We’ve just returned from the beaches of Parque Tayrona, which is the requisite post-Ciudad Perdida-trek stop on the traveler’s circuit. We had envisioned ourselves swaddled in hammocks, supping on fresh tropical juices, relaxing on the beach, swimming in lukewarm Caribbean water, and watching the sunset. But I am sorry to say, this trip to Parque Tayrona—one of the number one tourist destinations for Colombianos on holiday as well—was just slightly disappointing. A list of some of the intervening factors: 1) A long, muddy hike into the site, all too clearly reminiscent of the 6-day trek to Ciudad Perdida; 2) you can’t even really swim at these beaches, because of the strong currents—there’s only about 2 slightly dippable bays; 3) you have to walk far to get to these somewhat swimmable bays, except if you’re staying at Cabo, which I’ll get into in a moment; 4) some non-mosquito insect bites the living shit out of you; 5) not many juices at all, and none at Cabo; 6) everything is overpriced, of course; 7) no refrigeration + tropical heat = stomach problems; and 8 ) the hammocks are either not comfortable at all, or it is too crowded and no space, or some people decide to stay up late right next to you and chat away at full volume all night long.
The first night we were there, we stayed at the 1st place you see in Arrecifes. The hammocks sucked (though they look nice enough), but they provided mosquito nets, and the showers and bathrooms are better than any of the hostals we’ve stayed at thus far. And there’s actually toilet paper in there!
Once we had settled our stuff into our nice little wooden lockers and put some food into our stomachs, we went off to dip into the water. After all, the whole point of being in Parque Tayrona is it’s beaches, right? We walked down from our thatched palm structure down to the water, which was a mere few strides away. To find that the sand stretched all about was empty. No one sunbathing, no one frolicking in the surf. And then we noted the no swimming signs, and the fact that the waves were bearing down on the weary shore like taxi drivers on a pedestrian in Bogotá. So, no swimming there. OK. We followed some people who were walking on ahead, and we walked, and we walked, fainting in the sun, until we arrived at a sort-of-bay. It looked plausibly dippable. They sold orange juice at a stand there. We plunked our weary haunches down on a fallen coconut tree and my girlfriend tested the waters, only to be swept up in a strong backward current and plunked down into the sand on her bottom. Not this one, then. We walked on, through dense thickets of jungle foliage and mud, and finally, arrived at La Piscina. There were people there! Sunbathers, popsicle vendors, children in water! We gratefully jumped into the sea. Only to find that you can’t really go too far out, because even in this sheltered bay the waves are strong. You can only really just frolick like children in the first few feet of surf. And then lay in the sun. Or sit in the shade and read a philosophical treatise, as I did. That’s it.
We walked the long haul back, showered in the ritzy showers, ate dinner, and hunkered into our hammocks to sleep. But other people in our sleeping area obviously weren’t ready to sleep, even though there was little lighting. One set of teenagers smoked pot on the steps, a mom smoked a cigarette down the way, and a family conversated loudly in Spanish right next to us. Plus, the hammocks were hung too loose, and I could never get comfortable. Plus, it got cold at night after it rained, and even with my sweater and socks on, I found myself wishing for a blanket. So, no sleep that night.
We decided the next day to hike all the way to El Cabo, which is apparently the spot where most backpackers/gringos end up. It’s a beautiful cape, with its own little mini somewhat-swimmable bay. But the accomodations are a different matter. First of all, it’s crowded. A line of hammocks were strung up side-by-side alongside the restaurant, so close that whenever I would get up to pee in the night, I would bump my ass into the face of the girl sleeping next to me. Second of all, it wasn’t any significantly cheaper than the much nicer 1st place. Third of all, there’s no juice out there. That’s right—no juice.
To compound matters, my girlfriend decided to come down with a fever that morning, and spent the entire rest of the day laid out in her hammock, listless and incapable of movement. Not being much of a beach person in the first place, I didn’t feel very compelled to lay about by myself on a somewhat swimmable bay. So instead, I went off on yet another trek through the jungle, out to another set of ruins called Pueblito, which is essentially identical to la Ciudad Perdida (i.e. bunch of ruins of rocks in terraces where huts once stood), except that rather than trekking 6 days through the jungle for, you only have to hike over an hour’s worth out of El Cabo. It’s actually a fairly strenuous hike, mostly uphill on the way out, with these boulderous semi-steps leading most of the way. Unburdened of my non-hiking girlfriend, I happily mountain-goated my way about, losing the trail at one point and getting lost in thick foliage and sliding my way down a mountain. When I got to Pueblito, about the most interesting thing I can comment on seeing is the baby parrot sitting on an opened coconut and happily munching away while surrounded by a papparazi of Aussies snapping pictures and video. I gave in and took a picture as well, because he was damn cute.
I turned around and headed back, going too fast and slipping and falling a number of times as I sweat buckets. Upon returning to the boring but beautiful El Cabo, I joined my girlfriend in laying about in the hammock, and tried to read as well as I could without straining my neck.
That night, I met up with some trekkers I had seen on the way back from Ciudad Perdida, and shared some of their rum with them and drank some beers. I went to bed at a fairly reasonably late hour, I thought, considering that it gets dark at 5:00, but another group of people stayed up much later conversating right next to the line of people strung up in hammocks, laughing their asses off at things that weren’t even funny and annoying the shit out of me. Apparently, not many people stop to consider that the 30 other people strung up quietly in the night like larvae are actually trying to sleep.
Also, they do not provide you with mosquito nets at this luxurious Cabo location, and I was getting bit the shit out of by some unknown insect whose bites have welled up double the size of normal bites.
Also, I had to keep getting up to piss, because I’m not accustomed to drinking anymore. Which involved a stumbling about in the dark and bumping my ass into the face of the girl next to me, waking up my girlfriend to get her headlamp from her, and then stumbling out and peeing somewhere nearby and then trying to locate which hammock was mine out of the line of 50 other hammocks without shining the headlamp into everyones´faces, and then bumping a few more times into the girl next to me.
Also, I could begin to feel my stomach acting strangely, and could tell that I had some unpleasant bathroom time approaching first thing in the morning.
Also, I couldn’t move or stretch my legs sideways too much in the hammock and get comfortable without fear of swinging into the girl next to me.
Long story short, I slept even less than the 1st night. We had planned on staying three nights at Parque Tayrona, but now having witnessed the scene that is the somewhat-swimmable bays, non-refrigerated overpriced foods, and lack of various fresh juices on-hand, we decided to book it.
So we stumbled in the morning heat back through the jungle, back past the beach, waded through the water, and then had breakfast on the way out. We then tramped slowly back the long way out from Arrecifes through the windy muddy path all too reminiscent of the Ciudad Perdida christening, both my girlfriend and I growing increasingly weak and dizzy.
It was not over yet. The jungle wished to extract every ounce of pleasure and goodwill from our bodies. From the entrance of Arrecifes, it’s another long hour or so walk back to the entrance of the park. We had taken a jeep on the way in, but no transport was to be found on the way out. So we walked, and we walked, the approaching noon heat beating down. This walk down the road, in any other clime or time, would actually be quite pleasant: overhanging shade of dense green trees, a lack of frequent bypassing vehicles, and a slight breeze against the skin. But today, it was a hellish last haul, as my girlfriend stopped to vomit up the dregs of her morning ensalada de frutas, and my stomach burbled away dangerously. We stomped slowly by the remains of giant (giant) grasshoppers slewn by motorized vehicles. And finally, we made it to the entrance, where we just had time to buy a Gatorade before hopping on the bus that drives the hour back into Santa Marta.
And of course, our bus had to be the one stopped by the police and searched. We all had to disembark and watch as the police went through every compartment of our bags. The commanding officer was actually quite pleasant, and conversed with us about where we were from while another policemen shuffled through my backpack.
Anyway, so the synopsis of all of this is: our 3 days at Parque Tayrona was most definitely not relaxing. And yes, the park is beautiful. But the beaches ain’t really for just living it up and swimming, unless you just stay in your hammock all day long. We are more exhausted now then we were before we left, when we were just trying to relax after the long trek. And to top it off, now we’re ill. So my advice to you if you are planning on this requisite trip to Parque Tayrona: be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. Hawaii it may look like, but Hawaii it ain’t.