In March 2016 I was traveling to Cartagena de Indias in Colombia, and I was both, amazed and shocked.
Why so, I will tell you in this article.
Cartagena, how it is shortly called, is a city on the northern coast of Colombia within the Caribbean Region. About 900,000 inhabitants call the city today their home. After Barranquilla, it´s the second largest city in the region. Cartagena was founded in 1533 by the Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia and named after Cartagena in Spain. But first settlements of indigenous people date back to around 4000 B.C. First, the Puerto Hormiga Culture settled in the region and later other cultures like the Monsú and Sinú. In 1500 the area was inhabited by different tribes, like the Kalamarí, Carex, Bahaire, Cospique and Turbaco. Today Cartagena has a very interesting confluence of cultures, starting with the natives, Spaniards, Africans and Arabs.
The ancient city center of Cartagena, with it´s colorful and with love restored houses in colonial style, is surrounded by a very strong city wall, constructed for the defense against pirate attacks. In 1984 the ancient city and the castle was listed by the UNESCO as a world heritage site.
Take a walk through the streets and gaze on the beautiful houses, buildings and churches, take a seat in one of the little parks and take an Arepa (corn dodger with cheese, filled with different things), an Avena (oat drink) or an Empanada (filled corn bag). You can also walk on the town wall while having a beautiful view on the town itself and the beach on the other side. During the evening times, there are very often local people presenting dances and music, like Cumbia or Champeta. It´s very joyful!
“Castillo San Felipe de Barajas”
The construction of the castle “Castillo San Felipe de Barajas” started in 1536 and was expanded in 1657. The entrance costs 16,000 Col.Pesos (around 5 Euros) for adults and 8,000 Pesos for students.
It´s absolutely worth it to enter, because it´s a very interesting site that belongs to Colombian culture and history, you will have a great view to the city, and moreover it´s the greatest fort that was ever build by the Spaniards in a colonized country.
We were so lucky, to see a gorgeous sunset above the city from the castle.
To get from the ancient town center to the castle, or vice-versa, you have to cross the bridge on Calle 30, which leads above a nice river with mangroves.
But unfortunately, if you look down, everything is full with trash, and it also smells bad. It´s very sad, that most people here don´t have a feeling of responsibility for their environment and for nature. The same happens on beaches around Cartagena, for example on the famous Playa Blanca on the peninsula Barú.
It´s a drive of around one hour from the harbor of Cartagena to Playa Blanca. There are usually minivans, which bring you to the beach and back. We also took one of these vans, but I didn´t know, what will await me!
First the landscape to the peninsula: everything was dry, kind of useless land. The ecosystem here is like that, but this time it was dryer than normal, because of the phenomenon of “El Niño”. So it basically didn´t rain a single drop for 5 months, even though the raining season is supposed to start in April.
Second the high amount of industry which is going on in this area. Huge refineries of crude oil, logging, constructions. It´s really not a nice drive and it opens your eyes, what is really going on around first-class holiday destinations.
When we stopped close to the beach, I already saw crowds of travelers walking in beach direction. I already had a bad feeling, of how crowded could the beach be. So we went into the same direction and I realized, that I was right.
The beach is beautiful, no question! Very beautiful, indeed. But the Caribbean charme, the flair of lonely “Robinson Crusoe”-like dream beaches, the beauty of nature – just disappeared. Sadly. It´s a lost paradise.
Nevertheless, we were sitting down on one free place at the beach, and as soon as we arrived, it started with the commerce. Really, a constant commerce is going on. Beach vendors, who want to offer thousands of things: food, massages, sunglasses, sun cream, fish, seafood, sweets, hairdressing services, fruits, coconuts, beer, cocktails, and the list goes on and on. Sure, I don´t mind some beach vendors. I actually like to buy now and then some fruits, coconut or beer. But this was definitely too much!
It´s so annoying, that soon, we started ignoring them. We really stopped respectfully saying, “no thanks!”. And that is something which is understandable, but still: I don´t like my behavior under this pressure. So I prefer avoiding these kind of places, where I´m forced of being rude to people, because I don´t feel comfortable or pressured.
Later, when we went into the water for snorkeling, another sad picture appeared to us. Due to so many people, commerce and uncountable motor boats roaming around, there was a lot of underwater erosion going on, meaning a lot of sediments, which dulled the view underwater and corals, which were just dead. Also trash was just seen as a part of the beach area. Let alone the stinky emissions of the motor boat.
In the evening, when most of the crowds already left, I took a walk around the area and behind the houses, where the people live. What I saw shocked me and I just understood, why the locals wanted to sell their stuff so desperately. Their houses are with wood and tray patched something, the mangroves behind their houses are stuffed with trash, and stinky puddles of I don´t know are marking the area around. Cows and dogs were feeding on trash. It´s really a sad view.
Earlier, the people here were fishermen, living together in small communities, quite isolated. In harmony with their environment and the nature and animals around them, I suppose. Now and then a tourist came by. But a hand full tourists now and then are not doing damage.
But the crowd of tourists nowadays, what is going on here, is not healthy for neither the sensitive (mangrove-)ecosystem, nor for the people who live here. It damages nature and cultures. It turns the locals into “modern slaves”, that are in the end let alone with all the trash, that commerce produces.
At the end, after all these experiences, I saw the rather old and forgotten sign, which declared Playa Blanca a Natural National Park, where coral reefs, sea grass, the forest, mangroves, rocks and air must be conserved. Maybe it was like that in the beginning, but now, all the things, that should be conserved, are in high danger, if not something is happening very soon.
The government should really protect this area, no matter how economically valuable it is for tourism. There should be regulated closing times, a prohibition of plastic articles, an entrance fee, which will be used for conserving the area, a prohibition of motor boats, etc.
But my solution for now, and a solution that I can recommend to you too, is avoiding Playa Blanca. Enjoy the city of Cartagena and the castle in a responsible way, and afterwards move to another place for enjoying beach times.
For example, the beaches around Santa Marta and Tayrona are even more beautiful and natural, and there are also more beach options, meaning, that the beaches are not too crowded, because tourists are more distributed. If you head further north, in direction Riohacha, you can still find virgin beaches.
But never forget: wander, but wander with responsibility, and never leave traces.
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