Sleeping in a hammock on a beach has a certain romantic charm, in concept. It sounds adventurous and bohemian and edgy, the kind of line that will start stories when I’m eighty: “We were staying in hammocks on this beach in Colombia’s Tayrona National Park…” That charm wears off a bit when you climb in and realize it smells vaguely of Berkeley (that is to say: hemp and feet) and that you will in fact be trapped in one position all night, a position not ideal for a 42-year-old back.
This dilemma — romantic concept vs. truth of execution — is one of the many, many dichotomous tensions of this trip. How much are we carefree wanderers following the winds of adventure heedless of comfort and safety vs. cautious planners secure in the knowledge of where we will spend each night? The source of the tension is that I am naturally the second type of person (a safety-seeking planner), yet have somehow absorbed the idea that the first kind (carefree wanderer) is a better — i.e. “more authentic” — traveler. This has obviously been causing me no small amount of angst.
Tayrona National Park is a profoundly hammock-sleeping type of place. It’s mostly empty in the low season, which is all year, excepting January and Semana Santa when the now-empty sand is Huntington-Beach-on-Labor-Day with urban Colombians seeking a change of scene. Its visitors in March are one-third adventurous Colombians (“adventurous” signalled by a wardrobe change to chanchlas and shorts from jeans and heels) and two-thirds casting call for Burning Man. It is the land of dreadlocks and sunburns and thongs and army backpacks and “we thought we’d stay two nights but it’s been six.”
Tayrona covers a huge swath of Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast, stretching from jungle in the east to a coastal desert in the rain shadow of the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas, the fastest sea-to-summit rise in the world. It is both rough and beautiful, and strangely non-Caribbean with its paucity of swimmable beaches; the signs on most warn in five languages that “Hundreds of people have drowned here. Do NOT be part of the statistics.” Tayrona is accessible by long stomach-churning rides in dubious fishing boats, or by road. The intercity transportation system — rickety vehicles comprised of exposed wires, colorful fringed curtains and deafening vallenato music — will leave you at the main entrance, from whence you must transport yourself through a few miles of rainforest to the beach of your choice. You can hike or hire a horse-like creature — all ribs and doleful eyes — to carry you and your stuff.
Our weekend in Tayrona — wandering aimlessly from beach to beach, eating arepas fried with an egg inside, leaving our only good pair of shoes unprotected while we explored — began as a counter-balance to the planful, Catholic-school, high-rise-with-pool life that we’ve created in Santa Marta. A reminder to myself that I can be that carefree wanderer and sleep in the forced intimacy of a palapa full of backpackers and wear my bathing suit for 36 straight hours. But halfway through the weekend, I realized that I’ve played this game before, this do-I-travel-cool-enough contest with unseen others. The game was fine — even expected — when I was 27 and backpacking around the world with my boyfriend. But I’m a grown-up now. I should no longer need to re-prove my bohemian street cred. I have two kids who need to be fed, watered and kept free of malaria and chikungunya. And I love my ivory-tower apartment and buying groceries at the Colombian equivalent of SuperTarget. That safety and comfort gives me space to explore the other dichotomies of this trip — being vs. doing, introversion vs. public life — and a respite so that I can tackle the shouting hawkers of the central market or the drama of a colectivo.
And you know what? Letting go of the proving gave me the space to actually enjoy the hammock, and the beaches, and the thrill of wondering what’s around the next corner. So I guess that means I really am a grown-up. Even if it’s taking me a while to get here.
Photo credits: Retta