Dark* Jungle Camp in Colombia
Updated: Jul 11, 2020
Just a coupla girls, exploring the forbidding tropics of South America. . .
From our base in Santa Marta, one of my best friends and I embarked on an adventure to the nearby Parque Tayrona, a beautiful national park spanning a good part of the northeastern Colombian coastline, planning to spend a couple of nights at one of the beaches there. If you've ever talked to anyone who's visited Colombia there's a good chance they've either been there or wanted to go there. It was very talked up. On arrival to the park’s entrance we bought a few beers and some insect repellent from the outrageously priced convenience shop (they were watching 5th Element on a tiny tv mounted on the wall) and hadn’t walked more than a few steps before:
a) An old man called me over to say good day, when I got closer I realized he was jacking off, and
b) Walking a few more yards, we got a very friendly “shakedown” by a young military officer.
He was bored, curious and arrogant, and we were reasonably charming young girls willing to accommodate his demands… of testing out my portable speakers. He insisted his were better and brought them out to illustrate the point. I wisely remained silent, while appreciating the weirdness of being in the Columbian jungle and having a speaker - off with the military. Even after enduring his flirtatious advances on my friend – “if you were really married, your ring would be gold, not silver”, we could still appreciate that we were fortunate in that we didn’t have to pay any money or let him take anything valuable in order to pass.
It probably helped that I whipped out my polaroid camera and then gave him a photo with my friend and I as a gift. He really got a kick out of that (I have an identical copy, it's kinda badass). We heard from the other travelers along the way that most shakedowns weren’t this nice at all, and that they were fairly common along the three hour park trek following the coastline. Items reported in the "price to pass" included an expensive set of sunglasses, cash, and any alcohol.
I soon realized I’d magnificently managed to pack everything I needed for this venture except my sneakers and a flashlight, and it was fast approaching twilight, so we accepted a $15 dollar horse ride for most of the way to our beach destination. My friend looked great bouncing up and down perfectly as the experienced rider she is, while I, in my short shorts, sunnies and hair flying everywhere, was clenching the horse in a death grip with my thighs, still trying to take photos (naturally). I literally almost lost my head once thanks to a low lying tree branch that came out of nowhere. The human "guides" provided with the horses apparently did not see fit to give us any information or advice on horse riding or the trail. They just loaded us on and smacked the horse's ass, then jogged after us, a good ways behind and totally ignoring our amateurism or discomfort, only stopping to whistle loudly if the horse started meandering.
The trail cut through straight up wild jungle which was unbelievable – we even saw some monkeys which I want to call howler monkeys although I am aware that this is almost definitely incorrect (EDIT: finally looked them up - they're called Cotton-top Tamarin monkeys, a kind of monkey I feel like it's safe to say most of us have never heard of, and also endemic to Colombia. These days I'm a little more monkey-savvy, having been growled at by and growled back at a real howler monkey). They were small and spindly and cute, high up in the canopy of dense trees reaching desperately for sunlight.
It had recently rained and the going was pretty mucky, our poor horses sinking into 2-3 feet of mud often, while at other times the trail narrowed into literally vertical rock crevices and I still don’t know how they did it. Horses are amazing. All I know is that hanging on for dear life in this surreal jungle after the luxurious comfort of Casa de Leda Hotel only hours ago was one of the funnest moments on our trip to date.
When we finally arrived at the last beach, Cabo, we were so covered in horse sweat and jungle muck our long hair was dripping and our only thought was: BEACH SWIM. We carelessly paid for a tent with two of the filthiest bed mats we’d ever seen, choosing to ignore the fact that another bed bug crisis could easily be imminent, and went straight into the ocean. It was glorious. Nothing in the world feels as cleansing as a saltwater swim, and it had been months since the last one for me. The campsite had two beautiful small crescent beaches, a covered eating area and a small restaurant with apathetic service from two rude locals, and not much else. We settled on the beach with a beer and a cigarette and set back to enjoy one of the best lightning shows I’ve ever seen. Actually, probably one of the only ones I've seen, at least of that magnitude. It lasted for an hour at least.
Later, everyone at the site huddled in the covered eating area while the heavens opened up and poured down for hours. My friend and I played cards and dice with a couple of funny German doctors, funny as in strange, and it was around then, with the loud, heavy sound of rain and darkness around us, that we realized the ominous atmosphere of the place, with its subtle undercurrent of tension. Or at least I thought so, anyway. We were, after all, two girls traveling by ourselves, miles from anywhere in the Colombian jungle, and I only had my tiny pocketknife that can barely cut an apple. It doesn't even have the toothpick or tweezers option, it's so tiny.
The night passed without incident, but we left first thing in the morning on horses again and though we enjoyed it, we weren't able to shake that sinister jungle feeling. That, or a couple of very sore asses. We made it back to Casa de Leda in the afternoon to collect our bags, dirty and reeking of horse and jungle more than ever. Our pre-booked minibus to the port city of Cartagena came an hour late, forcing us to wait in the street like two crazed and filthy prostitutes. We got more than a few stares. Still, I'd do it all again!
*Dark as in my imagination - I should note this was probably the most "alarmed" I was during my entire 1.5 months traveling alone in Colombia. Using good sense as often as possible (lol), I felt pretty safe in Colombia in general.