Looking beyond the beach

Not everything foreigners are exposed to makes for a picture-perfect moment.
Not everything foreigners are exposed to makes for a picture-perfect moment.

Exhausted from the hot and crowded streets of the Feria de Cali, I wanted to spend time on a beach. And it didn’t really matter where in Colombia. Following the advice of the Tourism Office in Cali the beaches of Bahia Malága and Ladrilleros seemed attractive enough, so, along with a traveling companion, we pushed ourselves onto one of the few overcrowded buses to Buenaventura.

We arrived after two hours through winding hills, mud roads, and tunnels that have been in the works for years, quickly making our way to the port. After paying $50,000 pesos for a round-trip to Juanchaco we signed an obligatory waiver, stating in fine print that if the boat capsizes, the company pays nothing. In a rush to reach our prized beach, we did not think about it again. I stepped inside the turbo powered motorboat with about 25 locals and tourists. My hand began to shake, as the nerves kicked in about being in the vast, rough ocean, especially not knowing how to swim. I sat next to a little boy who assured me that the ride was quick.

Five minutes into the ocean and huge waves crashed over the boat, pushing it along and soaking everyone. Throughout the 40-minute ride I was sure that the boat would indeed capsize. I imagined myself in the water, and the ocean fighting to whisk me away. The little boy next to me giggled looking at my face. He said he wasn’t scared. I wondered if the ride was al- ways like this.

Luckily, we arrived safely to an impromptu dock in Juanchaco, learning immediately that the boat behind us had capsized. I was so traumatized that any form of land was a saving grace. What I didn’t realize until later was that this land was not for me, the foreign tourist.

The Ministry of Tourism promotes Juanchaco and Ladrilleros as coastal destinations highlighting (in their words) “large beaches…with a good tourist infrastructure” that offer the visitor a unique experience to see “a number of villages where fishermen live near mangrove swamps and work to the rhythm of marimbas and drums.”

However, what I found was an area filled with contrasts: abandoned hotels and empty tourism offices; garbage lin- ing dirt roads and polluting the ocean as inland rivers brimmed with pristine waters; and the starkest contrast, large numbers of white Colombian and foreign tourists standing out from the Afro-Colombian and indigenous locals.

We walked from Juanchaco to Ladrilleros to find housing for the night. After a 30-minute trek through muddy roads lined with soldiers, we got to the town, eagerly looking for accommodation. Most places charged $40,000 to $60,000 pesos a night, per person, for the all-inclusive stay, which we couldn’t afford. We were directed to the cliff where Ladrilleros is positioned, right above a volcanic grey beach being beaten by waves. We met an elderly man who had created a hostel in a house he built himself for his family, and who lived on the ground floor. It was rustic, not anything like the resort-like hotels that fill the area, but it had a charming view of the rough waters and the hidden beach.

We rang in New Year’s in a bar-club right near the hostel, packed with tourists and locals. Despite the all-night music blast, we managed to wake up early to head out to La Barra – a beach recommended to us by the old man. We took advantage of the low tide to walk along the beach, marveling at the dark sands and beautiful surrounding lagoons. I had never seen a landscape change so quickly from cliffside beaches to palm trees.

Once the beach opened up, I saw a sign for “El Paisa” tour. It clicked. I was on the beach from “El Vuelco del Cangrejo,” a film that I analyzed in my University class a year before, criticiz- ing the idea of using tourism as a way to create more revenue in Afro-Colombian communities.

It’s ironic that the tours are called “El Paisa” after the character who represents this clash between popular tourism and a local way of life. I almost felt like the lead character, Daniel, arriving in an isolated part of the world not understanding the cultural context I was in. I had an immediate sense of journey ‘voyeurism.’

In Bahia Malága, one can see foreigners and Colombians alike, taking pictures of Afro-Colombian children and Wounaan women weaving baskets. The idea of seeing people in their “natural habitat” is enthralling, even though on the streets of Bogotá or Medellín, these same people would almost be invisible.

Still, visiting these areas can be seen as voyeuristic as many people seek them out because of the “otherness” that is attached to the people who live here and the land they inhabit. Colombia Travel engages in this exotification with its description of the area, encouraging tourists to, “enjoy the local seafood, coconut sweets, and the friendliness of the locals who are eager to share their heritage with you.” The words heritage and traditional are used to present something exotic, different, and authentic to the tourist, foreign and Colombian alike.

Sociologist John Urry writes about this phenomenon in his famous work, ‘The Tourist Gaze’ (1990) highlighting how the tourist tends to romanticize the situations of local people by comparing them to their homelands. The expectations that a tourist has when visiting a certain community, in search of an authentic experience, encourages the community to reflect back this “gaze” to benefit financially. Tourists go to Ladrilleros and Juanchaco looking for a more “authentic” experience as mentioned on an official Colombian website. One can argue that tourism is about seeing and learning about other cultures.

However, ethno-tourism marks bodies as exotic objects. It separates people. If we assume some truth in Urry’s thesis, it almost seems that the extreme conditions of Juanchaco and Ladrilleros are maintained to feed people’s ideas of what these communities should be like.

Daniel Buitron, owner of Colombia Eco Travel, has witnessed first-hand the development of ethno-tourism in Co- lombia. “Ethnotourism has the ability to create stable economies in many local communities, but it’s a long hard journey.” The operator also noted that the history of marginalization of ethnic groups in Colombia has prevented ethno-tourism from succeeding in ways it does in Ecuador and Peru.

A 2009 report issued by the World Bank claims “tourism can increase community and personal income, and bring empowerment and self-confidence to traditionally subjugated people.” However, this by no means, should be a re- placement for governmental presence and support. Many of the remote towns in the Pacific lack overall infrastruc- ture, and if it exists, its main purpose is to pamper the tourist, not the local.

Tourism cannot be a motive for impacting social change. If tourists want to head-off to a remote, but well promoted town, there should be government supervised services and visible investment in essential infrastructure. Where is the joy of sipping ‘Coco locos’ if the locals don’t have a sewage system? And when the first boat capsizes full of for- eign tourists, will the government then pay attention?


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