Monday, November 8, 2010

More Carribbean Dreams: Taganga & Tayrona

As far as I was concerned, Colombia was the gift that kept on giving and could really do no wrong. My initial response to the country, that this was a beautiful place filled with the kind of people the world needs more of, was confirmed at just about every turn.

After our time at Cartagena and Playa Blanca, Alix and I travelled north to the beach side village of Taganga, famous for being a fishing village turned budget scuba diving village. While here, it was our intention to do some diving (naturally) and also to explore the Tayrona National Park, a coastal strip of beach and jungle that lay about an hour or so northeast by minibus.

Incidentally, Taganga has possibly the best iced tea in South America at a shop named Los Baguettes de Maria

Knowing that Taganga has some of the cheapest scuba diving on the planet we decided to not only do a dive or two, but to upgrade our skills by enrolling in a Rescue Diver Course. We shopped around and settled on Aquantis Dive Centre as our shop of choice. But first, a brief 3-day stint into Tayrona was in order.

Our time in Tayrona was enjoyable and odd at the same time. I don't want to come across as too negative when I write about Tayrona because it is a great place to visit and we had an enjoyable and memorable experience. Those of you who know me well will be able to take the next few acerbic paragraphs in the spirit with which they are intended, I'm sure.

After our minibus ride, we arrived at the entrance to Tayrona National Park and lined up to conduct formalities. The park entrance fee was 34,000 Colombian pesos, about 20 bucks. Colombians pay half that amount; this is one of those South American countries that do the dual pricing thing where foreigners pay more. The guys at the park entrance looked pretty official and told us that alcohol and plastic bags were prohibited in the park. We didn't have any alcohol anyway, so no problem there. The restriction on plastic bags seemed senseless to me- how else were we going to take our rubbish out of the park with us?- but I figured they must have some local solution anyway.

Inside the park we trekked a couple of hours through sweltering Carribbean heat to Arrecifes, the first campground in the park and by far the nicest. The beach at Arrecifes, while beautiful, has a deadly offshore undertow which makes it unsuitable for swimming, and therefore unpopular with campers looking for the tent-next-to-the-swimming-beach experience (i.e. just about everyone).

"Forbidden to swim in these waters. More than 100 people have drowned here. Do not become part of the statistics"

We pitched our tent on a grassy raised platform that had been customised for that purpose and I did a bit of exploring. On the march into Arrecifes I had noticed that in the distance to the north there was a beach peppered with white umbrellas and I went to explore further. After a trek over a cliff trail, I arrived, a little bewildered, at a private beach resort named Ecohabs, where wealthy Colombians go to work on their tans and be pampered. Much to my amazement, they even had a four poster bed on a private beach next to an outdoor hot-tub setup. Pretty pimped-out for a so-called "National Park". I later learned that the bungalows at Ecohabs have flatscreen TVs and air-con as well. With this kind of ecological footprint I couldn't figure out where the 'eco' part comes into it at all.

The beautiful grounds at camping Arrecifes

The slater is pitched!

What's that resort style beach over there?

It's... a resort. In the national park. Complete with four poster bed and hot tub.

Back at Arrecifes the sun went down and we sat down at the beach and watched a lightning storm rage over the Carribbean Sea.

The next morning we packed up and hiked an hour or so south to our second destination, Cabo San Juan. On the way we had some of the killer wildlife experiences I was hoping for. We happened across a working nest of leafcutter ants, industriously annihilating the local vegetation to furnish their nest. Maybe it is one of those things you have to see yourself to really appreciate, but I found these little guys fascinating to watch. Their tireless supply lines run for hundreds of metres through the jungle.

We were also lucky enough to stumble across a small troupe of Capuchin monkeys in the trees. Our modest point-and-shoot camera doesn't do them any justice, but if you have ever been to a decent zoo you might just remember them as the cutest monkeys you saw there.

Cabo San Juan was the real destination for most people visiting Tayrona, as evidenced by the large collection of dickheads that had congregated there. The swimming beach there was great, and there is a wonderful rotunda structure built there that you can rent a hammock in if it takes your fancy and one happens to be free.

Cabo San Juan

That is where the charm of Cabo ended for me. The campground is an overpriced dump. They have a restaurant there that blares out loud shitty music, and local Colombians come here to party, not to experience the wildlife. The rubbish is dropped and it remains where ever it lands. If you want to sleep, forget about it.

Our visit to Tayrona was a great experience for us, but our expectations were out of line with reality. The words 'National Park' imply something quite specific in Australia when it comes to services, conservation efforts and social organisation of space. In Colombia it is just...different. You can't bring alcohol in, but you can buy alcohol inside the park- nice little captive market there. You can't bring plastic bags in, but you can buy stuff from the shops inside the park and they will happily put your purchases in a plastic bag for you. Probably the worst aspect of the Colombian arrangement is the raw deal the native animals get.

For example, here is a picture of a cool little lizard native to Tayrona.

Here is the same lizard being crunched in the jaws of the cat a restaurant owner in Tayrona keeps as a pet... anyway, enough about that.

Back at Taganga it was time for our Rescue Diver course to begin. This course proved to be informative and enjoyable and I highly recommend anyone interested in diving to take it to the next level and do the course. The course covered all kinds of dive emergencies- tired divers, panicked divers, unconscious divers at the surface and under water, how to conduct a search for a missing diver, and much more.

The course was challenging but mostly it was loads of fun, and the diving in Taganga was a Carribbean warm water and sparkling sunshine experience with good visibility and abundant marine life; once again, Colombia just kept on giving.

We spent our days diving, studying, lunching (and drinking iced tea!), diving, dining and diving. Our instructor was a skinny Greek bloke with ratty blonde dreadies named Nikos- "Nick the Greek" if you prefer it. Nikos was, in a word, inspirational. He made the learning lots of fun without compromising for a moment on the educational quality. He somehow managed to be an excellent teacher, great friend and a taskmaster at the same time and pulled it off with a trademark smile. Thanks Nikos- we love you, man!

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