First, before we even got to Colombia, we had to digest the government travel advisories. A visit to the country equalled full-time danger: exercise a high degree of caution; be vigilant; avoid travel to rural parts of Colombia and on and on.
Jumping that hurdle mentally, once we had settled in Santa Marta – our base city in Colombia – we noticed our guidebook warned the best option in case of a snake bite in Tayrona was to head for an eco-cabin cluster inside the park for the immediate administration of anti-venom serum; do not take the time to head back to Santa Marta. The popular resort town of Santa Marta, a hot (average mid 30 degrees Celsius), extremely humid and sun-drenched spot of almost 500,000 people, sits on the Caribbean coast like a once-beautiful ageing lady fanning herself with ocean breezes.
Aware of the hazards, we asked our Irish-born inn owner for advice about visiting Tayrona. He was adamant: Go. Here’s how to get there. Here’s what you can expect. We long ago discovered that on-the-ground intelligence is best.
From Santa Marta to Tayrona
Once upon a time, Tayrona was a combat zone for drug trafficking between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the western hemisphere’s oldest Marxist guerrilla groups, and right-wing paramilitary units. Today, Tayrona proudly displays its true nature as a safe environment for tourists. Since its elevation in status to a national park in 1969, this biodiversity area covering 12,000 hectares of land and 3,000 of sea has been growing in popularity. Within its territory are sandy beaches, dazzling blue/azure ocean waters, tropical dry jungle and a rainforest up to 900 metres in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Getting to the Tayrona from Santa Marta took one and a half hours using three types of vehicles: taxi to the bus terminal (US$2.50), people’s bus for an hour (US$2.50 per person) and the park collectivo (US$1.25 per person). The general advice we got for exploring the area we had selected was to follow the trail for an hour and a half to our destination on the coast. That sounded easy, but that’s when the ambiance of Tayrona kicked in.
Under a Jungle Spell
Surrounded by calling birds, colourful butterflies, shrieking monkeys and crawling cutter ants with their loads of leaf pieces, we forgot the cacophony of noise in the city. With tall tropical trees, swaying palms weaving a canopy of interlocking green fingers above, and thick, lush vegetation sprouting on all sides, we fell under the spell of the jungle.
The main trail we followed was up and down: it twists and turns through narrow paths between high and low ridges of rock triggering leaps from above, below and across the uneven, sometimes muddy, ground. A tiring terrain, it offers no relief from the streams of sweat that pour from every pore. Since donkeys and horses also use this trail, an overabundance of manure awaits human feet forced to tread in impassable places.
Yet every so often there is a reprieve. Shhhhh… see the agouti rustling in the underbrush? Listen… hear the squawks from above? A family of titi monkeys plays in the treetops.
After what seemed like an eternity, we broke out of the jungle at Arrecifes on the Caribbean coast, where authorised campsites dot the shore. After our hot and humid slog, we decided it was all about the journey and not the destination.
For another half hour we hiked along the seaside, fording four streams, meandering through clusters of mangroves, until we reached our Caribbean destination: La Piscina (The Pool), a bay of smooth, safe-to-swim/snorkel waters sheltered by a long stretch of unspoiled barrier reef. (Other beach areas along the coast produce strong and dangerous undertows.) As it turned out, the destination too was worth it (lo valió)!
Plenty of Life
The park, once the land of the indigenous Tayrona people, offers a few archaeological ruins of interest, as well as activities like nautical sports and horseback riding. It is home to more than 100 mammals, among them jaguars, ocelots and monkeys, most nocturnal and many on the endangered list. Other endangered species include reptiles like the loggerhead sea turtle, mixed in with fearsome snakes, at least 300 species of birds such as the rare Andean condor, valuable marine fauna, unspoiled coral formations and endemic vegetation. (Cacti, orchids, bromeliads, mosses and trees, contribute to the richness of, and necessity for, protecting the park’s environment.)
Park entry fees are approximately US$18 for foreigners; US$7 for nationals (in April 2012).