As we approached the shore sailing to Colombia I felt the familiar burnt smell of dry old land. I inhaled deeply, tasting with much pleasure and for the first time in my life the bitter dust of the New World. What cities, what people, what nature is expecting us? I couldn’t wait to get to know the country carrying Columbus’s name, the narrow busy streets of Santa Marta, the museums and cathedrals of Bogota, the hot native village of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada, the architecture of Cartagena, the wild beaches and the monkeys in Tayrona. One month is not enough to see all Colombia has to offer to the dusty traveler, even a year will probably not do. We didn’t have a minute to spare.
We came back from Bogota to Santa Marta late in the evening and the very next day we got up around 6 a.m., packed three backpacks with a tent, sleeping bags, food for three people for three days and lots of water, and we took of for Tayrona. We still had three more paid days in the expensive marina and decided to take advantage of the fact that the boat is safe. We went camping in one of the most beautiful and bio-diverse areas in South America.
From the marina we walked to el mercado (about 10-15 min) and there we hoped on a bus to Park Tayrona (6 000 pesos= $2.50 per person), and after about 30 minutes we were there. Entrance fee for adults is 35 000 pesos or about $15, which is a lot for Colombia and 20 000 pesos or about $8 for students and kids. This entrance fee is valid for any period of time, so if you stay longer it’s more worth it. There were a few more backpackers who came at the same time we did and they took a small bus (3 000 pesos= $1.20) from the entrance of the park to the end of the road, deeper in Tayrona- the last place accessible by car. Maya and I also started for the bus, but Ivo stopped us.
– No bus! We are walking!
– It’s just a dollar and it will save us at least an hour of walking in the heat, don’t be ridiculous, everyone will think we are crazy!- I tried to argue but in vain; Ivo values each dollar and if he can save it- he does!
We started walking and the tourists loaded in the little bus watched us probably thinking we are crazy, as they passed us down the road. The humidity was intense and soon we were drenched in sweat. We walked with our heads down under the weight of the packs surrounded by thick jungle. Maya was carrying all the clothes and two bottles of water, I was hauling heavy canned food and two more water bottles, and Ivo was loaded up with the tent and the sleeping bags, plus two more bottles.
Suddenly we heard the familiar roar we first heard about two years ago up the Polochik River in Guatemala- the Howler Monkeys. Their deep menacing bellows make me shiver every time. It is as if a sick angry monster is vomiting, Maya said. These are the loudest dwellers of the jungle and their infernal cries which can be heard from miles away are meant to warn intruders off their territory. We kept going with eyes wide open, listening, while the roars got louder and soon the family of howlers were directly above us! There is not more magical than returning the stare of a wild animal,, even if it is an unfriendly angry stare of the black howler monkey.
A bit further down the road we heard other more gentle, more discrete voices and we saw in the trees all around us the tiny cute titi-monkeys, like kittens with hair like Einstein. Unlike the howler monkeys found throughout Central and South America, these cotton-top tamarin or titi monkeys can be seen only in the northeast part of Colombia (or pretty much only in Tayrona) and nowhere else in the world. They are in the list of critically endangered species. We have never imagined or hoped to see and hear them in the wild, even to photograph them from a few feet!
The little Einsteins seemed worried and were jumping nervously left and right in the trees, stopping briefly, giving as an angry look and making shrill sounds like when you are trying to clear the food stuck in your teeth. They were jumping around us but did not go away, always keeping an eye on us. I would stay with them. Forever. How can one leave behind these adorable elusive little guys if they are not the ones to leave first?
We kept going.
-Who is crazy now? We or the bus people who didn’t see a single monkey, I bet!- said Ivo.
And he was right. If we hadn’t started on foot, heat or no heat, we wouldn’t see the black howlers nor the titis, nor a big red spider, nor a blue morph butterfly dead by the side of the road, probably killed by the bus… Only when walking the road awards you rewards.
More than one hour had passed when we got to the end of the road, the place where the foot-path begins. The rest of the backpackers were long gone, and once again they didn’t have to walk, as from here on people usually rent horses for less than $20 per person. We could also rent horses, they even offered us a discount, bt Ivo just pointed to his feet and didn’t have to say anything…
Two more hours passed. we were walking in something like a canyon formed by the horse traffic in the soft sandy ground, across grey boulders, fallen trees and the winding paths of the leafcutter ants.
Noon passed. The heat was unforgiving even in the shade of the jungle. We were dripping with sweat- big droplets were flowing down forming streams on faces and arms. Soon our clothes were completely damp. Good thing we hod lots of water to keep us hydrated.
We met another kind of monkeys who were busy taking down dead palm leafs, dropping them on the ground next to us, and picking the bugs found at the base.They too were screaming at us. Ivo and Maya tried to communicate with them and very successfully if you ask me; I hope we didn’t offend them…
Besides these unexpected meetings with monkeys we also stumbled upon a small indigenous settlement, a place where the rental horses don’t go, of course. Our curiosity led us to a small hidden footpath away from the main road.
Suddenly- two hens digging in the ground for bugs, not paying attention to us. Farther- a fireplace and clothes set to dry on some big bowlders. A few round and one square mud and wood houses with cylindrical thatched roofs. An indigenous guy sleeping in a hammock in the shade! From one of the houses came out a young girl in a white robe and two little kids who were watching us with curiosity and suspicion. Just standing there looking at us, saying nothing, ready to get back in the hut.
We were not supposed to be there and we didn’t want to disturb the secrets of this enchanted place. Quickly we returned to the main trail. By then we were so stunned by so many unexpected sudden encounters with wild animals and people that we wouldn’t be surprised if a jaguar, a dinosaur or an extraterrestrial jumped out of the forest in front of us.
Finally we got to a clearing with a few tents and hammocks, This is the first of a few camping sites in Tayrona. We rested for while in the restaurants sharing an expensive coke, and we walked around the Arrecife Beach deserted, as swimming here is forbidden because of the hundreds drowned in the strong currents and big waves of this part of the coast.
We continued on to another beach, La Piscina (the Swimming pool) – a lagoon surrounded by reefs breaking the waves, perfect and safe for swimming. Here we took one-two hour break cooling down in the pleasant waters of the Caribbean Sea. There is nothing more refreshing after a long hike in the heat and dust than the sea. Here we also started meeting the others Tayrona visitors.
Around 3 p.m. we put back on our sweaty clothes, socks and heavy shoes and refreshed but exhausted from too much walking with big backpacks we continued on. After half an hour through a coconut palm forest we got to our final destination- El Cabo.
Tayrona is a national park with 12 thousand hectares of pristine territory in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, with 3 thousand hectares of the most bio-diverse wild coastal zone in the Americas. With many deserted sandy beaches, beautiful Caribbean waters, tropical jungles and rainforests home of thousands of animal and bird species, this is one of the wildest most stunning corners of South America.
And El Cabo is the crown’s jewel.
– We build here!- said Ivo and the two with Maya started setting up the tent, while I had the the task to document the events with my camera.
Only three more backpacker-couples had brought their own tents. Everyone else, some 30-40 visitors from around the world, mostly Germans and Australians, instead rented a tent or a hammock. The “coolest” spot to rent a hammock was the small open shack on the rocks surrounded by the sea- Tayrona’s most popular landmark.
To rent a tent is about $15 per person per night, a hammock is about $10 and we, even though we brought our own tent, had to pay around $6 per person (Maya- free) for the privilege to set the tent up in El Cabo.
And even though we didn’t like the fact that we had to pay yet again, it was worth it. In Tayrona we lived the most beautiful, the most happy, the most perfect days in our lives.