I left Minca after three tranquil nights in the hills and took a bus into Santa Marta. I met a nice Israeli guy on the ride there – don’t remember his name unfortunately – and then I hopped on a second bus to Journey Hostel, a place I’d been recommended several times. It’s a fancy hillside hostel with an infinity pool, and it sits just outside Parque Tayrona – the reason I was there.
Tayrona is a national park covering a huge area. It’s on the coast, and most of it is mountains covered in dense, chirping, hooting jungle. You can do various hikes through the park, however I was warned by Allessio and Ariene, my eternal French saviours, not to begin my hike at the main entrance. If you go in that way, apparently, you’ll be queuing an hour for tickets, and when you begin the hike you’ll be walking in single file with a hundred other people through the jungle.
Instead, the lovely couple recommended I head to a tiny village called Calabazo, which is usually the exit for one of the longer hikes. So, after a nice evening chatting to people in Journey Hostel (which was very ‘Instagram’ and not really my cup of tea), I got up early and took a bus down the leafy road to Calabazo.
I bought a ticket to the park at the entrance, drank a Gatorade, bought some M&Ms for emergency energy, and began the hike. The first hour was uphill, constantly. It was hard. Many people choose to skip this part of the hike, instead But like: why? It’s a hike, man. Taking a mototaxi sort of defeats the point.
I sweated and grunted my way up the big hill and came to a little house at the top, from which you can pay a quid to go visit a mirador – a viewpoint. I lugged my cumbersome body up the last bit of hill and emerged at a hilltop clearing to find a topless Israeli man in the middle of a deep yoga lunge.
“Stuck like that, are you?” I asked.
We talked for an hour, eventually going back down to the little house and buying a coffee. We talked about our lives and about travel and about being positive and sincere and trying to stay true to yourself when meeting so many other people travelling. He hadn’t paid to enter the park, instead sneaking in by walking along the beach in the early morning – and then he’d slept in an empty hammock he found outside a campsite. Cool guy.
We shook hands and went our separate ways, and thankfully the road began to level out and then turn downwards until I was walking through a hot, wet jungle valley. A little creek criss-crossed the path, forcing me to hop over it regularly. As I walked further and deeper into the forest, I realised I’d not passed anybody else for well over an hour. I was truly alone in there. And from this isolation came two sensations: firstly, a mild fear – that I should twist my ankle, or startle a snake, or meet a jaguar (they’re in there, somewhere). But second came something much nicer: a mad, giggling euphoria.
I was alone! Alone and free, in nature, on a hike – on an adventure at last! It had been three weeks in Colombia, and three weeks since I’d felt even remotely adventurous. I hopped over the stream and squelched through the mud, past hanging vines, as strange animal noises and the trills of rare birds filled the air. Yellow butterflies bobbed past, and I stopped to watch a lizard with an electric blue tail dart through a pile of dead leaves. I felt so weightless and happy that I laughed out loud. Fucking finally.
Around 90 minutes in, as I was bounding jovially along a narrow stretch of muddy jungle trail, I saw a group of strangely dressed people coming towards me. I stepped off the path to let them pass. I’d heard that indigenous people live in the park – I suppose they’ve lived there a very long time – but I didn’t expect to see any.
There were ten of them, clad all in simple white clothes that hung loosely. Dark skinned with long black hair, men and women alike. From their waists hung woven satchels, and some of them had machetes in colourful scabbards made from rope. They were carrying a log that must have weighed well over a ton, sweating silently, no talking, focussed on their work and watching the ground to place their feet. I watched them pass, one at a time, and nodded a hello. One of them gave an almost imperceptible nod bad, sweating trickling down his forehead.
When they were past I raised my phone to photograph them, but ultimately decided against it. Unfortunately, it was at this moment – as I was lowering my phone, that one of them looked back.
“Amigo, no photo,” called a girl.
“No, no, no,” I called after them, but I felt my face flush with embarrassment.
“God dammit, Dan,” I scolded myself as I walked on. “Put your phone away, you bell end. Be cool man. Don’t be another knob head tourist.”
I genuinely strive very hard to not be a knob head tourist while I travel, so I felt annoyed at myself that I’d given the indigenous people what was in all likelihood yet another reason to assume the worst of visitors to the park. But I didn’t take the photo: I told myself this to release the guilt, and decided instead to speak to myself more kindly: alright, I sighed, you’re not a knob head. You are not a knob head.
Anyway, seeing the indigenous Colombians in the park filled me with joy. These people live a life I can barely fathom. The silence of their approach, their clothing, their hair – there was something surreal in it. Something a little bit magical. Forest people, like in fairytales.
A little further down the trail I saw an old man carrying a dead tree. He was the same: black hair, black boots, white trousers and shirt, colourful machete on a belt looped around one shoulder. I said ‘buenos dias’ and he said it back, quietly. I watched him disappear into the jungle, wishing I could take photos with my eyes.
The trail continued another hour. I passed a large wooden sign warning of jaguars in the area, and twenty minutes later, a distant sound passed across the canopy of the jungle. It was a faraway roaring, ferocious and deep. I’ve heard it before, in Mexico: howler monkeys. But the sign post for the jaguars stayed in my head, and a little voice said: what if? I don’t know what noise jaguars make – they might meow for all I know, or cluck like lizards – but of course when you’re alone in a very sweaty jungle and you hear a monstrous calamity in the trees, it’s hard to be rational.
There was nothing to be done, anyway. I continued on and told myself not to be a fanny about it, and over the next fifteen minutes the roaring grew closer. Finally, after scrambling down a rocky section of the path lined with gnarled tree roots, I came to a stop where the roaring was loudest. I couldn’t see anything – only bushes all tangled together and tall trees with arms overlapping. But the snarling howls filled the air, filled my chest, and I stood dazed and bewildered, staring into the trees, knowing that maybe ten or twenty metres away there was whatever was making that gutteral, ferocious racket.
As I was stood, mouth agape, listening, a man rode up on a horse from the opposite direction. I said hello and he said it back, and he came to a stop beside me, listening.
“Es los monos?” I asked him.
“Si, monos aulladores,” he said.
I don’t know how to say amazing in Spanish.
After a minute he rode away, clip clopping off up the rocky hill, and I stayed a while longer to listen. It made me feel very alive to stand alone and listen.
One hour later, during which I ate my M&Ms and got a bit shaky because I really should have brought more food, I arrived at the beach. In my excitement to have made it to the end of my journey I began filming the last stretch of jungle as I emerged out of the trees and onto a white beach. This was an error. I had forgotten the name of the beach: Playa Nudista. I had to quickly avert my camera the second I stepped out from the jungle, because immediately in front of me was a woman relaxing in the sea with her hefty bosoms hanging free and jolly. I stuffed my phone back in my pocket, hoping nobody had seen. Oops.
I’d decided the day before that I’d try out the nudist beach. I’ve been to nude spas in Germany and skinny dipped a couple of times in India, but I’d never been naked so brazenly, so exposed. Well, whatever. I found a quiet spot a little further down the beach and stripped off before my brain had a chance to go ‘ermmmm???’ Starkers, I lay on the sand and relaxed. It was quite a nice feeling. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had direct sun on my knob before. Isn’t that odd? Anyway I think I accidentally stumbled into a gay area of the beach, because there was a lot of very bronzed male couples sauntering up and down with their todgers jangling around. All of them took a good, long look at me, and they weren’t remotely subtle about it. Each time I simply gave them a nod, or a little wave, resisting the urge to cross my legs and cover up.
After 15 minutes, when my area of beach quietened down, I decided to go for a dip. I stood up, feeling the breeze all over me, and strode down to the sea. The waves were rough however; I couldn’t go far in without getting buffeted about all over the place. I didn’t fancy being swept out to sea and having to be helicopter-winched to safety, naked arse twirling through the air as I was lowered onto the beach, so I just had a little nude paddle and then wandered back to my towel for a lie down.
After an enjoyable and eye-opening hour on the nudist beach, I headed to the next stop: a little camping resort along the beach named San Juan, where I was intending to pay for a hammock for the night. Unfortunately I’d not had the foresight to bring more cash, which meant I could afford either a meal or a hammock. I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the place anyway. It was very busy and the stretch of beach around the resort was so busy you couldn’t find a spare metre of sand to plonk down on. Not my thing.
So I said fuck it. I continued on my hike, back into the jungle, aiming to blast out the next 10 kilometres or so and get back to Journey Hostel before dark.
Well: shit idea. The 10km to the park’s entrance (a different route to the one I’d taken already) was mostly uphill, rocky, and very busy with tourists. And Colombians walk so damn slow man. They barely move forward at all, instead shifting their weight from side to side in a sort of lackadaisical waddle. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue; on the pavement you can just hop around. But on a narrow passage, you’re at their mercy. And they don’t only love to walk slow – they don’t like it when you walk past. Many times I came up behind somebody and, when they heard my footsteps, instead of standing aside to let me pass, they ambled even wider down the path, arms swinging, supposedly oblivious to my presence.
It took me a further 3 hours of walking to get back to Journey Hostel, by which time I was half dead: deliriously dehydrated, sweaty, starved and seething. Oh well. It was a good day: I will remember the howler monkeys and the horse man and the naked beach and the euphoria. I will forget the fuming slog at the end.
I spent the night in a hammock on the roof of the hostel – it was all they had left. I was so exhausted from 25 kilometres in the jungle that I slept like a walrus.