Parque Tayrona is in the Sierra Nevada, which is a 3-4 hour drive North of Cartagena. I arrive clad in brand new white sneakers and a vintage Louis Vuitton backpack in which I’m smuggling wine and Aguaardiente. I feel more than prepared for what should be a “short walk” to our accommodations. Being in good company and having done hikes before, how long could it take to hike up a few kilometers?
Soon, the heat of reality flushes through me and nature reminds me of my physical limitations. The farther into the park we walk, the less developed the path becomes. Every now and then, old boards of wood forming bridges and ladders reassure us we are en route to some sort of destination. The hike represents a moderate cardiac exercise which is elevated to a strenuous level in the heat of the mid-afternoon during an extended summer in a Colombia that has fallen victim to global warming droughts. Suddenly, I wish I had smuggled liters of water instead of alcohol and worn shorts instead of jeans (as I recommend you do).
Almost four hours later, we arrive at what looks like one of those organic hippie communes of the 70’s. In front of a mountain, facing the ocean, there is a huge hut made of wood and dried palm leaves. It holds up 50-70 stale, musty hammocks that at one time early in their existence were woven with bright ethnic colors which have now become dull with use. Lining the hut are rows of camping tents, the suites of our “hotel”, which are sold out. Also sold out, are the penthouses of this establishment; about ten hammocks which hang from a smaller hut placed upon a mountainous pile of rocks. Being more private, the latter are also more coveted, and thereby also sold out. Due to my lack of hydration and tired heart, we took far too many stops during the hike for that option to even be feasible. So, for about $8 USD, we each rent our hammock and I mark my territory by placing my filthy shoes, the ones that will never be white again, underneath my hammock. Being from the city and never having camped before, I suspiciously hide my bag underneath the sweaty jeans and head for the beach. Since, I cannot swim and because I thought I’d try to fit in with the locals, I enjoy some García Márquez reading. Dusk begins to fall over the campsite and a line forms in the dining hut. I take a moment to thank God for not having needed one of the three working bathrooms thus far, and wait in line. There is only one dinner option, so I’m also thankful it is a good one. For about $10 USD, we dine on camarones enchilados with white rice and fries. A small store window opens up, and we buy the national Aguíla beer because we need cups to serve the smuggled wine. The night flies as we play Colombian card games, talk, laugh and revel in the success of having survived. I even survive one quick trip to the communal restrooms, where I close my eyes and simultaneously hold the door and my breath, as I try to make it out before there’s a need for another breath of air. We stay up playing until the few sporadically placed lamps dim in comparison to the darkness of night and we have no choice but to fold. We head to the hammocks we’ve claimed, check our bags and exhale with relief that everything is accounted for. Not having planned that this “short walk” would turn into an overnight camping adventure, I’ve brought nothing but a beach coverup, shorts, and a towel; these become my blanket. Needless to say, I shiver through most of my sleep as the temperature drops to the 60’s °F. Before I know it, like a lullaby, the tempestuous ocean beating against the rocks of the cape cradle me to sleep, and I’m out cold.
Feeling as though I am competing with the sun, I awake at a quarter past 5 the next morning. The morning is serene, everyone in the campsite is asleep, with the exception of some of the workers who are preparing for their morning shifts and a few couples laying in the distance. One lonely fuchsia bougainvillea tree contrasts with the pristine blue of the ocean, which continues to push and pull unfazed by night. The waves beat against the cape of Cabo San Juan, a tempestuous reminder that all beautiful things can only be attained after much effort. Unlike me, the ocean never tires out. For a moment, I share this connection with it, alone, unbothered, and uninterrupted; until the sun has fully risen and given me permission to continue reading.
Breakfast is served to us and a swarm of giant bees who seem to love guava marmalade and Colombian coffee as much as I do. We dine together, until I give in to the bees and let them have the rest. Something has changed. I didn’t set out to have an existential experience. In fact, I was as unprepared emotionally as I was physically. But, something in me has changed. Later, I learned that the indigenous people which call the Sierra Nevada home consider us, the civilized visitors, their younger brothers and themselves our older brothers. They feel we’re younger in our inexperience with nature, and that we lack the understanding that as humans we need to connect with these elements of nature. Thus, they allow us to visit and come in, feeling the responsibility to teach us what we do not know. To a certain extent, my respect for the ocean, the rocks, the weather, and this ecosystem has grown. That said, at this point, I smell awful. We haven’t showered or brushed our teeth. I’m tired, and I want to go back to Cartagena, where everything is effortlessly beautiful and easy and I don’t have to work so hard for it. Except, to get there, I do. It is the same 3+ hour hike back to the car and then another 3 1/2 hour drive to Cartagena de Indias.
As we are walking back, we cross some Tayrona tribe children (possibly identified as Wiwa by their attire) dressed all in white, their skin adapted to the color of the soil here. The boy, no more than 13 years old, machete in hand, swiftly cracks open coconuts to give strangers as they pass. The girl, about the same age, is holding a baby in one hand and what looks like an old transistor radio in another. Their stare is blank and nonchalant. The boy holds up the coconut for any takers. Feeling as though I’ve already taken enough, I continue along the trail empty handed.