When asked by a fellow traveler what I thought about Parque Tayrona on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, I posed the question: “Have you ever been truly disgusted by your own body?” Without skipping a beat, he replied, “Every single day.” I laughed and explained that hiking in Tayrona was the first time I’d had this experience. But it was worth it.
I arrived at the entrance to the park one afternoon along with Daniel and Mona, my delightful German traveling companions, after a long day bussing from Cartagena. To our great surprise we were refused entry to the park by a man with a large gun who told us the park was ‘full’. Apparently they had been turning people away since 10am that morning. So much culture shock. How is a national park full? Why do you need a gun? And how is a national park full???
We spent the next couple of hours desperately searching for somewhere to sleep. Everyone we approached seemed flummoxed as to where we could possibly find a bed at this busy time but somehow we ended up at an almost-empty campsite a short walk from the park entrance. The family who owned the campsite welcomed us into their home and let us use their kitchen to cook our dinner then left the house to give us privacy while we ate. I did feel rather awkward that we kicked them out of their own home, but they wouldn’t have it any other way, and of course we appreciated the gesture. They then refused to let us do our own dishes. This is Colombian hospitality.
We were at the park entrance early the next morning but between waiting in line, watching a compulsory informational video about the park on MAXIMUM VOLUME and exchanging a ticket for another ticket which was then exchanged for a wristband, it took at least 45 minutes to get in. After this trial we decided to skip the long line for a colectivo and instead walk the few kilometres of road to the trailhead. This turned out to be a great decision as it allowed us to take a short detour along a beautiful, deserted beach where we climbed some rocks for a breakfast picnic.
We had hammocks booked that night in a campsite in Arrecifes, an area inside the park. Arrecifes was a short hike from where the colectivos stopped off but we chose to take almost every detour available to us along the way. We were befuddled by the empty trails when we knew there were so many people in the park, but we were happy not to have to share the beautiful miradors and deserted beaches we encountered throughout the day.
We climbed rocks, we watched waves crashing violently against giant boulders, we made fun of other tourists taking countless photos of a single view as if we weren’t doing the exact same thing. After the first hour I was drenched in sweat in a way I had never experienced. The hiking wasn’t super challenging but the heat and humidity left my hair plastered to my face while sweat streamed from my body. I left a river in my wake, I was a waterfall of sweat. I smelt putrid. I was entirely disgusted by my body at this point, but it was liberating to be so gross and just not care.
Before it got dark we got on the trail to Arrecifes and finally encountered all the other folks in the park. As we walked further into the park we passed hundreds of people heading in the other direction, on their way home after a day at the beach.
We found the campsite, located our hammocks and headed straight for the showers. I rinsed all my sweat-soaked clothes and changed into a dry set. I hung out my wet clothes and sarong, naively hoping there was enough sun and heat left in the day to dry them quickly. Daniel cooked dinner in the camp kitchen with the help of another lovely Colombian family who provided fire starting solutions, herbs to flavour our meal and pointers for picking up large handle-less pots full of boiling water. After dinner Daniel and I shared a few games of cards. I’m happy to report that I won almost every round although Daniel took the final, hard-fought game.
The evening was surprisingly cold so I layered on everything but the clothes I’d hiked in (still wet) and settled into my hammock for the night. An hour later I woke up shivering and foolishly wrapped myself in my still damp sarong. Wrong move. The damp leeched all remaining heat from my body and another hour later I was up and wandering around the campsite trying to warm up. I was so cold that I approached some strangers who were still up drinking and chatting. I refused their very kind (read: lecherous) invitations to join them in their tents and instead accepted the offer of a blanket from the most sober and most charming of the three. He definitely saved my night.
I was naturally delighted to be awoken by our alarm at stupid o-clock the next morning. I cheerfully donned my wet and freezing hiking gear and we set off for Pueblito, a traditional indigenous village inside the park.
At first we followed the coast and enjoyed a few more beaches, but soon the trail turned inland and we started to gain elevation. We had started early to avoid the heat but it wasn’t long before the day warmed up. It was a really fun trail – starting out as an easy dirt track then climbing steps made from large stones. At times we followed stream beds and occasionally we scrambled up boulders with the help of a rope or vine, or even crawled through small gaps underneath.
For a time we were harassed by the aggressive screams of a nearby howler monkey and our attempts to mimic his calls left us in hysterics. We made it to Pueblito and explored briefly before picking a spot for lunch, if that’s what you call a spread of Oreos and Saltine crackers. No shame.
Pueblito was our last stop inside the park. We still had a couple of hours of hiking ahead of us to get back to a park entrance and I spent probably half that time assuring Daniel and Mona (and myself) that the trail could not possibly continue to gain elevation. I was in that classic exhausted end-of-hike state of just imagining what it would feel like to stop walking and wondering how big my blisters were going to be (hint: very). Eventually we made it to the road and hailed a taxi. As soon as we piled in the driver cut the air con and opened every window. Because we smelled F.R.E.S.H!
Life Lessons Learned:
- Colombians have a seemingly endless store of kindness, patience and generosity.
- There is no such thing as ultimate gross-ness; there are always new levels to unlock. For example, I did not poop in my pants. That would have been grosser.