It was a cool, breezy morning in Medellin. It was to be our last. We had a routine travel day ahead of us, something that muscle memory had nearly relegated to subconscious acts of quick eating, taxi hailing, bill counting and time budgeting. But despite this well-rehearsed routine, we still felt considerable stress. Today’s agenda was far more multimodal and complex than an ordinary travel day. Today was different.
Our objective: to depart the evergreen Andes for a lush tropical expanse known as Tayrona National Park. To get there, we would be taking two taxis, a bus, an airplane, and backpacking for at least three hours and then finding a campsite before nightfall.
To further exacerbate matters, I had a paper for a class due that day. I knew I could only count on reliable internet access at the airport. So I had to mind two mutually stressful schedules.
We awoke early. Choked down some bad food, checked out of our hotel, and sped off in a cab towards the airport. I managed to do some writing for my paper on the 45 minute drive, despite my cab driver’s fondness for loud sing-alongs with the radio and hollering at cab drivers he knew along the way (read: EVERY cab driver).
We arrived at the airport with time to spare. However, as if by design, that excess time was promptly consumed by a long wait at check-in followed by an hour delay of take-off. While I managed to send off my paper during this time, this bumped back our ETA in Santa Marta to 02:00PM. We would still need to find transportation for the long drive from Santa Marta to the entrance to Tayrona. I did not know how long it would take to exit the airport, find transportation to Tayrona, how long it would take to get into the park, how long it would take to hike to our campsite, or even whether there would be any accommodations available at the camp. It was a shot in the dark and I knew it. I nervously pondered the assortment of uncomfortable contingencies that might result from a snag at any point during the day ahead.
I comforted myself briefly on the plane with the knowledge that there was nothing I could presently do to ensure that we met our agenda. However, my mind began to churn with purpose as soon as our flight began its final descent and the sapphire blue waters came into focus over the outline of green feathered palms. I evaluated the layout of the airport as we landed: Where was the exit? Transportation access? Would there be any security stops? Bus availability?
The plane landed and we quickly gathered our belongings and made impatient movements toward the hatch door. With deliberate feet, we emerged, impacting the metallic resounding floor in swift movements up the boarding ramp. We entered the terminal and my eyes rolled in my head, trying to orient myself, fixing quickly on one sign, then darting to the next, before catching sight of one, “Salida.” Bingo. My feet pivoted and we closed in on that final sliding glass door, moving with that shin-burning stride that tries to strike an uncomfortable balance between speed-walking and a full-on sprint.
The door opened with a swish and I exited into a piercing sunlight. I noticed my skin had become hot and my shirt was sticking to my chest. I was surprised by this, having just left the breezy “city of eternal spring” for one that seemed like a city of eternal sweat. My pupils adjusted, and I found myself standing in front of a line of yellow cabs. The drivers stood leaning against their cars, and, upon noticing us, immediately pounced with propositions. I gave a stern “no” to the first three before approaching one further down the line and making him an offer. I prefer to enter transactions on my terms.
I saw the driver through the passenger window. He was young. About my age. I tapped on the glass and negotiated in Spanish the fare to Tayrona. I winced at the price ($100,000 COP/$50 USD), but knew that this sort of premium was warranted given our tight schedule. We accepted the offer, loaded our bags, and collapsed in the back seat. It was 2:15PM. I asked him how long the trip would take and sighed in relief when he told me only an hour. Our prospects were beginning to look brighter.
I began to forget about our logistics problem and casually looked out the window as we drove, remarking on the stark visual contrast of my present environment. The climate was much different here than in Cartagena and Medellin. It was neither tropical nor alpine. It was a giant mountainous desert of burnt red soil, withered skeleton trees, and unfinished apartment buildings. This was the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, an isolated mountain range on the La Guajira peninsula–near the Venezuelan border. We drove past many miles of this arid scrub, sundry cacti and other dehydrated foliage and I began to doubt that we could be so close to the alleged lush jungle of Tayrona.
We also crossed through many poorer neighborhoods and towns on the way. Dirt roads littered with zipping motorbikes and ramshackle cars. An overweight woman stands in a dirty red shirt with clutched fists pressed against her hips, waiting on someone or something. We also passed many of those quaint bars and cantinas for which I have a special admiration. Faded structures with chipped paint–hinting of meager assets. But painted in bold colors, strung up christmas lights, and up-tempo music that purport a warmth and joy that isn’t determined by commercial wealth. Simple, red wooden chairs that overlook a street teeming with human energy. A view to be had while clutching a cold, fizzy beer, garnished with a lime wedge. The cantina invites one to sit in a quiet, noisy alcove of dirt and warmth. To hide in plain sight. In the solitude of my mind I am sitting in such a cantina on some sunny shoreline, retreating from the world and from myself. That cold, golden drink cooling my throat and mind on a hot day.
We rounded another dusty mountainside and the flora quickly began to change. Large elephant-eared fronds came into view, banana plantations: obvious hallmarks of regular rainfall. I knew we were close. Sure enough, we arrived minutes later at an anonymous dirt road leading into a leafy abyss. We purchased a larger container of water, got our ticket, and hopped on a bus that took us deeper into the jungle.
We unloaded minutes later at a muddy parking lot called Cañaveral that was to be our official point of departure. We would take the remainder of the journey by foot. We threw our heavy packs over our shoulders and cinched our waistbands, trying to distribute some of the weight onto our hips. I anticipated this would be a tough hike as we were unable to pack light — all of our accreted possessions over the past week would remain on our backs until we arrived at camp. And I was unsure of exactly how far that was going to be. A map informed us that a beach called “Arrecifes” was the nearest campsite. With that, we embarked.
Garden of Eden
We made heavy footsteps along the muddy path, enveloped in a cloud of warm, damp air. Strange bird songs haunted from unseen heights and alerted the jungle to our presence. I watched the treetops swaying in the breeze, insulating those below their high branches from gusts of fresh air. The canopy gyrated in cycled movement, opening brief holes in the leafy ceiling and revealing the pale evening sky in quick, pierced glimpses, before being covered again by bright green leaves, set ablaze in the sunlight.
As we reached the top of one soggy hillside I heard a sudden rustle in the branches. It was quick and deliberate–not a product of the wind or gravity. I looked over and found brown furry objects moving between the branches. They were jumping and swinging, hanging, and chirping to one another. It was our first monkey encounter, and Sydney and I were ecstatic. From ten feet we watched the antics of a family of capuchin monkeys. They angrily shook tree branches at one another, jumped, yelled, or lazily reclined on tree limbs. After several minutes of fascination and amusement, we continued our journey out of the necessity of beating the sundown.
Minutes later we encountered yet another interesting specimen of fauna: leaf-cutter ants. We first noticed these ants when we saw large chunks of leaves being ferried to and fro across our path. Closer inspection revealed a twenty-lane highway of giant ants, busily carting their goods home and utterly unconcerned by our presence. The leafy haul of a single ant frequently exceeded 4-5x the size of its carrier.
We didn’t have much time to spare, and so limited our observation of the fascinating animal life around us. We continued to hike at a hurried pace for several hours through dense jungle, coming to the point of complete exhaustion, before finally hearing the faint sound of the shore. The dense green underbrush became crowded with pale gray boulders– some several stories high. We navigated these boulders as our path descended down a hill. We turned the corner around one particular boulder and caught sight of what makes Tayrona so special.
Before us was an expanse of white sand reaching many hundreds of meters into the distance before retreating into another tangled mess of green palms and underbrush. Inhabiting this sandy bank were more giant boulders extending into the bright cerulean waters of the Caribbean Sea. The crystal blue water starkly contrasted the stone’s pale gray, and both were laced by frosted sea spray that leaped from the rocks with the crash of each thunderous wave. Bright green foliage decorated the tops of these partially-submerged monoliths. We were awe-struck by the flush of natural color in this painted landscape.
I felt a rush of excitement come over me upon seeing what could only be called a tropical paradise. Regrettably, we had to trudge yet further. And we soon tore ourselves away from this vista and hiked another twenty minutes before reaching our destination: Arrecifes. Arrecifes was a large grassy yard with tents and hammocks, only a two-minute walk from the beach. The campsite wasn’t glamorous, but then we weren’t expecting it to be. We dropped our bags with a cathartic thump and were nearly overcome with relief and exhaustion. I made arrangements to rent a hammock from the campsite and we prepared our sleeping quarters (aka, a hut). After some water and a glass of fresh passion fruit juice, we collapsed into our strung-up canvas beds, emerging a bit later for dinner at a small campsite restaurant [to be discussed later]. Somehow, we had made it…