As Alex described in her previous post we went to Santa Marta with the aim of visiting the Parque Nacional Tayrona. We didn’t really go into this adventure knowing much about the park but it featured in “The Gringo Trail” by Mark Mann, one of the books I read before heading out here, so we thought we go and have a look for ourselves!
After a long sleepless night we headed over to the market to catch our bus. We did have the option of a door to door transfer with our hostel for the equivalent of £4 each but we opted to pay just over £1 for the local bus. It wasn’t really about the money though as we really wanted to see the journey from a more local perspective.
Motivation aside we wound our way through the market area looking for the intersection of Calle 11 and Carrera 11. It all started to feel just a little less salubrious around us and all of a sudden none of the streets were labelled. To cut a long story short we eventually managed to overshoot our destination by a street and by the time we got to the bus we were sweaty and exhausted. Luckily we had a 40 minute bus ride to recover so we set off and kept our eyes peeled for our stop. As it happened our stop was impossible to miss due to the obvious park entrance, the conductor shouting Parque Tayrona at us and all the other Gringos getting off the bus with us.
Before we were allowed into the park we were instructed to watch a video about the park and get a talk from a guide. It all seemed to be designed to encourage us to respect the natural flora and fauna of the park rather than just heading in for a party. The guide quickly realised that we were there with genuine intentions and gave us our ticket so that we could buy our entry passes. Our next choice was to either take a minibus the 5km ride into the park proper or whether to walk. We’re English and we’re in a national park, so ignoring the local advice we set off down the road so we could see more of the park on foot. We quickly realised that it was around midday and baking hot but we were prepared and had plenty of water so we made a few jokes about mad dogs and Englishmen and pressed on! 5km later we arrived at the end of the road and into the real park. We were now hot, tired and extremely sweaty. I know these distances sound small however the temperature was somewhere over 30 degrees Celsius (90+ Fahrenheit) and with 100% humidity it makes it feel like it’s over 40 degrees! We walked towards a grass roofed hut at Canaveral in search of a cold drink and some food. As we walked up some stairs we noticed wine glasses on well laid out tables and realised we’d walked into quite a smart establishment. Too tired to continue, and with staff seemingly not deterred by the rivers of sweat pouring off us, we sat down for some lunch. It turns out that we’d wandered into the restaurant of the smart EcoHabs accommodation but they served us a delicious lunch and although it wasn’t cheap we’d saved our 50p each to take a 5km walk so we didn’t feel too bad about blowing it and about another £9.50 on some good food! Although delicious, lunch didn’t do too much to revive us and it was getting towards mid afternoon, we had a destination to get to but nothing booked for the night so we were keen to press on and secure ourselves a bed. Our target was Arrecifes which was about another 3km along a forested path.
We didn’t start well, heading along a beach that we couldn’t get out of resulting in about a kilometre’s detour with a hill that we had to climb to get back to the main path. We got back to the main path and started walking. We immediately started climbing up and over a hill which quickly left us with pounding headaches and gulping down water, however we reached the top and were greeted with a beautiful view out to the sea. We pushed on down the hill up and over a smaller hill and through sand, mangroves and some lower lying rainforest. As we got towards the end Alex was starting to struggle, as while I struggled more with the altitude in Bogota, she has struggled more with the heat on the coast, however we made it to Arrecifes.
Arrecifes is a cluster of three sets of accommodation spread along and set back from a long sandy beach. We found El Paraiso first which I recognised from a description in the Rough Guide so we enquired about a room and were shown to a basic one (of the four that they had) that although not small looked pretty run down and was shrouded in darkness thanks to a lack of power. Our original plan was to sleep in hammocks but after our walk all we wanted was somewhere private to stand under a long cold shower. Shattered and with few other options we took the room and jumped in the shower. The “shower” was really just a pipe that stuck out the wall in a bathroom that looked like it hadn’t been painted since the mid 70’s or cleaned since the mid 90’s but at least with the power out we couldn’t really see anything and after that walk it was probably the best shower we’d had all month.
Feeling somewhat recovered we decided to walk out to the beach and admire the sunset. Looking out into the far distance we could see an incredible lightning storm. As we watched the lightning slowly got larger and the thunder got louder. There was still an appreciable gap between the lightning and thunder so we thought we were pretty safe, but as the sky grew darker we started to feel quite exposed on the open beach so we headed back to El Paraiso’s restaurant.
Shortly after we sat down to eat the heavens opened. We were surprised when everyone started moving the tables at least 2 metres from the edge of the roof but we soon realised why as the rain got heavier and the wind started to blow it into the restaurant. The lightning passed right overhead with some pretty impressive cracks of thunder and the rain was as heavy as I have ever seen it. Eventually it subsided and soon after a large creature flew into the restaurant, it looked like a very large moth or possibly even a small bat but as it flew straight into one of the guests we realised that it was in fact a giant flying cockroach. Having lived in Africa I have seen some big
cockroaches but this was probably the largest one I’ve ever seen. After that what we thought was a bat flew in, but once it landed it turned out to be a giant moth! I stepped outside and very nearly tripped over several huge toads. By now, thoroughly confused by the local fauna we decided to call it a night and headed back to bed. At this point we realised that our earlier lack of power was in fact due to the entire camp relying on a generator that they’d only started up after dark. We were relieved to find that one of the fans in the bedroom worked and while the room looked even worse in the light, at least the beds were clean and freshly made. We got ready for bed however as I got into bed the wooden support slats collapsed underneath me. A further inspection revealed the support slats were a mixture of bowed, too short, broken and loose, some exhibited all four of these characteristics. I carefully re-organised them, putting the better looking examples towards the middle and we gingerly got back into bed. This time the bed held and we tried to sleep. While I was reasonably convinced that my handiwork had at least ensured that we’d be OK until the morning, Alex was less convinced and throughout the night whenever I turned over in bed I’d be accompanied by a squeak and a sharp intake of breath. Needless to say it was not a great night of sleep for either of us and we woke up early feeling rough.
Our plan for the day was to walk to El Cabo which was another 3km then walk up to El Pueblito and back which was another 3km each way. On the way back we’d decide whether to stay at El Cabo or to head back to Arrecifes. Thanks to our poor night’s sleep we woke up early and rather than wait for breakfast we decided to push on before it got too hot. We made good time and got to El Cabo for breakfast. After a quick bite we found the path up to El Pueblito and decided to get started. We noticed that the walk had a 250m altitude gain on the way but we gained 1000m in 1 day on the Inca trail in Peru and survived so we thought this would be relatively manageable. The walk started off easy enough, there were markers on the path every 10% and as we hit 20% we wondered if this was as hard as it was going to get. We soon got our answer as the path took an immediate turn upwards and became less of a path and more of a climb. I had to go first and pull Alex up onto some of the rocks as her reach wasn’t long enough. There were precipitous falls between many of the rocks and it started to feel more like a bouldering expedition than a walk.
Around 50% of the way we started to get really tired, we were both aching and my legs started to feel like jelly. We started taking plenty of short breaks and pushed on regardless. Although I’ve tackled much harder walks than this the heat and humidity made this among the hardest short walks that I’ve done. We had to drink water constantly as we were sweating so much which meant that our clothes were soaking wet. Many breaks later and totally exhausted we made it to El Pueblito, the remains of a pre-Colombian village. We immediately sat down and spent 20 minutes recovering before looking around.
Although there were plenty of people at El Cabo it seemed that almost nobody had made the walk up to El Pueblito, or had come a little earlier, with the result that by the time we left we were the only ones there. Luckily there was a hut with a coolbox so we were able to top up with water before
we made our way back down the hill. The walk down was thankfully much easier than the way up and we made it down in good time. We decided not to stay in El Cabo as it was a lot busier and felt much more touristy than Arrecife so we started the walk back to Arrecife. By this time point we’d walked around 7 miles in what felt like 40 degree heat so once again we were shattered. The last bit of the walk to Arrecifes is straight along the beach but, seeing a path leaving the beach a little earlier we followed it past a lagoon complete with a sign warning about the presence of caimans and into a very run down looking campsite that we hadn’t seen before. We “strode with confidence” straight through the campsite and onto a path at the far end that led in the right direction. The path narrowed, started to get muddy and more enclosed until it became nearly impassible. Although our destination was only a few hundred metres ahead of us, with the path now looking more like an animal track and the warning of caimans in the back of our minds we opted to head back through the campsite, round the lagoon and back onto the beach. By now, pretty exhausted, we walked into Arrecifes, past our previous night’s accommodation and decided to check out the more expensive option that we’d overlooked on the first night.
The more expensive option consisted of a small number of smart looking private cabañas dotted around a restaurant. As it turned out this the official national park accommodation as was the restaurant and EcoHabs where we’d eaten the day before. We agreed that it was probably worth spending a little more to get a decent night’s sleep so we agreed that if they had a free cabaña we’d spend up to double what we did the night before to get somewhere we could relax and have a decent night’s sleep. We walked up to reception and asked if we could see a cabaña, we asked the price and worked out that was in fact 3 times more than we’d paid the previous night but we decided to see the room anyway. The Cabaña consisted of a wooden building with an
interwoven palm leaf roof. The downstairs had a smart bathroom, two single beds and walls that folded back on three sides to open up to a wrap-around terrace complete with a hammock. Upstairs was a roof room with a double bed, balcony, giant ceiling fan and another hammock. We took one look at each other and it was pretty clear that we were going to take the room. We paid up and took a shower, Alex rinsed through some of our clothes and we lounged in the hammocks until dinner. Dinner was the same menu as the restaurant from the previous day. The vegetarian options were not especially inspired but were beautifully cooked with a lovely sauce and fresh veg that just had the right amount of crunch.
Although the bed was hard we slept beautifully and made the most of our expenditure by taking advantage of the free breakfast and lounging in the hammocks with a book until checkout time. We took one more walk along the beach which ended with another ill fated detour. These typically go something like this:
Chris “I wonder if we can get back to the path from the other end of the beach”
Alex “Well there is a sign up there so lets go check it out”
5 minutes later…
Chris “We’re nearly there but that walk along the beach in 40 degree heat in the midday sun was quite tiring”
Alex “So much for that shower”
2 minutes later…
Chris “I can’t see a path, lets look at the sign”
Alex “The sign says warning, Caiman habitat”
Alex “Let’s go back the way we came”
So twenty minutes later we were walking back past our previous night’s accommodation and onto the path back to El Zaino (the park entrance). The walk back to the first day’s restaurant was longer than we remembered but we soon reached the minibuses pickup for the ride back to the main road. We gladly paid our 50p each and soon enough we were back at the main road. About 5 minutes later as I was just walking over to the toilets a bus pulled on the hard shoulder. Alex suddenly grabbed everything that we’d brought with us, shouted at me and I could just see her running at full pelt over to the bus. Since she had all our belongings and I had the money (Alex is like the Queen, she doesn’t carry money unless forced to) I figured I’d better not lose her so I ambled over to the bus and soon enough we were on our way back into the city.
Determined to show our backpacking prowess and local knowledge I checked the map on the way, we worked out which way to walk when we left the bus 40 minutes later we were confidently walking in the right direction. Knowing that the streets weren’t all signposted we counted them as we walked past them, seven towards the sea then three parallel to it. As we walked we left the market, continued past a district that was busy with small scale industrial activity then seemed to get to an area that was quieter and more residential. The area started to look poorer and although it felt reasonably safe we started to look more obviously like lost tourists. What was also immediately alarming was that the direction that we believed to be the sea was now sporting a rather large hill and as we glimpsed the port buildings over the horizon they were also in the wrong place. We realised that we were well and truly lost, so taking advantage of the lack of people I discreetly opened up Maps.Me on my phone, found our location with GPS and worked out a new route. We were only 5 or 6 blocks away from the centre so we pointed ourselves in the right direction and headed towards home. Twenty minutes later we were back in the comfort of La Brisa Loca, our backpacks, although buried under a mountain of baggage, were unharmed and we were back in the comfort of one of their cabins on the roof terrace.
That’s all for this post, Alex has already written about our last night in Santa Marta then it’s onto Cartagena. As I write this we’ve been in Cartagena for four nights and we’ve enjoyed it so much that we’ve just extended on for another two, then we’re off to the coffee growing region and back to Bogota for our departure to Ecuador. We’ve having a great time in Colombia and we’ll be genuinely sad to leave in a week’s time.
I’ll leave you with a couple of photos of some of the wildlife that we saw in Tayrona: