Pan-American Transmissions Part 6: Capurgana, Taganga and Colombia’s Sweet Caribbean Cacophony
Pan-American Transmissions Part 6
“Pan-American Transmissions” is a travel series from Special Contributor Diego Cupolo as he travels south from Nicaragua to Argentina. He has few plans, a $10-a-day budget and one flute-playing gypsy companion. Check back as new dispatches are posted from the road.
The FARC is almost dead, and it’s dinosaurs that seem to be alive and roaming through the jungles near Capurgana, Colombia. At least that’s what it looks like from the dock. Ania and I stared in disbelief as our boat pulled into the harbor of the small Afro-Caribbean village.
“Places like this really exist?” Ania asked.
It was hard to take it all in after the long, stale journey through Panama’s Kuna Yala islands. Massive waves exploded into white foam on black stone cliffs, hordes of pelicans squabbled over jagged rock islands and monkeys screamed from the canopies overhead as we disembarked.
“We made it,” I responded.
Pure, wild, tropical paradise without a car in sight — Capurgana is on Colombia’s mainland, but it’s only reachable by plane or boat, making it feel more like a lost island in the Caribbean than a part of any country. Located just south of the Panamanian border, we expected the worst from immigration officers, but they let us pass without checking our bags so we bought a couple fresh mangoes and headed straight to the beach.
It was there, on that fine warm sand, that I realized something about Colombia. Sure, there were rifle-touting 17-year-olds in camouflage patrolling the town’s perimeters, but the place was offensively beautiful. Incomparable to anything in Costa Rica.
With natural gems like Capurgana and Taganga, I wondered what Colombia will become when its internal conflicts are finally resolved. (Which might happen sooner than anyone expects.) Colombia could be — and some say it’s already becoming — a major travel destination and international economic power. The question is: How long will it take?
As Ania and I would soon find out, the Caribbean coast is a good place to start observing the progress for anyone that’s not willing to wait.
Capurgana: Donkey Carts and Reggae Music
Those resilient enough to get there will be heavily rewarded. Capurgana is gold. A refuge from the rest of the world surrounded by humid green, red mud jungles and pristine cyan waters.
Best of all: Capurgana’s incredibly cheap for everything that it offers. Ania and I found a place to camp for $1.50 a night each. We set up our tent across the street from the sea and went for a walk around town.
The first thing we noticed were the donkey carts — automobiles are useless in a place where all roads end in the jungle. The second thing we noticed was the town center: a soccer field lined with bars, each one playing reggae music as loud as possible 24 hours a day. The competing sound systems made a mix of incomprehensible noise so Ania and I headed towards the more peaceful rhythms of the waterfront.
There we found a myriad of trails. Some went through the jungle; others snaked over the rock cliffs by the sea. Both were covered with tiny green and black poison dart frogs. We passed an abandoned mafia palace of a hotel on the way and followed a trail along the sea to a luxurious, natural tide pool. Waves crashed on the rock walls and replenished the fairly large tub of hermit crabs and sea foam as we sat in warm water, wishing we had brought champagne.
When we got our fill, Ania and I followed on the same trail further into the jungle until we reached the home of a lone rasta artist. He asked for donations to enter his garden, but it seemed like a tourist scam so we turned around and returned to our tent.
The next day we joined a group of travelers and followed a trail through the jungle, over an extraordinarily humid mountain and ended up in the neighboring seaside village of Sapzurro — a smaller version Capurgana. It was nice and stunning and all, but locals said the nicest beaches were a little further, just across the Panamanian border in a place called La Miel, so we kept on marching.
The hike was worth it. La Miel has some of the highest ranked white sand beaches in the entire Caribbean. Some places have a trash problem, but we got away from the main beach, found our spot among flower bushes and cracked open coconuts the rest of the afternoon as our friends practiced their juggling.
I could’ve easily stayed there for the rest of my life — in La Miel, in Sapzurro, in the sweet raw smell of everything around Capurgana — but the voyage had to go on. Too much beauty can deteriorate the mind.
Taganga: Choose your Beach, Choose your Fish
Ania and I rode a speed boat like a skipping stone to a port on the mainland called Turbo. From there we hitchhiked all the way to Cartagena with a Swiss couple that wouldn’t admit to being a couple and our old Argentine friend, Felix. The process took a few days and involved riding in a brand new Renault sedan latched on the back of an 18-wheeler along with seven other cars bound for a city dealership. (How else could five people catch a ride together?)
Cartagena was fine, and it’s good for drinking and partying — just stay in the city center! — but Ania and I got bored and continued east to Taganga, a fishing village turned hippie/backpacker mecca.
After Capurgana we thought we had seen everything Caribbean Colombia had to offer, but Taganga was beautiful in a completely different way. It was much drier. Cactus stubs dotted sandy coastal mountains that dropped straight into the sea. The rugged terrain formed countless tiny beaches, accessible by boat or hiking, and the choice of where to lay our towel was about the only thinking we did during our stay.
By that point we had thoroughly marinated in the Caribbean culture. Once you absorb it, it’s hard to get away.
Many travelers visit Taganga because it’s the cheapest place in the world to get scuba diving certification. Good to know, but Taganga’s also next door to some of Colombia’s main attractions, Tayrona National Park, and the mysterious Ciudad Perdida, the ruins of an ancient city hidden deep in the park’s jungle.
Regretfully, Ania and I didn’t go to either of these places because it was high season and the entry fees were doubled. What we did do was hike around the desert mountains until we got too hot and then went swimming. The scenery in Taganga was enough for us. It didn’t feel like we were missing much. To top it off, at the end of each day, we’d stop by the fishing boats and pick out fresh barracuda to grill for dinner.
Life was simple and life was delicious. On the edge of town, we found a hostel that charged $1.75 a night for pitching a tent and slipped into yet another crowd of ragtag Argentinians that sang all night and drank all day.
The only problems in Taganga are directly linked to the heavy tourism. The infrastructure can’t handle many people and the water runs out sometimes. (I brushed my teeth with purple water leftover from boiling beets for a few days.)
Taganga’s also known for its never-ending supply of hard drugs. It’s easy to get lost in it, but also easy to avoid it — your choice. I didn’t think much of the scene until I found a bag of coke on the ground. I picked it up and offered it to a girl selling arroz con leche in the street and she gladly accepted. To my surprise, she wouldn’t give me a free cup after the gift.
Ania and I roamed around Taganga for a few more days, then we finally gathered up enough mental strength to pull ourselves from the lazy Caribbean shores and explore the rest of the country.
It was necessary. We were losing track of time.
We hit the road again and caught rides form town to town. Hitchhiking in Colombia turned out to be much more challenging than in other countries, but somewhere en route to Medellin, a young engineer gave us a nice lift. He was educated and informed so we talked for a few hours about Colombian politics, the FARC and narcotrafficking. He said he was glad to see more tourists in the country.
“Too many people focus on the negative side of Colombia, but you’ve seen how beautiful our land is, you know we’re not all selling cocaine. There’s a small number of bad people giving the rest of us a bad global image,” he said.
In the end, he said he was confident things would change for the better.
“Colombia’s moment is coming,” he said. “The FARC is getting weaker every month. They have no direction. They’re just a bunch of young kids that are running out of ideas and, pretty soon, we’ll be running them out of this country.”
To this day, I still think about the possibilities . . .
By Diego Cupolo
Coming up next from Pan-American Transmissions: Medellin: A Tale of Two Cities.
About the Author
Diego Cupolo is a freelance photojournalist currently on the road to Tierra del Fuego. Most recently he served as Associate Editor for BushwickBK.com, an online newspaper in Brooklyn, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Star-Ledger, The Australian Times, Discover Magazine and many other publications. View more of his work at DiegoCupolo.com.