The Island of Pepes

“Even the ocean waves take their hellos to the people all the time. I should take my hellos down to the beach and sell waves to the tourists.”
― Jarod Kintz


After exploring the most touristy places in Cartagena, Colombia, we wanted to visit a place that was tranquil and similar to our home island, Ometepe, Nicaragua. We researched Tierra Bomba and according to the history and reviews of this island, it appeared to be the best place to escape the crowds.

Tierra Bomba is described as a forgotten island, although it is only 15 minutes away from Cartagena by boat. On Tierra Bomba there are about 9,000 residents who make a living from tourism and fishing. It is not a typical destination for tourists. Perfect for us!

IMG_0409Anthony Bourdain loved this island. He used words like tranquil and far from the maddening crowds as he ate a delicious lobster lunch in a small rancho by the sea. Yep! We were going to go to Tierra Bomba for a day of relaxation, fun in the sun, and mouth-watering lobster.

IMG_0410A guy named Pepe met us at the dock. We were expecting to find Artrulo because we made arrangements with him yesterday to meet the boat at 9 am. Artrulo promised to take us to an isolated beach, to the town to meet his family, and then to a restaurant for a lobster dinner. It sounded ideal.

Pepe promised us that Artrulo was waiting for us on the island, so off we went. We were met by a pack of hungry looking skinny dogs, a woman in a mumu who chased us through the silky sand with a bucket of coconut oil offering us massages, another Pepe who guided us to chairs under a rancho, a girl who grabbed a handful of my short hair trying to convince me to let her weave it with beads, and finally, another Pepe who brought us samples of fish and lobster and asked us which we preferred.

IMG_0403We were the first tourists on the island and the only gringos, so we decided to do some exploring before lunchtime. But, before we could move from our chairs, the mumu wearing, coconut oil packing, masseuse saleswoman slathered coconut oil all over Ron’s back.

IMG_0404Ron’s feeble attempts to stop the aggressive mumu masseuse were lost in translation and he succumbed to a full massage from head to toe.

IMG_1547More local Colombian tourists arrived toting blow-up water toys and beach towels. And then the big water toys came out of storage…the plastic blow-up rafts that could pull five or more people through the water on the back of a boat. The Pepes revved the motors of the jet skis and suddenly, the relaxing, tranquil beach we thought we found became a ruckus filled party beach.

IMG_1548“Do you like these lobsters?” asked Pepe. They looked deliciously plump and we said that of course we wanted them for lunch. But, it was still early and we had a lot of exploring to do. And, where was Artrulo who was going to take us to the isolated beach, then to visit his family? He was nowhere to be seen. Was this a set-up?

IMG_0405The mumu masseuse finished rubbing the heck out of Ron and charged him fifty dollars.
“Don’t you mean fifty pesos?” asked Ron. “No! Fifty dollars. I want my fifty dollars now. I have children to feed,” she said in a get-in-your-face kind of way.

Foolishly, we never asked how much a massage would cost, so Ron dug around in his backpack to find the money to pay her. Meanwhile, the beach became packed full of unmolested Colombian tourists drinking beer, riding the rafts, renting the jet skis, getting hair weaves, and frolicking in the refreshing Caribbean waters.

We had to make a break from this tourist trap. As we gathered our things and stuffed them into our backpacks, Pepe came running over to us. “Where are you going?” he asked in a kind of frantic tone. We told him we are going to take a walk to the next beach.

“Oh you cannot do that,” he said. “The next beach is very dangerous,” said one Pepe. The next Pepe said, “The beach is private. You are not permitted to go over there.”

IMG_0414So, we thanked them for their concern, and headed in the direction of the private or dangerous beach. We knew something was strange because they didn’t want us to leave their little tourist trap. Why? What would we find beyond the horizon?

IMG_1558The next beach seemed to extend for miles. It was delightfully free of tourists, but not only that…it was like a ghost town. Every hotel looked abandoned. Maybe the Pepes were right. Were all the tourists killed in gang violence? Was it a drug war for which Colombia had been so famous?

We found one sand sweeper on the deserted beach and asked him if the beach was private and/or safe to walk. He looked at us oddly and said there have never been any problems here and we were free to go wherever we wanted.

IMG_0407No sooner had he said it was safe and that we could swim anywhere, we noticed that one of the Pepes had followed us. “Rats!” we said in unison. Pepe has followed us the whole way. What does he want?

“Your lobster lunch is almost ready,” he shouted. “Come now.”

We felt like little kids who had skipped out of school and were caught smoking cigarettes under the interstate bridge. We returned slowly and begrudgingly and I still hadn’t been swimming.  I spread my towel on the beach and went for a dip. When I returned, Ron told me that Pepe almost got into a fight with another guy, probably named Pepe, who wanted our business, too.

I was so confused and we both felt like we were being held hostage on the island of Pepes. Things didn’t get any better when we were cussed at by a drunk who wanted us to give him our full water bottle. We offered him a little water, but he wanted the entire bottle and stumbled away giving us the middle finger salute. I guess the middle finger salute transcends boundaries.

IMG_1214We arrived back at the line of palm ranchos, that were full of hungry local and unmolested tourists. Pepe placed us in a tent that toppled on top of us with a strong gust of wind. Ron went to find a place that sold beer, and we asked for a menu so we could check the prices.

They never did come back with a menu, although we saw other people with them. Pepe told us that he would bring our beers from now on, that we shouldn’t go buy them ourselves. So, we had no way of knowing, nor would they tell us the prices.

They slapped the lobster on the table and stood over us while we ate. I felt like a prisoner. With my mouth full of lobster and a half bottle of beer, they told us it was time to go and tried to take my plate.

Pepe said we could finish our beer on the boat and we owed him fifty dollars for the lobster lunch. I’m not sure what they would have done if we hadn’t brought enough money. We were already hostages in a tourist trap on the island of Pepes.

Maybe our full lobster-stuffed bodies would wash ashore in the city of Cartagena. Better not to take any chances and give them what they wanted.

It was a surreal and bizarre visit to Tierra Bomba. We can laugh about it now, but I seriously think they need to have a training session on how to treat tourists. I would never recommend Tierra Bomba to anyone. Unless, of course, you want to experience a hostage like situation and enjoy aggressive mumu masseuses and lying Pepes.

Yet, for all the bizarre things that happened, we did enjoy a wonderful lobster lunch. And  that is the only thing we liked about the Island of Pepes.

IMG_0408Have you encountered bizarre experiences in your travels? 

19 thoughts on “The Island of Pepes

  1. What a story! this has stayed on the screen all week so I would be sure to return to it and leave a note. When one gets a ‘feeling’ it’s usually on target – your instincts are good ones, and you dodged them better than most!

  2. We also ran into a coconut oil toting masseuse on the beach when we stayed for a month in Cartagena and then spent the rest of our days there trying to avoid her. She did an unwanted, lackluster foot massage on Richard’s feet for less than 10 minutes and tried to charge the equivalent of $20 of which we paid her $10. A more recent experience in Marrakesh involved 2 veiled women who literally grabbed the back of my hand and then started squeezing henna all over it. I tried to pull away and ended up with henna smeared on my coat and a half finished flower. In a less that pleasant confrontation Richard finally jumped in, we paid $10 for the experience and left feeling like the ugly Americans. The many aggressive vendors in Marrakesh actually tainted the evening in the central plaza that we’d been looking forward to. No wandering around, people watching without someone’s hand stuck out in front of us … 😦 Anita

    • I understand completely, Anita. We were forced to buy a rug in Morocco just to avoid another cup of mint tea and an aggressive rug vendor who whipped layers and layers of rugs all over the floor. I was chased down the street in Guatemala by an aggressive vendor. I took refuge inside a store, where the owners went out and chased the vendor away and told her to stop following me.
      I know I need to be more aggressive, but I am sometimes a real wimp just wanting to talk to them and learn about their cities. That always gets me in trouble. Even showing eye contact is a no, no and I hate that. I like to look and smile at people. The vendors in Nicaragua are not that aggressive and a simple little finger shake will keep them at bay.
      Your henna experience sounds horrible. And…you ended up having to pay. Geez.

  3. What a story! I’m glad you made the best of the situation. I probably wouldn’t have done as well. and thank goodness you had enough money money with you. I wonder what would have happened if you didn’t. Beware the island of Pepe’s.

    • Oh Sunni, it was such a bizarre trip. We were already trapped on the island and well guarded, so I don’t know what we would have done if we didn’t have enough money. They probably would have escorted us to an ATM in Cartagena, but who knows. Plus, 1 dollar = over 3,500 Colombian pesos, so you can imagine how rich we felt with 100,000 pesos.

  4. It’s one of those situations that, when reading, is rather funny, even though I know in real life it was terrible. I can imagine how relieved you were to get away from your getting away.


  5. ohhh brother ,,,thats gross…your’e funny tho ..laughed thru the entire article!!!!
    Ive found many places around….. similar to that look ,,,and feel,,,its ugly…and not fun..
    Im leaving for Portugal mid June for three weeks …going everywhere, and am looking forward …
    paths sure do change!!!!!! Go with the flow is my feeling.
    Much Light , Heidi

  6. That’s quite the story. I think the closest we got into a situation like that was many years ago when we were traveling through the Caribbean, island hopping. We arrived on the island of Dominica and it didn’t take long before the taxi drivers were fighting over us to bring us to our hotel. The next day we met a couple of local guys and they offered to guide us around the island with their beat up car. Driving through town, they told us to keep our heads down so the locals wouldn’t see us. We had no idea why at that time. We spent a great day with Smoke and Levy, gosh, I still remember their names. But that evening after we got back to the hotel, there was a gang of people outside and they started fighting, one guy was knifed (not seriously, thank god). They were all angry that Smoke and Levy got our business and they were fighting between themselves to see who would be next. By the following day it was becoming so dangerous that we couldn’t even walk around the town and we had no choice but to escape and leave this beautiful island.

    • Hi Gordana,
      Thanks for telling us about your crazy experience with Smoke and Levy. That is so funny. Like you, we will never forget the names of our tour guides? if that is what they are called. Let’s see…there was Pepe, and Pepe, and Pepe, and the never seen again Artrulo. Haha. This cracks me up.

  7. The treatment of tourists worked on you and must have worked on others before you. Happened to the “captain” and me in the DR. I can understand how you were caught up. Gringos!

    Leah-Rewired Kdg. Teacher turned environmental educator in Florida.

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