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From Sleazy Santa Marta to Beautiful Parque Tyrona

Parque Tayrona, a national park, the perfect retreat from Cartagena this is the place where Steve McQueen fell in love with the Guajira Indians after he escaped whilst playing Papillon. The park is a fantastic tranquil oasis of jungle-fringed Caribbean beaches and Indian ruins and located on the coastal side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the tallest coastal mountain range in the world.

Like any good tourist I had called ahead to make my reservation. In broken Spanish I had enquired whether the park was open.

“¡No se puede entrar!” I was informed by Colombian tourism. It’s closed for cleaning. What’s that all about, makes it sound like a hotel. I had visions of cleaning teams sweeping the jungle. Something must have got lost in the translation.

We blundered out east from Cartagena towards Santa Marta anyway. These coastal buses were fantastic, I was in air-conditioned splendor. Reclining back I soaked up, along with the locals, the busty blondes in a dubbed version of Baywatch. Pure bliss.

Santa Marta is a hot scruffy seaport, and a lot of contraband ebbs through this town. The cheapest hostel is called the Miramar, “Sea view” in Spanish. It is possible to see the sea, just. Although definitely not from any of the rooms, as they had no windows. But I was collecting a hammock that a friend had left in storage there, what more could I want?

Marijuana, cocaine: the words flew around the reception as soon as you entered. They were resonating from an old Colombian relaxing in a chair. For the moment I chose to ignore his chanting and deal with the formalities of checking in.

The hotel was small, only had about five rooms, and when these were full the enterprising owner would allow hammocks to be swung in the courtyard. Which was also the dining area. If you had this spot, as I did, you were the last to sleep and the first up, due to the kitchen activities, fine if you wanted to be the first in line for breakfast, otherwise a bit of a pain.

Sleep was almost impossible in this place anyway. Everybody had visited the two-word dealer reclining at the front of the hotel. Either that or there was a flu epidemic. I once heard Santa Marta owes it reputation due to geography. It’s right in the middle, almost halfway between the finest Peruvian coca plantations and the U.S.A.‘s bustling ports. Cocaine and marijuana leave this place in every way imaginable. I even read a report of a remote-controlled mini-sub packed with cocaine running aground on the islands off the coast.

“Tours to Parque Tayrona”, the message board announced. The owner was also organizing smuggled tours into the closed park. We poo-pooed his advances of tickets and made our own way there. About five- or six-strong we were. A tarmac road goes east out of Santa Marta towards Venezuela, and 34 kilometres away the park entrance is right across from a highway restaurant, where the big air-con buses disgorge passengers for “El Menu”, the set menu which is the same for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Sitting there we discussed our options over fresh fruit jugos.

I had already approached the two park wardens. It was indeed closed, but you must understand this park, this national park, covers some 15.000 hectares. Most of it is jungle, the rest beach. Surely bunking in wouldn’t be a problem.

At this point we all recognized the Miramar smuggle tour, it was one of those minivans with about eight people in it. Everyone got out, waved at us, then vanished into the jungle 100 yards past the park entrance! Whilst taking this in, two Colombian kids, no more than eight or nine asked us:

“Do you want to get into the park?”

“Sí!” we said in unison.

In single file we followed them 100 yards the opposite way. Past some small huts, the kids put their fingers to their mouths to indicate silence. I could actually see the park warden I had spoken to earlier, some distance off through the jungle.

There was a crazy French guy with us, come to visit his friend in Colombia, only for a few weeks. Hence he had a suitcase. Now he held it aloft on his shoulder as on tiptoe we circumnavigated security. Back on the road, just over a brow of a hill, out of sight of the wardens, our Colombian guides told us to just keep going.

“Es tranquilo ahora.” We had a whip-round and muscled up a few bob for the kids, then the jungle had them again.

The Miramar smuggle tour re-appeared from the other side of the road. With much backslapping (think they were a bit pissed off) we proceeded down the road together.

It was a good hour or so before you sensed something different. Less jungle, more palms. Less mud, more sand. The gradual amplification of crashing coastal breakers. The Caribbean Sea! This part of the coast has a very strong current. Just wading out to my knees I could feel the water pulling at my calves and dragging sand from beneath my feet. Not a place to swim.

Just along from here was the main resort area, Arrecifes, with a sheltered bay for swimming. “Resort” conjures up the wrong image. There was one restaurant, with maybe five tables. “Restaurant” conjures up the wrong image; try “a covered area with an open fire for cooking”. Tents could be put up, or there was a covered area with room for about five hammocks. If you so pleased, as most people did, you could also just wander along the beach, find a suitable coconut palm and swing your hammock. Of course some joker would always recite the falling coconut one-in-a-million chance story.

And then there were the donkeys, pack animals they were. Used to transport anything from the entrance to here. And always on the lookout for food stashed in ruc-sacs. One must be cautious, or go hungry.

Sleeping in hammocks. Now I sort of lie at an angle. It’s almost possible to get flat, and with just a sheet over you and the breeze from the sea to keep the mosquitoes at bay. So aids restful sleep. Someone had informed the French guy that it was possible to sleep on your front. “Bollocks.” I watched him give it a go that night. First he did a back-breaking banana impression. Then when the pain got too much he put both legs outside the hammock. Which must have created some sort of chaffing of the inner thigh. Don’t buck the system: thousands of years, the Indians couldn’t be wrong. Sleep on your back or sideways.

There are two ways out of Parque Tayrona: the road we came in on, or a jungle hike past some Indian ruins, called Pueblito (“Little Village”). We choose the latter. No idea how we found when to turn into the jungle from the beach, though – “Go right at the 200th coconut palm?” No idea how we didn’t become hideously lost.

A few hours in we came across the ruins, an hour or so more we came across the Santa Marta road. The only hiccup: my legs and thighs would not stop itching. They were fine when I’d set out. Two days later I was still picking ticks off my balls. I recall it now, at some stage I had ran through a bush, and it must have been infested. On numerous occasions I had asked everyone to stop and study my legs. I really was in pain, scratching away. Everyone thought I was mad, there was nothing there.

The first gaseoso soft drink when we hit the Santa Marta road, that was good. Closely matched by the first tinto coffee as we got off the bus in Santa Marta, and they even had a room for us at the Miramar.

“Marijuana… cocaine.”

Justin Pushman