-the-beaten-track destination.
If you are headed for Northern Colombia and in search of a beach town on the traveller trail, I urge you to skip Taganaga. There are plenty of amazing place just nearby which are much safer and more beautiful.
I recommend visiting any of the following instead:
- Santa Marta
- Minca (Read my post featuring the ultimate backpacker hangout, Casa Elemento, here)
Disclaimer: Taganga was the only place I didn’t feel safe in Colombia. As highlighted above I never felt unsafe anywhere else, including downtown Medellin, which was once an infamously dangerous city. I cannot recommend Colombia enough as an amazing, beautiful, safe country for visiting.