Of my 3 week visit to Colombia the three days I had scheduled to be in Tayrona National Park were by far what I was most excited for. Ever since I was a little boy collecting plastic frogs and staring at posters of the Amazon, I had craved visiting a tropical forest. I imagined myself ducking for cover as striped monkeys leaped in the canopy above me and being kept awake at night from the deafening chorus of the unseen jungle inhabitants.
The actual Tayrona is located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, about 1 hour from the city of Santa Marta. The park itself is mainly mountainous jungle with large boulder outcroppings dispersed throughout, and iced with white sand beaches along the seaside edge. Where I, and my Colombian travel partner were headed was Cabo San Juan, a campsite located 2 hours deep into the jungle where basic amenities and a place to sleep could be found.
After paying our entry and a very sweaty hike to our destination, we arrived and Tayrona Day 1 had begun. We spent the remainder of that day hanging around the campsite at Cabo San Juan and by the time night fell I hadn’t seen a single flock of macaws , nor had I been enveloped in a technicolour swirl of tropical fish while swimming at the beach. Exhausted we went to bed early in our open-air hammocks and I told myself that the jungle would open itself to me in the morning.
On Day 2 of Tayrona I woke up in good time and set off on a hike by myself up the mountainous Pueblito trail. I scrambled over boulders and saw more lizards than I could count, but I eventually sweat myself dry and I surrendered to Cabo San Juan in the midday heat. I had enjoyed my hike and to the park’s credit I did see one colourful frog, but the magical connection with an other worldly presence of nature was still evading me.
As the day drew to an end I started to question whether Tayrona was going to be what I expected it to be. Although, I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting it to be. Night vanquished we visitors by no later than 8pm, the mosquitos and the heat were oppressive to say the least and the hammocks and our camping food were getting old fast. I started to think that maybe three days was too long and that maybe whatever it was that I was looking for never actually existed. Regardless I still had a couple days to wait and hopefully see.
On our last full day we decided to go to La Piscina, which is a beach about a 20 minute hike away from the main camp site. The site is a bay with a string of rocks about 500 metres out that break the waves and make the bay a calm natural swimming pool, hence the name “La Piscina”. To cool off from the heat I immediately went for a swim when we arrived and I started to day dream in the sun as I tread water just deep enough that my toes couldn’t touch the bottom. Suddenly to wake me from my stupor, a heard a jet of spray nearby and a bearded face obscured by goggles and a snorkel emerged from the waves. “Una tortuga más grande”, my newly discovered swimming partner shouted to me with salt water muffling his words. My travel Spanish not failing me, I ducked under the surface to hopefully get a glimpse of the supposed “big turtle” that this person was reporting. But, despite the amount of times I dove down I couldn’t make out the shape of “una tortuga” amongst the blurred greens and blues of La Piscina.
Seeing my desperation, my mysterious friend swam over and communicated in Spanish for me to take his goggles and snorkel so I could properly take-in the sight. With immense gratitude I shook the water from my newly acquired equipment and dove once again in search of the turtle. Now that I could see clearly, I could truly appreciate the beauty of La Piscina. Translucent fish with yellow spots explored the rocks that decorate the clay and white sand ocean floor. Beds of sea grass swayed with the tide and I could watch the powerful surf roll in from below. I patrolled this world until I couldn’t swim any longer and I retreated to the beach without having found what I was looking for. After I returned my goggles and thanked their owner, I lay down in the shade and dozed off in the sand, with my body still surging with the waves.
When I awoke I looked to La Piscina and I noticed 3 snorkels circling something out in the waves. I guessed that “la tortuga” had returned and I stumbled into the water to get my second chance. I joined the snorkels and with my feeble terrestrial vision, I could faintly make out the shape of a large sea turtle swimming below them. Once again my bearded hero came to the rescue and abandoned his gear with me on his way to the shore. I donned his goggles and shamelessly bit the end of his snorkel as I descended beneath the surface to meet the elusive “tortuga más grande”. Below me I could finally see it. A Green Sea Turtle about 3 feet long was coasting along the bottom lazily grabbing up mouthfuls of sea grass. Hyperventilating through my snorkel, I followed, floating above the carefree reptile as it gracefully navigated its sea world. I wasn’t sure when I would have the chance to do something like this ever again, so I decided to make the most of it and I swam down to stroke its slippery carapace. As I slid my hands over its shell and made eye contact with the nervous yellow remora suction cupped to the turtle’s underside, I realized that I had found what I didn’t know I was looking for in Tayrona. I followed this nonchalant novelty until my fingers were pruned and I returned to the beach light-headed from the encounter.
After my encounter with the sea turtle, Tayrona and I were on the same wave length. I spent the afternoon swimming with schools of blue fish in the bay and collecting corals on the beach. That night I retreated to my hammock at dusk and fell asleep with the rhythm of the surf rocking my hammock back and forth. I ended up finding what I knew Tayrona had to offer, my childhood craving to connect with nature in the tropics was satisfied and I had validated my three day stay in the jungle. I learned that it takes some time to acclimatize and also a brief encounter with a sea turtle to be able to catch the rhythm of Tayrona. Thankfully, I eventually came to truly realize the amazing beauty that this place has to offer.
As for my bearded saviour, he introduced himself to me in Spanish as Rocko the Brazilian who had come from the coast of Brazil through Peru and Bolivia on his motorcyle. He also mentioned something about Venezuela and an “inglesa” in Suriname, but I mostly just thanked him and I will again. Gracias!