We boarded a packed ferry early in the morning from the Cartagena docks. The rum was already flowing, and the boat was packed with Colombian tourists, there was music, singing, dancing, eating, drinking….it was gonna be a fun trip to Isla del Rosario, an archipelago of 27 coral islands, and the famous Playa Blanca on the Isla da Baru. I’d heard the stories – the bad ones mainly – about how you get about 30 minutes on the beach, a crap lunch, a mediocre snorkeling trip, and about 7 hours stuck on a boat. It turned out to be exactly as they’d warned!
The trip there was plain sailing, and after a few hours the colour of the sea began turning into that wondrous turquoise colour that is synonymous with the words ‘exotic paradise’. It wasn’t quite Los Roques in Venezuela, but then again, nothing is. Small islands came into view now, then loads and loads of differently sized boats that all seemed to have descended on one island. The little wooden shack set up on the pier selling ceviche was doing a roaring trade. It was also selling water at hugely inflated prices, and tickets to the ‘aquarium’. If it was anything like the one in the Floating Village near Siem Reap, then I wasn’t going anywhere near it. We got unloaded off the boat and stood like sheep on the rickety wooden pier waiting our next command from our herders. Someone baaed. We could snorkel, for an extra price (for snorkel rental). I paid up – I didn’t want to be stuck with the touts on the pier – and Vero and I clambered into a little boat stuffed to bursting with other slightly bewildered tourists, and we chugged off towards a snorkeling spot. Predictably, the snorkeling equipment was old, leaking and certainly not worth the rental fee. I couldn’t help laughing – I was being swept along helplessly in the tide of mass tourism, touts picking at me and assisting me in parting with my money like komodo dragons might nip at a stupid water buffalo, following it and nipping at it until, with an impatient moan, it gives up and surrenders. I felt like I’d surrendered. I felt more stupid than a water buffalo. I put on my broken mask, and, with a weary sigh, plunged into the warm water. I couldn’t put my face under the water for long – the mask filled with water after 5 seconds and the snorkel had a hole in it – but it didn’t matter – there were no fish here, and no coral either, just rusty anchors and the sight of the tour operator diving into a coral reef made of tourists’ hard-earned money, laughing to himself. Maybe.
We got back to the pier after the allotted 15 minutes of ‘fun’. Our boat had gone. Great. Now we had to jump on the biggest boat in the fleet to Playa Blanca – but at least it had a decent bar downstairs. The seas were becoming rougher and rougher as we headed towards the next scam, and I was glad we’d missed the last boat, as even on this boat you felt like you were riding a roller coaster on the sea.
We arrived at Playa Blanca. I couldn’t see the sand for people. We were taken in smaller, undignified cattle boats to shore. The waves were crashing against the side and over the top, drenching us all, throwing us from side to side. We couldn’t see anything. It was like being stood in a sink with someone sadistically turning on the taps. The boats we were on looked like they had last been used in the movie Saving Private Ryan. As the drawbridge type door was lowered down, people hit the beach, running madly through the surf as the Germans fired a hail of bullets at us. Or rather, the Colombian touts fired a hail of rip-off sales pitches at us, clinging on to the weak as the strong powered through and made their way through the braying mobs of touts and clueless faces of the tourists and to their camp, where the promise of the world’s cheapest and worst lunch beckoned.
I didn’t want to eat, feeling seasick, but Vero insisted. I queued up in front of the food tent, where a woman who kept repeating ‘chicken or fish’ like a robot was dishing out standard prison-fare food. I sat down in the stinking mess of the mass beach dining area – a few badly sanded logs made for a table and chairs (I got a splinter in my right buttock immediately) – and picked gingerly at my food, throwing it away when I saw a half-eaten cricket in my rice. Yes, that did mean I’d eaten the other half. It was a thoroughly miserable affair. Thank goodness then, that I was with Vero, whose cheerful Latin disposition refused to let anything get her down. Upbeat and positive, she led me for a walk down the beach, picking our way past the hordes. We splashed around a little in the sea. We walked a little further. It was nicer further away, and the crowds thinned out. Most of the crowds would be gone in 30 minutes, leaving the place like the paradise it no doubt could be. I popped into a rustic beach hotel to enquire about prices….I wanted to stay, but again, having an expensive room somewhere else stopped me. We were doomed, then, to go back with the rest. And so after a few more minutes we headed back to the cattle boats, heads bowed in submission like cows as we were herded in. The waves were shockingly big now, and getting back onto the boat was a team effort from other passengers, who held your hands and pulled you over the top of the mother boat as though you were a fish being hauled onto deck. A slip would mean certain death to all but the strongest swimmers. What a cowboy operation. What an absolute scam. A waste of money.
The ride back was the bumpiest, most unpleasant I’d experienced since going to Ko Phi Phi on a ferry during ‘off season’. I retreated from the deck after being blasted by salty spray more times than a woman in a Japanese bukkake film and and slept for a while in the depths of the boat with Vero for company. We arrived back safely 3 hours later, and it was a relief to be on dry land again. Vero and I took a walk around the wall surrounding the city, and stopped in Cafe Del Mar for a drink, laughing about just how totally crap the excursion had been.
In the evening we went to a lovely Italian restaurant and sat at a table draped in white tablecloth on the balcony, supping wine and eating good seafood. From here we had a drink in a couple of bars, before heading to the wilds of Getsmani and to Cafe Havana – a Cuban theme (obviously) jazz cafe and salsa bar with a live band and a decor that made you feel like you were in 1950s Havana. They served Havana Club Rum (obviously) which made for great mojitos, and all in attendance were having a bloody good time. It was a good end to a day in which the touts had beaten me, I’d fallen for it, been scammed along with the rest of the dumb tourists. Looking back, though, the mad little excursion had been strangely worth it.