The Great, or at Very Least, Mediocre Colombian Bus Adventures of Anna

“Get in,” He told me.  “Where are you headed?”  Now, in retrospect, I do realize that any man anywhere approaching me and telling me, “Get in” and, “where are you headed” would be call for alarm, but I suppose I was in a different place back then.  “Cartagena”, I answered, feeling defeated.

I had just gotten off the boat from Tayrona National Park and back to Taganga, that two and a something hour boat ride from hell which had us rocking over waves, diving from the crest to the stormy ocean beneath us, not a single dry person in the boat.  This had been an adventurous day in Tayrona, one I wouldn’t soon forget, but I was in a rush to find a taxi to the bus station in Santa Marta to take me back to Cartagena. 

As I tentatively stepped off the wobbly boat, my feet meeting the cool ocean, I felt rain drops, slow at first, sporadic, and then heavier and heavier still, until visibility was considerably depleted and people in the little cafes that lined the main strip of the somewhat crummy Taganga ran for cover under palapas or into souvenir shops, standing, shivering, amongst the cheap trinkets as they waited on the storm to pass.  I had no time to spare, as it was already almost evening and I wanted to reach the station in time to board the four-hour-or-so bus to Cartagena; tickets were not available online, nor was the schedule.

I was staying at a hostel at that time in Taganga, a few nights in a beautiful little oasis removed from the tiny tourist strip, peaceful with a garden and fountains, along with my own private little room.  This was a welcome reprieve from the bustling Bogota, where I had spent a few nights, met some incredible new friends, but also had two traumatic experiences; I had needed this space to reconnect with nature, with myself, and to put things into perspective a little.  

My feet slid in and out of my flimsy flip flops as I trod through the muddy streets, running as best I could with my backpack and now-soaked towel over my shoulders.  Arriving at the hostel, the receptionist greeted me with a warm grin, surveying my drowned-looking hair and clothes, and asking what I might need.  A shower, I’d said, and a taxi, “de una vez!”  I could just make a five-minute shower, enough to get the mud off, and jump into the taxi and get going, get back to Cartagena before the strike of midnight, back to my ‘home’ hostel of my Colombian trip.

She took a deep breath before addressing me: “Ay, Anna…But there are no taxis available when it rains like this in Taganga!”  She was apologetic, probably due to shock and possible onset of tears…the station was about an hour’s drive away.  “See, we only have three taxis here.  I don’t mean services, I mean actual taxis.  When it rains, they are really busy, but let me see what I can do.”  She whisked me off to the one available public shower, a (literal) hole in the wall with no roof, though I suppose one wasn’t needed at this point, anyway.  

As I was soaping away, taking in the warmth, a tap on the rickety wooden door, “Hurry, Anna! The taxi is here!  I found one, but he said you need to come immediately!”  Having no time to dig through my pack, I put on my wet dress again, slid my feet into those slippy flip flops and slipped and slid off to the waiting taxi, waving goodbye to Taganga, and soon to Santa Marta.

I arrived in my still-damp ensemble at the station, the open air welcoming after the rain, and perused the buses boarding to see one almost full with giant glowing letters across the front reading, “CARTAGENA”.  Hooray!  I toddled over, anxious to relax, sit back and warm up after my long day, only to be told by the driver that I needed to first purchase my ticket at the kiosk.  Off I ran, lined up, a virtual blonde giant amongst the locals, and asked for my one way ticket to Cartagena.  

“No.”  The ticket agent said.  Literally, all she said was an emphatic, “No.”  I wasn’t sure why, and I asked, but she simply replied, “No, you can’t go on that bus.  You can take,” she waved her hand to nothingness beside her, a dismissal, “Some other bus somewhere.”  Now, I have tried all my life to control my temper – okay wait, that’s a blatant lie, but bear with me – but in that moment, I can attest that the bus station in Santa Marta got a solid ten minute education on Swearing in the English Language.  My tirade, however, fell on deaf ears – perhaps because she couldn’t understand what I was saying to begin with, though I did speak Spanish  for the entirety of my trip, otherwise – and I wandered about, muttering inconceivable word combinations to the open-jawed locals who stood and watched, likely wondering who this great giant blonde woman was and what she was on about.

A man approached me in a uniform similar to the one the other driver had worn, urging me to follow him to the stalling bus with no title in the lineup.  A few people were sat in the mini bus, seemingly waiting for take off, bored, in their own minds, all of them locals.  

“Get in,” He told me.  “Where are you headed?”  Now, in retrospect, I do realize that any man anywhere approaching me and telling me, “Get in” and, “where are you headed” would be call for alarm, but I suppose I was in a different place back then.  “Cartagena”, I answered, feeling defeated.  I had to make a boat the next morning from the harbour at Cartagena and already I felt I would never make it.  Maybe I’d set up a life in Santa Marta, living in a box in the bus station, writing letters to my children on bits of paper cups, singing songs for money…

To be fair, these thoughts didn’t cross my mind, either, but I was a tad desperate so I got on the bus, found a little row of seats to myself, and hoped for the best.  The driver came to see me before he prepared to drive, and said, “We’re going to a town called Baranquilla, and from there you can find a bus to Cartagena.”  he clapped excitedly, as though he’d performed a magic trick and wasn’t I pleased?  I smiled, thanked him, and settled in for the ride.

The bus from Santa Marta to Barranquilla is about two-ish hours, except when it is pitch black outside and you have absolutely no idea where the actual hell Barranquilla is and you’re alone and a female, in which case it is 184362320349 days.  About two or three times, our bus was boarded by military people wielding machine guns, holding digital cameras.  They were, I found out, doing a passport check of some sort, and when one approached me, I smiled and held out my passport, taking note of the likely loaded gun in front of me, anxious not to cause any distress or sudden movements.  “I need to take a picture of you,” He said.  I, in my state of complete ignorance, said, “Well, that’ll cost you! HAHAHAHA!”  He didn’t smile.  I put my passport down and let him take the picture, and then, as though nothing happened, he walked off and we drove on.  This happened each time they boarded, and I couldn’t tell you if they took pictures of all the passengers, but I can most certainly affirm I did not crack any more jokes.

We arrived in Barranquilla and I wandered into the almost-empty station, taking in the worn green plastic chairs that sat in a row, all connected, screwed into the floor, nobody sitting in them.  The shops were closed, but one little cafe remained open, and I took my wary self over for a cup of coffee and an arepa.  There was nowhere to charge my mobile, so I sat in silence for a time, until I was approached by the girl who worked behind the counter, keen to ask me questions about Canada, what it was like, what were the people like, and her dreams to visit one day.

Hours later, I was on the final leg of my destination, the bus to Cartagena. The air conditioning was frigid as I held my backpack tightly around my chest, desperate for warmth and comfort.  It was one in the morning when I arrived in Cartagena, the station almost empty.  It was time to return to my hostel, my ‘home base’ of this trip.  Only a few hours of sleep and I would be on to my next adventure, a three-hour boat ride to a hostel in the middle of the ocean, Casa en el Agua.  I had now experienced Colombia by boat, taxi, plane, horseback and bus…and what a beautiful, exciting, tragic adventure it had already been.

Tayrona By Boat, and Other Poor Decisions

Of all the poor decisions I’ve ever made – and trust me, I’ve made a few doozies – taking the boat to Tayrona was one of the worst…

Of all the poor decisions I’ve made in my life – and trust me, I’ve made a few doozies – taking the boat to Tayrona National Park in Colombia was up there in the top, let’s say, seven.

It’s also worth noting I never really found my “sea legs”, and have never done particularly well on boats of any kind, preferring to stick to dry land when possible.  Tayrona is accessible by bus or car, and, once there, passable by foot or horseback through the meandering trails, however if one’s primary goal is Cabo San Juan – as mine was – then a boat is the best idea..or worst? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

As with any bad judgment, it really did seem a good idea at the time, staring at Google Images of Tayrona from my comfy chaise at home, coffee warm in hand and all the creature comforts my Canadian life brings: shelter, for starters.  I was determined to backpack Colombia, all on my lonesome, or at least a part of it, and had already settled on Cartagena as ‘home base’, along with stops in Bogota, Santa Marta, and a wee little hostel that sat smack in the middle of the ocean called Casa en el Agua, appropriately enough.  But Tayrona! Tayrona was a whole different adventure…a wild, largely untouched national park off the coast, famed for its natural jungle beauty and a hot spot for intrepid overnighters like myself, or how I saw Yours Truly…or no, wait, how I wanted to see myself.  Yes, that’s more like it.

Allow me to preface all of this by saying I am the type of traveler who considers camping sleeping on the floor of my hotel room.  That’s about as close as I’ve previously been to staying in The Great Outdoors, or as some may say, “Being at One with Nature”.  Backpacking, to me, was a crazy idea created by someone with a little bit of a masochistic side, perhaps seeking atonement for some – quite frankly, awesome – life of debauchery and excess.  Perhaps backpackers just really enjoyed walking, and simultaneously being laden down with painful weight on their backs, likening themselves to a mule?  At any rate, it was something I’d widely regarded as crazy, self-harming and absolutely not my style; I had to give it at least one try.

To board the boat from Taganga – and I use the word ‘boat’ a little freely, here – one must purchase tickets in advance, as spots are limited, and I opted to get mine from the local hostel I was staying at, a lovely sprawling garden of a place called La Casa de Felipe.  The receptionist gave no indication that this was showing terrible judgement, only a smile and a brief exchange of pleasantries and pesos, and I had tickets in hand.  I wandered off that evening to find dinner along the dark sand beach that Taganga is known for (along with crime, but let’s not chat about that now), and looked out at the glassy water before me, the sound of salsa blaring in the background, as the sun set.  Tomorrow, I would be on that open sea, the breeze in my hair, and off to explore the ruggedly beautiful Tayrona National Park.

It was around 8 a.m the following day that I was to be at the meeting point at the beach for the Lancha – also known as a ridiculously small motor boat that offers no cover or other safety – and I wandered down along the dusty winding roads until the ocean came into view.  There were a number of flimsy little passenger boats bobbing in the morning waves, and it took a solid 20 minutes or so to find the general idea of where to sit / stand and wait for someone to take my ticket and point the way.  This being Colombian time, of course, it was around 40 minutes past the announced departure that we were yelled at by an unidentified man, “Lancha Tayrona!  Tayrona, aqui!” And I, along with about 20 other bleary eyed tourists, made up a queue to board the wobbly little raft-like bark, climbing from knee-deep water and half falling into places.

I chose to sit in the very back, the ideal spot to people watch as my fellow passengers made their tottering steps to their benches.  We were given life jackets and our bags and belongings taken from us abruptly, hauled off to a cabin in the front which we were told was secure and would keep things nice and dry.  With a few more sailor yells and grunts, we were off, motor running and turning, facing the vast ocean before us, the day bright and warm, the ocean welcoming us, peacefully.

I was sat next to a little boy of about maybe ten years old, and his very enthusiastic mum.  Opposite us was a young couple, perhaps honeymooners, she in a beautiful straw hat that protected her face from the reflection on the water.  Everyone on the boat chatted happily, taking pictures of the jagged cliffs along the coast, and I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sun, relishing its warmth and the adventures to come.

It was after about an hour of gliding through the ocean that we reached a bit of a swell, I suppose one might say.  The sea seemed to suddenly churn beneath us, and white foam rose to the surface, waves growing in height and intensity.  At first, I’ll admit, it was quite exciting, this sudden lilting, the boat rocking along as though to the rhythm of a song, until the lilting became a little more raucous, a little more, say, Metallica than Simon and Garfunkel.  In no time, the waves were several times higher than the vessel itself, presenting themselves before us, menacing walls of water that we had to climb to the top of, and once at the peak, unable to see below us.  We would thrash violently down off each new swell, head first into the abyss, only to be tossed anew, jolted riotously yet again.

I looked around me at my fellow passengers.  The slightly over-enthusiastic mum was now a pallid shade of greenish yellow as she tried, in vain, to comfort her son, who looked as though this was, by far, the worst day of his life.  The sweet honeymooners held each other close, and, as I looked on with interest, she tore off her lovely straw hat and used it as a receptacle for some lively projectile vomiting.  This seemingly had an effect on the passengers nearest them, as the trend caught on quickly, and in no time, the entire boat was filled with passengers in the throes of either uncontrollable heaving or crying, some of them both.  My eyes gazed briefly to the shoreline, miles in the distance, and protected by jagged rocks which the turbulent ocean crashed against vigorously.  There really was no escape; stay on the boat and hope for the best or jump ship and be beaten down by the rocks.

Finally, after two wretched hours, my stomach empty, we arrived at Cabo San Juan, Tayrona National Park.  It was a sight to behold, the waves crashing agains a white sand beach surrounded by jungle, and to the left, a rocky climb up to a palapa strung up with colourful hammocks swaying under its leafy roof.  I had to explore.

Another side note, here: I have what some might call an extreme fear of alligators.  Who doesn’t, right?  But this fear is so great that I can’t look at images of them, cannot see them on the screen, or even think about them without my feet clenching under me or my breath catching in my chest.  And yet, here I was, in Alligator Land.  There was a tiny little lagoon in front of me, just off the beach and surrounded by shady spots ideal for a reptilian sunbathing session, and though the water seemed clear of any glaring yellow eyes, I was careful not to get closer to examine.  At one point, I ventured off into a jungle path, only the first few steps in the light of sun, the remainder covered by dense wood and winding along, slithering through the trees.  I walked and whistled to myself – does whistling scare off gators? – until I cam across a narrow stream, somehow too quiet for my liking, suddenly paranoid that there were quiet reptilian eyes watching me, plotting their meal.  With no hesitation (or whistling), I turned and ran back to the beach, only recuperating my calm once in the presence of humans again.

Cabo San Juan is divided with two beaches in one, really.  One for the boats to anchor and quite wild, the waves, and the other more of a cove, protected by the hill in which the palapa stood, and the sand adorned by sunbathers and a few swimmers, playing happily in the somewhat calmer water.  All around the beach is jungle, protected and wild, with little foot paths, some of them very difficult to navigate thanks to large sloping boulders that slant into each other somewhat haphazardly.  Several other beaches – some not safe for swimming – dot the trail that takes a few hours to walk, something I most certainly did not want to attempt alone.

After winding my way through the several tents and tiny cabins that dotted the flat grasslands before the jungle took over, I found a shady spot with a number of horses and their guides, the horses loosely leashed to the swaying palms all around.  I spotted one who seemed calm, and approached her owner.  “How much for a tour?” I asked, stroking her softly, appeasing her in hopes she would guide me slowly through the jungle.  “For just you?  A thousand pesos.”  I turned abruptly, knowing this was far beyond the price I’d heard advertised.  It only took five steps before he called me back.  “Okay, five hundred.  For you, five hundred.  Just for you.”

Clumsily, I hopped on the horse.  Does one hop onto a horse?  I certainly did it without dignity, sort of half jumping, half hurtling myself over her ample, muscular back, sliding off the other side before correcting myself, fixing my hair, and saying a confident, “Listo!” We trotted through the narrow paths, slid carefully along the boulders, and took in the breathtaking scenery of Tayrona’s verdant jungle.  Breathtaking.

I dined at the only restaurant in Cabo San Juan, a shady busy nook with a few simple menu options, and devoured my fresh fish and patacones (plantains) with a freshly made banana smoothie, looking out at the beach, then to the jungle behind me.  Paradise found.

It was after a lazy lunch that I trotted up the hill to the palapa, stopping to read a sign that read something along the lines of “protect your integrity; stay on the path!”  Wise words indeed; my integrity would not be lost over a path!  The top of the palapa was filled with sleepy, colourful hammocks, the ocean breeze giving just enough cool, backpacks strewn everywhere.  I opted not to stay the night, as I honestly wasn’t sure whether alligators could climb hills – yes, this was my exact thinking – and headed back down to the beach, soaking in the sun until it was time to climb back onto the Boat of Doom for Taganga.

Tayrona, as I rode off into the sunset, stood proudly before me, this natural paradise, a gem of Colombia.  A few happy backpackers – “masochists!” I screamed in my head – stayed behind, bidding farewell to their friends on the boat, from their place on the shore.  Darkness would come soon, and I hoped they had torches and bug repellant.  It would have been incredible to stay and be a part of it all.

The ocean swirled before me as we ventured off, back to Taganga, back to more adventures.  I wouldn’t soon forget Tayrona, it’s indescribable beauty, the peace of the place, the majestic jungle that was laid out before me, willing me to explore its shady paths, its flourishing labyrinth of palms.

Perhaps next time I will stay the night; first, though, I must make sure alligators can’t climb hills.