Have you see the Lonely Planet guidebook for Colombia lately? For a country twice the size of Texas, the two hundred and something pages do not begin to represent the true tourist potential of this country. Still considered one of twenty most dangerous places in the world, the coverage given to Colombia by the ubiquitous backpacker’s bible is relatively thin, to say the least. I suspect however that as tourism in Colombia becomes safer, its travel guides will thicken, and soon rival the region’s tourist mecca: Peru.
This is exactly what Sebastian Arango, 32 year old Colombian from Medellin, is trying to tell me, as the words spoken in a Spanglish patois pierce the mosquito net hanging around my hammock. I can see his feet hanging out of the hammock next to mine, still mosquito-bite free.
Though I can’t make out his face, Arango sounds like he’s been around the block. He grew up in Medellin during the gruesome years of the 80’s & 90’s when that city had the highest murder rates in the world. Later on, searching for new adventures in the US, he ended up on the fryer at a Wendy’s in Huron, Ohio.
I met Arango, nicknamed Burro Viejo (old donkey) in the first grade by an imaginative teacher, and his friends at Parque Nacional Tayrona, located a few hours from the Colombian/Venezuelan border on the Caribbean coast. El Burro, Daniel (31), Cristi (26) and Ana (28) made the 18 hour road trip from their hometown Medellin to spend New Year’s sipping cocktails on Colombia’s most talked about beaches.
If there is one place the guidebooks have not forgotten, it’s Tayrona. The park is marketed to foreigners as untouched beaches surrounded by lush jungles with overgrown pre-Columbian ruins where visitors, sleeping in hammocks, are rocked to sleep by the hands of the tropical breeze.
Colombians are drawn by the same thing, but perhaps more by the opportunity to move freely throughout their own country. Given the park’s recent history as a backdrop for narco trafficking to the north and the ensuing violence between leftist guerrillas and right-winged paramilitary groups, mobility is a central theme in Colombia’s burgeoning tourist circuit.
Five years ago, before current president Álvaro Uribe clamped down on the guerrillas, a road trip between Medellin and Tayrona, located twenty miles outside of Santa Marta, was unheard of and outright risky, Daniel tells me.
To Colombians the impression of freedom represents hope that one day other areas of the country will become open up to tourism the way Tayrona has. Like other Latin American countries, Colombia still has swathes of protected beaches, mountains and jungle without the necessary infrastructure to provide sustainable tourism.
Still, Colombians are not easily convinced. “During the holidays, they double up security on the highways, allowing people to travel without fear. But assuring travel in the high season doesn’t mean the situation has changed. This country is still reeling, but at least it has beautiful destinations like Tayrona,” Burro says.
The park, which was formed in 1964 and covers roughly 58 square miles, is small compared to the country’s other national parks. However, it is geographically unique; Tayrona sits below the world’s highest coastal mountain range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, containing Colombia’s highest peak, the aptly named Pico Simón Bolivar (some 18,700ft).
Since the country starting securing roads for traveling and reducing the chances of being kidnapped, Tayrona has quickly become Colombia’s most visited park.
The federal government has protected the park, partly in deference to the indigenous communities living within its borders and partly to preserve the park’s natural beauty and keep it forever unspoiled by resort hotels and golf courses.
Thanks to near isolation, camping only accommodations and a real lack of access to internet and other media, Tayrona lends itself to one kind of traveler while keeping the other kind out. Roads are absent, and the beaches are connected by rudimentary paths passing over sand, mud and rock with an occasional wooden stair to ease movement.
ANCIENT KOGUI WALKWAYS
With our new friends, my girlfriend and I set off to find the inland village of Pueblito, a settlement that dates back to pre-Columbian times and was erected by the Kogui and Arhuaco folk whose ancestors still live in the park.
The path consisting of giant boulders leads straight up the jungle mountainside and represents a truly amazing workmanship in an environment unreceptive to escalators. From Pueblito, hikers can then take another trail that intersects with the road heading back to Santa Marta, thereby traversing the entire park.
Due to a strong rip tide, more than wading is strongly discouraged throughout the park. One sign at the main campground of Arrecifes warns swimmers to comply in order to avoid becoming a statistic, adding to the over two hundred people swallowed by the current.
Although we carried a bit of provisions into the park, travelers can just as easily survive eating from the restaurants and makeshift cafeterias located in each of the park’s campgrounds. Coconut rice, twice fried plantains known as patacones, and any of half a dozen fish are mainstays.
The busy season runs from December to February, when the park becomes a destination for all, families and eco-trekkers alike. Lucky for my girlfriend and I, our hammocks were hanging next to four entertaining Paisas (people from Medellin). At Cabo San Juan, the furthest campground from the park entrance, at about 2 hours, one is sure to find numerous backpackers, especially on New Year’s when the campground is converted into a veritable earth dance.
Nonetheless, with a little bit of money, any traveler can bring with him a slice of luxury. For example, instead of hiking into the park from the trailhead, for an extra US$8.50, you can ride a horse. For the same price, you can get another horse to carry a cooler full of ice, your tent, your surfboard, or your grill.
Or if you have a friend named Burro, you can convince him to pack bottles of rum, vodka, and Colombia’s essential anis-flavored fire water, aguardiente.
On the eve of 2008, as we soaked our sun dried bodies with Burro’s stimulating cocktails, we danced to the country’s accordion laden vallenato love ballads. Ana, whose family has been decimated by the country’s civil war, turns to me and says: “We Colombians, we have a way of looking past the guerrilla to find the positive side of life.” I smile because it is not the first time I’ve heard a Colombian advocating this carpe diem perspective, nor do I suspect it shall be the last.
Where to stay: After paying the US$11.50 entrance fee, hikers can choose from several campgrounds located at the park’s main settlement, Arrecifes.
At the Arrecifes beach, I recommend Bukarú or El Paraiso, where camping and hammocks run between US$5-10 per night. There are a handful of cabins, known as “eco-habs” also available for the not too insignificant sum of US$250 a night. The government funded tourist agency Aviatur (make reservations at www.aviatur.com) that runs a campground and administers some 40 hammocks, also runs a series of cabins.
Or walk the extra 45 minutes to Cabo San Juan, where camping and no more than a couple dozen hammocks are available and the beaches are safe for swimming.
Lunches at the various campground restaurants run US$4-5 while dinners go for US$8-10.
Colombia’s National Parks