Throwback: Colombia

One of my favorite trips ever was last Summer, when I traveled with some very special friends to the Colombian Caribbean. The trip was a perfect mix of unexpected beauty, excitement and improvisation. Just recently I went through my videos and pictures from the time and managed to put this little video together, so here it goes!

Spoiler alert, I did not know GoPros need a stabilizing stick.

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Walking El Tayrona

Last July, during our trip to Colombia, three friends and I left the touristy streets of Cartagena in the early hours of the morning, in search of a different side of the Colombian Caribbean. So far we had seen pretty, colourful streets and tasted delicious food, but everything we had read about Tayrona seemed to set it apart as an idyllic, away-from-civilisation part of the country. Pictures of Tayrona generally depict its empty beaches and wide extensions of sand, rocks and palm trees. Something like this:

And a big part of Tayrona is actually like this, but the natural park is really much more interesting. Tayrona National Natural Park is 34 kilometres away from the city of Santa Marta; it is around 150 square kilometres big, plus some 30 square kilometres of maritime area. So, it is quite big.

To get there, we booked places in a van from a company called Juan Ballena. This was supposed to be both faster and more comfortable than a bus, but it was neither. Although they picked us up at 7.00 am as agreed, we had to wait at some parking lot for other people, then they made us change to another van, and then we drove straight to Tayrona at 8.00 or 8.30. I don’t think it would have made any difference to take a normal bus, and it would have been cheaper.

Anyway, we were all carrying a backpack with our things for the night and a bathing suit and other stuff for the hike, as we’d be arriving directly there and going to Santa Marta in the afternoon. Once in the park, we did not queue for very long to get the tickets. Entrance is a bit more expensive for non-Colombians (around 40,000 COP or 14 dollars), but it is definitely worth it, specially if you think of the huge amount of land they have to take care of. Tayrona is home to 300 species of birds and around 100 species of mammals, among which there are monkeys and deer. Its marine fauna is also very rich.

We entered at El Zaíno, the main but not the only entrance, where the bus dropped us, and then took another bus to Naranjos, where the ticket booths and information centre are. You can walk there too, but it takes around an hour. Once we had our tickets we started the hike towards the beach (at noon or so, which is quite late to start).

Croquis parque Tayrona
Map of the park

There are different trails and starting points in the park. The one we took was supposed to take 2 hours from Naranjos to Cabo San Juan de Guía, but we could not finish it because of the time. If you’re not staying in the ecohabs or camping areas inside the park, you should be back by 6.00 pm because that’s when the last buses to Santa Marta leave. So we ended our hike at La Piscina, not before enjoying a delicious lunch somewhere near Arrecifes. I was expecting the same kind of food we had had so far in Cartagena and the islands, but it was a bit different here. We had some chicken rice or shrimp rice with patacones, which also tasted different here. One thing I did enjoy in Tayrona and the Santa Marta area was the variety of fruits. There’s all kinds of fruits and many juice places everywhere. If you can, try maracuyá everything.

The coast belonging to Tayrona goes from Bahía de Taganga (which, alas, we also visited) to Río Piedras. Although the sea is a bit too rough for swimming, the views are incredible. The sea has a beautiful turquoise colour only matched by some beaches in the Mexican Mayan Riviera, the sand is so white and there are not only palm trees but all kinds of tropical vegetation bringing colour to these vast extensions of beach. Huge boulders appear every now and then along the shore too, giving Tayrona a unique aesthetic.

Being July, the weather was just too hot and humid. I don’t believe I have sweated more in my life. We were all drenched in sweat just a few minutes into the hike. Water is perhaps one of the most important things to carry with you, because at the few spots where it is available, you’ll have to buy it in plastic bottles. Also, there are no places to refill your bottles, and most things you can buy inside the park come in plastic packaging. Really, Tayrona is not that remote. You’re never too far away from businesses or some kind of habitable area. Despite this, when you get to the beaches you really feel like you’re in some corner of the world; there’s nothing but sea and the rocks it crashes against in the distance. Nothing but more beach to the sides.

The trail to San Juan goes through all possible landscapes: wooden stairs, jungly corridors, extensions of sand and rock, paths through low bushes. You’ll be exposed to the sounds of many kinds of birds, and later you might even see monkeys jumping from one palm tree to another. I remember almost every other hiker we met along the way greeted us with “hola” or “buenas tardes”. Tayrona is also cool because most people there seemed to be interested in nature, it was an international crowd of hikers and explorers. It truly has a good vibe around it.

Now, I would definitely say Tayrona was my favourite part of Colombia. Once we stopped hiking and were all sweaty and tired, we got to swim a bit in the ocean, and the water was considerably colder than the water in places like Cartagena and Playa Blanca. It was just perfect. The hike back was a bit more difficult, or perhaps we were just tired. All in all, we walked around 3 hours.

Santa Marta and Taganga

Catching a bus from Tayrona to Santa Marta is pretty easy and cheap. You just have to stand in front of the entrance and wait for it. There’s no stop sign but it is righ in front of the El Zaíno entrance; there will probably be a group of people gathered there or you can ask at the restaurants. The bus was crowded and we had to stand most of the way, but there were nice views of the sunset from the windows. The bus ride also gives you an idea of how big the park is.

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Juice stand in Taganga

We booked four beds at a hostel called Fatima and it was a lovely place. The staff were really friendly, it was clean in hostel standards, there was a rooftop bar and some jacuzzis there too. And it was incredibly cheap. Unfortunately, the hostel was the best part of Santa Marta. Despite the recommendations I had been given to visit this city, I did not enjoy my stay there. We mostly walked around it at night, but there was none of the welcoming charm we had seen in Cartagena. Although there was plenty of music and people, the atmosphere was a bit hostile. The saddest part was the state in which the beach was. There was litter everywhere. I’m sure there are many charming things about Santa Marta, but we didn’t have the chance or the time to see them.

Next day we took a bus to what some websites called “the backpackers paradise” in Colombia, the small town of Taganga. This was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the trip, because it was definitely not a place I would ever describe as a paradise, and there were not many backpackers. There were barely any people there, really, and not many places to eat, sit or have coffee, which is always sad being in Colombia.

The way back to Cartagena did not go smoothly either. This time we just went to the bus station and got in the first bus that was leaving. The bus was okay, but one hour before arriving in Cartagena, the traffic stopped for like two hours. No one could explain anything and the driver just said “they had closed the road”. He was not very talkative so I did not ask again. It took us six hours to get to the Airbnb. But everything was worth it because of Tayrona. It truly is a special place. The next step for me is to visit more national parks, this time in North America.

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Made it. Sweaty and disgusting, but happy.

Have you visited Tayrona Natural National Park?

Do you have any favourite national parks? I’d love some recommendations!

“Wild”: the Uncharted Regions Within

“Everything but me seemed utterly certain of itself.
The sky didn’t wonder where it was.”

—Cheryl Strayed, Wild

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was first published in 2012. Not that long ago if we consider the history of the world; an eternity, however, when I think of my personal history. Six years ago I was oblivious to all kinds of nature-related feats, let alone interested in people writing about mountains and trails and snow. I even skipped long landscape descriptions in novels. I now believe that I always took it for granted, to have mountains around, wide extensions of grassland and oaks never too far off. It was not until I experienced both solo traveling and an unexpected encounter with the merciless of the natural world that I began wanting to read about it, to listen to what others more experienced in leading a nomadic existence had to say about a lifestyle that so began to fascinate me.

And so, I came across books that spoke of travels into the unknown, of personal tests of strength and newfound purpose in being alone in nature. I went to Thoreau and Emerson and Tolstoi and I couldn’t help but wonder how possible it is to get lost today, how many regions remain uncharted, are there any lands that haven’t been trekked in on camped on? I looked then, for contemporaries that had something to say about it, and I found among them, Cheryl Strayed’s account of her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The answer I found was that, well, perhaps there are not any places on earth that we can’t find on Google maps; perhaps, no matter where we are, we are never too far away from civilization, but that doesn’t really matter.

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The PCT according, ironically, to Google Maps

What first interested me in Strayed’s book was the honesty with which she stated her motives in hiking the PCT. I could not help but sympathize with an unprepared, delusional, female solo traveler. I found the book sincere when describing the things that usually lead to a trip, or an expedition as wild as this: “my life is falling apart”. Such sincerity would have seemed cliché were it not for the honesty with which the author addresses this search for meaning in nature and how she shatters this expectations dropping some truths like: nature is indifferent, there’s nothing glamorous in hiking and having your toenails fall off (yes, that still haunts me), and you’ll probably be too busy worrying about surviving that you won’t have time to ponder over your life. But your life and your choices and who you are will always come out when you’re stripped from your comfort zone  and left alone with your courage. Every choice out there, whether to quit or to keep going, will be a step towards self-discovery, and the way in which this books portrays that, with humour and angst and anger, rang true to me.

Strayed tells the story of how, at 26, after her mother’s death and her divorce, she made the rash decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, underestimating both the preparation time most hikers take and the physical demands of hiking. She, however, kept to her word and hiked all the way from California to Oregon. Packing mistakes, snow, terrible heat, water scarcity, getting lost and finding creepy men along the way are only part of the obstacles Strayed came across during her journey. The other obstacles came from within and could be summed up in the word “fear”:

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.”

–Cheryl Strayed, Wild

An encounter with nature will always bring two kinds of battles: one against nature and one against oneself. They are both connected and it would suffice to take a look at some nature lovers like Emerson, Thoreau and Muir to understand that humanity’s struggles with nature are more than often struggles with its own self. Whoever has set out on a journey into the wild has always found some of the wilderness within. And Strayed’s account of her own experience states this encounter with her own uncharted regions of grief and joy with honesty and simplicity:

“Perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.” 

—Cheryl Strayed, Wild

While reading Wild I was traveling around the Caribbean, exploring beaches and cenotes in México and national parks and islands in Colombia. It was actually a very different landscape from the one I was reading about, and yet so many things sounded relatable to me: about both the discomfort and the freedom of traveling light, about feeling lonely and wanting to be alone, about having no time to think things over yet finding nonverbal, intangible answers to half-formulated questions. Perhaps that is why this book is so dear to me.

There are several moments of clarity in Strayed’s narrative, between thrilling anecdotes, sad memories and fun chapters. And all these moments of clarity lead to the final comprehension of belonging to the world. Not in a new age, life-coaching way, but in a simple, matter-of-fact realization that our lives, however peculiar in their past or uncertain in their futures, belong in the major course of things, as do the mountains and the rivers. This book was a reminder that wild things, both within and without, are not always meant to be tamed or even understood; it is enough to let them be and be with them. 

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My own WILD experience: two-hour hike in Tayrona National Park.

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It was actually really tough.

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Ready for the PCT