Chapter 26: Parque Nacional Tayrona, Colombia.
Monday, August 16
The machismo driven, edgy hostel man happened to be the pretty receptionist’s husband. He gave the sly eye to most of the male guests and just grunted each time I encountered him. When I paid up and collected all my stuff he lightened up, almost breaking out into a smile. What a strange man he was. My stomach felt really settled for the first time in weeks but I must have sweated any weight gain on the walk to the bus stop. No rain fell overnight and it remained a very warm and humid morning. Again, I paid two fares for the collectivo minibus. When we reached Santa Marta I wasn’t sure where my exact stop was. The driver and his assistant then told me we’d just passed the Calle 11 and Carrera 11 crossing where I needed to catch the bus to Tayrona so they dropped me off at the next stop. It was so oppressive and the dry film of muck on the streets baked in the heat. When I crossed through Santa Marta Market I noticed a man in a scout leader type uniform, emblazoned with a large Parque Nacional Tayrona badge, walking in the same direction. He happily helped and confirmed which bus I needed. An old charabanc was parked up on the street and I climbed on board as the driver placed lots of bags and containers on the roof rack. I sat near the back as the heat knocked me out but the open window provided a welcome breeze as we set off. After an hour we arrived at the park’s main entrance at El Zaino. A young couple who were also on the bus waited with me at the park gate. Their names were Ruben and Nerbida from Madrid, Spain. They were nearing the end of their month long trip in Colombia. When I mentioned my journey they gasped and then the subject hit upon jungle adventure. Nerbida brought out a packet of Malarone anti-malarial tablets from her rucksack. They insisted I took the pills because they no longer needed them, but I showed my gratitude and gave them 4,000 pesos. All our bags were placed on a minibus roof rack and we set off deeper into the tropical forest. We reached Canaveral. The guidebook recommended it as a place to stay but the prices discouraged me. They wanted 617,000 for the hire of a large cabin and 17,000 for camping, but I didn’t bring a tent. An old guy offered me a lift to a campsite further inland from the coast but I wanted the beach so I eventually began the hour long walk along a very muddy and narrow path to Arrecifes, a highly recommended place. I soon began to sweat and struggle as my heavy backpack pulled at my shoulders. In the sweltering heat of the dark forest I stopped to take a breather after a lengthy climb up to the shrouded headland. I could hear the sea but couldn’t see it. An Israeli couple called Igor and Irena were walking further ahead of me. They stopped to ask if I needed help with my load. Igor kindly carried my guitar and Irena gave me some water. I must have looked quite flustered. The ranger who helped me in Santa Marta came rushing up the path from the opposite direction. He looked busy but eased our concerns by saying we were about 10 minutes away from Arrecifes. We came to the most difficult part of the walk, out onto the open beach, underneath the hot midday sun, before turning left through thick shrub land. A large open cabin full of hammocks greeted us at Yuluka. I immediately stopped there while Igor and Irena continued on to a further site. A hammock cost 17,000 pesos per night at Yuluka. After settling down I checked out the campsite. It had a little restaurant so I took a late lunch. Afterwards, I headed out onto the long beach where massive boulders dotted the shoreline like giant, petrified turtles. Signs warned visitors about the dangerous sea currents which had claimed the lives of more than a hundred people in the last five years. I walked westwards to check out the beautiful La Piscina beaches with their tropical forest backdrops. At La Aranilla, a sweet local lady had an old orange squashing contraption squeezing out some fine, fresh juice. Three oranges provided a lovely, refreshing glassful. I sat on the beach reading a little but I noticed those looming, dark clouds once again, so I returned to Arrecifes. I was in a paradise. The breathtaking beauty of this stunning coastline was simply inspiring. Once the sun went down there was very little to do in the evening. The national park had minimal services and little contact with the outside world. I was in a remote corner of Colombia where the nearest road was about 20 kilometres away. The only noises were the night-time screeches of wildlife, the rumbling thunder and the tumbling waves. I took my first Malarone tablet, enjoyed a refreshing shower and stretched out in my hammock. Lots of people arrived after me but the human noises were subdued, light, relaxed and soon silenced as giant bullfrogs appeared and began croaking and hopping around on the ground surrounding the open sided shelter.
Tuesday, August 17
Despite the soothing sound of the sea and a sense of being lost in time, I really couldn’t sleep. I drifted into a light snooze before daybreak but desired a little more cover in my hammock. I was bitten by fleas and felt somewhat uneasy in having to keep my guitar underneath on the floor. I resumed the adventures of Schweik and began converting his anecdotes into my rambling mood….’I knew a cat once who ate 10 fish fingers and turned into something quite different!’ So, my mood lightened up. I thought of how Schweik might have left us with Baldrick in Blackadder, Father Dougal in Father Ted, even Uncle Albert in Only Fools and Horses. Who knows, but you could sense the rich seam of this comic character influenced many writers. There was something be said for fooling people into thinking you were a fool. Let them underestimate you. Who were they to you anyway if that’s how they perceived you? An interesting and entertaining perspective, but perhaps increasingly lost in a British society which has become far too serious, narrow minded and stiflingly conservative. I visited a cheaper looking cafe and drank some coffee before setting out for the western beaches. The idyllic, boulder strewn backdrop over the Caribbean shoreline and the rapidly clearing skies had me humming along and singing the entire Help soundtrack by The Beatles! The wonderfully, optimistic sound of Another Girl was a particular favourite which stuck in my head. My euphoric state recalled those giddy film scenes of the Fab Four on the beaches in the Bahamas. I found a panderia (bakery) and bought a hot cheese roll and carried on to La Piscina for a spot of sunbathing. The wonderfully clear sea reflected only a little of the clear, blue sky and the warm water was such a joy to swim in. I could see myself easily drifting into a reclined routine in this paradise on earth. A narrow footpath allowed just enough space for visitors and donkeys laden with luggage to pass through. I rambled on through further thick woodland to reach an attractive afternoon scene of young, bronzed bodies on the beautiful beaches of Cabo San Juan de la Guia. I stayed there for a while and bought a substantial chunk of chocolate sponge cake. Walking back through the woodland, a shy looking black and white monkey disappeared from view when a young German crowd stopped to call out. They soon gave up but I stuck around and the cheeky, not so shy, monkey reappeared and played around in some upper branches, stopping to watch me with curious, intense stares as I took some photographs. Lots of blue coloured crabs loitered around the fallen coconuts in the small clearances. Giant ants formed large convoys to carry leaves across the footpath. The path was thick with mud in parts and it was easier to take my sandals off, as it was on the sandy beach. A lone, retired and lame looking donkey wandered around on Arrecifes’ beach. He looked exhausted. I felt rather parched. It was so important to drink plenty of water in these parts. I booked another night’s stay and asked the receptionist could I use another locker for my guitar. He smiled and suggested a better idea so I gladly handed over the instrument for safe keeping in the site manager’s cabin. The bull frogs reappeared when darkness quickly fell soon after 6. A couple of hours later and, wrapped up in a shirt, I drifted away in my hammock.
Wednesday, August 18
I slept much better than on the previous night but woke up in a very damp atmosphere in the open sided shelter. My t-shirt and towel were wet, I had lots of phlegm and my throat was sore. After a black coffee I became far more alert though. I noticed lots more of the strange hieroglyphics of Colombian graffiti on some isolated building walls during my walk to La Piscina. Claudia was there again slicing the oranges. She brought down the heavy wrought iron squeezing device to serve up more fresh juice and greeted me with a big smile as I took some pictures of her in action. Her expression epitomised the tranquil yet intense beauty of the surroundings. The beach was fairly deserted apart from a few couples. I rested against a huge, horizontal tree trunk, then dipped in and out of the sea before stretching out on the water’s edge. Imagine a relaxed state and multiply its intensity by 10. That may have come close to the experience. The day was so splendid and my euphoria showed no signs of abating. I bathed till midday when the hot sun sent me into the shade of the path to Cabo San Juan. Coconuts occasionally thumped down onto the soft earth from high above. Along the way I met up with Igor and Irena who were heading out of the park and back into civilisation. They ironically joked about the mental stresses of being cut off from the outside world. Ruben and Nerbida, the Spanish couple who I met at the park’s entrance, also came past and shouted hello. They were also leaving the park, on their long journey back to Spain. I read for a short while then tried, unsuccessfully, to find the path leading to Pueblito Chairama village high up in the tree covered hills. Beyond Cabo San Juan I came to a narrow and secluded stretch of beach where the waves crashed down onto the steep shoreline. The currents looked too strong to even dip my toes in. I noticed a couple of lads further on. Fortunately they soon relented from going in. I then walked further west, where the almost hidden path came to another, almost deserted beach. There were some nudists at the far end. It was tempting to stay and, why not? Surely there couldn’t be many nicer places to indulge in some naturism and to be completely at one with nature. I declined to go any further along the coast, being slightly concerned with what the next little bay might throw up! So, I turned back then sat on the beach for a short while. There was nobody about so I whipped off my Zoggs to reveal all for a minute or two! It was so nice to lose those silly inhibitions in such a tranquil setting. One has to protect those private parts though! A friend of my brother’s got caught out once after falling asleep naked on a holiday apartment balcony in Corfu, Greece. Apparently, he woke up two hours later to red bollocks and two days of agony! In Tayrona, I seemed to be walking about a lot more so I returned to the hammocks to rest awhile and write a travel article about my Colombian experiences thus far. However, the stunning surroundings soon tempted me back out to Cabo San Juan where I devoured some gorgeous carrot cake. But the rain clouds quickly gathered and, as a proper storm exploded in the hills above Arrecifes, I became soaked to the skin and suddenly aware of my vulnerability to being struck by a lightning bolt on the exposed beach. There weren’t many other people about and I raced back up to the shelter of the cafe restaurant at Finca El Paraiso. The rain became torrential and jolts of lightning flashed all around the shelter where groups of us huddled beside the tables. I’d never seen such a powerful storm in all my life. Some of the working horses and donkeys were left outside. It seemed incredibly cruel to leave them there exposed to such ferocious elements. I could have done with sampling some rum but it was only being sold in large bottles and the price was well out of my range. I had just enough money for snacks and the journey to the Venezuelan border. Services were extremely limited, and there were certainly no cash points nor computers, in this remoter part of Tayrona. I took another Malarone pill before another early night.
Thursday, August 19
Dawn broke suddenly soon after 6. Overnight rain reduced the humidity but the ground was soaked. There were lots more people using the hammocks. Many of them spoke French or German. I hadn’t met one British person since arriving at the campsite. Early starts were advised for trekking the hour and a half up to Pueblito Chairama, a pre-Hispanic settlement about 500 metres above Cabo San Juan. Apparently, a few Koggi Indian families, descendants of the Tayrona, still lived up there. I caught a few glimpses of presumably some of the younger members around the park but they always seemed to be in a rush and eagerly shooting off through thick undergrowth as if on some urgent errands. They were a fascinating spectacle. A young lad, in traditional rags and holding a large stick, frequently came racing past the hammock shelter in Yuluka. He had long, dark hair, so thick and bushy, virtually concealing an expression of intent. What they must have made of us Europeans, I really don’t know. The trail up to the settlement was easy enough until I reached a dead end and couldn’t work out the puzzling direction. Eventually I found a tunnel beneath some big boulders and I was on my way again. I wore sandals and to say I struggled would be an understatement. It was a difficult climb with even the correct footwear. As I reached the heights, which afforded glimpses over the high trees and down to the blue sea, I asked various people, passing on their way down, how much further there was to go. The trek was exhausting. There were deep crevices to avoid at all costs, with sloping boulders dipping into the black voids. Despite being mostly in the shade, I was sweating profusely in the heat. Keeping my footing and balance were crucial because I certainly didn’t want to be slipping into any snake pits. My camera kept swinging around but the wonderful colourful vegetation and scampering lizards were such a picture. There were big, blue butterflies, really extraordinary but quite impossible to photograph. I reached the top at midday and sat down to eat some bread and drink more water. The location was nice enough. There were lots of stone circles and walls plus reconstructed barns. After half an hour I started the descent but held back for most of the way as an elderly couple and their guide in front took careful and deliberate steps to safety. I frequently stopped to allow them at least 30 metres of space. I wasn’t in a rush and the slowdown aided my safe return as well. Near to the Cabo, the old gentleman slipped in a pool water. When I reached the same point I did exactly the same thing and fell knee deep into the stream. Further on, the three of them stopped. The guide turned around to thank me for my patience. It wasn’t a problem, I replied. I walked back to Yuluka where I asked the campsite receptionist about the weather patterns. He told me we were in the middle of the rainy season when it usually stayed dry and sunny from 6am till 4pm and then the heavens opened. And how I ran again as the latest storm came whipping in with strong gusts from the east. The hot morning brewed up a proper belter and I sheltered in the cafe again. I really wanted some rum and a Panama hat! The rain continued well into the evening and rumbled on into another storm during the early hours as the white lightning electrified the skies all around. It really was an awesome sight as I lay in my low set hammock, struggling hard to position into comfort.
Friday, August 20
My watch was an hour behind in time, which was still in my mind but outside this luscious land. Most people were lost without time, but life happened with or without it. I enjoyed three happy encounters with Claudia during the day. “Hey amigo,” she waved and called out, as I arrived for my morning refreshment. She sliced three oranges, squeezed out the juice, then explained how the contraption was engineered in Santa Marta. The oranges were also from Santa Marta Market after being grown nearby. I stopped to chat with quite a few lovely ladies during the day while strolling through the forest to and from Cabo San Juan. Old-fashioned chivalry didn’t harm anyone. Remembering my arrival here and the help I first needed, it was great to return the favours, letting people pass on the narrow paths, and offering reassurances and directions. I had to stop quite often to catch some air. We were in such a remote part of the world, and it generated a sense of people ready to offer assistance in case of any emergency. With my golden brown tan deepening by the day I started to feel pretty good about myself. I was just happy to be happy and sharing big, wide smiles with people I’d never met before. We were all so delighted to be in such a beautiful place, to feel so free and close to nature. On my afternoon return through La Piscina, Claudia called me over with a big smile and wink, but I’d already met my woman of the day! The lovely lady selling fruit cakes in Cabo San Juan was a stunner. I shared a little joke with her when I paid for my carrot cake. As well as the surroundings, I think The Good Soldier Schweik was helping me to lighten up. It’s amazing how literature can be so stimulating. I continued to enjoy regular dips in the gorgeous sea as the breakwaters remained a kilometre out into the Caribbean. I also enjoyed my first hot meal since Monday, a dish of rice, fried vegetables and French fries with a bottle of Coke, and how I savoured it! The clouds bubbled up again but the storms remained high up in the mountains. I started singing the Help! album again when I saw some horses being ridden at a galloping pace along the water’s edge on Arrecifes beach. As the sun went down and the heat of the day relented, I also shared the rest of my carrot cake with the old, frail donkey. He seemed quite grateful. The euphoria of Tayrona really wasn’t a novelty and I decided to stay on for Saturday night as well.
Saturday, August 21
And what was happening in the outside world? I didn’t have a clue. At Finca El Paraiso I drank my coffee and the resident parrot came to sit on the chair opposite me. He spoke a few words in Spanish. The happy experience prompted me to do a daft routine throughout the day inspired by Johnny Morris and his sublime television show Animal Magic. That’s right. I was talking to the animals and they responded! Horses, donkeys, dogs, monkeys, seagulls, parrots, cats and lizards all wore expressions of familiarity as the human visitors showed some respect and listened to the sounds of nature here in Tayrona. A thin mist lightly concealed a brightening haze as the sun did its work and burst out to deliver another baking hot day. I arrived at La Piscina for a Saturday morning chill. Long periods of bathing on the far end of the bigger beach, interspersed with occasional dips in the warm sea, were blissful. There were quite a few other bathers. Everyone looked so happy, serene and without a care in the world. What a great place! Tayrona really was a liberating experience. I looked healthier and certainly felt better. After whizzing through to the end of The Good Soldier Schweik I began reading the more serious Graham Greene classic, The Power and The Glory. I remained on La Piscina for almost six hours, then made my way along the increasingly muddy track to Cabo San Juan to buy a slab of banana cake and a bottle of lemonade. Tayrona’s climate made me feel less hungry but I was looking forward to eating more hot meals again. I felt a little weary and sun burnt when I returned to the hammocks. A young lad had arrived during the previous night and was taking a long rest in the hammock beside mine. His name was Louis Graham, from Brighton, England. We had a couple of beers and a good chat at Finca El Paraiso’s bar. Louis was a bright character and seemed very laid back. He was spending a few days alone but was preparing to rejoin his girlfriend who was over in Cartagena, and they were to sail to Panama before flying home to Britain. Louis was just 19-years-old but he was very mature, far more than I was at that age. In late September he’d be enjoying fresher’s week in Oxford before reading politics, philosophy and economics at Worcester College. Louis had also visited Medellin where he stumbled across the recently started Pablo Escobar Tour, which was being conducted by the late drug baron’s larger than life brother and bodyguard, both of whom had just been released from prison. Later in the evening, as the fireflies darted about and the cicadas began their continuous, throbbing beat, I thought about back home. The Greenman Festival in Glanusk Park, Crickhowell, South Wales was just starting. I always went and last year a group of us took a Sunday morning dip in the very cold River Usk which runs through the park. I was now in the warmer waters of the Caribbean but my heart and soul remained in Wales.
Sunday, August 22
The storms held off during the night and I woke up fairly early. Louis stayed for the morning before departing for Cartagena. I left The Good Soldier Schweik under his hammock and I later found Wild Swans-Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang underneath mine. In between, we visited La Piscina, where Louis hired some snorkelling gear. I had a go and saw some colourful marine life near to some rocks. Louis swam further out with his waterproof Fuji camera. He took several good pictures of some blue coloured fish. When he set off at around midday I made my way to Cabo San Juan for lunch. I later stayed for a bit of bathing in Cabo where bigger boats ferried in the passengers on the hour long trip around the coast from Taganga. The boat trips cost much more than the bus to Tayrona. I remembered Louis saying how impressed he was with Tayrona and how he liked to cut himself off from the outside world sometimes. It was exactly how I felt. By mid-afternoon I returned to my hammock and rested there. I’d taken in a lot of sun and I snoozed away. I later considered the next stages of my journey, into Venezuela, then down to the Brazilian border and Manaus. From there I hoped to take a boat to Porto Velho and then Guayaramerin for a crossing into Bolivia to resume a road trip to La Paz. However, boats leaving Porto Velho could be infrequent and I bore this in mind when considering a river cruise from Manaus to Belem as an alternative. I still had my sights on visiting Bolivia but it would have been a rushed one. This stayed at the back of my mind all the way through my Tayrona stay. Louis, like many others I’d spoken to, highly recommended Bolivia, but I didn’t want to rush through the country. I wanted time to check out La Paz, climb a mountain or two and possibly cycle down the world’s most dangerous route, Death Road!