Why I Love Ugly Cities

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Day 187: Santa Marta, Colombia

Taganga was hot, humid and full of people that wanted to rob me so I had to get out. I hadn’t heard many good things about Santa Marta.

It was only 15 minutes away but everyone said it was basically a dump and the only reason to visit was as a jumping off point elsewhere.

After a quick Wikitravel search I found out seafood was plentiful and that was reason enough to stay.

I headed to a corner that is so well known for its fish soup it sells out by noon daily. After I took a photo of the soup, Marta the cook, asked if I wanted photos of her and then she wanted a photo with me and I had a lovely conversation with her and we exchanged emails.

School girls in uniform

I then walked around the city looking at the vendors and taking photos and no one bothered me. I asked some school girls for their photo and they were happy to oblige.

People apologized if they needed to walk in front of me while taking a photo. Lots of people said hi but no one was out to sell me some tourist package and I realized it reminded me of other cities I enjoyed.

They all had one thing in common, they’re ugly.

Ugly cities are the ones that have no particular tourist attractions, maybe a church or a couple of parks but tourists don’t flock for photo opportunities and there no day trips from other cities.

When you visit an ugly city you see how people live when they don’t rely on the tourist dollar. They often don’t speak English and they see no reason to pester you.

There is often no McDonalds, no sandwich or pizza shops, no restaurants dedicated to taking your tourism dollars.

Man riding on bicycle, Colombia

I’ve been vocal about my love for Leon Nicaragua and Cali Colombia. Neither city is very photogenic. Many people don’t like these cities, they complain they’re boring and there’s nothing to see.

But I thrive on these cities because I seem to find people that  are the most genuine and friendly. I’ve had opportunities for a real connection and to understand how other people live when they don’t support themselves with tourism.

I should say Santa Marta is not a completely ugly city and did not deserve to be called a dump by a fellow traveler. The waterfront is quite lovely, not in a postcard perfect kind of way, but in a locals love it kind of way.

It’s certainly nicer than Toronto’s waterfront and many other cities could learn from it.

I may just stay here a few more days.

Join the Conversation

  1. I think ugly cities are wonderfully photogenic. But, then again, I guess I like to take pictures of worn down buildings and people hanging out on the corner. Way better than pictures of “pretty” scenery in my opinion.

    I agree with you about Leon, too. One of my all time favorites, even though I wouldn’t be able to tell a tourist what exactly there is to do there.

  2. Toronto’s waterfront is getting better…sugar beach!! hehe

  3. Michael Hodson says:

    well your pictures make the “ugly” cities look great!!

  4. Just yesterday Matt and I were trying to figure out why we’ve had such good luck meeting people lately (by meeting people, I mean couchsurfing without an account). I think you’re right. In less-visited locales, there seems to be a mutual curiosity between travelers and locals that makes new friendships possible and easy.

  5. Love all these Colombia posts. Fascinating country that I don’t know much about.

  6. Globetrottergirls says:

    Love the photo with the guy on the bicycle – great shot. People are usually much nicer in less visited cities (like Marta the cook!).

  7. There are many opportunities in “ugly cities” and one of them, a you mentioned, is the lack of putting a “better face” in order to please tourists. It is easier to get a deep gaze at the daily life in cities like there. Plus, let’s not forget that beauty is relative. Ugly cities might be beautiful in many other ways.

  8. And inside some of these ‘ugly’ buildings, are often well kept and beautiful homes, with wonderfully friendly people just getting on with their lives.

  9. I live in one of these “ugly cities” in Spain (Algeciras) and couldn’t agree more. Though we do have a McDonald’s, it’s nice living in a place where you will find people not out to get your dollar, and day-to-day is a touch more authentic. Though I often gripe about the ugliness of Algeciras, it does have its good points, as does any other ugly city out there.

  10. You’re on permanent vacation, you might as well take it all in and check out the spots off the beaten path.

  11. Christy @ Ordinary Traveler says:

    Ugly cities are great! I also love visiting places where you won’t find a lot of tourists. I think I get the most out of those places and tend to meet more locals. Have fun!

  12. I would have to agree with EVERYTHING you just mentioned. I love visiting random off the wall ugly cities in Mexico.

    I love the picture of the girls btw.

  13. Love these shots from Colombia. Especially the students one. The colors you added on the photos adds a certain feel to the city. I will so go visit there if I was in Colombia.

  14. Spot on, “ugly” cities give more opportunities to meet the local than typical tourist spots, that very often are good only to take postcard photos. Besides, there are loads of angles for nice photos you can find in ugly cities!

  15. Zablon Mukuba says:

    your title is interesting, i also visit places where people dont go to so that i can see the culture of the people and how they live

  16. Corinne @ Gourmantic says:

    Ugliness can often be in the eyes of the beholder. Seems like you’ve found the soul of this city 🙂

  17. Great post…it’s awesome what you find when you dig a little deeper. Kinda like the whole “don’t date someone for their looks” kinda thing? Hah.

  18. Expat in Germany by Laurel says:

    Very interesting post and I agree. Ugly cities are often where you see how the locals really live and it also forces you to speak the local language since no one speaks English.

  19. Very cool post! You’re so right–it’s those types of cities where you really find the most authentic culture. Those looking for major sightseeing will be displeased, but for a genuine experience and genuine experience, smaller and ugly cities are definitely the way to go!

  20. I love your outlook. I firmly believe (as do many, I guess), that one of the most important aspects of traveling is the people you meet. It’s possible in tourism-oriented places, but a lot of sifting and wading is necessary. So, three cheers for ugly cities with beautiful people!!! :).

  21. I’ve sometimes found that the ‘ugly’ parts of ‘beautiful’ cities have the same feeling, lots more friendly people, often better food and usually a more relaxed atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing the pretty side while travelling but there is something comforting about the less ‘nice’ parts as well.

  22. Claire (Travel Funny Travel Light) says:

    well-written post. you are discovering so much on your journey!

  23. I agree and was just in one such “ugly” city, Chachapoyas, Perú. Though it made me realize that sometimes ugly cities are also gateways to some really beautiful surrounding areas (I can’t recommend the areas surrounding Chachapoyas strongly enough). I also was thinking that certain “pretty” cities also have the benefits of your “ugly” cities comments, especially when they are smaller and/or NOT gateways to anything super special. From immediate memory I am thinking of Suchitoto in El Salvador, Valledupar in Colombia, Campeche in Mexico, Comayagua in Honduras, Cahuita in Costa Rica, and Santa Fe in Panamá.

  24. I agree. You never know what you might find in an ‘ugly city’ and it’s always worth going just to see for yourself what is there.

  25. Nancy D. Brown says:

    If you are looking for ugly city input, my vote is for Genoa, Italy. Christopher Columbus was born there. We found it unfriendly and dark. However, this was in 1985. Perhaps things are looking up?

  26. Hi Angelyna,

    What an interesting post! I quite enjoy ugly cities. They have much more personality than the average city. There are parts of Taipei that are really horrible, but I quite like these areas for being so photogenic and full of life!

  27. Whoops. Sorry for spelling your name wrong!

  28. maitravelsite says:

    See, I didn’t really like Cali either. But I did have a great time because I have friends there. Usually these cities do offer good photo opportunities too as you say 🙂


  29. I love them too! so much more character. I come from a town such as this.. IPOH.. old, tatty and FULL of character LOL!

  30. I love “ugly” places too. They feel so much more welcoming and comfy and I don’t feel that incessant pressure to be impressed. Grand photos. 🙂

  31. Totally agree! The non-touristy cities are the best. They are real and gritty. Love the post!

  32. Pingback: Travel: What Makes Bad Places *Bad*? | Fevered Mutterings
  33. But indeed, ugly cities can provide some of the best photo opportunities.

  34. I think those photos are beautiful. I too like “ugly” cities and towns b/c that is where you do get to meet the people and how they really live AND great photography! Nice post.

  35. It sounds like a lovely place in spite of being called ugly. It sounds like the locals were so friendly with you too especially as they probably weren’t used to tourists and travellers. May have to pencil Santa Marta in on my trip. 🙂

  36. Happened upon this post while reading one of your others by taking the guidance of the “if you like this…you might also like…”

    Well hell’s bells, I sure did like it alright. I loved it!

    Ugly cities are beautiful indeed and your writing gives me absurd belly laughs.

    Write on.

  37. Lusso Bags says:

    Agree that ugly cities can have character and friendly people, but that also depends on where you are. Sometimes they’re a reclusive bunch who have no need for getting to know traveling outsiders.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Totally agree, fortunately Colombians are exceptionally friendly.

      1. Lusso Bags says:

        Yay! 🙂 It did appear so by the photo of the school girls. Love the ugly cities with beautiful [read “friendly”] people!

  38. It sounds like the people there were so nice. That’s what can make an ugly, small city beautiful.

  39. Santa Marta didn’t look too unattractive as I passed though. Taganga is certainly prettier but I agree it’s very touristy, making it more likely people will hassle you. So far this morning everyone was very helpful though. I actually walked away from someone who was only trying to give me directions and he told me not to be so ‘scary’ 🙂

  40. I’m with you 110% on this one. I’ve done a couple several month adventures, most of time solo in a number of countries in the middle East, and Southeast Asia, and also the typical trips south to Cuba, Mexico, and the DR, and I too get the most of out of the places where there are few tourists and you have an opporunity to meet the locals and experience / become the culture you are in. This to me is the best way to travel and the reason why I love it so much.

    ps – I just came to your blog today after hearing about it from a couple former colleagues of mine who were walking by my place this eve and we were talking about travel…and, they told me that your mom is my neighbor!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Oh really, what a small small world!

  41. Alejandro Kybernetes says:

    Hello Ayngelina,

    Looks like finally you have a nice time on Santa Marta, but i think as any city it has some special places, and for Santa Marta, Rodadero is that place, do you visited Bogota?

    If you come back just let me know.

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