Hammocks, Mangos and Colombian football
Travelling around a notoriously dangerous South American country by yourself is not something that you would ordinarily pay to do. It almost sounds akin to a crazy childhood bet, whereby your friends wager on your chances of getting out of a country teeming with drug lords, kidnappings, and rampant crime rackets, alive. And yet here I was, standing at the BogotĂˇ International Airport, sifting madly through my Colombian loose-change to pay the airport tax, fresh off an eight-day jaunt by myself around Colombia. Eight days is never long enough to explore a country the size of Colombia, and I had jokingly dubbed my trip as my own personal Contiki Tour of Colombia. Save for drinking myself to near-death every night and "getting to know the locals" on an intimate level, my travel odyssey of Colombia proved to be Contiki in nature as I scooted between no fewer than five destinations in the space of eight days â€“ from BogotĂˇ to Medellin to Cartagena to Santa Marta to Parque Tayrona, and back to BogotĂˇ.
As a tired check-in lady informed me that I was approximately $1 short of the airport tax that would get me out of the country alive, I reflected upon the best three days of the trip which I had spent in the middle of a Colombian rainforest by myself in a spot by the name of Parque Tayrona.
From Santa Marta to Parque Tayrona:
Having found myself half way through my quick-fire trip in Santa Marta, an unimpressive and industrial little dustbowl of a seaport town north-east of Cartagena, I decided to pack my bags immediately and jump on a bus bound for Parque Tayrona which the tourist-signs promised to be "unspoilt Caribbean Coastline set amongst 37,000 hectares of thick protected tropical rainforest".
After being dumped by the bus at the picnic area of the park, I walked forty-five minutes through lush tropical rainforest to arrive at the makeshift campground fringing the oceanâ€™s edge. Sweat pours off you in the tropics like water down the face of falls, and by the time I made my way to the campground I was well and truly in need of an ocean swim.
The waves crashing down on the pristine crystal white-sand beach were surprisingly large, and the temperature of the water was that perfect balance - not too hot and not too cold. Looking back from the ocean to the mountains, I was able to gain some understanding of the size of the surrounding mountains. The whole park was positioned on the coastal side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which happened to be the tallest coastal mountain range in the world. For once the tour brochures had not lied. This was absolute paradise with the only trade-off being the parkâ€™s complete lack of amenities and the risk of contracting malaria. Small prices indeedâ€¦
Having cooled off from the long walk, I headed back to the camping area of Arrecifes and hung my Indian hammock between two coconut trees (which is easier said than done, and had me cursing and swearing for a good hour).
Finally, I had the hammock hung, and set myself up for three nights of â€śalone-timeâ€ť at this haven of beauty. But, as they say, when you travel you are never on your own for long and just before I had spent too much time contemplating the finer points of existence, I met an intriguing Australian hippie by the name of Gavin who had me scratching my head at some of his theories on life. When I finally tired of Gavinâ€™s negative musings on capitalism, I found time to play football against some local Colombians who took themselves and their national sport very seriously. Even after they discovered I played a rather tawdry form of football, they did not relinquish on their skill levels.
Further up the coast from there was another camping spot where thirty Israelis had decided to pack into an area the size of my bedroom, hammock to hammock. The expression, "like sardines in a can," sprang to mind. But I had trouble of my own trying to get comfortable in a hammock. Like most things that are romanticized, the truth falls somewhere between fantasy and outright fabrication and every night. I struggled with the mean task of attempting to position myself so that I could fool my body into thinking that it was on a flat bed. At first I lay down completely straight, so that my head and legs were at the same level but the middle part of my body was sunken to the height of the base of the hammock. It was a position that a banana would feel comfortable with, but it was no position for a human being trying to get to sleep. And anyone who says that lying face-down in a hammock is the best position is kidding themselves. I found the most accommodating position was with both legs lying outside the hammock - which was all well and good until waking up the next morning to discover that the mosquito net didnâ€™t quite make the stretch to my legs.
Despite all of the teething problems with the hammock, the sound of the waves crashing into the sand and the breeze filtering through the coconut palms provoked a dream-like relaxation that managed to bring on sleep in even the most uncomfortable of positions.
Which was a good thing considering the scope of activities on offer in the park. Snorkeling in the little coves through the tropical waters could literally consume a half-day, as could the walk up to the ancient Pueblito Indian ruins which afforded the most impressive view over the park that I saw during my time there.
On the last morning of my stay in Parque Tayrona, I awoke with a start, staring at a giant tongue heading towards my mouth. Being somewhat disoriented, I thought that maybe I had sampled a little too much of the local brew the previous night and had some success with one of the locals. Unfortunately for me, the tongue was attached to a horse, who had made it his intention to give me the fright of my life that morning. But, you could say, the horse was a reflection of the hospitable nature of Colombia in general, and not once did I have that sense of fear that I have had when travelling through supposedly equally dangerous countries.
Parque Tayrona is paradise epitomized - with coconuts falling out of palms and mangos available in abundance at every turn â€“ and I was bitterly disappointed when my time was done and I had to make a hasty return to Santa Marta in a local bus brimming with live chickens, clumps of bananas and locals chatting away in the local dialect.
Travel tips: Leave most of your possessions at Santa Marta, a 40 minute bus/taxi ride from Parque Tayrona.
Must see/do at this place: The pueblito ruins and the beaches.
You should avoid here: The local football team and the mosquitos.
Other helpful information: Nearest airport - Santa Marta (direct flights daily to/from Bogota).