Through the Jungle to Find the Sea

Trip Start Sep 09, 2006
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Trip End Aug 18, 2010


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Flag of Colombia  ,
Thursday, March 8, 2007

Parque Nacional Tayrona is set on the jungle-covered Caribbean coast at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range.  Set in deep bays shaded with coconut palms, the beaches of Tayrona Park are some of the most picturesque and beautiful in all of Colombia and maybe even South America.  From sandy beaches and blue Caribbean waters on the northern coastal boundary, to tropical rainforest at an elevation of 600m in the park's south, our eyes, our skin, and our minds were spoiled from 360 degrees of pure natural beauty for 5 nights.

It was a perfect way to spend our final days on the Colombian coast, and our plan to head to the park immediately after our trek to Ciudad Perdida proved to be a most rewarding decision.  What better way to recover from a tough hike into the mountains than laze about in solitude on isolated beaches.

One of the most interesting aspects of the park is that there are no roads providing access to the numerous bays spanning the coastline.  The only way in is to walk 45 minutes through the jungle with all your gear.  We boarded a bus in Santa Marta for a one hour ride to the park entrance.  After paying the inflated "extranjero" (foreigner) entrance fee of 23000 pesos (USD $10), we were greeted by a Dodge 9 seater station wagon living through its dying days.  The transport service for 2000 pesos (USD $1) saves people from a long hour walk to the start of the jungle trail to the beach.  We dismounted the gas guzzling beast, paid the driver, and set off for an extraordinary 45 minute walk through dense rainforest amidst sounds of toucans, parrots and other fine-feathered friends of the forest.  Alas, we arrived with our single pack (we left the other back at our guesthouse in Taganga), guitar, and jaws wide open as we emerged from the jungle and were greeted by palm trees, and ocean waves.  Paradise found! 



We decided to stay at this location, and for the next 5 nights the bay named Arrecifes was our perch.  The area has basic accommodation with hammocks, tents, or more expensive "cabanas".  We negotiated a tent for 20000 pesos/night (USD $9) and set up on the grassy campsite area directly below 5 huge coconut palm trees, being careful not to place our tent directly under the path of falling coconuts (which have claimed the lives of many in tropical countries).  The tent immediately brought back memories of camping in the Rockies; however, instead of sleeping with toques, inside down sleeping bags that keep you warm up until -30 degrees, and hoping for bears to mind their own business, our nights here were rather sweaty and stuffy, and all we could do was leave the flap open and hope for ocean breezes to cool off our perspiration.  We definitely missed the mountain air, but nothing beats sleeping half naked in a tent under a moonlight that silhouettes the palm trees all around you, and the sound of the Caribbean hitting the beach a 100 meters from your slumber.



A few of our friends from our hike to Ciudad Perdida accompanied us to the park on our first day.  After setting up our tent, we headed with them 30 minutes more through the jungle to the most popular bay where most travelers end up staying.  Cabo San Juan is an immaculate spot where hammocks are strung up all over the place and people spend their time on the lovely bay swimming in its calm waters and taking in the fantastic views.  A couple of grand outcroppings along the bay provide sensational viewing angles over the sea and along the coastline.   You can even set up your hammock in a shelter built on one of the outcroppings, where, if you close your eyes, it seems as if you are completely encircled by the ocean and can hear the waves in nature's 100% surround sound.  It´s difficult to describe such immaculate natural surroundings, so all we can say is, "you had to be there.." 

Although Cabo was a wonderful sight, we were glad to have settled on staying in Arrecifes since the accommodation in Cabo was rather crowded and the toilet facilities a little on the "I don´t think so" side.  Our friends only had a day to visit, and our plan to spend 5 days in the park obviously put envious thoughts in their heads.  The 6 of us spent the rest of the afternoon together in Cabo, under a huge palm tree, sipping from the coconut that Timm (German) had, with great difficulty, robbed from a tree.  We practiced being as bohemian as we could, while Ashif played guitar and Jan (German) demonstrated his juggling skills to the strummed music.  It was nice to spend our last day together on the beach in such unique surroundings, and we all were ultimately sad to finally have to bid farewell to each other.



Since Arrecife's waters are quite dangerous to swim in, we would sleep and have our meals there, and we would hike through the jungle to other nearby bays along the coast for fun and sun.  Our favorite location was La Piscina just a 20 minute walk from Arrecifes.  Here, we could swim and snorkel to our heart's content and enjoy the day on the sand while we read and let the sun bake our already-darkened skin.  Ashif took the time to practice more songs on his guitar, while Reesh would accompany him with the lyrics.  We´d read, splash around, nap, enjoy our chocolate-filled bread purchased from a nearby homely panederia (bakery), and work up an appetite for fresh Pargo Rojo (Red Snapper), and Cuba Libres (Rum and Coke) upon our return to Arrecifes for the night.  

On one occasion, we met a family of Hawaiians that had come to Colombia to visit their daughter who was working in Cartagena.   The father, an energetic man in his late 50's was inspiring and hilarious in his demeanor.  Young at heart and extremely fit, he would scavenge the nearby palm groves for coconuts and taught us exactly how to break them open in order to indulge in their water and meat.  "No thanks, I`'ve had enough coconut in my life" is what he would say when we'd offer him morsels.  With them, was a Uruguayan lady who would cut off bite size servings for us and offer us coffee from her thermos.  Her invitation to stay with her in Uruguay after just moments of meeting her, was not surprising as her selfless hospitality was similar to what we´ve grown used to in these parts. 



On our way back to Arrecifes, we'd look forward to the jungle walks that seemed to momentarily transport us far away from the ocean into a world full of lizards, fruit bearing trees of all varieties, and peaceful sounds of birds that we never could really catch a glimpse of.  The only sign of beach would be the coconut palms interspersed between jungle foliage, and the faint sound of waves hitting the rocky coastline.  Looking down every now and then, we'd spot massive colonies of leaf cutter ants all along the trail doing their work to transport massive quantities of leaf bits to their domain.  We decided with complete humility, that ants are probably the most intelligent creatures in the world of insects, and carefully stepped over their convoys that continuously crossed our path.  As Timm and Jan would say, "Careful, Autobahn in front".



On our last morning, we emerged from our tent under a beautiful morning sky, slightly groggy from the tick and bed bug bites that kept us awake scratching through the night (about 25 bites each!).  We packed our bag, finished off our breakfast (they actually had Froot Loops and milk!), and decided to walk over to the beach in front for one last time.  Feeling happy to have discovered and experienced this isolated region of Colombia, we read a few pages of our books on the sand and filled our senses with the ocean's perspective.  Then, we bid farewell once again to paradise, put the sea behind us, and hiked out through the jungle back to civilization, jealous of those we encountered heading in the opposite direction along the way.



Next stop, a 10hr bus ride back to altitude, where the people supposedly eat Ants?

DID YOU KNOW?
A mature leafcutter colony can contain more than 8 million ants, mostly sterile female workers. They feed on a specialized fungus that grows only in the underground chambers of the ants' nest. These ants actively cultivate their fungus by feeding it with fresh cut leaves.

NOTES FOR THE TRAVELLER:
- Bring your own supply of mineral water if you don´t want to be paying extortionate prices in the Park. If you have your own hammock, you can string it up to any tree at the campsites.
- At Arrecifes, tents cost 20000 pesos and sleep 2 people. Hammocks without mosquito net cost 8000 pesos per person. The national park owned resort next door charges 16000 pesos for hammocks with mosquito nets, and 22000 for tents, but they have better bathrooms.
- On the way from Arrecifes to La Piscina beach, you´ll find this nice old man selling fresh chocolate and arequipe-filled buns, right out of his clay oven, for 1000 each. We usually bought him out every morning on the way to the beach.

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