It’s been over 2 weeks since i’ve returned home and i still haven’t written about my trip to Colombia’s national park Tayrona on the country’s Caribbean coast. It was a very special experience for me, my first time camping out in the “wild” with all the food on our backs and our resourcefulness for survival. But before i brag i need to mention that my companion was amazing – and knew more about the mountains than i might ever learn. He spend his 14-16 years of life wondering the Sierra Nevada before he became an artisan living on the beach of Santa Marta among other places. That’s how we met – i wanted to swim and asked him to look after my things while he lay in the shade of his little camp under his jewelry rack and guitar.
I’m breaking my promise to him now by writing about him. Never write my name or talk about me he asked. I don’t think i’ll ever see him again and the tattoo he drew on my leg of a tree in bloom, fruits bountiful at its roots, and a full moon, has already faded. The full moon has gone too, the moon we shared together, and now when i look out into the empty sky i feel like we are separated by eternity.
I’d like to give a description of our 5 days to help adventurous travelers who want to experience the park outside the mainstream tourist route. So here are the details:
Besides some clothes, his tent, my sleeping bag and hammock, lighter and knives, we purchased the following food:
-1 kl panela
-2 kl tomatoes
-2 kl onions
-500 g rice
-1 clove garlic
-2 cans sardines
-5L water (supplimented with river water on days 3-5)
-2 cheeses (1lbs total)
-1 kl peppers
-1 sweet bread
-farinya (dried yuca)
-raisin and peanuts
afternoon: 2 bananas; 1 avocado; 3 tomatoes; 1 onion; cheese; 1 pepper
evening: 1 banana
morning: 5 banana salad with peanuts, raisins & lime; sweet bread
afternoon: salad (2 tomatoes, 1 onion, cucumber, 2 peppers, lime, oil, farinya)
evening: avocado; garlic; panela
morning: 2 coconuts each*; 2 banana salad with peanuts, raisins & lime/
late morning: salad (2 tomatoes, 1 onion, 1 pepper, 1 can sardines in tom sauce, cheese, lime, oil, farinya)
evening: 250 g rice, 2 tomatoes, 1 onion, cheese, garlic, lime, oil, spices, river water
afternoon: soup (river water + 250 g rice, 8 unripe green bananas*, 1 can sardines in tom sauce, 1 onion, 1 tomato, 3 limes, cheese, garlic, oil)
evening: river water with panela & lime
stew with 4 potatoes, 2 onions, 1 tomato, 8unripe green bananas*, oil, lime; water with panela
*signifies food found in the forest or beach
We forgot salt! But since we washed our pans in the salty ocean it wasn’t too much of a taste disaster. Otherwise, we ate extremely well =) I prepared most of the meals but Albeiro made the fires on days 3, 4 & 5 and prepared the last breakfast while i slept. He drank the river water without boiling but i didn’t..
Our trip began at Zaino, the eastern entrance to the park where we bought our admission tickets. I didn’t have a student id so mine cost more than it could have, and Albeiro’s cost a lot less since he’s Colombian. We were given plastic ticket bracelets and a receipt, which i stuffed indifferently into my backpack. We walked an hour or so down towards Arrecifes, one of the first beach destinations in the park. The path, if i can call it that, started off as a paved road (taxis travel to Cañaveral from Zaino all the time) and turned into a muddy and foul smelling subject of my complaining as we turned away from Cañaveral towards Arrecifes. Every few minutes horses with Colombian tourists would pass us in both directions, tourists happily oblivious to the damage they were doing to the path by sitting on top of horses whose powerful legs turned the wet sandy path into a complete mud bath, where my own feet would slip down to my knees amidst horse poop. After Arrecifes we reached La Piscina, a small but pretty stretch of calm beach where we found a small cavity back into the forest and parked ourselves for the night.
La Piscina is popular with swimmers because of its relatively calm waters created manually by the indigenous people who lived here 500 years ago and placed boulders all along to break the waves (despite it’s beauty, the majority of the beach around Tayrona is not safe for swimming, with large waves and rip tides). Palm and coconuts trees line the shores of this white sanded paradise…
But there are too many tourists in paradise.
Cañaveral and Arrecifes, as well as most other stops along this route of Tayrona abound with places to sleep, however they’re not free even if you have your own hammock / tent. Not only that, but they’re crowded – $20,000 pesos for the privilege of setting up your camp next to a hundred other tourists. So we chose a quieter option and hid ourselves in the jungle near the beach. We didn’t set up camp until after sunset when the last tourists had left La Piscina, and then we stayed up until the mosquitos became overwhelmingly persistent.
Albeiro put his tent away early in the morning, but i left my hammock hanging until at least noon which is when we had our first (but only) problem with park officials. They saw my hammock and came to check our tickets and characters, record our data, and tell us that next time they catch us camping freely they’ll kick us out…
The next night we slept somewhere between La Piscina and Cabo San Juan, not directly on the beach like the previous night, but on a cliff on the beach amidst trees so dense i couldn’t even feel the rain. In the morning while i bathed in the ocean, Albeiro climbed up a coconut tree and brought down 4 coconuts.
In the afternoon we hiked to Pueblito, the ancient holy city of the people who lived here before Spanish conquistadors arrived. I thought there was a full moon that night although it was so cloudy i couldn’t see it. There was thunder, lightening and heavy rain, no stars and many strange noises – a mix of whistling, howling, blowing and ringing.
Pueblito seemed completely deserted so we slept without hiding in the middle of the town… i hung my hammock in a tree i thought was dead (it wasn’t, just like the moon wasn’t really full) while Albeiro set up his tent a few meters away. We found an abandoned house where we made a fire and cooked rice. It was the strangest house i’ve ever seen – plants growing everywhere except the living room, where the only thing left was a toilet that stood in the middle with a plant growing out of it. Then there was the small kitchen and the sink, with two plants growing out of it but no roots. The other rooms were covered in growths. I inspected the house from the outside but didn’t enter the plant covered rooms, fearing that snakes were hiding within. Also the sun was setting, and even though the roof of the house had been removed, visibility was poor. It must have been a lovely house once, with electricity, and beautiful brick construction. It had 3 well sized rooms with windows out towards the nature, a bathroom with a shower, and a small room that could only be entered from the outside. Then there was a long terrace and hallway. All that could have been looted had been, from the wiring to the iron in the walls. I could only wonder…
Pueblito was eerie and i started thinking how foolish and reckless i’d been to come here with someone i barely knew and who was “not normal” by any standards of normalcy my parents and 99% of my acquaintances would use.
I lay in the hammock looking into the dark landscape through my mosquito net, the outlines of trees forming a gray pattern here and there, and listening to the tapping of the rain on my carp and earth around me. Every sound shook me, every turn my companion made in his tent, every rain drop that fell harder than its predecessor, every thunderous turn of the sky, every gust of wind… until eventually i fell asleep. Once when i woke up at dusk to see a figure walk past our camp wearing rubber boots and carrying a large backpack that resembled mine i thought “oh no!” and prepared to run… before i saw that my backpack was still waiting beneath me.
We smoked peyote before leaving Pueblito towards what we thought was an uninhabited beach to cook the rest of our rice. But the hour walk down the mountain brought us to a private beach (Playa Brava) where we could not cook because sea turtles used the site as nesting for their babies. So we walked back towards the mountain and spend the night near the first river crossing, our 4th night sheltered by the forest. In the late morning of the 5th day we continued up the path towards Calabazo, which we finally reached after 3 hours.
Throughout the journey to Pueblito, to Playa Brava and then toward Calabazo we saw just a few people, but as we approached Calabazo we knew we were entering something “civilized” from the garbage and plastic strewn everywhere.
One of the most special sites i saw were the ant towns, the thousands of ants, large and small, crossing the path one after another. At first i avoided stepping on them, but sometimes that made me slip and after a few attempts i accepted my role as antkiller. Every couple of meters we passed another ant community trudging along carrying pieces of green leaves with a kind of determination i’ve never felt. I was sorry i didn’t have a camera.
Read this other account about traveling in Tayrona as well as its history in this NY times article from 2007.
In Colombia I overstayed my visa by a day. May 14 was the day I arrived and my sixty days expired on July 12. But my flight was on July 13. I could have taken a flight on the 11, but I really wanted those two extra days in sassy Colombia and decided to take the chance.
I couldn’t any information online and not one of the many people I asked in hostels could tell me anything useful except give gave me grave warnings such as I won’t even be allowed on the plane. There was also the problem of airport exit tax which I had read in the Lonely Planet is $65 for a 60 day stay and $120 for longer stays. I had about $70 left in my bank account and really wanted to spend it on something else. It was only on my last day that I realized it was already included in the price of my ticket.
On the way to the airport, the taxi driver insisted on stopping to give me his email. Something about his manner made me weary and realizing that the only thing of value I had left was my laptop and that it was possible for fate to wink cruelly and rob me off it in my last hour, I sat nervously as he stopped in one of the poorer Cartagena neighborhoods to scribble his email.
Before I was able to check in I had to get my exit stamp from a man sitting at the entrance to the line. He judged the 60 days in a very different way than I expected.
May 14 – July 14, rather than May 14 + 60 days = July 12.
At the check-in, they made me remove a kilo from my luggage. At the duty free I bought two bottles of Cuban rum, which I was told could be taken to the US without problem although I was not 100% convinced. Then I heard my name on the loudspeaker and went to the gate where they had my big bag and wanted to search it…
I’ve never been to such a thorough check in my life. Everything in my bag was removed and probed. The woman to my left had a bag of lollypops. This was torn open and one lollypop shattered on the floor to see if it was candy after all. Then her bottles of medicine were uncorked and wooden spatulas stuck inside. In my bag I had several bottles of Amazonian medicines as well as 2 bags of corn flour. How could I prove that what I carried was actually “blood of the tiger” for healing wounds and corn flour for tortillas rather than cocaine? No problem, my security guy tasted it.
I’d bought some fruits, bread and cheese to take with me on the plane, but the fruits were taken away before I could board. I was allowed to keep just one avocado because the Colombian woman was convinced I couldn’t each two on the 2 hour flight to Florida. I didn’t argue because I was almost the last at the gate and felt the pressure of time…
Sitting in the airport in Fort Lauderdale waiting for my flight connection to NYC…
The woman next to me speaks about the wardrobe she packed in the obnoxious accent I associate with American self-indulgence while the men in front of me speak in Spanish and I can understand only the general gist of the conversation. In my 5 months in Ecuador and Colombia my Spanish improved a lot. I accomplished two eye exams and two pairs of glasses, filing a police report, visiting an emergency room, and the many encounters in the streets, hotels, busses with Spanish speaking friends. But it takes active concentration, which sometimes I’m reluctant to give.
Coming back to the US reminds me how alienated I feel from this country. My first impressions at customs were negative: unfriendly faces chewing gum as if they had not one piece but 10 inside their mouths. And then the security checkpoint with the unfriendly overweight young women, with faces suggesting mental retardation, checked my carry-on.
US is the only country I’ve been to in the last 2 years where taking off your shoes is still required. Although my bag was thoroughly inspected in Colombia it was not an unpleasant experience. Jokes, smiles, a tad of amusement at the situation were there in Colombia. When he took out a certain female item, we laughed together, and he gently put it back asking “personal item?” In the US, this kind of exchange isn’t likely… it’s as if sense of humor and kindness are replaced by some kind of indifference merging on nastiness here.
As I walked from the airplane to the customs area I passed a large banner declaring “Welcome to the US” and a picture of the Statue of Liberty. “Propaganda” I muttered. I wonder what it is about the security officers at the customs that bothered me. They weren’t overty obese, but something in their manner portrayed an arrogance that I associate with stupidity and abuse of power. Maybe they are good men in heart, victims to a cultural language they cannot help but adopt. But I am human and I affected by things like this…. and frankly, I don’t want to live amongst these kinds of ways…
As I stood in front of some kind of machine that scanned me with invisible rays, I asked the woman in uniform, “what is it checking for?” Harshly she replied that if I wanted to know I’d have to check the TSA website. There was nothing in her manner to suggest humility, respect or courtesy, and it’s people like her that symbolize America for me.
A Belgian friend of mine was surprised I do not support welfare policies in the US. “But you talk about charity and volunteering all the time” she said surprised. I explained that I don’t feel American, that I don’t feel connected to the fate of this country, that I don’t enjoy being here, and that I don’t believe that many of the social programs we have (and those proposed) are effective approaches to the problems. If I felt American I would dedicate my life to improving this country, through voting, through social work, through other commitments… but I just don’t want to live my life in this country because besides material comforts and legal rights (which are very important), it has little to offer me spiritually.
If you’re coming to Taganga and looking for a good place to camp I recommend Mr. Wilson’s guesthouse. And if you need a haircut, waxing, massage or makiage he can do that to ;-)
It costs $6000 pesos per night (although we paid $5000 to hang our hammocks because we stayed for several nights). It’s not on the beach directly but have you ever slept between lime trees? I didn’t think so.
To find the guest house walk to the football field and ask for Mr. Wilson’s peluqueria or guest house. The place has a kitchen, clean bathroom, creative decorations and good energy.
In Taganga we stayed in Mr. Wilson’s guest house, where we hung our hammocks for $5000 pesos each! But poor Isabel was stuck sleeping next to a crazy Colombian guy, who showed up at 4 in the morning on our first night and stood outside her mosquito net telling her how much he’d like to be her companion for the night. “Sorry I’m tired, and anyway I like tall guys…” said Isabel.. which provoked him to go on a pseudo psychophysical discourse about the connections between manhood and physique and his personal abilities until 8 in the morning. The next evening when she shunned him again he started rocking in his hammock like a baby so that the whole gazebo shook and she couldn’t sleep. On the third night, the proprietor of the guest house kicked him out. And all these nights I slept without disturbance 15 meters away in my hammock in the lemon trees.
Taganga is pretty ugly and there is not much to do besides go diving and party. There are numerous guesthouses and bars but not enough shops selling fresh fruit. The sea is cleaner and less crowded than in Santa Marta but it is not like some of the Thai beaches I’ve been to where leaving feels like saying goodbye to a good friend.
From Taganga we organized 4 fun dives in park Tayrona. There are many dive schools and I don’t think one is really better than the others but just for reference we paid $200,000 pesos for the 4 dives each. It was my first time diving since getting my SSI (Scuba School International) certificate in Thailand in 2009. Isabel, who is a dive master, was more prepared than I and helped me set up my equipment and reminded me the basic rules. A story I heard the other day weighted on my mind, about two newlyweds who went diving in Australia to 30 meters (about a 10 story building), when he’d turned off her air and swam away. She drowned and I kept asking “but couldn’t she have done something?”
When I dive I actually feel more relaxed than when I snorkel. When I snorkel my heart pounds intensely in those first moments underwater. But when I go underwater with my scuba gear, I feel calm. There are moments when I am 19 meters below and start thinking about how unintuitive scuba really is, and yet how natural and easy it feels to be gliding through the reefs like a mermaid, and when I realize how much I depend on my equipment down here and how even my reflexes might not save me, it makes me nervous, but not overwhelmingly so, but more like a seed that might grow into a terror if I feed it with more thoughts, but quickly I change my line of focus and watch a fish, or coral reefs that look like they come from a Kandinsky painting, or equalize my ears.
It’s a really special experience. When I first dove I didn’t enjoy it very much. It was expensive, learning was time consuming, and there was a lot of dependency on others (boats, partners, equipment). But these past few days I enjoyed it so much and I can say that it is worth all that preparation to visit this other world :)
OmShanty guest house, located 11km outside of the town on KM11, run by a guy from Spain who knows a lot about the jungle and can organize tours for you if you want. A bed in one of the shared cabins is $15,000 pesos, and a space to hang your hammock if you have one is only $5,000 pesos and has a roof to protect you from rain. Make sure your hammock has a mosquito net though (I have the Hennessey and adore it)
I’ve also heard good things about Selvaventura, run by Felipe from Bogota.
You can rent bicycles from “Almacén Y Taller Ciclo Charless” which is actually a bike store but they have several bikes for rent for $7,000 pesos a day. For 24 hour rentals they charge $10,000. They’re located on Barrio Porvenir Calle 4 N’ 7A-53 (Tels: 592-6016 and cell 314-507-1080) and also super friendly people! To find them walk towards Tabatinga along – avenue.
Once you have a bike you can easily visit Tabatinga on the Brazilian side although I don’t know what to recommend there :) I encourage you to explore the KM’s (the road goes all the way to KM19 after which it becomes a muddy and pot-holed path. KM 11 where I lived is also home to Taranboca (named after one of the oldest trees in the forest) where they organize one day excursions that involve a visit to their serpent center, a walk in the jungle, canopying through trees, and kayaking, along with a delicious lunch at the end for $117,000 pesos. They also have cabins and hammocks for rent, as well as a tree house 35 meters high with all the amenities (toilet/shower) where you can sleep overnight.
On KM 7 is Mundo Amazonico, which runs 3 hour tours to teach about local fauna and medicinal plants for $20,000 pesos. They’ve only been open for 6 months so I’m sure they will still transform into something better, but I found the tour informative and very professional. They even had ponchos ready for everyone when the afternoon downpour started. Hopefully one day they’ll have a store where they sell many of the plants they grow, until then I was told if you’re really interested they will sell case by case.
From KM 11 you can also walk into the forest to the – river. The walk is about 30 minutes and is relatively straightforward, and if you get lost people live in houses along the way. On the other side of the river is pure selva, which I would have liked to explore. There’s a path but it’s overgrown so a machete is a good thing to bring. However to get there you need to swim across the river so a waterproof bag is a good idea.
People along the KM road are friendly and I’ve never had trouble hitchhiking my way back at night from the town. (The shuttle bus runs every half hour until 6:30pm and costs $2,400 pesos) Hitchhiking with motos is a bit of a problem as helmets are mandatory and not every driver has an additional one, and most of the ones who do are the moto taxis. A funny experience was when the guy who picked me up told me he could only drive me to KM 8 because there was a police checkpoint there checking for helmets. The beer he was drinking while he drove wasn’t a problem ;)
From Leticia I strongly recommend you visit Puerto Nariño! By the speedboat taxi (it leaves every day at 8am, 10am, and 2pm) it’s about 1.5 hours away. The community is much smaller and there are villages you can visit all around. I stayed 10 minutes outside the center, in a place called the Freight. You can have a whole cabin to yourself for $15,000 pesos or share one for $10,000 pesos each. They have a kitchen and a canoe you can use for free, and are on the river so every evening you can see a magnificent sunset. There are two orphaned monkeys that live here along with several dogs and cats. The only downside is that after about 9 o’clock the school that you need to pass to get here from the town lets out its guard dogs who bark viciously. I’ve never passed by without the intermediation of the night watchman.
My favorite spot in Puerto Nariño is on the bridge that you’ll need to pass to get to the center of the town from the Freight. At night under the stars you can here the music of the forest here, a symphony of insects, bird and monkeys, under the echo of the stars. Unfortunately I lost my recording when my camera drowned in a river…. if you go to puerto Nariño and visit the bridge at night, could you record the sound for 3 minutes and send me the track, I’d appreciate it with all my being!
Yanapuma Foundation / Spanish language school & Volunteer house
The Mariscal district of Quito is full of Spanish schools and I chose this one back in New York because of their website and commitments to social projects around Ecuador. I wasn’t bothered by the $20 mandatory registration fee that they said goes towards these development projects, but I was disappointed when the only non-Ecuadorian director could not tell me what exactly Yanapuma was doing.
The school is organized into two sessions, the morning is from 9am-1pm and the afternoon from 2-6pm. There is a 15 minute break in between, during which students drink tea or coffee and some cheap snack provided by the school. Usually the break lasts longer than 15 minutes, because two hours is a long time to sit still and students like the opportunity to chat with other students. The layout of the building is nice.
The problem I found is that the teachers are basically freelancers who work with many other Spanish schools whenever they are needed. Also some of them live very far away. So asking for a different schedule that fit my needs better (9-11, with a 2 hour break, and then 1-3) meant that my poor teacher had to sit with nothing to do for two hours. It made me feel bad to return to the school refreshed after my walk and lunch, with an hour left until class, hoping to review the lesson on my own before continuing and see my teacher there sitting hopelessly staring into space. The first teacher I had refused to teach me once I changed the schedule to fit my needs. With the second teacher I eventually changed the schedule back to 9am-1pm because I felt sorry for her.
Also I was unhappy with how Yanapuma handled my accommodation. On their website they wrote about a volunteer house which I assumed from their description belonged to them. However the system was that they simply had “dibs” on certain rooms while other schools had “dibs” on others. I paid $270 for a month stay. A few days later I met a student who’d paid less than $200. And then another who paid $150 for a room with a private bathroom. I went to the management who refunded me part of my money and explained that Yanapuma had told her to charge me daily ($9 * 30 days) instead of monthly. So even though Yanapuma was not making any commission off me, they were not looking out for my interests. I did not like the volunteer house for other reasons as well. The shower did not always have hot water and the door to it was broken. It’s located in an area that’s extremely loud until 2-3am every morning.
Another bad thing about Yanapuma – they did not pick me up as promised from the airport.
Recommendation: If you want to study Spanish in Ecuador I recommend doing it in Baños, Otavalo or Tena. There are several language schools in these smaller cities, they’re safer than Quito and cost less with more flexible teachers who don’t have to commute long distances. And I personally prefer Baños, Otavalo and Tena to Quito (Baños for its multitude of outdoor adventures, Otavalo for it’s kind and ambitious indigenous people and Tena for its proximity to the jungle).
Otavalo is where almost all the handicrafts sold in Ecuador are made… it’s home to an indigenous community that has thrived over the last century through their handicraft work. Unlike most other areas in Ecuador with large indigenous populations, Otavalo doesn’t suffer from poor infrastructure or bad schools and indigenous people make up the majority of the government here.
From the first moment here i felt the warmth of the people. There are some Spanish language schools here so if you’re looking for a quite town to study Otavalo is a very good choice!
a video of solutions for metal puzzles i bought for my brother…