- One large yellow backpack stocked with six cans of various precooked meats, too many girl clothes, toiletries, and one towel
- One small red backpack packed with an enviably small and sensible selection of boy clothes and three books
- 3 liters of water (which would be sweated out in under an hour) and one bottle of coconut flavored rum
- One plastic grocery bag full of high-sodium and/or high-sugar individually packaged snacks and one roll of toilet paper
(Notably absent from above list: cutlery, can opener, mosquito repellent, and second towel).
We love camping, we said. Three nights won’t possibly be enough! We daydreamed about sunsets on the beach, fresh air and stars overhead. We extolled ourselves for our enlightened appreciation of the simple things in life.
With our usual optimism and an amateur packing list, we set off from our home base of Cartagena for Parque Tayrona, a paradisaical national park in Santa Marta four hours northeast by bus. We passed through Barranquilla (home of the legendary Carnaval), over the Rio Magdalena, and into the jungle. Every town we passed was increasingly covered in vegetation. The mountains slowly emerged, capped with halos of mist that curled down like ribbons into the valleys.
I thought a lot about blood on that bus trip (not for personal reasons), of vicious things that happened in those jungles. I thought of the Colombia I’d heard of years before: a specter defined by coffee, cocaine, and decapitations.
We arrived at the park entrance at 5:02. Evidently, amid all our starry-eyed daydreaming, we failed to realize that the park closes at 5:00 PM. Sharp.
After being rebuffed with a tight-lipped “The park is closed,” our puppy eyes and pleading were somehow pathetic enough to convince a second employee to register our IDs and admit us to the park. And so, we started our trip with the great luck not to have to search for habitation in the Colombian wilderness after sundown. Win.
First night in the jungle
For those who haven’t heard a howler monkey in the wild, the sound registers somewhere between an energetic woodpecker and a choleric dinosaur, depending how close you are. During our several hour walk to our campsite, we heard howlers*, dodged bats swooping over the trail, and stepped over multi-lane highways of red ants the size of my pinky toes. The only real mode of transportation within the park is by foot (or by hoof if you choose to pay for a ride on an unenthusiastic horse). We chose the first option.
The sounds became stranger and the trail more challenging as the sun set. Just as the last bits of pink light were leaving the sky, we plodded into the campsite on the first of many beaches in the park. Over the next few days, I would see other backpackers wander into our site as if they’d been lost in the wilderness for days: disheveled, hunched under the weight of their packs, and always slightly confused but glad to have found a place to sleep. I imagine that’s precisely how we appeared that first night.
We were met in the darkness by a man we’d later come to know as Andres. Andres– owner of the campground, master of the stink eye. His face seemed to be crusted over permanently by the salty air, like a weathered pirate. He moved like rusted iron. I got the feeling that he wasn’t nearly as old as he looked.
Our first night consisted of tired legs, coconut rum, an eight-foot alligator washing up on shore (alive), laughing with boisterous Colombians until Andres turned off the lights in an effort to shut us up, and falling asleep in hammocks at 4 AM.
Paradise and mosquitoes
Over the course of the next few days, my dear travel partner and I came to some uncomfortable conclusions regarding our tolerance for the outdoors. After being ravaged by mosquitoes (I still look like I have the chicken pox), our romantic visions of taming the jungles of Santa Marta with naught but canned tuna began to fizzle.
But as sleepless as our nights may have been, the days were spectacular. We hiked for hours from beach to beach, dipping in the water whenever we got too warm. The waves were turquoise and surprisingly powerful. The humid and buggy nights were alleviated by a few cold beers and still more boisterous Colombians (and Argentinians and Brazilians).
Home Sweet Cartagena
After hiking, swimming, and hammocking to our hearts’ content, we left Parque Tayrona with lighter packs and sore quadriceps. Finding our way back out of the park to a bus stop required walking several hours of trails through humid forests, followed by a cramped taxi ride with two Australians.
By the time we climbed onto the bus in Santa Marta, the combination of my own stench and three days worth of sweaty clothes stewing in my pack was beyond repulsive; it was bordering on toxic. I avoided making eye-contact with the people around me. In retrospect, I probably should have apologized. No one deserves to be stuck next to the stinky hippies on a four-hour bus ride. Que pena.
And so we returned to Cartagena, surprisingly nostalgic for the home we’d only left a few days earlier. Tayrona may be a permanent paradise for some (like Andres and the alligators), but I’ll stick with the magic of the walled city and air conditioning units for now.
* I assume they were howler monkeys, but I have no authority to identify wildlife. The shrieks were terrifying, though. If anyone who is more educated in the flora and fauna of coastal Colombia knows what that creature might have been, let me know.