Welcome to the Jungle: Adventures in Tayrona

Welcome to the Jungle: Adventures in Tayrona

Something happens in the jungle at the faintest hint of dusk: the once quiet atmosphere begins to reverberate with a chorus of insects and howler monkeys, all simultaneously as if on cue. I’ll never forget the moment I first heard the jungle choir. We were six deep – me and my husband, my brother and his girlfriend, and another American couple from D.C. – walking through the jungle at dusk, frantically making mental calculations as to how much time we had before the darkness of night would envelop us.

It seemed like we’d been walking for miles without seeing another soul in sight. Nothing looked familiar, yet everything looked the same. Trees and brush ahead of us, and more trees and brush behind us.

“I know I’m not crazy. Does any of this look familiar, Jave?”

“Yes, Carmel – I’m telling you…we’re headed in the right direction,” he replied, somewhat reassuringly. But the fact of the matter is nothing looked familiar to either of us. How could it? This was the first time that any of us had ventured into Tayrona National Natural Park, an area spanning nearly 58 square miles along Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast. I knew that Jave was just hoping we were headed in the right direction – we all were.

As Jave and I walked up a steep, unpaved and somewhat muddy hill, the rest of the group fell behind.

“Aaron!” I shouted my brother’s name at the top of my lungs, realizing that he and the rest of the group were no longer within sight. “Aaron!”

“We’re coming,” I heard his faint response in the distance. There was no way I was going to lose my brother in this jungle.

While we waited for my brother and the rest of the group to catch up, I started to lean against a huge, towering rock but stopped myself when I noticed an army of thousands of leaf-carrying red ants marching in a single file line along the rock to some unknown destination. My skin prickled. The whole scene looked like something on the Discovery Channel.

In Panama, my family and I lived across the road from a jungle teeming with poisonous snakes, poisonous plants, poisonous frogs, and even jaguars. But there were defined boundaries, and we knew better than to wander too far past them. Tayrona is teeming with much of the same deadly wildlife if not more, but in Tayrona, there were no boundaries. We were in the thick of the jungle, the sun was on the verge of setting, and we were lost.

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The starting point of our hike

Our day in Tayrona started off without incident. Despite the fact that we were on a purely Spanish-speaking tour and could only make out bits and pieces of what was being said, we were content to stick together as a group as we hiked for nearly two hours to Cabo San Juan, one of Tayrona’s most popular and most beautiful beaches.

Starting off, we walked along this path although it eventually ended
Starting off, we walked along this path although it eventually ended

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The intense heat, having to climb up a few steep rocks, and dredging through sand during a portion of our hike were really the most difficult parts of our adventure. That, and making sure not to step in piles of red ants that seemed to be everywhere.

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Hikers ahead of us
Hikers ahead of us

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We passed by this house on our way to Cabo San Juan
We passed by a few houses like this on our way to Cabo San Juan

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But apart from that, we were treated with brief rest stops along the way to enjoy fresh coconuts being sold by indigenous kids, to drink freshly squeezed orange juice being sold at one of several beaches we passed en route to our beach, and to take in the incredible views.

Fresh coconut water...aahh...
Fresh coconut water…aahh…
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As we hiked, we were so jealous of everyone we saw swimming. Jealous, I say!

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Drenched and sweating like a man. Funny thing is, my man was relatively dry.

When we finally arrived to Cabo San Juan, I was eager to shed my sweaty shorts and jump headfirst into the waves, and after securing our belongings in a rented locker, that’s exactly what I did as we laid our clothes out to dry in the humid Colombian heat.

Cabo San Juan campground
Cabo San Juan campground
First glimpse of Cabo San Juan
First glimpse of Cabo San Juan

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After a short hour spent cooling off in the water, our guide called us to lunch at the beachside restaurant. Lunch was delicious – the standard fare of fried fish, patacones, and beans and rice. But before we knew it, lunch was over and we weren’t allowed more playtime in the water because it was time to hike back to the park’s entrance. Local beach hustlers asked if we wanted to pay extra to head back on a speedboat or make our way back on horseback. Although it was tempting, none of us were willing to shell out extra cash, so we declined.

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Instead of waiting on our guide who was an older gentleman with a limp that slowed him down, many people in our group decided to get a jump start on the hike back, and we followed suit. We reached a rest stop that we had passed on the way to Cabo San Juan where we decided to stop for a bathroom break. But when we came out, the rest of our group was gone.

Anxious to get back and out of the heat, instead of waiting for our guide and the rest of the group to catch up to where we were, we set off on our own, confident that finding our way back would be a piece of cake.

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Mosquitos sucked the life out of my sweat-drenched body as Jave and I waited for Aaron and the other three to catch up to us on top of the steep hill.

“This is like a really bad episode of Naked and Afraid,” I said worriedly to Jave who was quietly pacing back and forth as I smacked mosquitos off of my legs.

We’d been walking for miles, and oddly, we hadn’t come across anyone from our group.

“My mom is going to kill us if she loses both of her kids in the Colombian jungle,” I said. “And our cell phones aren’t even working,” I continued, adding fuel to my doubts and fears.

“Carmel, can you just be quiet!” Jave snapped, as Aaron and everyone else finally reached the top of the hill.

“We’re lost, Aaron, and you know it. None of this looks familiar. We didn’t pass any of this!” I said.

“Just calm down,” Aaron said, not wanting to admit that I was right. “Let’s keep walking. This path has to lead somewhere.”

So we walked on. The sunlight continued to dim, the mosquitos got increasingly aggressive, and the jungle choir chirped and howled away.

We have to build a shelter and we have to figure out how to build a fire, I thought to myself trying to remember everything I’d ever learned from watching Bear Grylls.

Just then, the unmistakable clickety-clacking of horse hoofs interrupted my morbid thoughts, and sure enough, one of the horse-riding guides carrying a tourist back to the entrance appeared behind us.

“Oh, señor!” I greeted him ecstatically. “La entrada del parque…¿donde es?” I asked in my broken survival Spanish. He dismissively pointed towards the left and continued to clickety-clack on his way.

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After that encounter, we still didn’t make it back to the park’s entrance for another forty minutes or so, and during that stretch of time, my mind still raced with doubts as to whether we were really on the right path, even when out of seemingly nowhere, a guy from our tour group caught up to us to walk the rest of the distance with us.

I can’t begin to tell you just how relieved I was when we finally made our way to the park’s stable adjacent to a parking lot. And I can’t begin to tell you how happy I was when we saw a vendor walking around the lot selling helado and popsicles. Heaven! I treated myself to two red popsicles – double for my trouble.

As we refreshed ourselves, Aaron admitted that he also began to wonder if we were headed in the right direction, but he didn’t want to say anything because he didn’t want me or his girlfriend to panic. He admitted that he was also thinking about the first steps we’d need to take to survive in the event that the sun completely set and we couldn’t find our way back in the dark. As for Jave, he continued to insist that he knew we weren’t lost despite the fact that we somehow ended up on a completely different path than the one we took earlier.

Relieved, we waited around in the parking lot for a good twenty minutes or so before the rest of our group – and eventually our guide – began to trickle in just as the sunlight completely faded to black.

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*We took our guided tour with Expotur. In spite of everything, given the few options for guided tours of Tayrona, I’d still recommend them. Just keep in mind that your tour will be in Spanish, and if you want to avoid potentially getting lost in the jungle, stick with your guide – even if he walks slowly.

The cost of our tour was 90,000 COP (approx. $30 USD) per person which included transport to/from the tour office in the historic center of Santa Marta, national park entrance, a guide, and travel insurance. Lunch at the beachside restaurant wasn’t included.

PINNABLE

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Have you ever gotten lost in the outdoors?

  • What an awesome trip. You have a great gift of storytelling. I’m not sure if I could have done the jungle, girl, my hat is off to you!
    Love the pics!!!

  • Kasi Perkins

    What a great story! Definitely glad y’all made it back safely! I would’ve been so worried as well! Your pictures were great, the jungle looked beautiful!

    • Thanks, Kasi! I’m glad we made it back safely too. If I ever find myself in a jungle again (and I’m sure I will), I’ll never wander away from my guide again!

  • It looks breathtaking, jungle and all. You were brave against those mosquitoes, I just cannot deal with them!

  • Antoinette Cain

    Wow. What an adventure. Thanks for sharing. The images are beautiful.

  • I’ve been hearing so many great things about Colombia! It looks absolutely stunning and besides the mosquitoes, it sounds like a good time.

    LiveLifeWell,
    Allison

  • OhNikka

    What a fun hike and trip!! This reminds me of when I went to PR and I went to the rainforest and hiked down over 200 stairs to get to this beautiful waterfall, but then had to climb those steps to get back up. 🙂

    • Looking back, the trip was fun although getting lost sucked. It sounds like you went to El Yunque in PR. My cousin went and was sharing a similar experience about hiking down some stairs to get to a waterfall. Sounds fun!

  • I can tolerate heat but I would freak out over mosquitos. The pictures are stunning, I would be terribly afraid to be out there at night.

  • J King

    I was all good until you mentioned the mosquitoes. Lol! Everything looks beautiful!

  • Tia @ financiallyfitandfab

    Awesome! The pictures are beautiful. Columbia is one of the countries on my bucket list for travel!

  • Marsha

    Oh wow! What an adventure! Based on the pics, I bet the scenery was gorgeous. Did the experience make up for the mosquitos?

    • Looking back, the experience definitely made up for the mosquitoes and getting lost!

  • Frank Thomae

    Been there twice, travelling solo, and the first time got lost just as you did. The 2nd time my stomach acted up and I had to go take a crap in the woods, hoping that the tourist bus wouldn’t happen to pass at the exact moment (or that a snake wouldn’t bite me in the ass). That’s 2nd time we also stayed in the Ecohabs (which you probably saw along the way). Beautiful but a rip off – and just happened that the day we were there it was innundated with soldiers because the vice-president was the for a conference. Lots of memories of Tayrona 🙂

    • Lmao at having to take a poop in the woods…I’d be afraid of the snakes too. But they were probably more afraid of you given the situation. 😉

  • Kemkem

    Now you know why l don’t hike! 🙂 . I do however get lost often. I remember once ending in Compton (boy did l freak out) trying to get to Grand Ave downtown. Don’t even ask me how it happened..days before GPS or cell phone! Glad you made it out okay, but let me tell you, l would have been screaming so loud for help, they would have heard me in Bogota!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 .

    • So funny! Jave has a similar story of getting lost in Compton. Shortly after he moved here and before he had navigation, he couldn’t find his way from downtown to Santa Monica and ended up in Compton. Lol! I’m glad we made it out safely too…lesson learned!

thatgirlcarmel

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