Feeling Tiny In Colombia’s Tayrona National Park
We stood at the entrance to a lush, tropical forest and confronted a simple yet profound choice. Do we proceed on foot, hauling our backpacks in the already thick morning air, or do we pay a local for the pleasure of mounting a time-worn horse?
We picked the budget option and started the hour-long walk into Parque Tayrona, a protected stretch of the Caribbean coast in Colombia. The park, which is really a beach cleaved from the outside world by dense forest, attracts a steady stream of foreign backpackers and appreciative locals. But even with nearly 300,000 people per year stopping by, it doesn’t feel crowded.
Or at least it didn’t in November 2011, when I visited there with an old friend and longtime traveling companion, Will. We had been friends since college where we bonded over spiced rum and grunge rock, and where later reached bro-for-life status when we both ended up in New York City after graduation. We had already road-tripped down the East Coast to New Orleans and across Southern France and Spain. Now we were in Colombia for a few weeks.
This may not be true for everyone, but I find I can divide travel into two types of experiences: city exploration and nature excursions (the guidebooks seem to back me up on this). We tried to mix things up, going from the intimidating urban sprawl of Bogota to a place called Valle del Cocora, where lanky Andean palm trees grow more than 100 feet in the air, making the humans underfoot look very insignificant. From there, we hit up some mountain-top thermal baths before partying in Medellin and Cartagena.
The time had come to refresh the soul (and the liver). Hence, to Tayrona.
The great part about Colombia is that two weeks actually do give you enough time to hop and skip your way across the country, even if you take the buses as we did. From Medellin, we downed some almost-too-easy-to-procure sleeping pills and took a mind-bending 24-hour bus ride to Cartagena. I fell into a dope-induced stupor but can recall images of Will vomiting into a small plastic bag (pills + switchback turns = regrettable mistake) and I believe I spoke sharply at the young boy sitting behind us, who was picking my pocket in a dream world.
We arrived just in time for Carnival festivities.
The scene was festive and chaotic: the locals packed the streets of an old, weathered neighborhood outside the city proper, sipping from small bottles of aguardiente, Colombia’s national paint remover, and squirting the gringos (us) with aerosol cans of foam and bags of water. Every now and then, someone would throw a deafening firework in our direction.
Somewhere on the spectrum of foam facial to flashbang, Will’s tolerance broke and he turned back for the hotel. I stayed out and danced in the streets with some German guys and a group of Colombian 20-somethings until one of the Germans got in fight with a hot dog vendor and it seemed wise to slink away to the hotel (after buying a hot dog myself, from a separate vendor).
We both felt pretty tapped out the next morning when we hopped onto another bus, this one to Santa Marta, a colonial city further up the coast that serves as a jumping-off point for Tayrona. We had probably hit the point of the trip where we were a little tired of each other, so a beach with no agenda seemed like a good idea.
The only issue was that it was Will’s birthday. I wasn’t about to sing to him on a moonlit beach or anything. But we were in our 30’s. I assumed it didn’t matter much to him.
The hike into the park was more challenging than expected. This was November and it had been raining a good deal, so the path was sometimes more mud than solid ground. The mounted travelers seemed to mock us even in their absence, since the path had been beaten down with the regular mash of hooves and repaved with horse shit.
We stopped for a few breathers (the humidity!) and took in the surroundings. On the ground, a river of tiny green leaves moved up the path, carried by industrious leafcutter ants. We followed it with our eyes and the train of ants extended a long, long way.
My daily commute at the time wasn’t much different. I was working in the New York suburbs, wrestling with Long Island traffic on a daily basis, struggling to make rent, and feeling a lot like one of these tiny laborers. Presumably the ants weren’t gathering the preparations for a keg party.
Will, on the other hand, worked as a software engineer and spent the winter months away from New York, typically somewhere south of Texas. I can’t recall seeing an insect that would serve as a stand-in for his lifestyle, but maybe there’s some sort of dragonfly out there that fits the bill.
A little while later we reached the beach, ready to put down our things and take a dip. We passed several cabins, thinking it would be best to stay closer to the water, and eventually stopped at a beach campsite. A guy named Carlos came and greeted us. He showed us around the site, which consisted of an open-air pavilion with a television and tables for dining, as well as a sleeping area — a thick tree trunk with 8 or 10 hammocks ringing it like a pinwheel.
He said to throw our stuff in whichever hammock we wanted to sleep in. The cost was around $5 for the night. Easy enough.
We changed into our bathing suits and listened to Carlos riff on American politics (not a fan of George W. Bush . . . go figure) before we left for the water.
I’ve never felt that words are the best way to describe a landscape, especially if photos are available. But I would say this: the beauty of Tayrona felt both serene and brutal. The roar of the surf hit you first, but the surroundings stole the scene. The beach was ringed by a palm-studded forest that might remind an ignorant American (like me) of a movie about the Vietnam War. I imagined fleeing in a chopper while my compatriots zoomed by in fighter jets, setting off fiery explosions around me.
Gray boulders the size of a family sedan sat at the edge of the water — they weren’t going anywhere for a long, long time. We waded into the water up to our knees, but not much more. Carlos had told us not to swim near the campsite and one mention of the word “drown” was all I needed to hear.
We wandered down the beach, not saying much. What was there to say? This place was overwhelming. Everything was so alien to our daily lives, which were largely spent at keyboards (or in my case, in traffic). Through the trip, Will had been the photographer, but for a moment, we swapped roles and I snapped photos of him as he climbed onto one of these massive boulders. Something about those rocks made me think about the universe and whether it viewed me as anything more than a flimsy leaf struggling to hang on for another day.
There was supposed to be a swimming beach somewhere down the coastline, but even after a decent walk, we couldn’t find it. The beach seemed to end; we ran into a wall of rock and palm trees. After wandering in muddy forest for 30 minutes or so, we backtracked and got directions from some German tourists.
The swimming beach was pristine and, at this point, a near-necessity, what with the sweating and exasperated tromping through coastal muck and such. The water shimmered the cool blue of a mellow mouthwash. We waded in.
And here’s another thing: it was nearly deserted. A pair of slim women stood down-beach, out of earshot. We didn’t swim out too far (again, the drowning thing) but it didn’t matter. This beach wasn’t for working out, it was for enjoying.
A long while passed there in the water. We eventually chatted with the women, who were both models, one retired, one still in the business. The retired one now owned a bar in Santa Marta and invited us to stop by when we got back to town.
We walked further into the park and reached a sort of mega-campsite where it appeared most of the backpackers flocked to see the sun rise in the morning. We didn’t stay here too long. The sun was still shining brightly, but it was past its peak.
When we returned to our camp, it was nearly dinnertime. We rested a bit in the hammocks and then sat down to eat. Carlos wasn’t around, but another guy running the kitchen brought me an enormous fried fish that made me very happy. While we ate, the other 7 or 8 guys watched a comedy show on the television.
After dinner, there wasn’t much to do. We wandered around a bit, looking for the type of unexpected off-the-hook party you might find in a beer commercial. No dice.
Instead, we made our way back to the campsite. The other guys staying there seemed to be laborers — I saw a couple of them cutting down a tree during the day — and they were watching a hard-core porno. We settled down into our hammocks to the sound of an enthusiastic gangbang.
Sometime later, everyone went to sleep. Will couldn’t nod off and asked if I wanted to head to the beach. Normally, I might have taken him up on the offer, but we were under mosquito nets on our hammocks and I deceived myself into thinking I might actually fall asleep. I told him to go ahead.
In the morning, I woke up to the sound of some chickens who clearly didn’t understand their place on the food chain. My ankles were itchy and when I rolled out of the hammock, I saw a solar system of red bumps around my knee.
I took a piss on the outskirts of the camp, near a blank-faced donkey. Everyone else was awake and gone except Will, who slept a bit longer. When he woke up, he was talking about the night before.
“It’s weird. It was like the best and worst way to celebrate a birthday,” he said.
“Oh yeah, happy birthday,” I replied.
He muttered something dismissive and went on with the story.
“There was lightning across the beach, no one out there. It was the most amazing shit I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “But then on the flip side, when I got back to this shitty-ass hammock, 5 dudes are fucking snoring like a symphony.”
I mentioned the red dots.
“Oh shit, you have those too?”
Will took a picture on the beach that night. There we were: standing on the edge of a continent. A storm rolled past. Waves maintained their endless roar. After the storm, there was a dazzling display of stars.
In this setting, we barely existed.
We hiked out of Tayrona and returned to Santa Marta, where we met the bar owner and her friend for drinks. We nursed whiskeys in an open-air courtyard and chatted with our new-found acquaintances and the handful of patrons.
I wondered about Will’s birthday: did he care that we spent it on a remote beach instead of downing shots in Medellin? Was I a bad friend for not taking these details into consideration? Tayrona was almost anti-birthday in a way, the sort of place where you seem very insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I decided not to worry about it.
The red dots on our legs kept itching for a few days. As it turned out, they were flea bites.
Photos by Will Benedict
Ted Hesson is a multimedia journalist based in Washington, D.C. For more of his work, visit TedHesson.com.