The easy part of about Playa Grande is falling for it immediately. The hard part? Getting there.
I STUCK MY HEAD OUT THE OPEN DOOR OF THE BUS and looked down a steep cliff wall that descended into a wide bay. The public buses in Colombia are usually beat-up looking affairs, with rusty fenders, faded stripes painted across their bodies, and, as is customary across many parts of Latin America, manned by both a driver and an assistant who hangs bravely near the door and collects the fares as they are passed up to him after passengers get a chance to settle in.
This particular assistant didn’t seem fazed the slightest as he stood precariously near the open door, clinging to a bar above the windshield and staring lazily out the door of the bus, his foot hanging in the warm breeze, several hundred feet from the ground. We were crossing over the small row of hills that separate Santa Marta from Taganga, a sleepy fishing village on a bay that, incidentally, has become the region’s capital of scuba instruction. I was not heading there to take advantage of the diving but rather as a jumping-off point to head one beach further to Playa Grande, a secluded stretch of sand with an esteemed reputation for beauty.
My roommate back at the hostel, a South Korean in his mid-to-late-twenties (a description that could easily be applied to nearly all of the travelers I encountered in Colombia — the mid-to-late-twenties part, not South Korean), was there taking some time off from work after being let go from an IT job in Seoul. He decided to pack up his things — which from the looks of his messy bed and crowded shelf next to his bed, consisted mainly of scuba instruction literature and small, portable electronic devices — and stake out a bed at this hostel for roughly $5 a night while he attended one of Taganga’s many scuba schools.
“How’s the beach at Taganga?” I asked after I had returned one afternoon from exploring Santa Marta. I figured he’d know all of the beaches around here by now, especially since he’d been here for well over a month. Also, his scuba school was about a stone’s throw away from the town’s bay.
“Yes, I’ve heard it’s good,” he said reassuringly. “You will like it.”
“You heard it’s good?” I asked, confused. “Haven’t you been?”
“No, we are still studying,” he replied matter-of-factly. “Diving doesn’t come until after we pass the tests.”
I looked at him with a blank stare but decided to leave it at that.
As our bus got closer, we passed by several of the scuba schools that lined the road leading into town. I hopped off at a stop near the end of the beach and made my way along the crowded shoreline.
The entire stretch of sand was cramped with various street food vendors, fishing gear, and lines of rope securing the fisherman’s boats to the palm trees on the sand’s edge, creating a giant, elaborate obstacle course for anyone hoping to cross the beach. It was barely past 7 a.m., and even the fishermen looked like they weren’t used to being up that early. As I walked, the sand was getting caught between the leather straps of my sandals and rubbing against the fresh wounds on my feet I had received from snorkeling the day before.
“You want a ride to Playa Grande?” a man asked off-handedly as I reached the end of the beach. He was standing in a boat and was pulling up a line of rope from the water. “I take you there by boat, drop you off, and come back later.”
I was weary of being ripped-off or scammed, which, incidentally, almost never occurs in Colombia, or at least not even close to the frequency that it does in many parts of the rest of the world, including back home in New York. He was around my age and height, and he was wearing a beat-up looking pair of plastic sandals that looked like the kind they sold at dollar stores. (Later that day, I would offer my pair of boogie board shoes to him since I had little use for them after then. As I drove out of town later, I spotted him standing on the corner and chatting with a group of friends, my bright, orange shoes on his feet.)
“No, thanks. I am taking the path,” I said, gesturing to a withered strip of clearance at the bottom of a steep hill that may or may not have been the beginning of a path. He raised his eyebrows and said nothing, continuing to organize his line of rope.
A man standing in a boat next to us who had been listening raised his eyebrows too after hearing this, then went back to poking around the hull of the small, metal vessel with a screwdriver. He looked about the same age as us and the two boats would have been hard to differentiate save for a large orange bucket that rested on the edge of his boat’s starboard side, assumedly for holding fish, but also likely used for the occasional bailing out of sea water. The other man’s boat had no bucket.
45 minutes later — 35 minutes after I was supposed to have reached Playa Grande according to my guidebook — I was still making my way along the path. With my shirt I blotted out the massive amount of sweat that had collected on my forehead and was burning my eyes as it oozed down my face. The glaring sun, a sight I had rarely seen during the previous week here in the country was furiously at work baking the shrubby landscape around me.
I looked down the sharp hillside and, as if it was trying to tease me with its proximity, I could see Playa Grande splayed out far below me. In between me and the beach, a massively thick collection of shrubs, gnarled trees, and, for good measure, a tall, rusty metal fence lay. Maybe if I had been wearing something a little more protective than a thin t-shirt and swim trunks, or had I been carrying something more akin to a machete than a pair of goggles, I could have attempted to make my way through, cutting the brush and scaling the fence, finally arriving at my destination. But, given my situation, I was stuck with the hope that the path that I had been traveling on for what seemed like hours would eventually lead down to the beach.
A few minutes back, after I had started out on the path, I’d passed a couple of fisherman who were carrying a long pole by either ends with various species of aquatic life hanging from it by wire. We said “good morning” to each other and went our separate ways. Since then I had yet to see another soul.
Ahead of me the path seemed to continue on forever into the distance; a distance that angled sharply away from the beach that I was aiming for and seemingly back towards the far side of the hill where I had begun.
“Maybe if I go a little further I would see that the path splits and heads down to the beach,” I thought to myself. Of course, this is exactly the same thought process that people who have gotten lost hiking in the mountains and find themselves caught in a heavy blizzard say to themselves shortly before they collapse and die, minutes before a rescue team shows up, or right before the storm breaks just enough for them to catch their bearings. As the rescue team picks over the frozen remains, you can imagine them always saying, “If only they’d stayed put just a little longer.”
Naturally, I trudged on.
After a half-hour, I came upon a metal electrical transformer that was sitting in the middle of the path. I climbed on top to try to get a better vantage point of my location. Just ahead, the path snaked upwards to the peak of another hill and disappeared behind its back. To one side I could see Taganga, a distance that looked to be about an hour’s hike. On the other side I could still see Playa Grande, looking just as difficult to reach as before.
As I hopped down from the transformer, I heard two men behind me speaking to each other. Abruptly they stopped, as if being interrupted. I looked back and saw two figures that had crested the hill in the distance ahead. Their caps were pushed down over their eyes. They were carrying tattered backpacks and wearing boots caked with dried mud. The sun was high in the sky behind me, backlighting me, so I probably appeared nothing more than a shapeless blob to them, but as I stood there looking, I could see that one of the men had caught sight of me.
We stood there, watching each other — assessing each other — for what seemed like minutes. Neither of us made an attempt to move. Finally, as if coming out of a trance, I quickly turned around and scuttled forward, ignoring the sharp reeds scratching against my exposed feet.
Amazingly, it took only about 20 minutes to get back to the beginning of the trail. I must have been quite a sight as I emerged. By this time I was completely soaked with sweat, the color of my shirt transformed from a light gray to a deep black, my hair plastered to my forehead with perspiration, and my feet and lower legs covered with brambles and small scrapes from the low growth along the path. Even as I backtracked, I still couldn’t make out where the path could have led directly to the beach in the “15 minutes” that I had read it would.
The same man in the boat that I had spoken to earlier was still there, this time sitting on the edge his boat and looking contently at his pile of rope, as if admiring his handiwork.
“We go,” I told him as I looked behind me to see if anyone had followed me. I threw my bag into the boat and hopped in. He started up the engine and we roared off into the bay.
“Playa Grande, no good coral there,” he said as we chugged out into the bay. “I know where you see much more.”
I took his word for it and we sped along, out of the mouth of the bay, past a second beach, and finally to a rocky cape jutting out from the shoreline. I threw on my mask and dived below as the driver settled himself into the bow of the boat, chatting with another boat operator parked next to us. The coral was quite a bit deeper here than what I saw the day before in Tayrona, which made it more accessible to swim around and explore, but also made it noticeably less colorful and easy to see.
At one large piece of brain coral, I watched as what looked like a giant white millipede the size of a rat climbed up the face wall. I curled myself into a ball and sunk to the sea floor and watched as a school of small orange fish traveled above me. A fat, bluish colored fish emerged from a crack in a piece of coral I was examining and swam up to the front of my mask as if trying to admire itself in the reflection. I remained as still as I could until he grew bored and swam off in the opposite direction.
After about an hour the driver stuck his head beneath the water and motioned for me to come up. I climbed back on board and we sped back over to Playa Grande to grab a soda and relax for a little while.
“You went on the path?” he asked, as we sat on plastic chairs at the edge of the beach beneath the shade of a palm tree, sipping from tall bottles of Pepsi.
I nodded yes. “But I had a little trouble.”
“Very dangerous,” he said ominously. “Yesterday, two people robbed there. Took their wallets, cameras, everything. Happens a lot.”
“Really?” I replied, finishing off my drink.
“But mostly it is only fisherman that walk it. It’s a very old path.”
We climbed into the boat and headed back towards Taganga. I was feeling worn out from the heat, my feet were throbbing from the various abrasions from the hike and the snorkeling the day before, and the sun was turning the back of my neck into an unforgiving shade of red. I wouldn’t have done it any other way, but I was ready to return to dry land and to head back down the coast to Cartagena, my next and final stop of the trip.
A thin layer of clouds passed over the sun and the entire sea faded into a brilliant shade of turquoise beneath the green hillsides. I leaned over the edge of the boat and let my hand skim over the water as we glided along. We rounded the cape and I looked up and saw two hikers, both men, slowly making their way down the same hill that I had been hiking earlier. The sun had had now shifted to an angle behind the hill, casting a large shadow over us. The path looked vaguely similar to the one I had been on, except at this point it led lazily down from the hills above Taganga to the edge of Playa Grande. No sign of overgrowth. No sign of faded pathmarks. No sign of dead-end tributaries.
The driver waved to them and nodded as we passed below. They raised their arms slowly and waved back at us; dark outlines of figures silhouetted against the murky light of time.