Within two hours I’d said goodbye to someone who left Bogotá for good a few days after me, gave up on an assignment and filled a backpack with random unsuitable clothes (jeans?!) before hopping on a one and a half hour flight north to a Colombia I hadn’t yet met. As you walk out of Santa Marta’s Simón Bolívar airport the heat beats you in the face, then smiles and says something like “¡Marica, bienvenidoh a la kohta!” (“Welcome to the coast, bitch!” said with friendly intent and the quick hammers of the costeño accent).
You live in Bogotá two months and begin to think you’ve got this country wired, that the Caribbean ain’t no thang. You know some slang, you surprise taxi drivers with your Spanish and you can even understand the costeño accent without too much difficulty. But you sweat, oh how you sweat. You give up on deodorant and begin to relish your own natural stink – your very own “chucha brava” (literally “angry body odour”). We stayed our first night in Santa Marta and came to the rude realisation that all of a sudden we were tourists, plugging into Colombia’s emerging backpacker trail. In Chris’ words, “I feel weird being around this many gringos all of a sudden”.
The Santa Marta you find in reality is not really the Santa Marta that Colombia’s tourism ministry would like you to think exists. It’s the oldest remaining town/city in Colombia, founded in 1525, and for this it does have some colourful old colonial buildings. All very nice, but the junkies in the street and the single beach with a big port to the left, a military base to the right, a cheesily lit up island offshore and a sewage outlet down the centre cancel out any colonial buildings, and then some. To the west, El Rodadero is the Colombian version of Australia’s Gold Coast, it’s only saving grace being that Vallenato replaces pill-head dubstep.
A little disillusioned by Santa Marta and backpackers who never seemed to leave the hostel, we struck out after one night for the town of Taganga, twenty minutes east up the coast, over a little range of hills. Taganga is one of those villages that would have been idyllic ten or twenty years ago – a younger version of Lagos in Portugal or Dahab in Egypt. There must have been a period, between when the guerrillas left and tourists started turning up, that this little fisherman’s town really must have been paradise. Now, drug dealers who gave up selling cars in the United States because there was “more money in selling coke here” and signs advertising Alcoholics Anonymous – in English and Spanish – tell a different story. The beaches in and around Taganga are beautiful from afar, and the view over town into the bay, to the island beyond at sunset will have you looking up local real estate listings. But take a stroll to the shore and you’ll find a polluted, pathetic excuse for a beach lined with cheesy, overpriced restaurants and mindless techno. Go out for a beer and a dance and you’ll find coked up tourists grinding teeth and groins with equal ferocity. Later, down on the beach, you’ll be forced to witness fat, drunk Germans and Englishmen forcefully trying to pick up local women who may or may not ask for payment later. There’s the token Australian at a beachfront restaurant bragging to his mates about how he’s “marrying a local girl in a few days” and whose Spanish is limited to “Ahmigoh, treys cervaysas paw fahvaw”. Later, he buys a few grams of coke from the waiter. There’s the guy running an honest bus company that takes tourists to and from Tayrona National Park, who compares his hometown to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, and who’s looking forward to getting the hell out. Forced to spend a night on our way back through in the opposite direction, we ambled past the local primary school, consumed by the chaos that is common to primary schools the world over. I couldn’t help wondering what was going to happen those kids in a town so quickly overwhelmed by tourism, where it’s far too easy to find a quick buck selling cocaine, weed or your body to foreigners.
It all sounds a little depressing but a remedy comes in the form of four words: Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona – Tayrona National Park. Robbie and I headed out first, while Johan and Chris chilled in Taganga for another day, and for our first act managed to unknowingly hold up a bus full of tourists for two hours.
There’s something very special about stumbling into a overcrowded minibus, cheerfully apologising as you whack curiously sweaty and unhelpful gringos with your backpack as you make for the last two spare seats right up the back. Then you see two girls from your Taganga hostel who’d left for a Tayrona bus two hours before, and you realise you’re getting on the 9:30 bus at 11:30. Your face goes red, and as you plead ignorance a German woman has to protect you from her daughter, who starts screaming at you about how “Eet’s not fair, vee only haff vun day een Tayrona! Vuy be so selvish?!”
The rest of the day was spent hiking and sweating along the coast, stopping at intervals to swim at increasingly, impossibly perfect beaches, and staying away from Team Germany for fear of copping another verbal blitzkrieg. Cabo San Juan del Guía became our campsite and base, and we spent the next four days or so migrating up and down the coast in search of food, beaches and shade, and the nights sweating it out in the tents. Minor irritations included mosquitoes and absence of cooking facilities, and meals that cost between 15000 and 20000 pesos – the park authorities have you exactly where they want you. But these paled in comparison to the perks, which included beaches with the best beauty/people ratio I’ve ever seen, becoming more beautiful and more empty the deeper you ventured into the park. Playa Brava literally brought a tear to my eye.
It’s like someone’s stumbled into Tayrona’s settings and accidentally jacked up the colour contrast. The foliage is too green, the ocean too blue, too clear, the coconuts blinding white when you crack them (we lived off them, rather than the 20000 peso fish for lunch). Even the frogs, lizards and one snake we saw were all jet blacks and fluorescent yellows, blues and greens. I grew up with Australia’s dry browns and the wildlife that has adapted to blend into it, and I can imagine that the first Spaniards to turn up back in 1525 must’ve been tripping pretty hard on all those colours. Other pluses included the bath-warm ocean and the odd coincidence that we seemed to be sharing our campsite with a small selection of Colombia’s most attractive people.
After four or five days (I don’t remember) the skin was raw, the hair looked and felt like pipe cleaners, the eyes were red, everything stunk and we didn’t care. If there’d been surf, I’d never have left, but as it happened I had to be back in Bogotá for university and Robbie and Johan were ready to move on. Chris stayed on for more, and thus the three of us left in a creaking boat that took us back to Taganga, past Lord of the Rings style coastline, all shy mountains hiding behind clouds and a carpet of jungle, plunging headlong into the ocean when you got too close.
Now, back home in Bogotá, my salty hair still stands on end, my sunburn is starting to peel and my fingers and feet are still sliced up from scrambling and swimming on and around rocky headlands. Johan and Robbie are smoking cigars in Cartagena and Chris is still making like a hermit in Tayrona. Bogotano friends are buried away under piles of uni work, and my housemates are still scattered around the country. The someone I said goodbye to before I left is long gone, and it’s pretty safe to say it’s a little lonely here at the moment, for the time being. That said, as far as places to be solitary go, Bogotá isn’t so bad at all. It’s just that Tayrona is possibly a little better.
Anyhow, feast your eye holes on the photos! If you’re not jealous, you should be.