the magic of Tayrona & the moon
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.