Saturday, March 6, 2010

Santa Ana & Playa Blanca

After a few days we left Cartagena for a more natural, less-populated landscape. En route we stopped through a pueblito, or tiny town, called Santa Ana. Santa Ana is found on La Isla BarĂº, an island just east of Cartagena that was settled by escaped African slaves. Little more than a handful of homes, food stands, and trees, you’d really only know of Santa Ana if lived there or had some specific reason to pass through. We, as it turns out, did.

A friend of Shepard’s, Tara, recently moved to Santa Ana to teach English at the one remarkable thing about the town: an elaborate education compound called Barbacoas. The beautiful and extensive campus boasts several open-air classrooms, a library with wifi, a restaurant that serves students two meals a day, faculty housing, and more. Established in the mid-90s, Barbacoas offers the local population an excellent education—teachers are primarily Colombians from surrounding areas supplemented by a handful of North American volunteers teaching English—for virtually nothing: $2 a year.

Though way off the beaten tourist track (or perhaps as a result of), we had a delightful evening at Barbacoas playing Ultimate Frisbee with the students, making homemade chicken empanadas with Tara and her fellow teachers, and soaking in the simplicity of life in a tiny town.

In talking with the English teacher volunteers, it struck us as kind of strange to us that so many of the World Teach volunteers in Colombia (6 of… 18 or 20?) would be assigned to this tiny, out-of-the-way place (the rest are stationed in cities like Baranquilla and Cartagena, as well as in La Zona Cafetera, the coffee-producing zone). Our questions were answered, of course, by the other reason we were passing though Santa Ana: Playa Blanca.

Playa Blanca, a gorgeous stretch of beach—white sands, crystal blue waters—on BarĂº Island, has long been a hidden treasure of the Caribbean. Until recently, it seems, most tourists came and went from Cartagena completely unaware of their proximity to this tropical jewel. In the last several years, however, it has been “discovered,” and not for the better. During the day it’s crawling with tourists who are boated over from Cartagena in the morning and back in the afternoon and at night with the dozen or so who shack up in one of the “hostels”—a hammock strung under a palm-leaf roof—for the night. Shepard’s Lonely Planet (2009) talks about the probability of the playa being developed as a prime Caribbean vacation spot and of the possibility of the construction of a luxury resort in the next few years. Today, in early 2010, this resort is a reality and they seem to have already begun construction on a second. The path between Santa Ana and Playa Blanca (by which we arrived at the beach on moto taxi) is being bulldozed and a road—for the transport of building supplies and eventually tourists, presumably —is being constructed.

Thus, our inquiries are answered: our friends are there to teach English to future resort workers, the people who make up the pueblito of Santa Ana and who will eventually make sure the resorts of Playa Blanca run efficiently and luxuriously enough to suit wealthy vacationers.

My immediate reaction to this is “what a shame,” but again I find myself asking who am I to condemn an endeavor that will likely bring better livelihoods to the people of Santa Ana? I don’t know enough about the economy of Santa Ana currently, but I saw enough to recognize its impoverished nature, and I wonder if the growing tourism industry in Playa Blanca, however tragic it seems to preservationists (and to those who visited a mostly deserted island paradise as recently as a few years ago), will ultimately be beneficial to the standard of living of these people. The environmentalist in me shudders even as I write this, but I again find myself struggling with the question of whether I, having grown up with all the basic necessities covered and then some, have any right to condemn this development.

You’re probably thinking now of Ecotourism: development that creates jobs for local populations and opens up an area to tourism in an ecologically and socially sustainable way, all the while educating travelers of the necessity of low-impact tourism. How eco-friendly and socially-responsible the developments on Playa Blanca will be remains to be seen, though I’m not hopeful based on what I saw.

Ultimately I’m left thinking that though it’s easy fault development companies and/or the Colombian government for encouraging this kind of development, we—the eager and earnest travelers who just want to see more of the world and who, unfortunately, are accustomed to doing so comfortably—must share in the responsibility.

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