Colombia’s laid back vibe rubs off on us: Parque Tyrona.
Reality Check Before leaving Santa Marta I picked up a local paper to see what was going on in the world. Safe as it may seem on the streets you only need to pick up a newspaper or watch the news to see the other side… 150kg of cocaine found under the floorboards of a bus, another bus held up and robbed in a another town…, hundreds of peasants displaced from their town by guerillas, a guerilla vs. paramilitary shoot out in the countryside somewhere…. Jeez they don’t do anything by halves! Still we were beginning to see that, for an average traveller, the danger of this part of Colombia is no more than that of any poor South American country.
Parque Tayrona, near Santa Marta, we kept hearing, was every backpackers dream. Unfortunately on the day we decided to go there was a transport strike in Santa Marta and we had to catch a battered 1970`s Renault taxi, driven by a man with 18 children.The dirt road was edged with colourful wild flowers and as we passed through little villages I noticed that most houses had beautiful flowers hanging outside. Colombians seem to care more about their gardens than most other South American countries.
Just past the entrance to the park the road ended and we had to hike another hour through the rainforest, jumping over huge boulders and thick lines of leaf-carrying ants until we saw sunlight and the sea through the trees. In true South American fashion we had acquired a “guide” whom we neither needed nor wanted! He had suddenly jumped into the taxi with us on the way and insisted on walking with us giving us obvious information such as “they are the worker ants”. Every so often we would reach a sign giving info about the distances to various places in the park and he would read it slowly out loud for us, and then smile with satisfaction as if he had just given us some secret piece of information.
After shaking him off on arrival at Arrecifes, we explored the area. The palm covered grass led down to a beautiful bay of sand and views of the rainforest beyond. The whole place was littered with smooth giant boulders which looked like they had been dropped out of the sky onto the beach. There were 2 camp sites each with a simple restaurant and thatched shelters.
Accommodation options were either a hammock strung up under a thatched shelter or for a few pesos more, a tent. We decided on the latter and were shown our “2 man” tent. Well, I said to the man, this may be big enough for 2 South American men, it would be hardly big enough for one of us let alone both! Hence we ended up with 2 tents under a shelter and a hammock for daytime lazing. There were only a handful of people around and the place felt perfect.
Many months ago, I had been inspired to come to Arrecifes and Parque Tayrona by a book I had been reading called “The Gringo Trail” . It’s a witty account of 3 mad peoples travels around the continent and has alot of useful info in it as well as being a great story. It has become one of my favourite books of all time and an important part of the story is set in Arrecifes, so it felt like a kind of pilgrimage for me to have finally made it here.
Arrecifes beach has a strong and dangerous current so we walked further along the beach to where there is a natural swimming pool created by the boulders. The water was gorgeous, clear and so salty you could float for hours just looking up at the green hills stretching back to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – mountains which are controlled largely by guerilla groups and therefore a no-go area.
We met up with an Aussie couple we had met in Taganga and spent the night drinking the usual Rum and coke and chatting. They warned us not to leave our food around the camp as there are lots of rats. No worries our food is safely hung up on a clothes line from the rafters in bags we said. Not so. When we went back to our camp the bags were in bits across the ground and there were pieces of half eaten apple everywhere! These rats could climb up vertical poles and along clothes lines!
Paradise by day the park may have been, but by night it changed into a rat-frenzied nightmare. The first night we lay awake in our tents almost the whole night listening to the noises of the rats as they scurried around the sides of the tents trying to get in. Not content to run around it and dig around the door, they also felt the need to climb up the poles and slide down the sides of the tent over and over again. At one point I could see one hanging between the outer tent and the inner tent, Jason said he even felt one run under his mattress underneath the tent. It sounded like some kind of rat workout centre – they swung from the rafters, jumped from one pole to another and scurried around chewing anything we had left out.
The next morning there were hundreds of foot prints around the tent. People in the hammocks said the rats were bungy jumping on the strings to keep them awake all night. The next night, however, we realised that if we moved our tent from beneath the shelter into the open they would have nothing to swing or climb on. Hey presto no rat noises. This time though, I spent the night worrying that a coconut might fall out a palm tree onto my head and kill me! This is no joke – every year several people do get hit on the head by falling coconuts and some have died – they are as hard as a cricket ball but much bigger and fall from very high trees.All through the night there were huge thuds as coconuts fell- as a Welsh friend observed “It´s worse than Basra out there at night!”
We heard about a campsite further into the park with even nicer beaches so on the third day we packed up and walked an hour further through forests of coconut palms, little coves and over boulders until we reached the Cape of San Juan. The point of the Cape was made out of more giant boulders and set in the middle of 2 deep bays lined with palms. The water was crystal clear and the rainforest beyond dense. Again we had stumbled into a paradise – although completely different from the beaches in Los Roques it was one of the most stunning beaches I have had the fortune to laze on this year. There were only ever a handful of backpackers and young Colombians here each day and although facilities were extremely basic (no electricity, hammocks, tents and communal drain pipes on a piece of dirty concrete for showers) it was a great place to hang around for a few days.
The campsite had a simple restaurant run by a local family. Their children seemed to spend their days playing with sticks and backgammon counters: they had no toys and I suppose little chance of going to school since the nearest road was 2 hours walk away.
I persuaded Jason (who is difficult to raise from a hammock in this type of place) we should hike to a ruined, recently excavated Indian village up in the rainforest called “Pueblito”. It was only supposed to take 1.5 hours and I was sure it wouldn’t be too strenuous. Very wrong. I hadn’t realised the steep “staircase” built by the Tayrona Indians in about 1000AD would now consist of boulders, some as big as cars we had to haul ourselves up and over.
It had rained just before we started leaving, and every stone was dangerously slippery and several times I almost slipped and fell into the cave below the boulders. At one point I had to push Jason up by his bum onto a boulder and then he had to drag me backwards holding both my arms to get onto the top of it. Although it was a beautiful climb, it was not the walk in the park we had imagined, especially in 35 degree heat! We reached the top after 2 hours and found a maze of pathways made of stone slabs, terraces and round stone huts built on circular platforms.
The huts had been reconstructed to give visitors an idea of what the town once looked like. A few families milled about, decendents of the Tayrona Indians (who were wiped out by the Spanish) wearing cheese cloth type tunics and pulling donkeys laden with firewood up the pathways. They didn’t seem to take much notice of us (we were the only tourists there) but one of them told us we weren’t allowed to photograph them. It was nothing like the Inca ruins of Peru, but being so overgrown and tourist free it seemed quite special. Apparently this region has another 301 ruined towns like this – which even beats the incas for volume.
That night we pitched our nice 3 man tent far away from the camp restaurant and shelter, now savvy to the rat problem. Each night we would sit in the restaurant playing cards. Colombians will find any opportunity to make music and sometimes a flurry of Colombian beats could be heard from the kitchen. One day I put my head around the door and saw it was actually the kitchen boys playing a cheese grater amongst other things to make the sounds!
Typical of the mad things you see in Colombia was the sight of a bunch of crazy farmyard animals wandering around next to a beach straight out of a Bounty advert. Donkeys, dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens and outsized frogs all ambled freely around the campsite. At night scores of bats swooped around the back of the campsite making an incredible deafening noise like a space invader game, interspersed by croaking frogs and cicadas.
The next 3 days passed in a haze of relaxation, even through the many storms. Every few minutes the whole sky would light revealing the sea and dark shapes of the mountains beyond. Some mornings I would just lie in the tent listening to all the birds, there seemed to be even more amazing bird calls than there had been in the jungle of Bolivia. One bird sounded just like he was singing a rap song with a backing group, another like a faint ambulance siren, another like a squeaky saw on wood and another like a clowns whistle. This was definitely what travelling was about. Living such a simple existence in such a beautiful place really made us feel alive.