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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.