Colombian Travel Part 2: Sex, Drugs, & Tourism

Swimming in Tayrona National Park

For a couple of days after La Guajira, I explored the secluded jungle beaches of Tayrona National Park.  The area is incredibly beautiful (if a little crowded in some areas, especially in Cabo San Juan) and it was a unique experience to wake up around dawn due to the heat, walk through a jungle trail, with birds and insects calling, along with the occasional monkey, and then arrive at a completely empty beach of a secluded cove, and then to take a (not very safe) solitary swim as the day begins.

After Tayrona, I spent one last night back in in Santa Marta (especially looking forward to an air conditioned room).  That evening, I walked around the beachfront looking for dinner, before finally deciding on an assortment of street foods rather than an actual meal; the highlight of which was a maracuyá (passion fruit) ice cream sundae, which was absolutely delicious after the past week of jungle, desert, and jungle again.  My plan had been to go clean up a bit more after eating, and then check out the night life of Santa Marta.  However, while I was eating an empanada and drinking a beer on the beachfront, two girls sat down near me.  After talking to each other for a few minutes, one of them asked me the time, and we soon began making small talk.  It turned out they were from Venezuela, two of the tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Venezuelans trying to find a better life in Colombia.  We talked longer and had a few beers, then walked around the plazas of Santa Marta, enjoying the evening.

Beachfront in Santa Marta

We tried to go into a couple of the clubs, but one of them had forgotten her ID.  So instead, we bought a few more beers from a corner store and sat in the plaza drinking and chatting.  During the course of the conversation, it was interesting to hear from them about arriving in Colombia.  Literally, the day they had arrived in Colombia, someone had approached them about becoming prostitutes.  They then said it was actually a fairly regular occurrence, with someone propositioning them usually once a week or so.  Unfortunately, I was not all that surprised to hear that attractive young women coming from the turmoil of Venezuela would be targeted in such a way.  We exchanged contact info in the hopes that perhaps our paths would cross again someday, and then they called it a night since one of them had to work early the next morning.

The fortress wall of the Cartagena’s old city

That next day, I took a bus to the biggest tourist destination on the coast: Cartagena.  The old colonial city of Cartagena is a UNESCO world heritage site, and it really is quite incredible and full of history and beautiful architecture.  My first night in Cartagena, I met up with a friend from Spain that I met on the Ciudad Perdida trek and we had dinner and some drinks.  Walking around the old city, I commented to her that the old buildings and small plazas, with the open air cafes, reminded me of the cities in Spain and Italy.

One aspect of the city I noticed that night was all of the women in Plaza de los Coches, one of the main squares in the old city. They were all dressed up for a night out, standing by themselves, or in a group of two or three.  It did not take long for me to realize that most of these women, scores of them, were prostitutes.  It was interesting to see how out in the open it was (prostitution is legal in Colombia) and I said as much to my friend, who laughed and agreed.  We called it an early night, as she had done a tour that day, and I had just arrived by bus, and I made the walk along the beach from the old city back to my hostel, stopping for a brief moment to watch lightning off in the distance as the ocean waves softly came ashore.

Plaza de los Coches early in the evening. Soon it would be filled with prostitutes and johns.

The next day, I participated in a walking tour of the old city, which was a nice way to spend half of a day.  (It also proved how small the travel world can be, as a couple from England on the tour had been one of the two couples staying at the same cabana as me outside of Tayrona National Park a few days earlier.)  After the tour, and eating an excellent ceviche, I escaped the afternoon heat and humidity by going into the maritime museum, which helped me practice my Spanish as there were no English displays, as well as helped me understand more about the history of the city and the country.

(Side note of personal heritage pride: it turns out that there was a large contingent of Irish soldiers that helped fight in Colombian’s war for independence! Erin go bragh!)


Cannons atop the old city walls

The late afternoon, and early evening were spent further exploring the sites of the city: the fortress walls, the colonial streets and houses, some of the green spaces, and the impressive Castillo de San Felipe.

Upon arriving back at my hostel, and cleaning up, I messaged my friend and met her at her hostel with some of her friends she had met on her tour that day.  We spoke for a bit and had a few drinks, and then I decided to go out on my own to explore the nightlife of the city.  They were planning on going to a regular night club, which did not really appeal to me that night.

Revelers in the streets of Cartagena

Walking around the streets of Cartagena at night as a single white man is one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had in my life.  At first, it was similar to the night before with my friend, rather aggressive promoters trying to entice me to their bar or club: Amigo, happy hour, best club, VIP, drink specials…  That seems rather common in most tourist places in my experience, and although slightly annoying, I’ve come to accept it.  However, what soon became different, was the propositions that had not been offered to me the night before because I was walking the streets with a woman.

Hey amigo, I got whatever you need… weed… coke… women.

It seemed every corner I walked past, some different sketchy character would be offering the same vices.  The first time or two, I just shrugged and laughed it off.  However, as it became more and more consistent, I became more and more annoyed.  What I need is to be left alone I wanted to yell each time I was approached, but simply stuck with No gracias.

Salsa Dancers in Donde Fidel

I walked around Plaza de la Coches to check out a couple of the salsa bars in the area that I had read about.   I admired the impressive quick and fluid movements of dancers that had been practicing this art for years, as well as the fumbling attempts of tourists who were trying their best.

As I left the club, and stood drinking a beer in the plaza, it wasn’t long before some of the girls came up and made their offers.  I politely refused, but it would not be long before another came up, made a bit of small talk, and then made her offer.  Again, I was becoming more frustrated (as well as hungry) and went to find a street vendor.  At one point, I got caught in a sudden downpour, and huddled under one of the many colonial balconies waiting for the rain to subside, while I fumed about the sordid affairs of the city.

I was disgusted and angry.  Each guy that offered me drugs and hookers, I wanted to punch.  Usually, I am rather libertarian about many things.  However, knowing what the drug trade has done to Colombia, and how many of the women had been driven to prostitution because of the difficult situations around the country, I had come to hate those who promoted and profited from such an ugly system.

But then realization came over me, and my anger and hatred shifted focus.  Many of these young men were from similar situations as the exploited women, and were simply trying to get by.  They knew there was a market for drugs and prostitution, and the prime market was me:  a single, Caucasian male.

I realized that these are the truly horrible people: the type of people that I may know and deal with in my day to day life back home.  Professional men from the US, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe, who have a nice amount of disposable income, and are ready to dispose of it on drugs and prostitutes.  Normally, I try not to judge personal lifestyle choices, but make no mistake about it: these sex and drug tourists are taking advantage of a vulnerable population.  Just the same as if it were a passed-out girl at a frat party (which to be honest, some of these guys would probably have no qualms about either).  Colombia is recovering from decades of civil war and drug violence, the effects of which are still ongoing.  Men who come here to partake in the bargain-priced hedonism, in my admittedly sanctimonious opinion, are not much better than rapists.

These men are taking advantage of young women who feel they have no other choices because of the situations at home, and the aftermath of years of war, come to these cities to sell themselves.  And those are the ones who are truly making their own decisions. Then there are the girls and teenagers that are victims of sex trafficking and subject to horrible abuse.

These men are helping to fuel the drug trade that in turn fueled decades of violence, some of which continues today. I mentioned in an earlier post how one of the social programs for children in Pereira had to be cancelled because of cartel violence.  Those cartels aren’t fighting for the ability to sell me ceviche or some middle-aged Canadian woman a handmade mochila.  Is that cheap bump of coke you bought on the corner in Cartagena worth it?  Not sure?  Just a reminder that only about a week after this, I stood watching a casket come out of a funeral home.

Eventually, after a few more frustrating encounters with drug dealers and prostitutes that night, I found a cab and went back to my hostel, in an unfortunately sour mood. Luckily, the next day was the beginning of my travels for the YMCA, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, I was able to see some of the incredible ways that people are working to heal their communities and their country and give it a bright future.

More info and how you can help:

I know there is legitimate debate about the effectiveness of the war on drugs and whether prostitution should be legal or not, and I have no intention of debating that here.  But how things possibly should operate and the reality of the situation are worlds apart.  All I am trying to do here is point out how the vulnerable are exploited and suffer under the current situation and how prevalent it is in Colombia (as well as other parts of South America).

First and foremost, if you are considering coming to South America for drugs and prostitutes: DON’T!!!! Please don’t partake in this exploitation.  And if you know people that are considering it, try to talk them out of it.  Tell them of the damage it does. Tell them they would lose your respect.  Appeal to their better angels, and if that doesn’t work, threaten their worse angels someway.  Please help curtail the demand for the sex/drug trade, not only in South America, but other developing countries as well.

Beyond that, here are some links to organizations that are working to help the aftermath of the civil and drug wars and organizations helping to fight sex/human trafficking and exploitation:

Guide to conflict and peace-building in Colombia: Has links to many local, national, and international organizations operating in different areas and different ways to support the victims of Colombia’s long-running violence.

Espacios de Mujer: A local Colombian organization trying to help women in the sex trade

Fundación Esperanza: An organization based in Colombia and Ecuador focused on human trafficking and exploitation (In Spanish)