A day in Tayrona Park: Muddy jungle trek & wild beachfront

Tayrona Park is one of the must do’s in Northern Colombia if you ask me. From Taganga you can take daily boat transfers to Tayrona park. Its about an 35km boat ride (1:15h), but be prepared for choppy waters. Not for everyones stomach ;o). 

I actually preferred the bus option on the way into the park that takes you first to Santa Marta (calle 11/cra. 11, 20-30mins, pretty frequent, 2.5k COP) and then Tayrona park entrance (another 30-40mins, 7k COP). This works out at about half the cost of tourbus operators. The bus driver is meant to let you know where to get off, but best keep an eye out yourself. Once at the park entrance, its a 2h walk first on muddy jungle roads at least this time of the year (Nov/early Dec). My recommendation … just take the shoes off. Doesn’t hurt, looks way less embarrassing than hopping around to keep your new trainers clean and is actually healthy. 

Once you managed to get through the jungle, you will get to enjoy a nice walk on the beach until you get to the swim spot (la piscina) near Cabo St Juan. On the way you’ll find camping grounds, indigenous selling coco nuts and beach restaurants with refreshments and excellent fish (I am saying this as not a big fish eater … lovely stuff).

As I mentioned above, the boat is the best way home from here. Loads are waiting with 4.30pm usually the last departures. Don’t miss it as camp sites are often fully booked in peak season. Better though, in hindsight, get your hands on one of the hammocks in the lodge at Cabo San Juan beach (though pricey, see here for details). 

Magic place!

 

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Taganga: Still a great spot to get away from Santa Marta’s hustle & bustle

I hadn’t actually picked up on Taganga until Uri, my Israeli fellow Spanish student, mentioned to me. Its 10mins by car from Santa Marta, an Israeli hotspot and offers a way better beach than in the centre of Santa Marta and some good value watersports such as diving, kite surfing etc. It also boasts good accomodation including hotels, hostels & airbnbs (many with great seaviews) as well as many restaurants.

The lonely planet verdict is quite a bit more negative on Taganga in that it deems the place, once a quiet fishing village, as overbuilt and overrun. I share some of the criticism in particular that there local economy hasn’t participated enough in the tourist influx, but also like its evening charm.

Everything is just so close and with a good vibe altogether. Significantly less hassle than on the beachfront in central Santa Marta, much fewer street prostitutes (against what I had been told) and with a fair bit of Hippy touch as every second a guy tries to sell you a tribal wristband (I have 4 by now myself despite not buy any there).

Good place to relax for a few days and use as a base for nearby spots Tayrona & even Minca though for that Santa Marta itself cuts out one (bus) stopover. 

A few days in Santa Marta …

Santa Marta doesn’t exactly boast the strongest reputation amongst travel destinations in Colombia. In fact, most people merely use it as a base for trips to the lost city (see here), nearby Tayrona park or the village Minca with its outdoor & coffee tours. However, its not that bad after all and, in a similar fashion to Cali, has its own charm if you just give it a little time and don’t get upset about a lack of a free walking tour. For business minded people, I think there is not free walking tour on offer yet ;o)

I don’t do religion except for Pink Floyd. Stephen (Liverpool)

My first night was indeed just before my own lost city tour. I spent the afternoon in Hostel Masaya on calle 14 & carrera 5 (great place), more precisely in one of its pools on the rooftop. The first stroll through town was a bit of a shock. The city is pretty dirty and, judging by chats in the hostel, is perceived as pretty dangerous (in partiucular calle 10 & lower at night). The beach seemed too much of a hassle to go … alone is tricky in any case if you value your belongings somewhat. Otherwise my stroll was fine.

Surely, once the sun sets and you wander about the malecon / beach front you will get inundated with cocaine & marihuana offerings by street dealers and attract the attention of the many hookers (or putas). The hooker issue has so far been the most pronounced in any of the cities I have seen, chiefly due to its proximity to Venezuela that has sent many women into forced prostitution to make a living for themselves, their children and relatives (see this economist article for a good summary). Many people sound caution with these girls and reports of theft (money, cards, phone) and drugging (scopolamine – cheeky mind control drug) resurface all too often to be just myth. The limited number of police (especially at night whrre threy seem fewer in numbers) doesn’t offer enough protection.

On the other hand, there are several low key restaurants near the seafront with outdoor seating that invite for a cold beer and, as I would find out, some spontaenous salsa action and chatty locals (requires Spanish of course). There is also a few vibrant streets on calle 14 & higher that feel perfectly safe, offer plenty of food options (be nit street or restaurant), street music and good vibes generally. So its really a big mix. Just pick wisely!

Most interesting was the time out with the folks from the hostel. There was a french guy who studies hospitality and has just completed a 6mth placement in Masaya (great Spanish skills), a Venezuelan guy working at Masaya, another french guy married to a Colombian who is working in the Medellin outfit of Masaya and the highly interesting Stephen from Liverpool (Everton fan though to get the record straight … must be excited about the upcoming derby in the FA cup). 

Stephen has moved to Colombia 7 month ago and fallen in love with Santa Marta. As he says, its the kind of place where he fits in. His own history is quite a story. He has overcome long-term addiction (27y of heroin, 22y crack cocaine), 4 kids and by now 9 grandchildren (if I count correctly … and just from his eldest daughter) and years of work to help other addicts. Without going into too much detail here, i really enjoyed the open conversation we had on several occasions, his stories and his views on life. You don’t often find people that live to tell this story (as Stephen reminded, most of his friends that got on heroin in the 70’s are dead). Great guy – good luck with everything!

So whats your story of Santa Marta gonna be?

Rodadero: Nice beach, an acquarium & a lot of amigos …

I didn’t spent too much time in Rodadero though this was partly due to me not being aware of the place before. Too much enjoyment on the Masaya hostel roof top I guess with friends Stephen & co. The beach / town lies between the airport and Santa Marta itself. Its beachfront is dominated by large, mostly white apartment buildings with either sea or ‘mountain’ view. Much of Santa marta is made up of green mountain scenery in fact. Quite idyllic at times. 

The beach strip reminds of the many tourists in town with plenty of western restaurant offering. Unfortunately also a lot of ‘amigos’ – guys that try to sell you mainly tours over here rather than cocaine and/or girls (although I am sure they can help you in many ways if you have the right amount of peso’s). The beach itself is of better quality than Santa Marta, but you are even better off getting a COP12k return ride to playa blanca right next to the aquarium. 

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The latter (COP35k) is worth a visit if you haven’t been at an aquarium before. Outdoors it offers several large pools with 3 smaller dolphins, the three larger (show) dolphins and plenty of other sea life including huge turtles. There is also a small fish museum with more creatures and and a hall with indigenous artefacts on display. Including a 20min show and a walk around you should budget with 90mins in total. the rest depends on how quickly the boat transfer to/from the beachfront takes you.

Having fallen in love a bit with the nightlife charm of Santa Marta, I prefer having out there. But a night or two in Rodadero are still time well spent.

 

Ciudad Perdida: Amazing jungle trek to the lost city

The first time I heard of the lost city trek was from Rory – part of the Everest summit team in May. He had lived in South America for some time when he was still a professional poker player. In Colombia itself most hikers won’t miss that trek. While that made me somewhat suspicious, the trip delivered with great (and advanced) hiking, good group spirit and a rewarding lost city experience.

I booked the trek in my Santa Marta hostel (Masaya – recommended). A little research suggested that while there are 6 companies or so offering the tour, they have all the same itinerary and charge exactly the same (COP850,000). Doing it unguided isn’t really an option given required transport to the trailhead (needs off-road jeep and knowledge as to where), no good camping/tent options and difficulties getting food as each hiking team brings their own food & chef. I did it with expotour.

A little background

The city was built between the eighth and the fourteenth centuries by the Tayrona Indians. Nowadays only circular stone terraces covered by jungle remain, but the views and the location of the site are extraordinary. A local name for Ciudad Perdida/Lost City is Teyuna.  

Tayrona Indians: When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, tension mounted over many years until confrontations between the Spanish and the Tayrona forced the natives to move their settlements higher into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This move saved them from both the system of rule the Spanish brought to the region and from an unseen killer, disease. Today the descendants of the Tayrona go by the names of the Wiwa, the Arhuacos, the Cancuamo and the Kogi.

See here & here for more.

4 day return hike (~46km) – not for beginners

We left the tour office in Santa Marta around 10am crammed into two jeeps. I travelled with two dutch girls (one jusgt completed the NY marathon, one a Spanish ace), a swede (Johan), joe (uk) and a couple from Alabama (news of dangerous animals such as snakes, but also great beaches were new to me). The journey was meant to take 2,5h would It not have been for an accident induced hold-up. Our driver basically took out a motorbike in a bend injuring both riders. Silly driving really. Then it got really busy as a large truck delivering a digger also arrived to remove some landslide that coverred the road on several occasions after heavy rain the night before. Once the police had arrived we got loaded on a new vehicle and continued. The last hour of driving through the jungle and by now in indigenous territory to the pueblo El Mamey was pretty rocky and with often a steep way down on our left (my window). But we made it without further delay or motion sickness. Time for lunch & more introductions.

Day 1: How wet is wet?

The short hike on the first day would take us some 3,5-4h and included ascending 500m. As luck had it, the so far hot day was not to last. As soon as we had crossed the first river the skies opened and we basically walked all the way in rain. It made some mud-fight and soggy shoes. But somehow it felt great and liberating. After key sections we got refreshments (watermelon – how fitting if I think about it now ;o) or had the opportunity to buy them (water, beer, snacks).

I ended up finishing the day with Markus & Eva from Germany (somewhere near Ulm). They are on their annual leave and we had much to talk about including useful tips on my Yukon plans (as Markus had been there). Key takeaways: a) take loads of whiskey & b) prepare yourself for war with the mosquitos. It felt like a victory when we reached camp after dark for a great dinner (fish on the menu).

Once we sorted equipment, it was time for entertainment. To my surprise, the monopoly deal game i brought along was an instant hit and we played until lights were switched off. Bedtime in the largest outdoor dorm I have come across – luxury alomost considering where we were.


What to take with you? 

  • Enough cash (beers go for 5-7,000 a piece)
  • Insect repellent (take a good one!)
  • Sun lotion
  • Snacks (not heavy and good between meals)
  • Short trousers
  • Two easy drying tops
  • Swim trunk/suit
  • Towel
  • Aqua pack (1.5-2l, ideally take some supplement tablets as you sweat a lot)
  • Head-torch
  • Hiking poles (really helps on the muddy trek)
  • Hiking boots & two pair of socks
  • Havajianas
  • Light jumper for evenings (in general you might appreciate long clothing for mosquitos)
  • Hat/baseball cap & buff (for the sweat)
  • Water for first day (purified water afterwards is ok)
  • Cards (monopoly deal was a hit!)
  • Wireless speaker (UE2 BOOM no less)
  • Battery pack (not essential as you can charge phone in the camps)
  • Dry bags for all your stuff
  • One book (max., I finally managed to finish ‘Born to Run’)
  • Sunglasses
  • Hygiene stuff (ideally biodegfradeable soap)
  • Basic meds (guides are ill prepared for issues and you are remote, ibuprofen / paracetamol at least)

Day 2: Learning about Tayrona Indian culture

The second day started with a 5am wake-up, 5.30am breakfast until we got going around 6.15am. Boots remained as wet as last night – which goes for any clothing. The humidity is so high that you are better off keeping it in a bucket of water overnight! Today we had some 200-300m altitude gain ahead of us until the final camp before reaching the lost city.

We passed indigenous villages (where kids traded sweets for pictures), learned about the indigenous culture. These Tayrona Indians live here completely self sustained. Impressive. Coka is an important part of their culture though only consumed by men in the form of leaves – not in the processed (white) version. In fact, locals chew the coka leavers together with powder/calcium from crushed seashells. The residue (spit?!) over time forms a  ever growing, white ring on the poporo. The men use it as a powerful mix that keeps away hunger and lets them walk on for a long time. Appearantly the shaman is also reading from it every 10y or so … what it says I don’t know ;o)

Weather wise we stayed dry all day, enjoyed a swim over lunch time and and generally felt much better about things with some stunning scenary and flora on the way. While the way was still mainly up, the group was pretty fast and maanged all distances well below guided time.

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A Poporo – the white bit wasn’t there when the Poporo was new

Day 3: Entering the lost city

We started early again. 4.30am we were up. Main reason was a pretty noisy columbian school class, which we wanted to front-run basically before they got to ciudad perdida. The hike up was pretty short (c1h), but very steep. Once up, we got a low down of the history. How it was used as sacred place (still, indigenous meet every September here), how tomb raiders went after the gold burried with past dead residents and how a farer family rediscivered the city.

The city itself turned out a lot larger than I had thought and we had it almost to ourselves early on. Great panoramic views made the journey here really worthwhile. The next two hours or so we spent venturing around the place. Me & Johan were in a particularly good mood and really took in the views. What a cool place! Memorable experience for sure.

The way down seemed even steeper and it was super humid. By the time we got back to camp we all appreciated a pre-lunch swim in the cold river. Add  bit of UE2 Boom music and a few aguila beers and you have a little party going right there.

The way to our overnight camp was in tendency down, but not straightline. Amazing jungle views all over and the weather remained kind. At the end waited another river to refresh in and relax as well as the final round of Monopoly deal (I won the company at least 3-4 buyers … should consider charging commission!).

On a more negative note, our chef had slipped in the lost city and dislocated his arm. The swelling was huge and his pain likeewise. Poor fella though good to note that he was better the day after.

Day 4: Home

The last day is a crisp 6h walk with a few stops with fruits and drinks. Again no rain, great vistas and the indigenous villages we saw on the way in. Everyone happy to have made it and after a well deserved lunch also ready to get back to civilisation (and mobile reception). Don’t miss that trek if you visit colombia. It’s really worth it.