“Explosions on TV
And all the girls with heads inside a dream
So now we live beside the pool
Where everything is good
The men up on the news
They try to tell us all that we will lose
But it’s so easy in this blue
Where everything is good”
– Lorde, ´Buzzcut Season´
Although it´s already a month ago that I was there, a few words on my stay in Palomino (and perhaps the critical notes outlined here apply to the coast east from Santa Marta in general), since there are some things I feel I need to get off my chest.
When reading about Palomino, a town on the north coast of Colombia, I imagined it as a small and quiet place, where time passed only very slowly. Travelguides list it as a tranquil beach paradise. But soon I would find out that the reality is more like gringolandia.
Right after I had gotten from the bus and was walking down the main road towards the beach, I encountered the first few gringa girls. They almost appeared as a curiosity to me, since I hadn´t seen that many ´white people´ walking around in the wild for the last couple of weeks, but had only enountered them in the hostels where I stayed and in the bigger cities. In my naivité I was quite surprised to not trace a single sign of fellow traveler friendliness on their faces. A surprise that soon faded away as I got closer and closer to the seaside: groups of young white people – and only young white people -, returning from a day at the beach kept on passing me by as I walked further down the sandy road. To my left and my right hostels with beachy names were rising from the dust, built bamboo-paradises with loud hit music blasting from their speakers, as signs on the wall that I might have completely misjudged the ambience of this place.
By the time I arrived at the hostel recommended by my Lonely Planet (on a sidenote: I don’t know why that guide is still called that way), I was already pretty disillusioned. What I found once I had passed through the main gate of the terrain, was a scene that seemed to be stolen from Lorde´s ´Buzzcut Season´ (a song in which she ridicules the absurdity of contemporary culture). I saw a bunch of white teeth teens (or backpackers) lying around a pool, and there were more hanging around the bar (again: loud music), needless to say: already slowly getting pretty pissed though it was only daytime. I instantly got the feeling to be back in high school, but then in an American one coming out of a bad movie, with wannabe Queen Bees and guys showing off their machismo in order to finally end up in the bushes at the beach – or a privada – with the hottest girl. As if all of this had still anything to do with the culture and history of this place.
I almost felt relieved when the English boy running the reception told me they were full. However, evening was falling and soon it would be too dark to walk around with my backpack on – there was no other option than to go search for a hostel and stay at least one night. After a rushed quest for a place to sleep, I ended up getting the last bed a bit further up the dusty boulevard, in a hostel similar in its nature as the one described above. While I lay in my way too expensive bed that night (rather early, boring as I am, and completely alone in the room as my fellow bunk bedders were still out drinking at the beach), I pondered about why I felt so uneasy with the whole situation. Why was I so annoyed by all the tourists? After all, I was here as one myself as well. And then a rather unsettling thought crept upon me: maybe what was happening here was no less than a brand new form of age-oldcolonialism.
In first instance I was absolutely decided to leave Palomino first thing in the morning. However, just having spent the entire day making my way up from Valledupar, a city that I had also fled away from as soon as I could as I hated it, I knew that I had to suck it up and make it work. I could not keep on running forever (I simply don´t have the budget for that). So, after a morning of exploring the offer I moved my stuff to a lovely quiet place off the main path towards the sea, where I got myself a hammock for one third of the price that I had been paying at the other hostel (in reality I ended up sleeping in a bunk bed in a dormitory that I had all to myself, because there were no other guests). And so I ended up spending four heavenly days without wifi but living like a queen, hanging out with the two Argentinian girls who were volunteering at the hostel + occasional crew of friends.
I discovered that Palomino really is a BEAUTIFUL place, with white sandy beaches embraced by a line of palm trees. At both ends of the village is a river flowing down from the mountains into the sea, creating a landscape that is one-of-a-kind-stunning. Members of neighbouring indigenous tribes pass through the village on a daily basis and hang around the main carretera that divides the village in an upper and a lower part, which provides you with the unique opportunity to actually interact with these people. (On my last morning, on my way to the bus back to Santa Marta, I walked side by side with an indigenous lady wearing nothing but a simple white cotton cloth and a beautiful necklace made of lapis-coloured beats, casually chatting along the way about what she liked and didn’t like about Palomino.) In short, the town is touristy for a reason.
In retrospect, the bad taste in my mouth with regard to what was happening here was fueled by a number of things, that I will try to outline below:
1) The hostels down the main road seem to have nothing to do with the local culture and its people, except from the few ‘lucky’ locals working at these places as maintenance staff. Most hostels offer pretty much all basic daily necessities (meals, snacks, drinks, etc.), so that the predominantly young guests staying at these hostels often hardly interact with the local people, unless they absolutely need to (when they for example need a mototaxi, fruits, sun screen, condoms, etc.).
2) My stay in Palomino coincided with the month-long closing of Tayrona Park (which lies only a few km further west) for tourists, a measurement that had previously been taken in 2015 after the indigenous tribes living in the park had been complaining about tourists´ behaviour and pollution caused by the visitor numbers.
3) The hostels doing well are often the ones that are run by extranjeros (people coming from outside of Colombia) or, in the best case scenario, Colombian ciudanos (people from the cities). So it´s mainly the people from outside that are benefitting Palomino’s popularity amongst travelers, whereas the rest of the village seems to be just as poor as before (the contrast between the main road and the streets behind it in terms of wealth is huge). Properties transformed into hostels or camping sites run by locals often remain deserted terrains, as they lack the reputation and/or money for a location on the bigger road and thus suffer a lower visibility. In short, the gentrification caused by tourism is a big problem for the local people.
All of the above taken into account, I was about to believe that it was a mere crime to be backpacking. Until a conversation with a lovely 70-year-old hippie couple from Texas helped adding some nuance to my ideas. One of the important things being brought forth by the couple was the argument that the encounter of cultures caused by traveling works in favour of tolerance between different cultures. Getting to know other cultures than one´s own, increases understanding and often respect for the Other. To illustrate their point of view, the americanos gave me as an example the story of a couple of indigenous boys that were working in the village as employees of an Australian-run hostel. The owner of this hostel had told them that, despite the fact that these boys are working for a ´western´ employer, they strongly depended upon their own culture. If loyalty to their tribe and own values and customs demanded them to stay in the pueblo for a certain period of time (for example: during a ritual or festivity), they would tell their boss to be unavailable and not show up for a couple of days – without compromise.
Lastly, when the conversation came to the closing of Tayrona Park, the American couple made me at least see also the positive side of the matter. The measure to temporarily not allow tourists in the nature reserve had been taken after a petition signed by indigenous people, requesting the closure for an “environmental and cultural cleansing”. The month-long closure was, in that sense, a positive answer towards the indigenous’ request. Although this doesn´t change the fact that the tribes initially sought the permanent closure of the park for tourists because “the elderly told us to tell our younger brother and with them the world that they are killing nature” (the indigenous being the “older brother”, and descendants of European colonial powers being the “younger brother” in this way of saying), it does indicate that at least their voice is being heard.
To wrap things up, my aggression was not so much aimed against tourism in general, as against a particular kind of tourism. Maybe tourism gets particularly problematic when it goes together with indifference (e.g. for the local people, their culture, and the ecosystem). When people are centered around a pool, continuing the values and culture that they take from home without taking into account the local values and traditions, without even being bothered to get to know the local people and their culture, in short when they are only there because it is cheaper than home, maybe we can say that this kind of tourism is indeed a form of neo-colonialism. Indifference doesn´t lead to more tolerance, it creates hostility – on both sides -, with locals ending up wanting to make the most possible profit out of the tourists to compensate for a feeling of subjection.
But, as with everything in this world, I believe communication is key here. That is to say, that if traveling goes together with sincere curiosity, modesty and respect, it DOES lead to greater tolerance. If two people truly interact, it can be of value for both sides – for the visitor and the visited. If you take the time and effort to really talk to the local people, they will often turn out to be the most good-willing, considerate and generous people in the world.
Increased tourism will be an inevitable consequence of globalisation. But only if traveling goes hand in hand with mutual respect, combined with quotas handed down by local governments concerning the amount of foreigners with touristic objectives that can buy land, as well as socio-economic programs that will help the local people to join in the move upwards and make them share in the beneficial side of the region´s popularity, tourism can be turned into a positive and desirable phenomenom – for everyone.