I did get to that Playa Blanca – and very blanca it was. Classic powdery white sand fronted by cliched turquoise waters and the silhouettes of coconut palms: all quite beautiful if there’d been a few hundred less people. From the ferry jetty at the canal, I’d hired a motor-bike taxi to bump me 15 km or so along a rough track the length of Isla de Baru to reach the beach. The rough ride wrought havoc on my spine, though my valiant driver seemed none the worse. A couple of times I had to dismount in places where the road was completely flooded as well as rutted to the point of resembling mountain ranges. So when I finally staggered down to the beach to be confronted by this Latino playground – family groups lunching, kids playing, a flotilla of speedboats and an army of pushy roaming vendors – it was like a slap in the face. Reality = Sunday = time off. Remember?
First things first. A black Caribbean woman came up and massaged my back – “que nodos” she exclaimed. After a quick haggle I was flat on my front on the sand as Celia went to work on the knots that danced around my spine. It was well worth the 10,000 pesos (sounds a fortune but that’s only about £2.50 – though no doubt way over the real price). She pointed me to a round hut which turned out to be changing room cum toilets, so I was soon immersed in the tepid Caribbean waters. Not exactly my cup of tea, far too warm, but it was relaxing, transparent and gave me a chance to observe beach society from a distance.
Lunch was an easy affair negotiated through a lady called Margo, twice as wide as she was high who came complete with white apron and a couple of women slaves toiling at an open grill behind the palms. Fried fish, plantains, coconut rice. Simple, delicious. By now the sun was gentler, the sea choppier, and a few speed-boats were starting to load up their passengers for the return trip to Cartagena (not everyone, you understand, takes a taxi, canoe & motorbike taxi to get to Playa Blanca, the city’s best beach). Eventually I found one who had a spare seat (20,000 pesos – but no arguing as I didn’t have much choice) and so was off sooner than I thought. Foot down we zapped the waves at high speed, bumps ahoy, spray bedevilling us, or rather soaking us. An hour or so later after a stop-off at a fort protecting the bay we were back at the central harbour. Decidedly damp, I sloped back to my hotel, ready for the evening mojito. What a day excursion or rather exertion. This is the fort at Bocachica which stopped a fully fledged English invasion a few centuries back. Thank god.
Earlier in the week, Cartagena had rocked while the honorable delegates of the WTO (World Tourism Organisation, part of the UN) debated the whys and wherefores of tourism policies, discussed climate change and generally conversed in amicable, multilingual fashion, headphones a necessary accessory. We journos were wined and dined by the Colombians with endless enthusiasm and panache but the best night was arguably the dinner laid on by the Kazaks, the hosts-to-be for 2008. Now these people have got to be somewhere else, physically and mentally – and, I’m sure of it, will soon be hitting our headlines. For the moment Borak springs instantly to mind, frighteningly close to the truth. They showed us videos of their vast rolling steppes, of their architectural jewels – so Soviet-futuristic in inspiration, and staged a défilé of Kazak models in their latest steppe fashions. But above all they staged their finest rock band – Ulytau. Nothing like anything I’ve ever heard or seen – fantastic. Here are some pics – I’ll be their agent in the UK if they want me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tnjtbq35BE8&feature=related
Colombia’s current tourism slogan is “the only danger is wanting to stay” and I can’t but second that. Ironically, as word spreads here in the UK of an economic slow-down, whispers of recession and housing-market doom, over there in the New World it’s booming. There’s an incredibly positive groundswell – long may it last. FARC be damned. I’m sure I’ll be back. Lastly, here’s a memorable nocturnal encounter, hard to beat.