From our Cartagena base our first mini adventure would be to the Tayrona National Park, a huge mainly untouched piece of jungle that lines the Caribbean coast around 5 hours east of Cartagena towards Venezuela. To get here from Cartagena we took the 'Marsol' transport that could be arranged through our hostel at 5am for 67,000 pesos (just over £17 each). The minibus service dropped us directly outside the main entrance to the park.
Due to its location, and the fact the nicest beaches are a good hike into the park, most people head here for a night, staying in the pre-pitched tents or hammocks at one of the campsites. The strong rip currents present in the sea makes only a few of the many beaches swimmable. The most popular, Cabo San Juan del Guia, would be our target destination with a lengthy 3 night stay in mind
Once we had paid the 48,500 peso (£13 each) park entry fee we jumped into a waiting minivan that takes you along the car road to the trail head (3000 peso, 80p) and cuts some time off the hike to camp. After an hour or so of extremely sweaty hiking up and over many jungle rocks we reached the first camp site of Arricefes but decided to soldier on to reach San Juan and hopefully secure a spot there for the night. The walk, although horribly humid and sweaty, is actually quite nice with the ocean on one side and the palm tree lined jungle on the other. We both had our eyes peeled for the small tamarin monkeys that lived in the park but only managed to spot a woodpecker and loads of small lizards on our first day.
Another hour or so of hiking, this time across a few beaches trying to tempt us for a swim, we arrived at Cabo San Juan del Guia at around 1:30pm, bang on tent check in time meaning a long unorganised queue of about an hour. The campsite wasn't really what I was expecting, far bigger and more developed than I imagined (you can catch the boat here for the day from Taganga - 50'000 pesos each way is what I heard the boat men selling trips for).
By the time we arrived all of the hammocks had been taken (some under a thatched roof near the tents and a handful in a hut at the top of a small island at the end of the beach) so a tent was our only option. We booked for just the first night (60'000 pesos - £16 for us both) to hopefully secure a hammock for the next day. High humidity and 30+ degrees doesn't make for a pleasant nights sleep in a two man tent I can tell you.
We had heard that food and drink was very expensive in the park so we brought as much food and water as we could carry however we both didn't think the on-site beach restaurant was too bad and ate there every day. Huge plates of chicken with chips, rice and salad could be had for 20,000 (£5) and water and beer were 3'000 (80p) and 5'000 (£1.30) a bottle respectively.
The beach itself is fairly pristine and the sea, although a little rough (you can definitely understand the no swimming at other beaches) is crystal clear. The island outcrop where the other hammocks are acts as a small peninsula creating a different angle for the second half of the beach meaning all day sun if you switched between the two. With the jungle back drop it was like a small slice of paradise....but with tents!
I had asked the lady on reception what time I would need to be there to get one of the hammocks on the hill (the others under the thatched area near the tents looked a bit 'buggy') to which she replied 7am for the hill and 11am for the buggy ones. Seeing as the sun was up around 5:15am and with the tent like the inside of a volcano, it was no problem making the 7am requirement and I managed to get us two of the 16 hammocks up on the hill for 2 nights (30'000 each £8 - same price as mini mount Etna). Bargain. The lady did look a little shocked when I booked for 2 nights and even checked if I was sure, when I asked why she just shivered and said its very cold up there - no need to worry love I'm from England was my response in broken Spanish but wondering if I'd made a school boy error?!
There are a couple of jungle hikes that can be done nearby but we wanted the time to just relax and didn't do anything other than sunbathe (hide from the sun!) and take refreshing dips in the sea for the next 2 days. I did get a fright one afternoon though as I turned to see a huge Iguana strutting a few feet from me along the beach - still no elusive monkeys though.
The hammocks up on the hill, although a little breezy in the night, weren't nearly as cold as the lady had made out and were the perfect spot to watch the sun rise each morning.
(My only gripe is that anyone can and does walk up to the hut to take in the view and most people having taken a dip in the sea then decide to have 10 minutes relaxing in the hammock making them very wet, which in turn means you sleep in a wet hammock!)
On our last night darkness came early in the form of thick black clouds and with deafening thunder on the horizon we feared we were in for a very wet night in our raised open sided hut. However the rain never really came and instead we just got a lightning show out over the sea which was quite cool (and not at all scary!)
The rain however came on our last day and on our 2 hour hike back to the trail head we got well and truly drowned! There was one consolation though. After hearing a few branches cracking up in the jungle canopy we spotted a small group of the Tamarin monkeys running about (couldn't get a photo as they were too fast and the jungle too dense) much to George's delight.
Once back to the trail head, with no mini vans in sight and remembering that our Lonely Planet said it was about half an hour walk to the main gate we decided to just carry on walking. As with everything in our Lonely Planet you need to add about 40% on and after almost an hour in the pouring rain we arrived back at the park entrance. Whilst walking that last stretch of road, we started to hear a worryingly deep bellowing coming from the trees which got louder and louder with each step to the point where the sound was directly above us somewhere. The red howler monkey gives off one hell of a noise (sounds similar to an Emo front man warming his throat) but as hard as we looked (I looked, George started a little run in fear) we couldn't spot them through the trees!
Once out of the park we avoided the many men hassling us for a taxi and jumped on a local bus for the 40 minute journey to the nearby town of Santa Marta (7'000 pesos each - £1.80).
We'd heard good things about 'Dreamer' hostel so once in town we got a taxi there (its a few km out of town) and booked a double room for a couple of nights. The hostel is newer and more modern (with food and drinks available on tab, a pool table and swimming pool in the central courtyard area). Its location meant we didn't actually venture further than the nearby shopping centre/supermarket/cinema.
Nikki (Salkantay trek friend!) had recommended a local tour to do whilst in the area, bird watching with Jungle Joe (!) in the nearby hills of Minca (around 40 minutes from Santa Marta). Not wanting to head out to Minca for a night and knowing it was a morning tour (6am-9am) we contacted Joe to see if he would collect us from Santa Marta. Luckily he agreed and arranged a taxi to pick us up at 5:15am (for 50'000 each way - £13) to bring us out to him for the tour (30'000 each - £8).
It was just George and I for the tour so after each getting our binoculars we set off into the nearby jungle for some bird spotting (The toucan being our No.1 target). Joe definitely knows his stuff and knows all the tricks to get the birds to come to us, including a bluetooth speaker equipped with calling sounds. After an hour or so Joe's keen eye spotted a Keel billed Toucan taking a rest on a tree around 50m away, no idea how he spotted it to be honest! Much to our delight a few minutes later a second Toucan appeared before both flying away. We were both very happy. Over the next couple of hours we spotted so many other different birds, each with exotic names I'm not even going to try and remember along with a few other Toucans for good measure. At the end of the tour we went to the 'hotel Minca' in the town where they have a terrace surrounded by orange trees with a view out over the valley. After filling a few feeders up with sugar water we were amazed to see literally hundreds of different coloured humming birds flying around us feeding on the trays, it was a great end to a brilliant morning.
After our taxi back we relaxed at the hostel before taking the same 'Marsol' transfer back to Cartagena late in the afternoon (48'000 pesos, £12 each)