Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cartagena & Tayrona National Park: A Little Taste of the Colombian Coast

NOTE: This blog is best viewed using Firefox, or Google Chrome. Internet Explorer for some reason cuts off the captions on my photos.

Any mention of the nation of Colombia, and it is almost impossible to avoid thoughts of drugs and danger. Pablo Escobar, Medellin, Cocaine. These three subjects have more or less dictated the current notion foreigners hold of Colombia. However, after only one week of traveling through this impoverished land, did I realize Colombia has so much more to offer (alongside all the drugs and danger of course). Traveling along the Caribbean coast from the 500 year-old colonial city of Cartagena to the hammock-strewn beaches of Tayrona National Park, I have come to the conclusion that if being a drug lord doesn't fulfill your dreams, the coast of Colombia definitely will. Onto the highlights:

Cartagena - Arriving by plane into the colonial city of Cartagena - "the most beautiful city in Colombia" - any pre-existing premonition of Colombia was immediately thrown away, and instead replaced by awe at how a country so stricken by violence and a turbulent history could have so much to offer. Staying at an amazing hostel within the walls of the Ciudad Amurallada (Walled City), a 5 minute walk takes you along quaint colonial streets, containing almost perfectly preserved buildings for the past 500 years. Any thought of danger is nowhere to be found, and instead locals and foreigners casually stroll the car-less roads each and every evening. +5 points to Spanish invasions on their architectural impact.

Volcan de Lodo El Totumo (Mud Volcano) - Approximately 45 minutes outside of Cartagena resides a volcano, that instead of spewing ash and lava, releases lukewarm and fairly soothing mud. Yup, mud. Resembling a fairly large dirt mound (almost identical in size to Magic Mountain at Burns Park Elementary School), at the top of the volcano sits a shallow mud pool with the capacity to hold dozen of tourists within the it's "spew." (The thesaurus does not provide many options for "mud"). While appearing to be fairly innocent in nature, this shallow pool is actually over 2000 feet deep, and the force of buoyancy keeps all those inside afloat. Despite our greatest efforts, nobody within our group of 8 was able to propel themselves beneath the surface of the pool (despite managing to fill everyone else's ears, mouths and eyes with our splashing efforts). After a fantastic 10 minute "massage" by one of the locals from the area (I must say, he spent a bit too much time near my inner thighs), we were shuttled to a shallow lagoon whereby several, fairly forceful Colombian women, attempted to bath us (and in the process remove your bathing suit without warning). Finally, before leaving, an onslaught of "hey, you pay me's" erupted, as apparently every person with which we had come into contact required a tip. Thus, I was forced to provide the standard tip of $1.50 to my masseuse, the man holding my bag, the man taking photos (he actually deserved this tip), and of course the man watching my sandals. I'll let the photo below tell the rest.

Tayrona National Park - While my travels in Colombia have only lasted just over a week, it is already more than apparent how new to tourism this country actually is. What Lonely Planet describes as a "simple journey," instead turned into the following adventure in transporting myself and Laura from Cartagena to Tayrona National Park:

Lonely Planet Route: 4 hour bus to Santa Marta, 1 hour shuttle to Taganga, 1 hour journey to Tayrona National Park. Total travel time = 6-7 hours

Actual Route: 1 hour taxi to bus station (conveniently leftout of LP route), 4 hour bus to the middle of nowhere, 1 hour wait as people slowly depart from the bus until only "gringos" remain, frantic transfer over to 2 hour bus to Santa Marta (at which point my shoes were conveniently stolen), dropped off in the middle of nowhere outside of Santa Marta, somehow find a 1 hour shuttle to Taganga. Sleep. 1 hour shuttle back to Santa Marta, 1 hour bus to entrance of Tayrona National Park, 30 minute jeep ride from the entrance of the park to the "easy hiking trail," 1 hour hike through knee deep mud and over hoards upon hoards of fire ants as thunder rumbled in the background, 1 hour hike along beach. Final destination reached. Total travel time = 13-14 hours over 2 days. So yeah, pretty much just as described.

In the end, the journey was more than worth the hassle, as Tayrona could be one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. For only $15, you are able to sleep in a hut of hammocks set upon a rock in the middle of the ocean, with palm-tree-lined beaches only feet away. Once again, I will let the photos tell the rest of the story.

(As a note, our bus BACK from Tayrona was apparently attempting to smuggle food across the country, and was thus stopped by the police for a 2 hour inspection. I'm pretty sure almost 2 tons of food were removed from the buses luggage compartments, with almost another 2 tons remaining inside the bus, unnoticed by the police as underneath every seat were 50 pound bags of food. Add to the fact that we didn´t even have seats at the time as the bus was full upon boarding, and, well you get the gist. Travel + Colombia = Not Easy).

As this blog has gone beyond the "2.5 minute attention span" of most my readers, I will leave at that. Onto the pics:

Cartagena - Definitely putting up a fight for most beautiful city in Colombia

Especially at night

Hanging out in the mud volcano (I'm the one covered in mud)

Definitely the smallest volcano ever

Had so much fun in the mud, decided to take an hour long hike through some more on the way to Tayrona

Tayrona National Park - Well worth the 2-day journey

Accommodation = $14 hammock in a hut overlooking the ocean

Despite the hurricane-force winds at one point during the night, sleeping in a hammock is definitely my new favorite activity

Ominously-colored sunset

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